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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.

An English Appreciation by Austin Farrer

The English reader may feel that he has already studied a sufficient variety of personal views on the contemporary German debate. Why should he endure another, and that from a fellow-countryman of his own? Surely this is the sort of thing with which German profundity is more at home than English practicality. Yet, however much the Englishman admires German profundity, he cannot see things altogether with German eyes. Indeed, one effect of reading a book like this is to be reminded how foreign the German religious attitude is to our own. And so some English readers may like to compare their own impressions of the debate with those of an English theologian, and to watch him as he tries to sum up for himself what the German discussion amounts to.

I will first say how the different German papers strike me, and I will begin with Dr. Bultmann’s initial article. I do not find that it makes much attempt at consistent statement or accurate definition, nor do I suppose that it was designed to do so. It was a direct expression of feeling, a covert sermon to the half-believer, and an open provocation to the theologian. How effectively Bultmann has trailed his coat for his colleagues can be seen from their eloquent reactions; the angle thrown out for the half-believer is more likely to pass unnoticed. Yet surely the instinctive tactics of the apologist give much of its shape to the article. His first move is to disarm prejudice by conceding all the antimythical objections with dramatic recklessness. His second move is to reopen the religious question on neutral and nonmythical ground, the existentialist philosopher’s account of the human predicament. He goes on to persuade us that our predicament, as such an account reveals it to us, is a tragedy from which we cannot deliver ourselves, except in so far as we are enabled by an act of God through the Gospel. The divine rescue is a fact encountered by those who are given the faith to make contact with it. It becomes an actual factor in their personal existence, and is guaranteed as not mythical but real by its present actuality. But what is it that receives this guarantee? Dr. Bultmann pours out a stream of covertly mythical descriptions for the saving act. He is bold to use them because he has now got his reader into a state to grasp the reality through the descriptions. He scarcely pauses to justify the apparent reintroduction of a type of language which it was the whole profession of his argument to discard. Now, this may be a good pattern for apologetic persuasion, but it will evidently have to be rewritten to meet academic criticism.

Bultmann professes to be simply giving the Gospel the liberty it intrinsically demands. The real purpose of Dr. Schniewind’s article is to show us the whole body of the Scriptural truth, in such a way as to press the question, whether Bultmann is not freeing the Gospel from its fetters by amputating its limbs. Dr. Schniewind does this very forcibly and pertinently, though of course, to our English minds, very Lutheranly too. When, however, he endeavors to theorize the problem of mythology on his own account, he does not achieve an equal success.

Professor Lohmeyer’s papers contribute little to the understanding of Bultmann, whose views (it would be hardly too much to say) he caricatures: pardonably, when we consider that in his original outburst Bultmann had caricatured himself, and that this was the picture which Lohmeyer had before him. But Lohmeyer has his own profound understanding of the mythical problem, and in putting forward positions alternative to Bultmann’s he suggests what is of much value in itself, and can serve in a final synthesis to supplement the deficiencies of Bultmann’s theory

The center of the book, to my mind, is Bultmann’s rejoinder to Schniewind. Having seen how his original utterance lays itself open to charges of inconsistency and suspicions of theological nihilism, Bultmann says exactly what he means with beautiful precision. This statement of Bultmann’s allows of being construed, like a well-worded legal document.

Dr. Schumann’s essay is a direct contribution to the clarification of Bultmann’s ideas. He writes as a philosophical theologian and offers a criticism both stringent and sympathetic.

Bultmann’s final essay is not what its title would appear to make it, a general answer to his critics. That is to be found rather in the rejoinder to Schniewind. It is an apologia on a particular point, the status Bultmann accords to existentialist philosophy in relation to the restatement of Christian theology. It is his philosophical profession of faith, and says less about the special topics of theology.

There, then, is my impression of the part played in the discussion by each of the pieces reproduced in this collection. Though various opinions are mooted, none but Bultmann’s receive sustained attention and it is obviously about them that I must attempt to give a judgment. But I shall not plunge straight into Bultmann’s thought. I will begin not with Bultmann but with the nature of the question. I will hope to show as I proceed what sort of an answer to it Bultmann offers.

The question is said to arise from the spiritual situation of contemporary society. It is obvious that no general diagnosis of the modern disease is being attempted, for if that were done other remedies might easily be found more urgent and more efficacious than the demythicization of the Gospel. We are simply being called upon to acknowledge that one of the things the modern man cannot take is myth. To judge of Bultmann’s argument by its conclusion, "modern man" means for the purposes of the present question a being sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the existentialist approach which is Bultmann’s offered remedy; say one man in five thousand. But these, no doubt, are the leaven that leavens the lump, and many or few, they ought to be catered for.

Without going outside the requirements of the question we may usefully make certain distinctions between the refusals of the modern mind. We will classify them as necessary, accidental, lamentable, and factitious. (1) The established, or virtually established, positions of science and history give rise to necessary refusals, as when we refuse to believe that the world was created eight thousand years ago or that the sun stood physically still for Joshua. (2) The things which modern men happen not to pay attention to give rise to accidental refusals, in the case (for example) of industrial workers who have a blind eye for imagery based on the procedures of pre-scientific agriculture. (3) Accidental refusals become lamentable refusals when they involve the atrophy of a spiritual function, for example, the sense for poetry. (4) Factitious refusals are those that arise from a philosophy or attitude which men either embrace or swallow Communism, physical materialism, or economic utilitarianism.

Now, obviously the sort of respect we pay to these four sorts of refusals is not the same. Our respect for factitious refusals is the respect of the physician for the disease; if he respects the fact it is that he may abolish it. Lamentable refusals are likewise to be cured so far as they admit of cure by the cultivation of the atrophied function. Accidental refusals can be overcome by the imparting of information, but it is often not practicable nor worth our while to attempt it. About necessary refusals nothing can be done or ought to be done. They must be accepted.

If, therefore, men cannot understand a "mythical" language because they are dogmatic materialists, it is a case of factitious error, and the direct target of our attack. If because they have lost their sense for poetical expression and living metaphor, it is lamentable and we ought to sustain and augment whatever rudiments of poetical sense remain. If because the Biblical images draw on unfamiliar fields of experience, it is accidental and must be met largely by the substitution of familiar images, not (if you like to say so) by demythicization but by remythicization. But if it is because of a real conflict with the way in which any decent modern man is bound to think, then indeed it is time to talk about removing the offensive elements from the Biblical story by radical translation into harmless terms.

I take it that the last case is the only case we are considering here. The other cases are important, but they are matters of pastoral tactics, not of theological truth. The question of truth arises only when the modern man we are talking about is ourself just as much as anyone else.

The first sense of myth we have to consider stands for something which no mind, whether modern or ancient, ought to swallow, and that is the taking of poetical symbol for literal fact. Angels above the blue and devils underground fitly frame the setting of man in the spiritual hierarchy, but excavation will not reach the one or aeronautics the other. How far symbol is taken for literal fact in the New Testament is a subtle question. On the whole it is truer to say that the relation of mythical expression to literal belief is left undecided, than to say that it is decided in the sense of literalism. There are undoubted cases of decision in both directions; for example, St. Luke did think that the Biblical genealogies gave a tolerable idea of the number of generations from the beginning of the world to his own day; St. John did not think that his description of the Heavenly Jerusalem would or could be executed by angelic hands in gold and precious stones. But the middle cases between the two are the more typical; if we ask with Bultmann, for example, whether spirits good and evil were really thought to be breaths of subtle and potent air physically invading the human person, we run into a mist of ambiguities.

No doubt there is a task of demythicization here which Biblical reflection has begun and theological reflection ought to complete. But that is a platitude. St. Augustine was aware of the importance of distinguishing the literal from the symbolic, and the School-men theorized the problem almost ad nauseam. When Bultmann suggests that the modern problem can be illustrated from the "three-decker universe" he is surely indulging himself in the pleasures of rhetorical effect. Our actual problems are more subtle. It will suffice to name two of them, the problem of miracle and the problem of transcendence.

The problem of miracle is this. Are alleged historical events like the virginal conception of our Savior in Mary’s womb examples of myth in the sense we have just defined, or are they not? Bultmann appears to beg the question. He writes as though he knew that God never bends physical fact into special conformity with divine intention; the Word never becomes flesh by making physical fact as immediately pliable to his expression as spoken symbols are. Bultmann seems to be convinced that he knows this, but I am not convinced that I know it, and I cannot be made to agree by the authority of the truism that symbolism ought not to be mistaken for physical fact. For it still ought to be taken for physical fact, if and where God has made it into physical fact.

The problem of transcendence is more general. It arises wherever we find ourselves asking to what reality symbolical descriptions refer The only case which allows of a perfectly simple answer is one in which a non-symbolical description can be alternatively supplied. On the dramatic occasion on which Sherlock Holmes allowed himself the expression "the Napoleon of crime", he was not, indeed, referring to anyone named Napoleon, but he was referring to a person of whom the eminent detective would have been prepared to give an uncannily particular and literal description, down to the microscopic structure of his hair and the size of his boots. But when nothing at all of this kind can be done, philosophical difficulties arise, and they reach their maximum in the case of religious expressions. An angel may be talked of as though he were a luminous and filmy man, but when we have decided that such images are mere parables, then to what are we to refer the parables? Are they parables about a non-luminous and non-filmy not-man? About a conscious and voluntary finite being of indeterminate species? About an impression made in the senses of a visionary by God himself?

But why talk of angels? God cannot be described in literal terms, but only in analogies from the created world. To what sort of reality beyond the analogies do the analogies refer? On this subject the views of Lohmeyer and of Bultmann appear complementary rather than opposite. Lohmeyer considers what the transcendent reality is in its very transcendence of all the comparisons in which our analogical statements place it; Bultmann considers the conditions under which we can either justifiably or meaningfully affirm transcendent reality by means of analogical statements. Lohmeyer says boldly that God and the things of God are simply outside our scope, except in so far as they make themselves known through symbols or parables which they arouse in our minds and which express them figuratively. There is no saying what that is for which the figures stand except in further figures, and so without end. Lohmeyer’s position is certainly not an explanation, but the statement of ultimate philosophical paradox. But at least it shows a grasp of the difficulty.

What Bultmann has to say about Lohmeyer’s question is of little interest. Sometimes he appears to think that as long as we stick to the existential categories of personal relation we can talk of God literally, as near as makes no difference; if some element of the figurative remains, it may be reduced to mere metaphor, or "cipher"; he sees no reason why the unobservable should have to be expressed in terms of the observable. In another place he casually remarks that of course all theological language is analogical, as a recently published book has shown. It is fair to conclude that he has no taste for this line of inquiry. It is, he might say, an abstract speculative puzzle with no practical bearings. A theologian does not want to know the abstract nature of theological statements, but which statements to make and which not to make. However transcendent divine things may be, we are neither going to be silent about them nor to spin fantasies about them at our own sweet will. We shall make serious affirmations about the invisible, but only in so far as it makes itself visible to us. Well, the invisible as such does not become visible, being by definition the side we do not see, like the back of the moon: but it must show us a visible side. We affirm the invisible side of the medal only when the visible is open to our apprehension, and otherwise not.

We are ourselves talking in metaphors here, and obviously the word "visible" is not literally meant. In the case of the original disciples it would be tolerable to speak literally of a visible side to the medal of which the invisible side was the presence of God, but the case of the disciples is not our case. "Visible" will have to be interpreted to mean "playing a real part in our existence", analogous, let us say, to the part that the friendship of an absent friend can play, when we orientate our life and action towards him and his friendship for us. There is much in the reality of my friend’s personal being which transcends my active relation with him, and yet it is on the ground of my active relation with him that I affirm that transcendent and private being of his.

The parable of the two-sided medal is, I think, completely acceptable. That is really the trouble about it: everyone will cheerfully accept it, for it is so ambiguous that all possible differences of doctrine can be covered by it. For where is the theologian who wishes to affirm, anyhow as matters of faith, propositions about transcendent realities which do not determine the character or direction of our present existence in any way? Heaven and Hell? Yes, for we live for Heaven, and to escape Hell; these things should be more real to us than the prizes and dangers of earthly life. Blessed Mary and the Saints? Why yes, for our prayer is undertaken with the support of theirs, our service of God is one piece with theirs.

"Ah, but surely this is to stretch the formula of the two-sided medal too far. The invisible side must be kept no more than a hairbreadth distant from the visible side; faith must not soar, it must modestly affirm an invisible lining to what is actually encountered. If the dictate of conscience and pull of vocation are real factors in our life, let us affirm no more than something authoritative, something which plans for us." But obviously the existential affirmations of faith are made in no such spirit. Faith goes to all lengths and affirms that absolute and infinite being is precisely he with whom she has to do. The invisible side of the medal is infinite, the visible stamps its impress on our finite and transitory act, there is no proportion between the sign and the reality signified. And so the formula of the two-sided medal allows any of us to affirm any transcendent reality which he sincerely believes to have a bearing on his spiritual existence or (we ought surely to add) on the spiritual existence of other people whom he takes seriously. No requirement that the "invisible" should be kept in correspondence with the "visible" amounts to anything more than a general exhortation. It tells us to be realistic and sincere in theological affirmation, it does not tell us where or how to draw the line.

Bultmann’s chief interest lies in the application of the doctrine of religious belief to the interpretation of the New Testament. He rightly says that the divine in Christ is something transcendent, something affirmed by faith, something we should not affirm unless it came home to us in our present existence. In saying this, he admits a high doctrine of transcendence. For the cross of Christ which in its "visible’’ side is stamped upon our present existence to crucify our wills, transcends us so far that it reaches in its invisible being all the way back to the Calvary where it crucified him.

Bultmann insists that the divine in Christ can be acknowledged in our present existence only, and never revealed by historical research; and there is a sense in which that is true. The techniques of historical scholarship cannot establish that God lived in man, but only that certain things were done and certain words were said. But of course the work of historical scholarship may bring me face to face with what will awaken faith in me. Suppose I am historically persuaded that Christ preached himself as Son of God in the words of the Gospel, I may believe Christ then and there, and without waiting to hear Dr. Bultmann preach him to me from the pulpit. Or again, if I did hear Dr. Bultmann proclaiming the faith of the Church, I might not believe him until I had had leisure to search the Scriptures. What turned the scales might be the historical persuasion that the seeds of the Church’s faith were not only in the Gospels but in the historical fact behind the Gospels.

There is an ambiguity about "history" into which, perhaps, Dr. Bultmann does not fall, but against which his readers need to be warned. "History" is sometimes used to describe a science, and sometimes to describe a sort of statement having a distinctive logical nature. In sense 1 we talk about historical reasoning and historical conclusions based upon it, and only of historical statements in so far as they express historical conclusions. But in sense 2 an historical statement need have no relation to historical method or reason; a clairvoyant makes an historical statement in this sense, if, after stroking the bark of a mulberry tree, he declares it to have been planted by Queen Anne. I may have a high respect for his gift, and may believe him, in which case I believe an historical statement (sense 2) about Queen Anne, but not on historical grounds.

Now it looks (I say no more) as if Dr. Bultmann were claiming that nothing but historical grounds (sense 1) can establish an historical belief (sense 2) in our minds. For example, he holds, and we will agree, that the sheer reasoning of scientific history would not oblige us to grant that the narratives of the virginal conception in Sts. Matthew and Luke, together with the allusions in St. John, indicate the actual truth of the event referred to or described. But Bultmann seems to assume that if this is so we cannot believe in the virginal conception as a matter of historical fact (sense 2) on grounds of faith: faith cannot, in his view, extend the area of historical belief, but only add an invisible divine lining to such an area of historical belief as historical reasoning (sense 1) adequately supports. I hold this to be false. What Christians find in Christ through faith inclines them at certain points to accept with regard to him testimony about matter of fact which would be inconclusive if offered with regard to any other man. The Christian who refused to take that step would in my opinion be pedantic and irrational, like a man who required the same guarantees for trusting a friend which he would require for trusting a stranger. Thus it is possible through faith and evidence together, and through neither alone, to believe that Christ really and corporeally rose from the dead, not merely that his death on the cross had a supernatural silver lining significant for our salvation. Obviously the use of faith to confirm evidence makes the most exacting demands on intellectual honesty. We must believe neither without evidence nor against evidence. And so, when Dr. Bultmann undermines the testimony to the saving miracles by alleging conflict between the witnesses, I allow the relevance of his argument. What I disagree with is simply his interpretations of the texts he refers to.

A disciple of Dr. Bultmann’s would no doubt feel that I am travestying his view by substituting my vague figure of the two-sided medal in place of his much more precise existential position. For the existential position will allow deductions about the inadmissibility of the physical and miraculous embodiment of divine action which the formula of the two-sided medal will not. I am, indeed, well aware of that, but I have wished to see how far Dr. Bultmann’s arguments take us if they are placed on grounds which all reasonable Christians ought to concede. It may be that the real first step of Dr. Bultmann’s whole plea is the exhortation to embrace existentialism or drown, and that everything else is a mere corollary to that. But in fact many of us are not, and are not going to be, existentialists of the Heidegger school, and so we try to see what Bultmann’s position amounts to if we leave the dogmatic existentialism out.

The existentialism which Dr. Bultmann admires is of much value for opening the eyes of materialists to inward things. It shows them how to talk in a tolerably hard and exact way about personal interaction, about freedom, responsibility, and decision. It reveals courage and nobility, but also agony and insufficiency: darkness from which a spiritual salvation (if there were one) might deliver us, and some scattered gleams of the glory into which it might, in delivering, translate us. In a word, it reveals man in something like the sense the word bears for Christian thought. And so it may prepare the way for the discovery of a sense of need, which is the preliminary to faith. Nor need its contribution end when a man has come to believe. It can still set before his eyes the realm of personal existence to which faith is normally relevant and in which the presence and act of God can normally be looked for by the believer.

In so far as existentialism opens and enlarges vision, what can we do but welcome it? but when it is used to set up arbitrary limits to the scope of our thought we have every reason to suspect and hate it: when, for example, it fixes the narrow model of personal encounter on the whole form of our relation with our Creator, or when it sets natural fact in such antithesis to personal existence that it is handed over wholly to the inescapable rule of physical regularity. It is, no doubt, a useful apologetic device to abandon natural fact to the naturalists and set up shop in the realm of personal existence, for it disarms the prejudice to which obsession with physical technique gives rise. But it is not in fact true that nature is set apart from spirit by the hard-and-fast dichotomy which Kant defined, and the continuous life of Catholic Christendom testifies to the contrary. The miracles of the saints never cease: a hundred years ago the sainted Curé d’Ars multiplied bread and healed the sick and lived himself by a continuous physical miracle, nor has he lacked successors since.

Dr. Bultmann seems to have no difficulty with the belief that personal existence can kick off the body and survive: his unbelieving existentialist teachers would hardly follow him there. To others of us it is vital that we have in physical miracle a token from God of the power which can adjust spirit and nature to a new and happier union: as when he bodily raised our Savior from the dead.

The criticisms I have ventured to offer bear on the speculative and doctrinal side of Dr. Bultmann’s positions. As to the practical need for the interpretation of the Gospel to people everywhere in terms they can best understand, I trust that I share his sincere and Christian concern.

I will add one last remark. There are certain steps in demythicization which, being the elimination of puerile error, can be got through once for all and not repeated, but there is another sort of demythicization which never ends in this life because it belongs to the very form of our religious thought. When we pray, we must begin by conceiving God in full and vigorous images, but we must go on to acknowledge the inadequacy of them and to adhere nakedly to the imageless truth of God. The crucifixion of the images in which God is first shown to us is a necessity of prayer because it is a necessity of life. The promise of God’s dealing with us through grace can be set before us in nothing but images, for we have not yet experienced the reality. When we proceed to live the promises out, the images are crucified by the reality, slowly and progressively, never completely, and not always without pain: yet the reality is better than the images. Jesus Christ clothed himself in all the images of messianic promise, and in living them out, crucified them: but the crucified reality is better than the figures of prophecy. This is very God and life eternal, whereby the children of God are delivered from idols.

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