The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch by David W. Congdon (Review)

The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch by David W. Congdon is a brilliant and well written theological book, and my favorite book published in 2016. In The God Who Saves, Congdon leverages his expertise in Bultmann's existential theology and acute knowledge of Karl Barth to produce this eye-popping dogmatic sketch of a universalist systematic theology.


Dr. Congdon has a Ph.D. from Princeton, where he studied under Bruce McCormmack, and other notable theologians. Congdon is an expert and outspoken fan of the theological bad boy Rudolf Bultmann, and he is responsible for rehabilitating my view of Bultmann in his magnum opus, The Mission of Demythologization: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology and by his shorter book Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. In the Prologue to The God Who Saves, Congdon gives a testimony on how he transitioned from your run-of-the-mill American Evangelical to a modern day Bultmanniac. Don't skip this prologue, because it provides the metanarrative for the entire book (although, Congdon may object to that term), but it is difficult to understand any theology book apart from its biographical/historical context. Congdon explains that the genesis to The God Who Saves was in an unfinished series of posts at his blog The Fire and the Rose called "Why I am a Universalist: A Dogmatic Sketch" that eventually garnered the attention of Robin Parry, author of "The Evangelical Universalist", who solicited Congdon to write a "universalist systematic theology". Congdon's enthusaism for universalism and Rudolf Bultmann, along with encouragement of "The Evangelical Universalist", lead to the writing of The God Who Saves.


The God Who Saves is not a traditional systematic theology book, defending theological loci along the traditional evangelical norms, so don't expect a dry defense of christology, ecclesiology, or soteriology in this dogmatic sketch. Congdon draws from his expertise in Rudolf Bultmann and in Karl Barth to provide us a fresh look at the classic systematic theology topics through a thoroughly universalist, realized eschatological and existential perspective that defies categorization in the typical theological camps—don't worry, I'll try to explain all this jargon! 

Congdon's universalism isn't what most evangelicals imagine (and strongly resist), because he doesn't deny the importance of faith in Christ for each person. But he redefines faith in an unconscious way that applies to each person. Unlike most other accounts, Congdon is also not concerned with where people go after death, if anywhere at all. He believes salvation is an apocalyptic event rooted in history, here and now, not a future event after death or at the end of time, so therefore his form of universalism is within the rubric of realized eschatology.


Reconstructing theology around soteriology (i.e. salvation) is an arching theme in The God Who Saves, but there's so much more jam packed into these 300 pages, that it's impossible to summarize it all. So the following four theological nuggets of gold for show and tell:  

1. Wizard of Oz

Congdon is a skilled writer and has a magical ability to explain himself with memorable examples, such as in Chapter 2, "Soteriocentrism" uses the unveiling of the pseudo-wizard in The Wizard of Oz to explain the Church's problems with hermeneutics and metaphysical securities.    

"Today's culture wars are simply the long death rattle of an antiquated version of Christianity trying to maintain some vestige of metaphysical security. The church can no longer afford to ignore the problem of hermeneutics. Theology that engages in metaphysical thinking today is an exercise in pretending that the curtain has not been pulled back to reveal the man posturing as a wizard.(*)" 

*Note: "The reference to the story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is quite intentional. As many have observed, the original 1900 novel, made famous by the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, can be read quite persuasively as a parable about the disillusionment with Christianity and the rise of secularism. There are numerous religious parallels, with the Emerald City bearing no small resemblance to the New Jerusalem in John's Apocalypse; there is even a yellow-brick road in the place of streets of gold. . . . In the story, God . . . is represented by the wizard, whom they discover is just an ordinary old man playing a trick on people. . . . We can see in this story a parable of the transition from religion to psychotherapy that was taking place concurrently in the works of Sigmund Freud and others." [1]

2. Luther vs. Aristotle

In Chapter 4, within Congdon's criticisms of traditional Christology, he provides another illuminating story of how Luther battled with the Sorbonne school over the relationship between faith and reason. Congdon retells a story of how Luther criticized Aristotle because his categories could not explain the incarnation. 

"Luther attacks the philosophical school of Sorbonne, which he associates with the view that truth is univocal and normed by the canons of general rationality. Against this he argues not only that philosophy is able to make formally correct syllogism that are theologically erroneous, but also—and more importantly—that theology makes claims that are philosophically impossible. Regarding the latter, he argues that philosophy is incapable of affirming the truth of the claim that the "Word became flesh" (John 1:14): "In theology it is true that the Word was made flesh; in philosophy the statement is simply impossible and absurd." Theology, he suggests, operates with a different account of truthfulness. Luther thus condemns the Sorbonne for teaching "that articles of faith are subject to the judgment of human reason." Luther clarifies this in thesis 10, where he criticizes Aristotelian categories as being unable to account for how God becomes a human being in Christ."[2]

3. The Kingdom Gospel Demythologized

In Chapter 5, Congdon provides an extended criticism of ecclesiology, particular any ecclesiology that identifies the Kingdom of God with the visible Church, such as done by Scot McKnight (author of "The King Jesus Gospel"). In the following footnote, Congdon demythologizes the conservative and liberal Kingdom of God theologies that identify the salvation with ecclesiastical structures.   

"Nor is the apostolate (i.e., the genuine church) the kingdom, in contrast to the claims of Scot McKnight, and before him the theologians of the nineteenth century, both liberal and conservative. Albrecht Ritschl famously maintained that talk of the kingdom in the NT was a way of speaking about the church as the ideal moral community within history. The rediscovery of the apocalyptic by Johannes Weiss and others was a shock to the liberal establishment, since it undercut the connection they had drawn between Jesus's preaching about the kingdom and their modern Protestant churches. Conservative Protestant theologians in modernity were not all that different from the liberals, a point often (and conveniently) forgotten." [3]

4. Orthoheterodoxy, Heteroorthodoxy, and Polydoxy

I greatly appreciated Congdon's advocacy of orthoheterodoxy, because it teaches us to love and appreciate others, especially those whom we cannot agree or get along with, by admitting that we might be wrong (like snoopy's theology book).

"A solution is only possible when we demythologize the binary opposition between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between saints and deceivers, between Christians and antichrists. This dichotomizing logic forces a false decision upon the church, as if doctrine is either true or false—and self-evidently one or the other. Against this "myth of two ways," I propose here a hybridized alternative, which I call orthoheterodoxy or heteroorthodoxy. Orthoheterodoxy would entail "believing differently" (hetero-doxy) but "in the right way" (ortho-doxy), while heterorthodoxy would entail "believing rightly in a different way." Either way the result is the same, namely, a theological approach that simultaneously preserves both normativity and difference. Indeed, we can even say that difference is internal to the norm of the gospel; the norm generates its own diversity." [4] 


My criticism of The God Who Saves falls under Congdon's discussion of orthoheterodoxy. Congdon's program is thoroughly rational and consistent, and I can easily follow his theological process and method, and yet, it remains to be different than my own, but it is right in a different way. First, we disagree on Karl Barth because Condgon wishes to align Barth rationally with Bultmann, but I wish to align Barth was traditional reformed theology. Additionally, I disagree with thoroughly realized eschatology that Congdon presents, because I believe our hope is in an eschatology that is both futuristic and realized (see the Epilogue in The God Who Saves).  In the end, I'm always anxious to learn from those who are different, and to make friends with people who see think different. 


The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch by David W. Congdon was published in 2016 and is available to Cascade Books (an imprint of Wipf & Stock). I highly recommend this book for anyone wishing to learn about Universalist Systematic Theology by a first rate Rudolf Bultmann scholar. This book is challenging, exciting, and eye-popping in under 300 pages. Even if you disagree with the author, you will love disagreeing with such a masterpiece. I've read all of David W. Congdon's books, and recommend anything and everything he writes.


[^1] Congdon, David W. God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch. Eugene: Cascade, 2016. 34. Print.
[^2] Ibid. 112.
[^3] Ibid. Footnote #84. 182.
[^4] Ibid. 57.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received these book free from Wipf and Stock. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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  1. Great review, Wyatt.

    TGWS was also my favorite read of 2016. I’ve read it carefully three times already, and will continue to wrestle with its contents for the foreseeable future…

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