Kerygma and Myth by Rudolf Bultmann and Five Critics
Rudolf Bultmann is one of the great scholars in the field of New Testament study. He was born in Germany in 1884, studied at Tubingen, Berlin and Marburg. During the time of the Nazi domination, he took active part in the strong opposition which the churches built up. After World War II he spent much time lecturing in the United States. The critics are Ernst Lohmeyer, Julius Schniewind, Helmut Thielicke, and Austin Farrer. This book, with the exception of the Austin Farrer article, was first published in German by Herbert Reich of Hamburg-Volksdorf, Germany; the English edition, including the Austin Farrer article, was first published in 1953 by S.P.C.K., London, and is here reprinted by arrangement. The English translation has been revised for the Torchbook edition. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Can the Event of Jesus Christ be Demythologized? by Friedrich K. Schumann
The debate began with Rudolf Bultmann’s essay on New Testament and Mythology. Let us first give a brief summary of Bultmann’s argument. The problem, he says, is that the New Testament presents the events of our redemption in terms of the mythical world view of classical antiquity. This world view entered the New Testament via late Jewish apocalyptic and the Gnostic redemption myth and has profoundly affected it on every page. Its principal features are: a three-storied universe consisting of heaven, earth, and underworld; the intervention of natural and supernatural powers in human life; the dominion of evil spirits and Satan over that life and also over the external realm of nature; the imminent end in time of this present world-æon. The gospel proclaims that "now is the time of the End here, for the Son of God has appeared on earth as a preexistent cosmic being. His death brings deliverance from the bondage of sin and the power of Satan, his resurrection is the defeat of the power of death, his impending return will be the end of this aeon, and the inauguration of the kingdom of God, the judgment of this world and the perfection of the community of believers. " All this is undeniably mythological, and Bultmann thinks it is senseless and impracticable to foist this mythical view of the world on modern man, whose thinking is "shaped for good or ill by modern science". If this principle is accepted, then the belief in good and evil spirits must be regarded as obsolete, together with the New Testament miracles, at least in their traditional sense, the mythical eschatology with its doctrine of death as the punishment of sin, and the Church’s doctrine of a vicarious atonement through the death of Jesus on the cross and the victory over death through his resurrection. Obviously, this involves a serious reduction of the substance of the gospel, and it is not surprising that Bultmann’s essay has been widely regarded as a recrudescence of rationalistic liberalism and a further stage in the complete dissolution of the gospel. But this is certainly not Bultmann’s intention. He has no desire to erect some modern view of the world as the norm to which the gospel must conform. On the contrary, he seeks to liberate the whole meaning of the gospel and to make it intelligible to modern man in all its fullness. That is why he deems it imperative to release the permanent truth of the gospel from its framework in an obsolete world view -- in short, to "demythologize" it.
But this demythologizing is not to be accomplished by selecting certain features of the gospel and subtracting others, for "the world view of mythology must be accepted or rejected in its entirety". It can be done only by what he calls interpretation. This is where Bultmann parts company with the older liberals. (It should, however, be noted that in their attempt to restate the truth of the gospel rationalism and liberalism also had recourse to interpretation as well as subtraction. Interpretation does not necessarily exclude subtraction. But the crux of the matter is always: from what source is the interpretation derived? See above.) If however the New Testament can be emancipated from the world view of mythology only by interpretation, what is to be the source of that interpretation? Bultmann’s answer is: Not from any contemporary religious or philosophical conviction derived from outside the gospel. That would be to set up some extraneous authority over the New Testament. No; the interpretation must be derived from the New Testament itself, from the aim which led it to select just these mythological elements. Now, the aim of the New Testament is to offer an existential understanding of the message of Christ. Indeed, the mythological view of the world has also in the last resort a similar existential purpose. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not the communication of factual truths or neutral information which may appeal to us or not. It is the communication of a decisive understanding of human existence. And, as Bultmann maintains, the mythological view of the world itself had, fundamentally, this same existential purpose. It too was not the communication of theoretical knowledge about the world, but an attempt to impress on man his personal situation in the universe and his relation to the powers that rule it. If the New Testament is to be interpreted in this sense, Bultmann contends, there is no danger of losing or forfeiting its essential truth. In fact, it is only by such an interpretation that the real meaning of the New Testament can be disclosed and made accessible for those who would otherwise find its mythological elements a stumbling block. (We may note here a point which will be taken up later. We seem to have here two different conceptions of myth used side by side without any attempt to reconcile them. First, we are told that the existential interpretation of the New Testament will cause that mythology to disappear, which seems to imply an antithesis between "mythological" and "existential". Later, myth itself apparently has an existential meaning, and therefore a legitimate place in the New Testament. In that case there would be no need to remove it, but only to pay due attention to the meaning of which it is the sign.)
The New Testament must therefore be interpreted according to the existential understanding of the gospel message: it must begin with the Christian understanding of human life which is disclosed by that message. Now, there are two sides to this understanding. Firstly, it deals with life apart from faith (though always it is disclosed only in the light of faith; cf. the well-known problem of Rom. 7). Life apart from faith is a life of anxiety and fear, of bondage to the past, to corruption, sin, and death. Secondly, it deals with life in faith. This is the true and authentic life of man, a life based on invisible and incalculable reality, a life in the "Spirit". Such a life is made possible by the grace of forgiveness, which brings deliverance from the past and freedom for the future. In short, it means "eschatological existence". Such an interpretation appears to have two advantages: first, it secures the essential truth of the New Testament message, and secondly it emancipates it from myth, and particularly from the eschatology of Jewish apocalyptic and Gnosticism.
Now, this raises a vital question. Is this Christian understanding of human life necessarily bound to the person of Jesus Christ, or can it be detached from him? In the second case, we should have not merely demythologizing, but the actual dissolution of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the first case, we are bound at once to ask whether this connection with Jesus Christ is a "remnant of mythology". Bultmann has no doubt as far as the New Testament is concerned; there the Christian understanding of human life is inseparably linked to the person of Jesus. But what is the real truth of the matter? According to Bultmann, it would seem to be possible to arrive at an understanding of human life which is unconnected with Christ, and yet goes a certain distance in agreement with the Christian understanding of human life. This is apparently proved by the understanding of human Being as "Fallenness" (Verfallensein) in Heidegger and Kamlah. (Christentum und Selbstbehauptung, 1940.) But existentialism and Christianity part company when they come to the question as to how deliverance from this "fallenness" is to be achieved. For the Christian to be "fallen" means to be a prey to sin and death, and our deliverance from that plight is wrought by the death and resurrection of Christ. Evidently it is inseparably linked to the person of Jesus Christ. Does this link then mark the extreme limit of demythologizing? Is there a mythological remnant in the Christian message which must be left at all costs? The crucial question is therefore whether the event of Jesus Christ is itself amenable to demythologizing.
Now, as Bultmann maintains, this particular event is undoubtedly presented by the New Testament as a mythological event. But is that the only way in which it can be presented.? -- or, as Bultmann asks, "does the New Testament itself demand a restatement of the event of Jesus Christ in non-mythological terms? . . . Now, it is clear from the outset that the event of Christ is of a wholly different order from the cult-myths of Greek or Hellenistic religion. Jesus Christ is certainly presented as the Son of God, a pre-existent divine Being, and therefore to that extent a mythological figure. But he is also a concrete figure of history -- Jesus of Nazareth. His life is more than a mythical event; it is a human life which ended in the tragedy of crucifixion. We have here a unique combination of history and myth." Thus the peculiarity of the New Testament is that it speaks in mythological language of an historical figure and of the history of that figure. When we ask whether this mythological language can be retained or translated into non-mythological language, we are inevitably confronted with the further question as to the meaning of the mythological language in this particular instance. Why is it necessary to transcend the language of history in this peculiar way? Bultmann’s answer is this: "This ultimate meaning of the mythological language is that it is an attempt to express the meaning of the historical figure of Jesus . . . viz., what God is saying to each one of us through it." In other words, the mythological language tries to express the significance of Jesus for salvation history. The question is therefore whether this mythological language is the only possible vehicle for conveying the meaning of Jesus for salvation history, or whether the mythology can be surmounted and rendered superfluous without forfeiting the meaning it conveys. This question arises in its acutest form when we consider the proper language for the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
Certainly the "cross" designates an historical event. It is described as "mythological" when its significance -- .i.e. what at the profoundest level it effected -- is portrayed in objective imagery: The pre-existent Son of God is delivered up to the death of the cross, and thereby atonement is wrought for the guilt of mankind, the righteousness of God satisfied and the curse of sin removed. Bultmann, however, contends that all this objective imagery has ceased to be tenable for us today. This is due not only to the change in our world view, but also to the intrinsic inadequacy of the mythological language as a medium of expressing the meaning of the cross. The right interpretation, he maintains, is one which raises the historical event to cosmic dimensions (one would have thought that this is just what the objective mythological presentation is trying to do!). "If we see in the cross the judgment of the world -- the Kosmos -- and the defeat of the rulers of this world (I Cor. 2. 6ff.), the cross becomes the judgment of ourselves as fallen creatures enslaved to the powers of the ‘world’. By giving up Jesus to be crucified, God has set up the cross for us. To believe in the cross of Christ does not mean to concern ourselves with a mythical process wrought outside of us and our world, or with an objective event turned by God to our advantage, but rather to make the cross of Christ our own, to undergo crucifixion with him." This can also be expressed in another way: the cross is to be regarded as the eschatological event; that is to say, it is not an event of the past to be looked back upon, but the eschatological event in and beyond time, for as far as its meaning -- that is, its meaning for faith -- is concerned, it is an ever-present reality.
But, we ask, what justification have we for attributing such a significance to this particular historical event? Does the historical event itself exhibit this significance? Or, as Bultmann puts it: "Is this significance discernible in the actual event of past history?" If not, then with what justification was that significance attributed to it in the first place? If yes, then the event must itself be more than just an event of past history: it must include within itself as an event of the past this meta-historical, existential significance, and it must be possible to extract that significance from the event itself. Bultmann, however, will not admit these alternatives, and feels obliged to adopt a peculiar way out of his own. He thinks it would certainly be true of "the first preachers" of the gospel. They certainly perceived the meta-historical significance of what they witnessed enacted in their sight and hearing. "For them, but only for them, the cross was a personal experience: it was the cross of one with whom they had lived in personal intercourse.... For us this personal connection cannot be reproduced.... For us the cross is an event of the past. We cannot recover it as an event in our own lives. All we know of it is derived from historical report." In other words, we should be thrown back upon past history with all its problems. "But", objects Bultmann, "this is not the way in which Jesus Christ is proclaimed to us. The meaning of the cross does not have to be disclosed from an historical reconstruction of his life. Rather, he is proclaimed as the crucified and risen." So in attempting to emancipate the cross from mythology we are thrown back to a similar question with regard to the resurrection.
Bultmann’s remark about the inseparable unity of the cross and resurrection is in any case of the utmost practical importance. For in the traditional preaching of the Church that unity has rarely received its due. But it is obvious that it only adds to our difficulties in the present connection. For the resurrection "is not an event of past history" in the sense that the cross is. The cosmic significance of the cross cannot therefore be demonstrated by the resurrection as an event of past history. In what sense then do the cross and resurrection form an inseparable unity in which the cosmic, eschatological significance of the cross may be disclosed? The connection between them is not that the resurrection is a miraculous proof of the cosmic, eschatological significance of the cross. The unity between them is of a different order: they "form a single, indivisible ‘cosmic’ event which brings judgment to the world and opens up for men the possibility of authentic life." "The resurrection is not a mythological event adduced in order to prove the saving efficacy of the cross, but an article of faith just as much as the meaning of the cross itself.... Indeed, faith in the resurrection is really the same thing as faith in the saving efficacy of the cross. " If that be so, the reference to the resurrection, for all its importance, does not tell us why redemptive significance should be attached to the cross. It does not tell us whether the cross bears that significance in its own right, or only in combination with the resurrection. For Bultmann, apparently, there can be only one answer: "because this is the way in which the cross is proclaimed". Because Christ crucified and risen encounters us only in the word of preaching, therefore faith in this word is "the only real Easter faith", just as this word itself is "part of the eschatological event".
Is our task of emancipating the New Testament complete with this interpretation? "Are there still any surviving traces of mythology?" In view of the very different nuances which Bultmann gives in the course of his essay to such terms as "myth" and "mythological", it is difficult to give any conclusive answer. Here is Bultmann’s own answer: "There certainly are for those who regard all language about an act of God or of a decisive eschatological act as mythological. " (We may add that if "mythological" means whatever cannot be reconciled with the modern scientific view of the world with its closed system of cause and effect, then an eschatological act of God is either no act at all or else it is mythical in the above sense of that word.) But, thinks Bultmann, that is not mythology in the traditional sense, not the kind of mythology which has become antiquated with the decay of the mythical world view. The difference is not quite clear, for Bultmann had originally defined the mythical world view as one which left room for extra -- and supramundane interventions, in contrast to the modern world view which postulates a rigid, closed system of cause and effect. There is certainly no room in this modern world view for a unique eschatological act as distinct from that creative action which may be considered to be present in everything. For such a view of the world an eschatological act of God can be regarded only as mythical. What Bultmann means is that the difference between the mythological language of the New Testament and ecclesiastical dogma on the one hand and his own interpretation on the other is that the former presents us with a "miraculous, supernatural event", whereas the right interpretation is one which suggests "an historical event wrought out in time and space". Whatever we make of this distinction, one thing is certain: the idea of a single historical event in time and space as the judgment pronounced by God over the historical process in time and space and the radical transformation of its whole constitution is inconceivable for those who accept the modern world view, and it would be impossible to make such a notion intelligible in the terms of such a view. So even Bultmann admits that this idea must be accepted as the paradox of the New Testament proclamation -- i.e. the paradox "that the eschatological emissary of God is a concrete figure of a particular historical past, and that his eschatological activity was wrought out in a human fate, and that therefore it is an event whose eschatological character does not admit of a secular proof". At the end of this quotation we have perhaps the clearest indication of what Bultmann means by the "demythologizing" which he believes to have effected. "Mythology" in his sense of the word is precisely an attempt to furnish a "secular proof" of the eschatological significance of an event of past history by the use of objective imagery. So in the last analysis "demythologizing" is for him identical with the demonstration of the authentically paradoxical character of the gospel. (Cf. the sentence right at the end "It is just its immunity from proof which secures the Christian proclamation against the charge of being mythological.") If however we accept Bultmann’s initial definition of mythology as that which is incompatible with the modern world view and its closed system of cause and effect, the very idea of such a paradox would seem to be incurably mythological, and the whole endeavor of "demythologizing" would seem, at any rate on this assumption, a questionable procedure. Yet it is just this paradoxical character of the gospel which Bultmann is so firmly resolved to uphold: "All these assertions are of course an ‘offense’ (s c _n d _l o n ), and the offense will not be removed by philosophical discussion, but only by faith and obedience. ...The transcendence of God is not as in myth reduced to immanence. Instead, we have the paradox of a transcendent God present and active in history: ‘The Word became flesh’."
It would have been well if those numerous critics who have taken offense at Bultmann’s ideas had paid particular attention to the importance of these concluding sentences. Of course, it is in a way not surprising that at first sight much of this looks like a recrudescence of rationalistic liberalism. But the entirely different turn and interpretation Bultmann has given it ought not to have been overlooked. He is not trying to accommodate the gospel to a modern Weltanschauun, or to make that Weltanschauun a norm to which the gospel must conform. On the contrary, his express intention is to throw into relief the real meaning of the gospel in all its paradox, and so to protect it from those misinterpretations which so easily suggest themselves, but which for that very reason are particularly dangerous. Moreover, he seeks to do this in such a way as to serve the preacher’s conscientiousness for truth and maintain the credibility of the gospel in all its seriousness for his hearers. And all this is certainly a legitimate task for theology, and one whose practical importance is not to be underestimated. It extends from the simple narration of the Christmas story with the star and the wise men and the angelic hymn right up to our preaching at Ascension-tide and Pentecost. And in all this the difficulties are not just those of theological debate; they are continually being raised by the ordinary church-goer, and even by children with their insistent inquiries ("What became of the star when it left the wise men? Where did Jesus go to when he ascended? Was it straight up to the third story at the top of the sky, or where was it?").
As theologians we ought not to make light of such questions from the mouths of babes and sucklings. It is just here that we are confronted with the -- in the best sense of the word -- simple desire for truth on the part of our hearers, and nothing is so damaging to the reputation of the theologian as when his utterances produce the effect of parrot-cries which have ceased to be relevant to the hearer’s grasp of truth or reality, and therefore so utterly irrelevant to his daily life. We have therefore every reason to be grateful to Bultmann for opening up afresh a question which confronts every theologian as he pursues his vocation, but which in recent years has been unwarrantably deprived of its sting. Of course, we cannot take Bultmann’s essay and the subsequent elucidations he has given so far as the last word on all the problems he has raised; they are too far-reaching and too complex for that. Moreover, the continuation of the debate in writing has been seriously hampered by the restrictions and delays of wartime. The most valuable contributions so far have been set down only in private correspondence, and have not as yet been published. Even in this place a thorough examination of Bultmann’s thesis would greatly exceed the available space. We must therefore content ourselves by calling attention to a few points for further consideration. These will concern not so much the details of Bultmann’s argument and his conclusions, as key problems of methodology.
1. Further discussion would seem to be needed on whether the Christian understanding of existence can be detached from the person and figure of Jesus. Bultmann is inclined to the judgment that there exists a substantial agreement between the Christian understanding and a philosophy of existence not orientated upon the event of Christ (Heidegger and others) on the negative side -- i.e. the fallenness (Verfallenheit) of human life. At this point, therefore, it is arguable that the Christian understanding of existence is detachable from the event of Christ and so it is only in connection with the overcoming of his fallenness that the question arises. I cannot convince myself that Bultmann is right. He has certainly succeeded in rebutting Thielicke’s charge that by starting with the Christian understanding of existence he betrays a subjectivism akin to that of Schleiermacher. He has certainly proved that for him the only basis for a Christian interpretation of human life is in Jesus Christ. But surely this will also apply to the Christian understanding of fallenness. Surely this also is disclosed only in Jesus Christ, and cannot therefore be identified with the results of a non-Christian analysis of existence. The meaning we attach to fallenness depends on how we answer the question: In relation to what or to whom is man fallen? Surely it is impossible to agree on a formal understanding of fallenness and to part company over the judgment in relation to what human life is fallen. On the contrary, it is on this question that the meaning we attach to fallenness depends. To be fallen to "nothingness" is quite different from being fallen to sin and guilt and being fallen under the wrath of God. It is simply impossible to agree on a formal understanding of human fallenness, and then to diverge, one side believing that human life is fallen to "nothingness", and he other that it is fallen under the wrath of God. The understanding of fallenness in the two cases is not identical.
2. It is clear that Bultmann’s thought is orientated quite differently. His guiding conviction is that it is possible to have formal analysis of human existence which can be detached from very "existential" attitude, from every actual disposition to one’s own existence. This is certainly a widespread opinion, and has been from of old. On this view it is held to be possible to make a formal and general statement on the nature -- e.g. of death, anxiety, or love -- quite apart from one’s personal existential attitude to one’s own personal death, anxiety, or love. now, it certainly cannot be denied that mutual discussion about such existential realities is possible between those who hold different existential attitudes, and that for practical purposes here can be provisional agreement on the use of such words as death, anxiety, or love as a basis for further discussion. But to my mind it is quite a different question whether an existentialist analysis can be achieved in complete detachment from the understanding of existence which is presupposed, accepted and applied. At least I am not convinced that such a result has ever been attained. In philosophy as it has long been understood the two things have gone together hand in hand, the analysis of the formal structure of life in the abstract and the making of personal decision in respect of one’s own personal existence. Heidegger, for instance, certainly aims at working out a pure existentialist analysis, but in practice certain anterior existential decisions work themselves out all along the line, or at least they are suggested and are not far below the surface. If however such a pure, formal analysis of existence were possible, it is hard to see how it could be applied without ipso facto becoming a norm. In other words, each man’s understanding of what love means for him would depend upon his understanding of love in the abstract. Or, to take an example which is crucial for theology, our understanding of what our relation as men to God means for us would depend on our general understanding of man in the abstract. Indeed, it is abundantly clear from this particular example that a pure analysis of existence involves an anterior existential decision (viz., that it is possible to analyze the Being of man without taking into account his relation to God), and is determined throughout by this anterior decision. The results of an existentialist analysis would certainly be very different -- or perhaps it would discover its own impossibility -- if it set out with the conviction that not only does every man stand in a positive or negative relation to God, but his relation to God is constitutive of his Being. This is exactly what the Bible means when it asserts that man was created in the image of God, and what theology means by its doctrine of the imago Dei.
3. Finally, let us at least allude to a further question which at the present is of utmost importance both for our domestic discussion as theologians and also for the controversy between Christians and the opponents of Christianity, and which moreover is the dominant theme of Bultmann’s essay. I refer to the meaning of the word "myth". This is of course such a complicated question that we cannot expect to do it justice here. All we can do is to suggest one particular line of thought which may help to elucidate it.
It was at first not easy to see in what sense Bultmann was using the word "myth", and what he really meant by "demythologizing". This ancient word (myth), which appears even in the New Testament (1Tim. 1:4; 4:7; 2 Tim. 4:4; Tit. 1:14; 2 Pet. 1:16), has been used in many different senses especially since the end of the eighteenth century, and thereby has acquired a direct or indirect importance for theology. For example, the French positivists (A. Cointe) understood by mythological thought a primitive, pre-scientific interpretation of the universe. For speculative idealism myth was the unfolding of an Idea in an historical process involving persons and events (D. F. Strauss). For romanticism myth was an attempt to interpret the Symbol, which was considered to be by itself unutterable, the wordless utterance about existence which preceded the myth (so especially J. J. Bachofen). Now Bultmann has come along with his own formula: Myth is "a mode of thought and speech which objectivizes the unworldly so as to make it worldly". What that means becomes clear only when the question is raised as to the impulse and intention behind this particular mode of thought and speech. Here we are confronted by the problem of the relation between myth and science or scientific world view. Now, for Bultmann both myth and science spring from an ultimately existential impulse. In other words, they are both attempts to interpret human existence. Myth seeks to do this by interpreting and bringing influence to bear on encounters with the powers and forces which dominate human life. Science tries to do the same thing indirectly, by taking a detached view of the world in which man finds himself, to apprehend that world as a unity and thus to make it a tool for the use of man. Now, this gives us three possible relations between myth and science. (a) Man may regard his encounter with the powers which dominate his life -- death, life, spirit, blood, and so forth -- as the decisive factors in his life: science will then be an academic luxury devoid of any existential importance. (b) He may regard both the concrete encounter with these powers and the knowledge of the general constitution of the universe as the decisive factors in his life. In that case he will assign an equal importance both to science and to myth, and will attempt a synthesis between them. (c) Science may claim that its knowledge of the universe is such as to entitle it to be the sole and final arbiter of existence and its problems. In that case it must regard itself as able to supersede myth and must "demythologize" everything which requires to be taken seriously. The first of these possibilities -- which even today is not without its representatives -- is scarcely relevant for our theological problem. The second possibility will be taken seriously by those who cannot accept the suggestion that the laws of cause and effect and formal structures expressed in a series of concepts are the answer to the riddle of life and death. (Such people, for example, would hold that even the most accurate insight into man’s physical and psychic constitution cannot tell us what life and death mean to us personally.) They will therefore maintain that there is existential truth which cannot be expressed in the language of discursive terminology, and which therefore requires an entirely different language, indirect and allusive, but such as cannot be supplanted or explained away. The third possibility will be favored by those who make their own the anterior existential decision, which -- as even Bultmann admits -- was imported from Greek thought at the beginning of Western science, and on which that science is largely based even today -- viz., the existential decision that the individual is no more than a specific instance of a general cosmic law and order which is capable of being expressed in a terminology which is at bottom quite simple and which is detachable from existence. On this view everything which claims to be meaningful and credible must be capable of being expressed in the language of this terminology. And where the influence of myth is still discernible, there is need for "demythologizing".
It does not appear to me that Bultmann favors this third possibility. He surely cannot believe that the ultimate decision about man depends on the possibility of classifying him in a general order of an abstract kind. After all, his aim is to interpret the gospel, and the gospel is not an analysis of the formal structure of human life and of the universe, but the proclamation of event and encounter: God is present in Jesus Christ. But in that case the language of proclamation can never be the language of scientific terminology. No mode of human speech hitherto discovered is fitted as it stands as a vehicle for the gospel, for the gospel is something which has never been expressed hitherto. If therefore the gospel is to be made intelligible, it must use a language such as men use when they speak of events with an ultimate existential and cosmic significance. Thus the New Testament -- including it would seem even Jesus himself -- seizes upon a language which may be called that of "mythology" as the best available means of expressing its subject-matter. It is true that in a certain sense this language presents "unworldly’’ truths objectively, as if they were "worldly" realities. But it must not be supposed that in adopting this imagery the New Testament does so naïvely, unconsciously or uncritically. It is always aware of the tension between the language used and the reality of which it is the medium. Even the language of Greek mythology -- be it never so ancient - is not in the least bit primitive. It too is a language of a higher order, analogous to the language of lyric, which as a matter of fact grew out of it. It is highly indirect, allusive and indefinite as compared with the solid language of objective reality. It is always so to speak transcending itself: it always relies on the ability of the reader to read between the lines. The Greeks who saw the Eumenides of Aeschylus knew that it was not a play about a company of old wives, but they also knew that it was impossible for the playwright to deliver his message in a series of logical or ontological propositions. And on a higher level the same process is repeated in the Bible wherever it makes use of the imagery of mythology. The Bible is certainly aware of what it is doing. It knows that it must risk the impropriety if it is to point at all to the real subject in hand. When the seer in Rev. 19: 11 sees a man sitting on a white horse, he is fully aware that it was not literally a white horse as distinct from a black one. The New Testament is fully aware not only of the indirect character of the imagery it uses but also of the indirect use which it makes of that imagery. It uses that imagery, however, because it is the best available medium for conveying its message. To take an illustration which is particularly apt, as it does not involve any of the central problems of dogmatic theology, in Matt. 18: 10 Jesus says: "I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven." Now, he could not have said that in any other language without altering its whole meaning. To "demythologize" that saying by removing the angels would, so far from elucidating the meaning, destroy it completely.
Yet it is just here that we are confronted by an urgent task of theological interpretation, and it is certainly with this that Bultmann is really concerned. Since the language of myth is highly and consciously indirect, its indirect character may easily be overlooked. If it is, the mythological statements are not understood in the light of the meaning which they symbolize, but in the light of their original meaning, which in the end is itself completely misunderstood. The proclamation therefore must not be obscured by the mythological terminology which it employs and which is inseparable from it -- and that, despite the modern world view, the whole basis of which has become questionable. But the meaning which this form of expression is intended to convey must be illuminated from the central point of the proclamation, not by disregarding these forms of expression but, if I may be pardoned the metaphor, in continuous dialogue with it. Without such a dialogue, which is the proper task of theological exegesis, the Christian proclamation would inevitably degenerate on the lips of men, as in fact it has degenerated in all forms of Christian folk-religion (superstition). Only the unremitting toil of theologians can prevent this.
By calling God his Father, Jesus is "objectivizing an unworldly reality and making it worldly". In this sense he is using the language of mythology. What we have to do, however, is not to eliminate the mythological expression, for without it we shall never be able to express what Jesus meant by it, but first explore the depth of meaning which this image bears in ordinary human speech and isolate all its features. Then we must confront the meaning which we have thus worked out with what we know so far of the Being and Word of Jesus. By bringing the two things into relation we shall acquire a new apprehension and a deeper understanding of what he means when he speaks of God as his Father. The expression "Father" is not thereby eliminated; all our understanding will repeatedly return to it and go forth from it again, and thus will never be detachable from it. "Demythologizing" cannot consist in the elimination of the "worldly" image here employed, but only in the fact that the "worldly" receives its meaning from the "unworldly".
That is why we shall never succeed in producing a gospel free from mythology even at the end of our efforts. That is so for the elementary reason that the understanding we are looking for can never be formulated and passed on as a conclusive result. In all the work of exegesis and exposition results are possible only in a technical, and not in an absolute, universal sense. The understanding we are seeking is present only in so far as it takes shape in the actual course of our work. That is why theology is never the object of a departmental study which can hand on assured results. Theology is possible only as a stimulus to press on with the work of a life-time. The parish priest is not qualified by taking a theological degree, but only by constantly renewing and deepening his study of theology. To study theology means to desire to live in a progressive understanding of the gospel and to devote one’s life ever anew to this understanding.
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