Rudolf Bultmann claims that the New Testament teaches a three-storied universe which modern science has made incredible. Therefore, to preserve Christianity in our day, the New Testament “mythology” must be reinterpreted.

Bultmann writes, “The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three-storied structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath.… Supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature.… Miracles are by no means rare.”

This introductory statement to his essay New Testament and Mythology, Bultmann expands in considerable detail. The idea of a Holy Spirit, or spirits generally, the mysterious cleansing effect of baptism and the still more mysterious Eucharist, the doctrine that death is a punishment for sin, and the resurrection of Jesus—all these are mythical and incredible. Bultmann locates the source of this mythology in Jewish apocalyptic literature and in the redemptive myths of Gnosticism. Indeed, from Gnosticism came the idea that Jesus was not a mere human being, but a God-man. All in all, Bultmann considers the New Testament to be pervasively mythical.

Therefore, the New Testament as it stands cannot be accepted. Modern science has now discovered the real truth about nature, and the scientific laws of causality prevent modern man from believing in any divine intervention. “All our thinking today is shaped irrevocably by modern science. A blind acceptance of the New Testament mythology would be arbitrary.… It would involve a sacrifice of the intellect which could have only one result—a curious form of schizophrenia and insincerity.”

Fortunately (as Bultmann sees it) “there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such.” The real gospel, which even the modern man needs, can be obtained by reinterpreting and demythologizing the New Testament. Then we can leave behind the fairy tales of a divine Christ and a bodily resurrection and preach the pure, powerful gospel of Heidegger’s existentialism! (When accused of imposing Heidegger’s categories on the New Testament, Bultmann should rather be startled by existentialism’s independent discovery of biblical truth!)

Bultmann’s view is open to criticism both with respect to the “mythology” of the New Testament and with respect to the state of modern science. First, his picture of the mythical world, allegedly found in the Bible, depends for some of its details on Gnostic sources. Apparently Bultmann takes over the theories of Bousset and Reitzenstein, who claimed that many Christian ideas were borrowed from the mystery religions and Hermes Trismegistus. But while these theories were popularly received in the early years of this century, when Bultmann was a student, they are today completely exploded (see for example The Origin of Paul’s Religion, by J. Gresham Machen, chapters VI, VII). If, now, the New Testament does not in fact teach the mythology of Gnosticism, this latter cannot be used as an objection to accepting the New Testament. No doubt Bultmann would reply that even so the New Testament teaches the existence of spirits, the occurrence of a resurrection, and the doctrines of heaven and hell, and this is mythology enough. To this point we shall return in a moment.

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The second and more important criticism strikes closer home: Bultmann’s view of science is defective. His repeated allusions to a “causal nexus” indicate that he conceives of science in terms of eighteenth century, or, at best, nineteenth century mechanism. But science dropped the concept of causality more than a hundred years ago; and in the twentieth century Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle seriously called in question even the idea of mechanism.

No doubt some popular evangelical writers have made too much of indeterminacy by trying to find room, as it were, for God, miracles, and free will in the random motion of the ultimate particles. But at least mechanism can no longer be confidently used as an insurmountable objection to miracles. Indeed, contemporary science cannot be confidently used in objection to anything in the New Testament because contemporary science is in a state of confusion. With the destruction of the Newtonian gravitational mechanics and the introduction of quantum theory, the splitting of the atom, the mutually incompatible formulas for light, and all the wizardry of relativity research, the result has been and still is chaos. The basic concepts of mass, inertia, energy and the like are no longer well defined; and an accepted scientific world view, to be used either for or against the New Testament, simply doesn’t exist. Bultmann’s confidence is outdated.

Furthermore, the most recent philosophy of science, operationalism, denies that science has the purpose of describing nature. According to this theory scientific laws are directions for laboratory procedure and do not give any information at all on the constitution of the world. If therefore operationalism be accepted, there could never be scientific knowledge of nature to compel abandonment of the actual New Testament picture of the world.

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This is not to say, however, that no problem remains. After Bultmann’s Gnosticism is removed from the interpretation of the New Testament, the New Testament picture of the world is still not that of the “modern mind.” Indeterminists and operationalists, for all their abandonment of Bultmann’s antiquated view of science, are not about to acknowledge the Holy Spirit, or Jesus Christ as true God and true man, or angels, or devils. They still oppose the teaching of the New Testament, even if they can no longer logically oppose it on the basis of science.

To accommodate these who disbelieve in spirit, who dislike vicarious atonement, who ridicule the Lord’s return, Bultmann proposes to reinterpret the New Testament so as to accord with modern existentialism. But sober thought, whether Christian or not, must reject this fanciful reinterpretation. No better reason exists for finding Heidegger in the New Testament than for finding Hegel there. Bultmann’s method of reinterpretation is on a par with the old allegorical method. If Bultmann finds Heidegger in the New Testament, so did Philo find Plato in the Old.

Honest examination of the text disallows demythologization. The Bible plainly teaches that the Almighty Spirit created the world, that mankind disobeyed God’s commands and became guilty of God’s wrath and curse, that the second Person of the Trinity was born of the Virgin Mary in order to satisfy divine justice by his death, and that he rose from the grave the third day for our justification.

This message is offensive to the modern mind. But this is nothing new. It was offensive to the Pharisaic and Epicurean minds as well. And it will remain offensive no matter what new philosophies of science may become popular in centuries to come.

It goes without saying that the sincere Christian wants to communicate with the modern mind. But the question how to communicate is not to be answered by substituting a different message. Heidegger is not Paul or John. And however much we agonize over the difficulty of reaching our contemporaries, we want to reach them, not with the message of a passing philosophy, but with the eternal New Testament message of Christ’s satisfaction for sin.

We Quote:

“… Perhaps one of the contributions of the post-Bultmannians will be to free the new research from a use of the Heideggerian analysis which gets perilously close to absolutizing it. Otherwise, Renan’s ‘Amiable Carpenter,’ Tolstoi’s ‘Spiritual Anarchist,’ Schweitzer’s ‘Imminent Cataclysmist,’ Klausner’s ‘Unorthodox Rabbi,’ Otto’s ‘Charismatic Evangelist’ may become Marburg’s Heideggerian Christ; and the new quest may leave as its bequest an ‘existential Jesus,’ and just as the old quest broke Jesus of Nazareth loose for ecclesiastical dogma, the next few decades may find scholars trying to release the Jesus of history from existential philosophy.”—Dr. J. BENJAMIN BEDENBAUGH, Professor, Biblical Department, Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, South Carolina.

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