According to Roger Olson, in his The Journey of Modern Theology, the “ultimate modern theologian” is Rudolf Bultmann. His words: “No one embraced modern naturalism and rationalism more fully, except that he cordoned off Christian faith from rationalism. Everything in the physical world and in history is subject to reason, and it limits religion severely. Bultmann made a virtue out of what he saw as a necessity. He made it impossible for Christianity and science to conflict” (344).
Olson knows Bultmann is not a “theologian” in the traditional systematic sense but his entire project was the attempt to fuse the horizons of the Bible (New Testament) with the modern world. Furthermore, the neo-orthodox (or kerygmatic) theologians saw Bultmann as one of their own — he was supposed to be one of their own. Some topics of Bultmann put his major ideas on the table.
His method was demythologization. It begins with this conclusion:
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. We may think we can manage it in our own lives, but to expect others to do so is to make the Christian faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world (from Bultmann, “The New Testament and Mythology,” 5 [Olson, 325]).
Why? All that matters is what matters to modern man, and modern man is shaped by scientism: “It is “the view of the world which has been molded by modern science and the modern conception of human nature as a self-subsistent unity immune from the interference of supernatural powers.” What is myth? “man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives” in some nonliteral fashion — the ancient supernatural worldview then dramatizes man’s understanding of himself in supernatural terms. Here is where Bultmann’s major idea now becomes clear:
The importance of the New Testament mythology lies not in its imagery but in the understanding of existence which it enshrines. The real question is whether this understanding of existence is true. Faith claims that it is, and faith ought not to be tied down to the imagery of New Testament mythology (326).
Bultmann contended his work was not so much denial of history or the supernatural but the exploration of how that myth brought authentic existence into vocabulary, and his attempt was to show that inner meaning as valuable for contemporaries. But this did not save him from sharp criticism from the orthodox, including what he said about the resurrection of Jesus:
The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection. The historian can perhaps to some extent account for that faith from the personal intimacy which the disciples had with Jesus during his earthly life, and so reduce the resurrection appearances to a series of subjective visions. But the historical problem is not of interest to Christian belief in the resurrection. For the historical event of the rise of the Easter faith means for us what it meant for the first disciples—namely, the self-attestation of the risen Lord, the act of God in which the redemptive event of the cross is completed.
The aim of his demythologizing was to summon humans to authentic existence. Which is what?
it is the Word of God which calls man into genuine freedom, into free obedience, and the task of de-mythologizing has no other purpose but to make clear the call of the Word of God. It will interpret the Scripture, asking for the deeper meaning of mythological conceptions and freeing the Word of God from a by-gone world-view (328).
This, then, is the deeper meaning of the mythological preaching of Jesus—to be open to God’s future which is really imminent for every one of us; to be prepared for this future which can come as a thief in the night when we do not expect it; to be prepared, because this will be a judgment on all men who have bound themselves to this world and are not free, not open to God’s future (329).
Authentic existence, of course, mediates Kierkegaard and even more Martin Heidegger; it refers to taking responsibility in freedom while inauthentic existence is the irresponsible life of dependence on others (blame, etc.). This kind of authentic existence is discovered in what Olson calls Bultmann’s view of “inner history” (Geschichte) but it cannot be found in “outer history” (Historie). Authentic existence is a life of faith; inauthentic existence a life in sin in the world.
Bultmann, in kerygmatic fashion, believed one was to proclaim the cross via the resurrection. But again, what does this mean? Authentic existence: “The resurrection of Christ and the return of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit—all are different mythological expressions of the reality of the new self-understanding in authentic existence that happens at the moment of faith in response to the word of the cross preached. Eschatology, then, is not about the temporal future” (339-340).
Bultmann encountered a scientific perception of the world and preserved faith by shielding faith, in a radical kind of fideism, from that world of science, stripping theology from its supernaturalism and replacing it with an existentialism of authentic existence.