Remembering Rudolf Bultmann

Two bloggers I read regularly posted about Rudolf Bultmann today, the anniversary of his death on July 30th, 1976. One offered appreciations, the other posted a rather ridiculous denigration that made me suspect the person writing it has never read Bultmann for himself.

Bultmann is famous – and in some circles infamous – for his writings about demythologization, i.e. the view that the New Testament writings reflect a mythological (that is, pre-scientific) view of the world, and that since no one today can simply adopt that ancient worldview, the only way to express the Christian message today is to find a way of translating from that mythical language into something that can challenge us today in an equivalent way within the framework of our scientific view of the world. Bultmann is viewed by some as an enemy of the faith when it is arguable that he has helped more people to remain Christians and navigate these troubled waters than any other 20th century writer.

And so let me share a quote from Bultmann which I chose as a motto for an interview I did with a Romanian journalist five years ago:

Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world – in fact, there is no one who does…it is impossible to revive an obsolete view of the world by a mere fiat, and certainly not a mythical view. For all our thinking today is shaped irrevocably by modern science. A blind acceptance of the New Testament mythology would be arbitrary, and to press for its acceptance as an article of faith would be to reduce faith to works.

Since the entire piece by Bultmann from which the quote is taken, Kerygma and Myth, is available for free online, I encourage you to click through and read it. Many in conservative circles still use Bultmann as a bugbear that they take pleasure in denigrating. But unless you believe that Jesus literally rose skyward heading towards a heaven that is literally upwards, then you have engaged in demythologization of the New Testament. In which case Bultmann deserves gratitude for helping you preserve your faith, rather than treatment as though he were hostile to it.

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  • Dan Ortiz

    My favourite biblical theologian

  • Tony Springer

    Right James. If one does NT studies today, you have to engage Rudy, not only for what James said, but also on form criticism and NT theology.

  • Mark Stevens

    I have read Bultmann; several volumes in fact. :)

    • James F. McGrath

      Mark, you said on Facebook that the result of Bultmann’s approach is clergy who “don’t believe anything.” I cannot imagine how you can connect that with Bultmann, unless what you mean is that they are people for who, Christianity is not about choosing to believe certain narrative details are historical when the evidence does not or cannot support that. If what you meant is the latter, then I would say that perhaps what you view negatively is in fact a good thing.

      Have you read his contribution to Kerygma and Myth? I am curious which volumes you’ve read, because I know that I disagree with Bultmann about many things, but his work is so important and his contribution so helpful that I could never simply be dismissive and insulting as you were in your post.

  • Jim West

    reading ‘about’ bultmann is generally what fundamentalists prefer to do instead of reading bultmann himself. if they, or anyone, truly took the time to read what he wrote in his academic volumes or in his book reviews or in his sermons they would have to admit, if they were honest, that he did some very good things.

    i don’t believe most of the people who say they have read bultmann but who then go on to say that they find only fault with him. such persons are neither honest (they probably haven’t read more than 3 lines of bultmann) or just downright foolish. they’re like the people who look at a painting by rembrandt and say ‘i think it’s ugly’.

    philistines (in the bad sense).