Saturday, 21 January 2006

Bultmann on the resurrection

Chris Tilling recently posted a nice series about the great German theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Chris expresses his appreciation for Bultmann’s contribution, but he notes (in a comment) that his greatest complaint against Bultmann is the latter’s interpretation of resurrection.

I understand what Chris means, and I agree that Bultmann’s view of resurrection is not without its problems. But it seems to me that there is also much to appreciate in Bultmann’s resurrection-theology. Let me mention three of his most important contributions:

First, Bultmann highlights the correlation between the crucified Jesus and the risen Christ. He makes it clear that the resurrection is not some kind of “extra thing” added to Jesus’ death, nor a mere reversal of the effects of death. Rather, it is precisely the Crucified One who is also the Risen One—Christ is risen not in spite of his death, but he is risen precisely as the Crucified One who died. Thus the Risen One continues always to be the Crucified One; and the cross and resurrection are not two events but one. This fundamental insight has had a profound influence on post-Bultmannian theology, and it has continued to be a central theme in the work of theologians like Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel.

Second, Bultmann sharply highlights the eschatological character of the resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is not merely one historical event alongside others, but it is the eschatological event—it is the event of the end of the world and the end of history. This formulation has decisively influenced later theology; most notably, it has remained the central focus of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s thought.

Third, Bultmann highlights the correlation between faith and resurrection. Only in the event of faith can we know God, since God is not an object that we can verify “objectively,” nor a psychological state that we can experience “subjectively.” There can be neither “objective” nor “subjective” knowledge of God, but only the knowledge of God which arises from our living encounter with God through the proclamation of the resurrection of the Crucified One. Faith itself, for Bultmann, is nothing other than “our resolving to trust solely in God who raises the dead.” There is therefore a close correlation between faith and resurrection: the proclamation that the Crucified One is risen awakens us to faith—and through faith we encounter the Crucified One as the Risen One. In all this, Bultmann seeks to take us beyond both “subjective” (e.g. the resurrection as an experience of the disciples) and “objective” (e.g. the resurrection as a verifiable historical event) interpretations of the resurrection.

Above all, then, Bultmann seeks to develop a theology of resurrection which does justice to the primitive Christian proclamation—that the man who was put to death now lives and acts as the world’s true Lord.

Update: See also my criticisms of Bultmann.


kim fabricius said...

Thanks, Ben, for the lucid and concise presentation of Bultmann's thinking on the resurrection. It does indeed remain a significant contribution to the Easter discussion.

Moreover, it is surely correct that the resurrection is not a simple add-on to the crucifixion, or the reversal of a defeat, let alone the resuscitation of a corpse: the Crucified is the Risen One and the Risen One will always bear the scars. All this I can and do go along with.

However it just does not seem to me to follow that "the cross and resurrection are not two events but one." There is something of a theological sleight of hand about such a move. I do not see any way to get around - or any need to get around - the church's witness to "the third day" and the empty tomb: that something happened on Friday and something different happened on Sunday - something different in kind - that a broken body was laid in the tomb and a glorified body was raised from it. After all, we celebrate Good Friday and Easter, not Good Friday-Easter.

Herbert McCabe asks: "Was it something that happened to the corpse of Christ in the tomb as truly as the crucifixion and death happened to the living body of Christ on the cross? To put my cards on the table, I think that it was." My cards too. Indeed I would say that while the empty tomb is clearly not a sufficient condition for resurrection faith, it is certainly a necessary condition.

You could say (in my view) that Bultmann is right in what he affirms but wrong in what he denies - right in affirming that the whole point of the resurrection is to disclose and affirm the salvific meaning of the cross, but wrong in denying that the cross and resurrection are distinct events - and of a different sort.

By the way, a colleague tells the story of going with a friend to hear the great Welsh fundamentalist Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones preach in Port Talbot - a sermon that turned out to be a diatribe against Bultmann. On leaving the service, my colleague's friend said, "Great sermon. Jesus would have loved it." "Perhaps," my colleague replied, "but at least our Lord would have read Bultmann before preaching on him."

Chris Tilling said...

What a lovely summary of Bultmann’s position, Ben.

But it seems to me that there is also much to appreciate in Bultmann’s resurrection-theology.”

Yes, I couldn’t agree more. My old Fundie-faith tended to say: “Believe the literal physical resurrection of Jesus or you’ll go to hell”. Though I would never have liked to have been pressed to explain exactly why it was so important. ‘Its in the bible - that should be enough’, was perhaps my answer.

What makes Bultmann so refreshing for me – out of the 3 points you so ably outlined – is that he highlights the eschatological drive of resurrection. It is not merely a dogma to be believed to make one orthodox. I’d missed this ‘ushering in a new age’ dimension by obsessing over only one layer (albeit, as I still see it, the foundational one).

As Bultmann wrote in one of his discussions on the resurrection (in Theology of the NT): “A merely ‘reminiscent’ historical account referring to what happened in the past cannot make the salvation-occurrence visible … the salvation-occurrence continues to take place in the proclamation of the word”. However, just when I most agree with him, the next sentence - “The salvation-occurrence is eschatological occurrence just in this fact, that it does not become a fact of the past but constantly takes place anew in the present” - I suspect perpetuates a rather dubious either/or, either yesterday, or in the present. I’d like to confess: because of yesterday, it takes place in the present.

Udo Schnelle (himself a member of the Rudolf-Bultmann-Gesellschaft für Hermeneutische Theologie e.V) has, I think, a helpful discussion of resurrection in his Paulus, pp. 465-86.

T.B. Vick said...

Bultmann's view of the resurrection raises way too many questions for me than it answers.

While I am in no way an expert on Bultmann, and have read just a little by him, I tend to agree with Kim and declare, "there is no reason to make the cross and resurrection one event."

I think this is simply rhetoric on the part of Bultmann, and it seems that in this asserion of thinking that the two events are actually one, Bultmann loses sight of the historical view held by the early church that the resurrection is a divine act of salvation (a victory, if you will), and the cross was an event that leads up to another event, resurrection. While both are necessaary for Christ to accomplish what He needed to accomplish, to see these as one event seems to miss the point altogether.

As Kim so aptly put it, "that something happened on Friday and something different happened on Sunday - something different in kind - that a broken body was laid in the tomb and a glorified body was raised from it."

This is what makes the cross and the resurrection so important as two individual acts/things.

It seems that for Bultmann, Easter was not about the risen Christ, it was more about the faith of the early church, and I see this as problematic in an orthodox sense of adhering to the real resurrection of Jesus.

While I can appreciate what Bultmann is attempting to declare, it just causes me more grief in my thinking than good, at this point in my life anyway.

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