What is the storm over Bultmann’s demythologizing of the New Testament? Hailed by friends as the monumental genius who has made Christianity meaningful to modern man, he has been charged by critics with both subjectivism and Docetism. He has been investigated for heresy, and he has had the honor of delivering the much coveted Gifford Lectures. What is the reason for the heated controversy raging about this man, not only on the continent of Europe and in England but now also in America?

Bultmann’s chief concern is to make the Christian message relevant to the present generation. A discerning student of history of the early Christian period, he tries to understand the Gospel in its primitive milieu so that he can divest it of all unnecessary accoutrements and present the original message in all its purity.

While his intentions may be good, Bultmann does not let this original Gospel speak to him. Coming to the scriptural record with a preconceived existential philosophy, he finds everything supernatural or other worldly to be unhistorical and mythological. Thus he declares that from the beginning the Christian message was couched in mythological thought patterns of the ancient world.

There were two mythical patterns prevalent in Jesus’ day—the Jewish apocalyptic notion of a final day of the Lord when the earth would melt and the redemption of Israel would be realized, and the Gnostic myth of the Greeks which promised redemption through the coming of a pre-existent Lord who humbles himself to save others. The preaching of the early Christians, Bultmann asserts, combined both of these so-called myths and thereby presented Jesus to use both as the pre-existent Lord sent to die on the Cross and the expected Son of Man who will come again in glory. Thus Paul is supposed to have naively combined the Gnostic myth of a dying and rising deity in Romans 6:2 with the Jewish myth of an atoning judge and redeemer in Romans 3:25 (cf. Bultmann, Primitive Christianity, New York, 1956, p. 197).

Because of these two mythical forms the true Christian message, according to Bultmann, was obscured from the very beginning. In the Middle Ages obscurantism persisted through the preservation of the Gnostic drama of a cosmic salvation. It is only in modern times, says Bultmann, that we are able to shake loose from false metaphysical world-views and gain a genuine understanding of man as he really exists. According to this modern understanding, man sees himself as the historically unique product of his past. The world around him is not a fixed structure to which he must fit himself, but it is an infinitude of future possibilities for which man is responsible. This means that man’s life is constantly being challenged with decision. Unlike the Stoic, who tries to find serenity through a rational decision that frees him from the future, the Christian, says Bultmann, finds release through a decision for Christ which frees him for the future. But this freedom is purely historical (existential) and has no relation to a future life in a new world to come.

Article continues below
Event As Confrontation

The Stoic thought he could rid himself of his past by rational choice, but Bultmann says that Paul with a surer realism knew that a man cannot shake himself loose from his past. If he is to be saved at all it must be by a gift of grace. This gift is the event of Christ, not understood as an historical occasion, but as the moment of revelation, a crisis of decision, which comes to individuals in every generation repeatedly whenever God meets them in judgment and mercy. In this regard Bultmann says that Christianity agrees with Gnosticism because both declare man incapable of saving himself, and both define redemption as an event. The only difference is that while Christians connected this event with Jesus, the Gnostics relegated the event to a mythical age before history began (ibid., p. 200).

Since this mythological framework is not necessary, Bultmann wishes to cut away all prescientific myths in the Bible so that nothing but the relevant message of the early Church remains. This message alone can speak to our day of “electricity and radio.” Thus the miracles, the birth stories, the empty tomb and the resurrection stories must all be discarded. The core of the message which is left is the historicity of the Cross and the good news of justification by faith. Bultmann says that man in his existence is suffering from a desperate calamity. This lostness is the point of contact for all Christian preaching because when a man reaches the boundary of his resources he can find release by making a decision for Christ. This decision, made at the edge of the abyss, will bring a man to a believing self-understanding (Selbstverstandnis), or a release from the powers of this world which he can control (and which in sin control him) into the service of that Power which he cannot control (which is the hidden God). This gives a man “serenity of soul” in the face of otherwise hopeless frustration. The historical Jesus is significant in this picture only as occasion for the encounter between the cross-event and the sinner who makes the decision for the ultimate. Apart from this personal encounter, there is no more significance to Jesus than to any other martyr in history. Really it is not the Jesus of history that concerns us (he was assertedly not even conscious of himself as Messiah), but the personal Lord we meet in the moment of decision.

Article continues below
Subjectivistic Criticism

Now how does Bultmann know all this? How is it possible for him to say that the original and relevant message was from the beginning clothed in an unnecessary mythical dress? The answer is that he uses the useful but dangerously sharp tool of form criticism in a most unscientific and subjective fashion. For example, every time the text of the Gospel of John does not corroborate Bultmann’s existentialist philosophy, he ascribes the discrepancy to redactional gloss. Thus when John’s futurist eschatology contradicts Bultmann’s realized eschatology in John 6:39, 40, 44 and 12:47, he simply pleads ecclesiastical redaction (Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, New York, 1955, Vol. II, p. 39.) Similarly, when the Jewish concept of an atoning sacrificial death is found in 1 John 1:7, 2:2, and John 4:10, 6:53–56, 19:34, Bultmann declares these passages to be late theological accretions because they do not fit his theory that John used a Gnostic representation for his message. This method has further led him to say that “for John, Easter, Pentecost and the parousia are not three separate events, but one and the same” (ibid., 6:57). That this fails to distinguish properly between Spirit and Son and thereby truncates the Trinity does not seem to bother Bultmann.

In addition to this question-begging subjectivism Bultmann has been rightly charged with a Docetic Christology. It seems fair to say that for Bultmann the Cross becomes an empty symbol because of his failure to take into consideration the suffering Saviour on the Cross. The Cross is not just a symbol pointing to an occasion which, having no meaning in itself, becomes meaningful only in the crisis of personal decision. As Luther said, “The Kingdom of God comes indeed of itself without our prayer!” And moreover, the Cross does not occur without the historical resurrection as it was witnessed by the apostles. Bultmann seldom mentions the resurrection because he has reinterpreted it in terms of existentialism to be a release from frustration in this life rather than a gift of new life both here and hereafter (ibid., p. 200). Ironically, in his attempt to understand man in a purely historical way Bultmann has denied the decisive significance of the Cross for all history by defining its meaning only in terms of human decision.

Article continues below

Furthermore, the serenity of soul that comes from this decision cannot really replace the gift of resurrection which the Gospel proclaims. The Gospel offers not serenity indeed but a holy war against sin and the joyful foolishness of forgiveness. The holy war is not fought in the ivory tower of dialectics but in the flesh and blood association of Christians who are yoked together with Christ in love. Faith is not a nontemporal, nonhistorical symbol that exists only in the realm of meaning. It is not man’s decision but God’s gift in bringing men into communion with himself through Christ, the Lord of the Church. This is no simple I-Thou encounter; this is the divine action of election as it reaches its fulfilment both in the history of the Church and in personal history. Such history will be anything but serene; actually the Christian and the Church become involved in a new tension under the Cross which tears at their hearts but is also accompanied by an abounding hilarity in hope.

Misunderstanding The Worlds

Another aspect of demythologizing is Bultmann’s criticism of the biblical three-story universe. The modern scientific world-view involves a one-story universe, and since the biblical view is mythical, Bultmann says it can be discarded. In brief this would mean that we must stop talking about heaven and hell. This criticism involves a misunderstanding of both Scripture and science.

Actually Scripture teaches not three worlds, nor one world, but two worlds. There is an eschatological, not metaphysical, dualism between this present world which is in bondage to decay and the world to come which has already begun in the coming of Jesus. It is true that the Bible also teaches that God has created things visible and things invisible, things in heaven, things on earth, and things under the earth. The invisible things are not to be understood as subjective realities only, but they refer to angels, principalities, powers, demons, departed spirits in nether regions. This biblical viewpoint was just as offensive and irrelevant to the Gnosticism of Paul’s day as to the materialism of ours. But the real issue is the resurrection. We must say to Bultmann as Paul said to the Corinthians: “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.” If Jesus is the first fruits of the resurrection, then departed spirits must pass from some kind of fettered condition to a new freedom and life in Christ, and this cannot be consummated within the confines of the visible world.

Article continues below

The scientific misunderstanding is due to a common confusion between science as a method and science as a materialistic philosophy. Most practicing scientists clearly understand this distinction, but nonscientific people often do not. No scientist today would claim that his science makes incredible heaven, hell, angels, demons, miracles. Science is not a philosophy, nor a world-view, but a method of investigating how things happen in our experience. The scientist is an honest observer who simply describes what is given him in experience. He tries by the help of reason to construct meaningful “shorthand” resumes of a wide range of data, and thereby he hopes to gain some control over what he experiences. There is no unity in the sciences; the only thing besides method which binds the sciences together is the assumption of uniform causality, but this must be recognized as a construct of human reason which is not binding on God in the least. When it comes to the data of faith and revelation, the scientist admits that his methods of investigation cannot apply. In this realm there can be no experiment, manipulation, or control; for in this realm we must simply wait upon the Holy Spirit to call us ubi et quando vult.

In summary we must say that just as Bultmann’s historicism is utterly unhistorical, so likewise his scientism is unscientific. Is he a genius or an apostle? Certainly he is a genius, for one cannot help but marvel at the ingenuity of this man’s handling of scriptural interpretation, but it is precisely this human ingenuity which denies him the right to be called an apostle. An apostle is one set apart by God to proclaim the Gospel of Christ Jesus, who was promised beforehand, descended from David according to the flesh, and designated Son of God in power by the resurrection from the dead! Bultmann does not proclaim that message.

Bastian Kruithof is Associate Professor in Bible and Philosophy at Hope College. He is author of five books and has contributed frequently to religious periodicals. He holds the B.A. and B.D. degrees from Calvin College and Seminary, the A.M. from University of Michigan and the Ph.D. from University of Edinburgh, where his dissertation was “The Relation of Christianity and Culture in the Teaching of H. Bavinck.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.