The Life and Works of Bultmann -A History of Western Philosophy

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The Life and Works of Bultmann -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

Rudolf Bultmann was born in Wiefelsted, Oldenburg, Germany. He studied at Marburg, Tubingen, and Berlin. He first taught at Marburg and later became professor of New Testament studies at Marburg in 1921. He remained there in a teaching position until 1951. He became a noted professor at Breslau in 1916 and at Giessen in 1921.

The major works of Bultmann include: Jesus and the World (1934); Kerygma and Myth (1941); Theology of the New Testament (1952—1955); Essays: Philosophical and Theological (1955); History and Eschatolo gy (1957); Jesus Christ and Mythology (1958), and Existence and Faith (1961). He and his students were the major force behind the massive Theological Dictionary of the New Testament.

Bultmann’s Demythological Naturalism

Bultmann saw a void between the thought forms of the New Testament and twentieth century man. Modern man does not see his world consisting of a conflict between the demonic supernatural powers and the Supernatural God who intervenes in mankind securing his salvation. Our scientific world is a purely naturalistic one and does not allow for miracles. Hence, the crucial question: Is it required for modern man to commit himself to both twentieth-century science and first-century prescientific speculation? To Bultmann, these two worlds are incompatible. In addition, it profits none to view Christianity as a strictly and objectively ‘historical religion’ where its foundation is based on
the recorded events of the life of Jesus. Even though the historical evidence is substantial enough to illustrate that Jesus did indeed live, making a huge impact on certain contemporaries, the resurrection was a purely spiritual event, not the literal raising of a physical body.

Bultmann assigned a large part of the New Testament to the category of mythology, not objective history. Therefore, its interpretation can be used to indirectly describe the possibilities of human existence. The Christian is to “incorporate” the essentials of the New Testament record into his present thought and activity. It is through the historical accounts that God makes available man’s freemode of ‘authentic’ existence (a term he borrowed from Heidegger). This ‘authentic’ life is only available to man by virtue of divine grace through the appropriation of the Word revealed in Christ.

The New Testament contains the myth of a three-storied universe with heaven above, earth in the center, a underworld beneath. But miracles are incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete. If the New Testament embodies truth independent of its mythical setting, theology must undertake the task of stripping the mythical framework, that is, “demythologizing” it. No person can choose his own view of the world; it is already determined for him by his place in history. All our thinking to-day is shaped by modern science, so a blind acceptance of the New Testament mythology would be irrational.

The Impossibility of the Miraculous

Following Spinoza and Hume before him, Bultmann believed that modern science has made it impossible for anyone to hold the New Testament view of the world. Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil. The only relevant assumption is the view of the world which has been molded by modern science and the modern conception of human nature as a self-subsistent unity immune from the interference of supernatural powers. Thus, the resurrection of Jesus as means an event whereby a supernatural power is released; to the biologist such language is meaningless.

The Real Purpose of Myth

The real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives. Myth should not be interpreted cosmologically, but anthropologically, but existentially. Unlike some, Bultmann did not wish to eliminate myth, but to reinterpret them. Christ was a concrete, historical figure, but the miracles and resurrection are not historical but supra-historical events. Jesus arose in the hearts and minds of the early disciples.

For Bultmann miracles are supra-historical events. The resurrection is not an event of past history since a historical fact which involves a reanimation of the dead is utterly inconceivable. It is clear that the New Testament is interested in the resurrection of Christ simply and solely because it is the eschatological event par excellence. The historical problem is scarcely relevant to Christian belief in the Resurrection. It is an event of subjective history, an event of faith in the hearts of the early disciples

In summation, myths are by nature more than objective truths; they are transcendent truths of faith. But what is not objective cannot be part of a verifiable space-time world. Therefore, miracles (myths) are not part of the objective space-time world.

An Evaluation of Bultmann’s Demythological Naturalism

Bultmann is to be commended for several things. First, he did not deny the historicity of Jesus. Further, he stressed the need to know Greek and to understand the New Testament in the context of its own culture. What is more, he realized the transcendent dimension of religious language. Furthermore, like other existentialist, Bultmann believed that we should have a personal encounter with God through Christ.

However, some have pointed to serious flaws in his thinking. One of these flaws is his lack of precise definition and meaning to words such as myth, mythology, and analogy. Hence, his articulations provide a weak foundation to his theology. Neither are his varied methods of discussion defined thoroughly enough leaving uncertainty in regards to test for claims made about God. Instead, his mythology takes center stage in aiding the understanding of God leaving one wondering if God talk is even possible. For one, he denied many of the great fundamentals of the Christian faith, including the trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, and the physical resurrection of Christ.

Second, he denied the supernatural nature of the resurrection and other miracles. In this he yields to naturalistic science. This rejects from his rejection of theism. For if a theistic God exist, then miracles are possible. But once one rejects a supernatural Being (God) beyond the natural world, then it follows that there will be no supernatural intervention in the natural world.

Third, it does not follow that because an event is more than objective and historical it must beless than historical. Events that are more than purely objective may be at least space-time events. Simply because an event is not of this world does not mean it cannot take place in this world. Something of Supernatural origin can happen in the Natural realm. By occurring in space-time, miracles can be objective and verifiable. In Bultmann’s theology, authentic existence tends to be more heavily weighted on the individual. This makes it difficult to determine an accurate accounting of what Christian discipleship and love are according to Bultmann.

Fourth, in claiming that miracles such as the Resurrection cannot happen in space-time history, Bultmann is revealing his unjustified, dogmatic, naturalistic bias. It is something he holds “no matter how many witnesses are cited.” The dogmatism of his language is revealing. Miracles are “incredible,” “irrational,” “no longer possible,” “meaningless,” “utterly inconceivable,” “simply impossible,” and “intolerable.”

Fifth, if miracles are not objective historical events, then they are unverifiable or unfalsifiable. If this is so, then they have no evidential or apologetic value. But this is contrary to the claims of the New Testament (John 20:31; Acts 1:3; 1 Cor. 15:1-8).

The Life and Works of Bultmann -A History of Western Philosophy, Volume 2_ Modern and Postmodern_ From Descartes to Derrida

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