The Mystery of Godliness in Flesh: Engaging with K Sonderegger’s “Immutable-Mutability” in the Hypostatic Union

Katherine Sonderegger’s recently released (2015) Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God is a theology text that is textured and dripping with doxological prose towards a God who you sense is truly holy as you work your way through it. She is someone I would say who writes in the same type of reverent style as John Webster did in his writings; with a kind of poetic and sacred flare.

jesusblackFor the rest of this post I wanted to share with you some of Sonderegger’s thinking on the immutability of God, or what she calls “Immutable mutability.” Here she has just been working through the Old Testament book of Numbers, and offers her thoughts on how God is both immutable and mutable (in a qualified way), using the themes of God’s stooping down to meet His covenant people where they are. She reifies the Torah revelation of God, the tabernacling God, by bringing Christ as the substance of that reality into the cultic picture offered by the salvation-history disclosed for us in Numbers. You will notice as you read this quote from her that she brings prayer or intercession into this discussion, just briefly, as she has previously been discussing that within the context of Numbers and God’s immutability. You will also notice that she refers to “omni” theology, i.e. God’s “all-knowingness,” and God’s “all-powerfulness,” so on and so forth. These are surely classical grammarisms for referring to the Christian God, but ones, that I think there might be better language for; at the very least, just as the language of immutability should be, I think so should the language of the “omnis” be qualified and conditioned from within a Christ concentrated frame of God’s Self-explication.

Furthermore, what you will also see in Sonderegger’s following quote is a reference to Barth. Sonderegger, ultimately, is not a fan of Barth’s Christ concentrated or principial approach for doing theology; indeed, as you read the whole of her Systematic Theology she makes that clear. That said, as is illustrated even here, she does make constructive appeal to Barth here and there (when she is not critiquing his Trinitarian approach to a doctrine of God). If you are familiar with Barth studies you will also see that she defers to a more Bruce McCormack reading of Barth wherein the Logos asarkos is essentially nullified. Of course as George Hunsinger and Paul Molnar are only too ready to argue, it is not the case that Barth has this allergy to the Logos asarkos lurking in his theology, or in particular, in his touchstone doctrine of election. Even so, Sonderegger, as you will see, works constructively with her reading of Barth and attempts to somewhat synthesize (that might be too strong of a word), constructively, her understanding of God’s “immutable-mutability” in the Incarnation with Barth’s concentration on the Logos ensarkos. These are technical things, in regard to Barth, that are indeed important, but for the purposes of this post, don’t let that deter you from being enriched from what Sonderegger offers here. As you read this your appetite might be whetted, as mine is, for her volume 2 which is focusing on Christology. What you will read is a rare flourish into some Christological thematic; for the most part in this volume 1 of hers she avoids much if any discussion of Christology (which that in and of itself should tell you volumes about how she differs from Barth — Barth wouldn’t even attempt to develop a doctrine of God without first starting with Jesus Christ — Sonderegger believes Barth is in serious error here, of course I disagree with her!). Here is Sonderegger:

In the mystery of the Incarnation, creaturely time is bent. It is taken up into the eternal, even as our flesh is taken up into Deity. What takes place under Caesar Augustus, in a shed in David’s city, takes place in another sense, yet altogether really, in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. Just this is what we mean when we say that time and eternity have met in Christ. Time and its order, its direction and impulse, are not destroyed—precisely not that! No, the movement from death to life, from exile to return, cannot be shaken: it is the Lord’s promise to His creatures. But our time is taken up into His, and in that way, receives as communicated, the Eternity that is God.

Our intercessions and commerce with the Lord God take place in that bent and hallowed time. The Mutability that is also the Lord’s Power is the Incarnation as it exists—“preexists”—in eternity. We want to be precise here. We do not purpose that the Divine Son is mutability within the Godhead, nor a “readiness” for Incarnation among the Triune Persons. No! This is a rather rarified form of Arianism, but Arianism, all the same. What we hear in the book of Numbers, rather, and aim to set out here, is the conviction that God’s very Nature, His own fiery Omnipotence, is “disposed” to Incarnation, the entire Godhead. Perfect Power is Humility in jus this sense. The fiery Dynamism that just is Omnipotence is Life, Movement, Energy. It eternally consists in and anticipates the Incarnation through its Divine Mutability. Just this is spiritual Nature. Though we must take up this task more directly in Divine Omniscience, even here we must say that the act of Incarnation is no novelty in God, no decision to be realized or adopted, no remedy. Rather this Mutability is the Divine Power in its dynamic Life. It is Eternal: immutable Mutability. This is what Barth means, I believe, when says that Christ makes us His contemporaries: we are drawn, as by the good Teacher, to His time, the eternal temporality. Perhaps this gives us another avenue into the perplexing doctrine of the Logos Ensarkos, beloved by Barth. Even as the apostle tells us that the Mind of Christ is exemplified and enacted by the lowering of Christ into the form of a slave, so the Humility of the Lord God is exemplified and enacted in His lowly readiness to hear, to bend down to His creatures in the dust, to have real commerce with those who are perishing. He will do this. It is not too little a thing for Him to take the form of a slave, to attend to us, to turn His Face toward us. That is His Goodness, His astonishing Humility. He asks, in that merciful exchange, What will you have me do for you? For just this reason the Incarnate Christ ask this very thing of the supplicants who come His way. He hears. He communicates His own Life to us in prayer, His own Vitality and Blessing. And as we cannot say, from our exiled home, east of Eden, just how the Eternal Word could become and live and die as one of us; just so we cannot say, as creatures of the earth, how the Eternal can assume our time, our days and years, into His Presence, so that we may speak and He may hear. But with the full realism that is the Incarnation, we may affirm, Yes, the Lord God, the omnipotent One, is mutable in just this way.[1]

What stands out to me most about this is the strong appeal to mystery that Sonderegger relies on in her constructive offering relative to how she tries to frame God’s “immutable-mutability” embodied by and within the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the singular person of Jesus Christ. This appeal to mystery, as J.N.D. Kelly reminds us is very patristic, and sounds somewhat like what Leo famously summarized in his Tome, which helped lead to the Chalcedonian settlement (we will have to explore how Leo brought all of this to summary in the next post).

I realize this has been somewhat of a fragmented post, but it is a blog post after all. Hopefully at the very least you’ve been given something to think about as a result of reading Sonderegger’s thoughts. Like I noted, I don’t fully endorse her approach, but her thinking on things is worth engaging with and being edified by at some level.

 

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 297-99.

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