The Restatement of New Testament Mythology by Helmut Thielicke
(This essay is a discussion of Bultmann’s Offenbarung und Heilsgeschehen . See also my article in the Deutsches Pfarrerblatt, 22 August 1942. The present essay, first produced as a theological memorandum in 1942 at the request of the Oberkirchenrat of the Lutheran Church of Württemberg, is reproduced here without any important changes. Since then, the discussion has been carried an important stage further by Oscar Cullmann, in his outstanding work Christ and Time [Eng. trans., S.C.M. Press, 1951]. Despite the subsequent appearance of this book, I had to leave my own contribution in its original form. It was first read as a paper at a conference of theologians convened by Bishop Wurm at Stuttgart in 1943 and afterwards circulated in typescript by the Oberkirchenrat. The only other course would have been to rewrite it completely. All I have done is to remove its obvious wartime references on the suggestion of Hans v. Soden, to whom I am indebted for detailed criticisms and appreciation.)
The Importance of Bultmann’s Challenge for the Church
Bultmann’s essay on the demythologizing of the New Testament has become an event which everybody is talking about. I deliberately speak of it as an event of more than theological or academic significance: it is an ecclesiastical event. My reasons for so doing are as follows:
Bultmann has asked the question whether salvation history, in its formal aspect at any rate, is to be regarded as myth rather than history, and as myth not only in its outer framework but in its essential core, in the event of Jesus Christ.
Before proceeding to examine this challenge in detail, we should state at the outset that it affects the very foundations of the Church.
When the Reformers made sola fide the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, they meant by faith in Jesus Christ, fides Jesu (objective genitive).(There is something to be said for taking it as a subjective genitive, but the point need not detain us here. See the important work by H. Iwand, Rechtfertigungslehre und Christusglaube, Leipzig 1930, which is particularly illuminating on this subject.) The Reformers were not concerned with faith as a subjective disposition as contrasted with works, but with its object, Jesus Christ. Luther was always emphasizing that what mattered about faith was not its subject, but its object which was located extra me. In his exposition of Psalm 90 he even used the daring metaphor that the subject of faith was a mathematical point, so far was he from regarding faith as a subjective experience through which man’s understanding of himself is illuminated, and so exclusively should faith be defined in reference to its object, the extra se of the historic Christ. As it became secularized, Protestantism lost sight of this, and sola fide became a subjective disposition of man, an emotional experience, the famous “defiant faith” of Lutheranism.
Hence it would be more accurate to speak of sola fide Jesu Christi. This makes the controversy with Bultmann a status confessionis. Only when faith is controlled by its object and riveted to Christology does it become the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. It is not merely faith as such, but, more important, the historical basis of faith, which belongs to the standing and falling of the Church. If that be so, then Bultmann’s challenge, concerned as it is with the contamination of that historic basis with mythology, affects the very foundation of the Church.
Bultmann is not just a voice in the wilderness. He is the mouthpiece of a quite definite spirit of the age. More than that, he represents a historism which grew out of the swaddling clothes of the History of Religions, passed through dialectic theology, and reacted negatively to it. All this means that the Church is challenged here to take a confessional stand. This is more than a theological discussion. Of course, all we can do here is to offer a few preliminary considerations of a theological character to pave the way for such a confession.
Quite apart from the solution Bultmann proposes, he raises problems which concern every theologian, whenever he opens his Bible in the study, lecture room, or pulpit. A few examples will make this clear. He must, for instance, make up his mind about what is “true” in the Biblical text, and what is only “temporary” — i.e. to be interpreted in the light of the world view or the religious environment of the age. He must decide what is the kernel of the gospel, and what is merely the outward husk which has been shaped by human imagination, by traditional interpretation, by the tendency to produce credal formulae, by the subsequent historical consolidation of the truths of faith. What is “truth” and what is “mythology” ? What is divine and what is human?
Bultmann does not set out with any practical concern, whether secret or avowed. He does not ask what bearing his conclusions may have on our preaching of the gospel. He approaches the problem from a purely academic standpoint and asks, How far does the essential message of the gospel confront us — (1) In the framework of a mythical world view conditioned by its environment and therefore irrelevant to the modern world? If so, how is that message (2) to be detached from its setting and presented so to say in its chemical purity?
No one will be able to deny Bultmann’s radical honesty. He does not shrink from the consequences, however terrifying they may be, either in his personal responsibility towards the Scriptures, or in the positive or negative conclusions he is forced to draw for his own preaching. This is the most serious challenge theologians have had to face for many a day
As a matter of fact, we all draw the distinction between mythology and truth, but the point at which we draw it varies with our school of thought or our individual preferences. The vagueness — nay more, the downright insincerity — of much modern preaching may be gauged from the way we tend to draw the line between truth and mythology at different points, at one point in the study and at another in the pulpit. We tend to be influenced by practical considerations. How much will the congregation stand ? This leads to insincerity and is not a healthy sign. Perhaps this pragmatism affects the personal faith of the preacher: he stands helpless in face of mythology, and lacks the courage to draw the distinction as sharply as he should. However this may be, it is a fact that up to now the problem of mythology has never been a regular part of the curriculum of theological study. It will certainly have to be in the future.
We see then from the outset that there is no escaping Bultmann’s challenge. It must be boldly met in the confidence that the outside world cannot and must not possess a monopoly of the truth, and that here too the truth can make us free. We must go forward with the conviction that as our faith is steeled in the fires of doubt we shall open up a new chapter in the progress of theological knowledge.
Let us make it quite clear that we do not dispute the distinction between the husk of mythology and the kernel of revelation. That goes without saying. What we ask is, Where exactly should the line be drawn?
In the first part (A), we shall endeavor to arrive at a clear understanding of Bultmann’s aim. This will enable us to see that the logical consequence of his restatement of mythology is the elimination of salvation history and the substitution of philosophy for theology.
In the second part (B) we shall use the Memorandum of the Confessing Church of Hesse as our basis, and ask whether myth is a permanent element in human thought, and therefore an indispensable vehicle for the expression of the Biblical revelation.
Both Bultmann and the Hessian memorandum (hereafter quoted as HBK) agree that the message of the Bible is not just straightforward history. Between us and the historical reality which lies behind that message there is an intermediate layer of myth. On historical grounds, both religious and secular, Bultmann believes that myth affects the actual message itself: the mythical element encounters us, so to say, “objectively”, and is part of the message itself. To HBK, on the other hand, the reason for myth lies in the nature of man, in the way he inevitably approaches religion. Here myth is, so to say, “subjective”: it arises from the way we look at things. Bultmann thinks he can get rid of the mythological language which conceals the truth by carefully extracting the Biblical message from its setting in a contemporary world view. To HBK such a procedure is impossible, since the mythological setting is due not to historical circumstances or to the contemporary world view but to the way man looks at things. We can no more abandon mythology than we can cease to think in terms of time and space. Thus Bultmann rejects, while HBK accepts and affirms, the mythological elements in the Bible.
These two works provide a pattern for the treatment of the problem of mythology and history in Holy Scripture. In the last analysis they form a unity in tension Hence we shall use them as a guide for our own consideration of the problem, not for any polemical reasons, but because they lay down the best lines for its treatment.
We shall endeavor to take up an independent line on the problem of myth as a whole, without losing sight of the practical implications of our conclusions for the Church’s proclamation. We are fully aware that we can do no more than throw out a few suggestions and make a few preliminary assaults on the problem, for it will probably need the work of a whole generation of theologians for a final solution. We shall endeavor not to suppress the difficulties in this preliminary assault. In fact, we shall bring to light an even more formidable array of problems than either Bultmann or HBK have raised so far.
A. The Consequence of Demythologizing: The Conversion of the Gospel into a Philosophy
I. Bultmann’s Task
Bultmann maintains that the essential kerygma is embedded in a double framework:
1. A world view which implies a three-storied universe of heaven, earth, and hell.
2. Jewish apocalyptic and the Gnostic myth of redemption. Both of these are now untenable. They provide the source for many of the teachings and narratives of the New Testament, and are indispensable for its interpretation. Neither these teachings nor these narratives may be imposed as articles of faith on those who seek the ultimate truth of which these things are but the temporary vehicles, and who are themselves conditioned by a totally different world view.
Bultmann believes that this affects not only the periphery of the New Testament, but even its central features like the miracles, the demonology, the doctrine of the End, of death as the punishment of sin, of vicarious satisfaction through the death and resurrection of Christ. “At this point absolute clarity and ruthless honesty are essential both for the academic theologian and for the parish priest. It is a duty they owe to themselves, to the Church they serve, and to those whom they seek to win for the Church. They must make it quite clear what their hearers are expected to accept and what they are not”.
It will be seen here how profoundly Bultmann is influenced by the History of Religions school and its historical relativism. Yet the difference between them is equally obvious. That school tended at the outset to remove the kerygma as a kind of erratic boulder, and to plant it down in the general history of religion. Thus they deprived the kerygma of its distinctiveness. Bultmann, on the other hand, tries to avoid this threat to the kerygma, not by denying the influence of its environment, nor by a naïve dogmatism which the study of the History of Religions has rendered obsolete, but by penetrating through the temporary framework of mythology to the permanent truth behind it.
We may admit that whatever the final outcome may be, such a plan is a great one, and in the way in which it has been begun represents a legitimate task for the Church. For the only real answer to the History of Religions school will come from a theologian who recognizes its discoveries and who realizes the complete change in the situation which those discoveries have brought about. It must, if I may say so, come from one who has been through it and suffered with it. It cannot come from an obscurantist who behaves as though nothing had happened and is content to repeat the shibboleths of a short-circuited dogmatism, or to take over the exegesis of Luther naïvely and uncritically, to say nothing of the allegorical interpretations of the Rabbis.(As is done e.g. by Hans Halbardt, and to some extent by Wilhelm Vische himself.)
Bultmann takes the History of Religions seriously, but he is not a slave to it. It is important to give him credit for that, not only for his own sake but for the sake of the cause he has at heart. In fact, he is looking for the answer to it. And from the outset — we owe this to him too — we must recognize that such an enterprise will demand sacrifices: we must face the risk of heresy, and even the likelihood that we shall have to shed our own theological blood. “Nothing venture, nothing win”, that is the rule in the kingdom of God as it is in the world, for faith is precisely a venture. But in any case this venture possesses theological dignity, not because of its dangers and its magnitude, but because of the name in which it is undertaken. That is to say, whether it is undertaken in the name of a deliberately secular criterion to which the Bible is subordinated, or in the name of the Lord who will not suffer the truth to fail. For he himself is the Truth, and he will always distinguish between the faith of his servants and their theological ventures. Hence it is important to recognize that Bultmann is thinking as a servant of the Lord and of his Church.
II. Earlier Restatements of the Kerygma now Outmoded
Bultmann believes that we cannot penetrate to the permanent truths of the New Testament by the reduction or subtraction of the mythological element. Such a procedure would be merely eclectic, and would not solve the whole problem of mythology as a system.
Nor will the older liberal theology help us. For by dissolving the evangelical events into the symbol of an eternal idea it forfeited the element of event in the Christian revelation. Bultmann agrees that modern man cannot accept the mythology, but he does not want him to have to content himself with a timeless sublimation of the gospel: he is looking for another alternative, which will rescue the historicity of the gospel and so retain its character as kerygma. It would be unjust to Bultmann if we forgot his genuine pastoral concern in our zeal to repudiate his conclusions. Whether Bultmann’s methods are adequate, and whether he can sustain his intention, is another matter, to which we must address ourselves forthwith.
III. Mythology to be Interpreted, not Eliminated
So far then we agree with Bultmann. We cannot penetrate to the kernel of history behind the husk of mythology by critical subtraction, nor can we sublimate the gospel into a timeless truth after the manner of liberal Protestantism. The former procedure failed to do justice to the principle of myth and to its ubiquity in the Bible, while the latter deprived salvation history of its historical roots and reduced it to a Weltanschauung.
The only way to penetrate to the eternal truth behind the mythological husk is, according to Bultmann, not to eliminate the mythology but to interpret it. The real purpose of myth (e.g. the creation stories) is not to give an account of what actually happened in the past, or what may happen in the future (e.g. another ice age), but to convey a particular understanding of human life.
What Bultmann is really driving at may perhaps be demonstrated from a further consideration of the doctrine of creatio ex nihil. This particular doctrine does not tell us how the world actually came into being, but seeks rather to convey the implications of the fact that we stand as responsible beings before God. It teaches us that God is the source of all our being. He calls us out of nothing, and stamps us with the insignia of his Fatherhood. We are not made out of some material alien to God which we can blame for our sins and failures. Further, there is no ground for refusing to recognize his absolute sovereignty. Beside him there are no other gods, and apart from him there can be no material world. To deny the doctrine of creation ex nihil is to limit God’s sovereignty, as happens in the various theories which make God himself part of the evolutionary process.
Hence it will be seen that Bultmann is groping after a really important truth. The cosmological assumptions of myth are not literal truths: what we have to do is to discover the existential meaning behind them This meaning is valid for all time, for though world views change, human nature remains the same. Incidentally there would appear to be nothing really new in Bultmann’s enterprise. It has been going on now for several decades in the controversy between religion and science. In the course of it theologians have rediscovered the kerygma which is enshrined in the cosmology of the creation myth.
The truth then embodied in myth is not scientific, but anthropological, or better, existential. The question is, what particular understanding of man’s Being does the New Testament convey?
IV. Myth as an Understanding of Human Life
It is when Bultmann speaks of the understanding of human life that our suspicions are first aroused, especially when we know what a prominent part this conception plays in Bultmann’s thought. (Cf. Bultmann’s characteristic article on Paul in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart.) By “understanding of human life” he means a timeless abstract truth. When I think I understand some piece of history (e.g. the Reformation), I thereby claim that my understanding of it transcends my subjectivity and temporality, and possesses supra-temporal validity. And although I am aware that historical understanding is always subjectively conditioned, it nevertheless acquires supra-subjective, timeless status. Convinced as I am that my understanding is genuine, I am bound at the same time to claim that my subjectivity is in a special manner subordinated to its object, and is therefore adequate to it. Hence it is more than accidental that the mind is able to regard its understanding as timeless.
If the content of the New Testament message is, as Bultmann claims, an “understanding”, the emphasis lies on the subjective element, the change in our self-consciousness which produces that understanding. This experience may in some way be connected with an event of revelation, and it may be necessary first to extract the distinctive Christian self-consciousness, but that does not make it any the less subjective.
All we have to do is to substitute Schleiermacher’s famous “self-consciousness” for Bultmann’s term, “understanding of human life” (after all, the two terms are practically synonymous) in order to see this. We may call this self-consciousness existential, we may say it needs an external event to bring it to birth, but that does not alter its essential character as timeless truth. In any case, the emphasis rests upon its timeless character and permanent validity.
Such an outlook really leaves no room for an historical revelation in time, at least not in the sense of an intervention on the plane of reality, including reality external to man, and an intervention which changes that reality, as in miracle. Such an idea would be too mythological for Bultmann. The only event of revelation he can allow is one which brings to birth an understanding of human life such as man could never have produced for himself.
Consequently the event in the process of revelation is not an objective reality, it is simply a change in the subjective consciousness of man. When the prologue of the Fourth Gospels says “The Word became flesh” it means by “flesh” not the historical fact in the manger at Bethlehem but the acquisition of a new understanding of human life which has its origin in that point of history. This would seem to be a legitimate interpretation of Bultmann’s argument. The historical narratives of the New Testament are, to put it bluntly, not events in their own right, but only the prelude to an event. The real event is the change which takes place in human self-consciousness.
V. Historicity in Danger
At first sight it would appear that Bultmann has done more justice to the kerygma as event, when compared with Liberal Protestantism. But we cannot delude ourselves as to the status of this event. We get the impression — and this will be confirmed in the ensuing argument — that the event is a kind of inference deduced from the Christian or the existential understanding of human life. (To avoid misapprehension, let us emphasize that the event we speak of is not the historical data — e.g. the facts about the life of Jesus. These facts are not deducible from the Christian interpretation of human life. They are the subject of historical investigation. What we mean by event is these historical data elevated to cosmic dimensions by the acquisition of an understanding of human life which those data produce. Thus the event is not the Jesus of history, but Jesus valued as the Christ.)
Thus it would appear that the new understanding of existence is rendered possible only by an act which stands in the background — i.e. Christ. But this act never comes out into the open, any more than Kant’s hypothetical God. We seem to be relegated with the men of the New Testament to Plato’s famous cave. All we see is the shadows of our own consciousness, and all we can do is to draw inferences about the reality which lies behind them and produces the effect. Of the kernel of history which transcends the myth, Bultmann can speak only in negative terms: “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 context in human evolution or history. In mythological language this means that he stems from eternity, his origin transcends both history and nature.” “Eternity” is thus only a description of the fact that entry of the Logos into sarx involves a particular understanding of human life (Since, according to Bultmann, its basis in history is unimportant, the Logos is important not because of what it was in history but merely because of what it said. What it was involves history, whereas what it said involves no more than this particular understanding of human life. Bultmann is logical.) which cannot be discovered as immanent in the world around us. The implication is that it would be nearer the truth to say: “The Word did not become flesh.”
We said earlier that for Bultmann the crucial event takes place in the human consciousness. To this we must add that the change in consciousness does not produce itself. It is not, so to say, “congenital” or socratic, or in any other way self-originating. It needs an event to bring it to birth. It must as it were be “cranked up” like the universe in deism. Such would seem to be the fundamentally negative implication in Bultmann’s thought about the event which underlies the New Testament kerygma and the understanding of human life of which it is the expression.
What matters in theology, however, is not the recognition of the event, but the status accorded to it. Is the history recorded in the New Testament just a vague reality which underlies the Christian consciousness, the contours of which can no longer be recovered, or is it not rather the event par excellence, quite apart from our subjective consciousness? Is it not the light whose miraculous appearance is quite unaffected by whether the darkness apprehended it or not? Everything turns upon the status accorded to the event. Even Lessing in The Education of the Human Race would seem to recognize that revelation meant event, but he again conceived that event in a deistic manner, and so transformed the truth of revelation into an abstract philosophical truth. It became in fact an understanding of human life. (See my Vernunft und Offenbarung, A study of the Religious Philosophy of Lessing, Tubingen, 1942, 2nd ed. It is surely no accident that Bultmann repeatedly echoes the ideas of Lessing.) The status accorded by Bultmann to the event in revelation would appear to be essentially indirect and negative.
VI. Revelation Disintegrated into Philosophy
This raises the question — and it shows how radical Bultmann is that he is prepared to face it — as to what happens to this understanding of human life once it has been created. Is it detached from the event which gave it birth and left suspended in mid-air? Does it become philosophical and unhistorical? Must we not conclude with Lessing in The Education of the Human Race that the aim of God’s revelation of himself in history was to render itself superfluous by becoming an abstract idea loosed from its historical moorings — in fact, an understanding of human life? (See the author’s Krisis der Theologie, and for Bultmann’s unhistorical interpretation of miracle his Das Wundcr, both in Hinrichs-Verlag, 1938 and 1939 respectively.) Or, to put it concretely in reference to Bultmann’s problem, Is not the Christian understanding of human life detached from its basis in history, which is Christ? Does not Christianity become a philosophy of existence? Does there not come a time when the child no longer needs a teacher to guide him? Does not Christ become an outworn myth of ever decreasing importance?
In this connection Bultmann himself calls attention to the striking fact that Jaspers, Heidegger, and quite recently Kamlah, have transposed the Christian understanding of human life into the sphere of philosophy. Reading between the lines, it would appear that Bultmann is anxious lest he too should be driven to the same conclusion. By interpreting the New Testament as he does in terms of Heidegger he would seem to have no other course left open to him. He is compelled to carry the method he has chosen — namely, that of secular philosophy — to its logical conclusion.
Let us digress for a moment to notice a fact which emerges from the study of the history of theology. Wherever a non-Biblical principle derived from contemporary secular thought is applied to the interpretation of the Bible, the Bible’s facultas se ipsum interpretandi is violated, with fatal results. This is what happened in Kant’s philosophy, and again in theological idealism. It is happening with Bultmann too. By adopting Heidegger’s conception of understanding he is surrendering to the sovereignty of an intellectual world view, which deprives him of any feeling for the distinctiveness of the Bible. What, for instance, can he make of the phenomenon of prophecy on such an assumption, to say nothing of the resurrection ? This explains why the section dealing with the resurrection is so confused and bewildering. It is significant that Kamlah, whose philosophy is at once anti-Christian, yet closely related to the Christian conception of faith (at least, Bultmann thinks so), is a renegade pupil of Bultmann, one might say a Bultmann-turned-philosopher. It just shows what might happen to Bultmann himself. (Kamlah, Christentum und Selbstbehauptung, Frankfort-on-Main, 1940.)
VII. Bultmann’s Defense against the Philosophizing of his Thought.
How does Bultmann attempt to resist this philosophizing of his interpretation of the New Testament?
As we have already seen, Bultmann’s conception of understanding allows the element of event in revelation to fall into the background. If this be true, he would seem to have surrendered the strategic point from which alone this infiltration of philosophy could be warded off.
This is apparent in the points of agreement and difference Bultmann sees between the Christian and the philosophical understanding of human life.
He considers that they agree that something has gone wrong with human life. Man is lost, gone astray, fallen. (Kamlah, Christentum und Selbstbehauptung, Frankfort-on-Main, 1940. Bultmann quotes Heidegger and idealism as illustrations.) As a matter of fact, the biblical conception of sin is quite distinctive: it is an event, not an abstract philosophical conception of man’s predicament. It is an act which separates man from God, from a “Thou” external to himself. In the philosophers, however, there is only a dim awareness that man is fallen from himself, his destiny, his true nature, his ego. But what the philosophers regard as the authentic ego of man is, from the Christian point of view, still fallen man, unless we are to assume that the spirit and reason are unaffected by the fall.
Once more Bultmann sides with the philosophers. Sin is man’s consciousness that he is lost, and therefore it is not in any real sense an event. At most it is but the shadow of an event projected on the screen of our understanding of human life. The consequence is that the Thou in relation to whom the event of sin takes place is thrust into the background, for events are transactions between a plurality of entities. Sin is thus a phenomenon of the ego on the same level of immanence as the philosophical understanding of human life. (This point was established by E. Hirsch in his younger days in a critique of idealist philosophy. His chief objection to the intellectual approach is its solipsism. It confines itself to the ego and ignores the Thou, and thus blinds itself to the idea of fellowship with Another. (Die idealistische Philosophie und das Christentum, Gütersloh, 1926, esp. p. 69ff.)
Not that Bultmann would wish to draw such a conclusion: in fact, he would vigorously resist it. Even in his essay he lays great stress on the event. But the event and the divine “Thou” in relation to whom it occurs receive only formal recognition. Sin, for Bultmann, as we have seen, is at least the shadow of an event. But he thinks that the Christian and the philosophical understanding of human life are so close to one another in their conception of sin that he refuses to distinguish between them at this point. The difference between them lies rather in the different ways in which they offer man deliverance from their fallen state. Philosophy takes the road of Socrates. All man needs is to be told what his real nature is, and he will be able to realize it. What he needs is information rather than redemption.
The New Testament, on the other hand, asserts that if man tries to achieve his own redemption he cannot escape from his own autonomy, and therefore cannot escape from his predicament. So the New Testament offers man a way out where philosophy sees none: “At the very point where man can do nothing, God steps in and acts — indeed, he has acted already — on his behalf”
For Bultmann, then, the difference between the message of the New Testament and the theories of the philosophers lies not so much in their interpretation of Being as in the way of redemption they offer from a fallen state about whose nature they are more or less agreed. In philosophy that redemption is achieved by Socratic midwifery, in the New Testament by the act of Christ. This act of Christ conveys a new understanding of man’s being which it is beyond his own capacity to achieve. (Whether that understanding, once it has been granted, can stand on its own feet is, as we have seen, a different question.)
VIII. The Futility of Philosophy as a Way of Redemption
Can we be happy about this sudden appearance of the Christ event? Does it offer a firm barrier against the philosophical understanding of human life, which, as we have seen, is inescapably socratic and immanentist ? How would Bultmann answer the objection that the Christ event, regarded as an actual intervention on the plane of reality, is just as mythological as the rest of the kerygma? For this reality is, Bultmann maintains, a closed system determined by the laws of cause and effect, and any idea of an intervention ab extra necessarily implies a mythical world view which is no longer tenable. This can be seen clearly from his treatment of miracle in his Glauben und Verstehen. This modern assumption that the world view of modern science is absolute is, we think, the reason for Bultmann’s repeated retreat from revelation as an historical event into an abstract philosophy of life. Self-consciousness is the only sphere unaffected by the closed system of cause and effect, and therefore the only sphere which religion can claim as its own, and which is uncontaminated by mythology.
We are told by the author of the HBK memorandum that Bultmann dealt with this point when it was raised by the Brüderrat. He tried to save the objective historical basis of the Christian understanding of human life with particular reference to the resurrection. The resurrection, he says, is not just a subjective experience. “A vision is never purely subjective. It always has an objective basis. In the vision the encounter which precedes it attains fruition, so that the vision itself becomes a further encounter…. Similarly, in a dream our eyes are opened upon ourselves, and our sleeping conscience awakened. It is foolish to regard dreams and visions merely as subjective experiences. They are in a real sense objective encounters. What the disciples saw was the product of imagination in the sense that they projected what they saw into the world of space and sense. But that does not make what they saw imaginary. The faith evoked by the preaching of the gospel is no more subjective than a man’s love for his friend. It is directed towards an object, though an object which is not purely external to him, but which operates as a reality within him”.
Bultmann has confirmed our thesis with his own words. First, we see that he is desperately concerned to avoid drifting into an immanentist philosophy of consciousness, and striving at all costs to preserve the historical basis of the kerygma. Secondly, we see how impossible it is to guarantee that historicity along the lines he has chosen. Faith has ceased to be dependent on the resurrection. Instead, the resurrection has become dependent on faith, the faith which springs from an encounter with Christ, or rather, with Jesus of Nazareth as he walked upon earth. The resurrection is no more than the pictorial symbol of an encounter, not an event in its own right.
Bultmann will surely have to admit that this encounter is susceptible of other interpretations: it does not necessarily demand a symbolic resurrection to explain it. Could it not be explained as a martyrdom for an idea, or as a survival in the memory of the disciples? Or perhaps the kind of immortality Goethe allowed to his friend Wieland, when he said in his conversation with Falk: “I would not be at all surprised if I met Wieland again some thousands of years hence as a star of the first magnitude . . ., and saw with my own eyes how he infused everything around him with a pleasant light.’’ (Goethe to Falk, on the day of Wieland’s funeral, 25 January 1813.) If faith in the resurrection is only the reflex of an experience of an encounter, and devoid of any objective historical basis, it is in the last resort vulnerable to all the attacks of the psychologists.
We must not, however, overlook the element of justice in Bultmann’s case against a certain kind of dogmatic orthodoxy. Lessing had the same degree of justification in his controversy with Goeze, the Chief Pastor of Hamburg. Faith in the resurrection does not spring from the historical narratives of the resurrection, the empty tomb, etc. These narratives are by their very nature open to historical criticism, and even when their reliability has been established beyond all doubt, they can never provide an adequate basis for faith, for they are still relative. The resurrection is not just an event of the past; it must still be authenticated in the encounter with which Bultmann is so much concerned. The resurrection must always be the logical outcome of the earthly life of Jesus, of his power over sin, disease, and death, and of his uniqueness. The resurrection must always appear as a flash of light which illuminates a whole host of traits in the life and teaching of Jesus and gives them new meaning, so that apart from the resurrection they remain an unfathomable mystery and an ultimately meaningless fragment of history.
If all this be true then, to put it pregnantly, the resurrection of Jesus must be much more than a by-product of an encounter with him or its mythological after-effect. It is just the opposite: the resurrection is the only thing which creates a real encounter with Christ. Apart from it, he is an enigma with which there can be no real encounter. To put it even more pregnantly, the encounter with which Bultmann is concerned does not cause faith in the resurrection: the resurrection is the cause of an encounter with Christ. It is only through the resurrection that we can say to him: “My Lord and my God.” Just as the Old Testament can only be understood and can only become an encounter in the light of the fact of Christ, so too the life of Jesus makes sense only in the light of the resurrection, and only so can it become an encounter.
And just as it is impossible to interpret the fact of Christ as a mythological inference from Old Testament prophecy, so also the resurrection cannot be regarded as a mythological inference from an encounter with Christ. In both cases the past has been absolutely superseded by a stark fact of history, and placed in an entirely new light. And this is done without bringing human subjectivity or inventiveness into play, nay rather in such a way that human subjectivity is produced by it, inasmuch as it is won over to faith.
We see then that Bultmann has left himself defenseless. Having once surrendered the fact of the resurrection, he cannot recover it again. Faith is cabined and confined in the narrow limits of subjectivity and consciousness, and receives no external impact from history. Having begun in the Spirit, i.e. with a genuine concern with the kerygma, Bultmann threatens to end in the flesh (Gal. 3:3), i.e. in a “sarkic” philosophy.
We are left wondering why the event of Christ is not myth like everything else. Surely “logos sarx egeneto” implies an intervention in the closed system of reality?
The only point Bultmann can make against philosophy is that the New Testament bears witness to a fact which (presumably) could not be produced from a Socratic understanding of Being or transposed into that understanding. Once again the shadow of the Christian understanding of human life points indirectly to an event beyond itself. But must not this event on Bultmann’s own premises once more assume the character of a mirage instead of a fixed point on the landscape of history? And if this is so — and we are sure we have succeeded in proving that it is — if the one remaining event (i.e. the fact of Christ) disappears, and the ground of history gives way under our feet, what can prevent Bultmann’s thought from disintegrating into philosophy? Is not Kamlah an awful warning of what happens when someone else understands and sees through Bultmann’s thought better than he does himself?
IX. Tasks for Exegesis: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Day, and Pentecost, as Events
Before we close this part of our discussion, let us sketch a few of the tasks which will have to be faced if Bultmann’s challenge is to be taken up seriously by the theologians. These tasks center on specific problems of exegesis.
If Bultmann’s concern for demythologizing is a valid one, and if the sole point at issue is where exactly the line is to be drawn between myth and kerygma, the only way forward is to take certain specific problems of exegesis one by one. This will be more fruitful than a purely general discussion of the problem. Let us ask how Bultmann deals with the fundamental Christological events of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. How does he extricate them from mythology as he conceives it?
Take for instance his treatment of Good Friday and Easter Day. Here we shall have no difficulty in proving the case we have been arguing, for in them we can see how he eliminates the historical element in a way which abundantly justifies our suspicions. Cross and resurrection are reduced to present phenomena (I die and rise again with Christ.). We might almost add that this happens in moments of illumination, when we understand the meaning of human existence. As events, these things — viz., dying and rising again with Christ — certainly have their place in the New Testament message, especially as presented by St. Paul, but only in the sense that we bring our existence into relation with what happened once for all in the history of A.D. 1-30. Cross and resurrection become present realities only in Kierkegaard’s sense of contemporaneity. It is this contemporaneity that makes them events in time. It is in this sense that the Logos enters into the time-scheme of the sarx.
Once again we ask how Bultmann can still hold fast to the idea that redemption is an event in time, if he makes salvation history evaporate into this questionable “present” of his. Once more he would seem to be unable to do so. Contemporaneity is once more a timeless, abstract truth within my self-understanding.
His discussion of the cross and resurrection looks like a tragic wrestling with this terrible consequence. The narratives of the New Testament become ghostly figures which haunt us in the twilight between “being” and “validity”, between reality and the bare data of consciousness. The question how all this is to be put across to the man in the pew need not detain us here, for it is scarcely relevant for the moment, though one cannot help wondering.
It is then the task of New Testament scholarship to continue the discussion by concentrating on specific points of exegesis. At all events, let no one run away with the idea that he has finished with Bultmann. That would be entirely wrong. Bultmann’s challenge is not to be dealt with so summarily, even by the simplest, most practical-minded parish priest. The fundamental problem posed by demythologizing is, What elements in the New Testament revelation are temporary and what are eternal, what are “human” and what are “divine” ? Obviously it is imperative to know where exactly the line of demarcation lies at many points. We are as sure of that as we are that temporal myths and views surround the core of the gospel message.
This line of demarcation, however, is clearly not one of principle. The distinction between the human and the divine is not absolute. For after all the miracle of the incarnation asserts that God has broken down the barrier between them and has established communication with man. He has thrown a bridge over the chasm and removed the cherubim out of the way. “He was found in fashion as man”, and: “He was tempted like as we are.”
We conclude this first half of our discussion with a rhetorical question. It is rhetorical, because the answer is already implied in the question, and it is a question because it opens up a wide field of problems which demand further exploration.
Does not every attempt at demythologizing, seeking as it does to probe the dividing-line between the eternal and the temporary, the divine and the human, come up against a barrier which has been put there by God, and beyond which it dare not ask any more questions? This barrier is the mystery of the God-man. It is no accident that Bultmann regards this God-man as the product of a myth. For him therefore the barrier is non-existent. That means that in the last resort he does not really take seriously the assertion that the Logos sarx egeneto. The innermost point of Bultmann’s work appears to me to be a latent but irremediable “crisis” of the fact of Christ.
B. The Permanent Problem of the Mythological Form of Speech and the Attempt to Solve it
I. Mythology as a Form of Thought
We have approached the problem of demythologizing so far on the assumption that there is a real distinction between the form of the New Testament narratives, a form conditioned by the contemporary mythology, and the actual content which the form enshrines.
Our case against Bultmann is not that he makes this distinction, but the method and principles he uses to carry it out. For the criterion he uses to distinguish between myth and reality is the “self-understanding” of the men of the Bible. The unintended result is that the kerygma is disintegrated into a philosophy. The historical reality of the truth is made relative, true only for a particular age. (If I understand it aright, the HBK memorandum criticizes Bultmann on similar grounds. Our identification with the death of Christ, it maintains, is not merely a present event, but a present event controlled by a real event of the past — i.e. the dying of Christ: “Bultmann takes over from Heidegger the concept of existence, and uses it to describe the stripping away of illusions and the consequent entry into the authentic human existence. But as far as the historical Christ is concerned, it means no more than the readiness to be conformed with the death of Christ. But this would be meaningless if the significance of the death of Christ rested only on the interpretation placed upon it by the disciples and were not even in the life of Jesus related as an act to his resurrection”)
Bultmann’s essay, and indeed the whole problem of demythologizing, must now be put to the test from a further angle. What we have to ask is whether the New Testament narratives are affected by mythology less in their objective aspect than in our subjective way of apprehending and describing religious truth. Or, to put it another way, is not mythology an essential element in human thought, and is it not therefore just as valid an approach to reality as, e.g. that of natural science?
It is the particular merit of the HBK memorandum that it has brought this aspect of the problem to the fore, and its very one-sidedness is all to the good. With a stroke of the pen demythologizing has ceased to be an historical problem and has become one of epistemology. It is removed, so to speak, from the sphere of the object to that of the subject. The question is then not whether the New Testament can be emancipated from mythology, but whether human thought can.
This is a veritable Copernican revolution. It is on a level with Kant’s discovery that space, time, and causation are not objective categories but a mode of subjective human apprehension. Mythology would then be that form of human apprehension which is peculiarly fitted to deal with religious truth.
All this would mean that mythology could not be dissolved by scientific thinking or the scientific world view. The truth of mythology would still hold good despite all the changes in culture and philosophy, just as the human personality remains the same despite all the changes and chances of human life.
When we remember that Bultmann’s starting-point is the tension between mythology and science, it would seem here that we have an entirely new solution to the problem. Both mythology and science are legitimate approaches to the truth. There is no question of the one becoming outmoded by the other in the process of historical development. The two approaches are complementary. “If this be true, mythology, while it would not be the sole approach to truth, would nevertheless be the sole approach to supra-sensual reality, the only way of describing the inner side of things” (HBK). This means that “mythology has a profounder dimension which is beyond the reach of science, since it is concerned with the underlying significance of things and events.’’ (On the relation between mythology, philosophy, and science, cf. J. J. Bachofen, Der Mythos von Orient und Okzident, Munich, 1926; Leopold Ziegler, Ueberlieferung, Leipzig, 1940; Georg Koepgen, Die Gnosis des Christentums, Leipzig, 1940.)
The best presentation of this idea that mythology is the only adequate expression of religious truth is to my mind that of Bachofen. He says: “The symbol [i.e. mythological symbolism] awakens intuition where the language of abstraction can only offer rational explanation. The symbol addresses every side of the human spirit, whereas the language of abstraction is bound to confine itself to a single thought. The symbol strikes a chord in the very depths of the soul, whereas the language of abstraction touches only the surface of the mind like a passing breeze. The one is directed inwards, the other outwards. Only the symbol can combine a wide variety of notions into a single total impression; the language of abstraction, on the other hand, arranges them in succession and presents them to the mind piecemeal, whereas they ought to be presented to the soul at a single glance. Words reduce the infinite to finitude, symbols lead the spirit beyond the bounds of the finite into the infinite world of abiding truth. (Cf. also Alfred Baeumler, “Bachofen, the mythologist of Romanticism”, in the work of Bachofen quoted above: “Those who are blind to the depths of mythology had better abandon it altogether.”)
It seems to me that these words of Bachofen clarify the purport of the HBK memorandum. Whenever mythology is translated into scientific and rational terms there is an inevitable loss of meaning and consequent superficiality, which shows the inadequacy of the scientific approach to this kind of truth. And if such is the case, then Bultmann’s demand that we should replace the mythical view of the world by a scientific one falls to the ground.
It will at once be asked whether the mythical description possesses any objective reality. What lies behind it — an emotion, an existential experience, or an historical revelation? How is justice to be done to the theological concern which lifts the revelation behind the mythology out of the general history of religion? What, for instance, is the difference between the resurrection narratives and the Dionysus myth? The very fact that mythology is only a form makes it even more imperative to establish the qualitative difference between revelation and religion.
This cardinal problem is ignored by the HBK memorandum. Perhaps this is because it limits itself to discussing the points raised by Bultmann, and because its author has not yet realized the immense amount of work which remains to be done even after Bultmann’s arguments have been disposed of. This further work concerns the relation between theology and myth in general, and the very different subject matter which myth describes.
The difference between the Biblical and non-Biblical conceptions of myth is indeed implicitly recognized by HBK, for it quotes Alfred Jeremias’s definition of Biblical myth: “Myth in the narrower sense . . . is one of the supreme creations of the human spirit. It is the narration of a heavenly process, presented in a definite logical series of motifs reflected symbolically in objective events.” Here is an explicit allusion to a “heavenly process” as the real foundation and background of the mythical narrative. This real foundation affects mythological thought rather in the way that Kant’s Ding an sich affects our capacity for apprehension with its categorical determination. To put it epigrammatically, myth is not the objectivizing of a spook-like experience, but the subjectivizing — the intellectual appropriation — of an objective event of salvation. Here we have the exact equivalent of Jeremias’s heavenly process. Myth therefore employs subjective means derived from the human imagination to describe a reality which utterly transcends consciousness, and which possesses an objective validity in its own right, quite apart from its effects on the disciples and witnesses.
Bultmann’s conception of myth leaves no room for this transcendental element. This is just the criticism which the HBK memorandum levels against Bultmann, especially in connection with the resurrection narratives. These narratives, for all their mythological coloring, do postulate a real event between God and Christ in a sphere beyond all subjectivity and by no means limited to a more or less spiritual process between God and the disciples. “Bultmann assumes a process between God in Christ on the one hand, and the disciples on the other, but not a process between God and Christ. Yet the one really conditions the other. Hence there is a gap which is only closed by the resurrection of Christ” (HBK).
The HBK memorandum has thus carried the discussion one important step further than Bultmann. Yet it is to be noted that there can be no theological attitude to the problem of myth which does not take account of what Bultmann says on the subject. Hence we also think it right to advance beyond the criticisms raised by the HBK memorandum and raise a few positive questions for the further discussion of the problem. We shall also try to show the direction the answer may eventually take. But since this is a gigantic task which will demand the co-operation of many theologians, all we can do is to throw out a few suggestions. But those suggestions must be hazarded, if this discussion which has proved so promising hitherto is to be carried further.
II. Important New Tasks in Connection with the Problem of Myth
It can hardly be disputed that mythology is to be sought not only in its effects in history, but above all in the way men think. It therefore exists in its own right.
Moreover, since mythology is essential to the human mind, there must be a kernel of event behind the mythological facade, or at least there may be. Myth and history are not a priori antitheses.
Finally, this means that myth is not to be eliminated, but interpreted. Thus far we agree with Bultmann. But the question is, how is it to be interpreted? Does myth express a timeless philosophy of human life, or is it a real event of salvation history (e.g. the event of the resurrection), an event to which faith knows itself to be related, and to which it bears witness in the language of mythology? We agree with HBK that the second alternative is the right one, for only that can prevent the kerygma from disintegrating into philosophy. All the same, the relation between myth and history requires further consideration.
(a) The Varieties of Myths
1. There are myths which contain transcendental truth, and which are therefore absolutely indispensable. Such, for instance, are the myths of the creation, the fall, etc. These are to be distinguished from legendary embroidery or mythological ballast derived from other religions outside the Bible.
2. There are myths which are pictorial explanations of certain facts in history. The Virgin birth is an example of this sort of myth. It is, as Schlatter has observed, the symbol of the historical fact that Jesus was the Son of God. These myths must be distinguished from straightforward historical narratives, which, though they appear to be mythical, are to be taken as literal history. Many of the miracles belong to this class, and so do the resurrection narratives (though the latter do not fall clearly into one class — what about the empty tomb? To which class does it belong?). When we come down to detail the classification is often uncertain, and there will never be unanimity about the point where the line is to be drawn. But that does not mean that we must give up the attempt trying to draw it.
(b) Translation into a Myth Compatible with the Modern World View?
So far during the discussion it has been generally assumed that mythological thought springs from a particular view of the world. Though mythology is in itself timeless, yet the actual imagery it employs is undoubtedly conditioned by the world view current at the time. The question is therefore whether it is not necessary to discover a new mythical expression for the Biblical truths, an expression which will take account of the change which has come about in our view of the universe. It seems to us imperative that we should hold our ground in face of this question. There would seem to be a great deal in favor of it: if there is to be no demythologizing, let us at least have remythologizing! All the more so since, pace Bultmann, whose view of the matter is all too academic, our age is not one of enlightenment. So far from accepting enlightenment as an ideal, it is consciously, and still more unconsciously, searching for a new myth. Would not the modern myths of spirit, existence, or blood, enable us to present the event of Good Friday in an entirely new light?
(c) No Conclusive answer Possible
We cannot avoid raising this question, but the moment it is asked it is seen to be rhetorical. It is so formidable that it defies solution, as we shall see.
1. What man would be bold enough to attempt to produce an authoritative reinterpretation of the whole of the Bible ? (For nothing less would suffice.)
2. There are many myths in circulation in the modern world. Several new ones arise in every century, and they vary from country to country. But they have one thing in common. They all imply a monistic, immanentist conception of the universe. They leave no room for the element of transcendence. Their aim is rather to convey an understanding of the visible world around us. Although Schleiermacher does not use the term, the classical expression of this aspect of myth is to be found in his Addresses on Religion. His immanentism is apparent even in his definitions. Religion, e.g., is contemplation, feeling for the infinite, the universal, etc. His reinterpretation of revelation and miracle as a mode of contemplating the world as it is, is the logical outcome of his immanentism, and typical of the whole of secularized mythology. See especially the Second Address, On the Nature of Religion.)
This raises a further question. The form of modern mythology, as we have seen, has the merit of being compatible with the modern world view. But what about its actual content? Can the content be detached from the form ? For that content represents immanence as the ultimate truth about the universe. Is it not therefore inherently unsuitable as a vehicle for the Biblical kerygma? If we tried to use it as such a vehicle would not the Biblical material burst through the very form of the modern mythology? (Again, this can be illustrated by a comparison of Schleiermacher’s Addresses with his Christian faith. The Christian Faith is an attempt to find a rational basis for the affirmations of Christianity, and it leads him progressively to abandon the mythological form of the Addresses. In the Christian Faith Schleiermacher’s original presuppositions are blown sky-high, and the resultant debris is extremely difficult to survey. Hence the classical controversy as to which is the real Schleiermacher, the Schleiermacher of the Addresses, or the Schleiermacher of the Christian Faith. This is a barren controversy. The Christian Faith is the self-destruction of Schleiermacher’s original mythological presuppositions. That is the immediate, unintended but inevitable result of his attempt to fit the Christian dogmas into his original mythological system. This is the clue to the understanding of the structure of Schleiermacher’s thought. It is not a matter of a change in Schleiermacher’s personal convictions. It is the inexorable consequence of the material with which he is dealing.)
3. There is a third reason why the modern secular myth is a totally unsuitable vehicle for Biblical truth. That mythology is essentially the outcome of a revolt, the revolt of the “vital gods”, or, to quote idealism, the revolt of “the wisdom of the world”. Even the terminology of the modern myths must make an act of repentance if it is to become a suitable vehicle for the kerygma. Now, this is exactly what happened to the concept of the Logos, and this is what made that term acceptable for the Fourth Gospel. But such an act of repentance is impossible for the secular myths. It would involve their self-destruction, as we have seen in the case of Schleiermacher. This is particularly the case with a myth which, with all its other disadvantages is outspokenly pragmatist and propagandist in character, and which ignores the question of truth to such an extent that it no longer exists even in untruth, but in a chilly no-man’s-land between God and the devil. It is utterly inconceivable that Biblical imagery should be forced into such a straitjacket as this. Where this has happened e.g. in certain modern movements such as German Christianity — the Christian content does not even burst the straitjacket, but becomes itself demonic.
Our first conclusion, then, is a negative one, and it must be kept in mind throughout the subsequent discussion.
1. It is impossible to translate the Biblical mythology and its associated world view into the language of contemporary myth. In other words, it is impossible to substitute one mythological framework for another.
2. It is impossible to remove the mythology, as Bultmann tries to. In other words, it is impossible to substitute the world view of modern science for the Biblical mythology by what he calls “interpretation”. This is because it involves the substitution of an abstract philosophy of existence for a kerygma rooted in history. We seem to be landed in what looks at first sight like an insoluble dilemma; some would call it a state of bankruptcy. There appears to be no way of modernizing Christianity or of making it relevant to the modern world: it is definitely out of date. This impasse is not to be evaded or made light of, so let us describe it as brutally as we can.
First, there can be no question of getting behind the mythological form of the kerygma by extracting a non-mythical kernel of truth.
Secondly, we must on the other hand not only take the mythology as it stands (that would be possible, since it is the expression of a permanent mode of thought); we must also take the temporal limitations of the mythology as they stand. We must in contrast to the HBK memorandum assert this dilemma as frankly as we can. And this is where our difficulties really begin. The Church could not afford to ignore the problem of myth. But in facing it she appears to have stirred up a hornet’s nest. She believed that this controversy would set her hands free to use her weapons, but now it seems that she has been disarmed by myth itself.
We seek to advance further by asking two questions. First, what is the real meaning of this indisputable dilemma? May there not be a theological reason for it? Secondly, what are the tasks which result from this dilemma?
(d) The Theological Meaning of this Difficulty and the Task it presents.
0n I: Of the Meaning of Dilemma.
(a ) The incarnation meant that Jesus entered into time and space, that he became our brother and comrade, (Phil. 2:7; Rom. 8:3) and in so doing exposed himself to the notitia (Notitia is a term used in dogmatics. It is to be distinguished from assensus, and expresses the fact that the earthly manifestation of the Lord is both revelation and concealment. Every manifestation of the Son of Man in time and space is presented to my notitia in such a way that he may nevertheless remain concealed: It is then impossible to make the assent of Thomas: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:29). Despite the notitia he is not recognized for what he is.) of our capacity to apprehend him. This meant that he entered into the particular form in which our powers of apprehension express themselves — i.e. by mythology.
We shall of course have to sketch a distinctively Biblical concept of myth, which is as far removed from a general religious experience of existence (Cf. e.g. Walter F. Otto, Die Götter Griechenlands, Frankfort, 1934.) as it is from the pragmatism of the secular myth. The pragmatism which characterizes the latter often appears in perilous association with the Christian kerygma, as for instance when it is maintained that for the great majority of mankind the myth must be upheld in its literal concrete form, whether it be true or not, or that the tradition of the Church must be maintained at all costs. Here as always, only the truth will make us free. Any naive or artificial attempt to bolster up the Church is bound to reap its own reward. It will leave the Church a prisoner, disarmed and discredited. (I am thinking here of such things as Hellbardt’s incredible exegesis.)
The task of theology is rather to work out an interpretation of any given myth which will express the history which lies behind it. Such an interpretation will be distinct from the timeless abstraction of the bare symbol and from the cyclical view of time which characterizes pagan mythology. It may be asked whether myth thus interpreted could be described as myth in any intelligible sense at all, or whether it would not be better to speak with Oscar Cullmann (Christ and Time, Eng. trans., S.C.M. Press, 1950, p. 94ff) of “prophecy”.
There are certain distinctions to be drawn in this connection, and this will prove a difficult and intricate task. For the theologian will never be able to interpret the pagan myths in the same way as the pagan historian of religion does. He can never regard them as pictorial symbols of general truths, existential experiences or emotions. He is bound to see in them a real history between God and man. Not that such a history is the subject or the background of the myth. What I mean is that the creation of the myth is itself the expression of such a history. Here as often Rom.1: 18ff. provides the classical exposition of the kind of history to which I refer. Behind the portrayal of the gods as crawling, flying, and fourfooted beasts, and behind the more anthropomorphic pictures of the gods, there is concealed a real history between God and man. They represent man’s attempt to evade God and to crowd him out of life. Man shows by this a quite definite concern as to what God shall be and what he shall not be. The pagan myth is not so much the expression of a history between God and man as its actual accomplishment. This is true even when it cannot be established so easily and succinctly as is done in Rom.1. We have here a program for a theological treatment of comparative religion. The pagan myths may not be the expression of truth (though even this must be only a provisional assertion), but they are certainly an expression of an attitude to the truth, and thus of a real history between God and man. In its mythology a people registers and betrays its relation to the truth. (On the subject of a theological interpretation of comparative religion see further Eckart Peterich, Theologie der Hellenen, Leipzig,1938, esp. p. 21ff.)
(b ) Mythological thought must be honored as the crib in which the Lord chose to lie. In this respect it is like the mind of man, which, no less than the body, is the temple of the Holy Ghost (l Cor. 6: 19), and which is called to think the thoughts of God’s revelation after him. Human reason is only a crib, fashioned from the same wood as the cross. Just as human reason may become a whore, so the mythological expression of the truth may become idolatry, and both may lead to the rejection of Christ. But this does not prove that either are not cribs for Christ, and indeed this paradox represents a fundamental theological insight.
How this idea of the crib is to be conceived may be illustrated from the history of the idea of the Logos before it was taken up by the New Testament It was the destiny of this idea to be used as a vehicle for expressing the fact of the incarnation, and to be such a crib. On this subject the French Thomist Jacques Maritain says in La Philosophie chrétienne (1933): “In order to . . . make the essential supra-philosophical conception of the Logos of one substance with the Father (verbum consubstantiale patri) accessible to mankind, so that it might eventually bear fruit, it was necessary — and this necessity arises from direction in which Christianity itself looks — for a preparatory process in the realm of terminology. This preparation took the form of a long period of meditation on the part of the philosophers on the idea of the Logos.’’ (Op. cit., German Ed., 1935, p. 69.) Thus the speculation and the mythology which grew up around the Logos, or rather the insight into the truth which these represent, is taken up and used by revelation as a vehicle, however inadequate, for the event of revelation. In other words, the Logos was destined to become a “crib”. It is inadequate, because it is a temporal concept, and the truth which it has to express is a transcendent one. The metaphor of the crib calls attention to this inadequacy, which is further shown by the act of repentance which the Logos concept had to perform, and by the change it underwent when it was taken up by the Child in the crib. (It is obvious why Catholic philosophy of religion in particular should take this line. Cf. also E. Peterich, op. cit., p. 179ff. Theodor Haecker, Was ist der Mensch, 1st ed. 1933, p. 28f.)
2. The Positive Meaning of the Temporal Limitation of New Testament Mythology.
All this has an important bearing on the temporal limitation of the New Testament mythology. This temporal limitation is a hard nut, for the world view which provides the mythological framework of the Biblical narratives cannot be corrected or translated into a modern mythology.
Is there any underlying reason for this temporal limitation, this “antiquarian” character of the Biblical mythology?
Let us first ask why it was that the revelation of God employed the contemporary symbol of the Logos and its associated world view rather than any of our modern “isms”? (We could of course select other symbols, besides that of the Logos). Perhaps it was because the Logos and its associated world view were exceptionally fitted to become vehicles for the revelation of God. At all events, there is no reason why God should not have delayed his purpose for the world until a perfect world view had been developed, and until he could avail himself of the discoveries of Copernicus and Einstein! When St. Paul speaks of “the fullness of time”, does he refer to salvation history in the narrower sense, to that section of world history which is confined to Israel and the Jews? Or could it be extended to include Greek and Hellenistic thought as a wider preparation for the incarnation, as Maritain suggests? Catholic theology is particularly fond of the idea of “contact” owing to its doctrine of the analogia entis, and for that reason it has repeatedly worked out the idea of what Lessing in another connection called “the local and temporal accommodation” of the Logos. Catholic theology can teach us something here. Its suggestions still hold good, even if we cannot agree with the hypothesis of the analogia entis, however attractive it may be in this particular connection, and even if we cannot accept the view that the movement from praeparatio evangelica in classical thought via the Logos to the Christian revelation is an unbroken line from nature to grace. Despite these reservations, we are ready at this point to pay serious attention to what these Catholic thinkers are saying. Here we come up against the question not only of the positive significance of myth in general, but also of the positive significance of the particular mythology current in New Testament times, with its particular temporal limitations. May it not be that this temporal limitation is something more than an encumbrance upon the gospel to be swallowed as it stands? May it not be that it possesses a positive meaning within the kerygma? May we not go so far as to say that the contemporary myth of New Testament times, with its three-storied universe of heaven, earth, and hell, left open the door for the idea of transcendence? This is what made it peculiarly fitted to express the otherness of God and his intervention in salvation history. For this myth does not assume that the universe is a self-subsistent, finite entity, as does the secular myth. It is for this reason that the secular myth cannot become the vehicle of Biblical truth without disintegrating it.
Does this not, however, mean that the Biblical revelation could be apprehended only because men accepted an erroneous world view which has now been outmoded? Does it not mean that with the change in our world view the Bible itself has become an anachronism? Have we then any cause to rejoice that the old world view left open the door for the idea of transcendence? How can that help us if that world view is now proved to be wrong?
Is then this idea of a self-subsistent, finite universe which has disintegrated the old myth a fate which we must in all honesty submit to?
It is just when we refuse to spare ourselves any intellectual difficulty and any possible objection that we are obliged to make the following points:
It is simply untrue that, as even Bultmann appears to suppose, the idea of a self-subsistent, finite universe is accepted as axiomatic in the modern world. And therefore the modern world view is not necessarily in conflict with the old myth. That idea is no more than working hypothesis in the field of natural science. It is, for instance, necessary in physics to assume the law of the conservation of energy, and that assumption rests upon another — viz., that nature is a closed reservoir of power. When we speak of the self-subsistent finitude of the secular myth we mean something very different from that working hypothesis which, since it is no more than a hypothesis, does at least theoretically leave open the door for the idea of transcendence. We are referring to the step from a working hypothesis as a handmaid of research to an affirmation of faith. This introduces an entirely new element, which completely transcends natural science, as can be seen, for instance, from the fact that the affirmations of natural science are intrinsically transsubjective in character — that is to say, they are entirely independent of man’s subjective understanding of himself. It was to bring out this difference that the distinction was drawn between Weltbild and Weltanschauung, the former representing a trans-subjective, scientific fact, and the latter man’s subjective interpretation of himself, an interpretation which is quite independent of the Weltbild.
As soon, however, as the working hypothesis becomes an affirmation of faith it dominates both man’s understanding of himself and his subjective decisions. Hence we immediately get immanentist ethics, Weltanschauung, religion, philosophy of history, and so forth.
The proposition of self-subsistent finitude is thus one of mythology, not of science.
This distinction between the scientific world view and its extension as a mythological Weltanschauung would, logically, apply to the classical mythology also. And if this be so, we should be right in saying that both the mythology and the understanding of human life which it enshrines are not automatically outmoded with the world view on which they rest. The interpretation of the universe and man of which it is the record may still claim to be true. The fact that Aeschylus believed in the Delphic oracle and we do not does not make the tragic view of life any less true; it simply compels us to discuss its claim to truth. Nor is it an accident that there are today intelligent people like Walter F. Otto, who seriously believe in the Greek gods. They are not at all embarrassed that Hölderlin shared that belief! But this does not mean that they have abandoned the modern world view for that of classical antiquity. If they were asked they would probably admit that there was a special affinity between the classical world view and Greek religion or the tragic view of life, whereas the modern world view- is so contaminated and corrupted by idolatry that it cannot provide a basis for the Greek view of life.
To sum up:
The classical world view leaves open the door for the idea of transcendence. It is therefore a peculiarly suitable vehicle for the presentation of the Biblical history of the kingdom of God. We may admit this without the wistful feeling that only classical man could honestly believe in the Gospel, and that we are debarred from accepting it because of the change in our world view. It is not the modern world view which makes Christianity hard to believe, but the Weltanschauung of self-subsistent finitude, which, though connected with that world view, does not follow from it. The very naïveté of the classical mythology, on the other hand, which provided the environment for the New Testament, expresses that openness for the idea of transcendence. Our modern world view also does so in theory, but not so naively, and only in a highly distorted and obscure way. That is why the classical world view provided the classical “realm of terminology” which served as a seed-bed for revelation. It is as though God chose the psychological moment. For all the differences between Christianity and humanism in the widest sense of the word, (I use the word “Christianity” because it is traditional, though I am aware of its vagueness and false associations.) we shall have to admit that there is a permanent affinity between them, an affinity which is fundamentally still unimpaired. Every discussion about the “point of contact”, about the historical and supra-historical elements in Christianity, about apotheosis and incarnation, has always revolved around this relation between Christianity and classical humanism. Other brands of humanism, such as Enlightenment, scientific humanism, and the various political movements, have proved by contrast ephemeral.
Once more, however, we must stress that there is no unbroken line from the contemporary mythology and philosophy to the New Testament. The Biblical gospel has burst the bonds even of classical mythology, as may be seen from what happened to the idea of the Logos; but it has done so only by first taking that mythology up and using it.
The secular myth, on the other hand, stands so helpless and insensitive before this connection that it interprets it in the opposite way from which it seeks to be interpreted. Even Bultmann cannot be excused of this in many of the more secularized parts of his thought. Wherever in the Christian message a transcendent irruption is all too obvious — i.e. in the miracles — this is attributed to the mythical world view, instead of the mythical world view being esteemed a particularly suitable vehicle for the expression of certain traits in the revelation.
As we have seen, the mythological element cannot be translated either into a scientific world view or into the modern myth. But the ineradicable temporal limitation is really only a preliminary dilemma, and beneath it is concealed a deeper meaning of salvation history — namely, the attainment of the “fullness of time” in the realm of terminology and myths.
3. Our Response to the Dilemma.
We conclude with the consequences which the mythological setting of the kerygma, as we have described it, will have for our preaching. All we need do, however, is to summarize the results attained so far:
(g ) The mythological element in the kerygma is not, we have shown, the importation into the New Testament of ideas from non-Biblical religions, ideas which could be eliminated or superseded by interpreting the underlying understanding of human life. Rather, the mythological elements represent a permanent aspect of human thinking. If this be true, then it is of the utmost consequence for our preaching to lay bare the background of truth which lies concealed beneath the outer crust of myth. A model of such treatment is to be found in Schlatter’s well-known discussion of the Virgin birth, which is also quoted by the HBK memorandum. “The assertion that the Spirit of God created Jesus has an assured basis, even when we recognize the large share which Christian poetic fancy played in interpreting the birth of Jesus” (Christliche Dogma, p. 332). In other words, Schlatter interprets the dogma of the Virgin birth not in the light of its “religious idea” e.g. as an expression of the overwhelming impact of the personality of Jesus on his contemporaries — but in the light of its background in history and fact. The Virgin birth asserts that the being of Jesus is wholly different from ours: he is from above, we are from beneath. This difference is not one of ideal status, but of real qualitative being. Our chief aim in preaching must be to expose the meaning for redemptive history in all the narratives of the New Testament which are written from a mythological point of view.
(d ) As we saw from the quotation from Bachofen, mythical symbolism differs from other forms of speech in that it offers an all-embracing view of its object. Now, the object of preaching is to make the gospel message relevant to the individual. It must stress the hic et nunc, the tua res agitur. In connection with mythology, therefore, our preaching must particularize the all-embracing view for the hearer in his concrete situation. This may be illustrated from the myth of the Fall. As Bachofen’s definition suggests, that myth conceals an all-embracing view of the reality we call sin. In our preaching our aim must be to particularize this all-embracing view as the text or the special needs of the hearer demand Our sermon may concentrate on the whole of mankind and its historical development, or on the particular history of the individual, or even each specific instance of sin — peccatum actuale. The text may be used to elucidate the nature of the demonic, of the law, of human responsibility, and so forth. Every conceivable aspect of the reality of sin, which could be made explicit only in an infinite series of theses and experiences, is implicit in the symbolism of the myth of the Fall. It contains both universal history and individual biography; such a combination would be impossible in any form of non-mythological thought. The preacher’s task is to split up this combination into non-mythological language, and to place before his hearers whichever aspect is most relevant to their concrete situation.
(e ) In our preaching we must observe the distinction between the various types of myth. These distinctions were noted above (under B II a) and they need only be recapitulated here:
There are myths which are indispensable vehicles for the transcendental realities, and others which are legendary embroidery or accretions from non-Biblical religions. Then there are myths which are pictorial clarifications of some historical fact, and others which are straightforward historical reports, which despite their apparently mythological form are to be regarded as directly historical.
This represents a considerable advance on the terms within which Bultmann has discussed the problem. If we understand him aright, the most remarkable fact about his thesis is that it cannot remain stationary. Either it must advance in the direction of Kamlah, and cease in the end to be Christian, or there must be radical examination of the whole problem of myth from within the Church. By such an examination the Church may finally win a new freedom in the truth (John 8: 36). We began by saying that Bultmann has thrown down a serious challenge to the very foundations of the Church, and our investigations have substantiated this contention. Clearly we must risk the dangers of such an undertaking, even the danger of stirring up the ghosts of heresy. (E.g. the dissolution of the historical basis of the kerygma, or the separation of the historical objective genitive, “of Jesus Christ”, from the sola fide.) We therefore owe a debt of gratitude to Bultmann.
In examining Bultmann’s thesis and his personal orthodoxy (As has already been done in various official memoranda, sometimes with very negative conclusions.) care should be maintained to avoid anything like a heresy hunt. This is pioneer work, and there are bound to be casualties on the way. The Church should rather keep in view Bultmann’s ultimate objective, which is to secure a firm basis for her own proclamation. He is concerned with the kerygma. We are justified not by the way we travel, but by the Lord to whom we look.
How far can the theologian go without incurring the penalty of excommunication for unorthodoxy? The criterion is never, or very rarely, whether we are traveling on the same road, but whether, as we travel along our different roads, we all look towards the same goal. It is not the road which determines our communion with the Church, but our direction, not the steps we tread, but the end on which our eyes are fixed.