Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness of God
October 24, 2015
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