If your fine-grain theological vocabulary has grown a little rusty with lack of use, as I’m afraid mine has, you will find Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume One, Doctrine of God [Fortress, 2015] daunting. I’m not ashamed to say that it took me nearly a year to get through it. By this fall, however, I was determined to work through the 529 page tome so I used the 10 pages a day method. I’m glad I did.
I wouldn’t normally be so dogged in pushing through, but there were several things about Sonderegger that intrigued me.
First, is the fact that she periodically breaks forth into some of the most glorious prose I’ve ever seen a theologian use. The burning bush reveals that “the cosmos is phosphoric, Light bearing.” (81) Intoxicated with the notion of God’s omnipotence, Sonderegger says, “The Spirit-soaked existence of the enchanted world gives us the haunting reminder that Power must be in the end personal.” (200) To believe, she says, “is to trust that there is more. More riches in a text than meets the eye; more Grace and Life in bread and wine and oil than anyone glimpses there;…more is the name of Christian dignity.” (456).
I’ll grant that there are many passages that snag in the thorny woods of her eccentric prose, but the clearings into which such writing emerges are worth every part of the journey.
Secondly, Sonderegger returns to the classical Divine Perfections of Omnipresence, Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Love, whose main purchase on Christian consciousness these days consists of occasional singings of “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” Discussions of the perfections can be airy and deadly dry, but Sonderegger uses a thorough-going compatibilism to place creation firmly within the picture.
“Deity is not repugnant to the cosmos, nor paradoxical to it,” she affirms. “We do not find a contradiction or opposition between the One Lord and all that He has made. Rather, the Divine Reality is compatible with the cosmos: God has a ‘positive’ relation to the world.” (xix)
Yes, you see it there in that passage—the things you need to get used to in this book. The idiosyncratic capitalization. The consistently masculine pronouns for God. Sonderegger has her reasons, but for those of us trained in theology after the 60s, these decisions act as barriers. It is worth the effort to surmount them, however.
Ultimately, Sonderegger is trying to act as a supplement and corrective to the Christocentric systematic theologies that Barth and his followers have produced. She is sympathetic and a fellow-traveler with Barth in many ways, but her focus in on the Unicity of God, not the Trinity. She wants to address the “allergy” modern Christian theology has shown towards “questions about Deity—what God is” (xi).
In her exploration, Sonderegger holds on to that focus with impressive determination and exegetical skill. I felt carried along by her vision even when the writing became cryptic. It’s a strange beauty, this book. Strange and beautiful.
Katherine Sonderegger is the William Meade Professor of Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.