I do not read that much systematic theology these days. I am much more comfortable in the world of biblical theology, as well as much more enamored with it. But, I have heard wonderful things about the writings of Katherine Sonderegger, Anglican priest, and Professor of Theology at Virginia Theology Seminary. When I found that out that the second volume of her systematic theology was going to be coming out this fall, and was going to be in good measure an engagement with the book of Leviticus, I was especially interested, and figured that I would prepare for reading the second volume by reading the first one. And I am very glad that I did.
I am a little over halfway through volume one, and now eagerly looking forward to volume two. There are significant swathes of the first volume that are a bit difficult for me to follow, because they are heavily involved in conversations with philosophers, of whose teachings I am basically aware, but not sufficiently so as to be able to grasp all the intricacies of those conversations. Nevertheless, it is beautifully written, and a genuine pleasure to read. It was gratifying to find that the volume was also, like Barth’s Dogmatics, in good measure biblical-theological in its orientation, turning aside quite often to engage in exegesis, and containing a number of passages that are exquisitely and elegantly expressed. I thought I would share one of these passages with you. Interestingly, the passage also contains a reading of Psalm 88 that reads it as a psalm of Christ, and this also resonates with me quite heavily in my own work on the Psalms. Perhaps this passage will whet your appetite to dig into the book as well. I am anxiously awaiting volume two.
Christ’s public ministry was a living covenant: He showed Himself, from beginning to end, to be the One who is with us. He stood with all sinners when He awaited John’s baptism, the washing in the Jordan as sign and act of repentance. He did not hold Himself apart and aloof from this evil generation; rather He joined it. Not for Himself nor for His sake! (Barth and Irving do not persuade here in their rejection of Christ’s absolute sinlessness.) But rather, for ours. He, the life-giving Spirit, the Incarnate Dunamis, enters into the prison that is sin, the darkness that is our own, its misery and impotence. He bears that sin vicariously, clothed in our rags, hidden in our despair, prepared for the wrath that is to come. The crushing suffocation of sin, the rage that sweeps over us like torrents, the weakness that undermines all resolve, the pitiful self-righteousness that cannot ignore how tinny it all sounds, the smallness and meanness, the icy darkness of cruelty: Christ has tasted all this in His baptism for us and for our sake. He is our Judge as we can never be. We stand apart from those we judge, the exalted, the aloof, the superior power; but not He, not the humble Lord of the covenant. He is Judge as the One with us. As the One who has entered into solidarity with sin and with sinners, He alone judges what He knows, yet is without sin, the Holy One. Such is the Deity, the Omnipotence of Christ: He is the Life, the Vitality, within the death of sin.
Christ bears this burden, not His own, until the end, the last end of sinners, buried in another’s stone tomb. Even in His burial He is the Vicarious One! And in that lowering down into the earth, Christ remains the Life laid down for sinners. He becomes the lost, so powerfully evoked by Israel’s psalter. Though by rights Psalm 88 belongs to all us sinners, Christ uniquely takes it for His own: “I am counted among those who go down to the Pit,” He says, “free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave” (vs. 4, 5). In this, the darkest of laments, the psalmist never directly proclaims the Lord’s consolation: darkness, he says in bitter confidence, is my only companion. This is what the Lord of the covenant assumes for His very own: the darkest pitch of grief. Christ in our place raises up His voice from that depth; in our place He dares call upon the Name of the Lord: “Like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves” (Ps. 88:5–7). It matters to the suffering that the helper does not stand far from danger, merely hurling a line down into the pit from perfect safety above. It matters that this Helper has tasted the bitter gall. He, the Lord, is not outside but rather inside the “problem of pain,” inside the suffering that is unrelieved and without consolation. That is what covenant with this Lord means. The Unity of the Person of Christ, His matchless Integration and Wholeness, ensures that this sacred corpse as mere object, the dead, the off-scouring of every age, is not without its Life, its Power and Eternal Vitality. Even in the pit, the forgotten and erased, even and especially there, this Incarnate One is Subject in Objectivity, is Eternal Life even in death.
(Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology: The Doctrine of God, vol. 1 [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015], 217–18)
Prof Shepherd, thank you for posting this description that we know is true yet do not want to think about or put into words. The depths of its awfulness and the beauty of its reality fill me with both wonder and grief. Btw, good to chat with you at Faith’s Celebration of Life. We could be there because our Christ entered the awfulness of life to save us from it.
Thanks, Elsie. It was great to see you and your husband again as well. Blessings on you.
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