The Battle Of Barth With Bultmann
An important theological debate between Karl Barth and Rudolph Bultmann is evaluated by Bernard Ramm, Professor of Religion in Baylor University Graduate School.

A battle of giants is going on in Europe, and its outcome may well shape the character of European theology for decades to come. The major conflict is between Barth and Bultmann, and the skirmishes are carried on by their respective disciples. Since European theology eventually influences American theology, we do well to survey this battle and to note the disposition of the troops.

Approach To Hermeneutics

The first major difference between Barth and Bultmann is to be found in the area of hermeneutics. In the 1920s Barth and Bultmann found themselves somewhat united in a common theological task which found expression in the journal, Zwischen den Zeiten. They agreed that the older exegetical methods of the religious liberals were inadequate to the Christian Gospel. The Scripture was a unique revelation of God which contained a gospel or a kerygma the liberals had failed to bring to the surface.

The real exegesis was Sache-Exegese. The German word Sache means, in this connection, the essence or the heart of a document. The writer of the document had a certain meaning which he intended to express. The words used were more or less a faithful representation of his meaning. But the interpreter comes the reverse route. The mind of the writer is not accessible to him. He must come to the words first, and by the words penetrate to the Sache.

Having started with a common ground in Sache-Exegese, Barth and Bultmann have now separated and gone their own ways. Bultmann has engaged in the criticisms of the Sache, but Barth has not. Barth believes that once the Sache of Scripture is determined the Christian is bound to it, for the believer is under the authority of the Scripture. To be sure, Barth does not always arrive at the orthodox interpretations but once he has arrived at what he considers the Sache of Scripture he takes it as binding truth.

Bultmann, to the contrary, having determined what the Sache is, subjects it to further critical judgment. Bultmann’s famous essay on demythologizing (“The Task of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation”) finds many things taught in the New Testament, but rejects the meanings of the writers. At its face value the New Testament teaches a heaven, an earth, and a hell; it teaches about devils and angels; it has a doctrine of vicarious atonement and the resurrection from the dead. These are subjected to a critical scrutiny by Bultmann and rejected. They do not harmonize with our modern scientific information and mentality.

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The issue in hermeneutics is basically this: having found the Sache of Scripture, are we bound to it, or must we interpose an additional hermeneutical procedure before we have the New Testament message in acceptable form? Barth believes the former and Bultmann the latter.

Philosophy And Exegesis

A second major division between Barth and Bultmann is over the role of philosophy in biblical exegesis. Both men were trained in the continental theological tradition which included a heavy philosophical overcast. Barth’s indebtedness to Plato, Kant, and Kierkegaard in his earlier years is well known. But Bultmann has moved in a different philosophical tradition, namely that of Heidegger, and existentialism.

In general, Barth has attempted to purge his theology from the domination of any one philosophical system. He admits that in his early writings he was too much overpowered by one or more philosophical systems. In particular, he has attempted to purge his Church Dogmatics of Kierkegaard and existentialism. He spells out his opinions in this regard in some detail in Church Dogmatics, I/2, section 21, paragraph 4 (pp. 727 f.). It is impossible, he asserts, to engage in biblical exegesis without employing some sort of conceptual scheme, be it very professional or very amateurish. This is not an evil in itself but a necessary methodological procedure. Just as the scientist cannot meaningfully experiment without some sort of working principles and some sort of hypothesis, neither can the exegete work without some sort of guiding framework. Otherwise theology would be copying verses out of the Bible.

But any conceptual scheme brought to the Scripture must be employed with the greatest care. We are, for example, never to canonize any system of philosophy. Nor are we to say that any philosophical framework is any more biblical than any other. Further, we are never to use one of our conceptual schemes in such a way that we force the Scriptures into its forms and patterns. No conceptual scheme may have priority over Scripture. All our conceptual schemes are in turn to be examined by Scripture and discarded, altered, or refashioned in the light of Scripture. Barth takes an unusually wide stance here. Not admitting priority over Scripture to any philosophical scheme, he also refuses to condemn any such system forthright.

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Bultmann does not think of his existential philosophy as just another philosophy. Perhaps he would not even like to call it a philosophy as such. It is rather the science of asking questions of human existence. It is a method for framing the correct and relevant questions of the meaning of human existence. It is not some sort of philosophizing or speculating, but the phenomenological analysis of human life. Therefore when Bultmann employs his existentialism in the interpretation of the New Testament, he does not feel that he is importing into exegesis just another philosophy.

But he does bring his existential philosophy to the Scripture, and this in order to yield the secularized version of the New Testament faith. Every document is to be approached by a scientific formulation of the principles of inquiry and investigation, or in philosophical language, by a scheme work of phenomenological analysis. The principles for the investigation of history are not the same as those for the investigation of art. Each separate disciple or cultural division has its own phenomenological calculus. This preliminary scheme Bultmann calls a Vorverstandnis, “pre-understanding.”

The New Testament, as a document, pertains to the area of human existence. Existential philosophy makes the phenomenological analysis of human existence, and provides us with a Vorverstandnis for any understanding of the problem of existence. This Vorverstandnis also applies to the New Testament. We must therefore approach the interpretation of the New Testament with our Vorverstandnis derived from the phenomenological analysis of human existence by existential philosophy. If we do not come to the New Testament with some sort of Vorverstandnis then we can never really understand it. We simply grossly misinterpret it.

Barth has given Bultmann much attention. He has written a small booklet entitled, Rudolph Bultmann. Ein Versuch, ihn zu Verstehen. In this booklet Barth claims that Bultmann has deeded over the priority of Scripture to a philosophical system. The meaning, the limits, the possibilities of a text, cannot be determined beforehand, and independent of the text. Yet this is exactly what the Vorverstandnis of Bultmann calls upon us to do. Before we even pick up the New Testament, Bultmann has imposed its limits and the pattern of meaning it must take. To the contrary, Barth tells us that the text is to pick us up and drag us along. We are to have no scheme of any sort which determines in advance the limits of the text, or the character of its meaning.

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Nature Of Salvation

Barth and Bultmann differ over the character of salvation, Bultmann’s philosophy stands in the existential tradition, and he insists that the New Testament can be understood only by approaching it with an existential Vorverstandnis. As already noted, he does not regard his existential philosophy as just another philosophy, but as the product of a phenomenological analysis of the character of human existence. Therefore, Bultmann fixes even the meaning of the Christian Gospel in terms of existential philosophy. Bultmann’s procedural principle invokes the existential philosophy to give us the secular form of New Testament religion.

The old calculus of orthodoxy has no status with Bultmann. One must simply exclude it from his thinking. In its place stands the entire Christian faith (what is left of it) reinterpreted by the existential calculus. Bultmann first employs his method of demythologizing which rather completely purges the supernatural and transcendental from Scripture, replacing these by an existential understanding of the cross and resurrection. What threatens man is no longer God’s wrath or judgment but unauthentic existence. Man without Christ attempts to find his beatitude in the temporal, the finite, or the visible. On the contrary, true self-denying and world-denying authentic existence is found at the cross of Christ. In the decision of faith we renounce our unauthentic existence, and all the creaturely and worldly things we attempted to fix our security upon, and we live completely in the love of God. Here in the decision of the cross we find our existential reality.

It is difficult to ascertain exactly what Bultmann means by the event of Jesus Christ as the revelation of the love of God. This historical event of the revelation of the love of God in Christ, or, as Bultmann calls it elsewhere, the kerygma, is the good news that we need not live our lives unauthentically, but due to the grace of God we may live authentically. When we die with Christ to all our creaturely and finite securities, and live as a new man before God only in the love of God, we enter our real existence.

In Bultmann’s theology, human nature is historical to the core, or characterized by Geschichlichkeit. This means that authentic existence is to be found only in a concrete decision in historical existence. But this decision is not about any matter; it must be about some matter in history. In our case it is a decision about the historical event of the cross of Christ. The “historicity” involved is that a human being makes a decision in his own history, so to speak, about an event in past history. In this decision he comes to his authentic existence.

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Barth feels that this is a terrible religious subjectivism. With an emphasis unparalleled in the course of Christian theology, Barth attempts to describe the objective reality of our salvation in Jesus Christ. In the preface of Church Dogmatics, IV/1, he calls this a quiet debate, but in reality it is a loud debate. Barth stresses fervently that the locus of salvation is in the actions of God, and in the cross of Jesus Christ. He belabors the point that our justification is complete, final and settled in the death and resurrection of Christ before we were even born, and completely without our consent, and completely independent of our religious experience. Barth is convinced that Bultmann’s doctrine of Geschichlichkeit makes redemption a purely inward matter of religious experience, and in this case the great salvation of God is as much lost with Bultmann’s existential religious experience as it was with religious liberalism’s idealistic religious experience.

Understanding Of History

Barth and Bultmann differ radically over their understanding of history, as can be gathered from this last section. Let us first look at Barth’s views. Barth believes that anything that happens is an event (Geschehen). Out of events one forms the notion of history (Geschichte). Thus both event and events in their continuity form the data of history; and these events are real in that they occur in space and time. The scientific historian approaches these events with certain rules, certain guiding principles, which, when viewed together, are called historiography, or the science of writing history. In order to differentiate actual events and fictional events, the historian must follow certain criteria. Any event which does not pass these standards cannot become part of written history. This written history is called Historie.

Many real events have not become part of Historie. Insignificant events are not transcribed so as to become fixed for historians. Very significant meetings may be held with such secrecy that no materials are ever made available to the historians. Thus any event which is not reported in such a reliable way as to pass the standards of historiography cannot become a part of scientific history.

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Are there other kinds of events which can be granted real status in Geschichte but for some reason or other must be excluded from Historie? Barth claims there are: all those acts of God which are unique and transcendent are part of real Geschichte but not of Historie. They do not satisfy the canons of historiography so cannot become part of Historie but in that they are God’s real acts they are genuine Geschichte. These acts are neither fictional nor mythological, nor, on the other hand, are they commonplace and secular. Barth calls them Sagas or Legends.

Bultmann believes in two kinds of history too. He accepts the validity of Historie as ascertained by the science of history writing. Historians simply settled matters of historical fact. But the kind of history suggested by Saga or Legend is not acceptable to Bultmann. Any event not meeting the standards of the scientific historians is no part of Historie. But human nature is historical (Geschichlichkeit) and expresses itself, as we have been told, in decisions about historical events. We must keep in mind that Bultmann’s notion of the “historicality” of human nature is a statement in the universe of discourse of existential philosophy, and not of history as such. These two views of history come to sharp focus in the doctrine of the resurrection.

Barth thinks that the resurrection is of the same type of act of God as creation. It is a Saga or Legend. It is not myth, for that is to confuse categories. Barth refuses to myth any part in the Geschichte of biblical history. Nor is the resurrection Historie, for out of these reports a history in our meaning of the term cannot be sifted. The resurrection reports assertedly are chronologically inexact, topologically inexact, and it is impossible to harmonize their divergences.

But some of Barth’s critics, insufficiently informed about Barth’s hermeneutics, draw the wrong conclusions from these assertions. This inexactitude, he holds, is but the humanity of the Bible which, as such, is not preserved against error of all kinds. But the exegete is after the Sache of the text, and in this case the resurrection of Jesus Christ shines through the apparent divergences.

The resurrection is not part of Historie, for to be that it must be a secular event and open to scientific historians. Such items as the empty tomb do not establish the resurrection. In such historical particulars we do not have the revelation. “This history can confessedly as all other history also be interpreted as trivial” (KD, 1/1, p. 343). The resurrection is a real event in our space and in our time, but it is not a secular event and therefore not part of Historie. Therefore we must call it a Saga. Any attempted proof of the resurrection as found in traditional works on evidences is disparaged as an improper procedure (KD, IV/1, p. 335).

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There is a further aspect of the resurrection which must be followed with great care and that is Barth’s view of time and history. Barth has no philosophy of history as such, as that would plunge us back into the impossibilities of the Heilsgeschichte Schule. In this school the thread of salvation history is intertwined with the threads of secular history and so the history of salvation becomes a part, or a segment, of secular history. Barth, to the contrary, develops an impressive doctrine of time (KD, 1/2) ranked by some scholars as comparable to that of Augustine’s. In understanding Barth’s remarks on the resurrection the interpreter must keep an eye on Barth’s philosophy of time. Some interpreters of Barth have said that Barth does not really believe in the resurrection, basing this on what Barth says about the resurrection and time. But they fail to note that Barth believes that the resurrection took place in two times. It occurs in God’s time and in our time. Only as we realize that Barth believes in the distinction between Geschichte and Historie, and between our time and God’s time, can we harmonize Barth’s assertions about the resurrection.

First, the resurrection took place as an event on the surface of the earth at a given spot and at a given time. Christ is risen “bodily” (KDE, I/2, p. 117). “We must make ourselves clear: the [accounts] speak of a real event in space and time, not of some sort of thoughts and ideas. They speak of an empty grave, and of the anew bodily, visible, hearable, touchable Person of Jesus” (Auslegung Matthaus, p. 6). The resurrection is “actual and objective in space and time” (KDE, IV/1, p. 336). Christ is “corporeally risen” in a real part of human time (KDE, I/2, p. 114). The resurrection “has happened in the same sense as His crucifixion and His death, in the human sphere and human time, as an actual event within the world with an objective content” (KDE, IV/1, p. 333). “Like that of the cross in its concrete objectivity,” is another phrase Barth uses to describe the actuality of the resurrection (KDE, IV/1, p. 352). And he also wrote:

“We therefore presuppose agreement that a sound exegesis cannot idealise, symbolise, or allegorise, but has to reckon with the fact that the New Testament was here speaking of an event which really happened, as it did when it spoke earlier of the life and death of Jesus Christ which preceded it and later of the foundation of the community which followed it” (KDE, IV/1, p. 337).

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Secondly, the resurrection took place in God’s time. An event of revelation, according to Barth, takes place at the intersection of two times, God’s time and our time. Hence every event of revelation is in two times and this is true of resurrection. And the assertion that it took place in God’s time in no manner depreciates the fact that it took place in our time. Barth is here combatting historical relativism.

In Bultmann’s essay of 1941 he makes it very clear that he cannot accept the resurrection of Christ as a miracle within nature. We cite Bultmann: “An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable” (p. 39). Later in a famous essay on “The Problem of Hermeneutics,” Bultmann turns on Barth and says that Barth is inconsistent. Barth, claims Bultmann, agrees with him that the resurrection cannot be verified by the canons of scientific historiography. Barth has no right to appeal to a kind of history which does not pass the standards of the scientific historian. In short, a Saga is never any real kind of history. Here we can accept a Saga as historical only by the crucifixion of the intellect. Yet in some sense Bultmann too believes in the resurrection; but it is in final analysis something withinthe minds of the apostles—a noetic event, not a historical event. That is, not something which happened to the body of Jesus, but the disciples’ understanding of the cross opened up their new life in Christ.

The sum of the great struggle can be simply put: is the Gospel to be framed in terms of the existential calculus, and reconstructed from the New Testament by the process of demythologizing; or has the Church been on the right path for two thousand years in seeing the Gospel as a supernatural accomplishment of God prior to and independent of man’s reception of it? Our vote is with the latter.


Church Isolation

In the Mirror, by J. H. Kromminga (Guardian Publishing Co., Ltd., Hamilton, Ontario, 1957, 176 pp., $2.90), is reviewed by W. Stanford Reid, Professor of history at McGill University.

This small work has been written by the president of Calvin Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the occasion of the centennial celebrations of the Christian Reformed Church. Presumably, since it was published in Canada and makes a number of references to the Canadian scene, it has the Canadian primarily in mind, perhaps the Dutch immigrants recently arrived in their new homes.

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The book commences with a short explanation of the background of the Christian Reformed Church, particularly in its relation to the arrival of the original Dutch settlers in the United States. This portion of the book is interesting, but for the non-Dutch reader it may be confusing where terms like “Afscheiding,” “Doleantie,” and similar words are introduced without warning or explanation.

The heart of Dr. Kromminga’s argument in his book would seem to be contained in chapter 2 where he attempts to deal with the isolation in which the Christian Reformed Church has tended to live. While recognizing the value of this relative isolation, he points out that the church needs to make contact and communicate with the contemporary American world.

From this point he goes on to discuss the church’s unity and internal conflicts, the church’s activities within its own circle, and finally its Christian outreach in mission work and in relations with other denominations.

In his writing, the author seems to strive hard to manifest an attitude both critical and objective. Obviously trying with all his power to avoid being a partisan of any one church party, he is particularly critical of the church’s failure to communicate its thoughts and its faith more fully to the world at large. He apparently hopes, by his remarks, to stimulate the people to action.

On the whole the reviewer feels that this is a rather courageous book, and realizes that Dr. Kromminga will probably be criticized both from the “left” and from the “right” wings. This, however, will be all to the good. Criticism of one’s self in the light of the Gospel is always a sign of grace. It may well be that Dr. Kromminga’s book will serve to strengthen and encourage his brethren to examine themselves, and, what is even more important, provide an example for other denominations to follow.


Sovereign Grace

Historic Protestantism and Predestination, by Harry Buis (Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958, 136 pp., $2.75), is reviewed by Loraine Boettner, Author of The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.

This book is written in an irenic rather than in a polemic spirit, and presents an excellent treatment of a subject that has had a remarkable influence in church history. The erroneous view that the doctrine of predestination was originated by John Calvin is effectively refuted. The fact is that it was introduced into the main stream of the theology of the Christian Church by Augustine more than one thousand years before the days of Calvin, and before that it was found in the pages of Holy Scripture, particularly in the writings of the Apostle Paul. From the time of Augustine onward a constant struggle took place between those who emphasized the pre-eminence of divine grace and those who emphasized the importance of human merit. The practical result of the acceptance of synergism was that by the time Luther appeared on the scene, the emphasis in the Roman Catholic church was on human merit and human works, rather than on salvation as a marvelous gift of God’s grace.

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But in the theological and ecclesiastical revolution of the sixteenth century the Reformers rebelled against the errors of their age, not with theological novelty but by a return, largely through Augustine, to the Scriptures. And there they found the doctrines of the sovereignty of God, the sinfulness and helplessness of fallen man, salvation by grace, and the other distinctive doctrines that characterized the Protestant Reformation.

Among the Reformers this doctrine was first aggressively set forth by Luther, as is shown by numerous quotations from his books, The Bondage of the Will, and his Commentary on Romans. But it was Calvin who developed the doctrine with its logical implications and set it forth more clearly and convincingly than had ever been done before. Furthermore, it was held by all of the leading Reformers of the period—Zwingli, Knox, Bucer, Bullinger, and in his early writings, Melanchthon, although Melanchthon later retreated toward Arminianism.

The book is written with the conviction that the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination is biblical; and that therefore it ought not to be avoided but rather, as with all biblical doctrines, should be understood and proclaimed. The writer points out, however, that it can be stressed too much as well as too little. It must receive a different emphasis depending on the spiritual condition of the people to whom one is speaking.

The objections that are commonly raised against the doctrine of predestination are dealt with briefly but effectively, and are shown to have no basis in fact.

The writer is the pastor of the Vriesland Reformed Church of Zeeland, Michigan, and is a part-time member of the faculty of Hope College. He is the author of an earlier book, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment.

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Setting Of The Bible

Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology, by D. J. Wiseman (Tyndale Press, London, 1958, 112 pp., 12s. 6d.) is reviewed by Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Lecturer of Mordake Parish, London.

The Tyndale Press, already noted for fine publishing, has surpassed itself in the beautiful—indeed, one might say luxurious—quality of production by which this volume is distinguished. The price, moreover, is one that will suit every pocket. Text and illustrations (there are 117 of them, mostly photographs) are on art paper, and the whole is admirably conceived and laid out.

Mr. Wiseman, who is assistant keeper in the department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, is, of course, well-equipped by training and experience as well as present occupation to write on the fascinating subject of biblical archaeology. He performs his part most acceptably by providing a text that is plain and instructive for the ordinary inexpert reader. He states, however, that it is one of his objects “to encourage the reader to turn to more detailed and authoritative works” on this subject, and with this in view an extensive bibliography is provided at the end of the volume. Mr. Wiseman takes into account the whole range of biblical history from the dawn of civilization to New Testament times. All who wish to take an intelligent interest in the circumstantial setting of the biblical story will find this book a reliable guide.


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