Monday 12 December 2005

Speaking up for Bultmann

Mike Bird and I don’t quite see eye to eye when it comes to Rudolf Bultmann. Once before I have chided him for his opinions about Bultmann, and yesterday, over at Jim West’s blog, Mike again commented disapprovingly about the great Marburg scholar. Of course, Bultmann hardly needs me to defend him (does a mouse defend a lion?), but I couldn’t help replying with a list of reasons why Bultmann is still important. Here’s what I said:

Even those who disagree with Bultmann’s specific exegetical conclusions would tend to agree that his commentary on John is one of the greatest biblical commentaries ever written—this commentary is his magnum opus, and it’s impossible to understand and appreciate Bultmann without reading it.

Bultmann’s essay on the New Testament and mythology roused a generation of scholars from their dogmatics slumbers; it transformed the landscape of biblical and theological studies and set the scholarly agenda for decades to come. Bultmann’s conception of “faith” is one of the great material achievements of twentieth-century theology. His work on hermeneutics, interpretation and understanding was of the highest importance in the development of modern hermeneutics (don’t forget that even Gadamer himself was one of Bultmann’s pupils!).

Bultmann’s little book Jesus has been described as one of the finest and most important books on the historical Jesus. And among his numerous essays are many miniature biblical and theological masterpieces—Bultmann was one of the century’s great essayists.

Finally, more than anyone else in the past century, Bultmann united both exegete and theologian in a single person. At a time when the theological disciplines were drifting further and further apart, he modelled a biblical scholarship that is deeply oriented to the concerns of theology, preaching, and the life of faith.

So before speaking badly of Bultmann, just try to think of someone else who has achieved even half of what he achieved!


Anonymous said...

Definitely NOT the guy whose fans fondly refer to as "Tom"!

Anonymous said...

Isn't it a little unusual to be a Barthian and a Bultmannian? It seems that, theologically at least, they are diametrically opposed to each other: one a classic liberal and the other the great opponent of classic liberalism. I don't mind, really, just not what I would have expected. :-)

Ben Myers said...

Hi Steph: Well, I must admit I'm also very fond of "Tom" (and also of "Jimmy", whom I'm happily reading at the moment). But to read Bultmann is to step into a different world altogether.

Thanks, "anonyomous", for your comment as well. Yes, it is a little unusual, and Barth and Bultmann both definitely regarded themselves as mutually exclusive! But it seems to me that one of the main tasks of academic theology today should be to learn from both Barth and Bultmann, and to bring both of their approaches together.

My main inspiration here has been Eberhard Jüngel, who was a student both of Bultmann/Ebeling and of Barth. Jüngel was convinced that his two teachers were in fact compatible, and he compellingly demonstrated this in his great book God's Being Is in Becoming (and he has continued to demonstrate it throughout his whole body of scholarship).

So I hope, at least, that I can learn from both of them, without becoming either a "Barthian" or a "Bultmannian" -- and, even more importantly, without becoming either "anti-Barthian" or "anti-Bultmannian"!

Michael F. Bird said...

How about a critique of Bultmann in addition to a celebration! Where did the old Marburg man get things wrong - if anywhere?

James Crossley said...

I'm afraid I'm going to be disagreeable but even more disturbingly form an unholy alliance with M Bird on this issue. It is true Bultman has had a profound influence but was it any good? Well, maybe from a theological perspective (I can't really judge to be honest) but his NT work contributed to preventing a detailed socio-historical scholarship developing with the life setting really being a faith setting. There's really little on Jesus' Jewishness that can properly come through either.

I hate to be that bit more disagreeable, and admittedly I don't get over excited by commentaries as a genre anyway, but I just don't find his John commentary that historically useful or even accurate at times. The whole redaction and eschatology thing struck me as a pretty poor piece of historical research with an editor just happening to add the bad bits which weren't very Bultmann-like.

Ok, that's enough disagreeing on my part: tell me I'm wrong!

Anonymous said...

Two questions I always ask any theology are "How does it pray?" and "How does it politic?".

In many ways Bultmann was simply a liberal pietist (if that isn't a pleonasm!), so I assume his theology did not prevent him from getting down on his knees.

As for his politics, Bultmann, unlike his mentor Heidegger and early compatriot Gogarten, resolutely refused to bow the knee to National Socialism despite considerable pressure, earning him the enduring respect of Karl Barth himself.

One thing Bultmann and Barth certainly did have in common was that they both realised that Christianity faced a credibility problem. The big difference is that while Bultman capitulated to the Zeitgeist, Barth out-thought it; Bultmann evacuated the gospel of scandel, Barth intensified it.

But as Barth himself conceded, God's good creation provides a theological ecology that can contain both an elephant and a whale!


Faithful Progressive said...

Great post and blog--I read Bultmann's Jesus book in college at a time of great doubt and it sparked a life-long interest in the subject of the historical basis of Christianity and other religions. There's no doubt that the intellectual honesty of people like Bultmann helped me to retain my faith despite many challenges over the years.

PS came to you via link on connexions

Anonymous said...

Sory about the misnomer in my para 2 above: I meant, of course, "oxymoron", not "pleonasm" (a word in my head from earlier reading of some RO). But what was in the background was the idea of prayers being addressed, not to Abba, but to the "Ground of Being" or the "Numinous", or whatever.

Anonymous said...

Sorry - especially as a newcomer to the site - to open my big mouth again, but there is a third question I also always ask of any theology - after "How does it pray?" and "How does it politic?" - viz. "How does it play?" - as in "Is it playful, fun?"

Barth's theology is fun. For Barth theology is the cheerful science. And CD, after all, is one big roller-coaster ride. And Barth's sense of humour has been justly celebrated - including his self-deprecating sense of humour (e.g his remark not long before his death correlating the excessive length of his bowel with his never-ending dogmatics!).

On his centenary I wrote an appreciation of Barth for the United Reformed Church's national magazine "Reform", in which I reflected on Barth as "the happiest theologian of our age". Shortly afterwards, at our General Assembly, I ran into Lesslie Newbigin, who thanked me for the article - and especially for the bit about Barth's laughter. Newbigin had been on a working group with Barth preparing for the WCC's Second Assembly and had written of the "tantrums" Barth could throw when he wasn't getting his way. But through it all, Newbigin was now glad to remember, Barth's laughter kept breaking through, stopping him short of taking himself too seriously.

Perhaps someone has some good Bultmann anecdotes along similar lines. I hope so. For, generally speaking one does not associate an existentialist with being a barrel of laughs (cf. Barth's comments on Kierkegaard).

Ben Myers said...

Thanks to all of you for your very interesting comments.

I like your question, Kim: "How does a theology play?" And admittedly Bultmann would clearly fall short in this respect: in fact, Barth claimed that the basic problem with Bultmann was his lack of humour, his "Marburg seriousness". Barth was especially irritated by the fact that Bultmann could resond to every criticism with the reply: "I do not understand!" (i.e. "the questioner is not using a sufficiently refined conceptuality").

So I might as well admit it: if I had to invite either Barth or Bultmann to dinner, it wouldn't be a hard choice.... But then again, in all fairness, who would be a better dinner guest than the ever-cheerful Karl Barth?

James Crossley said...


Ben Myers said...

Hmmm.... Only if he didn't come dressed in his vestments. ;-)

michael jensen said...

Well: I have found Rudy's exegesis of John's Gospel very stimulating of late. When you clear away all the assumptions he makes (often unsupported) of this bit being really part of that bit etc, he really was a very good reader of the actual text.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for raising this point, Michael. I agree: in spite of its problems, I think Bultmann's commentary is a remarkably fresh and penetrating analysis of the theology of John's Gospel.

It really wasn't true when Barth accused Bultmann of simply deriving his exegesis from a set of prior philosophical commitments. On the contrary, even Bultmann's philosophical commitments (e.g. to the conceptuality of the early Heidegger) are subservient to his massive, life-long attempt to come to terms with the NT texts.

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