Bultmann’s New Clothes

Students of New Testament 101 will have come across the German Biblical scholar Rudolph Bultmann. One in a long line of modernist, Protestant theologians, Bultmann is famous for his attempt to ‘de-mythologize’ the New Testament. What this means is that he wanted to get rid of the troublesome and ‘incredible’ supernatural elements of the gospels.

It is from his way of thinking that we get the now famous interpretation of the feeding of the 5,000 that “the real miracle was that everyone shared their lunch with one another.” Anyone with a little bit of imagination can get involved in the ‘de-mytholization’ game. The Virgin Birth? A beautiful and innocent girl became pregnant and gave birth to a great teacher. He was so great that pagan myths of the god/man being born of a virgin were later ascribed to her. We now know this could not have happened, and we learn that innocence and beauty are always to be valued.” The Ascension? “It’s a construction of the early church. As the disciples worked through their grief and came to accept the tragic death of their leader they came to realize a wonderful truth: that the noble and beautiful teachings of Jesus Christ have a new, and transcendent quality…” Blah blah blah and so forth.

The modernist re-interpreters of the gospel were seemingly well intended. They wanted to rid the New Testament of it’s primitive, first century supernaturalism–believing that this would make the gospel accessible for modern people. What the goof balls didn’t understand is that modern people–just like people in the first century–actually want their religion to be supernatural. That’s what religion is all about. Taking the supernatural out of religion is like playing tennis without the net. ‘Modern’ has nothing to do with it. With supreme arrogance they seemed to think that ancient people found miracles far easier to believe than modern people. This is dumb. Ancient people were smart too. They knew miracles were difficult just like modern people. The people of the first century understood that virgins don’t get pregnant, and walking on water doesns’t usually happen, and that feeding 5,000 people with one lunch is not an everyday occurrence. Err. That’s why they recorded the miracles in the first place–because they were extraordinary. In other words, because they were miracles.

Why were so many seemingly smart people taken in by this naked emporer? Just because the guy was German and had a name that had two ‘n’s at the end and smoked a pipe and looked smart? Maybe. Of course it has all to do with the philosophical trends that had been going on in the West since the ‘enlightenment’, but that’s another topic.

Back to Bultmannnn. Why didn’t anyone see the most glaring error of all? Bultmann and his gang of intellecutal bullies were all for ‘de-mythologizing’ the New Testament. But the whole obvious point is that the New Testament, and the documents of the early church do not present the gospel stories as ‘myth’ at all. They present them as history. To be sure, the stories work on us as myth, but as J.R.R.Tolkien said to C.S.Lewis, “They work on us like all the other myths, except they really happened.”

What Bultmann wanted to do was to steer around the historical accounts of the miraculous–to leave them in place as ‘marvelous stories’ but assuming that the supernatural simply couldn’t have happened like that, they wanted to draw people to the ‘real meaning’ of the stories. The implication, of course, is that the events didn’t really happen at all, or if they happened they were ordinary events that the ‘aw gawrsh!’ stupid early church members interpreted as miraculous (like everybody sharing their lunch becoming a miraculous multiplication of food) What Bultmann the de-mythologizer actually did therefore, was to turn what was reported as real events and historical accounts into–hey presto!–myths. A myth being a beautiful (but fictional) story with transcendent meaning to guide us through life.

Bultmann’s ‘great accomplishment’ therefore was to turn historical events into myth while claiming to “de-mythologize” them.

If this subterfuge, double talk, intellectual obfuscation and deception isn’t direct from the pit I don’t know what is.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01678341854029479678 Old Bob

    Thank you, Father! I first heard the word "demythologize" about 1968 from "George," the head chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota. I distrusted it immediately, simply because "George" was – all of a sudden – in civvies instead of clericals.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Sounds like George had de-mythologized himself…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07331688544544080299 Mitch

    as much as Kathrine Armstrong falls into the modernist camp, she does make the good point that mythos is essential to religion. Stories that not only reveal history but bring it to life and invite our participation in it are essential.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14488939389859451887 Chatto

    Father, have you read "Jesus of Nazareth" by Benedict XVI? Practically the whole book is about correcting the demythologising tendency in modern exegesis, and it's great.What inspired you to write the post? Sounds like you came across something which annoyed you!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07186450541592652214 Sheep 1

    "Taking the supernatural out of religion is like playing tennis without the net."To me it seems more like playing tennis without the ball!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08535681432473361950 Papa Alex

    I went to Belmont Abbey in the 80's and that's the main theologian quoted. I quit taking Scripture classes and only took Church History, Moral Theology etc. It was disgusting. Thankfully it seems most of those monks no longer teach in the theology dept. yet still inhabit the monastery. Hopefully they have seen the light.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12373317560249811006 Fr Longenecker

    Chatto, I'm annoyed when I think of the enormous harm such theologians have caused.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11812417283988325068 Lawrence

    Thank you Father Dwight. Like you, I hate this crap.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15310965192661014230 Londiniensis

    In my experience, Catholics who are not themselves trained theologians will have come across in a general way the names of leading Catholic theologians and the tendencies – whether positive, problematic or negative – that they espouse. Bultmann, being Protestant, has rather crept in under the radar, but it his influence more than most which seems to have poisoned the wells (with some help from "death of God" thinking, another Protestant innovation largely ignored by Catholic laity).What is perhaps needed – as part of the New Evangelisation (?) – is direct engagement with demythologisation, a new "crusade against the heretics". Having routed the Albigensians, the Dominicans have rather been kicking their heels since the 13th century – a new task for them?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00657046440837419925 Thomas

    Bultmann gave historical-critical studies a bad name. Instead of understanding the ancient authors, such scholars wanted to replace the ancient authors.Citation to the "Bultmann is the latest thing" is to Mascall, not as I misspelled a few days back. Ad astra per aspera!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06684142528414196410 JM

    Somewhat related is George Kelly's out-of-print but excellent "The New Biblical Theorists." He points out where Bultmannian tendencies have crept into otherwise respectable pieces of Catholic scholarship and eroded the general level of faith.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12315992410780120057 marlon

    I remember when I was in grade school and a priest came in and told us how the crossing of the Red Sea was caused by all kinds of natural events–there was a drought and the sea dried up and the Israelites crossed. And then it started to rain again. I remember being very impressed by this, and I went home and told my mom. She was not up to contradicting the priest, but she gave me a funny look. I ran into this all through school and even beyond. The worst was was a priest told a group of us that "something happened" after Jesus died that changed the disciples and set them on fire, but he didn't know what it was. It was clear to me that he did not believe in the Resurrection, and I knew that he–not I–was in deep trouble. Father, I am glad you are still blogging. Your posts lately have been phenomenal! Keep up the good work.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10132594886911830991 speak2theearth

    Might it be that Bultmann was influenced by the "demythologization" of the first chapters of Genesis by the then emerging theories of evolution and an old age for the earth? After all, if the supernatural events of the Old Testament are presumed to be unhistorical, it is logical to believe that the supernatural events of the New Testament may be unhistorical as well.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10233625143498712451 Michael

    So if the New Testament accounts are historical, why do Catholics allow for the Old Testament accounts (esp. Genesis 1-11) to be fictional? Seems like every attempt to demythologize relies on the same "we now know better…" reasoning.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10233625143498712451 Michael

    Wow, speaktotheearth, the same idea posted at the same time!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10394683570977419555 netspaced

    It's late in the day, but I have taken a more detailed look at Bultmann's New Testament and Mythology in two blog posts.http://netspacing.blogspot.com/2012/01/bultmann-problem-1-myths.htmlhttp://netspacing.blogspot.com/2012/01/bultmann-problem-2-obsolete-mythology.htmlThe New Evangelism must, centrally, include retaking the seminaries for Christian formation.