Systematic Theology
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Systematic Theology

The Doctrine of God

Katherine Sonderegger

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Systematic Theology

The Doctrine of God

Katherine Sonderegger

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The mystery of Almighty God is most properly an explication of the oneness of God, tying the faith of the church to the bedrock of Israel's confession of the lord of the covenant, the lord of our Lord Jesus Christ. The doctrine of divine attributes, then, is set out as a reflection on Holy Scripture: the One God as omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient, and all these as expressions of the Love who is God. Systematic theology must make bold claims about its knowledge and service of this One lord: the Invisible God must be seen and known in the visible. In this way, God and God's relation to creation are distinguished—but not separated—from Christology, the doctrine of perfections from redemption. The lord God will be seen as compatible with creatures, and the divine perfections express formally distinct and unique relations to the world. This systematic theology, then, begins from the treatise De Deo Uno and develops the dogma of the Trinity as an expression of divine unicity, on which will depend creation, Christology, and ecclesiology. In the end, the transcendent beauty who is God can be known only in worship and praise.

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The Omnipotent One

§4. The Perfection of the One LORD’s Holy Humility: His Omnipotence

As the Invisible and Hidden One, the Lord God is humble. He is the Lowly One. He is the One Lord who takes on the form of a slave. And in all these acts He is most holy, the Holy One. Even as the One Lord is omnipresent, so is He omnipotent. The Mode of His power, His superabundant Omnipotence, is Holiness in Humility, a holy Lowliness. That the Pantocrator is the Lowly One is an astonishing gift, taught to us by sign in creation, by word and sign, in Holy Scripture. The Omnipotence of God overspreads the whole earth, holding it in being, yes, but even more, in goodness. The humble Power of God is an expression of His Benevolence, a holy Goodness that radiates out into the good earth. Omnipotence is a moral doctrine. We do not begin to grasp the first thing about Divine Power if do we not recognize it as a form of Goodness itself.
Yet we cannot deny that human history, borne and sustained by the Lowly One, is also frightful in its cruelty and indifference. No one who scans human history with an open eye can fail to recoil at the violence, the random and ceaseless bloodletting, the pathetic grandeur of rulers and their empires, tyrants all for a brief day, the seeming aimlessness and repetition and folly of each age and its glories. In his eloquent defense of his conversion, his Apologia pro Vita Sua, John Henry Newman captured the brutal secularity of the human world in solemn rhetorical periods:
If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of the great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this [inner] voice [of faith], speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world.
To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken, of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appal; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.[1]
Cardinal Newman could scarcely be bettered in his haunted eloquence. And he raises for us just the question that is distinctly ours in this modern age: the problem of evil and pain. We cannot turn our minds to the Reality of Divine Power without facing with pitiless clarity the problem of suffering, of sin and evil, in the world the Lord has made and saved. Following Barth, we will take up this anguished challenge to God’s Benevolence and Power fully and directly in the doctrines of creation and providence. But even in the doctrine of God we must not turn our faces away from Cardinal Newman’s wrenching analysis. Even as praise for the Holy One fills our mouths, we may well discover that the problem of rebellion and pain makes us moderns just as “dizzy and appalled” as was Cardinal Newman when he gazed out into this godless world. That this moral vertigo does not claim the last word in Christian reflections on sin and evil can rest only on the radical power of redemption, a salvation beyond all expectation and merit, enacted by the Lowly One who is also Lord of life.
In this place, we will ask, then, how the Divine Presence as the humble Holy One—the Mode of the One Lord in His cosmos—can reveal and teach and judge our doctrine of Divine Authority and Power. We will ask, How is the Power of this lowly Lord expressed and praised properly, in Holy Scripture and in the church? We will ask, How is humble Holiness the biblical expression of the traditional scholastic category of Divine Omnipotence? In the face of natural order and stability, but in the face of creaturely indifference, and rebellion, and need, what is the proper confession of Divine Omnipotence? How do we see it aright in the God who is unseen yet mighty Creator? As humble and victorious Redeemer? What is the dynamism and authority of the Humble One? Or to borrow from Barth once more: How is the Beyond, the other side expressed in the language of this side, this world, these creatures? We begin with the great question of Divine Power itself.

Section I. Divine Omnipotence A Se

§4a. The Question of Divine Power

The great question? Could Divine Power really be such? Yes, indeed! A measure of our age—its radicality and novelty—runs right along the straight edge of Divine Power. Alone among theological ages, we ask, Is God indeed powerful? Is He, in truth, Omnipotent? Holy Scripture does not hesitate to affirm God’s Power and Authority; the Psalms, the Prophets, the Epistles and Gospels ring out with testimony to the Lord’s all-sovereign Power, unbounded, unmatched. So too our patristic and medieval doctors take as self-evident Divine Omnipotence; indeed to refer to God in even the barest way is to point to the Pantocrator, the Almighty. Just this is the Lord God’s title at the head of the Nicene Creed, and countless anthems sing the praise of this All-Powerful One. But uniquely to our age, Divine Power has become a “question,” a worry, a problem, even an offense. Should we continue to affirm the traditional attribute of Omnipotence, even in this late day? To speak of Divine Power under the Mode of Holy Humility, as I have, might suggest the answer to these questions is no. No, God is not powerful, or powerful in traditional categories; no, not Omnipotent. Just so, to speak of Almighty God as the Publican of His own universe, as I have, the Lowly in the midst of the indifferent and rebellious, might suggest a doctrinal rejection of Omnipotence itself: a Lowly Lord who cannot and should not be almighty, in Himself, and over those whom He has made.
It could be, after all, that the Lord of Lowliness exhibits power in an entirely novel manner. The manner and Mode of His Power could lie in His weakness—the apostle Paul might be summoned as witness for such a view—or perhaps, less radically, in His empathy, His presence to and compassion with the suffering. These would be forms of power, to be sure: “cosuffering” expresses a readiness to enter into and assume the pain of others, and a strength to endure and to bear the sorrow, the helplessness, and anguish that suffering exacts. Just this, after all, the apostle Paul has called the ministry of Christ, to bear one another’s burdens. So we might be led to say that God is the great witness, the great martyr, in His cosmos, watching with infinite pain and sorrow the horrors we creatures visit upon each other. This could be His Holiness. Such is the burden of many devotional hymns and sermons: “There is no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt that up in heaven,” Frederick Faber wrote in the much-beloved hymn, “There’s a Wideness of God’s Mercy,” and in this he gives voice to the piety of many modern Christians. The conviction that God suffers, at times as the great Lover of souls, at times as the Meek One lost among the dispossessed, can cross many ecclesial lines and theological temperaments, from liberation theology to modern theologies of the cross. Indeed we might take theopassionism in some form—the doctrine of Divine Suffering —as modern dogma. Divine Passibility cannot captivate our whole attention here; it will wait its turn in the unfolding of the Divine Perfection of Love, and we will take up that great question in Christological form in the doctrine of atonement. But in this place we must still confront an element of this Divine Suffering: its conceptual nearness to Divine Omnipotence, especially as that Power is expressed in its Mode as Humility.
Must God renounce power in order to be good? We must dare to ask this question. Is that, in truth, what Humility entails? Is Holiness, or Absolute Power, only divine if it is tempered—or even overcome, superseded —by saving Goodness? Must Lowliness, in this sense, displace Power? The wisdom of this age makes us hesitate before these great questions, and impels us to explore them further, to grant them a hearing within the chambers of dogmatics, however strong the tradition may strive to quiet their voices and firm our resolve.
Modern Christians, after all, have shown a marked wariness about Divine Power. There are few instincts as widespread in contemporary theology as the suspicion that Divine Power or more, Omnipotence, is incompatible with Benevolence. Here we see the broad outworking of the Christological turn in theology, the revolution that springs, Eberhard Jüngel says, from the recognition that “for responsible Christian usage of the word ‘God,’ the Crucified One is virtually the real definition of what is meant with the word, God.” Christianity is thus fundamentally the “theology of the Crucified One.”[2] This is a “theology of the cross” rendered systematic in a way unimaginable to Luther, a riveted gaze at the cross of Christ that remakes the doctrine of God and most especially the Divine Attributes. Of course Karl Barth is the great exemplar of this tradition, and his Christological derivation of the Divine Perfections in Church Dogmatics II.1 is both exhilarating in its scope, its rigor and sheer dynamism, and deeply troubling in its daring embrace of the Crucified One into the very structure of the doctrine of God. We might, certainly, include Jürgen Moltmann among those for whom the via crucis is incised into the very structure of any proper doctrine of God. And indeed he expresses with sharp radicality the rejection of a “mere monotheistic” god who in glorious power remains aloof and immune to human desolation and forsakenness. But The Crucified God slices straight through the doctrine of the One God, turning neither to the right hand nor the left, leaving well behind the scholastic De Deo Uno and heading directly for the doctrine of Trinity: Moltmann’s passionate, suffering God is explicitly and exclusively Trinitarian in character. Indeed, God just is the “event” between the grieving and abandoning Father and the abandoned, suffering Son, from whom the Spirit of radical freedom and new life breaks forth. Such doctrinal revision can spare scant dogmatic attention on matters of Divine Attributes or Nature: the Persons and their anguished history are the only proper testimony and matter for the “shattered and broken, the survivors of [Moltmann’s] generation, returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. . . . A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified” Moltmann concludes, “would have had nothing to say to us then.”[3] The theology undertaken here, a doctrine of God stubbornly taking its bearings from the Divine Oneness, must simply quietly, but firmly, say no; no, to such radical cruciformity in the doctrine of God, such radical rejection of monotheism and its exposition of Divine Perfections. Once again we must quietly but firmly state that Christology cannot be the sole measure, ground, and matter of the doctrine of God; there is more, infinitely more to the One, Eternal God. So, we must reserve Moltmann’s radical passionism for its own designated place, the doctrine of Trinity and atonement. Things stand otherwise with Barth. Christocentric as he is, Barth nevertheless could countenance and develop a full exposition of Divine Perfections; and neither Barth nor Jüngel disavow Divine Power or even Omnipotence. But it is no great step to move from a suffering and crucified Lord to a vulnerable, powerless, or even desolate One.
Just this we see in those kenoticists in modern German and English theology who hold that the self-emptying of the Son in the season of His Incarnation orders His Divine Powers to His Benevolence, most especially to His saving Goodness. To be the saving Lord, the Son lays aside His Omnipotence—Thomasius’s “Relative Attribute”—and takes upon Himself the mantle of meekness: His Goodness is His vulnerability, His defenselessness before the imperium and the mob. Christ is self-sacrificial, and He shows His Deity in His wounded nobility before the cruel powers of this earth. Here is William Temple—a kind of “hyperkenoticist,” to coin an ugly term—in his Christus Veritas, a work that conveys the high moral coloring of kenotic theology in the interwar years in Europe:
The revelation of God’s dealing with human sin shows God enduring every depth of anguish for the sake of His children. What is portrayed under the figure of physical suffering and literal blood-shedding is only a part of the pain which sin inflicts on God. We see Him suffering the absolute frustration of His Will. We see Him in the abyss of despair, as perfect adherence to right seems to end in utter failure. We hear from the Cross the Cry which expresses nothing less than the agonised dread that God has failed Himself, has failed to be God. No further entry of the Supreme God into the tangle and bewilderment of finitude can be conceived. He does not leave this world to suffer while He remains at ease apart; all the suffering of the world is His. . . . Evil brought Christ to the Cross; by the Cross Christ abolishes evil.
This is possible, of course, because the failure of good was apparent only. If Christ had ever thought first of self; if He had inverted the prayer in Gethsemane, and asked that whatever the Father’s will might be the cup might pass from Him; if He had left the heights of perfect love and defended Himself by force, the force of twelve legions of angels or any other—then no Resurrection could have made the Cross into the defeat of the defeat of Love. The Cross and Resurrection are the perfect triumph of the perfect sacrifice of perfect love; and this is set before us as the Life of God.
No one dared to attribute self-sacrifice to Absolute Godhead, until Christ died upon the Cross. Yet it is just this that is needed to make sense of all experience, and to set forth God as veritably almighty, King not only of conduct but of hearts and wills. . . . Sacrifice expressing a love that is returned can be such joy as is not otherwise known to men. Sacrifice is, in our experience, the noblest of spiritual qualities and the highest of known joys; and sacrifice is, for Christians, the open secret of the heart of God.[4]
Note here that Temple does not deny Divine Power; indeed just here, in the doctrine of atonement, Temple says, the Almightiness of God is reconciled with and ordered to His perfect Goodness. But we might well ask, Just what is this Divine Power that is exhibited in perfect self-sacrifice?
It is a question worth lingering over. Like Barth or Jüngel, William Temple holds deep commitments to the traditional affirmation of Divine Omnipotence; and like them, too, he holds that this Attribute, perhaps even all others as well, must be exemplified and modified by the Incarnate Word and His Passion. Like Thomasius, again, Temple shows the firm commitment to Divine Omnipotence twinned with an equally firm conviction that Power in the Incarnate One must be both vulnerable and mortal. True to the kenotic instinct, Temple holds that the Son “limits himself” during the season of His earthly life. (And more about this in the doctrine of the Person of Christ.) I have called Temple a hyperkenoticist, however, because unlike Thomasius and his English descendants, Temple does not see the Hypostatic Union as demanding a renunciation of Divine Omnipotence during the life of the Incarnate Son; rather Temple takes the moral aim of the kenoticists, that Christ would be the Lowly One, sent to die, directly up into the Godhead. Divine Power now just is the self-sacrifice of Love, so there is no self-defensive ...

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APA 6 Citation
Sonderegger, K. (2015). Systematic Theology ([edition unavailable]). Fortress Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2015)
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Sonderegger, Katherine. (2015) 2015. Systematic Theology. [Edition unavailable]. Fortress Press.
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Sonderegger, K. (2015) Systematic Theology. [edition unavailable]. Fortress Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Sonderegger, Katherine. Systematic Theology. [edition unavailable]. Fortress Press, 2015. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.