Reviving Rudolf Bultmann

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 6.49.34 PMDavid W. Congdon, ironically enough an associate editor at IVP, is attempting to revive the theology of Rudolf Bultmann for today’s theological, if not (progressive?) evangelical theological discussion. If evangelicals, one might say fairly, can find Barth suitable to historic evangelicalism perhaps also Rudolf Bultmann? Following his massive The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Fortress), his new companion to Bultmann focuses on a description (and largely positive evaluation) of Bultmann’s theology.

Congdon has mastered — if that is possible — Bultmann’s theological orientations and so begins with his eschatology and then moves onto other themes: dialectic, nonobjectifiaiblity, self-understanding, kerygma, history, myth, hermeneutics, freedom and he closes with a set of reflection on how Bultmann’s sermons on Advent and Christmas shifted in emphasis as his theology shifted. After reading the book it comes as a nice set of illustrations of Bultmann’s development.

For me the highlight of the book was the interlacing of existentialism with themes like eschatology, dialectic, nonobjectifiability, self-understanding, and kerygma. A few highlights of these sections now follow, and one major one is this distinction between the kerygma or eschatology and the form of its expression (apocalyptic or affirmations of Christ):

He was able to recognize as a historian that what the early Christians hoped for proved to be mistaken, while also recognizing that the expectation itself Is, in some sense, essential to the faith. 8

In his pursuit of this deeper meaning in the New Testament, Bultmann seeks to answer the question: what truth comes to expression in primitive Christian apocalyptic that does not depend upon (and can be differentiated from) the ancient conception of the cosmos? 9

Bultmann is famous for saying that to speak of God we must speak of ourselves, but this not because he is so anthropologically grounded or narcissistic but because all genuine knowledge of God is encounter with God through God’s grace of revelation both of judgment on sin and redemption. In other words, genuine theology is dialectical (eschatology and history, transcendence and immanence, spirit and flesh, God and world – 41) and existential. The kerygma is not so much a set of lines (in spite of 1 Cor 15, 2 Tim 2:8) as an ongoing event.

One cannot thus know God “according to the flesh” but only in the Spirit through the dialectic of knowing both God and self in God’s revelation. [Clearly Condon at times is anticipating some themes in modern apocalyptic theology via Barth.] Thus,

Self-understanding is the event in which a person encounters the word of God and so discovers herself to be a sinner who has received justification by Gods grace, and who has therefore been given a new future, a new life, a new world. 59

Instead, christology in the NT “is the proclamation of the event of Christ’s coming,” and “an understanding   of the event requires not speculation but self-examination, radical consideration speculation but self-examination, radical consideration of the nature of one’s own new existence.” 69

The kerygma is a word-event, not just a set of lines that are truth. The NT is not the kerygma but bears witness to the kerygma. “In the kerygma, God addresses us directly; in theology, we speak and hear about God’s direct address.” 73. Thus, the kerygma is prelinguistic. [Congdon uses this kerygma chp to speak to Congdon’s own penchant for universalism.]

A companion like this at some point needs to give more substantive critical discussion. Congdon comes off to this professor as a Bultmannian apologist — to be honest, I was nurtured and came of age in a day when Bultmann was known for the heresy trials in Germany over his theology and for his dismissal of the historical veracity of both the Gospels as well as most things many connected with Christian orthodoxy. OK, some of that criticism and suspicion of all things Bultmannian emerged from conservative reactionaries but it is hard for me to agree with Congdon that they got it all wrong and that he is reviving a much more palatable Bultmann.

There is a noticeable minimal discussion of Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition as well as his powerful Gospel of John. And one could have used a discussion of his famous Jesus and the Word. Bultmann’s existential theology and demythologizing are at work in these works, and many today encounter Bultmann through such writings and not so much his theological, philosophical and hermeneutical writings. One wonders how they — as entire works — fit in Bultmann’s existential theology.

I would have liked more discussion of Bultmann  and National Socialism, and in my post on Konrad Hammann’s thorough biography, I wrote this:

Some capitulated to National Socialism, to racism, to German culture as a relentless machine of superiority, to technology as the future, to human life as utilitarian, economic success regardless of its implications, shutting down alternative voices, and the destruction of nature. Some turned their theology into a tool for the National Socialists, led by the “German Christians” (Deutsche Christen, and some turned their academic work into the same (Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch). On this read R.P. Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler and S. Heschel, The Aryan Jesus.

Some capitulated by refusing to withstand and so became complicit. Some later confessed complicity; some didn’t.

Some resisted and died, like Bonhoeffer. Some resisted and escaped, like Karl Barth. Some were stained by sins under Hitler and then resisted and were imprisoned but confessed, like Martin Niemöller, while others were stained and survived, but never confessed, like Martin Heidegger. On philosophers under Hitler, see Hitler’s Philosophers by Yvonne Sherratt, a book I have not yet read.

Others resisted and survived. It is perhaps my ignorance of all the machinations or my familiarity of the stories of Bonhoeffer and Niemöller but I have always wondered how anyone could survive under Hitler without complicity in National Socialism. The story of Rudolf Bultmann is one such story, and Konrad Hammann’s full biographical study of the development of Bultmann’s theology is a singularly important achievement. The book is called Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography.

Hammann has an extensive study of Bultmann’s time under Hitler and I would summarize it in one word: courage. I was impressed with Bultmann’s courage. He opposed National Socialism, he did so intelligently and passionately but he never did get in trouble with Hitler, which I cannot explain. Others perhaps can though I have often wondered if he simply was not as critical as Barth and Bonhoeffer. His wife, Helene, was called in for interview but nothing turned up against her either. But there is very clear evidence that Bultmann not only resisted through the Confessing Church’s various statements but also in his writing, his lectures, his student interactions, and his personal life.

Though Lutheran and two realms in his theology of politics, which to his fault became a defaulting ecclesial non-involvement in the post World War II years when it came to such things as nuclear buildup, Bultmann knew National Socialism was evil and had to be resisted. He despised what Hitler was doing to Jews and he both supported his Jewish students (like Hans Jonas and Hannah Arendt) and did what he could to help them escape. He pleaded with his friend Martin Heidegger (from whom Bultmann curiously distanced his ideas though one suspects their ideas were interdependent) to confess but Heidegger never did. He opposed Kittel’s support of the Aryan Paragraph. He focused too much on the Aryan Paragraph for the church and not enough for the State.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.