Forward by H. W. Bartsch
No single work which has appeared in the field of New Testament scholarship during the war years has evoked such a lively discussion as Bultmann’s original manifesto, New Testament and Mythology (p.1 ff. in the present volume). Unless we are prepared to rule out any advance in New Testament scholarship in Germany since the outbreak of the war, like Ethelbert Stauffer in the preface to the third edition of his Theologie des Neuen Testaments (Stuttgart, 1947, p. v) we must surely recognize such an advance in this debate. Since the relevant material has hitherto been almost inaccessible, or available only to a very limited circle in cyclostyled form, it has seemed all the more urgent to place the discussion as a whole before the theological public. It will at once be seen that there is no question of our being able to present a series of assured results. There is that much truth in Stauffer’s contention so far as this particular debate is concerned. Yet even Sir Edwyn Hoskyns in his review of New Testament studies in the years between the wars (The Riddle of the New Testament, 1931, German trans. 1938) was equally unable to present a series of “assured results”. Even for him the only result was an open question. All the same Hoskyns’s work itself appeared to many to be a particularly important result in New Testament scholarship. The New Testament is the Word of God spoken through the words of men, and since the proclamation of the act of God as the incarnate word confronts us in this particular form, it can never be spoken of in direct, straightforward language, and therefore there cannot be in the strictest sense any “assured results”. Yet it would not necessarily be wrong to see in the debate on “demythologizing” both a real “result”, a positive contribution made to New Testament studies by German theologians during the second World War, and also a factor which is bound to have a profound effect on the study of the New Testament in the future.
This problem of the interpretation of the mythological elements in the New Testament is not in itself a new one. It was raised as soon as the world view which lay behind the New Testament began to change. The most recent attempt to grapple with the problem was that of liberal theology, so called. We may leave out of account the “supernaturalistic” answer, which sought to retain the New Testament view of the world as it stood. The liberal answer consisted in the elimination of all mythology from the New Testament. In course of time, however, this particular answer was shown to be untenable, so the problem presented itself anew and in a far more inexorable form than ever before. For now it was realized that what was needed was not elimination but interpretation. The recognition of the kerygmatic character of the gospels, and of the fact that the kerygma was not confined to the historical narratives of the gospels, made the right interpretation of the mythology of the New Testament more urgent than it had ever been before. So the relation between kerygma and myth came to be the crucial problem in the interpretation of the New Testament writings. It is the merit of Bultmann that in trying to solve this problem by demythologizing the New Testament he has called our attention to the problem in all its inexorability. It should be noted, however, that this problem has been the driving force behind the study of the New Testament for many years. It has been constantly recurring ever since Martin Kahler’s equally novel manifesto, Der sogennante historische Jesus und der biblische Christus (new impression, Leipzig, 1928). Indeed, it may be traced back as far as William Wrede in the identical form in which Bultmann has raised it. In our own time we meet it when we compare Bultmann’s own commentary on the Fourth Gospel in the Meyer series (1941) with Ernst Pery’s examination of the sources of the Johannine theology (Lund, 1939). We meet it again in all the recent commentaries on the synoptic gospels, and also in Martin Dibelius’s Jesus (1939). The prominence of this subject in both the earlier and the more recent work on the New Testament suggests that it is the fundamental problem of all New Testament exposition. It faces both the theologian in the lecture room and the parish priest in the preparation of his sermons.
All that the present volume seeks to do is to indicate the lines on which the debate has been carried on by both sides. No attempt is made to take sides in the controversy, except on one particular point — viz., in the essays which have been selected for inclusion. Space was not the only determining factor. There has been no lack of critics who have denied the problem altogether. It has been contended that “there is no need to demythologize the New Testament, because it does not contain any myth’’ (H. Sasse, Fluch vorm Dogma, Luthertum, 1942, p. 161ff.) What Bultmann and his school are trying to remove, according to Sasse, is not myth but dogma (“dedogmatizing, not demythologizing”). It would be agreed on all sides that no theology speaking for the church could have a hand in that. By the omission of essays which take Sasse’s line we are ipso facto adopting a positive attitude to the debate. We believe that there is a real issue at stake.
Similarly, the actual choice of essays is intended to suggest the lines on which an answer to the question and a solution of the problem are to be sought. Most of the contributions we have selected come from those who are engaged in New Testament exegesis. But it must not therefore be concluded that this question is of no interest to systematic theology. Indeed, the systematic theologian must be interested in it if he is to take account of modern philosophy. So must the student of comparative religion when he compares modern religious movements with those of ancient times. That is why we include contributions from these fields as well. But as this is a matter of the interpretation of the New Testament documents, the solution must come from the exegesis of the New Testament. We must hearken to the testimony of the New Testament itself. That is why the discussion between Bultmann and Schniewind occupies the centre of the stage, for the criticisms of New Testament scholars are obviously the most important. In this problem we are concerned with the right hearing of the New Testament message, of the kerygma of Jesus Christ the Son of God. This right hearing is the decisive presupposition for every interpretation. This therefore must be the hidden centre of the discussion, and it is with this that all the other contributions are also concerned.
If that be the direction and aim of this volume, we cannot do more than offer an introduction to the debate. That debate is carried on in every exegesis of a New Testament document, for every exegesis involves taking up a definite position with regard to this problem. The debate is not therefore limited to essays written specifically on the subject. In order, however, to recognize the problem even where it is only latent, we must know what it really is, and that is what Bultmann’s essay and the discussion it evoked enable us to do. Such is the service which the present volume would hope to perform.
13 September 1948.