Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976)
Bultmann was the eldest son of a German Lutheran pastor - and became, with Karl Barth and a few others, one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. He was a pupil at various times of giants such as A von Harnack, J Weiss and Wilhelm Herrmann [1](the latter a devout follower of Albrecht Ritschl). His work relates back to that of D F Strauss.

The question of faith and history proved central to Bultmann's work. His ideas seem to have developed slowly, a resolution coming in 1922 when he decided, with some reservations, that Barth's approach to the critical biblical theology of his day was correct. 

Like Barth he followed a hermeneutical approach - that is, the formulation of theology through the analysis and interpretation of biblical texts. And like Barth, he thought that it is through the eye of "faith" that the person of Jesus makes sense, rather than through history. The primary reason for relying on faith, which he thought his work established beyond much doubt, was that the gospels prove to be unreliable as historical documents.

This meant that Bultmann studied the Bible as history in order solely to reach a better understanding of theology, rather than to discover a Jesus of history. He is best known today for his use of Form Criticism pioneered by others (particularly by Johannes Weiss), but in his case used primarily to demythologise the New Testament - that is, to identify material which could not be accepted by the modern mind.

His understanding of the clash between ancient and modern thought forms was remarkably clear, though often misunderstood or wrongly stated. He used the word "myth" in relation to biblical material in what was probably a deliberate attempt to highlight the impossibility of our minds today to fully understand or accept the premises of pre-scientific ages. The premises of the modern mind include:

  • The understanding that the world proceeds through time in an unbreakable sequence of cause and effect. This is fundamental. The element of chance in current sub-atomic theory does not destroy this sequence, though it does modify our understanding of it.

  • The course of nature can't therefore be interrupted or perforated by divine action without destroying the very fabric of all science.

  • The same is true of history. This is an unbroken whole. If divine intervention is granted we can't link historical cause to any event, since we can't tell which is divine cause and which isn't. Despite this, Bultmann did grant that "... there are in history spiritual powers which influence the will of persons" - no doubt not being fully aware of the contradiction this implied for the rest of his position.

  • If we as part of nature can be directed by divine power, we can't be guilty of sin because God is obliged in love to prevent us. Only if we are existentially free can we be held accountable for our choices.

 Bultmann wrote:

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless [radio] and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of demons and spirits.[2]

Bultmann thought that the historical person of Jesus has been turned into a myth by primitive Christians. It is impossible to get behind the myth to any good understanding of the real person. Bultmann concludes that the miracles and other wonders worked by Jesus are peripheral legends which embellish the central story.  

Whereas many of his predecessors had thrown out traditional theology along with the clearly unhistorical nature of the Gospels, Bultmann thought that the Bible accounts, themselves essentially interpretations of Jesus and his meaning, had rather to be re-interpreted in the light of modern existence. Interpretation required a critical distinction between what a text says and what it means. When he interpreted the text in this way, Bultmann held that the myths had to be removed in the process. The main question to be answered is:

What is the importance of the preaching of Jesus and of the preaching of the New Testament as a whole for modern man? [3]  

Thus the Gospel is greater than the original New Testament myths through which it was once expressed. But we are not to stop there, he said. In the process of looking behind the myths we discover the kerygma or "proclamation" and it is this - the true Gospel - which needs to be thought about and developed in relevant form for the contemporary world. He termed the process of getting to the kerygma through the overlaid myths that of "demythologising". 

So Bultmann's aim was to reveal the essential subject matter of the New Testament, the saving act of Jesus that Paul calls the "good news". He wrote "Theological propositions ... can never be the object of faith; they can only be the explication of the understanding which is inherent in faith itself ..." The understanding in his case is generally agreed to have been according to existentialist philosophy. The proclamation sets before us a concrete existence in which we are challenged to choose between authentic and inauthentic responses to life.

Thus the crucifixion is history while the resurrection is myth. The latter comes to life for us today provided we recognise it for what it is. When we do that it becomes possible to think anew about "dying to the world" (to use Paul's terminology) and so to live by the unseen reality of God.

It's the task of theologians, therefore, to think in terms of life and human existence rather than to simply assent to the Church's ideology about the historical Jesus. In that sense, thought Bultmann, only Paul and the author of John's Gospel really tackled the important problem of clarifying the proclamation.

But it's not up to the biblical interpreters of the kerygma alone to distil out the theology of the New Testament. That also has to be done by the contemporary critic and theologian in the light of their own understanding of reality. They are therefore able to criticise even Paul if he fails to say what he should have said, or if he fails to say what he says as well as he should have. 

Contemporary critics, like the first  theologians, of course come to their subject with their own presuppositions. But in that they are no different from anyone else. The fusion of all the evidence and views which results is legitimate interpretation - although many have wondered if Bultmann's approach does not give him too much power over the material, with resulting distortions.

In stating his case somewhat provocatively, Bultmann was widely misunderstood. Many saw him as yet another debunker of supernaturalism ("myth") and destroyer of the historicity of the Bible. They failed to perceive the positive side of his message and methods through which he sought to strengthen faith without also destroying rationality. 

On the other side of the fence, there are those who think  that in seeking to maintain the Bible as the source of faith, Bultmann is guilty of giving more authority to the biblical texts than is justified. While rightly devaluing the Bible as an infallible source of "what really happened", Bultmann is, in their view, nevertheless attributing to the Bible an almost miraculous ability to mediate faith.

Perhaps the greatest question being debated today is "Where are we to locate our source of criteria for behaviour?" That is, are we to live our lives autonomously or do we turn to authority for direction? Yet again, does God reveal himself to us through special means (the Bible, miracles, grace) or are we to discover God in and through created life?

Bultmann and Barth were probably the two theologians who in the 20th century contributed most to the prevailing consensus held by both Catholic and Protestant that it is in and through the ecclesia (the church), as it searches and responds to reality, that the truth about the meaning of life is to be discovered. 

The Bible, and in particular the New Testament, is essential in the Church's mediation of God's revelation. In this sense, the rational analysis of the Bible, the Church, society and nature in and of themselves must be perceived by Bultmann as ultimately destructive of Christianity. To think of the Bible as a collection of documents like any other is to devalue it.

Some may suppose that in using the rational methods of liberal thinkers, while at the same time insisting on a meaning outside and greater than human thought, Bultmann was guilty of an internal contradiction. They may have a point, though Bultmann in fact stressed the duty of theologians and critics to speak the truth in terms intelligible to contemporary people.

But, once that had been taken to its limit, the kerygma takes over. The Christian community keeps its doors wide open to all comers and all truth - but only up to that point.

Ironically, Bultmann's stand seems to have contributed to a resurgence of interest in the Jesus of history - a quest long put on the back burner by those who were swamped by the Bultmannian and Barthian reliance on the refuge of faith.

What has not often been noted is that the problem highlighted by Bultmann about ancient world-views was not confined to the New Testament. An essentially identical world-view, with only relatively minor changes, persisted until the Enlightenment in the West. Only when analytical methods in science, the law, and the many other disciplines of the modern world were developed did it begin to fade. 

Even in the 21st century, it can hardly be said that a majority of the world's population no longer think the way the writers of the gospels and Paul thought. They are, I would say, closer to Paul, Augustine, Aquinas and the other greats of traditional theology than to the contemporary scientific culture in the West. Perhaps that accounts for the continuing growth of religion in Africa, to name one region, while in Europe identical traditions increasingly count for little.

Similarly, for example, it's reported [4] that some one-third of the population in the USA in the late-90s still thought of Satan as a real, living entity. This way of conceptualising reality is rationally incompatible with the modern analytical mind-set - perhaps illustrating a human capacity to tolerate contradiction without resolving it.

It was his own pupils who became unhappy with Bultmann's reduction of Christianity to a kerygma, a reduction which dispensed with working out the meaning of Jesus for the world. In fact, they discovered, hermeneutics do not reveal a uniform content of "myth" in the gospels. They contain more history than Bultmann cared to find. In addition, they said, it was not right to strip theology of an intense concern to base its structure as much as possible on a Jesus of history.

The bulk of Bultmann's theology and philosophy has inevitably been relegated to the history of theology in the 20th century. Events have overtaken it but a solid basis remains in two important respects: 

[1] His painstaking hermeneutical methods still yield important insights into the meaning and relevance of biblical texts. Bultmann may have passed on, but the hermeneutic basis of biblical criticism remains. His work is still useful in picking out those elements of the biblical text which reveal editing and additions by gospel authors.

[2] Bultmann strove to make Christianity meaningful and relevant to his contemporaries. Even though there are always attempts to lock up truth into this or that doctrinal container, by and large the drive to interpret the Bible in ways that communicate a living message remains strong.

[1] Hermann was one of those who stressed the importance of the "inner life" of Jesus over against the Jesus of history. It is the "personal life of Jesus" which is the basis of our faith, he said. From here is was a small step to suppose that faith is a "spiritual" reality which brings us to the Christ of the kerygma.
[2] Kerygma and Myth
[3] Jesus Christ and Mythology, Charles Scribner's & Sons, 1958
[4] Religious Tolerance Website - search for the article on "Satan"

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