Christian History – Meet the Moderns: Rudolph Bultmann


What is it with theology and pipes?

Bultmann, something of a liberal himself, reacted against the founder of liberalism, although still remained in the Liberal tradition due to his existential mindset. He is mostly known
as a New Testament scholar rather than a trained theologian, being the person who ignited the “form criticism” movement in Biblical Studies. Form criticism, in essence, analyzed the Gospels by dividing them into di erent types/forms, by which he meant to trace their development in the earlier oral tradition, their function in the early Church, and then to
assert their historicity. In Bultmann’s words,

The aim of form-criticism is to determine the original form of a piece of narrative, a dominical saying or a parable. In the process we learn to distinguish secondary additions and forms, and these in turn lead to important results for the history of the tradition.

Yet Bultmann concluded that much of the content was the result of the early Christian community or the mythical worldview, not Jesus Himself – thus, knowing who Jesus was is a losing proposition. For Bultmann, this was not a problem as the historical Jesus was unnecessary, as the Gospels (for him) do not require any firmer basis than that Jesus lived and died. Lastly, he also thinks that interest in a historical Jesus is actually illegitimate. Here, he uses 2 Corinthians 5:16 to prod us towards his view, without the context attached:

Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. 17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 18 Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

You might say he extracts historical knowledge from the faith process. I’m trying to figure out where Paul tells us that Jesus didn’t really exist, and that he became a form of self-authentication for human beings to follow. Confused? You should be confused! So was I when I first read his essay “The New Testament and Mythology”. Frankly, I attempted to find out where this conclusion emerged. I suppose the first part says something about not believing in a Christ that lived, breathed, died, and rose again, but we can further say that they had no conception of “history” as we do today. The result of Bultmann’s ideas actually goes to an entirely different, and very Heidegger-esque (no wonder; they were good friends) path.

Bultmann’s rejection, really, is to create what we can call an “existentialist” form of Christianity. The Word of God, for it to continue its relevance to modern humanity, must undergo a process of “demythologizing”, removing those mythical elements that the modern mind finds so dicult to accept. Its framework comes from antiquity, a di erent era with vastly different assumptions about the construction of the world. Interpretations needs to be excised from the metaphysics of the rst century and brought back into the 20th-21st century. The mythical worldview, with its three story universe and belief in the supernatural cannot be accepted by modern man. Even if there is no particular reason to believe the mythical worldview, simply to “pick and choose” mythical doctrines as real truths is a task destined for failure – for Bultmann, one accepts the whole mythical worldview or rejects it.

Thus, Bultmann demythologizes by eliminating their interpretation for

The real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives. Myth should be interpreted not cosmologically, but anthropologically, or better still, existentially.

Thus, through this methodology, he hopes to make existential sense of the New Testament without removing what is essential. What was once mythical now becomes existential, talking about humanity in different language, really. How can humans act authentically in the face of dread and anxiety? By opening ourselves freely to the future – faith, obedient self-commitment and inward detachment from the world. Anyone who speaks of God actually speaks about his/her/itself.

However, any process of “removing” sections of Scripture will always encounter problems; assuming that its structure does not rely on these “mythical elements”, for one, makes a large assumption about the text. Bultmann removes myth, but he also removes history from the equation. Did Jesus actually do anything, did God do anything, or does one merely talking about themselves? Justi cation by personal existential faith alone, excising history, does not draw any closer to salvation; it speaks of the self’s self-authenticating. Changing the words, in this respect, changes what has been written, the author’s intent, whether God or human. Does sacrificing theology at the altar of anthropology bring new insights, other than making Christianity more palatable to the modern age? In other words,

God’s great drama has  become an ‘existentialist personal performance’

Can an anthropological answer create an impetus in the human being to accept salvation? Certainly, Bultmann accepts the “real” existence of these ideas presented in myth, but their reformulation strikes one as something quite different from the Gospel accounts. Bultmann assumes the universe is a closed system of scientific c inquiry in which nothing can impinge, yet that is not necessarily true by default.

This is a mixture of science plus philosophy of science! Whereas Augustine and Aquinas did use philosophical terminology, they affirmed the primacy and authority of the Christian revelation, parting with philosophy when it undermined that revelation. Bultmann makes “modern culture” normative, again a problem of a new source of authority to usurp the
old! This is a very traditional interpretation of Bultmann; there are others who interpret him as an orthodox figure who speaks of context of the early Church when he speaks of “demythologizing”. Regardless, the more well-known Bultmann was the man I encountered here.

In other words, the Jesus I encountered (and probably you, dear reader) wasn’t myself; He was an actual person. And that’s the most damning criticism I can level against Bultmann, really.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.