God Saves Us from Ourselves for Others: Juan C. Torres on "The God Who Saves"

By Juan C. Torres

Reading David W. Congdon’s The God Who Saves (TGWS) is truly an unsettling event. At least it was for me. It forced me to check my presuppositions and rethink my beliefs concerning, among other things, eschatology, apocalyptic, and how they are connected to traditional Christian notions of the afterlife.

I have read and reread TGWS numerous times. I was one of the first readers to review it on Amazon, and I have convinced many people to buy the book for themselves--or at least it to bump it up on their reading lists.

Just what is it about this book that has caused me to so enthusiastically recommend it every chance I get? I’m glad you asked! The reasons are numerous, obviously. In fact, on the first few pages of my copy I have jotted down what I consider to be the forty most important passages in TGWS. These are numbered in order of appearance, not in terms of importance. The rest of this post will be mainly devoted to passage number nine in that list. To provide a wider context, I will also pull a few quotes that come before and after it. Ready? Let’s do this!

On page 22, Congdon reminds us that “there has never been an official dogma regarding salvation.” On the same page he further remarks that “There are almost as many soteriologies as there are theologians to espouse them.” Anyone who is a part of Theology Twitter will heartily agree. DET’s very own associate editor seems to have a handful of different ones on any given day! (Exhibit A)

In TGWS, Congdon provides an existential/apocalyptic account of salvation that resonates deeply with me, and one that is thoroughly grounded in the Apostle Paul’s mature soteriological thought. Reading TGWS (should you prove bold and radical enough to buy a copy) will force you to rethink your ideas about the nature of salvation. It will also challenge you to deepen and radicalize your understanding of faith. On page 58, Congdon writes that radical faith lives “without guarantees,” abandoning “the pursuit of theological and ecclesiastical security” in order to find itself sustained by God alone. Chapter two concludes by reminding us (via Bultmann) that “they alone find security who let all security go, who—to speak with Luther—are ready to enter into inner darkness.” I’m convinced the faith Congdon speaks of here is the very faith that wrote TGWS. I am deeply appreciative of the author, and am an ardent admirer of his theological boldness.

We are finally ready for passage nine. Here it is in all its bolded glory:

Salvation is not salvation from suffering, from oppression, from the final judgment, from eternal torment, from annihilation, from the devil, from mortality--from any of the traditional threats. It is salvation from ourselves. Not salvation from the sinful “old self,” as in the classic religious paradigm, but from the illusion that we belong to ourselves, from the anxious attempt to secure ourselves, from the desire to possess our identity and thus our future, from the struggle to assert our freedom and authority. To use more traditional Lutheran terminology, it is salvation from being “curved in upon ourselves” (incurvatus in se), from having a heart viciously and solipsistically turned in upon its own twisted concern for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. The apocalypse of salvation is, in a sense, our death--the death of the existentially secure world that we build around ourselves. (p. 80)

The first sentence in the quoted passage tells us what salvation is not; the last sentence tells us what salvation is. We are saved not from the many traditional threats of religion just mentioned above; rather, we are saved from ourselves. This should sound familiar. It’s a very Pauline take on salvation. From this point forward in the book, Congdon proceeds to use what he calls “the kerygmatic norm” to develop his soteriology. The norm he speaks of is none other than Galatians 2:19b-20, in which Paul states: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (NRSV)

Let’s see how Congdon unpacks the kerygmatic norm:

The point is that apocalypse, justification, and cocrucifixion are all speaking about one and the same reality: the singular event whereby God eschatologically interrupts our existence and places us outside ourselves, thus making us wholly insecure in ourselves but wholly secure in God. We should therefore understand salvation as a participatory occurrence: to be saved is to participate existentially in the death of Christ, understood as the eschatological judgment of the world, and this existential participation occurs as we die to our old way of existence and experience ourselves anew: “Those who in faith know the mystery of Jesus Christ, who are thus placed outside themselves, find their existential location "in Christ" ( 2 Cor 5:17).' (p. 83)

You, dear reader, may well be aware of the criticisms thrown at existential interpretation of scripture, but rest assured TGWS is not at all exclusively concerned with what happens to individuals who receive salvation. No, existentialist interpretation of scripture is not available/helpful only to the bourgeois! In fact, I would go so far as to say that the existentialist interpretation modeled by Congdon in his book is a potential theological weapon serving the liberation of traditionally oppressed communities. More on that another day, assuming of course that I am invited to write again for DET.

When through the kerygma the Spirit cocrucifies us with Jesus, She brings us into solidarity with the Crucified, which in turn brings us into solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized in our communities and society at large. The apocalypse does not merely save us from ourselves. It saves us for others. More eloquently put: “The event of grace is not exhausted by mere self-displacement. Cocrucifixion is a movement extra nos for the sake of being pro alio, for another” (p. 89). In saving me, the God who saves opens my eyes, and gives me a bifocal view of myself, my neighbor, the church, and the whole creation.(*) I become someone who imperfectly but continually seeks to live as Jesus lived: in submission to God and in service to my neighbor. In short, I receive a new mode of existence in which I become a new creation.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17, NRSV)! Through the kerygma I am crucified to the world, and the world is crucified to me. I exist anew. I exist in Christ. This is the promise and hope of the gospel.


(*) I would highly recommend that J. Louis Martyn’s Galatians be read before and after reading TGWS. Doing so will help you more easily understand TGWS, and conversely, reading TGWS will also help you better understand Galatians. It’s a win-win situation!

[From the author: I read and study theology in my spare time. My favorite topics are theodicy, eschatology, modern, and postmodern theology. I have read some Barth, more Bultmann, a lot of Moltmann, and all of David W. Congdon’s books. I am neither a pastor nor a theologian, but am friends with many such folks in real life as well as on Theology Twitter. Find me there (@potmoltmannian) if you’d like to connect!]

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Comments

Thanks for this post, Juan! I very much appreciate (and agree with) your comment about existentialist interpretation (as David does it) and liberationist theologies.

And yes, you are invited to write again. :-P
Juan C. Torres said…
Thanks, Travis!

Perhaps I can review your upcoming book as well;)

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