Thursday, 27 September 2007

Rudolf Bultmann: Theologie als Kritik

Rudolf Bultmann, Theologie als Kritik: Ausgewählte Rezensionen und Forschungsberichte, ed. Matthias Dreher and Klaus W. Müller (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), 638 pp. (review copy courtesy of Mohr Siebeck)

Rudolf Bultmann was a great book-reviewer. But isn’t “great reviewer” an oxymoron? Isn’t the book review the most pedestrian and most insignificant of all literary genres (at least prior to the invention of blogs)? One can perhaps write a “fair” or “useful” review – but surely not a great one!

When we read Rudolf Bultmann’s reviews, however, we’re in the presence of true greatness. Engaging with new books was, for Bultmann, an important part of scholarly life. Between 1908 and 1969, he published over 250 reviews and reports on new research. And now Matthias Dreher and Klaus Müller have brought together 97 of these publications (written mainly in German, but occasionally in English) in a volume as important as it is massive.

As the editors point out, in these reviews we often glimpse Bultmann “on the way to one of his own great works” (p. xi). A striking example is his 1919 review of Martin Dibelius’ new book on form criticism. Grappling with Dibelius’ methodological proposal, Bultmann remarks rather offhandedly that he hopes to do more work on this topic soon (pp. 92-94). A prescient comment, since form criticism would remain a dominant theme throughout the rest of Bultmann’s career!

His reviews cross several disciplines – history of religions, Jesus and early Christianity, Paul and John, theology and church history, politics and ethics, philology and classical philosophy – but always we see Bultmann’s own gigantic intelligence at work. He is not only at the forefront of his own field, but his penetrating insight and systematic genius lead him to position and organise other fields as well.

For instance, in his 1926 report on current theological scholarship (pp. 156-66), he maps the fields of theology, Old Testament, New Testament, history of religions, and church history. Reading a synthetic account like this, one must realise that Bultmann is not merely perceiving the already-existing relations between the theological disciplines, but he is himself constructing those relations in a way that would prove determinative for generations of students and scholars. Bultmann, more than anyone else except Barth, was the architect of 20th-century theology – a thinker from whom modern theology received its fundamental form and structure, its questions and horizons.

Since Bultmann was at the centre of academic theology throughout his career, there are plenty of fascinating engagements here with major figures: dialectical theologians like Barth, Brunner and Thurneysen; biblical scholars like Bousset, Dodd, Gunkel, Jeremias, Kittel, Schlatter, Schweitzer and Weiss; church historians like Harnack and Holl; as well as other major scholars like Ernst Troeltsch, Rudolf Otto, and Max Weber.

Bultmann also engages with some of his own pupils. His review of Schubert Ogden’s famous Christ without Myth (1961) is especially important, since it highlights the fundamental gulf that separated Bultmann’s own theology from that of his radical “left-wing” pupils. Ogden insisted that Bultmann’s own demythologising programme was not consistent enough, and he called for a radical “dekerygmatising” of theology and a reduction of Jesus Christ to a mere “symbol” of authentic human existence. Against this proposal, Bultmann observes that the grace of God is never a philosophical “idea” but always “an act of God … in a historical event.” As such, God’s grace can only ever be “a stumbling block, a scandalon for rational thinking.” Thus Bultmann refuses Ogden’s proposal, and he observes that Ogden is in fact seeking to eliminate “the legitimate and necessary character of what the New Testament calls the stumbling block” (p. 506). General ideas and symbols are of no use; what I need is “a word which is addressed to me personally” (p. 507). As this critique of Ogden illustrates so vividly, Bultmann’s whole theology remained structured by the sheer irreducibility of the kerygma.

In sum, this is a book of exceptional importance, and it is an index not only of Bultmann’s own intellectual development but also of the development of the theological disciplines in Europe throughout the first half of the 20th century.

The volume provides ample proof that Bultmann was indeed a “great” reviewer – a voracious reader, a meticulous scholar, and a fiercely independent thinker. If Christian theology today must indeed take the form of Kritik, then we could do far worse than to sit – at least for a season – at the feet of Marburg’s great Kritiker.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Now for an English translation for those of us without great dexterity in the German language!

Jim said...

It really is a demanding, but quite rewarding and extraordinary book- or rather, collection of reviews. Bultmann's insightfulness is miraculous.

But it will never be translated into English. Reason enough, I think, to learn German.

Kip Ingram said...


It�s good to read some positive appreciation for Bultmann in the form of your review of this book. I agree that Barth and Bultmann were indeed two �architects� of 20th century theology. Bultmann was important because he gave theology so much work to do. After him, NT interpreters could no longer be naive about their presuppositions in approaching the text. And the old relay model of neutral, objective NT exegetes passing on the results of their studies to theologians who then shaped it according to the modern context is now long gone.

It is interesting that you raise the disagreement with Schubert Ogden. Ogden had a deep appreciation for Bultmann�s theology, but thought it needed to be supplemented with a philosophical theology (Hartshorne) which was more amenable to the sciences and other modern audiences. Bultmann, it seems, distrusted his theology being placed in a larger systematic context, where the claim of God simply becomes one idea placed alongside others. This took the teeth out of it, so to speak. And yet, how would Bultmann�s theology relate to the sciences, if at all? There is the well known line for Bultmann about it being just as atheistic for a scientist to affirm God as to deny God. Jungel uses this as a jumping-off point to talk about the verbal placelessness of God in society. And yet, would Bultmann simply restrict the domains of theology and the sciences in an exclusive way? Is there another way to relate them or other resources for doing this that are available in Bultmann�s theology?

Thanks for your appreciative words for Bultmann and for an excellent blog,

Kip Ingram

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an excellent review.

I haven't read a lot of Bultmann, but I think the best 'book review' I ever read was Bultmann's essay on Barth's The Resurrection of the Dead - an amazing review of an amazing book.

Theodotus the Tanner said...

many thanks for this review - it is excellent - both informative and passionate - and certainly Bultmann is someone to be enthusiastic about!

Ben Myers said...

Kip, I really appreciate your question about Bultmann's relation to the natural sciences. I think this question can best be answered with a single word: Pannenberg! Even though Bultmann himself didn't engage with the natural sciences (apart from occasional remarks about "lightbulbs and radio"!), I think there's a direct trajectory leading from Bultmann to Pannenberg.

First and foremost, Pannenberg's definition of God as "the all-determining reality" comes directly from Bultmann -- and this definition of God is absolutely fundamental to Pannenberg's whole conception of the science/theology relationship. Indeed, because Pannenberg understands God as "the all-determining reality", he is able to see the dialogue with science not merely as an external dialogue between different disciplines, but as an engagement that is internal to dogmatic thinking itself.

Secondly, for Pannenberg, the natural sciences function (I believe) in the same way that "demythologising" functions for Bultmann. It's best to understand demythologising in hermeneutical terms: for Bultmann, the "modern worldview" functions as a basic hermeneutical criterion by which all theological statements must be tested. The point isn't that theology has to be squeezed into a narrowly "modern" mould, but that theological statements have to be intelligible within the general horizons of what we know about the world.

Of course, Bultmann's own understanding of this "modern worldview" was rather simplistic and scientistic (rather than scientific). But in Pannenberg's work, Bultmann's demythologising programme achieves extraordinary rigour and refinement, since in Pannenberg's work the horizons of the natural sciences are brought into a direct encounter with the internal logic of dogmatic theology -- so that not only is theology structured by these scientific horizons, but these scientific horizons themselves are also radically altered and re-organised through their encounter with theology.

Anyway, not much has been written about Pannenberg's indebtedness to Bultmann, or about the relationship between demythologising and the science/theology dialogue -- but if I ever get around to finishing my book on Bultmann, there'll definitely be a chapter about this....

D.W. Congdon said...


Thanks for this wonderful review. I think you've done more than anyone else ever has in this one review to make hardened skeptics of Bultmann into curious readers of his work. Bultmann is still viewed with the kind of skepticism that Barth once was among evangelicals (thanks to Van Til). Hopefully, this misunderstanding of Bultmann -- or at least the misguided focus on "demythologization" to the exclusion of everything else he wrote -- will give way to a greater understanding and appreciate of this incredible thinker. Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

The scholarly works of Rudolf Bultmann have had a profound effect on Christian theological thinking, especially among Protestants. His kind of scholarship is a prime example of a major fault in the Christian Tradition, or even all forms of "official" State religion, which is that religious communication has generally ceased to originate from Realized, saints, mystics and sages and now comes from scholarly "authorities" who, in general, have no sympathy with, or aptitude for, true religious and thus Spiritual practice, experience, or Realization.

Rudolf Bultmann was a typical "intellectual believer", whose basic presumptions were those of materialistic scientism. He appears to have felt that profound mystical and Spiritual experiences and persuasions are rather pathological, and should even be culturally suppressed. Altogether he was, by virtue of his materialistic views of reality, psychologically incapable of real religious and thus Spriritual experience, and he was inclined to believe that no one else in the 20th century could, or should, have such experience.

Thus Rudolf Bultmann began a project to "de-mythologize" the New Testament. His efforts were based on a materialistic alienation from the truly religious mind and all participatory psychic and Spiritual experience of Divine, and even greater cosmic, Reality.
Therefore, despite his best intentions, his efforts were basically anti-religious and anti-Spiritual.

Ben Myers said...

Hi John -- I understand your reservations about Bultmann's scientism, etc. But it's a mistake to conclude that was personally "incapable of religious experience" -- as a matter of fact, Bultmann remained a very pious and devout churchgoing Lutheran throughout his life.

John said...

Ben an example of the limitations of devout Lutheran devoutness.

My Spiritual Master was the (straight distinctions) prize winning student at a Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia.

Whilst there he was going through an intense inner process of psychic and mystical revelations. Almost every day he would have all kinds of extraordinary mystical experiences. His body was literally on fire as a result of the process.

One day he told his very devout and scholarly Lutheran professors about his extraordinary process.

They were all totally horrified and offended by the fact that their prize winning student was a "mystic".

When he attended Lutheran church services as a boy he used to spontaneously go into mystical reveries. His earnest and completely buttoned down pastor noticed this and out of concern warned him that he might go mad---little did he know who it was that was in front of him.

His extraordinary experiences were completely beyond the bounds of "rational" possibility to any of these dreadfully sane "devout" men.

Ben Myers said...

Hi John -- well, that's a very colourful anecdote!

To get the discussion back to Bultmann: Bultmann knew a good deal about the history of mysticism, but he rejected both mysticism and Lutheran pietism in favour of faith, or rather (which is the same thing) in favour of God's address to human beings. In his view, the problem with both mysticism and pietism is that they erase the distinction between God and humanity. For Bultmann, the reality of God is available only to faith, since God encounters us as Word.

Thus in his commentary on John's Gospel, Bultmann writes that God liberates us precisely from mysticism itself, "from the circularity of the mystical relationship, in which in the end we can only encounter ourselves"; the address of God's Word "unmasks the mystic's striving for God as a striving to turn God's address into his own human word, which he can hear in the depths of his own soul" (p. 382). Here his main point is that, in Jesus Christ, God speaks to us from beyond ourselves: and for just that reason, Jesus is our salvation.

j. k. said...

Ben, thanks for an excellent review. It's been a long time since I heard someone speaking sympathetically about Bultmann - this is an encouraging change!

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