The hermeneutical question and the relation of kerygma and history are probably the major problems to be resolved if New Testament theology is to move beyond the Bultmannian consensus. Bultmann is correct in asserting that the basic problem is hermeneutics, because Protestantism cannot exist apart from the principle of the authority of Scripture. How do we interpret a historical document so that it is relevant for our life? We may agree that there is such a thing as a Vorverständnis (a pre-understanding), an interest and a question which impel us to come to Scripture. But we cannot, as Bultmann does, narrowly define what this must be, and ignore the complexities of the Church’s conviction that the Bible is Holy Scripture. Awareness of a “pre-understanding” does not allow the privilege of interrogating Scripture as though the only questions worth asking were already known. The fundamental concern is to say to the Bible, “Teach me.” It was not the business of Jesus to answer questions but to ask them. Existential theology is arrogant in assuming that philosophy knows what the right questions are. Unless we are willing to face the questions the Bible puts to us we cannot claim that it is the authority which we formally confess it to be. The Bible is a means of grace and God is able to speak to us through it in spite of as well as because of whatever Vorverständnis we may bring to the text. It is not possible to bring a Vorverständnis as to what the action of God must signify or wherein it must be distinct from the action of man or the events of nature. To so define the possibilities of the action of God in terms of existential philosophy before we ever come to the Bible is to assume a restrictive and arbitrary superiority over the Word of God. Understanding of the action of God and of the will and purpose behind it is so important for biblical theology that we must seek out the biblical categories and allow them a normative role in interpretation. Although there will always be an existential aspect in biblical interpretation, the Bultmannian question as to the “understanding of the self,” controlled as it is by the categories of Heidegger, is too restrictive to comprehend the fullness of the biblical message. In endeavoring to go beyond Bultmann at this point, the Church is challenged once again to get beyond the ancient gnosticism (e.g., the Gospel of Truth) which also interpreted the Gospel in terms of self-understanding and thus got rid of the realistic eschatology of the New Testament, especially that of the Fourth Gospel. Such a starting point necessarily leads to demythologizing. But if we redefine the starting point we may be able to validate the apocalyptic imagery in the New Testament. This new starting point should be the understanding of the self in history—in the history to which the Bible bears witness. This will allow us to retain the realistic eschatology of the Bible, and also to face without evasion (demythologizing) the biblical witness to the nature of evil in its trans-subjective aspects. Bultmann can do nothing with the Satanology of the New Testament. But the Gospel and trans-subjective evil are inextricable, and adequate interpretation must be able to do justice to this fact.

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Bultmann’s understanding of the self has not, at least as far as he has developed it, gotten beyond the basic pessimism of the early Heidegger. But this existential pessimism is no norm for biblical interpretation. There is a weakness here which runs through all forms of existentialism. It is not at all certain that the disquiet in Dasein (as defined by Heidegger) is really anxiety for God, and that therefore this anxiety has the legitimacy of a critical principle by which we know what faith should assert and what it should reject in the biblical message. Beyond this pessimism there is a word to proclaim about the kingdom of the dead and the relation of the resurrection of Jesus to the resurrection at the last day. The Church has always proclaimed Christ as alive. On this question and its corollary of life after death we wish to hear a clearer word from the existential theologians. Or do they after all really avow an ultimate existentialism which leaves death the complete victor? If so, then existentialism and scientism have combined to mute the true message of the resurrection of Jesus. This has to do with much more than the existential faith of disciples.

It is necessary then to get beyond Bultmann’s restriction of the center of Christian faith to Christ in nobis or pro nobis. The New Testament is concerned also with Christ in himself. Here is where existential eschatology and the realistic eschatology of the Bible diverge. Concern with Christ in himself leads to understanding of the place of Creation, Incarnation, Christian history (in a total sense), and vocation in this world by the Church. In addition, the imperative “walk by the Spirit” means more than “walk by your own existential decision.” Here we must retain the language and meaning of Paul and confess the Spirit to be a personal power extra nos.

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The radical dichotomy between Bultmann’s interpretation of Scripture and of the Word of God must be overcome by resolving the ambiguities in his view of history. The restrictive character of the “understanding of the self” is one with his rejection of the possibility of any meaning of history. Bultmann’s Gifford Lectures (History and Eschatology, 1957) show his existentialist despair of history as a meaningful whole. He is left with an idea of meaning in history, but not history in its common sense. He rejects (total) history in favor of an individualistic historicity. This approach, which really governs his existential interpretation, is in striking contrast to the strongly positivistic view of history he had earlier employed in his historical, especially form-critical, studies of the New Testament and its world. But it is not legitimate to destroy the historical worth of the gospels with one definition of history only to try to rehabilitate the Gospel (the value of the kerygma) by means of an entirely different understanding of history. Historical understanding must (unlike Bultmann) allow for the witness of the Old Testament to history, the problem Paul treats in Romans 9–11, and the questions of historical continuity with which the New Testament writers wrestled. This material will not submit to existential historicity. It is doubtful whether we should use the term history for the life of an individual. It belongs better to the life of a group and to a public process. It is possible to say that man is an agent of history, but the Christian man is an agent of the eschatological process insofar as he is a member of the Body of Christ living in obedience to the purpose for which God called this Body into being. God and Satan as agents of history are never alone.

The rigid differentiation of Dasein from Vorhandenheit in existentialism supports this ambiguity in Bultmann’s historical understanding. It also supplies a cause of offense at myth, since myth seems to blend the two aspects of existence. But the structure of the two ages which underlies the New Testament eschatological view of history cannot be compressed into Dasein, nor can it be dissociated from the time process. Behind the time process is the biblical view of the personal God who pursues a goal in history, and not only in the existence of the individual.

History And Meaning

We shall be helped here also if we refuse to make too much of the distinction between Historie (mere history as an object of scientific study) and Geschichte (the event and its effects on present and future). The nineteenth century’s overemphasis on Historie is not corrected by a twentieth-century overemphasis on Geschichte which is dissociated from the problems of the time process. The problem is met in interpreting the ephapax, the once-for-allness of the saving event in Christ. Bultmann has shifted this completely to the realm of Geschichte, of the existential decision which results in eschatological existence. But the New Testament describes the once-for-allness of the death of Christ as, in these terms, an event as much in Historie as in Geschichte. We must either redefine Geschichte in order to allow the emphasis on the pastness of the event or conceive of a co-existence of Geschichte and Historie. When Bultmann says that the cross of Christ is not salvation event because it is the cross of Christ, but that it is the cross of Christ because it is salvation event, he is expressing as an either/or what can only be a both/and. The once-for-allness of Christianity has something to say about Christ in himself, not merely about the moment by moment of existential meditation. The event of Jesus Christ is datable. The difference between Incarnation and Resurrection is not a matter of my decision but a matter of about 30 years on our time scale.

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Cullmann accuses Bultmann of neglecting in the biblical view of history the idea of oikonomia as a temporal succession of events. Bultmann retorts that Cullmann’s view of Heilsgeschichte (holy history) provides no criterion by which to distinguish its events as Divine in contradistinction to the events of secular history. Certainly the definition of Heilsgeschichte and its relation to general history require more precise delimitation, but this can only be done where there is an acceptance of the New Testament proclamation of the revelation of the goal of all history. This is revealed now in Jesus Christ, yet in its consummation it is still future to the time of his Resurrection and Ascension.

The Parousia As Center

In giving the central place to the Cross rather than to the Parousia, Bultmann continues the trend of the older pietism (and orthodoxy). This is of a piece with his rejection of the goal of history. The result is the same egocentricity characteristic of the forms of pietism, which show no sense of belonging to a history of salvation which transcends my existential decision, my experience, and the limits of my Geworfenheit (thrownness) in this world. But the Cross attains its significance only in light of the goal of the revelation of the glory of Christ in the future. The Parousia is the center of the New Testament theology and represents the goal of the divine purpose. The Cross is the event in our history which reveals the attainability of that goal and guarantees its realization in a yet future kairos (the time of God’s action). Apart from the knowledge of the goal, the means which God uses to attain his goal cannot be understood. As Löwith (Meaning in History, 1949) points out, we cannot speak of meaning of history unless we have some idea of a goal. The Parousia means also the victory over evil symbolized in the inseparable events of Resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgment. Salvation in the New Testament is ultimately a future reality, and this future is temporal and not restricted to the “possibilities” resultant upon existential decision. Only as we give adequate emphasis to the necessity of the Parousia can we possibly interpret the complexities of futurism in New Testament soteriology and eschatology. New Testament soteriology is eschatological and New Testament eschatology is soteriological. Both are centered in Jesus Christ who came and is yet to come. This tension has its existential aspect but basically it has to do with history in its larger sense. The Church needs today to recapture her sense of history, her confidence in the future, her assurance of knowing the goal of history, for her life and work depend on these. It is ironic that what was once the Christian birthright is now perverted in the form of communism with its faith in history and its outcome.

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Kerygma And History

The problem of the relation of kerygma to history involves the question of the historical Jesus. Although Bultmann wishes to deliver faith from the vagaries of historical criticism, his method cannot achieve this except at the cost of separating the kerygma from the historical events behind it, and giving the kerygma an objectivity which does not belong to it alone. Objectivity resides also in the events which the kerygma affirms. We must get beyond the confusion that the Cross is historic fact while the Resurrection is mythical. The Resurrection has to do with Jesus himself before it has anything to do with the faith of the disciples. It is more than an expression for the liberating value of the Cross. Only the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection from the grave can make a cross liberating.

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The indissolubility of kerygma and history prevent us from transposing the Jesus of history into a Christ of faith who is usually the “Christ” of our preconceived notions of faith defined in terms of human need. Some Bultmannians, dissatisfied with the extreme skepticism of radical form-critical methods, have already called for a new enquiry for the historical Jesus. But this Jesus does not, at least as yet, appear to be more than a moral Superman. The New Testament first of all is not concerned with man, but with him who is more than man, who is Lord of man, and of the Universe. Bornkamm’s Jesus of Nazareth (1960) contains remarkable insights but betrays an existential interpretation of eschatology. James Robinson (A New Quest of the Historical Jesus, 1959) bases his plea for a new quest on the shift from nineteenth century historicism to the twentieth century view of history as encounter (thoroughly geschichtlich). But we must beware lest we assume too easily that the twentieth century view of history is identical with that of the New Testament. The New Testament itself must provide the norm for historical understanding. The problem is not simple, because the existentialist view of history and the self has been conditioned by Christian ideas.

The difficulties and the challenge emerge clearly in one of the major problems demanding resolution if we are to get beyond Bultmann (and a few others as well), namely, the relation of Heilsgeschichte and eschatology in the question of the “delayed” Parousia. A supposed antithesis between Heilsgeschichte and eschatology (Hans Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke, 1960), demythologizing, historical and literary criticism have all been employed to rid us of the Parousia. But any attempt to get rid of the historical-realistic eschatology also involves New Testament soteriology and Christology.

In the problem of kerygma and history, we must go beyond Bultmann and assert the theological and historical priority of the gospels. It is not proper to reject the gospels by a radical form-criticism and then go to the epistles for our theology. Neither can we, as too many conservatives do, relegate the gospels to naïve history and then go to the epistles for our theology. Pietism, Protestant Paulinism and Bultmannian existentialism agree in their ultimate disdain for the theological primacy of the gospels in the New Testament canon. This is why Bultmann can get away with his ambiguous view of history, and why Paulinists (misunderstanding Romans) can individualize salvation to the detriment of the Heilsgeschichte Paul proclaims. The categories of the Synoptics do not easily fit the frame of existential historicity. Nor does the kerygma of Jesus about the kingdom of God fit the frame of individualistic pietism. Rather the kerygma of Jesus with his awareness of an interval between Passion and Parousia points to a larger concept of the history of salvation in keeping with the Old Testament background.

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The gospels confront us with the ultimate of New Testament theological questions, the self-consciousness of Jesus. We cannot solve this by taking away everything from Jesus and handing it all over to a fantastic community of early Christians. If anything needs to be demythologized it is the myth of the creative community of the early Church consisting, it seems, of theological faculties, each out to demonstrate its own brilliance, originality, and superiority to all others (strangely like modern theological faculties). The confessions of the early Church: Jesus is Christ, and Jesus is Lord, indicate a ‘biographical’ concern with Jesus; why he and not John the Baptist, for example, is the Messiah. Luke’s birth narratives show this difference had something to do with Jesus and John in themselves. The message and life of Jesus cannot be only a presupposition of New Testament theology but must be its prior and thoroughly legitimate concern.

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