Bultmann vs. Miller

Bultmann vs. Miller October 29, 2016

I was surprised to read a post by Richard Miller on the blog Debunking Christianity, which highlights the work of Rudolf Bultmann, only to really misunderstand/misrepresent what Bultmann was saying.

Miller writes:

The question I pose here at Debunking Christianity is this: After following all channels and tributaries of such myths as one honestly interrogates the New Testament texts, what truths may one salvage through demythologization? Bultmann supposed there to be a kernel of truth latent within the New Testament documents. I question that, unless those truths about the human condition come quite inadvertently as one deconstructs and uncovers the underlying anxieties and requirements of ancient civilization, i.e., via study of the applied performative myths of ancient human civilization. Perhaps then, the biblical texts merit a special place in the ranks of other ancient literary works muddled in a benighted worldview altogether untenable in our modern age.

Bultmann myth quoteBultmann was in fact directly opposed to the earlier liberal approach that thought you could merely peel off a shell of myth and discover a kernel of timeless truth. Let me share two longer quotations which, however dated they sound in their talk of what “modern man” supposedly cannot believe, articulate Bultmann’s perspective very clearly, and illustrate why his points retain their importance. Both are from his contribution to the volume Kerygma and Myth, which can be found online in more than one location, and which I highly recommend.

Whatever else may be true, we cannot save the kerygma by selecting some of its features and subtracting others, and thus reduce the amount of mythology in it. For instance, it is impossible to dismiss St. Paul’s teaching about the unworthy reception of Holy Communion or about baptism for the dead, and yet cling to the belief that physical eating and drinking can have a spiritual effect. If we accept one idea, we must accept everything which the New Testament has to say about Baptism and Holy Communion, and it is just this one idea which we cannot accept.

It may of course be argued that some features of the New Testament mythology are given greater prominence than others: not all of them appear with the same regularity in the various books. There is for example only one occurrence of the legends of the Virgin birth and the Ascension; St. Paul and St. John appear to be totally unaware of them. But, even if we take them to be later accretions, it does not affect the mythical character of the event of redemption as a whole. And if we once start subtracting from the kerygma, where are we to draw the line? The mythical view of the world must be accepted or rejected in its entirety.

At this point absolute clarity and ruthless honesty are essential both for the academic theologian and for the parish priest. It is a duty they owe to themselves, to the Church they serve, and to those whom they seek to win for the Church. They must make it quite clear what their hearers are expected to accept and what they are not. At all costs the preacher must not leave his people in the dark about what he secretly eliminates, nor must he be in the dark about it himself. In Karl Barth’s book The Resurrection of the Dead the cosmic eschatology in the sense of “chronologically final history” is eliminated in favor of what he intends to be a non-mythological “ultimate history”. He is able to delude himself into thinking that this is exegesis of St. Paul and of the New Testament generally only because he gets rid of everything mythological in I Corinthians by subjecting it to an interpretation which does violence to its meaning. But that is an impossible procedure.

If the truth of the New Testament proclamation is to be preserved, the only way is to demythologize it. But our motive in so doing must not be to make the New Testament relevant to the modern world at all costs. The question is simply whether the New Testament message consists exclusively of mythology, or whether it actually demands the elimination of myth if it is to be understood as it is meant to be.

And then continuing later, he adds:

It was characteristic of the older liberal theologians that they regarded mythology as relative and temporary. Hence they thought they could safely eliminate it altogether, and retain only the broad, basic principles of religion and ethics. They distinguished between what they took to be the essence of religion and the temporary garb which it assumed…

The meaning of these…types of mythology lies…not in their imagery with its apparent objectivity but in the understanding of human existence which both are trying to express. In other words, they need to be interpreted existentially.

One can argue with Bultmann over whether this existential reinterpretation of the Christian gospel is appropriate, whether it makes sense, and whether it remain the Christian gospel. But he is very explicit about the fact that he rejects the earlier liberal approach of Harnack and others which sought to peel off myth and find a core of timeless truth that could then be transferred into our time – a timeless truth which turned out, inevitably, to be a reflection of the values of the modern interpreters and their age. Bultmann instead asked whether the myth, as myth, nonetheless offered a challenge to human beings and a way of viewing human existence that could be reinterpreted and reexpressed as a whole.

And so I can’t understand why Miller presents his own view as though he were disagreeing with Bultmann about the problem of myth, and why he presents Bultmann as advocating the viewpoint that he actually argued against. Miller is free to reject the kerygma, the Christian proclamation, in the form Bultmann reinterpreted, and to do so for any number of reasons, whether the conviction that the approach is inherently invalid, or that Bultmann’s restatement of the message does not preserve essential elements of the historic Christian message, or that the reformulation isn’t meaningful to him, or that he simply chooses to reject it in his own act of existential decision. But Bultmann’s perspective deserves to at least be heard and understood properly before it is responded to in any of those ways.

Bultmann quote

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  • John Thomas

    Actually I believe that both Baptism and Eucharist can be treated as sacraments in a physical sense and at the same time held to have a deeper spiritual meaning. For example, when Jesus said to eat his body and blood, he might have meant it spiritually to eat and assimilate him as Word of God. So the idea would have been to study the Word of God on daily basis, contemplate on it, internalize it and implement it on one’s lives so as to attain eternal life with aid of Holy Spirit. But one can also ritualize it as sacraments as we now see in Catholic Eucharist to have a physical sense of it too. Similarly, baptism would mean spiritually in that those who were originally not the elect now becomes elect of God after they undergo a change in their old lifestyle, cleanse their previous sins by action of the Holy Spirit to be a new man as elect one of God. One can also ritualize it as a sacrament of Baptism as we see now to have a physical sense of that experience. What else symbolize washing or cleansing than water? In such a sense, sacrament may not be essential. One could still have a spiritual experience without accompanying physical rituals. But rituals might provide an additional confirmatory experience for some who like those experiences. Just my random thoughts when I read this article.

  • davidt

    Miller curiously sounds identical to older periods of Christianity when confronted by other traditions. He is starkly identical to Diego Delanda in context to Mayan civilization. Theology itself is not the text but about the tex t multiple generationally. StructurAlly it’s asperger. Science is not nature it’s about nature StructurAlly it’s aspergergers. So the argument between bultmann the religious asperger vs Miller the science asperger is all narrative about and that is all and nothing more. Neither are artists both are a bit closer to salivari pretending to be Mozart in the old Amadeus movie. Ha!!! Aspergers. Mozart neurology is clearly synesthesia the opposite. If Christianity is so confused by it’s own text it created then how much less does science really understAnd about nature that man did not create?

  • James. This harkens back to our discussion about why faith-motivated “scholars” are self-disqualified from legitimate discourse with the academic world. As with nearly all faith-based attempts to engage relevant topics, you mischaracterize my essay, trying by any means possible to show some misunderstanding on my part, thus discrediting the work. First, even if your mischaracterization were accurate, the fuss you make does absolutely nothing to undermine my actual argument. Bultmann was merely invoked as a symbol of a particular encapsulated idea, namely demythologization. Whether in the details he had a more nuanced perspective as you claim is altogether irrelevant to the the essay. You also make the mistake of painting a static caricature of Bultmann as advancing a single ever-coherent idea, namely a persistently Heideggerian existentialism. You make no effort, moreover, to unpack my statement: “I question that, unless those truths about the human condition come quite inadvertently as one deconstructs and uncovers the underlying anxieties and requirements of ancient civilization, i.e., via study of the applied performative myths of ancient human civilization.” This is my “popular blog” way of dealing ever-so-briefly with Bultmann’s existentialist subtextual tendencies. I was not making the case, as witnessed in Harnack et al, that Bultmann saw some historical kernel behind the Gospels that represented the “valid” or “true” kerygma. I was indicating, rather, that Bultmann’s project of demythologization was not as thorough as he would have us suppose. His own theism and existential construction of meaning is itself a myth-game, a game reliant upon a number of suppositions that, according to Bultmann, form the bedrock of the New Testament Gospels, namely the underpinnings of an existentialist dilemma and kerygmatic solution. At some point, Bultmann’s existentialism, having no rational ground in reality, reduces to a pitiful pile of willful delusion. The onion layers peel away to reveal nothing but a frightened man in a fantasy world.

    The essay, however, was not about Bultmann. His peculiar brand of liberalism, while nuanced, was not the topic. The topic was the utter incompatibility of a worldview at all faithful to science and the fairy-tale world painted in the New Testament in its many-layered assumptions about the cosmos and humankind’s present condition. That world cannot be refurbished for modern legitimacy and consumption, at least not in any way that is at all faithful to reality.

    • So in the end, you agree with Bultmann? Your final two sentences are precisely his point!

      • I take a position that shares some similarity, but also some major departures from Bultmann. He was my academic Great Grandfather in some ways, and I do see my own work as in part bearing and heavily evolving his legacy.

        We both admit and argue that the Gospel accounts are heavy-laden with myth. We both agree that those myths served a purpose for original converts and are not best described as an effort to fool or play a hoax. The myths were read, for the most part, as myths, and their benefit came through that modal channel, not by holding the accounts as historically true. We both agree that the Gospels addressed (among other matters) essential psychological needs.

        I part company with Bultmann, however, in trying to construe these needs as culturally universal or time-transcendent. The New Testament applied best to the ancient mind, not to the modern mind and addressed best that moment in axial-history in its heterogenic fusion of cultural, ideological, and philosophical elements current in the ancient Greek East. Bultmann, as I read him, readily sees a heavy contemporary relevance as he seeks to shoehorn the value of such mythology within his theologically adapted Heideggerian existentialist paradigm. He fancies himself a theologian and, as such, has trotted off on a quite different path than my own. Notice your relevant quotation of him in one instant:

        “If the truth of the New Testament proclamation is to be preserved, the only way is to demythologize it. But our motive in so doing must not be to make the New Testament relevant to the modern world at all costs. The question is simply whether the New Testament message consists exclusively of mythology, or whether it actually demands the elimination of myth if it is to be understood as it is meant to be.”

        He does see, apparently in the value and meaning of the existential predicament and solution that he sees offered in the New Testament, a “kernel” of truth in the New Testament, a Bultmannian New Testament metanarrative, so to speak, a path to existential theological salvation. He finds this as the ever-relevant, ever-valuable kerygmatic point of the New Testament. I, on the other hand, have a much more humanistic, psychological approach that has little contact with Heidegger. I see ancient mythmaking as a broadly applied strategy in the civilization of the species. This often incorporated and was calibrated against ascetic philosophical trends and related iconified figures. The Gospels, as seen through this kind of lens, served the needs of ancient civilization and were integral to the felt demands of Western evolution. The monotheistic deity, as a cultural, psychological construction, hypostatized, centralized, universalized, and, in the case of the New Testament, augmented the very codes of civilization. This axial shift served as the bedrock of the early Medieval period of the Western world. This topic alone, for me, is book-size in its scope and extends well beyond the confines of this meager blog response. I merely wished to give a sample of one trajectory of thought in my own approach.

        So, to sum up, Bultmann finds a more or less exclusively theological, existential message or set of truths underlying the Gospels and serving as their implicit purpose. I, on the other hand, do not start with nor end with an existentialist paradigm or any theological paradigm. I see those myths from a more or less anthropological, cultural standpoint, recognizing the referenced felt psychological, social, and political needs prevalent in ancient Mediterranean civilization. For me, the “truths” of the Gospels are given inadvertently and best “found” through humanistic critical analysis regarding the human condition and the complex, over-arching history of the species.