Thomas Torrance and Katherine Sonderegger in Confluence: Evangelizing a Substance Metaphysic in a Doctrine of God

Thomas F. Torrance offers an alternative and constructive conception doctrine of God feeding off of the axis of Patristic theologians that he fancies. I say it is alternative because it does not seek to conceive of God by way of analogy to social or human constructs, instead it seeks to grammarize God in such a way that Godself is allowed to stand as determinative of what it means to be God; and this contrary to a well trodden path of Augustinian and Thomist conceiving which both in their own distinct but related rights attempt to speak of God in terms of philosophical principles derived russianpantocratorfrom inferences made about God through contemplation and active reasoning. So Thomas Torrance, as alternative to the rather philosophical conception of God provided by Augustine and Thomas has this to say in regard to how we ought to conceive of God in relational (onto) terms (per an Athanasian emphasis); he writes:

Thus the Father is Father precisely in his indivisible ontic relation to the Son and the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit are what they are as Son and Spirit precisely in their indivisible ontic relations to the Father and to One another. That is to say, the relations between the divine Persons belong to what they are as Persons—they are constitutive onto—relations. ‘Person’ is an onto-relational concept.[1]

With Torrance we see then an emphasis upon the relational reality of the revealed ‘being’ of God; as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sui generis.

Katherine Sonderegger in her newly published Systematic Theology, Volume 1 The Doctrine of God agrees in large part with Thomas Torrance’s emphasis upon God’s onto-relational or simply, relational reality and being; and this opposed to the more inchoate grammars provided for God by both Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. She writes eloquently on this reality, in critique, constructive reception (of Augustine and Thomas A.), and re-emphasizing the reality that Thomas Torrance hopes to instill within the church in regard to God’s reality:

Thomas [Aquinas] speaks movingly about the Divine Generosity in bestowing Life, Being, among creatures–and there will be time to unfold such an orderly notion of Divine Power. But we must ward off the temptation to consider God, even as Act of Being, as an inert Force that extends its domain, true Existence, into the creaturely realm, so that existence is shared and comes to be. Temptations of this kind, the impersonal sort, crowd around every abstract notion of God: as One, as Good, as Beautiful, and True. The transcendental, vital to any rich and proper doctrine of God, may lead us astray, precisely here in the doctrine of Omnipotence. For it appears that God gathers up, epitomizes, and exemplifies these abstractions as His own proper Nature. It appears that God can be fittingly depicted in abstract honorifics: as the supreme Reality, the superabundant Truth, the Fullness of Goodness, Beauty, Vitality, and just this is His Power. These abstractions are then generalized, universalized, and this is taken to be the Act of Creation. He spreads these goods abroad, so this view will have it, scatters them as seed of life, shares out to finite reality His own Nature, How own Being, and just this is Power, Power to create. We recognize the lush Platonism in such a view, and the Augustinianism that will grow up in its shade. And there is truth in all this! Much more to be preferred is Platonism, or more properly, Augustinianism, than any of its rivals. But God’s Power is not ideal, not abstract, not objective in this sense–precisely not that![2]

Here we get insight into Soderegger’s critique of Augustinianism (and Thomas A.), even if she does so with much appreciation for their efforts. She goes on immediately following to offer her alternative, and this is where she touches, ever so gently, along the same lines as we have occasion to see in Thomas Torrance emphases in reference to a doctrine of God. Sonderegger continues to write:

We do not enter into an abstract metaphysical realm when we unfold Divine Omnipotence, in which broad properties or powers or natures are sorted into categories, divided up and then shared across some great neutral divide. No; the metaphysics we seek after here is of another kind, another Reality altogether. God’s Reality is personal, rather, in this sense: He is the One, the Utterly Unique One, who in His concrete Person makes possible the concrete, specific relation with creation, the unique relation that brings into being the creature. The Relatio between such a Creator and such a creature is itself God–that is another way to put this point. He alone can bridge these two; He alone can bring into existence another. No general category will do here, none at all. Cause cannot be the unique Relatio between heaven and earth, nor more than can Deliberation or executed Will, even should we elevate and purify these to be Divine Acts or Principles or Faculties. No, it is the whole God, if we can speak thus, the entire One, the Subject in Object who gives Himself to be the Living Bridge between earth and sky. The Relation between God and another is sui generis; nothing is its like. We pluck from Schleiermacher’s exemplar this element: as effective Teacher, Christ draws disciples through His own Charisma, into His Blessedness; His personal Purity, His cloudless Life is as such the lesson. So in some such way we might say that God’s Personal Nature draws the world into being, and immediately occupies the realm between Creator and creature.

More still: as Personal Relation, the Lord brings forth; He begets and inspires. The transcendental Relation, the concrete foundation of this personal God to creation and to creatures, cannot refer to another god than the Immanent Trinity–precisely not that! Rather, this Personal Relatio to another echoes and is suffused by the Modes of God’s very Life, His Processions. He will beget and inspire, yes. But we know already, even in the doctrine of the One God, that these Acts are not properly understood as Works, but rather as Personal Relation. Indeed, they just are Persons, the incommunicable Existence of the Divine Nature. God just is His own Relations, His own Subject in Object. He is Life, vital, Personal Life. And such pouring forth and making alive, such engendering and liberating, such Processions are themselves personal, Persons as Modes of the One God. As the perfect Teacher, Schleiermacher tells us, Christ is person forming; just so is He the end of creation. In some such way, the Personal Power of God is itself Person Forming, Tripersonal. Yet they are One, indivisible ad extra.[3]

Sonderegger’s grammar ought to remind us of one of Torrance’s favorite Athanasian premises in regard to God; viz. ‘it is better to signify God from the Son and call him Father, than to name God from his works alone and call him Unoriginate.’

What stands out about Sonderegger’s approach is that she is not simply discarding the Traditional grammar when it comes to a Theology Proper. Instead she is constructively retrieving grammar, and identifying streams within the classical grammar and metaphysic that are the admirable and good pieces of grammar that most proximate what God has revealed of Himself in His Self-revelation, Self-interpretation in His Son, Jesus Christ. What Sonderegger is doing might be too subtle, such that those who hold most closely (in a Protestant stream) to the classical/traditional grammar of God–Post Reformed Orthodoxy–might fail to really appreciate Sonderegger’s appropriation and reification here. She is challenging the typical substance metaphysics of much of Western theology in general, and appreciating the always already present relational/personalist language of God in the Trad; and she thus forwards the ‘Orthodoxy’ that both Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth were hoping to emphasize and retrieve in their own constructive workings.


In conclusion, what we have from Sonderegger on this particular front is a refreshing and constructive reading of the Tradition as it comes to the grammar used to articulate a genuinely Christian Doctrine of God. Sonderegger taps into the same stream, I would contend, that Thomas Torrance (and Karl Barth as well as Schleiermacher, Dorner, et. al.) sought to tap into in his (their) attempts to retrieve an Orthodox doctrine of God for the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. Sonderegger, far from removing herself from the Orthodox and Trad Tradition places herself firmly in the midst of it as she develops for us what indeed a ‘substance metaphysic’ might actually mean when it comes to conceiving of God in ‘personal’ ‘relational’ terms. We would all do well to follow her lead, and in the process of following we might at least become admirers of her method and approach to speaking of God in terms that I would think please both Him and the elect Angels.



[1] Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, 157.

[2] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 4078, 4084, 4090 Kindle Version.

[3] Ibid., Loc. 4090, 4097, 4103.


2 thoughts on “Thomas Torrance and Katherine Sonderegger in Confluence: Evangelizing a Substance Metaphysic in a Doctrine of God

  1. Leithart has talked about this sort of method to further our interactions with the philosophies of today. It’s what I’d call “blowing out the back” of philosophy, an invasion of Christ into the many domains the curious minds have sought and chased after. Do you think this is an adequate description?

    And I’m hesitant, in a chastened and reflective manner, to throw out the sort of social analogies that have been deployed over the centuries. Not because they’re completely revealing or without error (as any analogy will be if taken down all the way, but that is the error of wooden literalistic thinking and skepticism), but because they’re evangelistic and apologetic tools to overcome would-be detractors.

    So Augustine…in his climate, his triad analogy of the will-memory-intellect being one mind is a good tool against a Platonic interlocutor. See, he might say, God has left vestiges(footprints) in our very making. But this analogy doesn’t run far beyond overturning Platonic overtures to a unitary One. Creation itself testifies against.

    I’m not sure what Sonderegger is drawing on. Maybe such Schliermacherian focus on transformative teaching/exempla and personal-relation might be a good analog to overcome the spiritualists and hucksters in the Oprah/Chopra fashion, and it may answer the current clime of loneliness. If so, this is a very good place to practice resourcement.

    But I too am in agreement with Athanasius, there is a right way to start theology and a wrong way. If we start in anywhere else but Christ, we will quickly lose our ground and fall into the Arian Heresy, which, I might add, is not merely the Unitarianism which he advocated but the slip (as you point out) into prioritizing philosophical categories and forcing God into them. Thus why Arius defines the Lord, primarily, as Uncreate and not as Father.

    Augustine himself was humble and an embattled defender of the faith. I’m not sure about Thomas (but he did have Muslims in mind when he wrote contra gentiles and all his reading of Averroes). I’m not so quick to say their method is wrong, but their answers/conclusions are not places to ossify.

    Whether it’s Augustine or Barth, maybe we need to think on how living the Apostolic Tradition keeps that Tradition living and not becoming a dinosaur, relegated to a particular time/space/place.

    Some thoughts,

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  2. Cal,

    I don’t think Sonderegger is saying that Augustine and Thomas are totally wrong, per se, just that we need to push beyond them with the constructive insights that have come along since them (which sometimes means repudiating a bit of Auggie and Thomas here and there, but not necessarily everywhere).


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