David Congdon’s Soteriocentrism: pt. 1

I’m reading David Congdon’s new book The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch and writing about it as I go. Last time I looked at his first chapter, in which he outlines the options for Christian universalism. The book reads very well and promises to provoke me to think more carefully about my own views. Already, I’ve noticed a fairly major difference between my own perspective and Congdon’s. That is, Congdon’s account doesn’t seem to have a place for genuine I-Thou encounter between God and humans, as described for example by Martin Buber. Any notion of a relationship with God is regarded as, at bottom, metaphorical or mythological in origin. As I keep reading, I expect to be further challenged on this point.

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Given my own influences, this challenge is actually quite helpful. If asked, I’d have to admit that I am largely in agreement with Paul K. Moser’s philosophy and theological method (I’m writing an MA thesis on it). His method gives divine-human I-Thou encounter pride of place, and generally comports with theologians like Peter Taylor Forsyth and Emil Brunner. (I’m also just starting to put together a website where I’ll (re)post public domain writing from this tradition.) That said, I’m reading Congdon’s book more skeptical about his construal of divine-human I-Thou encounter than about his universalism. But I realize that we come from different corners of the theological world and I truly want to understand his dogmatic sketch. The better I understand his views, the better I’ll be able to understand my own. And what better way to understand than to read and write about it?

David Congdon entitles his second chapter “Soteriocentrism: Prolegomena to a Dogmatic Sketch.” This chapter sets out his view about what theology is, what it’s about, and roughly how to do it. To put his conclusion first,

Christian theology reflects the saving action of God. God’s saving action is the origin, object, and norm of theological discourse. The single divine act that elects, justifies, reconciles, redeems, and reveals makes theology possible by bringing human beings into an encounter with God, makes theology meaningful by providing the material context for scientific reflection, and makes theology orderly and critical by supplying the criteria for authentic God-talk (p. 50).

This is basically what Congden means by soteriocentric theology — a theology that is about and because of God’s saving actions. Such theology has three major features (I’ll only get to the first two in this post).

First, theology is a science inasmuch as it is “a mode of rational inquiry appropriate to its object” (p. 25). So far so good. Congden distinguishes between faith as doctrinal content to be believed and the faith by which such content can be believed. He rightly identifies the historic and all-too-common error of exalting faith that over faith in, that is, belief that something is the case over “the faith of the human subject that relates to God” (p. 25). Christian faith ought not be be confused with intellectual assent.

Congdon credits a revival of this distinction between faith in and faith that to a “rise of historical consciousness” in the modern era (p. 25). That is, as people came to realize that their beliefs and language are largely contingent upon where and when they live, faith as mere correct belief was no longer a solid rock upon which to stand (and it never was by the way). We might call this realization the discovery of the perspective-bound nature of human inquiry (see Paul Moser’s Philosophy after Objectivity, chap. 1). If all inquiry is inquiry in perspective, what access, if any, do we have to an objective picture of the way things actually are? Lacking any escape from such questions, theology must shift from allegedly objective inquiry to admittedly perspectival inquiry. This much seems correct to me.

Yet if inquiry is perspective-bound, some inquirers may deny the existence or importance of that which eludes their reach. This seems to be Congdon’s approach regarding God outside of God’s relations to humans. He writes,

As we have argued above, theology has no access to a divine in-itself — a theological Ding an sich — apart from the human subject on whom God acts (p. 50).

Put another way, “The wind/spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8 NRSV). It is only as God acts upon humans that we perceive God. This seems right. But Congdon takes it further.

In other words, we only have access to a God who acts upon us, because God simply is the God who acts upon us. God’s being is the act of salvation. There is no theological Ding an sich. We will develop this claim and its implications throughout the course of this book (p. 50).

Unless I’ve misunderstood, this strikes me as a reduction of the wind/spirit to merely its sound. But why not just say that our access to God is limited access, that we only have access to God inasmuch as God acts toward us? Why not instead say that God has made known God’s true self to us through God’s saving deeds? For my part, I feel quite uncomfortable saying that there is “no theological Ding an sich.” The crucial matter, I think, is the extent of our access to God as God is, rather than rejecting the notion of God as God actually is. Otherwise, I fear that we are stuck with some type of theological anti-realism (Randal Rauser has an interesting paper analyzing Rahner’s Rule along these lines).

This leads to the second feature of Congdon’s construal of theology, namely, theology as hermeneutics (or interpretation). If we acknowledge the perspectival nature of inquiry, then all that remains is to interpret the world as we perceive it. Our conceptual frameworks are indeed our contribution to inquiry, they are not objective features of the world as such. This seems like a modern (and positive) development in theology. For much of theological history, the proper quarry was thought to be “a theologia perennis, a perennial or permanent theology safe from the hermeneutical queries of the present situation” (p. 37). However, since all theology is perspectival we have no access to a theology that transcends interpretation. The question is how, not whether, we will interpret the world as we perceive it. I’m broadly in agreement here.

My first question: What, precisely, are we interpreting? Congdon seems to be interpreting religious texts, like the Bible, or various traditions. A text, or tradition, is both “a past artifact and a present event” (p. 38). It involves distinguishing “what is said” from “what is meant,” then and now. My next question: Meant by whom? Following Paul Moser, I take linguistic meaning to be relative to the interpretive commitments of language users (see his Philosophy after Objectivity, chap. 3). The author of a text means something by the words they use. Although the modern reader can find new meaning in those words, they cannot find new authorial meaning. That meaning is fixed by the interpretive choices of the author. Put this way, if a text means for us something other than what the author meant, then we are bringing our own meaning to that text. That’s fine, but I think it is important to pinpoint the source of meaning in such cases. If and when modern readers find meaning in an ancient text that differs from the authorial meaning, their act of re-interpretation (whether reflective or unreflective) is responsible for the new meaning. What standards, then, should guide how we interpret texts and tradition? In a word, the kerygma (a term that means preaching or proclamation in Greek).

The kerygma is the divine word-event that unites past and present, there and here, then and now. It is an event pregnant with infinite possibilities of meaning, which presses us ever onward toward the open future, compelling the community of those who hear this word to understand its contemporary significance in surprising new ways (p. 39).

I’m concerned with the phrase “infinite possibilities of meaning.” If something can be interpreted in infinite ways, then it lacks any meaning. A word of gibberish, for instance, has no standards for interpretation and is therefore meaningless (in virtue of infinite possibilities of meaning). But Congdon may instead be talking about the kerygma having a variable meaning capable of addressing every possible human situation. Crucial to his notion of the kerygma is that it speaks to each time and place, without exception. This much seems right to me. He insists, however, that we cannot distill the kerygma from any given time and place, and articulate it once and for all. This kerygma is not a minimal propositional content of the Bible, that is, it isn’t a canon within the canon. Congdon describes it, instead as an event. “Every genuine interpretation is an existential encounter with a reality that confronts and claims us in and through this text” (p. 41). I like this, although I don’t fully understand it and I suspect Congdon and I will differ over what we should mean by existential encounter.

Putting it all together, if I dare, Congdon seems to say that we hear the kerygma as we discern what texts and traditions should mean for us here and now, rather than merely what they meant then and there. But, if we bring new meaning to texts and traditions in light of the kerygma, how can those texts and traditions illuminate the kerygma itself? Which comes first, the kerygma by which we interpret texts or the texts that reveal to us the kerygma?

Well, that seems like enough for now. I’m sure that most of these questions are answered in the coming pages.

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