The “Trinitarian Revival,” and Does Jesus Come After or Before the Oneness of God?

trinityjesus

Katherine Sonderegger identifies Karl Rahner and Karl Barth, respectively, as the seminal heads who initiated what has been called the Trinitarian Revival. She writes:

The “Trinitarian Revival” has been traced to twin geniuses: Karl Rahner and Karl Barth. Rahner’s remarkable essay for his encyclopedia, Mysterium Salutis, now published separately as The Trinity. Joseph Donceel, trans. New York: Herder, 1970. (New York: Crossroad, 2003) provides the template for considering much Christian piety as “sheer monotheism”—see p. 42, note 43. Karl Barth announced the Trinity as a form of revelation in his Church Dogmatics, I.1, thereby joining the modern doctrine of revelation to the Triune God as proper and sole Subject of dogmatics. Because of the Christological concentration of these doctrines of the Trinity, they remain distinctly modern, belonging to the pronounced Christological focus of modern theology, and not simply as variants on Peter Lombard’s Sentences and early Trinitarianism in the doctrine of God.[1]

Ultimately Sonderegger does not think this style of “revival” has been a good thing; the above quote is a footnote she wrote tied to commentary she was offering on the impact that modern theology, a la Barth et al., has had upon the shape of Trinitarian theology. She sees the emphasis upon the threeness of God (de Deo trino), promoted by Barth, Rahner, et al., as something that has had a negative impact upon understanding God as One (de Deo uno). Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that [sic] this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed of all monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[2]

She clearly has a problem with the modern turn in what has now come to be called Trinitarian theology (ironically because of the modern turn). It appears, though, that she is over-correcting by so emphasizing the Oneness of God that she already is starting to lose sight of how the Oneness is oneness by almost denigrating the Threeness of God; which would be ironic because ever since at least the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople the threeness and oneness of God have been inextricably linked within the Christian grammar.

But as we recall in the footnote I shared from her, she does mention Peter Lombard’s Sentences. This might clue us into the turn-back she is attempting to make, and how she thinks a doctrine of God should develop. It says much about her theory of revelation; she’s obviously not a Barthian (or potentially not even an Athanasian). Like Lombard she is going to want to follow the progressive unfolding of Scripture in salvation history. As such she opens to the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and works her way, in a seemingly linear fashion, from there until she gets to Jesus. Once she gets to Jesus in the New Testament she will start reflecting on the threeness of God. Sonderegger is actually following not only Lombard’s lead, but the lead found in the scholastic developments of theology embedded in Post Reformed orthodoxy.

I once wrote about how the scholastics Reformed placed a rupture between the Oneness of God and the Threeness. Here’s what I wrote as I had just finished comparing how a doctrine of God is developed in various Reformed confessions, and a chatechism:

At first blush there might not be much apparent difference between TheWestminster Confession of Faith (WCF), The Belgic Confession of the Faith (BC), The Heidelberg Catechism (HC) and The Scott’s Confession 1560 (SC); but this requires further reflection. The “Westminster” tradition starts talking about God by highlighting his “attributes,” these are characteristics that are contrasted with what humans are not (analogia entis). We finally make it to God as “Father, Son, Holy Spirit,” but not before we have qualified him through “our” categories using humanity and nature (analogia entis) as our mode of thinking about “godness.” This is true for both the WCF and the BC. Jan Rohls provides a helpful insight on this when he speaks to the nature of the composition of many of the Reformed Confessions (including both the WCF and the BC):

It is characteristic of most of the confessional writings that they begin with a general doctrine of God’s essence and properties, and only then proceed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The two pieces “On the One God” (De deo uno) and “On the Triune God” (De deo trino) are thus separated from each other. . . .[3]

We now see this move being made in Sonderegger’s work. It’s not a new thing then, but a call back to the calmer waters, as Sonderegger might see it, of classical theism; and away from the turbulent seas that modern theology has presented the church with.

Should we be afraid of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness in the same breath? Was the ancient church afraid of doing so? I don’t think so. Thomas Torrance, who I also once quoted has this to say about this type of move by Sonderegger:

. . . in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[4]

Sonderegger would most likely respond that Torrance is simply a modern theologian himself; following in the steps of Barth and Rahner working out the so called “Trinitarian Revival.” But I think she’s wrong. I think Torrance’s insight, as well as the facts on the ground, blunts her critique of the modern trajectory within Trinitarian theology. Sure, yes, modern theology has flavored Trinitarian theology a certain way (i.e. in almost anti-metaphysical ways, which is what I think Sonderegger is really troubled by), but I don’t think the allergy of speaking of God’s Oneness and Threeness together is as present say in Pro-Nicene theology as she seems to want to make it.

I’ll leave you to decide …

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume 1 Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xxiii, n. 4.

[2] Ibid., xiv.

[3] Bobby Grow, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,”  in eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 108.

[4] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology cited Ibid., 110.

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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.

God’s Number, His Threeness-in-Oneness: Hugh Binning, Gregory Nazianzen, Thomas Torrance and Bruce McCormack respond to Katherine Sonderegger

Here is Hugh Binning (1627-1653), young Scottish theologian, speaking of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation; speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation:

. . . our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the
trinityvery fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose.[1]

As Thomas Torrance notes further, after Binning wrote what we just read from him, he cited Gregory Nazianzen thusly: “I cannot think upon one, but by and by I am compassed about with the brightness of three, and I cannot distinguish three, but I am suddenly driven back unto one.”[2] What a beautiful way to think of the One in Three/Three in One, the Triunity of Godself when considering the depth reality of what has taken place in salvation.

And I would like to suggest to Katherine Sonderegger, who is concerned about the De Deo Trino (Threeness of God) crowding out the De Deo Uno (Oneness of God), and who attributes a Trinitarian emphasis to doing theology in the 20th and 21st centuries to the impact of the modern theological move primarily made by Karl Barth, that there is evidence to the contrary. I.e. This example from Binning helps to illustrate how Oneness and Threeness were not only thought together for the pre-moderns in the post-Reformation period, but it also underscores how Threeness was a prominent reality for the patristics, as Binning himself appeals to Nazianzen. Note Sonderegger’s concern:

… Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God….[3]

I would submit that Sonderegger creates a false disjunction by speaking of Oneness over against Threeness, and vice versa. We see Binning creatively think Oneness into Threeness and vice versa in a way that I should think would be instructive for Sonderegger. She also uses numbers for God in a way that actually flattens out the mystery she is claiming to enhance and magnify by emphasizing God’s Oneness; Bruce McCormack drives this home when he writes:

… The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others but the presupposition of all other Christian doctrines.  It is this because triunity is not something added to “oneness” but is a description of what God is essentially.  Put another way: the trinitarian relations are not laid on top of a divine essence which has been “established” metaphysically (i.e. in abstraction from those relations as a “fourth” beneath or behind the “persons”).  The relations simply are what God is essentially.  For that reason, as Karl Barth argued, it will not do to treat the “one God” before treating the “triunity” of God because everything that needs to be said about the “one God” needs to be conditioned by what is said about the Trinity….[4]

And further,

… Suffice it here to say that the logic of numbers, as applied to God, is employed responsibly only where it is recognized that numbers too never rise above the level of analogical predication. Used univocally of divine “persons’ and “human” persons, they are bound to mislead.  Seen in this light, to speak of the “one” God is not merely to refer to the metaphysical concepts of singularity or uniqueness.  The “unity” of Jesus Christ with His Father is a relation that includes (even if it is not exhaustively described by) the love each has for the other.[5]

For a Christian conception of God it is not possible or recommended to try and think of God as One or Three outwith the other; there is no Oneness of God without His Threeness, and no Threeness without His Oneness. Binning understood this, pre-modern that he was, and indeed helps to uplift the mysterious wonder of who God is, and who this God is with us and for us.

 

 

[1] Hugh Binning, Works, 89 cited by Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), 79.

[2] Ibid., 79.

[3] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume One: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), XIV.

[4] Bruce L. McCormack, Reflections on the Same God Thesis (Wheaton, IL: Noah Toly’s Blog, accessed 01-27-2016).

[5] Ibid.

Katherine Sonderegger Illustrating Bruce McCormack’s Orthodoxy Principle for Muslim and Christian Worship of the Same God

I am just beginning to rework Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology, Vol.1, The Doctrine of God for a review I will be writing of it for the journal Cultural Encounters. Right away in the preface something stood out to me, especially in light of all of these posts (from various thinkers) on the issue of Muslims and Christians (and Jews) worshipping the same God. In my last post katherinesondereggerwhich I just finished a few hours ago we were taking a look at Bruce McCormack’s response to this whole question. We noticed that he gave the strongest arguments for and against belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In his argument in the affirmative that Muslims and Christians do indeed worship the same God he argued from the principle reality of orthodoxy.

As an illustration of how McCormack’s argument works, the one from orthodoxy, the one that emphasizes the oneness of God (De Deo Uno) as the hook wherein it can be held, ostensibly, that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present-day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed all of monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[1]

What Sonderegger writes comports well with what McCormack wrote here:

… The most natural understanding of the oneness of God for those coming directly out of second Temple Judaism was that of “singularity” and/or “uniqueness.”  This understanding was given further strength by the influence of Middle Platonism already on the LXX but most especially on the Greek apologists.  By the mid-second century at the latest, a concept of God was already firmly in place which owed a great deal to Middle Platonism.  The concept in question affirmed that God is one, simple, impassible, invisible, immaterial being.  In constructing this concept, there can be little question but that the definition of God’s “oneness” owed a great deal to its “neighoring” concepts, simplicity above all.  Unity and simplicity went hand in hand for the early Fathers.  And that was one of the reasons (though not the only one) that debates over the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century were so difficult and protracted.  All of the fourth century theologians whose doctrines of the Trinity would eventually be recognized as orthodox were committed to unity and simplicity (see G.L. Prestige,God in Patristic Thought). And so one of the most important tasks facing fourth century theology was how to think the three-ness of “persons” into or together with an already existing concept of “oneness.”[2]

It is interesting, as a side-note, that Sonderegger is highly antagonistic towards the emphasis that Karl Barth has provided for 20th and 21st century theology with his incorrigible desire to elevate the Triunity of God (De Deo Trino) to the ‘fore’ when thinking God. It is interesting because, relative to McCormack’s own Barth[ian] views Sonderegger is at deep odds with McCormack. McCormack would say that Sonderegger advances the orthodox view the one that allows Christians like Hawkins, Volf, et al. to claim that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God. And as we can see from the Sonderegger quote when Oneness is the dominant fundamentum when developing a doctrine of God, it seems those who take this approach, apparently the orthodox folk, find it compelling at a first-order leveling of things that all monotheisms, at a base level converge at a central point; i.e. simply that God is One. Apparently this is enough common ground for the orthodox to maintain that they worship the same God that the Muslims do.

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

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Reflections on the “Same God” Thesis (Wheaton, IL: Noah Toly’s Blog, 2016), accessed January 13th, 2016.

Placing the One God into Competition with the Triune God: Against Sonderegger’s Thinking on Monotheism

For the Christian being a monotheist (belief in one God), and Trinitarian (belief that the one God is three persons) are mutually implicating realities. As you know I have been reading Katherine Sonderegger’s Volume 1 Systematic Theology, Doctrine of God. In it she has many rich insights and laudable things to communicate, but when it comes right down to it I have to finally demur; and trinity-iconthe demurring comes because of a fundamental disagreement about how she parses monotheism and Trinitarianism, as if one does not implicate the other and the other does not implicate the one. Let me share from what she has written, and you will see what I mean (maybe you’ll agree with her, but maybe you’ll agree with me).

Note what I said here! Our reading of the priestly-prophetic visio Dei is not principally Trinitarian in character. We are not hearing and seeking out in this witness of ancient Israel a sign and foretaste of Triune Persons. It is not the Father, say, that we see breaking through the cloud and smoke to descend upon Moses and upon the people Israel. Nor do we look for an intimation of the Son in these royal Appearances in the temple. We do not bring forward first and principally the Holy Spirit as personal disclosure in Dame Wisdom or in the maternal brooding over the dark sea at creation’s dawn. The forward press of so much modern theology—the drive to subsume the doctrine of God within the Trinity and the Triune Persons—does not, I believe, properly attest the Unicity of the God of Israel. The Deity and Nature of God is personal: the One God is a Person; we can dare to put it this way. Monotheism is no shame word! At once God is Nature and Person, and the witness of ancient Israel to its Lord is to an Object inalienably Subject, a Subject lowered and handed over to be Object. This oscillation in Israel’s and therefore our religious life before God—now our experience of the I AM—is the gracious condescension of the Lord God to usward, for these are not two, not distinct or segmented, but One, One Mystery, One God.[1]

This is troubling to me on many fronts, primary of which is her rupturing of the One and the Many, the One and the Three; her apparent fear about “the drive to subsume the doctrine of God within the Trinity and the Triune Persons” is problematical to say the least!

She has Karl Barth in her sights (she had just mentioned him and aimed at him in the preceding context leading to the quote I shared), and so she might as well have TF Torrance and Evangelical Calvinists in her sights as well (indeed she does!). There is no need to worry the way she does; she speaks of Monotheism as if, for the Christian, this is somehow, definitionally different than speaking of the Trinity, but it surely isn’t! For the orthodox Christian we know of no other Oneness of God apart from His revealed reality in the Son, Jesus Christ. As such, our understanding of God’s oneness (de Deo uno) is necessarily shaped by His Self-revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (de Deo trino), the hypostases of the One God. Oneness for the Christian is absolutely subsumed by the Threeness of the persons of the Divine Monarxia (Godhead), not incidentally. We are not Muslims, neither are we Jews, we are not Unitarians we are Trinitarians, and so Sonderegger’s fear is not well founded, not in the Christian tradition; least not in the tradition I affirm.

Let’s end this with TF Torrance, and how he would most likely respond to Sonderegger’s pronouncement about monotheism and the Trinity:

in the Scots Confession as in John Knox’s Genevan Liturgy, the doctrine of the Trinity is not added on to a prior conception of God—there is no other content but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There was no separation here between the doctrine of the One God (De Deo Uno), and the doctrine of the triune God (De Deo Trino), which had become Roman orthodoxy through the definitive formalisation of Thomas Aquinas. This trinitarian approach was in line with The Little Catechism which Knox brought back from Geneva for the instruction of children in the Kirk. “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son and in the Holy Spirit, and look for salvation by no other means.” Within this trinitarian frame the centre of focus in the Confession and Catechism alike is upon Jesus Christ himself, for it is only through him and the Gospel he proclaimed that God’s triune reality is made known, but attention is also given to the Holy Spirit. Here once again we have a different starting point from other Reformation Confessions. Whereas they have a believing anthropocentric starting point, such as in the Heidelberg Catechism, this is quite strongly theocentric and trinitarian. Even in Calvin’s Institute, which follows the fourfold pattern in Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the doctrine of the Trinity is given in the thirteenth chapter within the section on the doctrine of God the Creator. Calvin’s Genevan Catechism, however, understandably followed the order of the Apostles Creed. The trinitarian teaching in the Scots Confession was by no means limited to the first article for it is found throughout woven into the doctrinal content of subsequent articles.[2]

Torrance would note that Sonderegger is following the ‘formalisation of Thomas Aquinas,’ indeed she does. Just following the quote I share from KS, she gets into the mode, the method of theological engagement she is using to come to such conclusions; she notes her reliance upon scholastic methodology, and how that implicates our grammar and understanding towards a knowledge of God. As a result she has artificially wrested the Triune Persons from the One God of Israel, and that is too bad!

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 6577, 6584 Kindle.

[2] Torrance, Scottish Theology, 3–4.

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.

Conclusion

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.

Death bathed in the fiery life of God

Death is always a scary thing to face; even as the author of the epistle to the Hebrews affirms the victory over death that we have in Christ, he also presupposes the reality that the ineluctable trajectory of death that all humanity faces is a constant burden born by all,

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

songbirdMore personally, my own mortality was something I was pressed up against with my “incurable” cancer diagnosis back in late 2009, early 2010. I tasted, palpably, what it feels like to face what we all unfeelingly live with everyday; the reality that we are all going to die. This reality plunged me into an array of emotions; primary of which was fear. I woke every morning to hear the morning birds singing, and forgetting for a moment that I was probably going to die from an invader into my body that didn’t want to leave, but then quickly being cast back into the abysmal realization that indeed as the birds sang I was dying (and sooner than I had ever dreamed)! Each of my days became dark cavernous things with a bleak hope that I might actually (miraculously) make it to the light (maybe survive) I could vaguely make out at the end of the hole I was in.

I bring my personal situation up to underscore a global reality; we are all going to die (lest the Lord return in Second Advent prior). Whatever the expression of our own personal demise, it is an inevitability that we all live with; ironically with every breath we take. This sounds all so bleak, indeed it is, save the fact that God in Christ in his love shaped power has entered into the depths of our humanity all the way down; and in so doing he has provided hope in and through who he is pro nobis (for us). Katherine Sonderegger writes beautifully of this reality as she opines upon God’s omnipotence and fire like life:

It is the most fundamental metaphysical claim of all, that that Dynamic Life exists, the primal fire burns. For just this reason, life after death, and even more, life in the face of death, is not a concept or a doctrine or a pious hope–not first or principally!–but rather the simple and profound acknowledgment of the creature standing before, and so bathed in, this Omnipotence, this fiery Life. It cannot be baulked, but everything in heaven and on the earth, all powers and principalities, even proud death, will bow the knee before this Living Lord. That is first and principally what the faithful mean when they scoff at death, and what Athanasius praises when he sees the Roman world freed from the feverish fear of death. Even more it was what the faithful intend when they affirm that they and the whole created order will rise again. The Force that is God’s very Being radiates outward, expands and explodes, never ceases or wearies, does not stand in reserve but is always, everywhere, Alive. To merely touch the hem of this garment is to be healed: the Power goes forth from Him, the Power that lives as Deity, the One God.[1]

There is hope oh beleaguered soul. What Sonderegger writes of is our hope; God is truly all powerfully Lord of all, Lord of life (not of the dead). But sometimes we must repose in the valley of the shadow of death in order to thirst for this unquenchable fire to burn away all of our fears with his immortal life.

 

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology. Volume One, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), Loc. 2949, 2955 Kindle.