Katherine Sonderegger and the Divine Oneness as Foundational Perfection
November 25, 2015
Last time, I proposed to share with you my 'reading notes' on Katherine Sonderegger's new Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God.
There are plenty of big books in the world to which one could commit cash and time. Why this one? Well, my answer to that is a bit of a hunch: I heard Prof Sonderegger present a paper at a conference and I was impressed by three things: her commitment to listening to the voice of Scripture, her elegant literary style (she really has an ear for English prose), and her determination to press theological ideas a very long way indeed.
I haven't been disappointed in picking up this stout volume of her work, though I have been daunted at times. That is not because Sonderegger parades her learning, or attempts to intimidate by being opaque. On the contrary: in reading this theology, one feels as if one is experiencing theology as it really should be done. And that is hard but rewarding work.
Having established her beginning point with the Oneness of God - a surprising challenge to the fashionable determination to start with the Three - Sonderegger subsequently turns to an examination of the Divine Oneness as the foundational perfection. That is a measure of how seriously she takes the divine unity - there is no gainsaying or surpassing it as a perfection of God. And that is, as she writes, something that 'beckons us into the mystery of God' - by which Sonderegger means it draws us into prayer, and to worship. Divine Oneness is 'contemplated on bended knee'. It is something that Israel heard when they encountered God at the foot of the mountain, and trembled.
What is it for 'Oneness' to be a 'foundational predicate' of God? It means that all the other things we might validly say about God are 'governed and determined' by Oneness. The corollary is naturally the strong prohibition throughout Scripture against idolatry. Not only does Scripture testify that God is supreme, and that he is not accompanied by a queen-god, but God does not look like anything. He is without likeness on the earth. He is not to be paired with any material, visible thing. But importantly, he is not a concept or an idea, either.
This is pushing the notion of this divine Oneness a long way, and rightly: "We do not approach God's Holy Oneness any more powerfully by examining our general concepts and ideals than we do by examining trees, and human faces, and sunsets. God is One, this very One: God is concrete, superabundantly particular." (p. 27)
How do we then know God? It is enough at this stage for Sonderegger to state that, as we do know him, we are confronted by mystery. This is the immortal, invisible, God only wise, ineffably sublime. And yet, he is known, as he declares himself, through the Scriptures, where we hear his voice.
In contemporary terms, we might say that God is free, and radically so. He is not constrained by comparison. He is not a member of a class, or a set. And, echoing Barth, Sondereggar notes that God's freedom has its impact in the world not to enslave but to free those who draw near to him. This is not then a meditation on a concept of God's freedom, but a reflection on what God's freedom actually achieves in the history of Israel, and in the history of Jesus Christ.
That is: God is free, not constrained by some human plaything, some statute or item. He is not for us to imagine into being through our comparison of him with mute beasts, or with great human beings. There is not to be found, nor thought, his likeness in the earth. Yet, this is not simply a dissolving of God's reality into a vast blackness of negativity, where we say only what God is not and not what he is. For Sonderegger, negating the form, image, or likeness of God is merely what creatures must do to affirm the reality of the Divine Oneness and Freedom.
I am not sure that I wish to carp at all with what Sondereggar has drawn out from this affirmation of the Divine Oneness as foundational predicate. Perhaps we could add some things that the Professor no doubt would also add: the Oneness means that all the other things we might say about God must be held together - he is not the Almighty God on Monday, and the Merciful God on Tuesday. Rather, might must modify mercy, and vice versa. The Oneness will also mean that the history of his actions is one single history, not a disconnected and arbitrary series of events. History itself, as creation too, emanates from the one source, and no other.
But to affirm the Divine Oneness is to recognize that the divine being is so deep, so without parallel, so uncompromised and untainted, so holy, that it is probably time to quit these inadequate meditations and simply fall to praise, confession, and thanksgiving.
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