Take and Read – Systematic Theology, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God

May 29, 2020 by Joe Small

Augustine heard the voice of a child saying, “Take and read, take and read.” He opened a Bible, began to read, and was set on the path of committed discipleship and faithful pastoral ministry as the Bishop of Hippo and a theologian for the ages. Let’s assume that pastors do not need to be encouraged to read the Bible. But what else can we read that will enhance our preaching, teaching, and pastoral care?  

Suggestion(s) for June reading:

It may be a fool’s errand to recommend a book that is unlikely to be read by more than a very few. To read Katherine Sonderegger’s large book requires real commitment (or, in my case I confess, “sheltering in place” and “social distancing”). Nevertheless, whether by commitment or necessity, working through this exploration of the doctrine of God is well worth both the time and effort involved.

Katherine Sonderegger, professor of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary, is a winsome contrarian — both generous and tough as nails. She begins her systematic theology project with a determination to ask what God is rather than the contemporary preference for asking who God is: “The Living God of Holy Scripture, modern dogmatics tells us, is personal or, better, a Person, the True Subject, and declares through His own sovereign self-disclosure who He is … Now, this book says otherwise.”  She does not dismiss the question of “who” but insists that the question of “what” — Substantial Presence, Power, and Knowledge itself — is prior. As a consequence, she begins with God’s unicity rather than the contemporary preference for Trinity as the starting point. (The Doctrine of Trinity will be Volume 2.)

Sonderegger’s approach has two implications that are crucially important for contemporary church life. First, we use the word “God” endlessly, assuming that everyone knows what is meant and that everyone has the same meaning in mind. Of course, this is not the case; people carry around wildly different understandings of what and who God is. Sonderegger opens Scripture to show us the God who is One, Omnipresent, Omnipotent, and Omniscient. But she unfolds these divine perfections in surprising ways: Omnipresence in hiddenness, Omnipotence in humility, Omniscience as Knowledge itself!

Sonderegger’s approach also has the great benefit of rescuing the Old Testament from its contemporary exile as a mere history of what an ancient people believed before Christ, or at best a record of promises that have now been fulfilled. Her careful reading of the Book of Numbers, as enduring insight into God’s omnipotence, is one example among many. Throughout the volume her approach to the whole of Scripture is one of awe-filled delight.

Sonderegger’s writing style is engaging. Its expression is one of conversation between author and reader that draws the two together in a shared search for the glorious. One caveat, however: she sometimes takes readers into the thicket of other theological views, both ancient and modern, with which she disagrees. Non-specialist readers will be excused if they skim rapidly over these pages.

So, if my word is insufficient to lure you into this book, George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary gets the last word; “Astonishing in scope and breadth, beautiful in language, profound in spiritual perception, this is a monumental work.”