White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Some Thoughts on Katherine Sonderegger’s Theology Proper, Part 1: “What Is His Name?”

Published Wednesday, August 12, 2020 By Ryan M. Hurd

Katherine Sonderegger has taken up the titanic project of a life: writing a multi-volume systematics. In this I have nothing but hearty encouragement to issue, and humble thanks to offer in exchange for the fruit of her labors. Dr. Sonderegger is certainly one of the top Protestant theologians alive, and I am grateful for her work.

Here and in essays to follow, I offer some thoughts on her doctrine of God; the volumes I have before me are her first, on the de deo uno, and second (forthcoming Nov. 2020, Dv), on the de deo trino. For the moment I want to underline two methodological areas of agreements I share with her, and then register my dissent over her point of departure for theology proper.

Methodological Accord

There are any number of methodological issues a theologian must set his eye on when approaching the doctrine of God; Dr. Sonderegger has deftly sorted a number of these and refused to cave under a number of twentieth-century pressures. The positive side of this is her resultant first volume, where she advocates rather coolly for what theological success actually is: the accrual of some understanding of the divine mystery, not its resolution. Sonderegger has embodied the cardinal demand for doing good theology proper; the theologian must square up and face his definite reckoning: penitus manet ignotum, “God stays utterly unknown” (Thomas, SCG III c 49). The divine mystery is scandalously permanent, never opened, enclosing us into itself; holding the alternative is to forswear the very God of our meditations. This is no casual feature of Christian theology; it is the abiding situation of a creature faced with God—in fact, its last and highest vantage: “The final stage of human knowledge of God is to know one does not know God, insofar as one knows that what God is exceeds everything we understand of him.”[1] This fundamental point has given shape to Sonderegger’s work; the endurance of the mystery, she points out quietly, “is not a sign of our failure in knowledge, but rather our success” (1:24).[2]

If this marks the volume out for success, what are some specific methodological concerns Dr. Sonderegger has avoided as conditions for failure? Perhaps there are two worth noting here, very much interlocking. One, while plenty of twentieth-century theology seems to be little more than the fruit of sulking impatience with the essence of God, Sonderegger does not suffer from an allergy to the de deo uno. In this she is a welcome ray of light; her project is registered as a recovery of the divine oneness (the “essence” of God) because, among other reasons, “the Oneness of God [has come] under heavy threat in the world that Barth and Rahner have made” (1:9). Within Protestant theology, foregoing the diving essence is closely linked to a tendency to deteriorate into a so-called “biblical” theology “sanitized” of metaphysics and particularly cleansed of the Greeks. And there are ingredients for this tendency that one can find throughout the Protestant tradition, in various ways; Sonderegger points out correctly that the Reformers’ (she names Calvin’s) “distrust of ‘speculation’ casts a long shadow” (1:xxi). Yes, indeed it does. The situation closer to our own time is only worsened on this score, as Sonderegger knows well; we enter upon the field of theology after Barth and his full-scale assault on what appears to him to be “bare, speculative, abstract and inert” (CD II.2).

A key marker for the woeful presence of this  issue is the prioritization of Trinity over the divine essence, particularly inattention to the fact that such a move is to the destruction of both. In contrast, the orthodox line holds that the sacred mystery of Trinity folds into and slips out of our knowledge of divine essence without its stretch. The contemporary determination to distribute (or redistribute?) the Trinity back onto the essence to reform it, revise it, or otherwise “Christianize” it (Rahner) sets one up to depart sharply from the orthodox path. For the orthodox, attention to the divine essential life is prior to articulation of the holy Trinity, and in fact it is really prior (for reasons I cannot take time to articulate here). Supernatural revelation, it must be underlined, does not inflect our knowledge of God with added perfection, doesn’t pump God up. It adduces new judgments required of us, and subsequently analogical understanding which, due to its unitary and synthetic nature as understanding, intensifies our insight into who God is. This however is not to raise our knowledge of God to a vantage where he is “more” than what we could have known before from nature and by reason alone. All this Sonderegger has noted well, and I appreciate her commitment to begin her systematics with the divine essence.

Two, and relatedly, Sonderegger continues to affirm the legitimacy of natural theology: the treatment of the divine essence handles those things that can be derived from nature and known by the native principle of the intelligence, and in point of fact such theology is true and (what is more, perhaps even radical today!) actually equally valuable for the Christian as supernatural theology. God is the one author both of nature and grace; supernatural theology is only above natural in the sense that it does not formally result from nature’s principles but in fact supports and perfects them. Historically, the de deo uno was developed and articulated by Christian theologians in concert with philosophers as well as all major monotheist religions e.g. Jews, Muslims, as utterly common ground. And Sonderegger does not shy away from natural theology or from others who favor its use in the systematic task. And further, Sonderegger’s volume shows she has gone a ways in working out the haunting question of how natural and supernatural theology are to be engaged together in one science of God. I must say however it does not appear to me that she has worked that arrangement out fully. As far as I am concerned, the only way to do this is in line with the interplay between the orders (not absolute spheres!) of nature and supernature, but I leave this for another time. Notwithstanding, Dr. Sonderegger evidences a healthy regard for natural theology while still speaking as a decidedly Christian theologian.

The Priority of Oneness over Being?

Withal these methodological areas of agreement, I must register my disagreement with Dr. Sonderegger’s point of departure for systematics on the essence of God. Rather than start with being, she begins with oneness; by my lights, this is no small error.

And I find the switch rather startling. For all of Dr. Sonderegger’s desire to follow God’s own self-offering in supernatural revelation, she foregrounds the divine oneness of Shema rather than beginning with God’s own self-declared name in Exodus 3:14. To be sure, this move issues not just from a desire to “champion” oneness, perhaps for reasons that may be important but are not elementary to systematics (e.g., the desire to be ecumenical). On the contrary, Sonderegger asserts straightforwardly that oneness is the principle divine attribute whereupon everything of God is unfolded: “For Oneness to be a foundational predicate, then, means that all other modes and manifestations, all other predicates, Attributes, and Perfections, all other disclosures of God as Word and Spirit are governed by and determined by Oneness, the surpassing Divine Uniqueness and Freedom” (1:25).

From my vantage, this is a most unhappy switch and, notably, is not just metaphysically inapt, but out of step with the scriptural witness. Theologians throughout church history (though by no means of one accord on this point) have considered the divine revelation of “He Who Is” to be the first divine name for good reason: it is graciously given in answer to the question, “What is his name?” Developing, e.g. in the case of Thomas, a metaphysics of being where God himself just is subsistent being itself (ipsum esse subsistens) and so gives being (esse nonsubsistens) to all beings (entia) is not an instance of a Christian theologian being unconsciously weened on the Greeks or perhaps bested by them in his old age. It is a recognition that since being (as supernaturally revealed to us!) is the divine name, God must have being itself through his essence, otherwise it would not properly be his name, for creatures also “are”! (And mark it clear: this does not require exegetical gymnastics!–but I digress.) All this, in electing Shema, Sonderegger has strangely left aside, and I must confess I am unable to imagine what grounds she may give for Shema, “oneness,” over God’s own self-offering as YHVH, “being.”  Dr. Sonderegger makes much of the fact that God’s oneness as the primary divine attribute is gathered from reflection on the multiform scriptural “prohibition[s] on idolatry” (1:25), where God is set opposite to the multitude of idols. No doubt he is. But I must ask what is foundational here: is it the number of idols or the fact that they are “dead,” for lack of a better word? It seems quite clear to me that Scripture’s commentary on idols founds man’s sorry need to multiply idols on the fact that they are all insufficient, because lifeless, because dependent, because a creature (actually, a creature of a creature!). Multiplying idols is like trying to fill up a room by stuffing it with more and more empty space: the point is not first that there are many, but that each is fundamentally empty. The satirical farce of man gifting a god with “being” brings us to where the Scripture wants us: the place to acknowledge He Who Is, who is in no need of being gifted with anything (Rom. 11:35) because he is subsistent being itself, and who for that reason gives being to all as his first effect (v. 36). God stands above the idols not thanks to his oneness first and priorly, but from the fact that he is not in the mix as the first in a series of beings, nor as their totality. It is thanks to the fact that his essence or nature is his very existence itself. The divine oneness or unity follows upon this and is a subsequent stage unfolding the Holy One of Israel, not its first ground.

Overturning being in favor of oneness as the “primus effectus Dei,” first effect of God, not only manifests inattention to the Sacred Passages, but is metaphysically ill-formed. And to forestall objections that Sonderegger is not about philosophy but theology, it should be noted that she is unafraid of metaphysical reflection—she is willing to engage “oneness” as a “metaphysical predicate” (1:24). There are principled reasons for the ordering of the transcendentals, most especially “being” as the principle or first transcendental; Sonderegger seems to have ignored them. Transcendentals fall into place according to their concept or intention, in an order internal to the transcendentals themselves.[3] Sonderegger is right to hold out oneness prior to other divine names like “love,” e.g.: the transcendentals together precede all other divine names absolutely speaking, because as identical to being they are “most common,” not identical to any creature, but participated as being itself is participated.[4]

But being itself is first and the quasi-principle of all, “praehabens in se omnia praedicta,” having beforehand internally all things before they are and so before they are spoken. This includes all subsequent transcendentals, and thus being is that name from which we depart.[5] All other names have tucked within them more imperfection than “who is” does, thanks to the simple fact that they require the resolution to being as being within the created order.[6] Thus, in the systematic order (and Sonderegger is about systematics), “who is” is the first name of God. When it comes to the issue of “oneness,” which is really identical to being, it is rationally distinguished and specifically posterior to being because it adds to being the concept of indivision. Indivision, however, must be held together as such by being as being, which is absolutely prior and therefore the first divine name.

I do not have space to continue on this point; but this is a significant issue that will bear unwelcome fruit down the line in unfolding the systematics of God. And it should be noted, yet again, that this point is not merely metaphysical, and does not result merely out of lip service to some philosophical system. Listening to Scripture stands opposed to this switch in the order of our names; it compels us to choose being, not oneness, in the question of what is the foundational divine perfection.

RM Hurd is a systematic theologian whose area of expertise is doctrine of God, specifically the Trinity. His primary training is in the high medievals and early modern scholastics as well as the twentieth-century ressourcement movement. His main project is writing a robust systematics of the Trinity; he also teaches systematics on God as a teaching fellow with The Davenant Institute.

[1] Thomas, De pot q 7 a 5 ad 14. “Ex quo intellectus noster divinam substantiam non adaequat, hoc ipsum quod est Dei substantia remanet nostrum intellectum excedens et ita a nobis ignoratur et propter hoc illud est ultimum cognitionis humanae de Deo, quod sciat se Deum nescire, inquantum cognoscit illud quod Deus est omne ipsum quod de eo intelligimus excedere.” Translations are my own.

[2] It should be noted supernatural revelation does not change this most basic truth. “Revelation does not determine something in the one revealed, but in him within whom revelation occurs.” Revelatio enim non est aliquid ponens in eo quod revelatur, sed in eo cui fit revelatio. Albertus Magnus, ST 1.3.2.resp. Or as Rahner: “Grace does not imply the promise and the beginning of the elimination of the mystery, but the radical possibility of the absolute proximity of the mystery, which is not eliminated by its proximity, but really presented as mystery. Pilgrim man, still a stranger to the vision of God, can be deceived about the character of absolute mystery in God, because he knows the holy mystery only as the distant and aloof. When he sees God, God’s incomprehensibility is the content of his vision and so the bliss of his love. It would be a foolish and anthropomorphic misunderstanding to think that the proper object of vision and bliss was something perspicuous, comprehensible and perfectly well understood, merely surrounded as it were by an obscure margin and a limit set by the finitude of the creature who must resign himself to this. What is comprehended and what is incomprehensible are in reality one and the same thing. The incomprehensible has of course its positive side. It has a blessed content which can be known even though it cannot really be expressed. Otherwise the incomprehensibility of God would be only a blank unintelligibility, the mere absence of a reality. But the knowledge in question would not bear on God if he were not grasped precisely as the incomprehensible. Knowledge as clarity, sight and perception, and knowledge as possession of the incomprehensible mystery must be taken as the two facets of the same process: both grow in like and not in inverse proportion. Grace and the beatific vision can only be understood as the possibility and the reality respectively of the immediate presence of the holy mystery as such.” Rahner, “Concept of Mystery,” TI 4:55.

[3] See, e.g., Thomas, I Sent d 8 q 1 a 3 resp.

[4] Again, see Thomas, I Sent d 8 q 1 a 3 resp et ad 3.

[5] Thomas, I Sent d 8 q 1 a 1 resp.

[6] Thomas, I Sent d 8 q 1 a 1 ad 3.

Blog Banner Image: Adoration of the Name of God, by Francisco Goya. Public Domain {{PD-US}} by age, resized by MR.

  • Ryan M. Hurd