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Preview: The Fire and the Rose

The Fire and the Rose

And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well / When the tongues of flame are in-folded / Into the crowned knot of fire / And the fire and the rose are one. — T.S. Eliot

Updated: 2018-02-07T16:18:54.236-06:00


Why some Christians think transgender is gnostic—and why they’re wrong


This past summer the well-known New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright, made headlines for his letter to the London Times in which he claimed that “the confusion about gender identity is a modern and now internet-fuelled, form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. The Gnostic, one who ‘knows’, has discovered the secret of ‘who I really am’, behind the deceptive outward appearance. . . . This involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world.”The claim that trans* identity is a form of gnosticism has a long legacy. Oliver O’Donovan may have been the first to connect them in his 1982 pamphlet Transsexualism and Christian Marriage, where he says the “claim to have a ‘real sex’, which may be at war with the sex of my body . . . [is] a kind of Gnostic withdrawal from material creation.”The 2003 House of Bishops report, Some Issues in Human Sexuality: A Guide to the Debate, quotes O’Donovan directly to provide expert support for the view that “transsexualism” implies a gnostic dualism. The report amplifies this view by quoting the ethicist Robert Song, who characterizes medical interventions to change the body as a form of gnosticism. Song asks, “Is one’s true self to be found in separation from or identification with one’s body?”Framing sex reassignment surgery as a separation from the body, however, is a significant misunderstanding. In her 2005 response to Some Issues, Christina Beardsley observed, “The transition journey, in which the subject’s body is subtly or dramatically changed by hormones and surgery, is not the Gnostic rejection of the body, or a dismissal of its importance, but a quest for a fuller embodiment of the person.” The trans* person pursuing resolution of gender dysphoria desires identification with the body. The separation is precisely the problem, not the solution.Nevertheless, the notion has persisted and spread throughout conservative Christian circles. Kevin Vanhoozer recirculated O’Donovan’s views in his 2009 essay for the Zondervan volume, Four Views on Moving beyond the Bible to Theology. In the course of six pages on the “lie” of transsexuality, he asserts that this idea “flirts with a gnostic, even docetic, disregard for bodily reality.” More recently, Catholic Bishop Robert Barron connected Caitlyn Jenner with the “Gnostic heresy” in June 2015, which prompted a response by the trans Catholic Anna Magdalena Patti. She observes that “the word ‘Gnostic’ has become to Catholicism what ‘Communist’ was to McCarthy-era Americans.”Peter Leithart, in February 2016, decried an “invasive Gnosticism”—a theological parallel to the conservative worry about “invasive leftism”—because of the Washington State Human Rights Commission’s policies regarding gender-neutral restrooms. These policies, he claimed, are “an effort to use the blunt power of the state to to [sic] make Gnostics of us all.” According to Leithart, trans* people have power that “ancient Gnostics never dreamed of,” since they “can wish away the shameful bits of our bodies with a wave of the will.” Some might respond: if only this were so!The majority of these claims boil down to a rejection of the distinction between sex and gender, between biology and psychology. Conservatives dismiss not only psychological experience but also the social construction of gender. By conflating gender with genitalia—and thereby failing to confront the challenge of intersex persons—conservative theologians and ethicists are able to smuggle in socially constructed gender norms under the guise of biology and so claim that certain hierarchical and patriarchal social dynamics belong to the permanent structures of creation. Anyone who denies these cultural norms thereby denies creation and is thus a gnostic.Vanhoozer, for example, grounds these cultural norms in the will of God. God’s decision to create establishes a divine drama, and our purpose in life is to discern our dramatic role in the world. The limits of our role are “given to[...]

Imma Let You...Keep Talking


After years of private reflection and discussion, my wife Amy has decided to come out as bisexual, and I couldn’t be prouder of her. She is the model of persistence and courage. If growing up as a woman of color within conservative evangelicalism wasn’t enough, becoming aware of her sexual identity has been a slow and anxiety-filled journey of discovery. I encourage you to read her post.

And that’s about all I am going to say, because this isn’t my story to tell. It is so tempting for straight allies to loudly announce their allyship, especially when you have a public platform as a writer and scholar, as I do. But straight allies need to learn to hand over the mic, give up the stage, and step aside for those who have been silenced and marginalized for far too long. So to reverse Kanye’s infamous interruption: “imma let you keep talking.”

Keep talking, Amy. And for the rest of us, let’s keep listening.

Breaking Silence: Amy’s Story


I don’t usually use this space to write about personal matters, but it’s time I changed that.I want to tell you about someone. Her name is Amy.David and Amy at a march in Kansas CityAmy has endured a lot, more than I can adequately convey in this space. Her life before me had many challenges that I am going to pass over, but they are part of the background to the story I’m telling here.That story begins with me. But that doesn’t mean it’s a happy story. Far from it.We both grew up in suburban Portland within conservative Christian families. We’re both the oldest of three children. And we loved it there. Portland was an incredible place to grow up, with its quirky mix of West coast culture, hippy weirdness, bookish intellectualism, and progressive politics.We originally met in middle school, but that wasn’t the start of some teenage romance. Hardly. But we did eventually fall for each other at the end of high school. I went off to Wheaton College, while she stayed in Oregon, going to George Fox University and then Multnomah University (Multnomah Bible College at the time).Here is where things started to go awry. Our relationship thrived, but I was getting used to two things: (1) being away from Oregon and (2) becoming a scholar.We married after finishing college in 2005, like young evangelicals often did at the time. Five weeks later, we were on the road to Princeton, New Jersey, where I would start the MDiv program at Princeton Theological Seminary. And this is where things really went awry.Amy hated New Jersey. On top of that, I was going through a massive transformation: I was sloughing off my evangelicalism as fast as I could, and I was taking on the mantle of the budding theological scholar, ready to go wherever this would take me. I was coming alive during my studies, finally realizing what I was meant to do with my life.All the while, Amy was dying inside. She missed Oregon. She missed her friends—some of her closest friends seemed to abandon her. Whereas I had a community of professors and fellow students around me, she had no one. It seemed like all the other spouses had friends in the married student community—everyone except Amy.She went from job to job trying to find something to keep her occupied and help her avoid depression. Teach for America, test tutoring, Starbucks—each job a temporary band aid disguising, or contributing to, her pain.We eventually made some friends in the community, but then they left and we were still there. Because I stayed on to do a PhD, we ended up living in New Jersey for seven years. We saw two classes of MDiv students come and go during that time.On top of all this, a church we were heavily involved at kicked me out of leadership and closed their doors on us. We lost our only refuge. We still had friends from the church, but it became harder and harder to maintain contact with them, especially since we now had a child and they all lived in the Philly suburbs over a half-hour away.Thankfully, in our final years in Princeton, Amy found a great job at a private Catholic school. She loved the people at the school and finally felt like things were settling down for her.But just as things were looking up, we had to move.My PhD funding was about to run out and we needed to figure out our next steps. A position opened up at InterVarsity Press in the western suburbs of Chicago. I had extended family in the area and it was near where I went to college. I didn’t want to enter the evangelical world again, but it seemed like the best—or rather, the only—option. So we went.We hoped that this move would be different. We were excited about the possibilities. But it was like going to New Jersey again, only worse. Those first two years were miserable for Amy. Once again, she didn’t know anyone. She was once again looking for work. Again, I had a community of people at my job, whereas she had no one. We didn’t have neighbors who were our age or showed any interest in us. It was even more isolating in Downers Grove[...]

The God Who Saves: Early Reader Reviews


The God Who Saves: A Preview of My New Book


I am pleased to announce that my new book, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch, is now available from Cascade Books. This work is near to my heart. For one thing, it is the first book contract I ever signed. The project originated in January 2010 at a request from Robin Parry, an editor at Wipf and Stock, who was familiar with my work. I tell the whole story of the book’s origin in the prologue, so I will not relay the details again here. Suffice it to say, it has been on my mind for the last half-dozen years and, in a certain respect, it is the project for which all my previous writings were the prolegomena.The book is essentially a dogmatics in outline, but it is controlled throughout by a very specific claim, namely, that salvation—not trinity, not christology—is the orienting center and guiding norm of Christian theology. To give a sense of what I mean, here is a sample from chapter 2, where I outline my theological method.From Chapter 2: “Soteriocentrism: Prolegomena to a Dogmatic Sketch” I have argued that Christian faith confesses a God who saves. Theology is the conceptual interpretation and clarification of this axiom of faith. It is a scientific, hermeneutical, and practical discipline that humbly and rigorously reflects on the relation between God and humanity in the light of God’s reconciling self-revelation in Jesus Christ. But what does it mean for God to save? What does it mean for us to be saved? These questions—which lie at the very heart of Christian self-understanding—elude easy answers and must be asked anew by every generation. The difficulty of reaching any kind of agreement is only compounded by the fact that there has never been a dogma of the atonement. No ecumenical conciliar statement about the meaning of salvation exists. The ecumenical councils were content with clarifying the nature of Christ’s person without clarifying the nature of his saving work and how we participate in it. This has left the church with “an inherited heap of proposals” and little agreement about how to evaluate them.The following chapters attempt to offer a systematic theological account of salvation, a soteriological dogmatica minora. That is to say, they seek to articulate various doctrines of the Christian faith in terms of the economy of grace. Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and creation—these and other doctrines will be explicated in light of the saving event that Christian faith confesses has taken place in Christ. This project is thus the consistent application of Melanchthon’s axiom (“to know Christ means to know his benefits”) to the whole of Christian theology. To know God is to know the God who saves. Theology is only properly Christian theology when it interprets the subject-matter of theology—the material content of dogmatics—in terms of its salvific significance for us. The implication is that, as Eberhard Jüngel puts it, “you are not teaching the matter properly if you do not at the same time think of its use.” . . . To adapt Luther, unless we learn to know God in this way (i.e., soteriologically), we necessarily go wrong. Unless theology speaks of a reality that is “useful for us as believers,” that “helps us,” it speaks in vain. To borrow an image from Wittgenstein, theology that is not determined by soteriology is language “idling,” that is, not “doing work.” If any doctrinal statement is irrelevant to the question of salvation, then it is highly questionable whether it has a place in a distinctively Christian articulation of faith. To paraphrase Luther, it is not Christian theology when you explicate doctrines from a historical or metaphysical point of view; they must be interpreted in terms of their usefulness and significance for us as believers. (53–55)All of this talk about salvation is situated within the context of trying to work out a problem regarding Christian universalism—a position I have defended and ar[...]

Eberhard Busch to Rolf Italiaander, 1968


The question of Karl Barth’s position on homosexuality was raised recently by Wyatt Houtz, who has quoted George Hunsinger’s reference to a letter near the end of Barth’s life that indicates a change of mind on this issue. Since this letter is only available in German, Wyatt asked if someone could translate it. In answer to the call, I have done precisely that. It’s a rough translation, and no doubt others could improve it, but the gist should be clear enough. Below I have included the letter in both German and English.___________________________To the ethnologist Rolf Italiaander, Hamburg 1968Letter from Eberhard Busch (at the instruction of Karl Barth) written on June 21, 1968.Sehr geehrter Herr Italiaander!Professor Karl Barth hat Ihren Brief vom 10. Juni zur Kenntnis genommen und hat sich gefreut, daß Sie bei der von Ihnen geplanten Sammlung zum Problem der Homosexuellen und ihrer sozialen Stellung und Anerkennung daran gedacht haben, auch seine Stimme zum Klingen zu bringen.In der Tat hat er sich bereits einmal (Kirchl. Dogmatik III/4, 1951, S. 184f. [note]) zu diesem Problem geäußert - freilich in einem Sinn, der jenen Abschnitt für Ihre Sammlung wohl nicht als geeignet und passend erscheinen läßt. Damit Sie seine dort überwiegend negative Einstellung zu homosexuellen Beziehungen nicht falsch oder überbewerten, sei kurz angedeutet:1) daß die dort - nur beiläufig - gemachte Äußerung nur auf dem Hintergrund des ganzen Zusammenhangs jenes Abschnitts zu verstehen und zu würdigen ist: ein Zusammenhang, in dem K. Barth das dem Menschen als Kreatur und in seiner Kreatürlichkeit gegebene Gebot Gottes unter einem von mehreren Aspekten, nämlich unter dem der »Freiheit zur Gemeinschaft» auslegt. Wobei für ihn die Urgestalt aller mitmenschlichen Gemeinschaft die des (nicht bloß «ehelichen», sondern des ganzen natürlichen) Gegenübers von Mann und Frau ist.2) In diesem Zusammenhang erscheint ihm nun die Homosexualität ihrem Wesen nach als eine Gestalt von unfreier Gemeinschaft - bzw. als ein Verhalten, in dem sich der Mensch seiner Freiheit zur Gemeinschaft verschließt und entzieht. Sie dürfen aber gewiß sein, daß diese seine Meinung zu diesem Punkt als solche für ihn prinzipiell keine Erlaubnis zur «Diffamierung», geschweige zur (ja unsinnigen) juristischen «Bestrafung» der Homosexuellen (jedenfalls soweit sie nicht Andere «verführen» oder «belästigen») implizierte und impliziert. Für wirklich schlimm hält er nicht sie, sondern vielmehr den emotionalen Pharisäismus, der - sei es mit degradierenden (zudem oft nicht mit gleichem Maß angewandten) Gesetzesparagraphen, sei es im verächtlichen Flüsterton gegen sie einschreitet oder Stimmung macht. So auf keinen Fall!3) Prof. Barth ist mit seinen damaligen beiläufigen Äußerungen heute - angesichts der seit ihrer Niederschrift eingetretenen Wandlungen und neuen Erkenntnisse - nicht mehr ganz zufrieden und würde sie heute sicher etwas anders abfassen. Man darf also denken, daß er gerade auf dem Hintergrund des Zusammenhangs, daß Gottes Gebot grundsätzlich auch als «Freiheit zur Gemeinschaft» wahrgenommen und befolgt sein will, - im Gespräch mit Medizinern und Psychologen - zu einer neuen Beurteilung und Darstellung des Phänomens kommen könnte.Das würden Sie natürlich jetzt gern von ihm hören. Dazu hat er, der sich als über 82jähriger allerlei Beschränkungen gefallen lassen muß, aber nun nicht mehr die dazu erforderliche Zeit. Sie meint er mit den ihm verbliebenen Kräften auf die Arbeit an ihm gegenwärtig noch wichtiger erscheinende Themen und Aufgaben verwenden zu sollen. Haben Sie bitte freundliches Verständnis dafür!In seinem Auftrag grüßt Sie ergebenEberhard BuschDear Mr. Italiaander!Professor Karl Barth took note of your letter on June 10 and is pleased that, in your planned anthology on the issue of homosexuals and their social status and recognition, you thought to give[...]

Theological Pluralism at the End of the Mainline


Eighteen years ago William J. Abraham published a dire warning about the future of the United Methodist Church in First Things: “United Methodists at the End of the Mainline.” The article has been shared recently in light of the current social media firestorm surrounding the 2016 United Methodist Church General Conference (#UMCGC). Abraham in 1998 saw his denomination facing a “breakdown of a working consensus.”The problem, he argues, is that the United Methodist Church is composed of three groups—the liberals, radicals, and conservatives—with the liberals in leadership. The liberals have a policy of inclusion and pluralism, but they have excluded those who do not share their pluralistic vision and principles. The result is the old cliché: liberals are tolerant of everyone except the intolerant. Abraham sees the liberal position as inherently unstable and incoherent. The conservatives and radicals, by contrast, are defined by being explicitly exclusionary: the conservatives exclude those who are confessionally out-of-bounds, while the radicals exclude those who are politically out-of-bounds. Abraham is clearly sympathetic to the conservative camp and defends their position in the rest of the article. He clearly appreciates the liberals for being able to hold the three groups together for so long, and he seems to blame the radicals for undermining this “working consensus” by forcing the liberals to take a hard stand against certain conservative factions.What interests me here is his case against theological pluralism. Here is the heart of his argument:It has long been agreed that United Methodism is a coalition of diverse conviction and opinion, having been formed under the banner of theological pluralism. Church leaders took the view in the 1970s that the core identity of United Methodism, if there was one at all, was located in commitment to the Methodist Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), and that this not only permitted but in fact sanctioned and fostered doctrinal pluralism. Doctrinal pluralism, despite its intellectual incoherence, will work so long as something akin to Liberal Protestantism is held by the leadership of the church and so long as those who are not Liberal Protestants acquiesce. In fact pluralism is part of the intellectual structure of Liberal Protestantism. If you believe that Christian doctrine is essentially an attempt to capture dimensions of human experience that defy precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations, then the truth about God, the human condition, salvation, and the like can never be adequately posited once and for all; on the contrary, the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine as mediated through Jesus Christ. The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends. In these circumstances pluralism is an inescapable feature of the church’s life. Pluralism effectively prevents the emergence of Christian doctrinal confession, that is, agreed Christian conviction and truth; and it creates the psychological and social conditions for constant self-criticism and review. The incoherence of this position is not difficult to discern, despite its initial plausibility. On its own terms it cannot tolerate, for example, those who believe that there really is a definitive revelation of the divine, that the church really can discern and express the truth about God through the working of reason and the Holy Spirit, and that such truth is necessary for effective mission and service. Hence pluralism is by nature exclusionary. Thus it is no surprise that pluralists readily desert their pluralism in their vehement opposition to certain kinds of classical and conservative theology. Pluralism is at once absolutist and relativist. It is absolutely committed to the negative[...]

Dialectical Theology and Mission: A Response to Martin Westerholm


I am grateful to Martin Westerholm for his generous review article on my book, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Fortress, 2015), which he places alongside Kevin Hector’s new work, The Theological Project of Modernism: Faith and the Conditions of Mineness (OUP, 2015). The article is in the latest issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology (18, no. 2: 210–32). On the whole I think Westerholm has done an admirable job summarizing and exploring the key themes of my work. In this post I want to address some areas of critique that he raises and reflect on what this reveals about the state of the conversation.I.Westerholm understands well the structure of my argument. He recognizes that it is framed in concentric circles leading, at its heart, into the program of demythologizing. The argument is not primarily that demythologizing itself has been completely misunderstood—though in some respects it has been—but that the program needs to be placed in the proper context: “Rehabilitating this hermeneutic does not mean changing its basic definition, but rather constructing a new framework around it that changes the terms on which it is understood. Congdon’s book is long because it not only describes its object but also reconstructs the theological and historical world in relation to which the object is judged” (218). The new framework I provide is a new understanding of dialectical theology (DT), one that does justice to the theological concerns and historical trajectories of both Barth and Bultmann. Westerholm examines my tripartite definition of DT as soteriological, eschatological, and missional (I use “missionary” in my book, but “missional” captures the same meaning).Westerholm focuses his main critique around the third term and here it is worth taking a closer look. He writes:The fly in the ointment is the addition of mission as the third constitutive feature of dialectical theology. The addition appears to be crucial, for Congdon wishes to argue that it is the ‘missionary logic’ that ‘governs’ dialectical theology that demythologizing ‘extends’ into hermeneutics; but the association between dialectical theology and mission is a soft spot in his argument. At the most conceptually consistent moments in the work, Congdon depicts dialectical theology as a soteriological-eschatological form of thought that has implications for mission; but we are in the sphere of fallacy if we name the essence of the thing according to its implication, and stronger claims regarding ‘essence’ typify the book. Congdon seeks to secure these claims through a reinterpretation of Barth’s development that depicts concern for mission as a decisive factor in moving Barth towards dialectical theology; but, in a book in which the historiographical work is generally thorough and rigorous, the evidence provided for Barth’s missional interest is strikingly thin, and even were the interest well substantiated, we should again be guilty of fallacy were we to treat genetic factors as constitutive of essence. (219–20)Westerholm has a long footnote in here where he attempts to review all the places in which I cite mission appearing in Barth’s early writings (220n38). Readers are encouraged to read the note for themselves. All I want to say here is that he seems to have misunderstood the point of this historiographical section. The point was not to document every appearance of mission in the early Barth. When he says that “mission is then largely absent from Barth’s writings between 1910 and 1914,” that is because I chose not to discuss those years in order to hit the main highlights. Parenthetically, the recent publication of Barth’s 1911 sermons shows that mission was indeed a concern on his mind during that time. Westerholm concludes the note by stating: “No evidence [...]

New website


(image) For those looking for a current list of my publications (including articles available for download) or an update on my research and writing, you can now consult my personal website:

There you will find my CV, descriptions of my books, lists of my articles and book chapters (including download links), and a statement about my current areas of research and writing.

Thanks for visiting!

A New Introduction to Rudolf Bultmann


In the months after I finished my Fortress Press monograph on Rudolf Bultmann’s theology, The Mission of Demythologizing, I began working on a short introduction to his thought for undergraduate and lay readers. The result was published this week by Cascade Books as Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. The book is on sale through November 15 for 40% when you use the code: Bultmann.With this work I wanted to give people the tools they need to read Bultmann profitably. While all introductions to Bultmann (apart from readers) are now out-of-print, one of their main drawbacks was a focus on the sources of Bultmann’s theology. They would discuss Heidegger, Herrmann, Barth, form criticism, and other influences, with the expectation that knowing the historical background and source material would enable the reader to dive into Bultmann’s texts.The problem is that Bultmann is a highly synthetic theologian. He is not simply a composite of various influences. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.For this reason I opted instead to approach Bultmann thematically. My guiding question throughout was: how does Bultmann himself think theologically? My aim, in other words, was to discern the nuts and bolts of his thought, to distill his interdisciplinary and wide-ranging work to its essence.I ended up with ten chapters on the following themes:eschatologydialecticnonobjectifiabilityself-understandingkerygma (see a sample from this chapter below)historymythhermeneuticsfreedomadventIn terms of order, the key decisions are to place eschatology up front and advent at the end. I am convinced that the only way into Bultmann’s theology is through the question of eschatology. This is how he begins his Jesus Christ and Mythology, and there is a reason for that: eschatology is both the problem that theology attempts to answer and the norm by which theology develops the answer. Eschatology is the theological nodal point at which the various streams and layers of Bultmann's thought converge to form a coherent image.Advent is the pastoral and practical counterpoint to eschatology. In that concluding chapter I survey Bultmann's sermons to see the centrality of and the development in his discussion of Christ's advent. As I have argued on this blog before, Bultmann is the modern theologian of advent par excellence. His entire theology is suffused with eschatological expectancy. I argue in this final chapter that he is a theologian of “perpetual advent.”Bultmann is a challenging theologian. His thought is scattered among various short essays. He ranges across a number of different disciplines and methodologies. He is what Barth would call an “irregular” theologian. For this reason, there is a need for a guide to his thought that brings systematic clarity to his body of work. This is what I have aimed to provide.___________________________________A selection from chapter 5, “Kerygma” (pp. 71–74):Bultmann presents the question regarding the essence of the kerygma . . . most clearly in the passage from his letter to Heidegger in 1932 quoted above. The letter continues as follows:It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that the central problem of New Testament theology is to say what the Christian kerygma actually is. It is never present simply as something given, but is always formulated out of a particular believing understanding. Moreover, the New Testament, almost without exception, does not directly contain the kerygma, but rather certain statements (such as the Pauline doctrine of justification), in which the believing understanding of Christian being is developed, are based on the kerygma and refer back to it. What the kerygma is can never be said conclusively, but must constantly be found anew, because it is only actually the kerygma in the carrying out of t[...]

The Mission of Demythologizing is now available


My book, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology, is now available from Fortress Press. The book is an expanded version of my dissertation. My thesis is that, even in his later hermeneutical work, Bultmann never abandoned the dialectical theology he shared with Karl Barth in the early 1920s. I argue that the famous program of demythologizing is the hermeneutical fulfillment of dialectical theology. Bultmann’s program of existentialist interpretation is the extension of Barth’s theology into the realm of hermeneutics.Here is a selection from the opening chapter where I set up the problem, what I call the “myth of the whale and the elephant.” Attentive readers will notice that this is a play on a section from Bultmann’s programmatic essay, “New Testament and Mythology” (compare the paragraphs below with New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert Ogden [Fortress, 1984], 1–9)._________________________________The theological world-picture of the relation between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann is a mythical world-picture. According to this picture the world is a two-part structure, with Barth on one side and Bultmann on the other, incapable of meaningful communication. Barth is, to some, the champion of the gospel against the errors of modern liberalism, while to others he was an important figure early on whose theology eventually lapsed into yet another ossified dogmatic edifice. Bultmann is, for a select few, the one who made the gospel meaningful within the modern world, while for most others he was the liberal exegete par excellence who eviscerated the kerygma of any meaningful content. According to the dominant perspective within this picture it was Barth who rescued theology from the clutches of extrabiblical presuppositions and so-called natural theology, while Bultmann was the one who made anthropology—and an individualist, existentialist anthropology at that—the starting point for theological discourse, thus subordinating theology to philosophy. All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs can be easily traced to the mythology of Anglo-American neo-orthodoxy. Contemporary Christian academic discourse is therefore confronted by the question whether, when it discusses these two figures, it is really Barth and Bultmann who are under discussion or whether it is in fact asking people to acknowledge a myth about them in place of an actual understanding of their theologies. It has to face the question whether there is a truth about Barth and Bultmann that is independent of the mythical world-picture, in which case it would be the task of responsible theological discourse to demythologize the received message about these two theologians. It is the claim of this author that there is indeed such a truth, and that we are charged with the task of demythologizing the myth of the whale and the elephant. Bultmann himself always insisted that demythologizing is not the elimination of myth but rather its interpretation and translation. Our task today is to demythologize the relation between Barth and Bultmann, and thus to hear again their joint witness to the gospel within a new theological situation. Moreover, it is impossible to repristinate an earlier world-picture, in which the world was a single story with Barth and Bultmann in a joint alliance against liberalism. We must address the mythical world-picture by going through their later writings, not by ignoring them. Such a task cannot be carried out by simply reducing the amount of mythology through picking and choosing which aspects to demythologize. We cannot, for example, reject the notion that Bultmann abandoned dialectical theology and still retain the view that he subordinates the kerygma to Heideggerian [...]

My Forthcoming Book: The Mission of Demythologizing


My nearly 1000-page study of Rudolf Bultmann’s theology and hermeneutics is nearing publication. The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology is scheduled for release on June 1 from Fortress Press.You can preorder the book now for 40% off the list price, so pick up your copy now! [Update: the 40% discount is over for now.]Here are the endorsements for the book, for which I am most grateful:“In this substantial work, David Congdon has produced the most creative and scholarly study of Rudolf Bultmann’s theology for more than a generation. In refuting the standard charge of a capitulation to modernity, he shows how Bultmann’s demythologizing project is rooted in a robust set of convictions about God as subject and the act of faith as existential and practical. This reassessment of Bultmann as a dialectical theologian is long overdue. In an increasingly secular culture which too readily dismisses Christian faith as ‘believing six impossible things before breakfast,’ Congdon’s work promises to rehabilitate Bultmann as an important resource for theological understanding.”—David Fergusson, University of Edinburgh“The Mission of Demythologizing systematically deconstructs the slogans with which New Testament scholars have long caricatured Rudolf Bultmann's hermeneutic. Yet this is no mere demolition job, as David Congdon replaces the stereotype with a Bultmann fully invested in a missiological hermeneutic on behalf of dialectical theology. This book and the discussion it generates will be with us a long time.”—Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Baylor University“This is a quite remarkable volume. It seeks to overturn two generations and more of scholarship on the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, not only revisiting and reconceiving the relationship between Bultmann and Karl Barth, but also revisioning and rehabilitating Bultmann's program of demythologization. The bold trajectory of argument which Congdon advances arcs round the central claim that Bultmann’s dialectical theology and demythologising programme represent a fundamentally missionary endevaour. To evidence this ambitious claim, Congdon engages with the full diachronic range of Bultmann’s corpus, and thereby interacts with the full range of attendant issues, including the crucial relationships between kerygma and hermeneia, objective and subjective, and mission and liberalism. The result is a painstakingly researched and lucidly presented work that is both compelling and a joy to read, one which evidences the kind of depth, insight, and passion that are the hallmarks of the very finest research in theology. This volume will make an immediate and significant contribution to the reception of the work of Bultmann (and of Barth); but more than this, the constructive and generative agenda which it sets suggests that the work of Protestant theology is far from done and that tales of its demise may be somewhat premature.”—Paul T. Nimmo, University of Aberdeen“David Congdon's work is essential reading for anyone interested in Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, or Christian theology in the modern period. Meticulously researched, lucidly written, and brimming with constructive energy, this is a work of enormous sympathy, intelligence, and creativity.”—Adam Neder, Whitworth University“This book is one of the most important and perceptive studies on Rudolf Bultmann and his often misunderstood program of Entmythologisierung (demythologizing) ever written in English.”—Michael Lattke, Emeritus, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia“For two generations theology has ‘gone around’ Bultmann rather than through him. This evasion has led either to scholarly retreats into the false securities of the old his[...]

The Top 50 Albums of 2014


I found it hard to keep up with the music in 2014. It was a busy year, to say the least. I defended my dissertation in January, signed four book contracts, had three journal articles and three book chapters published, submitted three other articles to journals, submitted a 900-page manuscript for publication, gave a conference paper, finally saw published the book I coedited with Travis McMaken on Karl Barth, and made serious headway in writing two more book manuscripts. And that is all on top of the dozens of books I edited for publication with IVP Academic. So I’ve had a lot on my mind in 2014. Unfortunately, my music listening suffered.That being said, I still listened to many albums this year—many very good albums. A number of these albums are by artists who are known for a particular instrument: Arve Henriksen on trumpet, Owen Pallett on violin, Ernst Reijseger on cello, Hauschka on piano, and James Blackshaw on guitar. 2014 was the year I discovered both Henriksen and Reijseger, and I suspect they will feature on future lists. Many of my favorite albums—Henriksen, Richard Reed Parry, David Lang, Reijseger, Hauschka, Blackshaw, Glenn Kotche, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Barnett + Coloccia, and Golden Retriever—could be classified as experimental or contemporary classical, which is a growing area of interest.With that said, here is my list of the best albums of 2014.1. Arve Henriksen, Chron + Cosmic Creation, The Nature of Connections, World of Glass (with Terje Isungset)Picking Henriksen for #1 is not merely penance for overlooking his Places of Worship on last year's list. Any of his 2014 albums would be worthy of this spot – and all of them together make for a stunning output in a single year – but the release of Chron and Cosmic Creation is the clear highlight. This is daring, eye-opening experimental music. But do not miss World of Glass, where all of the music is played on instruments made out of glass.2. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!3. Owen Pallett, In Conflict4. Richard Reed Parry, Music for Heart and Breath5. Perfume Genius, Too Bright 6. D’Angelo, Black Messiah7. Ibibio Sound Machine, Ibibio Sound Machine8. Hundred Waters, The Moon Rang Like a Bell9. FKA twigs, LP110. David Lang, Love Fail11. Ben Frost, A U R O R A12. Clark, Clark13. Ernst Reijseger, Feature14. St. Vincent, St. Vincent15. Caribou, Our Love16. Brian Eno/Karl Hyde, High Life17. Lykke Li, I Never Learn18. Aphex Twin, Syro19. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 220. Arca, Xen21. Lost in the Trees, Past Life22. Future Islands, Singles23. Marissa Nadler, July24. The Antlers, Familiars25. Museum of Love, Museum of Love26. Kate Tempest, Everybody Down27. Hauschka, Abandoned City28. Lone, Reality Testing29. Todd Terje, It’s Album Time30. Strand of Oaks, HEAL31. Death Vessel, Island Intervals32. James Blackshaw, Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat33. Lyla Foy, Mirrors the Sky34. Spoon, They Want My Soul35. Grouper, Ruins36. Jess Williamson, Native State37. Glenn Kotche, Adventureland38. A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Atomos39. Lockah, Yahoo or the Highway40. CEO, Wonderland41. How To Dress Well, “What Is This Heart?”42. Mark McGuire, Along the Way43. Mr Twin Sister, Mr Twin Sister44. Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty45. Barnett + Coloccia, Retrieval46. Golden Retriever, Seer47. Sun Kil Moon, Benji48. Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues49. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream50. Landlady, Upright Behavior[...]

Bultmann on the light that shines in the world


Rudolf Bultmann, the theologian of Advent, gave a sermon in Marburg on December 16, 1931, regarding what it means to expect the arrival of the one who has already come. The text for the sermon is John 3.19–21. Here is an excerpt I translated today. May it be an edifying reflection during this time of joyful expectation of Christ’s coming.We prepare ourselves for the coming one in the time of advent, the time of coming, of arrival. . . . But is this not a game of fancy? Are we not placing ourselves artificially in a mood of expectation, so that we experience the splendor of Christmas again as a surprise? . . . How can we expect the coming of one who is already here? . . . If we are serious about the expectation of the coming one, then we expect the one who comes to us and remains with us. Only then is Advent a genuine Advent. But how is it then possible that again and again we celebrate Advent annually? He came, and he is gone again? And will he repeatedly come and go? Is this the sad secret, out of which arises the constantly repeated celebration of Advent, that each of us must say: Yeah, well, he came, but he left. . . .  The coming of the Lord, which the Christian community anticipates in Advent and celebrates at Christmas, is not at all primarily his coming to the individual, his entering into the soul, but rather his coming to the world. 'The eternal light comes in, giving the world a new appearance' (Luther). . . . God's word is . . . that the Lord has come, that the eternal light has given the world a new appearance. This coming, which ought to comfort one, is not something which the soul ever and again experiences; such a comfort quickly vanishes. Rather it is the coming of the Lord in the world; it is the word that the Lord has come and is with us. If we are serious in the expectation of the coming one, then we await one who has already come, who is already here. How is he here? In his word! In the word that promises peace and joy, which grants us grace and peace 'from the one who is and was and is to come.' And how is this word the light that gives the world a new appearance? . . . 'The light shines in the darkness' (Jn 1.5). 'The eternal light comes in, giving the world a new appearance.' The message of Christmas resounds as a message of joy. But it is a genuine message of joy only when we do not forget the other word next to it: 'And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world.' Why is it judgment? Does the light not dispel the darkness? . . . Are we not people who walk in darkness? Do we not yearn for the light? Yes, that is the decisive question, whether we ourselves truly yearn for the light! Why is it judgment that the light has come into the world? Because people loved the darkness more than the light. . . . Yes, we all yearn for light for our desires and plans! . . . How do we love the darkness? Whether we truly love the light and not the darkness shows itself by whether we come to the eternal light, to the true light. For this light does not illuminate the way of our desires and plans; it does not illuminate the world the way we would like to see it, or the way we try to illuminate our own desires and ideals with dim lights, but rather it gives the world a new appearance.Rudolf Bultmann, Das verkündigte Wort: Predigten, Andachten, Ansprachen 1906–1941, ed. Erich Grässer and Martin Evang (Tübingen: Mohr, 1984), 239–42.[...]

New publications on Bultmann, Barth, and Jüngel


In the past few months I have had three journal articles and a book chapter published. The topics include: Bultmann's hermeneutics in relation to the church, the origins of Barth's dialectical theology, the question of Barth's universalism, and Eberhard Jüngel's pneumatocentrism. Hopefully there is a little bit for everyone—at least everyone interested in modern German theology. Rather than summarize the arguments of each essay, I am just going to post a teaser from each. Those interested in learning more about them can contact me or track down the publication.1. “Kerygma and Community: A Response to R. W. L. Moberly’s Revisiting of Bultmann.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8, no. 1 (2014): 1–21.It is not so much the church that is included within the event of Jesus Christ, but rather Christ himself who is present within the event of the church. This is, in fact, the very point Bultmann goes on to make in his 1960 address on the historical Jesus. “Faith in the church as the bearer of the kerygma” means that “Jesus Christ is present in the kerygma.” This statement “presupposes that the kerygma is itself an eschatological occurrence; and it means that Jesus is actually present in the kerygma, that it is his word which meets the hearer in the kerygma.” . . . It is for this reason that, in 1929, Bultmann says that the communication of the church “belongs itself to what is communicated,” since it is not a “mere conveying” of facts but rather a word that addresses each person. While it may come as a surprise to some, Bultmann affirms that the church’s teaching “has the character of tradition, which belongs to the history that it narrates. The tradition belongs to the event itself.” The fact that ecclesial tradition is internal to the kerygmatic event of Christ’s proclamation explains why the church can seem absent from Bultmann’s theology. His theology is thoroughly kerygmatic and christological, but precisely because it is so focused on Christ it is also at the same time focused on the ecclesial community as the bearer of God’s word and the medium through which Christ speaks to us today.2. “Dialectical Theology as Theology of Mission: Investigating the Origins of Karl Barth’s Break with Liberalism.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 16, no. 4 (2014): 390–413.Barth perceived the capitulation of liberal theologians to German war fever, along with the confusion of God’s will with the culture’s will for colonialist power, as a missionary problem. To be sure, it was not only a missionary problem, but mission was indeed at the heart of the issue. Dialectical theology, as a response to this problem, can be understood as a way of addressing the dispute between the pseudomission of Germany (or any other nation) and the genuine mission of God. . . . Though a full interpretation of his theology as a theology of mission is beyond the scope of the present article, we will simply suggest here that Barth’s career can and should be understood as the consistent attempt (a) to critically oppose the church’s capitulation to a culturally-captive Christianity and (b) to construct a positive alternative account of knowing and following God that is not liable to such captivity and is, for that reason, a theology of mission. Put another way, a theology is genuinely missionary if it makes the crosscultural movement of the gospel internal to its message and logic – that is, if it funds the freedom of the gospel for new situations. Seen from that perspective, Barth is a profound theologian of mission from the beginning.3. “Apokatastasis and Apostolicity: A Response to Oliver Crisp o[...]

On being a contemporary of Christ, or, why dialectical theology matters


“If we rightly understand ourselves, our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours.” —Karl Barth, preface to the first edition of Der Römerbrief“How energetically Calvin, having first established what stands in the text, sets himself to re-think the whole material and to wrestle with it, till the walls which separate the sixteenth century from the first become transparent! Paul speaks, and the man of the sixteenth century hears. The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and today becomes impossible.”—Karl Barth, preface to the second edition of Der Römerbrief“Intelligent comment means that I am driven on till I stand with nothing before me but the enigma of the matter; till the document seems hardly to exist as a document; till I have almost forgotten that I am not its author; till I know the author so well that I allow him to speak in my name and am even able to speak in his name myself.”—Karl Barth, preface to the second edition of Der RömerbriefA friend and colleague whom I respect has made a public break with apocalyptic theology, for reasons that are apparently based on his own personal experience. I appreciate these posts not because I agree with them—they articulate a position that I find deeply flawed, though I will not go into all the reasons here—but because they make explicit a matter that cuts to the heart of Christian identity and theology. They force the reader to make a decision, and in that sense they contribute to the clarification and understanding of the Christian faith.While it is highly dubious whether what is under consideration is justifiably called “apocalyptic theology”—there is little clarity about what is actually being rejected, since it is variously identified as apocalyptic theology, critical theory, and Marxism, but ostensibly it is some kind of theology that sees itself in alliance with the revolutionary views of Jacob Taubes and Slavoj Žižek, among others—the position being rejected is fairly clear: it is a theological position that interprets the Christian kerygma in light of the prophetic-apocalyptic context of Second Temple Judaism and seeks to make this eschatological kerygma the norm for an emancipatory mode of faithful Christian existence today. In short, it is a position that bases contemporary theopolitics on the eschatological message of the early Christian community. The rejection of this position comes to expression most forcefully in the following line: “I am not St Paul and Australia is not the Roman Empire – much as we might all wish otherwise.” The quotes above already indicate that I place myself in sharp opposition to this view, but I want to explain how and why I arrive at that position.Theological history is often cyclical. Positions once thought dead often return in new forms, sometimes with new virulence. One of the major pendulum-swinging issues throughout the history of theology is the question of the relative nearness or distance between Jesus and the present-day community of faith. The primitive Christian community was an apocalyptic community defined by the expectation of the imminent advent of the glorified Christ. They were conscious of the eschatological nearness of Christ, and thus of themselves as the eschatological community. When this advent did not occur as expected, the exigencies of the apocalypse gave way to the needs of being an established part of the world. We see the seeds of this transition already in Ephesians and Colossians, and it becomes[...]