The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of its Re-interpretation Part II
Part II: Demythologizing in Outline
A. The Christian Interpretation of Being
1. Human Existence apart from Faith
What does the New Testament mean when it talks of the “world”, of “this world”, or of “this æon”? In speaking thus, the New Testament is in agreement with the Gnostics, for they too speak of “this world”, and of the princes, prince, or god of this world; and moreover they both regard man as the slave of the world and its powers. But there is one significant difference. In the New Testament one of these powers is conspicuously absent — viz., matter, the physical, sensual part of man’s constitution. Never does the New Testament complain that the soul of man, his authentic self, is imprisoned in a material body: never does it complain of the power of sensuality over the spirit. That is why it never doubts the responsibility of man for his sin. God is always the Creator of the world, including human life in the body. He is also the Judge before whom man must give account. The part played by Satan as the Lord of this world must therefore be limited in a peculiar way, or else, if he is the lord or god of world, “this world” must stand in a peculiar dialectical relation to the world as the creation of God.
“This world” is the world of corruption and death. Clearly, it was not so when it left the hands of the Creator, for it was only in consequence of the fall of Adam that death entered into the world (Rom. 5:12). Hence it is sin, rather than matter as such, which is the cause of corruption and death. The Gnostic conception of the soul as a pure, celestial element imprisoned by some tragic fate in a material body is entirely absent. Death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23; cf. 1 Cor. 15:56). True, St. Paul seems to agree with the Gnostics as regards the effects which he ascribes to the fall of Adam as the ancestor of the human race. But it is clear that he later returns to the idea of individual responsibility when he says that since Adam death came to all men “for that all sinned” (Rom. 5:12), a statement which stands in formal contradiction to the Adam theory. Perhaps he means to say that with Adam death became possible rather than inevitable. However that may be, there is another idea which St. Paul is constantly repeating and which is equally incompatible with the Adam theory, and that is the theory that sin, including death, is derived from the flesh (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8, etc.). But what does he mean by “flesh”? Not the bodily or physical side of human nature, but the sphere of visible, concrete, tangible, and measurable reality, which as such is also the sphere of corruption and death. When a man chooses to live entirely in and for this sphere, or, as St. Paul puts it, when he “lives after the flesh”, it assumes the shape of a “power”. There are indeed many different ways of living after the flesh. There is the crude life of sensual pleasure and there is the refined way of basing one’s life on the pride of achievement, on the “works of the law” as St. Paul. would say. But these distinctions are ultimately immaterial. For “flesh” embraces not only the material things of life, but all human creation and achievement pursued for the sake of some tangible reward, such as for example the fulfilling of the law (Gal. 3:3). It includes every passive quality, and every advantage a man can have, in the sphere of visible, tangible reality (Phil. 3:4ff.).
St. Paul sees that the life of man is weighed down by anxiety (1 Cor. 7:32ff.). Every man focuses his anxiety upon some particular object. The natural man focuses it upon security, and in proportion to his opportunities and his success in the visible sphere he places his “confidence” in the “flesh” (Phil. 3:3f.), and the consciousness of security finds its expression in “glorying”.
Such a pursuit is, however, incongruous with man’s real situation, for the fact is that he is not secure at all. Indeed, this is the way in which he loses his true life and becomes the slave of that very sphere which he had hoped to master, and which he hoped would give him security. Whereas hitherto he might have enjoyed the world as God’s creation, it has now become “this world”, the world in revolt against God. This is the way in which the “powers” which dominate human life come into being, and as such they acquire the character of mythical entities. (Terms like “the spirit of the age” or “the spirit of technology” provide some sort of modern analogy.) Since the visible and tangible sphere is essentially transitory, the man who bases his life on it becomes the prisoner and slave of corruption. An illustration of this may be seen in the way our attempts to secure visible security for ourselves bring us into collision with others; we can seek security for ourselves only at their expense. Thus on the one hand we get envy, anger, jealousy, and the like, and on the other compromise, bargainings, and adjustments of conflicting interests. This creates an all-pervasive atmosphere which controls all our judgments; we all pay homage to it and take it for granted. Thus man becomes the slave of anxiety (Rom. 8:15). Everybody tries to hold fast to his own life and property, because he has a secret feeling that it is all slipping away from him.
The Life of Faith
The authentic life, on the other hand, would be a life based on unseen, intangible realities. Such a life means the abandonment of all self-contrived security. This is what the New Testament means by “life after the Spirit” or “life in faith”.
For this life we must have faith in the grace of God. It means faith that the unseen, intangible reality actually confronts us as love, opening up our future and signifying not death but life.
The grace of God means the forgiveness of sin, and brings deliverance from the bondage of the past. The old quest for visible security, the hankering after tangible realities, and the clinging to transitory objects, is sin, for by it we shut out invisible reality from our lives and refuse God’s future which comes to us as a gift. But once we open our hearts to the grace of God, our sins are forgiven; we are released from the past. This is what is meant by “faith”: to open ourselves freely to the future. But at the same time faith involves obedience, for faith means turning our backs on self and abandoning all security. It means giving up every attempt to carve out a niche in life for ourselves, surrendering all our self-confidence, and resolving to trust in God alone, in the God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:9) and who calls the things that are not into being (Rom. 4:17). It means radical self-commitment to God in the expectation that everything will come from him and nothing from ourselves. Such a life spells deliverance from all worldly, tangible objects, leading to complete detachment from the world and thus to freedom.
This detachment from the world is something quite different from asceticism. It means preserving a distance from the world and dealing with it in a spirit of “as if not” (1 Cor. 7:29-31). The believer is lord of all things (1 Cor. 3:21-3). He enjoys that power of which the Gnostic boasts, but with the proviso: “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (1 Cor. 6:12; cf. 10:23f.). The believer may “rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep” (Rom. 12:15), but he is no longer in bondage to anything in the world (1 Cor. 7:17-24). Everything in the world has become indifferent and unimportant. “For though I was free from all men, I brought myself under bondage to all” (1 Cor. 9:19-23). “I know how to be abased, and I know also how to abound in everything, and in all things I have learned the secret both to be filled and to be hungry, both to abound and to be in want” (Phil. 4:12). The world has been crucified to him, and he to the world (Gal. 6:14). Moreover, the power of his new life is manifested even in weakness, suffering, and death (2 Cor. 4:7-11; 12:9f.). Just when he realizes that he is nothing in himself, he can have and be all things through God (2 Cor.12: 9f.; 6:8-10).
Now, this is eschatological existence; it means being a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). The eschatology of Jewish apocalyptic and of Gnosticism has been emancipated from its accompanying mythology, in so far as the age of salvation has already dawned for the believer and the life of the future has become a present reality. The fourth gospel carries this process to a logical conclusion by completely eliminating every trace of apocalyptic eschatology. The last judgment is no longer an imminent cosmic event, for it is already taking place in the coming of Jesus and in his summons to believe (John 3:19; 9:39; 12:31). The believer has life here and now, and has passed already from death into life (5:24, etc.). Outwardly everything remains as before, but inwardly his relation to the world has been radically changed. The world has no further claim on him, for faith is the victory which overcometh the world (I John 5:4).
The eschatology of Gnosticism is similarly transcended. It is not that the believer is given a new nature or that his pre-existent nature is emancipated, or that his soul is assured of a journey to heaven. The new life in faith is not an assured possession or endowment, which could lead only to libertinism. Nor is it a possession to be guarded with care and vigilance, which could lead only to asceticism. Life in faith is not a possession at all. It cannot be exclusively expressed in indicative terms; it needs an imperative to complete it. In other words, the decision of faith is never final; it needs constant renewal in every fresh situation. Our freedom does not excuse us from the demand under which we all stand as men, for it is freedom for obedience (Rom. 6:11ff.). To believe means not to have apprehended but to have been apprehended. It means always to be traveling along the road between the “already” and the “not yet”, always to be pursuing a goal.
For Gnosticism redemption is a cosmic process in which the redeemed are privileged to participate here and now. Although essentially transcendent, faith must be reduced to an immanent possession. Its outward signs are freedom, power, pneumatic phenomena, and above all ecstasy. In the last resort the New Testament knows no phenomena in which transcendent realities become immanent possessions. True, St. Paul is familiar with ecstasy (2 Cor. 5:13; 12:1ff.). But he refuses to accept it as a proof of the possession of the Spirit. The New Testament never speaks of the training of the soul in mystical experience or of ecstasy as the culmination of the Christian life. Not psychic phenomena but faith is the hallmark of that life
Certainly St. Paul shares the popular belief of his day that the Spirit manifests itself in miracles, and he attributes abnormal psychic phenomena to its agency. But the enthusiasm of the Corinthians for such things brought home to him their questionable character. So he insists that the gifts of the Spirit must be judged according to their value for “edification”, and in so doing he transcends the popular view of the Spirit as an agency that operates like any other natural force. True, he regards the Spirit as a mysterious entity dwelling in man and guaranteeing his resurrection (Rom. 8:11). He can even speak of the Spirit as if it were a kind of supernatural material (1 Cor. 15:44ff.). Yet in the last resort he clearly means by “Spirit” the possibility of a new life which is opened up by faith. The Spirit does not work like a supernatural force, nor is it the permanent possession of the believer. It is the possibility of a new life which must be appropriated by a deliberate resolve. Hence St. Paul’s paradoxical injunction: “If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit also let us walk.” (Gal. 5:25). “Being led by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:14) is not an automatic process of nature, but the fulfillment of an imperative: “live after the Spirit, not after the flesh”. Imperative and indicative are inseparable. The possession of the Spirit never renders decision superfluous. “I say, Walk by the Spirit and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). Thus the concept “Spirit” has been emancipated from mythology.
The Pauline catalogue of the fruits of the Spirit (“love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, temperance”, Gal. 5:22) shows how faith, by detaching man from the world, makes him capable of fellowship in community. Now that he is delivered from anxiety and from the frustration which comes from clinging to the tangible realities of the visible world, man is free to enjoy fellowship with others. Hence faith is described as “working through love” (Gal. 5:6). And this means being a new creature (cf. Gal; 5:6 with 6:15).
B. The Event of Redemption
I. Christian Self-Understanding without Christ?
We have now suggested an existentialist unmythological interpretation of the Christian understanding of Being. But is this interpretation true to the New Testament? We seem to have overlooked one important point, which is that in the New Testament faith is always faith in Christ. Faith, in the strict sense of the word, was only there at a certain moment in history. It had to be revealed; it came (Gal. 3:23, 25). This might of course be taken as part of the story of man’s spiritual evolution. But the New Testament means more than that. It claims that faith only became possible at a definite point in history in consequence of an event — viz., the event of Christ. Faith in the sense of obedient self-commitment and inward detachment from the world is only possible when it is faith in Jesus Christ.
Here indeed is the crux of the matter — have we here a remnant of mythology which still requires restatement? In fact it comes to this: can we have a Christian understanding of Being without Christ?
The reader will recall our criticism of the History of Religions school for eliminating the decisive event of Christ. Is our re-interpretation of Christianity in existentialist terms open to precisely the same objection?
It might well appear as though the event of Christ were a relic of mythology which still awaits elimination. This is a serious problem, and if Christian faith is to recover its self-assurance it must be grappled with. For it can recover its certainty only if it is prepared to think through to the bitter end the possibility of its own impossibility or superfluity.
It might well appear possible to have a Christian understanding of Being without Christ, as though what we had in the New Testament was the first discovery and the more or less clear expression, in the guise of mythology, of an understanding of Being which is at bottom man’s natural understanding of his Being, as it has been given clear expression in modern existentialist philosophy. Does this mean that what existentialism has done is simply to remove the mythological disguise and to vindicate the Christian understanding of Being as it is found in the New Testament and to carry it to more logical conclusion? Is theology simply the precursor of existentialism? Is it no more than an antiquated survival and an unnecessary incubus?
Such is the impression we might derive from a consideration of the recent developments in philosophy. Might we not say that the New Testament lays bare what philosophy calls “the historicity of Being” ?
Count Yorck von Wartenburg (Briefwechsel zwischen Wilhelm Dilthey und dem Grafen Paul Yorck von Wartenburg, 1877-97. Halle, Niemeyer, 1923.) wrote to Dilthey on 15 December 1892: “Dogmatics was an attempt to formulate an ontology of the higher historic life. Christian dogmatics was inevitably the antithesis of intellectualism, because Christianity is the supreme vitality.”(P. 154.) Dilthey agrees: “. . . all dogmas need to be translated so as to bring out their universal validity for all human life. They are cramped by their connection with the situation in the past in which they arose. Once they have been freed from this limitation they become . . . the consciousness of the supra-sensual and supra-intelligible nature of historicity pure and simple…. Hence the principal Christian dogmas, which include such symbols as “Son of God”, “satisfaction”, “sacrifice”, and the like, are, in so far as they are limited to the facts of the Christian story, untenable. But once they are re-interpreted as statements of universal validity they express the highest living form of all history. They thus lose their rigid and exclusive reference to the person of Jesus, which deliberately excludes all other references.’’ (P. 158.)
Yorck gives by way of illustration a re-interpretation of the doctrines of original sin and the atonement. He finds them intelligible in the light of what he calls the “virtual connection” which runs like a thread right through history. “Jesus is the historical demonstration of a universal truth. The child profits from the self-sacrifice of its mother. This involves a conveyance of virtue and power from one person to another, without which history is impossible. [Note the corollary — all history, not only Christian history, involves transference of power.] This is why rationalism is blind to the concept of history. And sin — not specific acts of wrong-doing, but man’s sinfulness in general — is, as the religious man knows from his own experience, quite unpredictable. Is it less ‘monstrous and repulsive’ [as Dilthey had stigmatized the doctrine of original sin] that sickness and misery are inherited from generation to generation ? These Christian symbols are drawn from the very depths of nature, for religion itself — I mean Christianity — is supernatural, not unnatural. (P. 155.)
The development of philosophy since Dilthey’s day has, it would seem, amply justified these contentions. Karl Jaspers has found no difficulty in transposing Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Christian Being to the sphere of philosophy. Above all, Heidegger’s existentialist analysis of the ontological structure of being would seem to be no more than a secularized, philosophical version of the New Testament view of human life. For him the chief characteristic of man’s Being in history is anxiety. Man exists in a permanent tension between the past and the future. At every moment he is confronted with an alternative. Either be must immerse himself in the concrete world of nature, and thus inevitably lose his individuality, or he must abandon all security and commit himself unreservedly to the future, and thus alone achieve his authentic Being. Is not that exactly the New Testament understanding of human life ? Some critics have objected that I am borrowing Heidegger’s categories and forcing them upon the New Testament. I am afraid this only shows that they are blinding their eyes to the real problem. I mean, one should rather be startled that philosophy is saying the same thing as the New Testament and saying it quite independently.
The whole question has been posed afresh in the recent book by Wilhelm Kamlah. (Christentum und Selbstbehauptung, Frankfort, 1940.) It is true that Kamlah expressly attacks the eschatological character of the Christian understanding of Being, but that is because he misinterprets the detachment from the world which is consequent upon faith. He understands it undialectically as a simple negation of the world, and so fails to do justice to the element of “as if not” which is so characteristic of the Pauline Epistles. But the understanding of Being which Kamlah develops philosophically is manifestly a secularized version of that which we find in Christianity. For the Christian concept of faith he substitutes “self-commitment”, by which he means “surrender to the universal reality”, or to God as the source of all Being. Self-commitment is the antithesis of autonomy. It brings with it a revelation of the meaning of universal reality. Further, it is emancipation, bringing inward freedom through detachment from all sensual objects of desire. Kamlah himself is aware how close this is to the Christian conception of faith. He says: “The theologians have often observed the paradoxical character of this ability to trust, at least so far as the inception of faith is concerned. It has often been asked how the individual can come to believe at all if faith is the gift of God and is not to be won through human effort, and how faith can be demanded if it is outside the limit of human capacity. The question has often been left unanswered because the theologians have failed to see that this is a problem which is not peculiar to Christianity, but which belongs to the fundamental structure of our natural Being.” (P. 321.)
Christian faith, properly understood, would then (on Kamlah’s view), be identical with natural self-commitment. “Since it offers the true understanding of Being, philosophy emancipates natural self-commitment and enables it to become what it was meant to be.” (P. 326.) Thus it has no need of any revelation.
Christian love, through which faith operates, is open to a similar interpretation. It is equivalent to committing ourselves to our familiar surroundings. Indeed, Kamlah thinks he can correct the New Testament at this point. As he sees it, the Christian conception of love interrupts what he calls the smooth flow of history. It infringes the priority of the immediate environment in which we have been placed by history. It dissipates love by universalizing it instead of directing it to our true neighbors, those who are nigh to us. Kamlah would have us see as our neighbors those who are tied to us by the inexorable bonds of history. In this way he would emancipate the true naturalness of man. (P. 337.)
But is it really true that in the last resort the New Testament means by faith the natural disposition of man? Clearly “natural” in this context means not “empirical” but “proper to man’s authentic Being”. This Being has first to be set free. But according to Kamlah this does not require revelation. All that is necessary is philosophical reflection. Is faith in this sense the natural disposition of man?
Yes and no. Yes, because faith is not a mysterious supernatural quality, but the disposition of genuine humanity. Similarly, love is not the effect of mysterious supernatural power, but the “natural” disposition of man. The New Testament goes part of the way with Kamlah when it calls man-in-faith a “new creation”. Its implication is that by faith man enters upon the life for which he was originally created.
The question is not whether the nature of man can be discovered apart from the New Testament. As a matter of fact it has not been discovered without the aid of the New Testament, for modern philosophy is indebted both to it and to Luther and to Kierkegaard. But this merely indicates the place of existentialism in the intellectual history of man, and as far as its content is concerned it owes little to its historical origin. On the contrary, the very fact that it is possible to produce a secularized version of the New Testament conception of faith proves that there is nothing mysterious or supernatural about the Christian life.
No; the question is whether the “nature” of man is realizable. Is it enough simply to show man what he ought to be? Can he achieve his authentic Being by a mere act of reflection? It is clear that philosophy, no less than theology, has always taken it for granted that man has to a greater or lesser degree erred and gone astray, or at least that he is always in danger of so doing. Even the idealists try to show us what we really are — namely, that we are really spirit, and that it is therefore wrong to lose ourselves in the world of things. Become what you are! For Heidegger man has lost his individuality, and therefore he invites him to recover his true selfhood. Kamlah again realizes that what he calls “genuine historical existence” may lie hidden and buried beneath the rubble of unreality, and that this is especially the case to-day when we are suffering from the aftereffects of the Enlightenment. Kamlah also is aware that self-commitment is not the natural disposition of modern man, but a demand continually imposed upon him from without. There can be no emancipation without obedience. (P. 403)
At the same time, however, these philosophers are convinced that all we need is to be told about the “nature” of man in order to realize it. “Since it is the true understanding of Being, philosophy emancipates that self-commitment which is proper to man and enables it to attain to its full stature” (P. 326) — evidently, that means: it emancipates man for true self-commitment. Philosophy seeks to “liberate” (P. 337) the true naturalness of man.
Is this self-confidence of the philosophers justified? Whatever the answer may be, it is at least clear that this is the point where they part company with the New Testament. For the latter affirms the total incapacity of man to release himself from his fallen state. That deliverance can come only by an act of God. The New Testament does not give us a doctrine of “nature”, a doctrine of the authentic nature of man; it proclaims the event of redemption which was wrought in Christ.
That is why the New Testament says that without this saving act of God our plight is desperate, an assertion which existentialism repudiates. What lies behind this difference?
The philosophers and the New Testament agree that man can be only what he already is. For instance, the idealists believed that the life of the spirit was possible only because they regarded man as essentially spirit. Be come what you are! Similarly Heidegger can summon us to the resolve to exist as selves in face of death because he opens our eyes to our situation as one of ‘‘thrownness’’ (Geworfenheit: see “Existence and Being`” Vision Press, 1949, p. 49f. [Translator]) into Nothing. Man has to undertake to be what he already is. Similarly it is reasonable for Kamlah to invite us to emancipate ourselves by an act of self-commitment, because he sees that our empirical life is already a life of self-commitment — we are already members of society, we already receive its benefits and contribute to its maintenance.
The New Testament also sees that man can be only what he already is. St. Paul exhorts Christians to be holy because they have already been made holy (1 Cor. 6:11, cp. 5:7), and to walk in the Spirit because they are already in the spirit (Gal. 5:25), and to mortify sin because they are already dead unto sin (Rom. 6:11ff.); or in Johannine language, because they are not “of the world”, John 17:16) they can overcome the world, and because they are born of God they do not sin (I John 3:9). Eschatological existence is an attainable ideal because “the fullness of time has come” and God has sent his Son “that he might deliver us out of this present evil world. (Gal. 4:4; 1:4).
Thus the New Testament and the philosophers agree that the authentic life is possible only because in some sense it is already a present possession. But there is one difference-the New Testament speaks thus only to Christian believers, only to those who have opened their hearts to the redemptive action of God. It never speaks thus to natural man, for he does not possess life, and his plight is one of despair.
Why does the New Testament take this line ? Because it knows that man can become only what he already is, and it sees that natural man, man apart from Christ, is not as he ought to be-he is not alive, but dead.
The point at issue is how we understand the fall. Even the philosophers are agreed about the fact of it. But they think that all man needs is to be shown his plight, and that then he will be able to escape from it. In other words, the corruption resulting from the fall does not extend to the core of the human personality. The New Testament, on the other hand, regards the fall as total.
How then, if the fall be total, can man be aware of his plight? He certainly is aware of it, as the philosophers themselves testify. How can man be aware that his fall is total and that it extends to the very core of his personality? As a matter of fact, it is the other way round: it is only because man is a fallen being, only because he knows he is not what he really ought to be and what he would like to be, that he can be aware of his plight. That awareness of his authentic nature is essential to human life, and without it man would not be man. But his authentic nature is not an endowment of creation or a possession at his own disposal. The philosophers would agree thus far, for they also know that man’s authentic nature has to be apprehended by a deliberate resolve. But they think that all man needs is to be told about his authentic nature. This nature is what he never realizes, but what at every moment he is capable of realizing — you can because you ought. But the philosophers are confusing a theoretical possibility with an actual one. For, as the New Testament sees it, man has lost that actual possibility, and even his awareness of his authentic manhood is perverted, as is shown by his deluded belief that it is a possession he can command at will.
Why then has the fall destroyed this actual possibility? The answer is that in his present plight every impulse of man is the impulse of a fallen being. St. Paul demonstrates this in the case of the Jews. In their search for righteousness they missed the very object of their quest. They looked for justification from their own works; they wanted to have a ground for glorying before God. Here is a perfect illustration of the plight of man, of his bondage to the flesh, which the Jews were trying so frantically to escape. This bondage leads to self-glorying and self-assertion, to a desperate attempt to control our own destiny. If the authentic life of man is one of self-commitment, then that life is missed not only by the blatantly self-assertive but also by those who try to achieve self-commitment by their own efforts. They fail to see that self-commitment can be received only as a gift from God.
The glorying of the Jew over his faithfulness to the law and the glorying of the Gnostic in his wisdom are both illustrations of the dominant attitude of man, of his independence and autonomy which lead in the end to frustration. We find the same thing in idealism with its deus in nobis:
Lay hold on divinity; make it your own:
Down it will climb from its heavenly throne.
In Heidegger’s case the perversity of such an attitude is less obvious because he does not characterize resolve as self-commitment. But it is clear that the shouldering of the accident of his destiny in the facing of death is really the same radical self-assertion on man’s part. Kamlah is relatively nearer to the Christian position when he asserts that the commandment of self-commitment is capable of fulfillment because God grants an understanding of himself (Pp. 341, 353) or because “Reality” makes self-commitment possible to man by disclosing its own meaning to him, (P. 298) or because self-commitment receives an indication of its own intelligibility from “Reality” itself. (P. 330) But to assert the intelligibility of Reality is to my mind a counsel of despair. Is it not a desperate act of self-assertion when Kamlah says: “It is not possible to doubt altogether in the intelligibility of Reality”? (P. 358) This surely goes to prove that the only reasonable attitude for man to adopt apart from Christ is one of despair, to despair of the possibility of his ever achieving authentic Being.
This at any rate is what the New Testament asserts. Of course it cannot prove its case any more than the philosophers can prove the intelligibility of Reality. It is a matter for decision. The New Testament addresses man as one who is through and through a self-assertive rebel who knows from bitter experience that the life he actually lives is not his authentic life, and that he is totally incapable of achieving that life by his own efforts. In short, he is a totally fallen being.
This means, in the language of the New Testament, that man is a sinner. The self-assertion of which we have spoken is identical with sin. Sin is self-assertion, self-glorying, for “No flesh should glory before God…. He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:29, 31; 2 Cor. 10:17). Is that no more than an unnecessary mythologizing of an ontological proposition? Can man as he is perceive that self-assertion involves guilt, and that he is personally responsible to God for it? Is sin a mythological concept or not? The answer will depend on what we make of St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “What hast thou that thou didst not receive? but if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Does this apply to all men alike, or only to Christians? This much at any rate is clear: self-assertion is guilt only if it can be understood as ingratitude. If the radical self-assertion which makes it impossible for man to achieve the authentic life of self-commitment is identical with sin, it must obviously be possible for man to understand his existence altogether as a gift of God. But it is just this radical self-assertion which makes such an understanding impossible. For self-assertion deludes man into thinking that his existence is a prize within his own grasp. How blind man is to his plight is illustrated by that pessimism which regards life as a burden thrust on man against his will, or by the way men talk about the “right to live” or by the way they expect their fair share of good fortune. Man’s radical self-assertion then blinds him to the fact of sin, and this is the clearest proof that he is a fallen being. Hence it is no good telling man that he is a sinner. He will only dismiss it as mythology. But it does not follow that he is right.
To talk of sin ceases to be mere mythology when the love of God meets man as a power which embraces and sustains him even in his fallen, self-assertive state. Such a love treats man as if he were other than he is. By so doing, love frees man from himself as he is.
For as a result of his self-assertion man is a totally fallen being. He is capable of knowing that his authentic life consists in self-commitment, but is incapable of realizing it because however hard he tries he still remains what he is, self-assertive man. So in practice authentic life becomes possible only when man is delivered from himself. It is the claim of the New Testament that this is exactly what has happened. This is precisely the meaning of that which was wrought in Christ. At the very point where man can do nothing, God steps in and acts — indeed he has acted already — on man’s behalf.
St. Paul is endeavoring to express this when he speaks of the expiation of sin, or of “righteousness” created as a gift of God rather than as a human achievement. Through Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself, not reckoning to it its trespasses (2 Cor. 5:19). God made Christ to be sin for us, that we ,through him might stand before God as righteous (2 Cor. 5: 21). For everyone who believes, his past life is dead and done with. He is a new creature, and as such he faces each new moment. In short, he has become a free man.
It is quite clear from this that forgiveness of sins is not a juridical concept. It does not mean the remission of punishment. (It is worth noting that St. Paul never uses the term, though it reappears in the deutero-Pauline literature; see e.g. Col. 1:14; Eph. 1:7) If that were so, man’s plight would be as bad as ever. Rather, forgiveness conveys freedom from sin, which hitherto had held man in bondage. But this freedom is not a static quality: it is freedom to obey. The indicative implies an imperative. Love is the fulfillment of the law, and therefore the forgiveness of God delivers man from himself and makes him free to devote his life to the service of others (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14).
Thus eschatological existence has become possible. God has acted, and the world — “this world” — has come to an end. Man himself has been made new. “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). So much for St. Paul. St. John makes the same point in his own particular language. The knowledge of the “truth” as it is revealed in Jesus makes men free (8:32), free from the bondage of sin (8:34). Jesus calls the dead to life (5:25) and gives sight to the blind (9:39). The believer in Christ is “born again” (3:3ff.); he is given a fresh start in life. He is no longer a worldling, for he has overcome the world through faith (I John 5:4).
The event of Jesus Christ is therefore the revelation of the love of God. It makes a man free from himself and free to be himself, free to live a life of self-commitment in faith and love. But faith in this sense of the word is possible only where it takes the form of faith in the love of God. Yet such faith is still a subtle form of self-assertion so long as the love of God is merely a piece of wishful thinking. It is only an abstract idea so long as God has not revealed his love. That is why faith for the Christian means faith in Christ, for it is faith in the love of God revealed in Christ. Only those who are loved are capable of loving. Only those who have received confidence as a gift can show confidence in others. Only those who know what self-commitment is by experience can adopt that attitude themselves. We are free to give ourselves to God because he has given up himself for us. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10). “We love, because he first loved us.”(I John 4: 19).
The classic statement of this self-commitment of God, which is the ground of our own self-commitment, is to be found in Rom.,. 8:32: “God spared not his Son, but delivered him up for us; how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” Compare the Johannine text: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). There are also similar texts which speak of Jesus’ giving up himself for us: `’. . . who gave himself for our sins, that he might deliver us out of this present evil world” (Gal. 1:4); “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live; and yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I live in the flesh I live in faith, the faith which is in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal. 2:19f.) .
Here then is the crucial distinction between the New Testament and existentialism, between the Christian faith and the natural understanding of Being. The New Testament speaks and faith knows of an act of God through which man becomes capable of self-commitment, capable of faith and love, of his authentic life.
Have we carried our demythologizing far enough? Are we still left with a myth, or at least an event which bears a mythical character? It is possible, as we have seen, to restate in nonmythological terms the New Testament teaching on human existence apart from faith and in faith. But what of the point of transition between the old life and the new, authentic life? Can it be understood otherwise than as an act of God? Is faith genuine only when it is faith in the love of God revealed in Christ ?
2 . The Event of Jesus Christ
Anyone who asserts that to speak of an act of God at all is mythological language is bound to regard the idea of an act of God in Christ as a myth. But let us ignore this question for a moment. Even Kamlah thinks it philosophically justifiable to use “the mythological language of an act of God” (p. 353). The issue for the moment is whether that particular event in which the New Testament sees the act of God and the revelation of his love — that is, the event of Jesus Christ — is essentially a mythical event.
(a) The Demythologizing of the Event of Jesus Christ
Now, it is beyond question that the New Testament presents the event of Jesus Christ in mythical terms. The problem is whether that is the only possible presentation. Or does the New Testament itself demand a restatement of the event of Jesus Christ in non-mythological terms? Now, it is clear from the outset that the event of Christ is of a wholly different order from the cult-myths of Greek or Hellenistic religion. Jesus Christ is certainly presented as the Son of God, a pre-existent divine being, and therefore to that extent a mythical figure. But he is also a concrete figure of history — Jesus of Nazareth. His life is more than a mythical event; it is a human life which ended in the tragedy of crucifixion. We have here a unique combination of history and myth. The New Testament claims that this Jesus of history, whose father and mother were well known to his contemporaries (John 6:42) is at the same time the pre-existent Son of God, and side by side with the historical event of the crucifixion it sets the definitely non-historical event of the resurrection. This combination of myth and history presents a number of difficulties, as can be seen from certain inconsistencies in the New Testament material. The doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence as given by St. Paul and St. John is difficult to reconcile with the legend of the Virgin birth in St. Matthew and St. Luke. On the one hand we hear that “he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man . . .” (Phil. 2:7), and on the other hand we have the gospel portraits of a Jesus who manifests his divinity in his miracles, omniscience, and mysterious elusiveness, and the similar description of him in Acts as “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs” (Acts 2:22). On the one hand we have the resurrection as the exaltation of Jesus from the cross or grave, and on the other the legends of the empty tomb and the ascension.
We are compelled to ask whether all this mythological language is not simply an attempt to express the meaning of the historical figure of Jesus and the events of his life; in other words, significance of these as a figure and event of salvation If that be so, we can dispense with the objective form in which they are cast.
It is easy enough to deal with the doctrine of Christ’s preexistence and the legend of the Virgin birth in this way. They are clearly attempts to explain the meaning of the Person of Jesus for faith. The facts which historical criticism can verify cannot exhaust, indeed they cannot adequately indicate, all that Jesus means to me. How he actually originated matters little, indeed we can appreciate his significance only when we cease to worry about such questions. Our interest in the events of his life, and above all in the cross, is more than an academic concern with the history of the past. We can see meaning in them only when we ask what God is trying to say to each one of us through them. Again, the figure of Jesus cannot be understood simply from his inner-worldly context. In mythological language, this means that he stems from eternity, his origin is not a human and natural one.
We shall not, however, pursue the examination of the particular incidents of his life any further. In the end the crux of the matter lies in the cross and resurrection.
(b) The Cross
Is the cross, understood as the event of redemption, exclusively mythical in character, or can it retain its value for salvation without forfeiting its character as history?
It certainly has a mythical character as far as its objective setting is concerned. The Jesus who was crucified was the pre-existent, incarnate Son of God, and as such he was without sin. He is the victim whose blood atones for our sins. He bears vicariously the sin of the world, and by enduring the punishment for sin on our behalf he delivers us from death. This mythological interpretation is a mixture of sacrificial and juridical analogies, which have ceased to be tenable for us today. And in any case they fail to do justice to what the New Testament is trying to say. For the most they can convey is that the cross effects the forgiveness of all the past and future sins of man, in the sense that the punishment they deserved has been remitted. But the New Testament means more than this. The cross releases men not only from the guilt, but also from the power of sin. That is why, when the author of Colossians says “He [God] . . . having forgiven us all our trespasses, having blotted out the bond written in ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us; and he hath taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross” he hastens to add: “having put off from himself the principalities and powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it” (Col 2:13-15).
The historical event of the cross acquires cosmic dimensions. And by speaking of the Cross as a cosmic happening its significance as a historical happening is made clear in accordance with the remarkable way of thinking in which historical events and connections are presented in cosmic terms, and so its full significance is brought into sharper relief. For if we see in the cross the judgment of the world and the defeat of the rulers of this world (I Cor 2:6ff.), the cross becomes the judgment of ourselves as fallen creatures enslaved to the powers of the “world”.
By giving up Jesus to be crucified, God has set up the cross for us. To believe in the cross of Christ does not mean to concern ourselves with a mythical process wrought outside of us and our world, with an objective event turned by God to our advantage, but rather to make the cross of Christ our own, to undergo crucifixion with him. The cross in its redemptive aspect is not an isolated incident which befell a mythical personage, but an event whose meaning has “cosmic” importance. Its decisive, revolutionary significance is brought out by the eschatological framework in which it is set. In other words, the cross is not just an event of the past which can be contemplated, but is the eschatological event in and beyond time, in so far as it (understood in its significance, that is, for faith) is an ever-present reality.
The cross becomes a present reality first of all in the sacraments. In baptism men and women are baptized into Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3) and crucified with him (Rom. 6:6). At every celebration of the Lord’s Supper the death of Christ is proclaimed (1 Cor: 1l.26). The communicants thereby partake of his crucified body and his blood outpoured (1 Cor. 10:16). Again, the cross of Christ is an ever-present reality in the everyday life of the Christians. “They that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof” (Gal. 5:24). That is why St. Paul can speak of “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world hath been crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14). That is why he seeks to know “the fellowship of his sufferings”, as one who is “conformed to his death” (Phil. 3:10).
The crucifying of the affections and lusts includes the overcoming of our natural dread of suffering and the perfection of our detachment from the world. Hence the willing acceptance of sufferings in which death is already at work in man means: “always bearing about in our body the dying of Jesus” and “always being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:10ff.).
Thus the cross and passion are ever-present realities. How little they are confined to the events of the first Good Friday is amply illustrated by the words which a disciple of St. Paul puts into his master’s mouth: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24).
In its redemptive aspect the cross of Christ is no mere mythical event, but a historic (geschichtlich) fact originating in the historical (historisch) event which is the crucifixion of Jesus. The abiding significance of the cross is that it is the judgment of the world, the judgment and the deliverance of man. So far as this is so, Christ is crucified “for us”, not in the sense of any theory of sacrifice or satisfaction. This interpretation of the cross as a permanent fact rather than a mythological event does far more justice to the redemptive significance of the event of the past than any of the traditional interpretations. In the last resort mythological language is only a medium for conveying the significance of the historical (historisch) event. The historical (historisch) event of the cross has, in the significance peculiar to it, created a new historic (geschichtlich) situation. The preaching of the cross as the event of redemption challenges all who hear it to appropriate this significance for themselves, to be willing to be crucified with Christ.
But, it will be asked, is this significance to be discerned in the actual event of past history? Can it, so to speak, be read off from that event? Or does the cross bear this significance because it is the cross of Christ? In other words, must we first be convinced of the significance of Christ and believe in him in order to discern the real meaning of the cross? If we are to perceive the real meaning of the cross, must we understand it as the cross of Jesus as a figure of past history? Must we go back to the Jesus of history ?
As far as the first preachers of the gospel are concerned this will certainly be the case. For them the cross was the cross of him with whom they had lived in personal intercourse. The cross was an experience of their own lives. It presented them with a question and it disclosed to them its meaning. But for us this personal connection cannot be reproduced. For us the cross cannot disclose its own meaning: it is an event of the past. We can never recover it as an event in our own lives. All we know of it is derived from historical report. But the New Testament does not proclaim Jesus Christ in this way. The meaning of the cross is not disclosed from the life of Jesus as a figure of past history, a life which needs to be reproduced by historical research. On the contrary, Jesus is not proclaimed merely as the crucified; he is also risen from the dead. The cross and the resurrection form an inseparable unity.
(c) The Resurrection
But what of the resurrection? Is it not a mythical event pure and simple? Obviously it is not an event of past history with a self-evident meaning. Can the resurrection narratives and every other mention of the resurrection in the New Testament be understood simply as an attempt to convey the meaning of the cross? Does the New Testament, in asserting that Jesus is risen from the dead, mean that his death is not just an ordinary human death, but the judgment and salvation of the world, depriving death of its power? Does it not express this truth in the affirmation that the Crucified was not holden of death, but rose from the dead ?
Yes indeed: the cross and the resurrection form a single, indivisible cosmic event. “He was delivered up for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4: 25). The cross is not an isolated event, as though it were the end of Jesus, which needed the resurrection subsequently to reverse it. When he suffered death, Jesus was already the Son of God, and his death by itself was the victory over the power of death. St. John brings this out most clearly by describing the passion of Jesus as the “hour” in which he is glorified, and by the double meaning he gives to the phrase “lifted up”, applying it both to the cross and to Christ’s exaltation into glory.
Cross and resurrection form a single, indivisible cosmic event which brings judgment to the world and opens up for men the possibility of authentic life. But if that be so, the resurrection cannot be a miraculous proof capable of demonstration and sufficient to convince the skeptic that the cross really has the cosmic and eschatological significance ascribed to it.
Yet it cannot be denied that the resurrection of Jesus is often used in the New Testament as a miraculous proof. Take for instance Acts 17:31. Here we are actually told that God substantiated the claims of Christ by raising him from the dead. Then again the resurrection narratives: both the legend of the empty tomb and the appearances insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord (see especially Luke 24:39-43). But these are most certainly later embellishments of the primitive tradition. St. Paul knows nothing about them. There is however one passage where St. Paul tries to prove the miracle of the resurrection by adducing a list of eye-witnesses (1 Cor. 15:3-8). But this is a dangerous procedure, as Karl Barth has involuntarily shown. Barth seeks to explain away the real meaning of 1 Cor.15 by contending that the list of eye-witnesses was put in not to prove the fact of the resurrection, but to prove that the preaching of the apostle was, like the preaching of the first Christians, the preaching of Jesus as the risen Lord. The eyewitnesses therefore guarantee St. Paul’s preaching, not the fact of the resurrection. An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable!
Yes indeed: the resurrection of Jesus cannot be a miraculous proof by which the skeptic might be compelled to believe in Christ. The difficulty is not simply the incredibility of a mythical event like the resuscitation of a dead person-for that is what the resurrection means, as is shown by the fact that the risen Lord is apprehended by the physical senses. Nor is it merely the impossibility of establishing the objective historicity of the resurrection no matter how many witnesses are cited, as though once it was established it might be believed beyond all question and faith might have its unimpeachable guarantee. No; the real difficulty is that the resurrection is itself an article of faith, and you cannot establish one article of faith by invoking another. You cannot prove the redemptive efficacy of the cross by invoking the resurrection. For the resurrection is an article of faith because it is far more than the resuscitation of a corpse-it is the eschatological event. And so it cannot be a miraculous proof. For, quite apart from its credibility, the bare miracle tells us nothing about the eschatological fact of the destruction of death. Moreover, such a miracle is not otherwise unknown to mythology.
It is however abundantly clear that the New Testament is interested in the resurrection of Christ simply and solely because it is the eschatological event par excellence. By it Christ abolished death and brought life and immortality to light (2 Tim. 1:10). This explains why St. Paul borrows Gnostic language to clarify the meaning of the resurrection. As in the death of Jesus all have died (2 Cor. 5:14f.), so through his resurrection all have been raised from the dead, though naturally this event is spread over a long period of time (1 Cor. 15:21f.). But St. Paul does not only say: “In Christ shall all be made alive”; he can also speak of rising again with Christ in the present tense, just as he speaks of our dying with him. Through the sacrament of baptism Christians participate not only in the death of Christ but also in his resurrection. It is not simply that we shall walk with him in newness of life and be united with him in his resurrection (Rom. 6:4f); we are doing so already here and now. “Even so reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6:1l).
Once again, in everyday life the Christians participate not only in the death of Christ but also in his resurrection. In this resurrection-life they enjoy a freedom, albeit a struggling freedom, from sin (Rom. 6:11ff.). They are able to “cast off the works of darkness”, so that the approaching day when the darkness shall vanish is already experienced here and now. ” Let us walk honestly as in the day” (Rom. 13:12f.): “we are not of the night, nor of the darkness…. Let us, since we are of the day, be sober . . . ” ( I Thess. 5:5-8). St. Paul seeks to share not only the sufferings of Christ but also “the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10). So he bears about in his body the dying of Jesus, “that the life also of Jesus may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10f.). Similarly, when the Corinthians demand a proof of his apostolic authority, he solemnly warns them: “Christ is not weak, but is powerful in you: for he was crucified in weakness, yet he liveth in the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him through the power of God toward you” (2 Cor. 13:3f.).
In this way the resurrection is not a mythological event adduced in order to prove the saving efficacy of the cross, but an article of faith just as much as the meaning of the cross itself. Indeed, faith in the resurrection is really the same thing as faith in the saving efficacy of the cross, faith in the cross as the cross of Christ. Hence you cannot first believe in Christ and then in the strength of that faith believe in the cross. To believe in Christ means to believe in the cross as the cross of Christ. The saving efficacy of the cross is not derived from the fact that it is the cross of Christ: it is the cross of Christ because it has this saving efficacy. Without that efficacy it is the tragic end of a great man.
We are back again at the old question. How do we come to believe in the cross as the cross of Christ and as the eschatological event par excellence? How do we come to believe in the saving efficacy of the cross?
There is only one answer. This is the way in which the cross is proclaimed. It is always proclaimed together with the resurrection. Christ meets us in the preaching as one crucified and risen. He meets us in the word of preaching and nowhere else. The faith of Easter is just this — faith in the word of preaching.
It would be wrong at this point to raise again the problem of how this preaching arose historically, as though that could vindicate its truth. That would be to tie our faith in the word of God: to the results of historical research. The word of preaching confronts us as the word of God. It is not for us to question its credentials. It is we who are questioned, we who are asked whether we will believe the word or reject it. But in answering this question, in accepting the word of preaching as the word of God and the death and resurrection of Christ as the eschatological event, we are given an opportunity of understanding ourselves. Faith and unbelief are never blind, arbitrary decisions. They offer us the alternative between accepting or rejecting that which alone can illuminate our understanding of ourselves.
The real Easter faith is faith in the word of preaching which brings illumination. If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the risen of faith in the risen Lord, since it was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. 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 enjoyed 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. (This and the following paragraphs are also intended as an answer to the doubts and suspicions which Paul Althaus has raised against me in Die Wahrheit des kirchlichen Osterglaubens, 1941, p. 90ff. Cp. also my discussion of Emanuel Hirsch’s “Die Auferstchungsgeschichten und der christliche Glaube”, 1940, in Theol. Iit.-Ztg., 1940, pp. 242-6.)
We cannot buttress our own faith in the resurrection by that of the first disciples and so eliminate the element of risk which faith in the resurrection always involves. For the first disciples’ faith in the resurrection is itself part and parcel of the eschatological event which is the article of faith.
In other words, the apostolic preaching which originated in the event of Easter Day is itself a part of the eschatological event of redemption. The death of Christ, which is both the judgment and the salvation of the world, inaugurates the “ministry of reconciliation” or “word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18f.). This word supplements the cross and makes its saving efficacy intelligible by demanding faith and confronting men with the question whether they are willing to understand themselves as men who are crucified and risen with Christ. Through the word of preaching the cross and the resurrection are made present: the eschatological ‘`now” is here, and the promise of Isa. 49:8 is fulfilled: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). That is why the apostolic preaching brings judgment. For some the apostle is “a savior from death unto death” and for others a “savior from life unto life” (2 Cor. 2:16). St. Paul is the agent through whom the resurrection life becomes effective in the faithful (2 Cor. 4:12). The promise of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is eminently applicable to the preaching in which he is proclaimed: “Verily I say unto you, He that heareth my words and believeth on him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not unto judgment, but hath passed out of death into life…. The hour cometh and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear shall live” (John 5:24f.). In the word of preaching and there alone we meet the risen Lord. “So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Like the word itself and the apostle who proclaims it, so the Church where the preaching of the word is continued and where the believers or “saints” (i.e., those who have been transferred to eschatological existence) are gathered is part of the eschatological event. The word “Church” is an eschatological term, while its designation as the Body of Christ emphasizes its cosmic significance. For the Church is not just a phenomenon of secular history, it is phenomenon of significant history, in the sense that it realizes itself in history.
We have now outlined a program for the demythologizing of the New Testament. Are there still any surviving traces of mythology? There certainly are for those who regard all language about an act of God or of a decisive, eschatological event as mythological. But this is not mythology in the traditional sense, not the kind of mythology which has become antiquated with the decay of the mythical world view. For the redemption of which we have spoken is not a miraculous supernatural event, but an historical event wrought out in time and space. We are convinced that this restatement does better justice to the real meaning of the New Testament and to the paradox of the kerygma. For the kerygma maintains that the eschatological emissary of God is a concrete figure of a particular historical past, that his eschatological activity was wrought out in a human fate, and that therefore it is an event whose eschatological character does not admit of a secular proof. Here we have the paradox of Phil. 2:7 “He emptied himself”; of 2 Cor. 8:9: “. . . though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor”; of Rom. 8: 3: “God, sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh”; of I Tim. 3:16: “He was manifested in the flesh”; and above all of the classic formula of John 1:14: “The Word became flesh.”
The agent of God’s presence and activity, the mediator of his reconciliation of the world unto himself, is a real figure of history. Similarly the word of God is not some mysterious oracle, but a sober, factual account of a human life, of Jesus of Nazareth, possessing saving efficacy for man. Of course the kerygma may be regarded as part of the story of man’s spiritual evolution and used as a basis for a tenable Weltanschauung. Yet this proclamation claims to be the eschatological word of God.
The apostles who proclaim the word may be regarded merely as figures of past history, and the Church as a sociological and historical phenomenon, part of the history of man’s spiritual evolution. Yet both are eschatological phenomena and eschatological events.
All these assertions are an offense, which will not be removed by philosophical discussion, but only by faith and obedience. All these are phenomena subject to historical, sociological and psychological observation, yet for faith they are all of them eschatological phenomena. It is precisely its immunity from proof which secures the Christian proclamation against the charge of being mythological. The transcendence of God is not as in myth reduced to immanence. Instead, we have the paradox of a transcendent God present and active in history: “The Word became flesh”.