Third in a Series by Evangelical Scholars

That which Bultmann has achieved in exegesis and then has expounded in numerous ways—in his history of the synoptic tradition, in his work on the life of Jesus, in his publications concerning primitive Christianity and the history of religion, in his collected essays, and finally in his Theology of the New Testament—finds its culmination and conclusion in his expositions concerning the demythologizing of the New Testament kerygma.


The problem with which Bultmann finds himself to be confronted runs, in its briefest formulation: kerygma and myth. In the last analysis it is a practical concern, for it raises the question whether the message of redemption in the New Testament in its original form and character can be the subject for faith and for proclamation today. Or more concretely formulated, it is this: Can we expect to proclaim to the man of our time a message for the comprehension of which he no longer possesses the necessary presuppositions? The modern man may perhaps not take offense at the kernel or core of the Christian message; but it is impossible for him to assent to the conceptions with which the Christian kerygma is so intimately bound up. We must therefore have the resoluteness to separate the kernel from the hull, so that the kernel may be retained. Otherwise the message of the New Testament would have nothing to say to the man of today.

What then is the kernel, and what is the hull? The hull is easy to ascertain. It consists of the world-view of antiquity, which lies at the root of the kerygmatic declaration of the New Testament, and in which the principles of faith are clothed. The presentation of “saving events” is couched in “mythological language.” That holds good for the incarnation of Christ, his cross, his resurrection, his exaltation, and his returning (parousia), as well as the saving-experiences of the Church. The man trained in the natural science of the twentieth century declines to accept a world-view which classifies the universe according to a pattern of three stories: heaven, earth, and that which is under the earth; in the same manner, he resists the mythological categories with which the message of salvation of the New Testament confronts him. So the task before us is that of setting aside decisively the antiquated world-view and the myth in which the salvation message is couched.

The fascinating thing about Bultmann is that, while he says a “No” to the form of the proclamation of the New Testament which he finds intolerable to modern men, he nevertheless is earnestly solicitous to keep and preserve the kernel of the New Testament message of redemption—as he understands that message.

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How is this possible? Bultmann answers: It is only possible if we re-interpret the message of the New Testament. This new interpretation has a twofold task. It must, on the one hand, say what is essential to the proclamation of Jesus and, on the other hand, what is nonessential to it—in other words, what is eternal and what is merely time-bound.

What is needed therefore is a new hermeneutic principle which offers a guarantee that the mythological conceptions and assertions of the New Testament shall become intelligible to the man of our day in their anthropological significance. According to Bultmann, when we do this, then we reach the kernel of the New Testament message, for the basic question to which the New Testament addresses an answer is the question of the correct self-evaluation of man. Since this correct self-evaluation is beyond the capability of man, it is the task of the redemptive message to disclose to him the correct understanding of himself and of his entire existence.

Bultmann finds the key to the answering of this basic question in the analysis of existence proposed by Heidegger, with the help of which the saving proclamation of the New Testament is to be reinterpreted.

Demythologizing is, according to this proposal, existential—that is, significant for us in our concrete situation, in terms of an interpretation of the New Testament based on modern existential philosophy. Behind this assumption lies the thought that the modern existential philosophy expresses best and most unambiguously the basic concerns of man. Seen in this way, the saving events maintain their significance insofar as their meaning (for the understanding of which the Scriptures are points of departure, but only points of departure) is what is actually meant in the New Testament.


But Bultmann, in the process by which he sets forth the kernel of the redemptive message which he feels to be universally valid and acceptable to modern men, at the same time demolishes the fullness of the proclamation of the New Testament. What Bultmann does here is essentially what he has also done in his exegetical researches: while he demythologizes, he attenuates the content of the Gospel.

After Bultmann has declared the irrelevance of the saving events of the Gospel for the message of “redemptive history,” he must now spell out, in detail, what decisive significance the “saving events” may nonetheless hold for us. This consists (1.) in the “Sacraments,” and (2.) in the “present consummation (completion) of life.”

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We will clarify that by means of several characteristic examples. The death of Christ, according to Bultmann, is not to be understood as the expiatory death of a substitute. That an incarnate divine being should cancel out the sins of men through his blood is, to Bultmann, “primitive mythology.” However, one can believe in the cross of Christ. To believe in it means to receive the cross of Christ as one’s own, for the event of the cross of Christ has, in its significance, “cosmic dimensions.” “Its decisive, history-shaping significance is made apparent by the fact that it is effectual as an eschatological event; that is, it is not an event of the past, to which one looks back, but it is an eschatological event in time and beyond time, so far as it is understood in its significance, and insofar as it is always present for faith.”

The cross of Christ is present in baptism and in the Lord’s Supper. In baptism, one is baptized into the death of Christ, and crucified with Christ; in the Lord’s Supper, the death of Christ is continually “proclaimed,” and whoever partakes of the Lord’s Supper participates in the crucified body and blood of Christ. The cross of Christ is present in the concrete completion of life in the sense that, in it, the believing have crucified their flesh with its lusts and desires.

Here Bultmann speaks in entirely Pauline language; however, the interpretation is not in reality Pauline. For when the significance of the cross of Christ for redemptive history is neglected, then the basis is gone for the claim that one adheres to Paul. Only through accepting Paul’s “theology of the Cross” can one claim to be consonant with him. In Bultmann’s thought, his claims concerning the presence of the cross of Christ is the “sacraments” and in the “concrete perfection of life” hang more or less in the air.

The same holds true for the resurrection of Christ. This is not an actual event, according to Bultmann, who contends that the return of one dead into life this side of the grave simply does not occur. The foundation for the belief in the resurrection of Christ, Bultmann contends, was the visions of the disciples, by which belief in the Cross as a saving event was given to them. And now comes Bultmann’s mysterious declaration that the resurrection of Christ, although it never occurred, is nevertheless an eschatological event. But how can something which is not an event be an event? How can something which has never happened still be understood as an eschatological happening? That is meaningless, unless one associates with the idea of “eschatological” another meaning from that generally in use. If Christ has not actually been raised from the dead, what can the statement mean, that the Resurrection is a question of an “escatological abolition of the power of death”? The apostolic proclamation confirms, contrary to this, that Christ has been raised on the third day by the power of God.

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Here as elsewhere Bultmann attributes all to the significance of the resurrection of Christ. This rests at the same time in the “sacrament” (baptism brings one into the fellowship of his resurrection in the same sense as into the fellowship of Christ’s death), and in the “concrete perfection of life” (we participate in the resurrection of Christ, in the freedom from sin achieved by struggle, in laying aside the works of darkness). This is again Pauline language, but it is basically not Pauline, for Paul speaks of the significance of the resurrection of Christ for us only on the basis of the fact that the resurrection of Christ is for him an event of saving-historical importance. He understands it also as an eschatological event, but in another sense from that of Bultmann. The resurrection of Christ is for Paul an eschatological event, because Christ is raised from the dead, as the firstfruits of those who had fallen asleep (1 Cor. 15:20).

A last example of the reduction of the New Testament factuality by Bultmann is his understanding of biblical eschatology. Eschatology is by him not only demythologized, but de-eschatologized. In the exposition of Bultmann, who is only concerned to inquire into the significance of the eschatological occurrence for us, the “end drama of the world” is understood no more as a God-ordained succession of history-terminating events; rather, the entire eschatology is reduced to terms of the sentence: that in the word of forgiveness, the end has come for men of the old life, and that a new life has already begun. In the appropriation of this new life there is accomplished for men existentially that which the New Testament expresses, in mythological form, as the transposition of the Christian into a new eon. This is, basically, the most radical form of the dissolution of New Testament eschatology. By this maneuver, New Testament eschatology is, in fact, totally abandoned.

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How shall we now evaluate Bultmann’s efforts to demythologize the message of the New Testament? It cannot be denied that Bultmann has mapped out a problem which exercises us all. The question concerning the correct and credible proclamation of the Gospel is asked by Bultmann in a new way. We cannot ourselves evade the assured results of modern natural science. If we did that, it would be a flight from reality. But it is equally certain that we cannot surrender the truth of divine revelation. The solution which Bultmann proposes is not only unsatisfactory, it is impossible, because it threatens the essentials of our faith, discredits the saving history, and undermines the New Testament teaching concerning redemption.

Against Bultmann the following objections are to be raised:

1. The world-view of Bultmann is the world-view of the Enlightenment, not that of modern physics, which no longer clings in rigid, dogmatic fashion to the principle of causality, but rather, after the law of probability, deals in terms of possibilities—a development which remains entirely outside Bultmann’s consideration. Modern medical science, in fact, has a stronger belief in wonderful, inexplicable healings than does the radical-critical theology.

2. Bultmann has no adequate understanding of the unique revelation of God in Jesus Christ. For this reason he misjudges the decisive significance of saving facts and their foundational meaning for faith. He separates the kernel—that is, of saving historical facts—from the Gospel.

3. Because of the fact that Bultmann does not acknowledge the significance of Jesus Christ as Son of God, as Redeemer and Saviour of the world in the full sense, as basic to the New Testament proclamation, he promotes an interpretation of the history of primitive Christianity which is unacceptable.

4. That which Bultmann calls myth is in reality the interpretation of saving events which was given to the apostles through the Holy Spirit, which corresponds to the actual operation of God in revelation, and which brings to full expression the profound meaning of this operation. In other words, the so-called “myth” is not something which can be separated from saving-history and revelatory-history. The incarnation of Christ, his cross, his resurrection, his exaltation, his eternal presence, and his coming again, are not mythological conceptions but are acts of revelatory- and saving-history, brought to completion by God, serving to bring all things to consummation. The reduction of the kerygma to terms of “the anthropological significance of saving occurrence(s)” will not do justice to the plenitude and the richness of the Christian message of redemption.

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5. True (Christian) faith speaks of the whole Christ, who in history has become effectively incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and present in his Church. It must remain, in spite of Bultmann, loyal to the foundational sentences of the Apostle Paul: “If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain; ye are yet in your sins; If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17, 19).

6. The existential understanding of the Christian is a secondary matter; the primary concern is the dealing of God in the career of the Christian. It is not anthropology, but Christology and the soteriology which have the place of prominence in the New Testament. If Christology is not fully affirmed then the basic questions of anthropology will be inadequately answered.

7. It is astonishing that Bultmann has not drawn the final consequences from his views. For ultimately God is also—according to the import of Bultmann—a mythological conception. Bultmann ought (according to his promises) also to demythologize the New Testament teaching concerning God. Only then would his demythologizing of the kerygma be complete.

For these stated reasons we cannot follow Bultmann.


In conclusion, it needs to be said that over and over again it has been shown and confirmed that only the “mythological” Gospel has the power to win men for Christ, to redeem (save) them, and to make known the saving grace of God through the activity of the Holy Spirit. This is due to the fact that it has as its subject not a mythological occurrence but the dealing of God, the complete and comprehensive disclosure of redemption in Jesus Christ. The demythologized kerygma has no capability of accomplishing this, and in the future will also be unable to do so, for it contains no promise. Even educated and very “modern” men will find in it no appeal to the depth of their beings. They may find it exceedingly interesting, but it does not lead them to repentance, to a vital faith and to the new birth; it can create in them no new life from God. It is completely impotent because it lacks inner power, the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, and divine sanction (confirmation). The pronouncement of it remains insipid because it does not accept at face value the central truths of faith, the Cross, the Resurrection, and the living Christ, but, on the contrary, reduces them to minimum significance.

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This manifests itself, above all, in the fact that anthropology stands at the central point of Bultmann’s theological concern; that is, he is mainly concerned with the question of the comprehension of human existence, which is to be understood with the help of the existential interpretation. For us, however, the center of the original Christian proclamation is the Christ to which the New Testament bears witness. The Word which has been preached to us leads us to faith in Him. Only when we believe in him do we come into the new Existence which is wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. This is, however, something which is very much more radical than the new self-comprehension of man of which Bultmann speaks; it is Being in Christ. It is because we see things in this light that we are of the conviction that salvation does not come to us through the demythologized proclamation but solely and only by means of the unattenuated message of redemption, to which the New Testament bears witness, and which is the kerygma that corresponds to saving events, and that is authorized by God himself.

If the demythologized kerygma cannot produce the saving efficacy which leads to a living faith in the Son of God, now enthroned in divine majesty, and which produces an actual new life in Christ, then it has not power to form the Church. To be sure, Bultmann speaks constantly of the fact that the proclaimed Word brings men to decision. The correct decision, the decision which transforms life, is, however, only possible where the content of the Word is defined in terms of the complete witness of the New Testament to Christ. The Church lives through the entire fullness of salvation, and the entire fullness of Christ. But demythologizing involves such a great loss of substance that the correspondingly reduced Gospel retains no actual power of God. In the light of this it must remain our task to proclaim the message of redemption in its complete power, in complete obedience, and in the manifestation of the Spirit and of power, without surrender of its content.


The newer theology has already led to a counter movement in the area of New Testament studies. This counter movement discloses significant opposition to Bultmann and his viewpoint. We refer to but two representatives of this trend, and do not deal with Schniewind, Thielicke, Althaus, and others.

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Oscar Cullmann has, in his book Christus und die Zeit, turned away from the view that any a priori stationary point of view, philosophical or otherwise, can be made a criterion for ascertaining the central kernel of Christianity. He explains: “It is surprising to see with what unconcern, all too frequently by means of an adapted measuring-stick which is obviously external to the New Testament, this or that element of primitive Christianity is arbitrarily singled out, or regarded as central.” In opposition to this, he demands that the central concern of primitive Christianity, namely, the Christian comprehension of time and history, be assigned centrality for study and for proclamation, since salvation is tied up with a continuous occurrence-in-time which comprehends past, present, and future—a temporal occurrence of which the unique events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ form the center. In this manner, saving history and the central Christ-events in it receive the place which they hold in the theology and proclamation of the New Testament.

Perhaps even more relevant is what E. Stauffer says in Theologie und Liturgie (1952). Stauffer, who understands the theology of the New Testament as “christocentric historical-theology,” in a manner similar to Cullmann asks the question: “Do we acquire the hermeneutic canon (norm) for the comprehension of the New Testament revelation from the New Testament itself, or should we look for it in some modern philosophy?” To this question he replies: If God has spoken his decisive word through the incarnation, earth-efficacy, passion, and resurrection of Christ, and the apostles proclaimed the “great deeds of God” in accordance with these events, then our task consists in the clarification of these facts. When we are confronted by the factum nudum (bare facts) of which the Gospel speaks, we are forced to make a decision which demands of us an unequivocal “Yes” or “No.”

Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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