Katherine Sonderegger

September 4, 2016

Sonderegger, Katherine - Fortress Press

“We do not enter into a different domain when we move from the glorious unicity and uniqueness of God to His life as Trinity. We remain within the supercelestial and majestic reality of the true and living God.”

— Katherine Sonderegger

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I am finally reading Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology. It has taken long enough, I know, especially considering all the buzz surrounding this volume and the fact that this website is dedicated to promoting dogmatics. In my defense, I have been studying Henri Bouillard and doing quite a bit of research on the analogia entis in Catholic-Protestant dialog. This includes reading Erich Przywara’s massive and dense Analogia Entis, which is not for the faint of heart.

Professor Sonderegger’s projected three-volume systematic theology is poised to be one of the most significant dogmatic projects in this century. The significance may be found, in part, in how it signals a new shift in contemporary dogmatics. She is fully aware of this.

In the course of presenting her doctrine of God, Sonderegger is frequently engaged with modern theology by way of distinguishing her own commitments. Modern theology — namely, 19th and 20th century theology — is characterized by a turn toward the human, which is to say, toward epistemology and history. Herein, we are familiar with categories such as “act,” “event,” “encounter,” “narrative,” “story,” and other dynamic terms that focus on the economic side of God’s life, i.e., his life with man. This is in contrast to the premodern categories derived from an eternal and perfect order of being — the metaphysical and speculative.

She is not satisfied with modern theology. For whatever gains, there were tremendous losses. For this first volume in her systematics, she is focused on recovering the oneness of God, indeed as a starting point. But she grounds and articulates this “unicity” of God by way of exegesis, especially Old Testament exegesis. Thus, even divine revelation is the provenance of the metaphysical and speculative, not just act and narrative. Also, she is not interested, as far as I can see, in apologetics, which has been so often associated with classical metaphysics. For these reasons, it is not easy to categorize Sonderegger vis-à-vis “modern” theology. She is a mixture of the classical and the modern.

I highly recommend that you watch her lecture on the Trinity at Biola University, delivered earlier this year:

For those of us who have studied John Webster, you will be immediately struck at how Sonderegger’s and Webster’s projects aligned. Webster had long been moving in the exact same direction as Sonderegger, namely the recovery of God’s perfection — a perfection understood in metaphysical terms (with “aseity” first and foremost). Even her exalted prose is very close to that of Webster. So, it is surprising that she does not utilize Webster’s work in her Systematic Theology, at least not in this first volume. Nonetheless, I assume that Webster was extremely heartened by this work and satisfied with its contribution to theology.

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Here are some excerpts that I have transcribed from the above lecture. The minute marks are in parenthesis:

We do not enter into a different domain when we move from the glorious unicity and uniqueness of God to His life as Trinity. We remain within the supercelestial and majestic reality of the true and living God. Every element that we bring to the knowledge of the one God — our seeking Him because He first sought us, our turning to Him in penury and need, our beseeching His presence in our intellect and on our tongues, His utter humility and goodness, His unbroken serenity and freedom, His glorious riding on the wings of the wind — all of this we bring into our investigation of the Triune mystery. (11′-12′)

She uses Moltmann as her sparing partner.

Moltmann holds not only the Trinity is the proper and Christian doctrine of God but also that such a doctrine cannot in our era be speculative — that shame word of Protestant dogmatics. We might associate this move with the great name of Karl Barth, but I must say that I read the Swiss master otherwise. But in Moltmann, perhaps in a radical reading of Barth or the Reformed tradition, this anti-speculative move breaks out as a fever. He insists that we are to focus on the economy…. Moltmann makes a strong moral claim: a theology after Aushwitz cannot afford to speculate on a God remote from the tormented world of victim and persecutor. (16′-17′)

If you want a good example of how she reads Karl Barth, I recommend her essay, “Barth and the Divine Perfections” (SJT, Nov 2014).

This modern preoccupation with the doctrine of revelation, a legacy I fear more of the early modern turn to epistemology and humanistic fields than to unstinting devotion to the biblical witness — this has led us, I say, into a comfortable confusion about just what biblical revelation entails. …The [modern] doctrine of revelation temps us to imagine, that is, that the God of the economy is known and the God of the immanent Trinity is hidden, unknown, utterly transcendent. (20′-21′)

We cannot hope to obey the most ancient of injunctions about proper knowledge of God should our quest begin in violation of the divine unicity — even conceptually. That is why a starting point in the economic Trinity can only be a dead end. (33′)

That should give you an adequate taste of the lecture. The next day, she delivered another lecture at Biola: “The Theological Task and Human Well-Being.” This is more personal and autobiographical, with lots of wisdom.

At the publisher’s website, you can read or download the preface and first chapter of her Systematic Theology. Brad East has a well-written review over at Marginalia.

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As most of my readers are aware, John Webster passed away yesterday. He was 60 years old. There are already some very fine pieces written in remembrance of this extraordinary theologian. Steve Holmes, Fred Sanders, Travis McMaken, Mark Thomson, and many others have offered their reflections, which also serve as nice little introductions to Webster’s theology.

Webster held the Chair of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen (pictured above) when I was there in the M.Th. program. For the past few years, he has been at St. Andrews. I do not have much to add to what has already been written, but I am fortunate to have sat under the teaching of Professor Webster. His course on “Principles of Systematic Theology” was inspiring and overwhelming, especially for someone still wet behind the ears in academic theology as I was. Webster was always incredibly kind and gracious. I wrote a paper for him on P. T. Forsyth, and he had some encouraging things to say.

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Just as Barth did for his generation, Webster reminded us of theology’s peculiar joy and beauty. The expression that will be forever associated with Webster is “theological theology,” as Mark Thomson has written about in his remembrance. Theology as a rigorous discipline has an integrity of its own, so far as it is faithful to its object: God. As I have often recommended to others, there are two books from Webster which should be required reading for all students of theology: Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. The former is the single best introduction to Webster’s whole approach to theology, and the latter is probably his most influential book, at least among his many students.

Back in December of 2008, I wrote a post called, “The Ontology of Grace.” Therein, I offer some brief reflections in comparing Webster and Balthasar. It is remarkable how much my interests and questions have remained. I also recommend watching his 2009 Hayward Lectures, which are still available!

We can thank the Lord for giving the Church the gift of John Webster, a faithful servant in his kingdom. May God bless his soul.

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

Sainte Chapelle, Paris

I did this for 2013 and 2014. Here is 2015’s entry.

There is some quality below, in my most humble opinion. I am actually surprised myself. Thanks to outside circumstances, the blogging has been haphazard, which has the potential to yield some interesting results. Looking back, I am satisfied. We had some good discussions on Protestant ecclesiology, Roman Catholicism, various aspects of modern dogmatic theology, and I took a trip to France and Catalonia with my brother! The above picture of Sainte Chapelle is mine.

Thank you for reading, commenting, and emailing. I always enjoy it when a reader sends me an email. You can do so at kevindavis.nc@gmail.com.

Here is a list of this year’s content, organized into a few categories.

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Karl Barth

Barth on Revelation and History

Niebuhr against Barth

Review: Paul Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit

I’ll take a beer in Valhalla

Barth and Heaven

Not Karl Barth

Protestantism’s “mariological turn” in Schleiermacher

Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 1

Bonhoeffer on “Non-Religious Interpretation,” part 2

Richard Hanson’s criticisms of Honest to God

Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 1

Jonathan Edwards and Knowledge of God, part 2

Laura Smit on Gendered God Language

A day in the life of a Union Seminary student in the early 1950’s

Dorner against Kenotic Christology, in a nutshell

Is the Psalmist a Protestant? (G. C. Berkouwer)

Did Christ have a fallen human nature?

Gerhard von Rad

Calvinism and Salvation Outside the Church

Systematic Theology Guides

A Guide to Reformed Systematic Theology Texts

A Guide to Non-Reformed Systematic Theology Texts

Protestantism

The Protestant desacralization of the West

The Unintended Reformation

What Baptists do right

In Praise of Evangelical Ecclesiology

The Future of the Church

The Evangelical Aesthetic

Roman Catholicism

Karl Rahner’s Marian “Minimalism”

The church of tomorrow

The Other Francis

A Guide to Catholic Religious Orders

Fr. Robert Barron on “The Mystical Union of Christ and the Church”

The Logic of Mariology

European Vacation

I’m off to Paris and Barcelona

Chartres Cathedral

Our Lady of Reims and Paris

La Sagrada Familia

Misc.

The case for wine, not grape juice, in the Eucharist

Buechner and Hunsinger on Wine

Mini Review: A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism

A Guide to Study Bibles

Slavoj Zizek – Calvinism is Christianity at its Purest

The Revolution Devours All

Why everyone should study Simone Weil

The Empire of Desire

The 1974 Southern 500

New Studies in Dogmatics (Zondervan Academic)

Music

The Latest in Alt-Country

Mo Pitney

Ashley Monroe and the Art of Country Vocals

Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me

Are You Washed in the Blood?

This is the best song of the 90’s, just so you know

Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival

Chivalry is Dead

Probably the Best Thing You’ll Ever Watch

I’m a Riser

Amarillo by Morning

Chris Stapleton’s CMA Sweep

Johnny Cash and the Gospel

The Best Music Videos of 2015

Molnar_Faith-Freedom

Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.

I’ve had my review copy of Molnar’s latest book, graciously sent by IVP Academic, for most of the summer. Planning a vacation and other matters got in the way, but I finally finished. It is a dense, technical work of over 400 pages, entirely pertaining to a high-level, intramural debate within systematic theology today, namely among students of Karl Barth’s theology. In other words, this is not for beginners or for those generally curious about Barth and Torrance. It is an important debate, however, to which every student must give attention — with ramifications that extend beyond the fluid borders of Barth scholarship.

The dispute, as I know that many of my readers are familiar, is over Bruce McCormack’s interpretation of Barth’s theology. For McCormack, the key to Barth’s doctrine of God is how — in McCormack’s reading — the divine election precedes ontology, the ontology for both God and man. God’s being is determined in the act of electing man in Jesus Christ. As a primordial act, this should not be understood as a temporal sequence (election and then ontology) but as a singular act where “being” and “act” are bound-up with one another. There is no other God than this God who elects himself to be this God. Here are a few quotes, among many others, that Molnar cites from McCormack:

The act in which God determines himself essentially is election. If then this act is primordial, then election is primordial. There is no triunity in God apart from election, for the two occur in one and the same event. (Trinitarian Theology After Karl Barth, eds. Habets and Tolliday, 114; Molnar, 190)

There is no longer any room left here for an abstract doctrine of the Trinity. There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace. (Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology, ed. Michael Dempsey, 128; Molnar, 192-193)

God’s being is grounded in an Urentscheidung (i.e., a ‘primordial decision’) in which he gives to himself his own being as God. (Mapping Modern Theology, eds. Kapic and McCormack, 14; Molnar, 194)

God has elected to be God in the covenant of grace and to be God in no other way. This is not a decision for mere role-play; it is a decision with ontological significance. It is a free act in which God assigned to himself the being God would have for all eternity. (Orthodox and Modern, 216; Molnar, 290)

…God gives both to himself and to humanity his and their essential being and does so with respect to one and the same figure, Jesus of Nazareth. (Orthodox and Modern, 228; Molnar, 311).

“There is a triune being of God — only in the covenant of grace.” “There is no triunity in God apart from election.” These and similar expressions are the focus of contention. If it is true that God is only triune — that is, who God is in his very being — in the covenant of grace, then the covenant of grace is necessary for who God is, which is to say, necessary for God. McCormack sees this as Barth’s most significant contribution to theology and is the basis upon which theology today should move forward. For McCormack, this is the consistent and thoroughgoing application of Barth’s rejection of natural theology and classical metaphysics, and Barth only fully discovered the decisive move (election determines ontology) in his volume on election (CD II.2) and illustrated in the doctrine of reconciliation (IV.1), as with Barth’s treatment of the logos asarkos, most famously, even though McCormack does not see Barth as always consistently applying this revolutionary insight.

Molnar disputes all of this. There is no change in Barth’s doctrine of God in II.2. Rather, Barth’s pointed insistence in II.1 resonates throughout the subsequent volumes:

God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. (CD II.1, 260; Molnar, 308; also cited by Alan Torrance, The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster, 90, n.28)

God is not bound to his works. He is God without his works. And later in his dogmatics, Barth writes of God becoming man, “God did not owe it to man. He did not owe it even to the man Jesus. He did not owe it either in His eternal counsel or in its execution. He did not owe it even to himself to an inner dialectic of His Godhead” (IV.2, 41; Molnar, 306). “Its occurrence cannot, therefore, be perceived or understood or deduced from any ontology which embraces Himself and the world, Himself and man, or from any higher standpoint whatever [than his ‘gracious good-pleasure’]” (Ibid.). This is one example of where Molnar attends to Barth in disputation with McCormack. It is beyond the scope of a blog review to lay-out all the merits and demerits of McCormack’s work on Barth. Suffice it to say that I found Molnar to be persuasive on these critical matters.

The debate over Barth’s “actualistic ontology,” as some like to say, does not begin until the third chapter, and Molnar covers a great deal more than my quotations above would indicate. The first chapter covers the pneumatological basis of Barth’s epistemology. In this chapter, Molnar uses Karl Rahner extensively by way of contrast with Barth. Rahner, unlike Barth, “attempts to validate knowledge of faith from the experience of self-transcendence” (22). However, “Any attempt to know God that seeks some form of direct knowledge of God (a knowledge without the mediation of his incarnate Word), in Barth’s view, always would mean the inability to distinguish God from us; and that would mean our inability to speak objectively and truly about God at all” (23). Rather boldly, Rahner claims that “the hope that a person’s history of freedom will be conclusive in nature…already includes what we mean by the hope of ‘resurrection'” (Theological Investigations 17:16; Molnar, 54) and “knowledge of man’s resurrection given with his transcendentally necessary hope is a statement of philosophical anthropology even before any real revelation in the Word” (TI 9:41; Molnar, 55-56). As a result, man is innately disposed toward God, in Rahner’s theology, not opposed to God, as we find in Barth. Molnar then shifts to a consideration of Tillich and Bultmann’s non-conceptual knowledge of God, which bears similarities to Rahner.

In the second chapter, Molnar continues discussing how the Holy Spirit yields knowledge of God. Now, John Courtney Murray and Wolfhart Pannenberg are his interlocutors, making contrasts with Barth and Torrance. The remainder of the book, chapters three to eight, pertains directly to the debate with McCormack. The third chapter notably includes some interesting discussion of other theologians who have appropriated aspects of McCormack’s theology: Benjamin Myers, Kevin Hector, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafydd Jones.

The seventh chapter is significant because it marks the one area of disagreement with Barth’s trinitarian theology. Favoring T. F. Torrance’s account, Molnar criticizes Barth for subordinating the Son to the Father in the immanent Trinity. For Barth, this is the basis for the subordination of the Son (for our salvation) in the economic Trinity. This chapter was previously published last year in the Scottish Journal of Theology, which is where I first read it. I am still undecided on precisely where I land in this debate about subordination in the Trinity, and you can read my previous posts on this topic here and here. I will need to postpone this particular discussion until another day.

In the final chapter, Molnar ties together the epistemological considerations in the first two chapters with the metaphysical considerations in the subsequent chapters. All together, this chapter serves as a nice summary presentation of Barth and Torrance’s theological program. It also serves as a nice testimony to the theological vision that inspires Professor Molnar.

This is an excellent book. I recommend it highly. This review is, obviously, not sufficient to demonstrate the depth of analysis involved. Let me quote from Ian Torrance’s blurb on the back cover: “The best studies of Karl Barth have moved well beyond mere exegesis of his text and now probe the fundamental assumptions on which exegetical perspectives have been based.” And D. Stephen Long, author of my favorite Barth book from last year, writes, “Few Protestant, let alone Catholic, interpreters of Karl Barth read him with as much skill and conviction as does Paul Molnar.”

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Disclosure: I received this book from IVP Academic for purposes of review without any obligation to endorse the product.

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

St. Mary Major Basilica, Rome

Systematic theology is the stock-in-trade of the Reformed tradition. But, believe it or not, other Christians have done it too, often with impressive results. Last week, I provided a guide to the Reformed dogmatic works that I admire the most. Now I will do the same for some other traditions. I will limit myself to theologians from the last two centuries.

As you will see, I am biased toward Roman Catholic theology. In fact, I find myself recommending Catholic theologians far more often than I do Protestant theologians, especially when I am discoursing with fellow Protestants.

Baptist

The Christian Religion In Its Doctrinal Expression, E. Y. (Edgar Young) Mullins. Originally published in 1917, this is the masterpiece of the great Southern Baptist leader. Mullins was the president of the Baptist World Alliance, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He led the campaign that revitalized the SBC and gave it a renewed missionary zeal, both domestic and foreign. This resulted in the explosive growth of the SBC in the 20th century. As if those accomplishments were not enough, he was also an impressive theologian. He anticipates the work of Emil Brunner in significant ways, though Mullins was more conservative. However, he has recently been criticized, by some SBC leaders, as being too influenced by German theology. Judge for yourself. I admire him. As an alternative to Amazon, you can purchase from the publisher or read online.

Note: Mullins is sometimes classified as a Reformed theologian, and there is a good case for doing so — especially if we include moderate Calvinism and neo-orthodox expressions.

Lutheran

The Evangelical Faith, Helmut Thielicke. I have not read as much Thielicke as I would like. But whenever I have dipped into The Evangelical Faith or his sermons, I have been impressed and edified. But thanks to the behemoth dominance of Barth over the century, Thielicke is not resourced today as much as he should. Hopefully, that will be corrected. His instincts are orthodox and moderate conservative, and with all of the intellectual integrity you expect from a German theologian. In contrast to Barth, Thielicke gave space to a chastened natural anthropology.

A System of Christian Doctrine, Isaak A. Dorner. Dorner’s influence was eclipsed by Albrecht Ritschl and the Ritschlians in the late 19th century. This is a shame, because Dorner is the superior dogmatician. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when the (often exasperating) technical skill of advanced German theology is too much for the average student of theology today. The mainline Protestant churches have largely abandoned systematic theology, unless it can serve their social constructivist ends. Evangelicals will find Dorner either too difficult or too suspicious, especially as a German with some Schleiermacher influence. As a result of all of this, I do not see a Dorner renaissance anytime soon, but he surely deserves it.

Systematic Theology, Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg died last year. As Fred Sanders wrote for CT, he left “a strange legacy.” At Aberdeen, I read most of volume two. Since then, I have not returned to his works, though I probably should — especially now that I am very critical of Barth’s early dialectical approach to history. It is this criticism upon which Pannenberg launched his distinguished career. For many in my neck of the woods (theologically-speaking), Pannenberg is criticized for being too Hegelian and too process oriented — more so for Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, which is often compared to Pannenberg’s.

Roman Catholic

The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Epilogue, Hans Urs von Balthasar. This is the sixteen-volume summa of Hans Urs von Balthasar, the most important Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. It is hard to describe what Bathasar is doing here. It is not a traditional dogmatics — so it is not, like Barth’s CD, organized by the standard loci. Rather, Balthasar’s “trilogy” is organized by the three “transcendentals,” often associated with Plato: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Significantly, this was also the organizing method for Kant’s “trilogy,” except that Balthasar intentionally reversed Kant’s order, which began with Truth. Moreover, Balthasar gave greater weight, at least in terms of size, to Beauty, then Goodness, and then least of all, Truth or Logic. Balthasar’s “trilogy” is a combination of philosophy, dogmatics, exegesis, literary criticism, and much else — basically everything that is “catholic” (=universal). Balthasar is the Catholic par excellence.

Symbolism, Johann Adam Möhler. This is a Catholic rebuttal of Protestantism, focusing on soteriology but much more extensive (as any good systematic work is). Möhler is one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the 19th century, ranked alongside Newman, though Möhler is more of the technical, systematic theologian. Both had a very strong influence on the Nouvelle Théologie of the 20th century. Möhler taught at Tübingen and Munich. I read Symbolism about 10 years ago, though I was not capable then of fully grasping it. I need to revisit it, as with many books I have read.

An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman. Without this book or something much like it, Vatican II is inconceivable. In terms of influence, Newman was the most important Catholic theologian since St. Thomas Aquinas. As a man of the 19th century, Newman knew that doctrine did not “fall from the sky,” so to speak. Rather, it “came to be” through historical processes. Far from being an assault upon Catholic doctrine, Newman made this the greatest explanatory apologetic of Catholic theological development. Every “living” thing must adapt or develop according to its essential governing principles or life-source. As a result, Rome’s perceived novelties and orthodox intransigence are harmonized and given a coherence for the faithful Catholic — to this day.

Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner. Rahner remains an elusive figure for me. As a good Barthian (and Balthasarian), I obviously cannot agree with his doctrine of the knowledge of God — as transcendental openness to being. This is an attractive option, especially in the face of religious pluralism today, but it is theologically problematic, to say the least. However, Rahner is also a rather (it seems to me) orthodox Roman Catholic, who often defers to the tradition and uses his full intellectual heft to give it a rational explication. This is true, for example, for the recent Marian dogmas. And, as far as I know, Rahner never went as far as Hans Küng in rejecting the dogmatic authority of the Petrine office. Foundations of Christian Faith is the closest thing to a summary of Rahner’s theology, but most of his work was published in the massive multi-volume series, Theological Investigations.

The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy and The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, Etienne Gilson. These are just two of Gilson’s many works. Technically, Gilson was a historical theologian, not a dogmatic theologian, but the importance of his work for dogmatic theology is too significant to not include here. Gilson advocated for the legitimacy of a uniquely “Christian philosophy,” especially as it emerged in the medieval period. As a result, Aquinas should not be casually dismissed or lumped with the Enlightenment philosophers and theologians, who worked with different presuppositions. I am not expert enough in Gilson (or Thomas) to know whether this holds, but it cannot be ignored.

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What about other traditions? 

If you would like to advocate for a particular Methodist or Pentecostal theologian, be my guest — so long as it is a systematic theologian. As I look over at my bookshelves, I do not have a single Methodist or Pentecostal systematic theology.

The Anglicans do have systematic theologians, though they have typically been Reformed, at least broadly speaking — as with Richard Hooker under Queen Elizabeth and John Webster today.

Eastern Orthodoxy?! Yes, I am grossly ignorant of Orthodoxy’s contributions to contemporary ST, though I have been told that ST is a “Western” thing. Anyway, I have heard good things about Dumitru Staniloae’s multi-volume Orthodox Dogmatic Theology.

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Image: St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. Photograph is mine.

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.

Beginner

Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.

Intermediate

Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.

On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.

Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.

An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”

Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.

The Christian Doctrine of GodThe Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.

Advanced

The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.

Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.

Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.

Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.

Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.

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Notable Mentions

Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.

The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.

Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!

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Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Isaak August Dorner - Portrait Collection Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library

I have been reading a lot of Isaak Dorner lately. In my estimation, he is easily the greatest dogmatic theologian between Schleiermacher and Barth. Most interestingly for me, Dorner not only anticipates Barth but provides significant doctrinal formulations that Barth would borrow, especially for the doctrine of God in CD II.1. I have been reading Dorner’s third essay on divine immutability, and I frequently thought I was reading Barth.

Dorner reworks immutability in a way that is strikingly similar to Barth, in order to account for God’s “livingness,” both a se and in relation to the world. Claude Welch translates Lebendigkeit as “livingness” in the volume, God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology, but Robert R. Williams translates it as “vitality” in the Fortress Press edition, which otherwise follows Welch’s translation. I prefer “livingness,” even if it makes for awkward English.

Although his expertise is spread across the whole range of theological loci, Dorner specialized in the doctrine of Christ, through the release of the multi-volume, Entwicklungsgeschichte der Lehre von der Person Christi, published in English as The History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ. He would later write a multi-volume systematic theology. As is well-known, the nineteenth century was the century of Christ’s humanity, for good or ill. Theologians worked diligently to account for the humanity of Christ, in dialogue with the philosophical and historical interests of the day. One such theologian was Gottfried Thomasius, who used the κένωσις (self-emptying) of Jesus Christ as the basis for reconstructing how the divine and human relate in the person of Christ. Dorner opposed Thomasius. Since Dorner is very difficult to read, it is not easy to find a snippet for blogging purposes, but here is a nice summary by Dorner of his objection to Kenotic Christology:

The point must be this, that instead of God’s reducing himself to mere potence for the sake of the world and his being changed into it, it is rather the actual divine perfection itself and nothing less (and indeed as perennially and immovably affirming itself) which is to be apprehended as the potence for the world. The whole historical life of God in the world takes place, not at the expense of the eternal perfection of God himself, but precisely by virtue of this permanent perfection. Only so does his eternal freedom also remain in its place vis-à-vis the never absolutely closed natural order.

… How could it be supposed to be true and worthy of God that Christianity should have conquered the heathen religions and philosophies by a piece of the doctrine that is at home in the pantheistic schools and religions, by the doctrine of a God who is potential, growing and only gradually working up to self-consciousness or to spiritual actuality in general? If this were the foundation of the chief objective Christian truth, then heathenism, in the myths of the God who sacrifices himself on behalf of the world, would contain more prophecy of Christ than the Old Testament; to them especially the idea is not foreign, that God has thus given and sacrificed himself on behalf of the world. Against such ideas, the Old Testament sets with utter seriousness the inviolable majesty and holiness of God, which is not even violated in love.

[Isaak August Dorner, “The Dogmatic Concept of the Immutability of God,” in God and Incarnation in Mid-Nineteenth Century German Theology (Oxford University Press, 1965), 144-145]

There you have it, Dorner against Thomasius in a nutshell. Though Dorner is not addressing Thomasius here but, rather, Hegelian impulses more generally in theology. You can also see, in the second paragraph, how Dorner is rebuking proto process theologies, even though Dorner is sometimes reckoned as a forebear of process theology because of his “dynamic” account of God’s interaction with the world (through our prayers for example). Throughout his creative proposals for rethinking immutability, Dorner never falters in upholding the aseity and perfection of God. Thomists would not be satisfied, I am sure.

By the way, there is not a single, uniform account of Kenotic Christology. From what I’ve read, Thomasius moderates his position later in his career. And then we have later generations who would offer their own accounts, as in P. T. Forsyth’s The Person and Place of Christ (1909), which may or may not be as susceptible to Dorner’s criticism.

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Image: Isaak August Dorner – Portrait Collection of Berlin university teachers, Historical Collections of the University Library

Laura Smit - Presbyterian Fellowship

Laura Smit is a professor of theology at Calvin College and the author of Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love (Baker Academic). She is also a contributor to Conversations with the Confessions: Dialogue in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Joseph Small. In the latter volume, the quality of the essays are rather mixed, leaving me unimpressed on the whole. But I did appreciate Smit’s essay, “Who is God?,” even though it only skims the surface of several important discussions in systematics on the doctrine of God. The volume is targeting a broad audience of thoughtful layfolks and their pastors, not academics.

In particular, I liked her remarks in favor of using gendered (masculine) language for God. As every reader of this blog knows, I have no qualms about using masculine language for God, and I am especially disinclined to ever use “Godself.” In the mainline Protestant milieu, this is a battle hardly worth waging. We lost. In a typical mainline sermon, you can expect to hear some of the most tortured English for the sake of avoiding “him” or “himself.” I am not entirely insensitive to their reasoning. I have friends and classmates who disagree with me. I know all of their arguments, often passionately expressed. I still disagree. Laura Smit expresses some of my thoughts:

Gendered language for God clearly fits into the first category [analogical language]. God is beyond male and female, so when we use either male or female language for God, we are speaking analogically, using language that applies properly and originally to human experience and applying it to God. Some people argue that instead of using gendered language, we should avoid the use of either male or female language when speaking of God, simply repeating the word “God” in place of using pronouns such as “he” or “himself.” I once used such God-language for about a year, avoiding pronouns when speaking of God by always substituting the noun “God.” By the end of the year I noticed something rather disturbing: My idea of God had become impersonal. Since our human experience of personal interaction is always gendered, ungendered language suggests a lack of personal presence, and I had come to think of God as an impersonal force rather than a personal being. This is a significant problem, since being personal, like being loving, is a quality that belongs properly and originally to God and is applied to human beings only analogically. Language that makes us think of God as less personal than humans should be avoided, just as we should shun any language that makes us think of God as less loving than we are. Insofar as ungendered language is an effort to speak more literally (or univocally) about God without using analogical language, it is doomed to failure, since human language is simply not up to the task. But we should note that ungendered language also fails to function analogically, since we have no analogous experience of relating to an ungendered person that might illuminate such language when applied to God.

So, why not just use both masculine and feminine?

I had to use either male or female language, or some combination of the two. Thus, I spent another year of my life using male language for the Father and the Son, while using female language for the Holy Spirit. As my understanding of the unity of God deepened, however, I came to realize that such language suggests that the three persons have different natures. In fact, it leads toward tritheism, as if the Trinity is made up of three separate gods rather than three persons who share in one nature.

[Laura Smit, “Who is God?,” Conversations with the Confessions, pp. 96-96.]

There is still the option of alternating between masculine and feminine when referring to God, though not when referring to the persons. I still disagree with that option, though a rebuttal would require a more thorough treatment than Smit offers.

If you would like to delve deeper, I recommend Donald Bloesch’s The Battle for the Trinity: The Debate Over Inclusive God-Language. In the edition that I own, Elizabeth Achtemeier wrote a hardnosed preface, expressing her intense displeasure at feminist arguments for revising the church’s language of God. Bloesch also wrote Is the Bible Sexist?, which I have not read. Bloesch is best known for his multi-volume systematic theology and his two-volume Essentials of Evangelical Theology, which you can (and should) purchase used at little cost.

 

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Image: Laura Smit at the Presbyterian Fellowship Conference on Theology, San Diego, January 2015.

Honest to God Debate

Now that I have dealt with Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, I am curious to explore the Death of God movement that appealed to Bonhoeffer for support. At the seminary library, I stumbled across The Honest to God Debate, a very interesting volume featuring Richard Hanson, among several other notable contributors.

R. P. C. Hanson (1916-1988) was one of the English-speaking world’s most accomplished patristics scholars, beginning with his first major academic post as Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in the early 60’s. His later roles included professorships at Nottingham and Manchester, plus stints as a bishop in the Church of Ireland and an assistant bishop in the Church of England. His many publications include monographs on Origen and, most importantly, his magisterial tome, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (T&T Clark, 1988), first published in the year of his death. It was republished by Baker Academic in 2006 and remains unsurpassed in technical detail and discussion of emerging Nicene orthodoxy. He also contributed to Sources Chrétiennes.

During his time at Durham, Richard Hanson contributed to The Honest to God Debate, a collection of short reviews and articles in response to John A. T. Robinson’s infamous 1963 volume. The firestorm of controversy and debate is indicated by the fact that SCM Press was able to publish this response volume in the same year! Among the several short reviews are those written by C. S. Lewis, E. L. Mascall, Rudolf Bultmann, and Herbert McCabe, and then there are a few articles, featuring John Macquarrie, Daniel Jenkins, Alisdair MacIntyre, and John Robinson himself. There are even several letters from readers. It’s a fascinating volume, that I’ve only had a chance to skim through, reading bits and pieces. It is still in print by SCM Press, but I would buy it used.

Hanson’s review of Honest to God is especially good. Hanson notes that Robinson’s book is “full of warm piety and strong faith,” on account of his belief in a personal God. Yet, Hanson is wary about how Robinson is also “deeply influenced by Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Bultmann and by the current flight from metaphysics in philosophy.” Here is Hanson:

I suspect that at the critical point of his philosophical argument there lurks a confusion. This God is not ‘outside’ the world and is not a divine Being separate from it, yet he must be a Person, for how can love (which is his very essence) be anything but personal or experienced by persons? Dr Robinson never faces this dilemma. Again, a transcendence which is not ‘outside’ or ‘above’ our world, but part of it, without being pantheistic, sounds philosophically ersatz. The terms in which both Jewish and Christian thought as reflected in the Bible stated God’s transcendence were not those of metaphysical abstraction nor separation but of sovereignty, control. Dr Robinson never recognizes this. His brief Christological sketch (pp. 70-75) is a fine piece of work which will command the assent of many scholars. But he never faces the fact that what gives the self-emptying and self-abandonment of Christ its burning power and irresistible attraction is that this act is the act of the sovereign God of the Old Testament who is in command of the world which he is redeeming. We cannot apprehend the depth of the divine love displayed in the self-emptying until we apprehend the mightiness of the God who empties himself. Or is this mightiness merely ‘primitive philosophically’ (p. 33), and part of an obsolete myth, a ‘superworld of divine objects’? Again, our Lord did not claim to reveal to us the love of the ‘transcendental, the unconditional in all our experience’ (p. 131), but of our heavenly Father. There is something slightly ludicrous in the Bishop’s attempt to reduce God to ‘the ground of existence’ after the manner of Tillich, and then to insist that he is nothing but love. Dr Robinson will have to consider much more carefully what he means by ‘love’.

Hanson recognizes the incoherence in appealing to a transcendent “unconditional in all our experience,” which is also somehow personal and yet also somehow not “outside”! It’s bewildering indeed. Hanson then continues by discussing the influence of Bonhoeffer on Robinson:

The Bishop appears to be intoxicated with the thought of Bonhoeffer as a martyr, but we must also remember that the Arians in the fourth century appealed for support in their heresy to the words of the martyr Lucian of Antioch. Bonhoeffer’s theory, much admired by the Bishop of Woolwich, that man has now ‘come of age’ seems to me a silly and unprofitable one. How can we know whether the human race has come of age till we know for how long it is going to exist? Robinson appears to use this concept in order to maintain the autonomy of modern man, his non-dependence upon God. …

Finally, will the Bishop succeed in commending the Christian faith by his new ideas? He may commend it effectively to intellectuals. But will this new approach appeal to the housewife in the housing estate, the trade-unionist in the factory, the railwayman on the footplate? ….

[The Honest to God Debate, pp. 108-110]

I gather that Hanson is not a fan of the later Bonhoeffer.

CD-1.2

This is a rather technical theological discussion. You are forewarned.

In a post from last year, “Barth chastises the early Barth,” I briefly discuss an excerpt from Church Dogmatics II.1 where Barth criticizes the exegesis of Romans 8:24 in his Romans commentary. In this commentary, he claims that “Hope that is visible is not hope. Direct communication from God is not communication from God” (p. 314 in the English translation of the Römerbrief). Barth recognizes, in the CD, that this earlier account did not do justice to the biblical material and was too influenced by his reaction to liberal optimism on the convergence of God and creation in the here and now.

In a very similar vein, Barth discusses “God’s Time and Our Time” in the opening section of § 14 (“The Time of Revelation”) in CD I.2. According to Holy Scripture, God’s revelation “enters time.” The full sentence is important, because Barth is clearly thinking of inadequacies in his Romans commentary: “[Revelation] does not remain transcendent over time, it does not merely meet it at a point, but it enters time; nay, it assumes time; nay, it creates time for itself.” The claim about God’s transcendence, merely meeting creation “at a point,” recalls Barth’s image of a circle and a tangent, in the Römerbrief, as a description of God’s act in the world. Barth is not satisfied with this.

And so, it is not surprising that Barth immediately provides the following excursus:

I should like at this stage to utter an express warning against certain passages and contexts in my commentary on Romans, where play was made and even work occasionally done with the idea of a revelation permanently transcending time, merely bounding time and determining it from without. Then, in face of the prevailing historism and psychologism which had ceased to be aware at all of any revelation other than an inner mundane one within common time, the book had a definite, antiseptic task and significance. Readers of it to-day will not fail to appreciate that in it Jn 1:14 does not have justice done to it. [Church Dogmatics I.2, p. 50]

You can easily see the similarities between this passage and the one in II.1. Now, let’s turn to Richard Burnett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Erskine Theological Seminary and Visiting Professor of Theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte. In Barth’s second edition of the Romans commentary, he introduces the terms, “unhistorical” (das Unhistorische) and “primal history” (Urgeschichte), to describe God’s revelation. In his book, Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, Burnett discusses Barth’s usage of these terms in Romans II. Here is part of Burnett’s analysis:

Barth uses both of these terms throughout Rom II to make clear that revelation is neither a part nor a predicate of history, nor does it pass over into history, even in the event of revelation itself. For even in the Incarnation, when God entered into history, He was never a part of history, in the sense of being an ‘object’ of historical investigation. This never meant for Barth that God had not acted in human history, only that historians qua historians could not know this as an act of God apart from revelation. In this sense, revelation was and always remained for Barth “unhistorisch.” But that he had identified revelation itself in Rom II as“das Unhistorische” suggested to many that he did not believe that God had acted in history at all, that revelation could not encounter history in any way. Barth soon after recognized the danger he had risked in Rom II and later admitted that “readers of it today will not appreciate that in it Jn. 1:14 does not have justice done to it.” [Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, pp. 104-105]

In the footnote, Burnett provides the whole of the passage from CD I.2 that I provide above. Of course, questions still abound. There is the question of how the Incarnation, the earthly-historical life of Jesus, and the Resurrection are not objects of “historical investigation.” What does this mean? If it means, as Burnett interprets it, that God’s presence and acts in history are not known as “of God” apart from revelation itself, then I am happy with that. And this is how I interpret the mature Barth.

But if it means that God’s act or revelation in history is so “unhistorical” that the historical is untouched and unable to receive God’s Word, then that is a problem. Paradoxically enough, the historical as a closed contingent phenomena thereby takes precedence and limits (or conditions) theological claims. The miracle, in this scheme, is the “miracle” of faith. We are left with existential miracles, not historical miracles. That’s not a good thing.