BEN: Dealing with Barth or Bultmann’s treatment of Paul is of course difficult in the span of just a few pages, but at least on a surface reading it would appear appropriate to say that Barth emphasizes Paul’s belief that special revelation is required for salvation, and therefore ‘natural theology’ based on general revelation in creation, if not impossible, at least can be said to be non-salvific. By contrast, Bultmann wants to analyze Paul starting with Paul’s anthropological terms, and the inner life and nature of human beings. Would this be a fair summary of their approaches, in your judgment?
JOHN: You are right that Barth was extremely suspicious of all forms of ‘natural theology’: we understand our own situation not by reasoning from what we can already perceive (of ourselves, or of nature), but from the revelation of God in Christ. Bultmann’s position was nuanced. He thought that for revelation to make sense at all it had to connect at some level to what we can perceive about ourselves, and thus the gospel presupposes some sense of the ontological constitution of the human (which he thought best analysed through the tools of existentialist philosophy), such as our possibility of having a relation to ourselves, and an understanding of ourselves. But we need the gospel to see what state we are really in (our ontic condition) – that is, the actual dysfuntions of our human rejection of God and thus our inauthentic existence.
BEN: On p. 136 you critique Sanders’ critique of Bultmann (e.g. he thinks Bultmann saw Paul’s thought as moving from plight to solution, and was wrong). Would it be nearer the mark to say Bultmann reasons from faith, and other human responses to God, back to the nature of grace and revelation, suggesting that human beings can only think about God starting with themselves? As Lewis once said ‘we cannot crawl one inch outside our mortal skin’ and thus theology has to begin with anthropology.
JOHN: Sanders mistook the fact that Bultmann starts with Paul’s anthropological terms as indicating that Bultmann read Paul as moving from a known human plight to a solution revealed in Christ. In fact, Bultmann is quite clear that the plight is only known from the solution, because only the message of the cross reveals (and judges) our self-reliance and our innate rebellion against God. Yes, this is what faith reveals, but Bultmann also insists that faith only arises in response to the preaching of the gospel, which is where the grace of Christ accosts and meets us. In talking about faith, Bultmann is reacting against the notion that first we learn ‘objective’ truths about God or Christ (or history, or Israel) and then we come to apply them to ourselves. Paul’s gospel is good news because it concerns us and in that sense he suggests that any talk about God in Paul is always talk about God-in-relation-to-us (“simultaneously an assertion about man”). In that sense, theology is always also anthropology (he would not want to put one or other as the starting point), but he would insist that faith recognises that it is God always who takes the initiative in reaching out to us in grace, and in that sense God has priority in salvation.
BEN: Barth and Bultmann seem to share the concern to undercut human hubris and any sort of idea that one’s relationship with God could involve human achievement, a sort of building of a tower of Babel all over again. This seems to be in part because they both affirm the Lutheran radical reading of the priority and incongruity of grace, as you would put it, as what allows humans to be saved or regain right relationship with God. BUT, Bultmann, unlike Barth, goes on to suggest that the predestinarian language of Paul cannot be taken literally as there has to be a non-compelled or non-predetermined human response to grace, however much grace has enabled that response. Right?
JOHN: Yes, in my terms they both agree about the priority and incongruity of grace (the latter is one of the hallmarks of dialectical theology), but Bultmann is extremely nervous about any perfection of the efficacy of grace, if by that is meant the determination of the human agent by God’s grace or God’s will. The logic is relatively simple: in what sense can one speak of ‘obedience’ (as in Paul’s phrase, ‘the obedience of faith’) if there is no element of choice in it? In fact, Barth will also be careful not to pit the agency of God against the agency of the believer (as one overruling the other), but develops ways of speaking of agency which has the free agency of believers founded in a reality created by God (with believers as covenant partners). John Webster has explored this very well in his Barth’s Ethics of Reonciliation (1995).
BEN: Another difference of Bultmann from the Augustinian heritage, and so to some degree a difference from Luther, is not only his theology of prevenient grace, but also his rejection of the notion that: 1) grace is singular (no says Bultmann it is the grace of the judge—hence forensic righteousness or right standing is the result), and 2) it is a grace that does indeed expect a return, it demands the obedience of faith (though of course that obedience is only possible when enabled by grace). Is this a right reading of Bultmann? What I find especially interesting is that, as much as Wesleyans and Arminians may not much like Bultmann’s historical minimalism when it comes to what we can and cannot know about the historical Jesus, interestingly Bultmann’s take on Paul’s theology in various ways sounds like John Wesley all over again, though I doubt Bultmann read Wesley!
JOHN: I also doubt Bultmann read Wesley, but he was certainly trying to refine and correct some tendencies in the Lutheran tradition. Like Schlatter, he stresses what Paul says about obedience, because for him faith itself is a kind of self-surrender to the verdict of God (who is thus, as you say, both judge and the giver of grace). The well-known danger in the Lutheran tradition is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”: God gives and expects nothing in return. The best Lutheran theologians (including Luther himself) have tried to find ways to avoid that, but the tendency to what I call ‘non-circularity’ (and the fear of instituting a new kind of ‘law’) means that the Lutheran tradition is much more wary of speaking of obligation and obedience than those in the Calvinist and Arminian tradition (here these latter two actually agree with each other!). I find that a lot of evangelicals, when they read Bultmann on Paul, find his theology is actually very congenial (it preaches!), and Arminians such as yourself appreciate his resistance to some of the specifically Calvinist perfections of grace.
JOHN: Kasemann (hard to do the Umlaut in this forum!) rightly saw that Paul’s anthropology concerned primarily not our relation to ourselves, but our relation to what is outside ourselves, and in particular our relation of belonging or slavery (against modern Western versions of a natural individual freedom or autonomy). We are answerable first not to ourselves, or to other human beings, but to forces beyond ourselves: in Pauline terms, either the Lord (Jesus) or Sin and Death. This means Kasemann was also able to take the collective dimensions of Paul more seriously than Bultmann (his early work was on Paul’s ecclesiology and he kept working on that right through), although he could be very critical indeed of the church, and insisted on keeping a balanced attention to the individual, since faith cannot be exercised on our behalf by anyone else, or by any institution, and since the distribution of the gifts in the church indicate that individual difference is significant for the growth of the collective church. For Bultmann when Paul talks of soma he is talking about how we relate to ourselves; for Kasemann, he is talking of how we communicate with, and relate to, our environment and what is outside ourselves. I think Kasemann is nearer to Paul at this point, though Paul’s use of the term soma, like the term sarx, defies easy categorization.
BEN: There are points in Kasemann’s landmark commentary on Romans where he talks about God’s righteousness and God’s grace as power, such that one gets the sense he is repudiating the ‘simul Justus et peccator’ theology of Luther, and saying that grace can actually powerfully transform human nature. This comes out as well in some aspects of his reading of Romans 7 as not about the Christian life, but rather a Christian reading of the pre-Christian condition. Would this be a fair reading of Kasemann?
JOHN: Yes, for Kasemann the relation between gift and power is crucial: grace is both power over us (enlisting us in its service: ‘with the gift comes the Giver’ as Lord), and power in us (propelling us into service). He does see the latter as transformative, but he also has the deep and instinctive Lutheran concern to preserve the sense, right through the Christian life, that faith is a daily appropriation of a grace that we do not deserve and that does not correspond to our rights or privileges. So this transformation does not lead into perfection or sinlessness, in any moral sense, only into a deeper faith that draws, all the more consciously and fully, on a grace that disregards our human inabilities and imperfections.
BEN: Even in his most recent books (The Paul Debate, Paul and his Contemporary Interpreters), Tom Wright seems to continue to have an allergic reaction to Lou Martyn’s apocalyptic Paul, and behind that to Kasemann’s reading as well. I would surmise that this is largely because he wants in fact to do a continuous story reading of Paul and his view of salvation history, which includes the more Reformed reading that for Paul ultimately Israel=the church of Jew and Gentile in Christ. So he critiques the imprecise way Martyn and others use the term apocalyptic and related language, and calls it a muddle not well grounded in early Jewish thought. Yet Kasemann at least seems to have held to some sort of salvation history view, a kind of repeated incursion of grace view. Right? Why do you think Wright has such a reaction to Martyn and his kin? Is it perhaps because he wants to insist on the ‘one covenant in many administrations’ theology of Reformed theology?
JOHN: I do think Wright is influenced by a Reformed theology of covenant (it was the theological stable in which he was reared) and has several times said that we would understand Paul better from that perspective rather than from Luther’s. That is why he liked Cranfield’s commentary on Romans so much. I won’t speculate on why he finds Martyn’s work such a threat, but I find he grossly misrepresents Martyn at times, and attributes to him an anti-Judaism which is miles from Martyn’s real opinion and aims (as those of us who knew Martyn personally will testify). Salvation history can mean different things to different people (it is almost as loose a term as “apocalyptic” or, for that matter, “covenant”). For Kasemann it meant (against Bultmann) that God works through history (and not just in the individual’s present), though in such a way as always to justify the outsider and the sinner, not the pious and the righteous. For Martyn, it signals a sense of progression or development through human history, such that humans can be prepared or in a fit condition (historically or morally) to receive God’s grace; for this reason, he is allergic to the term! Because Martyn’s work is focused on Galatians, he insists on the discontinuity between the Abrahamic covenant/promise and the Mosaic law (Galatians 3). Romans is more conducive to a Reformed reading at this point, and it is a pity Martyn did not publish more on that letter. As you will see, I try to do justice to the differences and the similarities between the two letters in my readings of each letter later in this book.