God Is Not a Sacrifice: A Review of Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology: Volume 2

Katherine Sonderegger, The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons, vol. 2, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2020).

“Spectacle is the origin of the world”—that’s what Éric Vuillard claims in the opening line of The Sorrow of the Earth, his book about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and the tragedy that is show business.1 I read that line shortly after finishing the second volume of Katherine Sonderegger’s systematics, and my first thought was that her work makes a rival claim. For her, sacrifice, not spectacle, originates the world. Nevertheless, in Sonderegger’s theology, the God who is sacrifice and in whose name Israel’s and the church’s sacrifices are made, does reverberate as something spectacular. As she says, “even in the primal history, God commands center stage; in the midst of His creation, He the Triune One to Himself; He alone stands there” (66). God, for Sonderegger, is the purpose of existence, a hard, demanding purpose.   

God as the Joy and the Sorrow of the Earth

Sonderegger acknowledges from the start that hers is “an unfamiliar, perhaps odd book on the Holy Trinity” (xxix). As Fred Sanders notes, she wants to dissent from the classical Trinitarian tradition on two fronts. First, arguing against distinct processions in God—processions is a term theologians use to name the ways in which the one God is Trinity so that the distinction of the “persons” is preserved but separation is not implied—she prefers to speak of “the Processional Act” that is “principally and most specifically Spirit” (457). Second, she asserts that the triune processions (i.e., begetting and spirating) and persons (i.e., Father, Son, and Spirit) are fully knowable already in the Old Testament, specifically in Leviticus and its sacrificial system of the priestly tradition. Sanders summarizes her suggestions nicely:

Sonderegger argues that there is processional divine life manifest in fiery sacrifice, without any divine sending making it manifest. In fact, in an important sense that takes some time to sink in, the manifestation of the processional life of God in Israel’s sacrifice is even more primal than its terminus in trinitarian persons. In classic trinitarian theology, it is the mission of any trinitarian person that presupposes a procession; but Sonderegger’s argument turns on the insistence that the mission of a person of the Trinity is not the only way for a worshiper to come into the presence of the Trinity’s processional life.2

Although he dissents from her dissent, Sanders finds Sonderegger’s proposal a “stimulating prompt” for discussion. I, however, am not entirely sure what to make of it. If her first volume left me somewhat (happily!) confused, this second one, which has more than its own fair share of hard-to-follow passages, left me something more like troubled.3 It is not primarily what she says about God’s processionality that bothers me, or her insistence that God wants to command our attention, or even her claim that the quintessential human act, the “real work of the cosmos,” is the making of sacrifices (464). What bothers me most is her assertion that God’s life is inherently, eternally sacrificial. 

Israel’s Priestly Offerings and the Primal Origins of the World 

Sonderegger begins by affirming the holy unlikeness, the unfathomable otherness of the triune life, anticipating her conclusions in the book’s opening line: “The pilgrimage to the Mystery of the Holy Trinity begins in the temple” (1). After attending to what she calls “the intellectual legitimacy” (121) of trinitarian doctrine and “the trace of the Trinity” (201) in creaturely existence, she returns to that initial affirmation. In “Holy Scripture as Ground of Trinity,” the fourth of the book’s seven sections, she argues that the metaphysical reading of Scripture is the ground of dogma. As she sees it, everything depends on this assumption: Scripture is unique, and it is unique in such a way that we can “discover and learn of, learn from, and feed on, the Triune Being of God in the Old and New Testaments” (239). Thus, she feels that the modern notion that the Bible is not a philosophical text is a betrayal, a breaking of covenant: 

Holy Scripture, we might say, is a wholly redeemed creature—the only one, should we not include Mary, the God-bearer. . . .  The cosmos, we have said, bears traces of the Holy Trinity: the vestigia can be discerned wherever the real is sought. But the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are not bearers of vestigia only. No, they enjoy the sensus plenior, the fullness of the metaphysical Mystery, laid down in the patterns, sinews, verba, and events of this text. The Bible is the fully healed instance of a creature, put in service to the Living God. For this reason, it is inexhaustible ground of the dogma of Trinity. For this reason, it is Holy Ground. (268)

Finally, in section 5, “Leviticus and the Holiness School: Trinity as Holy,” she comes at last to the heart of the matter, anticipated, as I said, from the work’s opening line. And it is this section, which progresses through four subsections—“Levitical Sacrifice and Sin,” “Sacrifice as Triune Processions,” “The Unicity of the Divine Processions,” and “The Act of Sacrifice as Triune Holiness”—that especially vexes me.  

Sonderegger’s sensibilities draw her to what most contemporary Christians, at least in her own tradition, find “deeply alien and unsettling” (356). She is disheartened, even grieved, by attempts to lower the stakes of theology, or worse, to domesticate God. Something has gone wrong, she believes, if we expect to find in God “only the kindly, only the friendly, the avuncular” (358). “[A] Christianity that is only hospitable, only useful and edifying, has not taken the full measure of the Living God” (359). To be sure, Sonderegger believes that God is good—she means to leave no doubt about that—but God is also other than good. God is unaccountable, free not only from our expectations but even from reality as we know it. And for that reason, “bending down in awe before Almighty God is the first act of proper piety” (359). Her theology, as outlined in this volume, suggests that bending is also the last act.  

The Cost of Holiness

In Sonderegger’s reading, Leviticus, more than any other biblical text, witnesses to what is required of us by “the Presence of the True God,” a presence that is “shocking, an Undoing” (359). That presence, brought to bear by the Levitical witness, demands a “costly descent” for us—the very same descent God is and has made, everlastingly (352, 367). The Holiness Code has not been put away, and it cannot be, because “it is the very act of sacrifice, the concrete event of altar roasting and feasting, waving and smearing and sprinkling, that is central to this doctrine of the Trinity. The ordinances, statutes, and commandments of Leviticus have not passed away because they are unfolding, they are being enacted, now” (364).

She takes pains to explain that she does not intend to “reify the rites of Israel” (364) or to reinitiate “the slaughter and roasting of animals on a consecrated altar” (367). Above all, she rebuffs attempts to “Hegelianize” the temple cult into “the very Idea of Sacrifice and Self-Giving” (365). These ancient rites, she maintains, must not be reduced to ethical principles deemed acceptable for our “present bloodless age” (364). Instead, the doctrine of the Trinity must be made to fit the stipulations of the Levitical tradition. 

Israel’s temple sacrifices manifest and correspond to the Triune Lord’s Self-Offering, His costly descent and ascent as Gift. The Levitical account of sacrifice reinscribes the Processional Life of God, the Holiness of the Trifold Lord. . . . The deep things of God—His Life of Descent and Outpouring—constitute Holiness, and we catch sight of that Holy Life in Leviticus, Moses’s instructions to the priests and people of Israel. . . . The Divine Mystery is laid down in the sinews of the text, quietly and radically suffusing the whole, illuminating the whole with an alien Light, an astonishment and a Herald from afar. (367, 375, and 381)

God, in other words, sanctifies God’s self by making of God’s self a sacrifice. And in so doing, God not only reveals a sacrificial love but, indeed, God makes God’s self loving. 

To say the same thing another way, we can respond to the call to be holy as God is holy just because God has made the making of God’s self our very being. We are because God is, of course. But we are the way we are because God is self-sanctified

The Triune Lord generates Holiness: this is the Self-Sanctification of God. As the Word that the Lord God speaks into Eternity—welcome and the world comes to be—so the Self-Offering of God is jussive: let the Offering issue forth. . . . So, the Self-Offering of God enacts the Transcendence and inner Being of the Lord. He is Perfect Holiness, Perfect Infinite Being. In all Eternity, God is enacting the Structure of Being. He is exemplifying and affirming the Truth that Being Itself is neither shapeless nor amorphous, neither chaotic no defiled. It is rather the Perfection this Infinite, a Vast, imperious Ordered Reality, a Bounded Royalty. . . . Trinity means: I, the Lord, sanctify myself. (473 and 476–77)

At first blush, this seems to undo the distinction between Creator and creature. Yet I suspect Sonderegger means to assure that distinction, much as Robert W. Jenson did, via a “revisionary metaphysics.”4 Unfortunately, she does not to share Jenson’s neo-Chalcedonian Christology, so she seems bound to affirm not that God elects to be a creature with us and for us but that God creates God’s self. She also seems bound to affirm that God’s life stands against the lives of creatures, a rival to their being.  

Of course, Jesus does say: “I sanctify myself” (John 17:19 NRSV). But that is the work of the divine mission, accomplished in his body, the flesh of the Son. To put it sharply, he sanctifies himself for our sakes, not his own, and the Father is the sanctifier, not the sanctified. Leviticus reiterates this truth again and again: “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44) and then later, “I the Lord, I who sanctify you, am holy” (Lev. 21:8). And when Leviticus speaks of God as the one who is sanctified, it describes the work of the people of God, a work accomplished mostly by what they do not do: “You shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel: I am the Lord; I sanctify you” (Lev. 22:32). Sonderegger certainly knows these texts. And her model, I’m sure, can make a kind of sense of them. Arguably, however, in the effort to develop such a severe and novel Trinitarian doctrine, she has unnecessarily tied her argument in knots, forcing the biblical texts to work against their natural senses and subverting the tradition’s witness to the inalienable reliability of God.   

God Is Not a Terror 

The Trinity is sacrifice, offered and received, and so we are called to make sacrifices, offerings that are “conformed to the very Being of God” (464). Our work works “just because it follows and imitates the Holy Life of God” (464). This is the soul, the center of Sonderegger’s argument in this second volume, and she takes Israel’s sacrificial rites as the proof of it. However, I would contend that the sacrifices in Leviticus are not revelatory but confessional, not theophanic but expiatory, offered in contrition and concern for the consequences of even unintentional and inadvertent sins. And while I agree that we’re called to be conformed to God, offering our lives as a living sacrifice, that’s not because God’s life is immanently sacrificial. Our lives are sacrificial because our alignment with Christ sets us at odds with the patterns of this world. The powers require sacrifice, not God. This, I believe, is what Leviticus teaches. 

Without a doubt, ancient Israel, no less than other nations, feared the costs of ritual pollution. An “unbridgeable chasm” separated Israel’s priestly tradition from those of its neighbors, but as Jacob Milgrom explains:5

The ancients feared impurity because it was demonic, even meta-divine, capable of attacking the gods. Hence men were summoned, indeed created, for the purpose of purifying temples to aid the benevolent resident gods in their battles with cosmic evil. In Israel, however, there are no traces of demonic impurity. . . . “Anti-God forces” do not inhere in nature. Not even the animal world can contaminate the sanctuary, for their carcasses, though impure, are no threat either to God or to man. The demons have been expunged from the world, but man has taken their place. This is one of the major contributions of the priestly theology: man is demonized. True, man falls short of being a demon, but he is capable of the demonic. He alone is the cause of the world’s ills. He alone can contaminate the sanctuary and force God out.6

Thus, Milgrom concludes, the Levitical rites are a performative theodicy. The sanctuary, like the picture of Dorian Gray, bears in its bodies the marks of Israel’s sins, and “unless it is quickly expunged, God’s presence will depart.”7 Accordingly, the priestly ministry is tasked with saving Israel from alienation from God, a task it fulfilled by keeping the sanctuary “clean.” 

Because she is concerned with what the sacrifices mean for God, Sonderegger’s reading of Leviticus misses these dimensions almost entirely. As she sees it, it is “fitting and altogether proper” that the Son should “take the way of suffering and death, be lowered into the earth, descend to those in prison, and in His death make many righteous” (314). The Word-made-flesh rightly makes of himself a sacrifice because he is, as the Word-without-flesh, “the Perfect Offering” (314). The incarnation, therefore, is “a fiery lesson” (311), burning away our illusions of ease with God. Sonderegger does not hesitate to say that Jesus was, indeed, “born to die” (314), not as a thwarting of the Father’s will nor as an obscuring of his own eternal generation but as its accomplishment and expression. But Hebrews 10, expounding Psalm 40, declares otherwise. The Day of Atonement sacrifices, offered yearly, did not “perfect” the worshippers (Heb. 10:1)—not because the law failed or because the priests failed but because the sacrifices were purposed, by the “remembrance” of sins, to turn the worshippers’ attention toward the coming of God. 

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said:

Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.

Then I said, “See, God, I have come to do your will, O God”
(in the scroll of the book it is written of me). (Heb. 10:5–7)

For the author of Hebrews, everything rides on the difference between the sacrifices of blood and fire, sacrifices God never desired, and the body prepared for God in Mary’s womb. The good news is, because of that difference, Jesus’s obedience, perfected in death, abolishes the need for sacrifice by assuring us of God’s desire to be with us, no matter the cost. We can, in unshakable confidence, stand gladly in the presence of the God who would rather not be God at all than to be God without us. We cannot, in that presence, not bow. But when we do, we find that God has bowed, too, to wash our feet. 

The Body of Christ and the Spirit of the Scriptures 

Somewhat startlingly, Sonderegger admits she wants no part of Hebrews’s “spiritualizing” (410), at least not as a basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. For that reason, she turns instead to what she understands as the plain sense of the law: 

A systematic theology that aims to ground doctrine in Holy Scripture, one that holds that Scripture is both determinate and sufficient for dogmatic work, must be able to say more than a mild acquiescence in spiritualized exegesis. It must say something about the doctrine of God as manifested in the concrete life of Israel and the Coming King of this people. It must see the Intelligible laid down in the concrete, the Meaning of Reality, True, Necessary Reality bestowed on and integrated into the vital practice of ancient Israel. It must see Trinity in the costly sacrifice of altar and priest, the history of covenant Israel. It must see the Living Relation of the Divine Abstract to the Divine Concrete. Though of course this traces lineage back through the honorable notion of Scripture’s sensus plenior, it is lineage only, not an instance of it. We are not now seeking a depth dimension not carried by the literal or plain sense—or even less, a spiritual sense that elevates and corrects the plain. No! We do not attempt to find a more palatable notion of bloody sacrifice in the ideals of spiritual worship or sacramental rite. We are not looking for a “useable past” or a modern equivalent to the forlorn past. This is a different act altogether. My aim is to listen intently for the Presence of the High God, the Transcendent and Lofty One, in the plain, historical record of Israel and Israel’s Son. (411)

It is hard to see how this squares with what she says in her first volume about God’s humility and hiddenness. And, as I already suggested, it seems to run against the grain of the text of Leviticus, as well. That aside, how does it make sense, on the basis of her convictions, for her to say that the “Dark Depths of God” are known only in the “plain, historical record”? If Scripture is really God’s only perfected creature (apart, perhaps, from Mary), then why would its depths not be holy? And even if her reading of Leviticus’s supposed “plain sense” were right—and, again, I do not think that it is—how, on the grounds of her claims about Scripture’s holiness, can Hebrews’s “plain sense” be dismissed or bracketed out as abstraction? 

In his commentary on Hebrews 10, Thomas Aquinas concludes that the “Old Covenant” was rejected “first, because God does not want its sacrifices, and second because they do not please him.” His exposition refers to Psalm 40, Psalm 50, Isaiah 1, and passages from the Gospel of John. But he concludes with a quote from Leviticus: “The new coming on, you shall cast out the old” (Lev. 26:10).8 Sonderegger holds that “the Bible is about God, not about salvation, principally or exhaustively” (40). And it is easy to see why she does; she can make the case for sacrifice as a mapping of the divine processions only if sacrifice itself is understood as transcendental—good, beautiful, true—and “the new” is the unbroken continuation and flowering of “the old.” The problem is that she is forced by that desire to strain the biblical texts—overburdening Leviticus, as well as Isaiah 53, and filtering out Psalms, Isaiah 1, and Hebrews—and to break with the Christian dogmatic tradition she so obviously cherishes. 

The ancients and medievals had this right, I believe. As Hugh of Saint Victor put it, “Unless you acknowledge beforehand the birth of Christ, his teaching, his suffering, his resurrection and ascension, and all the other things which he did in the flesh and through the flesh, you will not be able to penetrate the mysteries of the ancient figures.”9 Sonderegger’s proposal essentially reverses the relationship between figure and ground, positing that Israel’s sacrifices were not figures, not old, not mysterious. As a result, for her,it seems Jesus has to be regarded as mysterious and figurative. In one passage, she calls up, and rejects as false, the belief that “in itself, and apart from sin, the Word made flesh would be fully known, not anonymous, luminous, and fully attractive” (305). The infinite, in other words, is for Sonderegger not beautiful, at least not in a traditional sense. She believes Christians wrongly long to say “that the contour of the Eternal Son made flesh would have been delightful had sin not gotten in the way” (305). In truth, however, “the concrete contour of Israel and of Israel’s Servant is not that, not at all” (306). God is good but not simply good for us—not even apart from sin. 

Sonderegger, in some portions of this book, appears not to fear God’s departure, as the Levitical tradition does, but God’s coming, God’s nearness. This is the weight of her reading of Isaiah 53, certainly: “Isaiah 53 tells us that the meaning of the Servant’s suffering is that Almighty God willed it, inflicted pain on Him, and laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (311). She also returns time and time again to speak of the cost of God’s life. The incarnation, she insists, was a “profound mystery of pain,” but it only “expresses the Alien Ways of our God, His Heights and Ways above all our ways, His Terrible Excess that is Deity.” She concludes with a warning: “We trust in Him; we love this Lord; we follow His Ways. But they are costly, a descent, a loss” (312). 

Why do I find this troubling? Because it mistakes gift for sacrifice, confusing not only the distinction between the divine processions and missions but also the distinction between God’s humility and the humiliation that God suffered on our behalf. Worst of all, Sonderegger’s account of God’s “Alien Ways” and “Terrible Excess” risks leaving the impression that salvation is nothing but capitulation to a God who is not only terrible but also a terror. To be clear: I welcome the audacity of Sonderegger’s proposal. But to my mind, the “classical” assumptions are still clearly preferable: God does not create God’s self, does not sanctify God’s self, and does not make a sacrifice of God’s self. And for those very reasons, we can rest in the confidence that God is our salvation from terror, not the terror we need to be saved from. The origin of the world is neither spectacle nor sacrifice but sweetness. 

Jesus abolished the need for any more atoning sacrifices because he fulfilled, once for all, the hopes awakened by their offering. In his life and the death that perfected it he created a genuinely new relation to God, one that did not abrogate Israel’s calling but fulfilled it, one that promised the same fulfillment to the nations. If, as Francesca Murphy says, God is not a story, then, for the same reasons, God is not a sacrifice.10 And he is “the perfect sacrifice” primarily, if not exclusively, in the sense that he saves us from imagining that God needs or wants the shedding of blood. In a word, God’s life, revealed in what happens with Jesus, is not costly; it is gift—the gift that exceeds not only every debt but also shatters, irrevocably, every economy of gain and loss.11

Coda 

All my serious disagreements notwithstanding, and there are many, I am wildly grateful for Sonderegger and her work. Her nerve, her learning, her sense of humor, her patience in conversation, her extravagant prose. For me, reading Sonderegger is an immersive experience, a being-taken-in by her art. At times, her arguments strike me as frenetic and chaotic, like a Basquiat, like a Coltrane, experimentally juxtaposing, mixing, layering, upending. Other times, her arguments seem mazelike, multicursal—this or that line of thought dead-ends, and I find myself left at a loss. Still, the effect of her work always exceeds the sum of its parts. And that is why it is so hard for any review, let alone this one, to do justice to her offerings. 

A final, final word: it is not lost on me that Sonderegger quotes Habakkuk 2:20 at the head of this volume and again at the foot: “The Lord is in His Holy Temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him!” Thankfully, she knew what kind of silence the Lord wants, what kind of silence we need, and she gave herself to moving us toward it, whether we like it or not. 


Source: The Other Journal

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