Systematic Theology, Volume 2
The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity
Processions and Persons
By Katherine Sonderegger
Fortress, pp. 416, $49
Review by Wesley Hill
Tucked away near the end of Praying the Stations of the Cross: Finding Hope in a Weary Land is the Episcopal priest and theologian Katherine Sonderegger’s recommendation of Austin Farrer:
Farrer was a twentieth-century Anglican divine, a philosopher, a biblical critic, a pastor and theologian, and a marvelous university preacher. Farrer understood modern worries about the Christian faith; he respected doubters, skeptics, and agnostics; he preached a high and confident Christian faith with eyes wide open.
I’ve been immersed in Farrer’s writing for the last few months and can testify to the accuracy of Sonderegger’s description. But it strikes me that her commendation of Farrer could equally serve as a gloss on her work: Sonderegger is currently producing a multi-volume systematic theology that, in retrospect, will be seen as a 21st-century instance of the distinctively Anglican way of doing theology that Farrer represented so powerfully in the 20th.
Like Farrer, Sonderegger is as philosophically sophisticated as she is theologically creative. The second volume of her systematics, subtitled The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, treats Descartes and Kant as searchingly and substantively as it does Simone de Beauvoir and Bertrand Russell. Sonderegger’s extensive, informed readings of the biblical text have been discussed with appreciation — not least by biblical scholars — since the appearance of her first volume, The Doctrine of God. In this second volume on the Trinity, the book of Leviticus is — counterintuitively — a sustained focus of attention.
And like Farrer, Sonderegger writes as a churchly theologian and a preacher but without any kind of quick dismissal or disdain for those thinkers and skeptics who occupy the church’s margins or exist outside it altogether. No one is simply written off in this systematics: Sonderegger is sympathetic to the concerns of heterodox figures like Paul Tillich and irreligious social critics like Elizabeth Spelman and shows how their concerns find an echo in the questions theology must ponder. A motley choir find their voices in this rich, symphonic, bewildering, homiletical dogmatics.
Near the heart of Sonderegger’s project as it has unfolded so far (at least one more volume is planned) is the refrain that not everything in Christian theology can be boiled down to Christology and soteriology. For someone who cut their teeth on the theology of Karl Barth, who was determined to know nothing of God but what could be understood as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Sonderegger appears as a renegade pupil, reaching behind her theological master to retrieve and reimagine insights that Barth seemed to have repudiated.
The prime insight of Sonderegger’s dogmatics — what the late John Webster calls its “singular, utterly arresting thought” — is that God is One. More than that, Sonderegger argues that Scripture, not merely the ancient demythologizing philosophy of a Plato or Plotinus, insists on the Lord’s unicity: “We do not leave the shores of the Red Sea for the Aegean when we talk about God as Rational, as Good, and as Infinite.” The Old Testament, with its vision of a fiery, darkly mysterious Lord encountered in sacrifice and praise, leads Sonderegger to the traditional divine attributes of aseity, simplicity, immutability, and the like.
Christians who were theologically reared, as I was, on the Reformers and post-Barthians like Robert Jenson and William Placher are likely to balk at Sonderegger’s project. As Luther’s comrade Philip Melanchthon wrote, “It is … proper that we know Christ in another way than that which the Scholastics have set forth.”
Surely we are, as Barth taught, to proselytize pagan hairsplitting over divine impassibility and eternity with the evangelical narrative of the saving events accomplished by and in Jesus of Nazareth, insisting that Hellenistic God-talk must be Christianized on the anvil of irreducible historical particularity. Surely the goal of Christian theology isn’t some detached, serene contemplation of timeless divine perfections but rather the praise of God for the grace disclosed in the events of Israel’s exodus, Christ’s cross, and his empty tomb.
Sonderegger’s answer to this Christian, albeit distinctively modern (so she argues), objection is that the God we meet in the economy of redemption exists prior to, above, beneath, and beyond (here language fails us, and so we multiply inadequate metaphors) that economy. We are driven by the gospel to consider “God as Actor in that [saving] history … [We therefore] press on to hear and to think the Referent who is Present there as the One beyond thought.”
Sonderegger affirms that we truly meet God in the human life, death, and risen presence of the human being Jesus Christ; but insofar as it is God we meet, we are driven to speak of God’s “inner life” in terms that distinguish him from all creatures and make clear that his life is sui generis, incomparable, not of a piece with our fragmentary, transitory histories.
Far from obviating the need — and delight — of metaphysical theology, the “form of New Testament witness to Christ, His free obedience to the Way of the Cross, gives in that very form the content of the Divine Son, and in just that way, the Divine Persons and Nature.” Evangelical faith and exegetical attention invite or even require us to meditate on the invisible God whose nature is truly disclosed, though not exhausted, by the visible acts of God among us creatures in our history.
Though deeply unfashionable today, Sonderegger’s unapologetically metaphysical approach to the doctrine of the Trinity is recognizable as an extension of the legacy of earlier Anglican divines like Farrer. In a seminal essay from 1952, Farrer laid the groundwork for Sonderegger’s project by insisting that we must grasp the radical otherness of God if we are to hope to understand what it might mean that God revealed himself within the limits of a finite human life.
The key, Farrer said, was not to “talk about ‘divine nature’ and ‘human nature’ as though God’s nature were one of the ways of being alongside the human way.” Were it so, Christ’s human nature would be squeezed out by his divine nature, commandeered by an overweening deity that needed to displace it in order to be fully realized.
Sonderegger’s insistence on theological “compatibilism” repeats and updates Farrer’s: The God with whom we have to do in Israel’s Scriptures and in Jesus Christ is holy fire, immortal splendor, radiant unchangeability. And only insofar as God is thus may we hope that his divine life may prove able to save and purify our humanity.