Monday, April 13, 2015

Demythologizing Debate: Part I---Bultmann

The following discusses the versions of Bultmann and others' essays on demythologizing that were published in the USA in the 1960s. (For a useful German summary of Bultmann's argument and the basics of criticism, see this slide presentation here.)

Rudolf Bultmann

Bultmann describes the tripartite structure of the NT world which the narratives assume (pp.1f).
History does not follow a smooth unbroken course; it is set in motion and controlled by these supernatural powers [i.e. "God and his angels on the one hand, Satan and his daemons on the other", RCK]. (p.1)
Not only is that mythical framework non-specific to the message of the NT, for it is found in the contemporary literature, such as the Jewish Apocalyptic and Gnosticism (p.3), but it is also a hindrance for acceptance.
To this extent the kerygma is incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete. (p.3)
 And Bultmann is adamant that forcing acceptance of the past worldview is a non-starter.
Can Christian preaching expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true? To do so would be both senseless and impossible. It would be senseless, because there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age. Again, it would be impossible, because no man can adopt a view of the world by his own volition---it is already determined for him by his place in history. (p.4)
Bultmann allows that people can contribute to the revolution of their worldview, but makes strong requirements on the input, "a new set of facts so compelling as to make his previous view of the world untenable" (p.3)---considering the Copernican revolution, the atomic theory, Romanticism ("with its discovery that the human subject is richer and more complex than enlightenment or idealism had allowed") and [sadly, RCK] nationalism.

Bultmann allows that "truths which a shallow enlightenment had failed to perceive are later rediscovered in ancient myths" (p.3), but this is no argument for the shift of the worldview.
A blind acceptance of the New Testament || mythology ... would mean accepting a view of the world in our faith and religion which we would deny in our everyday life. (pp.3f)
Bultmann glosses such a requirement as the worst a Lutheran can state, that "would be to reduce faith to works" (p.4).

Bultmann almost brutally spells out all the assumptions that we no longer share with the NT, to illustrate the impossibility of the request. The three-story setup is gone, there is no heaven above and no hell below. Stars are not daemons and exhibit no malevolence through sickness or cure.
We can no longer look for the return of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven or hope that the faithful will meet him in the air (1 Thess 4:15ff). (p.4) 
And if we are still left with certain physiological and psychological phenomena which we can only assign to mysterious and enigmatic causes, we are still assigning them to causes, and thus far are trying to make them scientifically intelligible. (p.5)
This is especially true for the mythical eschatology, which did not even take place in the NT worldview.
... the parousia of Christ never took place as the New Testament expected. History did not come to an end, .... Even if we believe that the world as we know it will come to an end in time, we expect the end to take the form of a natural catastrophe, not of a mythical event such as the New Testament expects. (p.5) 
Bultmann also points out the other aspects of the anthropology that are no longer shared.
Biological man cannot see how a supernatural entity like the pneuma can penetrate within the close texture of his natural powers and set to work within him. (p.6)
Even the idea of death as a punishment of sin is closely woven into that worldview and incompatible with the present understanding (p.7).
 ... to attribute human mortality to the fall of Adam is sheer nonsense, for guilt implies personal responsibility, and the idea of original sin as an inherited infection is sub-ethical, irrational and absurd. (p.7)
The notion of atonement is equally primitive in its notions of "guilt and righteousness" and even of "God" (p.7).

Bultmann now turns to the solutions, which are few and difficult, because of the way the concepts and ideas are semantically connected (p.9). Even isolated theologumena like the Virgin Birth cannot be excised, because they depend on the no more acceptable "mythical character of the event of redemption as a whole" (p.9).
At this point absolute clarity and ruthless honesty are essential both for the academic theologian and for the parish priest. ... They must make it quite clear what their hearers are expected to accept and what they are not. At all costs the preacher must no leave his people in the dark about what he secretly eliminates, nor must he be in the dark about it himself. (p.9)
Bultmann crushingly mentions Karl Barth's Die Auferstehung der Toten, Munich (Chr Kaiser) 1924 as an example of a dishonest or hidden demythologizing. And Bultmann accepts the possibility that the NT might turn out to be not relevant to the modern world.
The question is simply whether the New Testament message consists exclusively of mythology, or whether it actually demands the elimination of myth if it is to be understood as it is meant to be. (p.10)
In a quick footnote, Bultmann clarifies his notion of Myth, which he takes from the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (p.10 Fn 2); and he specifically rejects the notion of myth "that is practically equivalent to ideology" (p.10) [and here he means the NS use, as in Rosenberg and similar, RCK].
The real purpose of myth is to speak of a transcendent power which controls the world and man, but that purpose is impeded and obscured by the terms in which it is expressed. (p.11)
Bultmann believes that the New Testament invites such demythologizing because of the incongruencies between the mythological solutions of the different parts.
The kenosis of the pre-existent Son (Phil 2:6ff) is incompatible with the miracle narratives as proofs of his messianic claims. The Virgin birth is inconsistent with the assertion of his pre-existence. (p.11)
Bultmann notes especially the contradiction between man subjected to cosmic forces and man agentive.
Side by side with the Pauline indicative stands the Pauline imperative. (p.11)
... this explains why so many saying in the New Testament speak directly to modern man's condition while others remain enigmatic and obscure. (p.12)
Bultmann complains that the liberal theology of the turn to the 20th century was already working on this problem, but botched the task by ditching the kerygma as well.
 ... whereas the older liberals [e.g. Harnack, cf. (p.13), RCK] used criticism to eliminate the mythology of the New Testament, our task to-day is to use criticism to interpret it. ... the criterion adopted must be taken not from modern thought, but from the understanding of human existence which the New Testament itself enshrines. (p.12)
Bultmann reminds us that already the allegorical mode of interpretation was an early form of demythologizing (p.13). Bultmann then uses Harnack's notion [from What is Christianity, most likely a translation of Wesen des Christentums, RCK] of the kingdom of God to show how liberal theology went too far.
 For the liberals, the great truths of religion and ethics are timeless and eternal, though it is only within human history that they are realized, and only in concrete historical processes that they are given clear expression. (p.13)
In this model,
 History may be of academic interest, but never of paramount importance for religion. (p.13)
But the New Testament speaks of an event through which God has wrought man's redemption. For it, Jesus is not primarily the teacher, ... his person is just what the New Testament proclaims as the decisive event of redemption. (p.14)
The discovery of mythology in the NT is due to the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (p.14) [e.g. Ernst Troeltsch, cf. (p.15), RCK], and their solution was to focus on the religious life as portrayed in the NT. Bultmann considers this a key insight.
Christian faith is not the same as religious idealism; the Christian life does not consist in developing the individual personality, in the improvement of society, or in making the world a better place. The Christian life means a turning away from the world, a detachment from it. (p.14)
However, that detachment is "essentially eschatological  and not mystical" (p.14), understanding the Church as the institution of worship, and thus religious (p.15). But they failed to grasp the eschatological aspect and still do not give sufficient sense of the event character.

Bultmann now points to the work of Hans Jonas, who gave an existentialist interpretation of Gnosticism in Gnosis und sp├Ątantiker Geist, Teil 1: Die mythologische Gnosis, 1934. Bultmann wants to take a leaf from Jonas in his work on demythologizing the twin roots of the NT, the Jewish apocalypse and Gnosticism (p.16).
Our task is to produce an existentialist interpretation of the dualistic mythology of the New Testament along similar lines. (p.16)
This will not be a scientific anthropology, but rather "a definite understanding of existence, which is invariably the consequence of a deliberate decision of the" anthropologist (p.16).

Bultmann first explicates the Christian notion of Being (p.17), which is tied to the Pauline notion of flesh (sarx) (p.18), whose chief concern is security (p.19). Thus, in the demythologizing reformulation, Bultmann can write,
Everybody tries to hold fast to his own life and property, because he has a secret feeling that it is all slipping away from him. (p.19)
Conversely, the life of faith focuses on the "unseen, intangible realities" (p.19) and the "abandonment of all self-contrived security" (p.19). This is achieved through a worldly detachment, not asketic, but "as if not" (hos me) (p.20). Bultmann sees this intention most clearly expressed in the Gospel of John "by completely eliminating every trace of apocalyptic eschatology" (p.20).
Life in faith is not a possession at all. It cannot be exclusively expressed in indicative terms; it needs an imperative to complete it. (p.21)
Thus, though Paul shares the belief in the miracles of the Spirit (p.21), the notion can be transformed by taking it to mean "live after the Spirit, not after the flesh" (p.22), and thus making man "capable of fellowship in community" (p.22).

Now the event of redemption, which Bultmann had earlier claimed the old liberals (Harnack) and the religionsgeschichtliche Schule (Troeltsch) had lost, has to be demythologized (p.22).
Faith, in the strict sense of the word, was only there at a certain moment in history. It had to be revealed, it came (Gal 3.23; 25).  (p.22)
After a sketch of a Warburg-Dilthey letter exchange, and a tip-of-the-hat to Karl Jaspers, Bultmann writes
Above all, Heidegger's existentialist analysis of the ontological structure of being would seem to be no more than a secularized, philosophical version of the New Testament view of human life. For him the chief characteristic of man's Being in history is anxiety. (p.24)
Some critics have objected that I am borrowing Heidegger's categories and forcing them upon the New Testament. (p.25)
Bultmann insists that a secularized form of Christianity, in the way Heidegger or Kamlah (pp.25f), should not surprise, because it is the logical consequence of there being "nothing mysterious or supernatural about the Christian life" (p.27).
Eschatological existence [according to the NT, RCK] is an attainable ideal because "the fulness of time has come" and God has sent his Son "that he might deliver us out of this present evil world" (Gal 4:4; 1:4). (p.28) 
But Bultmann insists with the NT that only the "Christian believers", "only those who have opened their hearts to the redemptive action of God" can attain the ideal. This is because "man has lost the actual possibility, and even his awareness of his authentic manhood [i.e. humanity, RCK] is perverted" (p.29). Even the philosophical belief that showing the true nature of humanity will suffice to start the change is such a delusion.
The glorying of the Jew over his faithfulness to the law and the || glorying of the Gnostic in his wisdom are both illustrations of the dominant attitude of man, of his independence and autonomy which lead in the end to frustration. (pp.29f)
So in practice authentic life becomes possible only when man is delivered from himself. It is the claim of the New Testament that this is exactly what has happened. This is precisely the meaning of that which was wrought in Christ. (p.31)
Love is the fulfilment of the law, and therefore the forgiveness of God delivers man from himself and makes him free to devote his life to the service of others (Rom 13:9-10; 5.14). (p.32)
The event of Jesus Christ is therefore the revelation of the love of God. (p.32)
Only those who have received confidence as a gift can show confidence in others. (p.33)
The New Testament speaks and faith knows of an act of God through which man becomes capable of self-commitment, capable of faith and love, of his authentic life. (p.33)
This then poses the question
Have we carried our demythologizing far enough? Are we still left with a myth, or at least an event which bears a mythical character? (p.33)
Demythologizing that event is then the next and decisive problem (p.34).
We have here [in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, RCK] a quinte combination of history and myth. The New Testament claims that this Jesus of history, whose father and mother were well known to his contemporaries (Joh 6:42) is at the same time the pre-existent Son of God, and side by side with the historical event of the crucifixion it sets the definitely non-historical event of the resurrection. (p.34)
Bultmann claims that the difficulty of this conception produced the inconsistencies that mar the New Testament as unifiable book.
The doctrine of Christ's pre-existence as given by St Paul and St John is difficult to reconcile with the legend of the Virgin birth in St Matthew and St Luke. On the one hand we hear that "he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man ..." (Phil 2:7), and on the other hand we have the gospel portraits of a Jesus who manifests is divinity in his miracles, omniscience, and mysterious elusiveness, and the similar description of him in Acts as "Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by his mighty works and wonders and signs" (Acts 2:22). On the one hand we have the resurrection as the exaltation of Jesus from the cross or || grave, and on the other the legends of the empty tomb and the ascension. (pp.34f)
And the core of the event structure is of course the cross itself (p.35).
The Jesus who was crucified was the pre-existent, incarnate Son of God, and as such he was without sin. ... This mythological interpretation is a mixture of sacrificial and juridical analogies, which have ceased to be tenable for us to-day. (p.35)
... the cross is not just an event of the past which can be contemplated, but its the eschatological event in and beyond time, in so far as it (understood in its significance, that is, for faith) is an ever-present reality. (p.36)
And to underline the existential interpretation driving this, Bultmann writes:
In its redemptive aspect the cross of Christ is no mere mythical event, but a historic (geschichtlich) fact originating in the historical (historisch) event which is the crucifixion of Jesus. (p.37)
And now Bultmann chastises mythical language for its short-comings.
In the last resort mythological language is only a medium for conveying the significance of the historical (historisch) event. The historical (historisch) event of the cross has, in the significance peculiar to it, created a new historic (geschichtlich) situation.
However this "event of past history" is intrinsically tied to the resurrection, but that produces a problem, because Bultmann believes that the following two statements hold concurrently.
Cross and resurrection form a single, indivisible cosmic event which brings judgement to the world and opens up for men the possibility of authentic life. (p.39)
An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable. (p.39)
Bultmann insists that any proof function of the cosmological event is nonsense.
... the resurrection of Jesus cannot be miraculous proof by which the sceptic might be compelled to believe in Christ. (p.39) 
... the real difficulty is that the resurrection is itself an article of faith, and you cannot establish one article of faith by invoking another. You cannot prove the redemptive efficacy of the cross by invoking the resurrection. (p.40)
 ... the bare miracle tells us nothing about the eschatological fact of the destruction of death. Moreover, such a miracle is not otherwise unknown to mythology [and therefore does not constitute an exclusive part of the Christian message, RCK]. (p.40)
... the New Testament is interested in the resurrection of Christ simply and solely because it is the eschatological event par excellence. (p.40) 
Bultmann conceptualizes the resurrection as an expression of the efficacy of the cross (p.41).
... it is the cross of Christ because it has this saving efficacy. Without that efficacy it is the tragic end of a great man. (p.41)
And this brings Bultmann back to the message.
Christ meets us in the preaching as one crucified and risen. (p.41)
... in accepting the word of preaching as the word of God and the death and resurrection of Christ as the eschatological event, we are given an opportunity of understanding ourselves. (p.41)
In discussing the Easter Day, Bultmann re-iterates:
The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection. (p.42)
Bultmann is adamant that we cannot borrow the faith "of the first disciples and so  eliminate the element of risk" involved (p.42).
... the apostolic preaching which originated in the event of Easter Day is itself a part of the eschatological event of redemption. ... Through the word of preaching the cross and the resurrection are made present: the eschatological "now" is here ... || That is why the apostolic preaching brings judgement. (pp.42f)
And the Church continues to participate in that eschatological event.
The word "Church" (ekklesia) is an eschatological term, while its designation as the Body of Christ emphasizes its cosmic significance. For the Church is not just a phenomenon of secular history, it is a phenomenon of significant history, in the sense that it realizes itself in history. (p.43)
Bultmann does draw the line there, not allowing the speaking of God to be classified as myth directly. He maintains however the paradox of the kerygma that it is both a historical event and an eschatological event (p.44), an offense that no philosophical discussion can lift.
It is precisely its immunity from proof which secures the Christian proclamation against the charge of being mythological. The transcendence of God is not as in myth reduced to immanence. (p.44)

Bibliographic Record

Rudolf BULTMANN, Ernst LOHMEYER, Julius SCHNIEWIND, Helmuth THIELICKE, Austin FARRER, Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, edited by Hans Werner BARTSCH, translated by Reginald HORACE, New York -- Evanston (Harper and Row), 1961.

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