“It is not from below to above that we seek here” (p. 295).
Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology is a masterpiece. As its readers, we are invited into the master’s workshop. We glimpse her tools, we watch her work, we see the form of the craft taking shape. I imagine it as a blacksmith’s shop—this is old fashioned work, a craft learned as an apprentice once, long ago.
She is working on a problem old as the task of theology itself—in fact it originated the task, in many ways. The task is to speak of God as He is, not only in his acts. Though modern theology is often credited with a “renewal” in Trinitarian thought, we often speak of it in the same regulated ways, without any new air. We must begin with One, we are told, and move toward three—or else we begin with Three, and find one. “Rahner’s rule” is affirmed, viewing God’s unity as displayed in the biblical account of God’s works. The biblical text is emphasized as the source of such Trinitarian claims, and yet it is mined for “glimpses” or “pressure.”
Fortress Press, 2020
The three-ness that emerges is one of Persons, dancing, perhaps, or seated unevenly on a throne of sorts. They are persons but not people, and yet persons in their ability to give and receive or commune in some way. And yet their existence is not quite that, exactly—it is a real relation but one whose reality is posited outside of its identity as subsistent—it is a subsistent relation, and so not a person, and yet personal…
Perhaps you see the problem. The conversation’s grooves are deeply worn. Sonderegger will pull us out of them. It is unclear at times whether the work can hold the weight of what is being asked of it.
She seeks to return Trinitarian conversation toward metaphysics, toward God’s own life and not simply God’s works in the economy: “We seek a place for metaphysics, full-throated, speculative realism, within the domain of the Word, one that guides and grounds the rational dignity of the dogma of the Holy Trinity” (p. 261).
In Volume 1, Sonderegger sought to steer us back toward God’s unity: “Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God than this utter Unicity” (Vol. 1, p. xiv). One is who God is, but also what God is. “Divine Oneness . . . is a metaphysical predicate” (Vol. 1, p. 15), an “annihilating concreteness” (Vol. 1, p. 25). This One is known as the “Almighty Lord of Horeb” (Vol. 1, p. 27). It is the burning bush that serves as the symbol of theological compatibilism, of God’s unity that is present with the world.
In Volume 2, she seeks to speak of God as Trinity, again in order to speak of “what” God is. “Not all is salvation!,” she repeats, because the life of “Not all is salvation!,” she repeats, because the life of God is not to be reduced to our experience of it.God is not to be reduced to our experience of it. Sonderegger works from the Old Testament, as will not surprise readers of her first volume.
Sonderegger’s treatment of Scripture is among the tools she crafts by hand.
She speaks of Scripture as a “creature.” It possesses two aspects under this definition; first, it is made by God, and second, it is put in service to God. Scripture is a “fully healed” creature, a “wholly redeemed creature” (p. 268). Though it is humble, but a “treasure in a field,” yet there is truly treasure there. Sonderegger’s own compatibilism takes flight here. The humility of the setting in no way limits what will take place there—an encounter with the Triune God.
When engaging the Biblical text, Sonderegger is not looking for “story” or “narrative” as much as encounter with divine presence. She writes that “Holy Scripture offers its own form of metaphysics, its own Divine Ontology” (p. 249). She is quite firm on her aims, and she aims high:
We seek a way of reading the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, both covenants, in such a way that the metaphysical Perfections, Relations, and Life of the One God can be properly discerned and set forth, yet the Triune Lord does not dissolve into the rational dreams of arrogant creatures. We seek a theological realism that has conceptual rigor: real argument, real cogency and coherence, real symmetry, and yes, systematic power. And we seek this in Holy Scripture: not above or beside it, not as hidden backdrop or solvent, not quiet authority over Holy Writ, but truly taught within and by Scripture itself (p. 263).
This objective—that “we find God there” (p. 266), is surely an admirable one. And yet how Sonderegger claims we do this requires some care to tease out. According to Sonderegger we find God in Scripture “not God for us, not the God of the economy, not the God prefigured and promised, not the God who in His Majesty is Identical or Analogous or Similar to His Manifestations, not these, first and principally!” (p. 266). What we find is not stories or narrative but “the Triune God as such” (p. 266).
The theological treatment of Scripture is one place where readers can see Sonderegger’s engagement with Barth first-hand. It is a “yes, and” consideration—yes to Barth’s deep reading of Scripture for theological ends, but no to his tendency to cash out the economy to speak of the divine life. In her words, “Barth is willing to assimilate rationality and ontology to the events, storyline, and idiom of Scripture in such a way that earthly argument is radically relativized, at times set aside entirely” (p. 251). In her mind Barth is right that the reality of God is found in Scripture. But where Barth makesThe theological treatment of Scripture is one place where readers can see Sonderegger’s engagement with Barth first-hand. claims about the divine life from the economy he goes too far, “identifying the Immanence with the economy in such a way that the historical, formal elements of Holy Scripture become imported into the High Mystery of God’s inner life” (p. 267). For Sonderegger the truth of the life of God is not read out of Scripture or glimpsed in the incarnate Christ and the divine economy, yet it is truly present in Scripture’s book.
It is present in the pairing of the “intelligible” and “concrete.” This is a theme in Sonderegger that deserves an entire monograph, for it is related to her theological compatibilism in the first volume. The relation is not one that collapses the God-world distinction or (even worse, she writes) dims it in any way. Rather, “we seek what I would call the explosive relation of intelligible to concrete: the relation where the Intelligible lives in the concrete” (p. 277), “as its meaning” (p. 281). We are therefore to find more than “traces” of the Trinity in Scripture. The vestigium are to be found in the world, amidst human disciplines and human difference. But Scripture reveals the Trinity as it is: “The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are not bearers of vestige only. No, they enjoy the sensus plenior, the fullness of the metaphysical Mystery, laid down in the patterns, sinews, verbal, and events of this text.” (p. 268). Scripture is the intelligible in the concrete: “For this reason, the Bible is the fullness of a creature’s share in the Intelligible and the Concrete. It alone echoes fully, properly, the Triune Relations, the Concrete Persons in the Universal and Intelligible Nature—but also, more broadly, the Intelligible and Universal Meaning who is God, in the concrete material world that is creatures” (p. 268).
What this means is that when we approach Scripture to think about the Trinity, we need not limit ourselves to look for “traces” or “glimpses” or absorb ourselves with the movement of the economy. Much of this instinct is a good one, to avoid univocity and always mind that “we speak of God as we know Him,” which is only in part. And yet in doing this she argues we are tempted toward a “form of Sabellianism,” where “the Divine Object [is] known only in the creaturely subject, and known from Its effects, Its relation to creatures” (p. 450). Sonderegger thus persistently claims, even in the book’s earliest pages, that her task is to “Re-moor the concept of person to that of processions, such that the Persons can be seen as the Holy Life of God, taken as a whole” (p. xxii).
This movement to re-moor the persons to the Processions is critical to Sonderegger’s text, but it is one point where her argument is cloudy. She is arguing against a Trinitarianism that is based entirely on the economy and is clear about her concerns: “The key worry here is that the inner Life of God has been sharply attenuated, indeed eclipsed by the Works of redemption, which now inform and metaphysically fill out the Tri-Personal Life of God” (p. 453). In a near perfect paragraph, Sonderegger characterizes what she sees as the problem:
We see God in the economy, His utter Generosity and Saving Grace; we rest our intellect there and construct our doctrine of God out of these remnants of Divine Liberality. It is anti-speculative in a strong sense. The pronounced emphasis on the economy in the ante-Nicene era appears to meet its apogee in Sabellius. The disk of the Sun is turned toward us; we receive Its Light and Warmth, and we give thanks and ask for nothing more (p. 451).
But God is not something to be “glimpsed” or “hidden” behind every rock and tree, or a model to be traced on a chalkboard: “The traditional schematic, beloved of catechists across the church, of a Holy Triangle, with arrows drawn, labeled and directed, among the Persons, cannot in truth serve the Fiery Glory who is the Triune Lord” (p. 442). No, God is Fire, Holy Fire. Too bare, too sparse a doctrine of God, a “severe agnosticism of the metaphysics of the Trinity” (p. 453); “That it is” “but not what it is” (p. 453)—this anti-speculative, anti-metaphysical impulse has moved Trinitarian doctrine toward the persons, and particularly toward Christ: “Trinity has become Christology in this very strong sense” (p. 453). To reemphasize the Processions is to return again to metaphysical claims: “What Procession properly means for dogmatic theology is that there exists an Act who is God, Utterly Unique, beyond kind and genre, Enacting the Mystery of Eternity” (p. 454).
Sonderegger turns to the book of Leviticus to “fill out” her doctrine of God. This is a risk, primarily because the text of Leviticus is not immediately disclosive.Sonderegger turns to the book of Leviticus to ‘fill out” her doctrine of God. This is a risk, primarily because the text of Leviticus is not immediately disclosive. It does not tell a story or immediately set out commands—two common means of speaking divine truth. So Sonderegger’s choice to move here to speak of God’s life is a bold one.
She certainly has chosen Leviticus because its subject is Holiness, that which is God’s own life. This is the meaning of the haunting phrase from the volume’s first half: “Not all is salvation.” Indeed! God is, and God’s movements earthward are in accordance with God’s eternity, and yet the problem for Sonderegger with Rahner’s dictum is the tendency to collapse this “fittingness” with “necessity.” She writes: “The Mystery of the Holy Trinity just is the Sole, Sovereign Objectivity of God, His Impenetrable Concreteness beyond all creaturely need and knowing, beyond all creature, altogether” (p. 84).
So now to Leviticus. This is the site where Sonderegger will mine the vein of Trinitarian surplus. In that book we have the “dawning of an Aspect” (p. 367). What is seen is Holiness as divine Fire. The Processions just are this life, the fire and the burning and the smoke that returns to God. Sonderegger reads the Leviticus cultus as the divine life:
Israel’s temple sacrifices manifest and correspond to the Triune Lord’s Self-Offering, His costly descent and ascent as Gift. The Levitical account of sacrifice reinscribes the Processional Life of God, the Holiness of the Trifold Lord. Only Holy Scripture can do this. To read Leviticus in this fashion is to receive that mysterious gift, the ‘dawning of an Aspect.’ The Spirit of Holiness opens our eyes, and we see (p. 367).
The fire from Mt. Horeb is now come to consume the burnt offering—the creaturely offering, the unblemished perfect creature, and yet nothing other than a creature given in service to God. The bush that burns but is not consumed is set alight by the same flame that alights on the altar, that burns the gift, that is returned as smoke to the heavens. No, all is not salvation, but all is sacrifice, offered to the living God.
No, all is not salvation. But though Rahner’s dictum can invoke a collapse of the processions into the persons, Kate Sonderegger’s Trinitarianism does seem to yield a soteriology. If I may speculate—this offering of the creature, humbly given in service, whose life is poured out and received back heavenward as its matter is consumed—this is what it is to be made again God’s own. This is the image of the creature, consumed by the divine fire, returned again to God. It is Christ’s vocation, and the story of his sacrifice,This is the image of the creature, consumed by the divine fire, returned again to God. It is Christ’s vocation, and the story of his sacrifice, and it is our vocation too. and it is our vocation too. So even as Sonderegger pushes back against the collapse of Trinitarian doctrine into the economy, her reading of Leviticus does seem to yield an account of the persons, though she does not flesh this out. Indeed, one question I cannot quite settle on is this: is it in fact possible to speak of the processions without ending up speaking of the persons? It does seem that we have a privileged epistemic access to the persons, as much as Sonderegger tries to renew our reflection in other directions. What, then, is gained from this account?
Though she draws deeply on the symbols of Leviticus, her treatment is in no way exegetical. Indeed, she rarely even cites scripture chapter and verse. I do hope time will yield further reflection on how she engages with the biblical material. What she is doing is creative and deeply scriptural, and she is right that we must avoid supercessionist readings of Scripture. And yet the particularity of God’s revelation in Christ, as Karl Barth so hammers on, remains, even if we simply approach Scripture by weighing references to him. This is a reductive means of approach, of course. And yet I am left wondering to what degree we can speak of God without speaking of Christ—and also to what degree we should. Though Sonderegger tips her hand at places, I have here only speculated about how her Christology might develop.
Sonderegger is clear that Scripture demonstrates (and also participates in) the truth of God: “Rather, Israel, its teachings, leaders, and cultus are just what a creature looks like that has the Divine Life as its Intimate” (p. 374). Such is the vocation of creaturely life, to be shaped, remade, transformed, by the molten fire that is God, and offered to Him in life and in death. She writes: “The central task in the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, as I see it, is to worship, confess, and think through the Divine Act of God, His Holy Life. . . . The Divine Act of sacrifice is the inner Life of God, made manifest on altar and in smoke” (p. 457).
Sonderegger is working with this same fire. She forges the iron, she works with tools she has made, we watch it melt and take shape in this molten flame. The fire burns so bright and hot it is hard sometimes to see exactly what she is doing. Fire illuminates and blinds, warms and burns. It cannot be controlled, its truths must be capitalized. It bursts forth from the page, commands its own rules of punctuation.
But she is a master, and she is working close to the flame, and I will read, and reread, to watch it take shape, even if I cannot see exactly what it is she is making.
It was our joy to host a panel discussion on this book, featuring the contributors to this symposium. You can find the video from that event on our resource page.