Review: Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology

Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology New York, NY: Scribners, 1958

Introduction:

Bultmann really needs no introduction. If you do not know much about him there are numerous articles available online. The main purpose here is simply to review this particular book which is a collection of Lectures he gave at Yale and Vanderbilt in 1951. The topic of the book is Bultmann’s radical method of New Testament interpretation: de-mythologizing. I’ve never heard anybody explain what Bultmann meant by this term on Bultmann’s terms. According to this little volume, de-mythologizing is the interpretation of the mythological statements (statements which presuppose an ancient and, to the modern man, unbelievable worldview) in Scripture in a way that makes them immediately relevant to the person alive. An example would be, “The understanding of God as creator is genuine only when I understand myself here and now as the creature of God. This existential understanding does not need to express itself in my consciousness as explicit knowledge. In any case the belief in the almighty God is not the conviction given in advance that there exists an almighty Being who is able to do all things. Belief in the almighty God is genuine only when it takes place in my very existence, as I surrender myself to the power of God who overwhelms me here and now” (Bultmann, 63). The rhetorical and theological purpose for Bultmann utilizing this interpretive method is given. Bultmann notes, “We can believe in God only in spite of experience, just as we can accept justification only in spite of conscience…de-mythologizing is the radical application of the doctrine of justification by faith to the sphere of knowledge and thought” (84).

The Good:

The book helps you to understand exactly what everybody in your conservative seminary classes is talking about with regard to Bultmann’s methods. The book seems to falsify certain prejudices against Bultmann’s work that are often held by people who have not read it. In this respect it could be useful. As an aside, people I know who were actually connected to the man found him to have a warm piety and one friend noted that he really wanted to visit a church in America and witness an evangelistic service. But apart from that aspect of reading the whole book, there are other pieces that are good:

  1. Bultmann’s insistence upon seeing God’s Word as consistently demanding response is important. If the exegete is only focused upon finding the historical meaning, then there is no possibility for response. As Bultmann notes, “It is beyond the competence of critical study that I should hear the word of the Bible as a word addressed personally to me and that I should believe in it. This personal understanding…is imparted by the Holy Spirit, who is not at my disposal” (54). I don’t find myself entirely in agreement with this because historically speaking people who have studied the Scripture critically have precisely come to repentance about various issues. Now, of course the Holy Spirit makes that possible and of course that repentance is not the results of the critical study for reportage in journals and text books, but that close study makes the meaning which God inspired in the Scripture available to the student and through preaching, discussion, and writing available to the church in the form of knowledge about the text. Bultmann, though making a good point about a necessary distinction has over-corrected. Nevertheless, the Scripture, if one is claiming to be a Christian, must be seen as demanding a response of faith.

  2. The importance of presuppositions to exegesis is repeated often, especially on pages 47-50. But the point is that the questions we ask and the worldview we hold will often tend to influence the answers we get. This is also true if we expect the text to teach this or that dogma, such a presupposition ends up using the conclusion as a first premise.

  3. Bultmann, though never defining the cognitive or moral content of faith, nevertheless gives a good description of its character, “Faith is the abandonment of man’s own security and the readiness to find security only in the unseen beyond, in God” (40). This notion of faith, though it does not take into account the aspect of loyalty, does capture the nature of trust or entrusting oneself to another that is so crucial to the New Testament usage in most places, especially the gospels, Romans, and Galatians.

  4. Bultmann sides against Barth’s notion that there is no natural knowledge of God, “Man does have in advance a relation to God which has found its classical expression in the words of Augustine, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee” (52).

  5. Bultmann cares about whether or not the non-philosopher or non-historian who is thoroughly enmeshed in a modern worldview and finds miracles unbelievable can still believe the gospel. I think he’s wrong-headed in his solution, but he clearly cares about people having an experience of justifying faith in Christ (35-44). The problem with his approach is that it might be difficult for a believer who struggles to think miracles are possible to do things like pray.

  6. Finally, Bultmann has a mystic’s eye for practicing God’s presence in the otherwise closed causal system of the modern world. His interpretation of Scripture, in this respect, is very similar to the allegorical method of old. Scripture is not just a series of dusty fables, no matter how dated certain passages seem, but it is the book through which God speaks to the church. Thus, the word heaven becomes a way of seeing God as transcendent of our world and circumstances (20). Any passage of Scripture is a call to love others in daily experience (43-44). God’s action is something that can be trusted even when we are in circumstances that clearly seem to betray our belief in God (64). It’s good stuff.

  7. Bultmann does note that he believes that the preaching of the church is true and rooted in an historical (and true) event. This event: Jesus Christ. Which for Bultmann is a summary for the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and present reign of Christ (80).

  8. It’s also very short. I read it this afternoon.

The Bad

  1. Bultmann bases a great deal of his book on a now dated conception of Jesus’ eschatology (11-19).

  2. He leaves, largely, the content of Christian obedience (enemy love, fidelity to other Christians, care for the poor, etc) and the Christian gospel (resurrection, atonement, etc) out of his explanations. That may be because the audience would know those things, but it would be easy to mistake Bultmann’s theory of faith with existentialist “openness to existence” without concrete referents in Christianity.

  3. Bultmann is similarly open to charge number two because he wants to say that God’s actions in history cannot be historically known because they cannot be proven to be done by God. But they can be reasonably believed to have happened and thus reasonably believed to be done by God, if one thinks God to be real. The point being that he opened himself to the criticism that he taught that Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t matter because he makes it seem so unknowable. But he doesn’t leave it entirely unknowable. He essentially says, “Try it out” about the truth of the gospel. Which is pretty cool, I guess.

  4. The book is couched in existentialist language that would be mostly lost on readers today.

  5. Bultmann’s perspective is so truncated in these brief lectures that it is too easy to misunderstand.

  6. The average American is more of a supernaturalist than anybody in Germany would have been in Bultmann’s day, so the book is not entirely relevant to many preachers that I know.

Conclusion:

The book would only really have value to pastors and teachers who read quickly or to scholars whose job is to study not only the New Testament but the history of its interpretation. A clever seminary professor could apply its best ideas in course lectures with footnotes give Bultmann his due without requiring this particular book as a text.

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