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Rudolf Bultmann: Scholar of Faith

by David L. Edwards

Canon David Edwards is rector of St. Margaret’s, Westminster, and subdean of Westminster Abbey. This article appeared in the Christian Century, September 1-8, 1976, pp. 728-730. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Rudolf Bultmann -- who died on July 30, 1976 at the advanced age of 91 -- was the last of the theological giants who grew up in the universities of the Kaiser’s Germany (he began to study theology in 1903 at 19), and the last of the prophets who struggled to hear the word of the Christians’ Lord after what had happened in 1914. Teaching New Testament at Marburg University from 1921 to 1951, Bultmann exerted all his many talents in order to recover the highest tradition of German biblical scholarship after the interruption of the war. Giving his acute and well-stored mind to the problems of biblical interpretation, or hermeneutics, he developed the science of form criticism with Martin Dibelius. However, he also took very seriously the world around him -- the postwar world of the Weimar Republic, groping for financial as well as spiritual stability (in the end, its gospel was Mein Kampf).

I

Absorbed as he was in his New Testament studies, Bultmann took time off to listen to his colleague Martin Heidegger, who was professor of philosophy at Marburg from 1923 to ‘28. To Bultmann’s delight he found in that colleague’s philosophy a secular preparation for the New Testament’s essential gospel. It was a philosophy articulated, though obscurely, in the unfinished Being and Time (1927). It was a philosophy which defined being by reference to nonbeing, time by reference to death -- and thus seemed to Bultmann to be the best available analysis of man waiting and listening for God.

John Macquarrie’s wonderfully lucid book An Existentialist Theology: A Comparison of Heidegger and Bultmann (Harper & Row, 1955) can give to English-speaking audiences who wish to understand a little more about the spirit of this century a thorough introduction to Bultmann’s use of Heidegger. The point for us is that for these two 20th century professors -- as much as for any mystic wrapped in contemplation in some more remote ashram -- the inevitability of death brought one face to face with the question of whether his existence had any point.

Heidegger wrote in a strange prose. It was the dance of the bloodless categories of German philosophy across the deathbed. Bultmann seized what he could use of these ideas: the anxiety produced by the existential question; the dread produced by the answer of death to all; the attempted flight into worldly business, social status and ephemera; the rare courage to begin an existence which would be authentic because open-eyed. Bultmann seized these ideas because he saw in them a portrait of man without God, and because they seemed likely to awaken man to the possibility of hearing the answer to his existential question in the New Testament.

In interpreting his biblical texts Bultmann made use of these ideas with a vigor which promises that his basic principles of interpretation may survive, still seem valid, when the misty vocabulary of Heidegger’s early philosophy no longer seems compelling. At any rate, Bultmann always emphasized that it was his task as a Christian theologian to offer answers, whereas the task of a philosopher was only to sharpen the questions (and particularly the question about human existence). Bultmann was very far from being stooge to Heidegger, whatever critics from the Catholic or Protestant right may have alleged. It is for us to ask what in his theological achievement was authentic, now that we can begin to see his life in perspective.

II

We immediately notice the authority given to his constructive theology by his devotion as a student of the New Testament. Because he spent his life trying to see more precisely what the primitive Christian community and its theologians saw in Jesus, he was better equipped than his fellow giants, Barth and Tillich, to declare what the 20th century might see in the same provocative Lord.

The literary monuments remain. His 1921 work History of the Synoptic Tradition (Harper & Row, 1963) has been available in English for over a decade, and was joined in 1971 by an edition of his 1941 commentary, The Gospel of John (Westminster). A powerful essay of 1926, Jesus and the Word (Scribners, 1934), has more recently won large sales as a paperback. But the book which demanded immediate translation in the 1950s and has been widely used by students was his two volume Theology of the New Testament (Scribner’s, 1951, ’55). With its introductory pages on the historical Jesus as the proclaimer of the coming Kingdom of God, this work gives a superb analysis of the proclamation of the eternal Christ by Judaists and Hellenists in Christianity’s first years, by Paul and John, and by the apostolic fathers.

Before the flourishing of Bultmann’s career, New Testament scholarship had been dominated by literary criticism, which attempted to uncover the secret of how the texts were compiled; by investigation of the Hellenistic background, especially the mystery religions surrounding the early church, as part of a sociological critique of the history of religion; and by excitement about the apocalyptic content of the teaching of Jesus as a first century Jew. Bultmann incorporated what he regarded as the results of these previous inquiries, but his own scholarly interests took him in other directions, for he was not moved by the old fascination with historical research, the life of the church in society, or the life of Jesus. "I often have the impression that my conservative New Testament colleagues feel very uncomfortable, for I see them perpetually engaged in salvage operations," he wrote in 1927. "I calmly let the fire burn, for I see that what is consumed is only the fanciful portraits of Life-of-Jesus theology, and that means nothing other than ‘Christ after the flesh.’ But ‘Christ after the flesh’ is no concern of ours. How things looked in the heart of Jesus I do not know and do not wish to know."

Bultmann’s concern about what it meant for a person or a community to proclaim Jesus as Lord led straight into a field ripe for scholarly exploitation. He had new questions, not about life but about its meaning. How did the early church, in the course of its eucharistic or missionary preaching, retell the story of Jesus and reshape or invent stories about his miracles and sayings, his birth and resurrection? How did the earliest preachers proclaim Christ as the Lord of life -- not merely of exotic religion? And how did the transformation of life which these Christians experienced, and their knowledge of a salvation which was already theirs, so dominate their thinking and so infuse their preaching that other matters seemed trivial in comparison -- the postponement of the Lord’s visible Second Coming, the actual content of the Lord’s original message, and even his historical personality?

Bultmann pictured the thrills of life, thought and preaching in the first and second Christian generations as taking place against a sophisticated, largely gentile background, a setting for a dialogue not unlike his own with the secular philosopher Heidegger in Marburg. He was able to picture early Christianity this way with the more assurance because he did most of his scholarly work before attention shifted back to Palestine in the time of Jesus (thanks in part to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls), and before the themes of light against darkness, life against death, came in the 1960s to be understood as first century Jewish themes. A Palestinian background has been claimed once again even for the Fourth Gospel.

In any case it was probably inevitable that Bultmann’s pupils (such as Günther Bornkamm) -- while accepting his negative verdicts that Jesus did not think of himself as Messiah, Son of God, or Son of Man -- should refuse to accept the dispiriting embargo on all discussion about how Jesus did regard himself, and refuse as well to accept the excessively rigorous skepticism about the facts behind the Gospels’ literary forms. The quest for the historical Jesus was resumed, although in a new way, with the realization that Jesus and his followers regarded that one historical life as the "turning of the ages."

III

We can now begin to see Bultmann’s New Testament work as a phase in the ongoing story. Its intrinsic importance may be indicated by saying simply that no greater New Testament scholar has ever lived. But it was no accident that the preaching of the early Christians fascinated him, for Bultmann himself regarded his scholarly work as a service to preaching. His famous proposal for "demythologizing" the New Testament originated in a 1941 lecture, subsequently duplicated, which was designed to be a help in pastoralia to former pupils serving as chaplains in Hitler’s army. As much as Karl Barth, Bultmann wanted everyone to enter the illusion-shattering crisis of hearing the Word of God. He too rejected the liberal Protestant map of knowledge and life, its comfortable synthesis of religion and society, Fatherhood and brotherhood, and he never entirely lost the sense of crisis which in the 1920s had caused his theology to seem "dialectical" like Barth’s. But he knew more than Barth did about what was actually in the mind of modern man -- or perhaps he was not so dismayed by it.

His Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh on The Presence of Eternity: History and Eschatology (Harper, 1957) and various books of essays -- the most notable collections in English being Faith and Understanding (Harper & Row, 1969) and Existence and Faith (World, 1960) -- show over how long a period, and in relation to how many challenges, he worked out his own presentation of the Word of God to our time. But the clearest summary is to be found in his little book of lectures to young Americans in 1951, Jesus Christ and Mythology (Scribner’s, 1958). For all his thoughts were unified around the desire of his heart to encourage or to shock students of theology into preaching a relevant Christ.

He thought that it was possible to strip away the metaphysical doctrines of the church fathers and the mythological stories of the first Christians to reach a Lord whose impact would transform modern lives. He thought that in this Lord alone, "saving" or "justifying" faith could and should be placed. (Bultmann never ceased to be a Lutheran.) How, then, was faith to be born? By going to the death of Jesus. On the wood of the cross, the existence of this strange man was questioned by the hard nails of the world. In every generation those who decided for themselves that the crucified Jesus was right -- rather than his enemies -- had Christian faith, and the rising of their faith was the one perpetual miracle. It was the Easter of faith in a world naturally progressing toward winter.

What, then, did it mean to say that Jesus was right? It meant to put one’s own trust where Jesus put it, in God and God’s future. Bultmann’s central concern was precisely the opposite of the wish to reduce theology to anthropology, but he was passionately "subjective" in the sense of believing that God could never be a mere "object" to the believer.

One could not know much about God, only what God did for one. (When Macquarrie urged him to follow Tillich in using the philosophy of Being to reconstruct a purified theism, Bultmann could only confess: "I myself cannot conceive of an ontological basis.") One could not do much for God, only gamble one’s life on his reality and on his power to uphold one. One could not say much to God, only give thanks and surrender. He saw eschatology (the announcement that ordinary things were ending) as the heart of the gospel, but his eschatology was not a description of the world’s history to come, and its preaching was not a visible exhibition. It was an address to the individual, an address about that individual’s life and death, an address which reached that individual’s heart.

That decision of faith mattered most to Bultmann of all the items which have collected into the creeds and confessions of Christendom. Many have criticized this view for being too narrow. What about the history of Israel? What about the problems of ethics? What about social responsibility? What about the scientific view of nature? What about the philosophical status of talk about God (Wittgenstein and the later Heidegger)? But Bultmann gave his answer to such criticisms -- in, for example, his contribution to the volume of essays edited by Charles W. Kegley, The Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (Harper & Row, 1966).

His answer was not that such general questions were boring. The survey of his theology by Walter Schmithals (Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann [Augsburg, 1968]) successfully demonstrates how wide was his scope. But he was primarily a New Testament scholar, not a philosopher; his datum was Scripture. Even more important for him, as limiting his task, was the background to all his thinking for half a century:

Germany in anxiety, Germany in hysteria, Germany in flames, Germany in reconstruction from the foundations. While not neglecting his duties to his day as a professor or citizen (he supported the anti-Nazi Confessing Church and welcomed the Americans in 1945), he felt called to essentially one work as a preacher. He drew out of the New Testament, and particularly from the faith of the apostles as they looked back at the cross of Jesus, the belief that it was the world which was dying, not God who was dead.

In his volume of wartime Marburg sermons, translated as This World and the Beyond (Scribner’s, 1960), he did not supply a commentary on the news. Instead -- and with as much success as any Christian preacher could expect -- he addressed the fears which gripped young and old. It was a traditional and individualist message, and he would say much the same thing to Sheffield industrial workers in time of peace (reprinted in The Honest to God Debate). It was not colloquial; it was not sociological. But in point of fact Bultmann’s theology helped to keep many individuals within the great tradition of faith in the eternal God, the God revealed in the crisis of the gospel of Christ; for in the jargon, although his work was to "demythologize," he refused to "dekerygmatize."

There were plenty of men (Karl Jaspers, Fritz Bun, Herbert Braun and others) who urged him to complete his program by a thoroughgoing secularization, but Bultmann obstinately insisted on the power and grace of the Other who comes. He knew. He had met him. This is his glory, in an age which has exalted research above the encounters of life, and which has obscured God by the massive horrors of politics as well as by the petty sentimentalities of religion.


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