Results tagged “Sonderegger” from Reformation21 Blog

The Hidden Omnipresence of the One Lord

In the first of this series, and last time, I set out to explore Professor Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God

Having established the meaning of the fundamental and perfect Oneness of God, she next turns to the Omnipresence of God. In successive chapters, she will explore the other 'omnis' - the Omnipotence, and then, the Omniscience of God. 

But the Omnipresence of God, as Sonderegger points out, is linked to his Hiddenness. God, the one God, is not represented by images, nor worshipped through idols that human beings can see. If there is one conviction that is basic to Israel's faith it is this. On the contrary: the God of Israel is hidden from view. He is invisible. He is certainly heard; but he is not seen. 

This does not mean a simple declaration of what God is not, as in the tradition of the via negativa. Rather, God's hiddenness is revealed to Israel. He is manifest precisely as hidden. 

Nevertheless, 'it is a striking fact that God cannot be seen in the cosmos' (p. 52). This may be seen as the ultimate image problem of course, if he is to be known by creatures who have been given eyes. But it is actually entirely consonant with his Omnipresence: 'He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One.' (p. 52)

Of course, the modern world demands that God be visible, and laughs rather bitterly when he is not displayed before it like some specimen. But Sonderegger offers in this place a rather nuanced argument: it is actually the fact that we can operate in the world by means of a 'methodological atheism' that testifies to God's invisible omnipresence: 'The hidden and free Lord is present to His cosmos in the worldliness and secularity of the intellect' (p. 57). It is only with our eyes opened by Holy Scripture that we can see God in his hiddenness. The failure of natural theology to discover him is not surprising, since he is not an object or a principle lurking in the structure of created things. In fact, this is his gift to us, claims Sonderegger - that our senses are immersed in the creation. 

Is this too negative about the possibility of a natural theology? In the current apologetic environment I don't want to concede as much to the atheist as this. David Bentley Hart's work has given me a great deal more courage on this front. However, what Sonderegger does is show how the hiddenness of God is not an embarrassment, but completely commensurate with who a God like him must be. If there is a singular God who is the fount of all being, and omnipresent to the creation, then he must be hidden in it - or, he is very close to being it. And that would be idolatry, or paganism. 

The secret and invisible aspect of God's deity is found through the Scriptures. At Sinai, God appears concealed in smoke and fire. The temple itself was a grand act of visible concealment, a gesture of invisible presence. God is in heaven - a place that our human eyes of flesh cannot see, except by being given a vision. 

Sonderegger's reading of those passages which turn our gaze to the heavens as the place where God dwells - in Isaiah, for example - is that by these we are not to understand God as being absent on earth and present only in heaven, but rather that in heaven his invisible presence with his creatures is made visible. 

Not as a critical reviewer, but as a worshipping Christian, I found these observations enriching. God's hiddenness does not equate either to his absence nor his unknowability. He is present, everywhere: as we read in Jeremiah:
Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. (Jer 23:23-24)

Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness of God

I've been slowly working my way through Katherine Sonderegger's Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Doctrine of God.  Released this year, it is the sort of book that pastor-theologians or theological students could make the focus of a reading group. It is beautifully written, fresh, biblical in method, and extremely stimulating. It is above all genuinely theological, and not as concerned with the political as much contemporary theological writing is. You can see some other comments I've made on Sonderegger here. This post represents the first of what might be called 'reading notes' on Sonderegger's text. 

'The Perfect Oneness of God' is the place that Sonderegger chooses to begin her doctrine of God. This is for a biblical reasons, she argues: the Shema is such a foundational truth for all of Scripture that it cannot be gainsaid. She notes that the New Testament is likewise insistent on the oneness of God as 'axiomatic', citing James 2:19: 'You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe - and shudder!'. For Jesus, the oneness of God is the theological principle from which he argues with the lawyer about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-30). 

So God is One. But what does that mean? Does it mean that God is to be worshipped alone among other gods? Or that in fact that there are no other gods? At this juncture, Sonderegger begins to address one of the concerns underlying her work: that the critique of a kind of theological conceptuality as being 'Greek metaphysics' in the name of a more 'biblical' or 'Hebraic' type of thinking has been a massive mistake in late twentieth century theology. For Robert Jenson, writing in the tradition of Karl Barth, the divine oneness needs to sweep away all thought of the 'one' of Greek metaphysics and instead consider the particular and distinctive contribution of the narrative of Holy Scripture, with its dramatic presentation of the threefold God. 

Sonderegger is not an anti-trinitarian! But she questions the almost universal trend to take the doctrine of the Trinity as the starting point for the doctrine of God. This was Aquinas's starting point, and that of many Reformed theologians, although not Peter Lombard's. Lombard began with the Three; Aquinas insisted on beginning with the One. 

So, what is Sonderegger's argument for beginning with the Oneness and not the Threeness? The Oneness of God is, she says, one of those principles so foundational that all other theological statements rest upon it. There are philosophical and traditional warrants for starting here, but most importantly: 'Divine Oneness is recommended principally by Holy Scripture itself' (p. 9). Sonderegger then argues that the principle form of the Old Testament is not narrative, but Torah. And the subject matter of Torah is the One God. In particular, we see the profound influence of the book of Deuteronomy in the gospels and in Paul. As Sonderegger says:
Indeed so central is Torah, and especially its representation in Deuteronomy to the authors of the New Testament, that we risk simply repeating these Gospels and Epistles when we set out the citations (p. 12). 
The law is framed in narrative, but it is after all not the narrative that Psalm 119 celebrates, but the 'precepts' 'commandments' 'laws' and 'statutes'. 

What this allows us to do is to go beyond God as an actor in a drama, as per Barth and Jenson, and to talk about metaphysics. The Oneness of God says something about his being. Even though Scripture is not a philosophical treatise, and it is certainly not a Greek philosophical treatise; but that is saying something about genre, not subject matter. This is an important principle to distinguish for a properly theological hermeneutics. The form of Holy Scripture is certainly not to be separated from its subject matter, but it surely can be distinguished from it, and definitely not reduced to it. 

In particular, the narratives and other literature of the Old Testament distinguish the One True God from the other gods by the fact of his invisibility. 'The nature of the One God is to have no image, form, or likeness' (p. 21). That is the opening principle for Israel's invitation to worship the One God. That is the tragic story of apostasy, as the chase after idols. The Oneness of God, and his Invisibility, are in opposition to the gods and idols of the nations that surround Israel. 

There are questions to ponder here. Is Sonderegger right in putting Torah in the central form of her reading of the Old Testament? Certainly, this move allows her to reintroduce the traditional metaphysical conceptuality of theology. The limp theism of a previous generation is now being seriously challenged (how did anyone ever think that Open Theism was a good idea?) But the warning, that a thicker version of metaphysics might do damage to the proper reading of Scripture, should be heeded, too. 

Michael P Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of Martyrdom and Identity: the Self on Trial and Sydney Anglicanism: An Apology