Reading The God Who Saves by David Congdon

Chap. 1: Introduction

A couple years ago I stumbled across a trilemma that clarifies the options for Christian theology considerably. Word for word, it goes like this:

  1. All humans are equal objects of God’s unconditional love in the sense that God sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself and thus to prepare each one of them for the bliss of union with him.
  2. Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he sincerely wills or desires.
  3. Some humans will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever.

This set of statements is logically incompatible in the sense that any pair rules out the remaining statement. This means we can sort theologies by which statement they reject, or which pair of statements they embrace.

  • Augustinian or Calvinist theologies reject (1), embracing (2) and (3).
  • Arminian theologies reject (2), embracing (1) and (3).
  • Universalist theologies reject (3), embracing (1) and (2).
Cascade Books (Wipf & Stock)

David Congdon’s new book The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch explores the third option above, known as universalism. Being curious, and hearing good things about it on Twitter, I bought the Kindle version and began reading it this week. Having only read the first couple chapters, I can say that the book reads very well and has captured my attention and interest. Whether or not I agree with the dogmatic sketch in this book, I want to understand it. In fact, reading this books makes me want to write about it and discuss with others (but the only people I know who might chat about it live on Twitter). So here goes.

In my view, Christians ought to hope that universalism is true — namely they should hope that all people are ultimately reconciled to God. Knowing that universalism is true (or false) is another matter, since knowledge requires evidence. If we lack the evidence needed to discern whether universalism is true (or false), then we should desire that it is true, even if we remain agnostic. If our evidence largely counts against universalism, we should then hope against hope that it is true. Even a Christian who believes that universalism is false should hope and wish that they are wrong. In his opening chapter, David Congdon recasts hope that universalism is true as an instance of a more tenacious biblical notion of hope in God’s promises. “Christian faith is confident hope in the effective promise of God’’ (p. 2). Put this way, Congdon invites his readers to leave behind hope as wishing and explore hope as knowing. Whether we can know, I maintain, will nevertheless depend on our evidence. I’ll have to wait and see whether he identifies the needed evidence as I keep reading.

Universalism, like any -ism, comes in several flavours and Congdon outlines the main ones. First, he notes that most Christians agree with the idea that “God calls people from every nation or people group (in Greek, ethnos) to become followers of Jesus Christ and participants in the community of faith” (p. 4). This view is a species of universalism, namely multiethnic universalism. He then recasts the trilemma above as a choice between actual nonuniversalism (rejects statement 1), potential universalism (rejects statement 2), and actual universalism (rejects statement 3). This terminology works fine, since the root trilemma remains no matter what you call it.

Congdon then introduces two new divisions of actual universalism. Are all people saved (on universalism) with or without their cooperation? In both cases, God’s actions are necessary for salvation, but they may or may not be sufficient. Congdon calls these two species of actual universalism anthropo-actualized and theo-actualized universalism. The crucial matter is who takes the final step in human salvation (presuming that God initiates). Humans or God? (Reading this distinction, I wonder if we could also speak of an internalist account of salvation, on which salvation requires some action internal to the human, and an externalist account of salvation, on which salvation is possible without reference to the internal life of the person being saved.) Condgen then subdivides actual universalism a second time. The question now, When are all people saved? The two main options, he suggests, are protological actualization, on which salvation happens in the past, and eschatological actualization, on which salvation happens in the future. Taken together, actual universalism comes in four flavours:

  1. Protological anthropo-actualized universalism. Congdon rejects this option since it doesn’t seem to make sense to say that humans make actual their salvation before they exist.
  2. Protological theo-actualized universalism. Congdon attributes this view to Karl Barth, the idea that God makes actual the salvation of all people prior to their existence. He also calls this view Barthian universalism.
  3. Eschatological anthropo-actualized universalism. This is the view that eventually, at the end of all things, all people will cooperate with God and be saved. Congdon calls this evangelical universalism since this requirement of human cooperation strikes him as evangelical.
  4. Eschatological theo-actualized universalism. This is Congdon’s own view and the one that he aims to expound in his book.

This fourth view distinctively grants to God and not humans the task of making actual their salvation, and it requires that God do so in the present or future rather than having already done it in the past. Since this salvation is eschatological, it must address those being saved as a word to them, rather than a prior decree about them. Yet Congdon insists that humans cannot have “a conscious and constitutive role, or else we would have the evangelical account of universalism” (p. 12). I’m curious about how this works out. This following passage hints at Congdon’s approach.

Once we recognize that divine agency operates on a qualitatively different ontological order, we no longer need to worry about a competition between God and the human person, and thus we no longer need to resort to a cooperative account of divine-human relation. Indeed, both cooperation and competition trade on a fundamentally mythological and metaphysical understanding of God as one causal agent among others within the cosmos. If divine agency does not conflict with any creaturely agency — being of a wholly different order — then a universal divine decision to elect all human beings in Jesus Christ need not compete with the free decision of individual persons. . . . I am only interested in demonstrating that a responsible account of divine being and agency makes it possible to hold together a strongly monergistic doctrine of divine sovereignty with an equally strong doctrine of human freedom (p. 17).

It seems here that Congdon is going to appeal to some species of compatibilism, the view that a “strongly monergistic doctrine of divine sovereignty” is logically compatible with “an equally strong doctrine of human freedom.” For my part, I am very skeptical toward this approach. It seems to me that God’s will is qualitatively similar to the human will inasmuch as there can be an all-too-real experienced conflict between the will of God and the will of humans. Inasmuch as God confronts humans in experience, perhaps in conscience, we seem to face a genuine Thou to our I (as, for instance, Martin Buber describes). As such, unless I-Thou encounter with God is illusory, I have my doubts about compatibilism or placing divine agency in a separate category from human agency, as non-overlapping magisteria. The richest features of the Christian faith, in my view, are found in human I-Thou relation to God. In a footnote, Congdon presses the matter further:

The assumption behind this way of thinking [about human vs divine wills] is the notion that God is a “personal” God. Evangelicals, in particular, are fond of speaking about faith as a “personal relationship” with Jesus. If by “personal” we mean the kind of relationship that I have with another human person, then such language is clearly being used metaphorically, all personal delusions to the contrary notwithstanding. God is not a person, as Paul Tillich rightly stressed in his writings. What then is the meaning of such talk? In the best sense, it affirms that God is not an impersonal thing, an object lying at our disposal, which we are free either to use or ignore. A “personal” God is a living subject that confronts us and unsettles us. To say that faith is a “personal” relationship with God is to say that faith is a personally transformative event wherein we encounter the active reality of God. That much we can and must affirm. But to go beyond this and construe God in anthropomorphic terms as a supernatural person is to leave the realm of faith and enter the world of mythology and fantasy (p.15).

Congdon is quite emphatic here in discouraging thinking about the divine-human relationship on the template of how humans ought to (ideally) relate to one another. I’m very reluctant to follow him on this. Yes, biblical authors have cast God in the image of various human figures (like king, warrior, etc) and we ought not to understand God solely in terms of these metaphors. Yet if in these, the last of days, God has spoken by a son, and if this chosen human is God’s best self-manifestation, then what do we gain (or lose) by treating the personhood of God as a mere metaphor? Need anthropomorphism always be a dirty word in theology? Could it be that human personhood is a gift, a feature of being made in the likeness of God? (For a high view of humanity, see A Man Attested by God, by J.R. Daniel Kirk.) I know that Congdon is concerned about whether certain theological notions are mythological, in the sense of being inseparable from their original time and place. But I’m not sure that the personhood of God should be demythologized in the same way that, say, God as cosmic warrior, ought to be critiqued.

Anyway, I’m here to learn and enjoying this book so far. I suspect that the division between realist and metaphorical approaches to God as a person will come up again. Back to his argument, Congdon understands human persons to be inescapably historical, in the sense that they are inseparable from their time and place. He rejects any attempt (I think) to abstract a person from their historical existence, meaning their actual actions and choices in a lived historical life. “Salvation is meaningless if it ignores or bypasses a person’s historicity, since that would mean ignoring or bypassing the person altogether” (p. 18). So is a human essentially their historicity? This is an interesting twist on a more familiar (to me) notion that to quench the freedom of humans is to quench the people themselves. Hence, a salvation by coercion destroys that which it might otherwise save. But Congdon is committed to a monergistic salvation that is compatible with human freedom, so long as it saves the person in their historical setting. Again, the initial differences I have with Congdon seem to return to the matter of personhood, whether human or divine.

Stay tuned for more as I digest this interesting book. If you’ve already read it and/or would like to discuss, seems like a great place to discuss theology thoughtfully, given the highlight/comment features, private comments, and treatment of comments as their own articles. I’d love to make some new theology friends (or just friends) by chatting about this book here on Medium. It’s like Twitter, but with more space to write.

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