Chapter 1: Preface to Bultmann
[Translated by Peter McCormick. This essay first appeared in French as Ricoeur’s preface to Bultmann’s Jesus, mythologie et demythologisation Paris: Ed. du Seuil, 1968.]
I. THE HERMENEUTIC QUESTION
Although there has always been a hermeneutic problem in Christianity, the hermeneutic question today seems to us a new one. What does this situation mean, and why does it seem marked with this initial paradox?
There has always been a hermeneutic problem in Christianity because Christianity proceeds from a proclamation. It begins with a fundamental preaching that maintains that in Jesus Christ the kingdom has approached us in a decisive fashion. But this fundamental preaching, this word, comes to us through writings, through the Scriptures, and these must constantly be restored as the living word if the primitive word that witnessed to the fundamental and founding event is to remain contemporary. If hermeneutics in general is, in Dilthey’s phrase, the interpretation of expressions of life fixed in written texts, then Christian hermeneutics deals with the unique relation between the Scriptures and what they refer to, the “kerygma” (the proclamation).
This relation between writing and the word and between the word and the event and its meaning is the crux of the hermeneutic problem. But this relation itself appears only through a series of interpretations. These interpretations constitute the history of the hermeneutic problem and even the history of Christianity itself, to the degree that Christianity is dependent upon its successive readings of Scripture and on its capacity to reconvert this Scripture into the living word. Certain characteristics of what can be called the hermeneutic situation of Christianity have not even been perceived until our time. These traits ate what makes the hermeneutic problem a modern problem.
Let us try to chart this hermeneutic situation, in a more systematic than historical way. Three moments can be distinguished here which have developed successively, even though implicitly they are contemporaneous.
The hermeneutic problem first arose from a question which occupied the first Christian generations and which held the fore even to the time of the Reformation. This question: what is the relation between the two Testaments or between the two Covenants? Here the problem of allegory in the Christian sense was constituted. Indeed, the Christ-event is hermeneutically related to all of Judaic Scripture in the sense that it interprets this Scripture. Hence, before it can be interpreted itself — and there is our hermeneutic problem — the Christ-event is already an interpretation of a preexisting Scripture.
Let us understand this situation well. Originally, there were not, properly speaking, two Testaments, two Scriptures; there was one Scripture and one event. And it is this event that makes the entire Jewish economy appear ancient, like an old letter. But there is a hermeneutic problem because this novelty is not purely and simply substituted for the ancient letter; rather, it remains ambiguously related to it. The novelty abolishes the Scripture and fulfills it. It changes its letter into spirit like water into wine. Hence the Christian fact is itself understood by effecting a mutation of meaning inside the ancient Scripture. The first Christian hermeneutic is this mutation itself. It is entirely contained in the relation between the letter, the history (these words are synonyms), of the old Covenant and the spiritual meaning which the Gospel reveals after the event. Hence this relation can be expressed quite well in allegorical terms. It can resemble the allegorizing of the Stoics or that of Philo, or it can adopt the quasi-Platonic language of the opposition between flesh and spirit, between shadow and true reality. But what is issue here is basically something else. It is a question of the typological value of the events, things, persons, and institutions of the old economy in relation to those of the new. Saint Paul creates this Christian allegory. Everyone knows the interpretation of Hagar and Sarah, the two wives of Abraham, and of their lineage. In their regard the Epistle to the Galatians says: “These things are said allegorically.” The word “allegory” here has only a literary resemblance to the allegory of the grammarians, which, Cicero tells us, “consists in saying one thing to make something else understood.” Pagan allegory served to reconcile myths with philosophy and consequently to reduce them as myths. But Pauline allegory, together with that of Tertullian and Origen, which depend on it, is inseparable from the mystery of Christ. Stoicism and Platonism will furnish only a language, indeed a compromising and misleading surplus.
Hence there is hermeneutics in the Christian order because the kerygma is the rereading of an ancient Scripture. It is noteworthy that orthodoxy has resisted with all its force the currents, from Marcion to Gnosticism, which wanted to cut the Gospel from its hermeneutic bond to the Old Testament. Why? Would it not have been simpler to proclaim the event in its unity and thus to deliver it from the ambiguities of the Old Testament interpretation? Why has Christian preaching chosen to be hermeneutic by binding itself to the rereading of the Old Testament? Essentially to make the event itself appear, not as an irrational irruption, but as the fulfillment of an antecedent meaning which remained in suspense. The event itself receives a temporal density by being inscribed in a signifying relation of “promise” to “fulfillment.” By entering in this way into a historical connection, the event enters also into an intelligible liaison. A contrast is set up between the two Testaments, a contrast which at the same time is a harmony by means of a transfer. This signifying relation attests that the kerygma, by this detour through the reinterpretation of an ancient Scripture, enters into a network of intelligibility. The event becomes advent. In taking on time, it takes on meaning. By understanding itself indirectly, in terms of the transfer from the old to the new, the event presents itself as an understanding of relations. Jesus Christ himself, exegesis and exegete of Scripture, is manifested as logos in opening the understanding of the Scriptures.
Such is the fundamental hermeneutics of Christianity. It coincides with the spiritual understanding of the Old Testament. Of course, the spiritual meaning is the New Testament itself; but because of this detour through a deciphering of the Old Testament, “faith is not a cry” but an understanding.
The second root of the hermeneutic problem is also Pauline. This is so even though it did not reach its full growth until very recently and, in certain respects, only with the moderns, specifically with Bultmann. This idea is that the interpretation of the Book and the interpretation of life correspond and are mutually adjusted. Saint Paul creates this second modality of Christian hermeneutics when he invites the hearer of the word to decipher the movement of his own existence in the light of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Hence, the death of the old man and the birth of the new creature are understood under the sign of the Cross and the Paschal victory. But their hermeneutic relation has double meaning. Death and resurrection receive a new interpretation through the detour of this exegesis of human existence. The “hermeneutic circle” is already there, between the meaning of Christ and the meaning of existence which mutually decipher each other.
Thanks to the admirable work of de Lubac on the “four meanings” of Scripture — historical, allegorical, moral, anagogical — the breadth of this mutual interpretation of Scripture and existence is known. Beyond this simple reinterpretation of the old Covenant and the typological correlation between the two Testaments, medieval hermeneutics pursued the coincidence between the understanding of the faith in the lectio divina and the understanding of reality as a whole, divine and human, historical and physical. The hermeneutic task, then, is to broaden the comprehension of the text on the side of doctrine, of practice, of meditation on the mysteries. And consequently it is to equate the understanding of meaning with a total interpretation of existence and of reality in the system of Christianity. In short, hermeneutics understood this way is coextensive with the entire economy of Christian existence. Scripture appears here as an inexhaustible treasure which stimulates thought about everything, which conceals a total interpretation of the world. It is hermeneutics because the letter serves the foundation, because exegesis is its instrument, and also because the other meanings are related to the first in the way that the hidden is related to the manifest. In this way the understanding of Scripture somehow enrolls all the instruments of culture — literary and rhetorical, philosophical and mystical. To interpret Scripture is at the same time to amplify its meaning as sacred meaning and to incorporate the remains of secular culture in this understanding. It is at this price that Scripture ceases to be a limited cultural object: explication of texts and exploration of mysteries coincide. This is the aim of hermeneutics in this second sense: to make the global sense of mystery coincide with a differentiated and articulated discipline of meaning. it is to equate the multiplex intellectus with the intellectus de mysterio Christi.
Now among the “four meanings” of Scripture, the Middle Ages made a place for the “moral meaning,” which marks the application of the allegorical meaning to ourselves and our morals. The “moral meaning” shows that hermeneutics is much more than exegesis in the narrow sense. Hermeneutics is the very deciphering of life in the mirror of the text. Although the function of allegory is to manifest the newness of the Gospel in the oldness of the letter, this newness vanishes if it is not a daily newness, if it is not new hic et nunc. Actually, the function of the moral sense is not to draw morals from Scripture at all, to moralize history, but to assure the correspondence between the Christ-event and the inner man. It is a matter of interiorizing the spiritual meaning, of actualizing it, as Saint Bernard says, of showing that it extends hodie usque ad nos, “even to us today.” That is why the true role of moral meaning comes after allegory. This correspondence between allegorical meaning and our existence is well expressed by the metaphor of the mirror. It is a matter of deciphering our existence according to its conformity with Christ. We can still speak of interpretation because, on the one hand, the mystery contained in the book is made explicit in out experience and its actuality is confirmed here, and because, on the other hand, we understand ourselves in the mirror of the word. The relation between the text and the mirror — liber et speculum — is basic to hermeneutics.
This is the second dimension of Christian hermeneutics.
The third root of the hermeneutic problem in Christianity was not fully recognized and understood until the moderns — until the critical methods borrowed from the secular sciences of history and philology had been applied to the Bible as a whole. Here we return to out initial question: how is it that the hermeneutic problem is so old and so modern? Actually this third root of our problem relates to what can be called the hermeneutic situation itself of Christianity, that is, it is related to the primitive constitution of the Christian kerygma. We must return, in fact, to the witness character of the Gospel. The kerygma is not first of all the interpretation of a text; it is the announcement of a person. In this sense, the word of God is, not the Bible, but Jesus Christ. But a problem arises continually from the fact that this kerygma is itself expressed in a witness, in the stories, and soon after in the texts that contain the very first confession of faith of the community. These texts conceal a first level of interpretation. We ourselves are no longer those witnesses who have seen. We are the hearers who listen to the witnesses: fides ex auditu. Hence, we can believe only by listening and by interpreting a text which is itself already an interpretation. In short, our relation, not only to the Old Testament, but also to the New Testament itself, is a hermeneutic relation.
This hermeneutic situation is as primitive as the two others because the Gospel is presented from the time of the second generation as a writing, as a new letter, a new Scripture, added to the old in the form of a collection of writings which will one day be gathered up and enclosed in a canon, the “Canon of Scriptures.” The source of our modern hermeneutic problem, then is this: the kerygma is also a Testament. To be sure, it is new, as we said above; but it is a Testament, that is, a new Scripture. Hence the New Testament must also be interpreted. It is not simply an interpreting with regard to the Old Testament, and an interpreting for life and for reality as a whole; it is itself a text to be interpreted.
But this third root of the hermeneutic problem, the hermeneutic situation itself, has somehow been masked by the two other functions of hermeneutics in Christianity. So long as the New Testament served to decipher the Old, it was taken as an absolute norm. And it remains an absolute norm as long as its literal meaning serves as an indisputable basis on which all the other levels of meaning — the allegorical, moral, and anagogical — are constructed. But the fact is that the literal meaning is itself a text to be understood, a letter to be interpreted.
Let us reflect on this discovery. At first glance it may seem to be a product of our modernity, that is, something which could have been discovered only recently. This is true, for reasons which will be mentioned later. But these reasons themselves refer us back to a fundamental structure which, despite its having been recently discovered, nonetheless was present from the beginning. This discovery is a product of our modernity in the sense that it expresses the backlash of the critical disciplines — philology and history — on the sacred texts. As soon as the whole Bible is treated like the Iliad or the Presocratics, the letter is desacralized and the Bible is made to appear as the word of humans. In the same way, the relation “human word/word of God” is placed, no longer between the New Testament and the rest of the Bible, no longer even between the New Testament and the rest of culture, but at the very heart of the New Testament. For the believer, the New Testament itself conceals a relation that needs deciphering. This relation is between what can be understood and received as word of God and what is heard as human speaking.
This insight is the fruit of the scientific spirit, and in this sense it is a recent acquisition. But reflection brings us to discover in the first hermeneutic situation of the Gospel the ancient reason for this later discovery. This situation, we have said, is that the Gospel itself has become a text, a letter. As a text, it expresses a difference and a distance, however minimal, from the event that it proclaims. This distance, always increasing with time, is what separates the first witness from the entire line of those who hear the witness. Our modernity means only that the distance is now considerable between the place I myself occupy at the center of a culture and the original site of the first witness. This distance, of course, is not only spatial; it is above all a temporal one. But the distance is given at the beginning. It is the very first distance between the hearer and the witness of the event.
Thus the somehow accidental distance of a twentieth-century man, situated in another, a scientific and historical culture, reveals an original distance which remained concealed because it was so short; yet it was already constitutive of primitive faith itself. This distance has only become more manifest, particularly since the work of the Formgeschichte school. This school has made us conscious of the fact that the witnesses gathered in the New Testament are not only individual witnesses — free witnesses, one might say; they are already situated in a believing community, in its cult, its preaching, and the expression of its faith. To decipher Scripture is to decipher the witness of the apostolic community. We are related to the object of its faith through the confession of its faith. Hence, by understanding its witness, I receive equally, in its witness, what is summons, kerygma, “the good news.
I hope this reflection has shown that hermeneutics has for us moderns a sense that it did not have for the Greek or Latin Fathers, for the Middle Ages, or even for the Reformers, that the very development of the word “hermeneutics” indicates a “modern” sense of hermeneutics. This modern meaning of hermeneutics is only the discovery, the manifestation, of the hermeneutic situation which was present from the beginning of the Gospel but hidden. It is not paradoxical to defend the thesis that the two ancient forms of hermeneutics we have described have contributed to concealing what was radical in the Christian hermeneutic situation. The meaning and function of our modernity is to unveil, by means of the distance which today separates our culture from ancient culture, what has been unique and extraordinary in this hermeneutic situation since the beginning.
It seems to me that the hermeneutic question in its third form contains the principle of what Bultmann calls demythologization or demythization. But if the hermeneutic question has been correctly understood, it is important not to separate two problems which are related for Bultmann. It would be wrong to treat them in isolation since in a sense they constitute inverse sides of the same thing. The first problem is demythologization; the second is what is called the hermeneutic circle.
At first glance demythologization is a purely negative enterprise. It consists in becoming conscious of the mythic clothing around the proclamation that “the kingdom of God has drawn near in a decisive fashion in Jesus Christ.” In this way we become attentive to the fact that this “coming” is expressed in a mythological representation of the universe, with a top and a bottom, a heaven and an earth, and celestial beings coming from up there to down here and returning from down here to up there. To abandon this mythic wrapping is quite simply to discover the distance that separates our culture and its conceptual apparatus from the culture in which the good news is expressed. In this sense, demythologization cuts to the letter itself. It consists in a new use of hermeneutics, which is no longer edification, the construction of a spiritual meaning on the literal meaning, but a boring under the literal meaning, a de-struction, that is to say, a de-construction, of the letter itself. This enterprise has something in common with demystification, which I will be speaking about later on. It too is a modern accomplishment, in the sense that it belongs to a postcritical age of faith.
But demythologization is distinguished from demystification by the fact that it is moved by the will to better comprehend the text, that is, to realize the intention of the text which speaks not of itself but of the event. In this sense, demythologization, far from being opposed to kerygmatic interpretation, is its very first application. It marks the return to the original situation, namely, that the Gospel is not a new Scripture to be commented on but is effaced before something else because it speaks of someone who is the true word of God. Demythologization then is only the inverse side of the grasp of the kerygma. Or, one might say, it is the will to shatter the false scandal constituted by the absurdity of the mythological representation of the world by a modern man and to make apparent the true scandal, the folly of God in Jesus Christ, which is a scandal for all men in all times.
Here the question of demythologization refers back to the other question, which I have called the hermeneutic circle. The hermeneutic circle can be stated roughly as follows. To understand, it is necessary to believe; to believe, it is necessary to understand. This formulation is still too psychological. For behind believing there is the primacy of the object of faith over faith; and behind understanding there is the primacy of exegesis and its method over the naive reading of the text. This means that the genuine hermeneutic circle is not psychological but methodological. It is the circle constituted by the object that regulates faith and the method that regulates understanding. There is a circle because the exegete is not his own master. What he wants to understand is what the text says; the task of understanding is therefore governed by what is at issue in the text itself. Christian hermeneutics is moved by the announcement which is at issue in the text. To understand is to submit oneself to what the object means. Here Bultmann rejects Dilthey’s view that understanding the text means grasping in the text an expression of life. This means that the exegete must be able to understand the author of the text better than the author has understood himself. Bultmann says no. It is not the life of the author that governs understanding, but the essence of the meaning that finds expression in the text. Here Bultmann agrees perfectly with Karl Barth, who says in his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, that understanding is under the command of the object of faith. But what distinguishes Bultmann from Barth is that Bultmann has perfectly understood that this primacy of the object, this primacy of meaning over understanding, is performed only through the understanding, through the exegetical work itself. It is necessary therefore to enter the hermeneutic circle. Only in the understanding of the text do I in fact know the object. Faith in what the text is concerned with must be deciphered in the text that speaks of it and in the confession of faith of the primitive church which is expressed in the text. This is why there is a circle: to understand the text, it is necessary to believe in what the text announces to me; but what the text announces to me is given nowhere but in the text. This is why it is necessary to understand the text in order to believe.
These two series of remarks, one about demythologization and the other about the hermeneutic circle, are inseparable. Indeed, by cutting into the letter, by taking off the mythological wrappings, I discover the summons which is the primary meaning of the text. To separate kerygma from myth is the positive function of demythologization. But this kerygma becomes the positive side of demythologization only in the movement of interpretation itself. That is why it cannot be fixed in any objective statement that would remove it from the process of interpretation.
We are now in a position to confront the errors and mistakes which Bultmann’s demythologization has occasioned. In my opinion all of these come from the fact that attention has not been paid to the fact that demythologization is operative on several strategically different levels.
In what follows I want to distinguish the levels of demythologization in Bultmann as well as the successive definitions of myth which correspond to these levels.
At a first level, the most extrinsic and superficial one and hence the most obvious, it is modern man who demythologizes. What he demythologizes is the cosmological form in primitive preaching. In fact, the conception of a world composed of three stories — heaven, earth, and hell — and peopled with supernatural powers which descend down here from up there is purely and simply eliminated, as out of date, by modern science and modern technology as well as by how man represents ethical and political responsibility. Everything that partakes of this vision of the world in the fundamental representation of the events of salvation is from now on void. And at this level Bultmann is right in saying that demythologization must be pursued without reserve or exception, for it is without a remainder. The definition of myth which corresponds to this level of demythologization is that of a prescientific explanation of the cosmological and eschatological order, an explanation which for modern man is unbelievable. It is in this sense that myth is an additional scandal, added to the true scandal, which is the “folly of the Cross.”
But myth is something else than an explanation of the world, of history, and of destiny. Myth expresses in terms of the world — that is, of the other world or the second world — the understanding that man has of himself in relation to the foundation and the limit of his existence. Hence to demythologize is to interpret myth, that is, to relate the objective representations of the myth to the selfunderstanding which is both shown and concealed in it. Again, we are the ones who are demythologizing, but according to the intention of the myth, which aims at something other than what it says. Myth, then, can no longer be defined in opposition to science. Myth consists in giving worldly form to what is beyond known and tangible reality. It expresses in an objective language the sense that man has of his dependence on that which stands at the limit and at the origin of his world. This definition sets Bultmann in complete opposition to Feuerbach. Myth does not express the projection of human power into a fictitious beyond but rather man’s grasp on his origin and end, which he effects by means of this objectification, this putting in worldly form. If myth is really a projection on the level of representation, then it is first of all the reduction of what is beyond to what is on this side. Imaginative projection is only one means and one stage of the giving of a worldly form to the beyond, in terms of the here and now.
At the second level, demythologization is no longer the exclusive work of the modern spirit. The restoration of the myth’s intention, counter to its objectifying movement, requires an existential interpretation, such as Heidegger’s in Sein und Zeit. Far from expressing a necessity of the scientific spirit, this existential interpretation challenges the philosophic and in itself unscientific pretension to exhaust the meaning of reality by science and technology. Heidegger’s philosophy furnishes only the philosophical preliminary of a criticism of myth which has its center of gravity in the process of objectification.
But this second level is not the final one. For a Christian hermeneutics, it is not even the most decisive one. Existential interpretation is rightfully applicable to all myths, as Hans Jonas’s work indicates. Jonas first applied it, not to the Gospels, but to Gnosticism, in his Gnosis und spatantiker Geist, a work published as early as 1930, with an important preface by Rudolf Bultmann. At the first level this myth had no specifically Christian aspects. This is still true at the second level. Thus Bultmann’s entire undertaking is pursued on the assumption that the kerygma itself wants to be demythologized. It is no longer modern man, educated by science, who calls the shots. It is no longer the philosopher and his existential interpretation applied to the universe of myths. It is the kerygmatic core of the original preaching which not only requires but initiates and sets in motion the process of demythologization. Already in the Old Testament the creation stories effect a vigorous demythologization of the sacred cosmology of the Babylonians. More fundamentally still, the preaching of the “name of Yahweh” exercises a corrosive action on all the representations of the divine, on the Baals and their idols.
The New Testament, despite a new recourse to mythological representations, principally to those of Jewish eschatology and the mystery cults, begins the reduction of the images which serve it as a vehicle. The description of man outside of faith puts into play what can already be called an anthropological interpretation of concepts like “world,” “flesh,” and “sin” which are borrowed from cosmic mythology. Here, it is Saint Paul who begins the movement of demythologization. As to eschatological representations in the proper sense, it is John who goes farthest in the direction of demythologization. The future has already begun in Jesus Christ. The new age has its root in the Christic now. From now on, demythologization proceeds from the very nature of Christian hope and from the relation that the future of God maintains with the present.
I think that this hierarchy of levels, in demythologization and in myth itself, is the key to reading Bultmann correctly. If these different levels are not distinguished, Bultmann will be accused either of being inconsistent or of doing violence to the texts. On the one hand, he will be accused of wanting to save a remnant, the kerygma, after having said that demythologization must be brought to its conclusion, without reservation or attenuation. On the other hand, he will be reproached with imposing alien preoccupations on the texts — those of modern man, the heir of science, and those of existential philosophy, borrowed from Heidegger. But Bultmann speaks in turn as a man of science, an existential philosopher, and a hearer of the word. When he occupies this last circle, he preaches. Yes, he preaches; he makes the Gospel heard. Hence it is as a disciple of Paul and Luther that Bultmann opposes justification by faith to salvation by works. By works man is justified and is glorified, that is, man sovereignly determines the meaning of his own existence. In faith he divests himself of his pretension of being self-determined. So it is the preacher who gives the definition of myth as a work wherein man determines God instead of receiving from God his justification. The preacher here turns against the mythmaker, against the man of science, and against the philosopher himself. If the philosopher claims to find something else, in his description of authentic existence, than a formal and empty definition, a possibility for which the New Testament announces the realization, then the philosopher himself falls under the blow of condemnation. Because he declares that he knows how authentic existence becomes realized, he too claims to determine himself. Here is the limit of existential interpretation and, in general, of the recourse to philosophy. This limit is perfectly clear. It coincides with the passage from the second interpretation of myth to the third, that is, to the interpretation which begins from the kerygma itself. More precisely, it begins from the theological core of justification by faith, according to the Pauline and Lutheran tradition.
If, therefore, Bultmann thinks he can still speak in nonmythological terms of the Christ-event and of the acts of God, it is because, as a man of faith, he makes himself dependent on an act which determines him. This decision of faith is thus the center from which the previous definitions of myth and demythologization can begin to be taken up again. Consequently a circulation is set up among all the forms of demythologization — demythologization as work of science, as work of philosophy, and as proceeding from faith. By turns, it is modern man, then the existential philosopher, and finally the believer who calls the shots. The entire exegetical and theological work of Rudolf Bultmann consists in setting up this great circle in which exegetical science, existential interpretation, and preaching in the style of Paul and Luther exchange roles.
III. THE TASK OF INTERPRETATION
We need to think through Bultmann’s work still more fully. Sometimes we must think with him and sometimes against him. What is not yet sufficiently thought through in Bultmann is the specifically nonmythological core of biblical and theological statements and hence, by contrast, the mythological statements themselves.
Bultmann holds that the “signification” of “mythological statements” is itself no longer mythological. It is possible, he says, to speak in nonmythological terms of the finitude of the world and of man before the transcendent power of God, even of the signification of eschatological myths. The notion of an “act of God” and of “God as act” is, according to him, not mythological. This even includes the notions of “the word of God” and also that of the “call of the word of God.” The word of God, he says, calls man and draws him back from self-idolatry. It calls man to his true self. In short, the activity of God, more precisely his acting for us, in the event of the summons and of decision, is the nonmythological element, the nonmythological signification of mythology.
Do we think this signification?
It would be tempting to say first off, in Kantian language, that the transcenent, the completely other, is what we “think” preeminently but which we “represent” to ourselves in objective and worldly terms. The second definition of myth goes in this direction: putting the beyond into worldly terms consists in an objectification of what must remain limit and foundation. In general, everything that opposes Bultmann to Feuerbach — and I insist strongly on the total character of the opposition — draws Bultmann close to Kant. “Myth” holds in the first thinker the same place that “transcendental illusion” holds in the second. This interpretation is confirmed by the constant use of the word Vorstellung — “representation” — to designate the “images of the world” with which we illusorily fill the thoughts of the transcendent. Does not Bultmann also say that the incomprehensibility of God does not reside on the level of theoretical thought but only on the level of personal existence, that is, on the level of our idolatrous and rebellious will?
But this interpretation of nonmythological elements in the meaning of the limit-idea is contradicted by much more important dimensions of Bultmann’s work. Thus it seems that the notions ‘‘act of God,” “word of God,” and “future of God” are statements of pure faith and derive their entire meaning from the surrender of our will when it renounces self-determination. Only in this event do I experience what “act of God’’ signifies, that is, at the same time order and gift, birth of the imperative and of the indicative (because you are conducted by the spirit, you walk according to the spirit). Just as for his teacher, Wilhelm Hermann, so too for Bultmann the object of faith and its foundation are one and the same thing: what I believe is that whereby I believe, that which gives me something to believe. Finally, the nonmythological core is constituted by the statement of the justification of faith which appears consequently as the Gospel in the Gospel. In this Rudolf Bultmann is thoroughly Lutheran, Kierkegaardian, and Barthian. But, with the same stroke, the very question of the meaning of such expressions as wholly other, transcendent, and beyond, as well as act, word, and event, is avoided. It is striking that Bultmann makes hardly any demands on this language of faith, whereas he was so suspicious about the language of myth. From the moment language ceases to “objectify,” when it escapes from worldly “representations,” every interrogation seems superfluous concerning the meaning of this Dass — of this event of encounter — which follows on the Was — on general statements and on objectifying representations.
If this is the case, then there is no reflection in Bultmann on language in general but only on “objectification.” Hence Bultmann does not seem to be very much preoccupied with the fact that another language replaces the language of myth and hence calls for a new kind of interpretation. For example, he grants without difficulty that the language of faith can take up myth again in the form of symbol or image. He grants also that the language of faith, besides symbols or images, has recourse to analogies. This is the case for all the “personalist” expressions of “encounter.” God summons me as a person, encounters me as a friend, commands me as a father. These expressions, Bultmann says, are neither symbols nor images but a way of speaking analogically. Protestant theology believed that it could rely on the “personalist” relation of the I-Thou kind and develop on this basis a theocentric personalism that would escape the difficulties of a natural theology in the Catholic vein, a natural theology considered as a hypostasis of cosmology. But is it possible to avoid critical reflection on the use of analogy in this transposition of the human you to the divine Thou? What relation does analogy have with the symbolic use of myth and with the limit concept of the wholly other? Bultmann seems to believe that a language which is no longer “objectifying” is innocent. But in what sense is it still a language? And what does it signify?
Is the question no longer raised, is the question still under the sway of an objectifying thinking, which looks for the security of the Was in “general statements’’ and puts off surrendering to the insecurity of the Dass, of the decision of faith? But in this case, what must be renounced is the very question which has set the entire inquiry in motion, the question of the “signification” of mythological representations. It must be said, then, that the nonmythological signification of myth is no longer of the order of signification at all, that, with faith, there is no longer anything to think, anything to say. The sacrificium intellectus we refused to employ for myth is now employed for faith. Moreover, kerygma can no longer be the origin of demythologization if it does not initiate thought, if it develops no understanding of faith. How could it do so if it were not both event and meaning together and therefore “objective” in another acceptation of the word than the one eliminated with mythological representations?
This question is at the center of post-Bultmannian hermeneutics. The opposition between explanation and understanding that came from Dilthey and the opposition between the objective and the existential that came from an overly anthropological reading of Heidegger were very useful in a first phase of the problem. But, once the intention is to grasp in its entirety the problem of the understanding of faith and the language appropriate to it, these oppositions prove to be ruinous. Doubtless it is necessary today to award less importance to Verstehen (“understanding”), which is too exclusively centered on existential decision, and to consider the problem of language and of interpretation in all its breadth.
I am not formulating these questions against Bultmann but with the aim of thinking more adequately what remains unthought in Bultmann. And I am doing this for two reasons.
First of all, his work as a New Testament exegete has an inadequate basis in his hermeneutic philosophy. Yet Bultmann — who is too little known in France — is above all the author of the ample and solid Theology of the New Testament and the admirable Commentary on the Gospel of John. (Here a task remains, that of confronting Bultmann’s actual exegesis with the representation he gives of it in his theoretical writings.) His exegesis, it seems to me, is more opposed to Dilthey than his hermeneutics. His exegesis breaks with Dilthey on the essential point. The task of interpretation, when applied to a specific text, is not “to understand its author better than he understood himself,” according to a phrase which goes back to Schleiermacher. Rather, the task is to submit oneself to what the text says, to what it intends, and to what it means. But this independence, this sufficiency, this objectivity of the text presupposes a conception of meaning which borrows more from Husserl than from Dilthey. Even if it is true, finally, that the text accomplishes its meaning only in personal appropriation, in the “historical” decision (and this I believe strongly with Bultmann against all the current philosophies of a discourse without the subject), this appropriation is only the final stage, the last threshold of an understanding which has first been uprooted and moved into another meaning. The moment of exegesis is not that of existential decision but that of “meaning,” which, as Frege and Husserl have said, is an objective and even an “ideal” moment (ideal in that meaning has no place in reality, not even in psychic reality). Two thresholds of understanding then must be distinguished, the threshold of “meaning,” which is what I just described, and that of “signification,” which is the moment when the reader grasps the meaning, the moment when the meaning is actualized in existence. The entire route of comprehension goes from the ideality of meaning to existential signification. A theory of interpretation which at the outset runs straight to the moment of decision moves too fast. It leaps over the moment of meaning, which is the objective stage, in the nonworldly sense of “objective.” There is no exegesis without a “bearer [teneur] of meaning,” which belongs to the text and not to the author of the text.
Therefore, far from the objective and the existential being contraries — as happens when there is too exclusive an attachment to the opposition between myth and kerygma — it must be said that the meaning of the text holds these two moments closely together. It is the objectivity of the text, understood as content — bearer of meaning and demand for meaning — that begins the existential movement of appropriation. Without such a conception of meaning, of its objectivity and even of its ideality, no textual criticism is possible. Therefore, the semantic moment, the moment of objective meaning, must precede the existential moment, the moment of personal decision, in a hermeneutics concerned with doing justice to both the objectivity of meaning and the historicity of personal decision. In this respect the problem Bultmann posed is the exact inverse of the problem which contemporary structuralist theories pose. The structuralist theories have taken the “language” side, whereas Bultmann has taken the “speaking” side. But we now need an instrument of thought for apprehending the connection between language and speaking, the conversion of system into event. More than any other discipline that deals with “signs,” exegesis requires such an instrument of thought. If there is no objective meaning, then the text no longer says anything at all; without existential appropriation, what the text does say is no longer living speech. The task of a theory of interpretation is to combine in a single process these two moments of comprehension.
This first theme brings us to a second. It is not only the exegete in Bultmann but the theologian in him who demands that the relation between the meaning of the text and existential decision be more adequately conceived and stated. In effect only the “ideal meaning” of the text, its nonphysical and nonpsychological meaning, can be the vehicle of the coming of the word toward us, or, in Bultmann’s own language, of “the decisive act of God in Jesus Christ.” I do not say that this act of God, this word of God, find their sufficient condition in the objectivity of meaning; but they find their necessary condition there. The act of God has its first transcendence in the objectivity of meaning which it announces for us. The idea itself of announcement, of proclamation, of kerygma, presupposes, if I may say so, an initiative on the part of meaning, a coming to us of meaning, which makes speech a partner or correlate of existential decision. If the meaning of the text does not already confront the reader, how shall the act it announces not be reduced to a simple symbol of inner conversion, of the passage from the old man to the new? To be sure, there is no authorization for saying that God for Bultmann is only another name for authentic existence. Nothing in Bultmann seems to authorize any kind of a “Christian atheism” in which Christ would be the symbol of an existence devoted to others. For Bultmann as for Luther, justification by faith comes from an other than the self, from an other who grants me what he commands of me. Otherwise, authenticity would again become a “work” whereby I would be determining my own existence.
What “lays claim to me” comes to man and does not proceed from him.
But if Bultmann’s intention is not dubious, is it provided with the means to think this other origin? Does not his entire enterprise threaten to veer toward fideism since it lacks the support of a meaning that could announce its other origin by confronting me? Here a Husserlian theory of meaning is insufficient. The claim (Anspruch) which God’s word addresses to our existence, if it is to be thought, presupposes not only that the meaning of the text is constituted as an ideal correlate of my existence. It presupposes also that the word itself belongs to the being who addresses himself to my existence. A complete meditation on the word, on the claim of the word by being, and hence a complete ontology of language is essential here if the expression “word of God” is to be meaningful or, in Bultmann’s terms, if this statement is to have a nonmythological signification. But, in Bultmann’s work, this remains to be thought. In this regard the help he has looked for from Heidegger is not completely satisfying. What Bultmann asks of Heidegger is essentially a philosophical anthropology capable of furnishing the “proper conceptuality,” at the moment of entering upon a biblical anthropology and of interpreting the cosmological and mythological statements of the Bible in terms of human existence. The recourse to Heidegger and to the “preunderstanding” that he offers does not seem condemnable in principle. What Bultmann says about the impossibility of an interpretation without presuppositions seems convincing to me. But I would reproach Bultmann with not having sufficiently followed the Heideggerian “path.” In order to avail himself of Heidegger ‘s “existentials” he has taken a short cut, without having made the long detour of the question of being without which these existentials — being in-the-world, fallenness, care, being-toward-death, and so on — are nothing more than abstractions of lived experience, of a formalized existenziell. It must not be forgotten that in Heidegger the existential description does not concern man but the place — the Da-sein — of the question of being. This aim is not preeminently anthropological, humanistic, or personalist. Consequently, meaningful statements about man and the person and, a fortiori, the analogies concerning God as a person can be thought and grounded only ulteriorly. This inquiry about being, which is part of the being that we are and which makes of us the “there” of being, the Da of Dasein, is in some sense short-circuited in Bultmann. At the same time, the labor of thought connected with this inquiry is also lacking.
But two important things — important even to Bultmann’s enterprise — are bound to this labor of thought which he has economized on.
First is the examination of a kind of death of metaphysics as the site of the forgetfulness of the question of being. This examination, which extends also to the metaphysics of the I-Thou relation, belongs today in an organic way to the entire “return to the foundation of metaphysics” itself. Everything that we have said above about limit and foundation, even with respect to myth, has something in common with this return and with the crisis of metaphysics connected with it. The second implication of the labor of thought proposed by Heidegger concerns language and consequently our effort to think the expression “word of God.” If one runs too quickly to the fundamental anthropology of Heidegger, and if one lacks the questioning of being to which this anthropology is attached, then one also lacks the radical revision of the question of language which it allows. The theologian is directly concerned by the attempt to “bring language into language.” Let us understand this as bringing the language we speak to the language which is the saying of being, the coming of being into language.
I do not say that theology must go by way of Heidegger. I say that, if it goes by way of Heidegger, then it is by this path and to this point that it must follow him. This path is longer. It is the path of patience and not of haste and precipitation. On this path the theologian must not be in a hurry to know whether being for Heidegger is the God of the Bible. It is by postponing this question that the theologian may later on think again what the expressions “act of God” and “action of God in his word” denote. To think the expression “word of God” is to agree to be engaged on paths which may become lost. In Heidegger’s own words, “It is only by beginning from the truth of being that the essence of the Sacred lets itself be thought. It is only by beginning from the essence of the Sacred that the essence of divinity is to be thought. And it is only in the light of the essence of divinity that whatever the word God names can be thought” (Letter on Humanism).
All of this remains to be thought. There is no shorter path for joining a neutral existential anthropology, according to philosophy, with the existential decision before God, according to the Bible. But there is the long path of the question of being and of the belonging of saying to being. It is on this longer path that this can be understood: that the ideality of the meaning of the text, in the spirit of Husserl, is still a “metaphysical” abstraction, a necessary abstraction, to be sure, when faced with the psychological and existential reductions of the meaning of the text, but an abstraction nonetheless in relation to being’s primordial claim to say.
Yes, all of this remains to be thought, not at all as a rejection of Bultmann or even as a mere supplement to his work, but as somehow a foundation supporting it.