First of Three Parts

In studying the views of the Bible advocated by modern critical theology, one immediatedly faces the difficulty that there are many different kinds of critics. They range from almost conservative to ultra-radical. As an example of a conservative critic we can take Karl Barth. Barth accepts criticism of the Bible as a legitimate aspect of theology: “There cannot be any question of sealing off or abandoning so-called ‘criticism’.… All relevant historical questions must be put to the biblical texts” (Church Dogmatics, I, 2, 294). He can say this because he believes that the Bible is not only a human but also a fallible book:

The men whom we hear as witnesses speak as fallible, erring men like ourselves. What they say, and what we read as their word, can of itself lay claim to be the Word of God, but never sustain that claim. We can read and try to assess their word as a purely human word. It can be subjected to all kinds of immanent criticism, not only of its philosophical, historical and ethical content, but even of its religious and theological content. We can establish lacunae, inconsistencies and overemphases [ibid., 507].

A little later he says clearly:

The prophets and apostles as such, even in their office, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word [ibid., 520].

Yet we must point out that Barth hardly ever says of a particular passage: I cannot accept this or that statement as true. In all the eleven volumes of his Church Dogmatics, covering thousands of pages, one can find only a few isolated instances of such a direct criticism.

At the other end of the critical line we find the extreme position of Rudolf Bultmann and his school. They go very far indeed. Bultmann himself leaves hardly anything untouched in the Bible. According to him, the Gospels, for example, are so overgrown with legends and myths that we know hardly anything about the real history behind them. In 1926 he published his book Jesus and the Word, in which he declared:

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To be sure, I am of the opinion that we can know next to nothing of the life and personality of Jesus, since the Christian sources were not interested in that, and are moreover very fragmentary and overgrown by legend, and since other sources do not exist … I am personally of the opinion that Jesus did not consider himself to be the Messiah.… The sources give us the proclamation of the Church.… Critical study shows that the whole tradition of Jesus … breaks up into a series of layers.… That the Fourth Gospel is a source … is out of the question altogether.… Within what remains … secondary material must again be rejected.… By means of critical analysis we can reach an oldest layer, even though we can define it only with relative certainty. Naturally there is even less certainty that the words in this oldest layer were really spoken by Jesus … for this oldest layer is also the result of a complicated historical process.… To be sure, there is no ground for doubting whether Jesus really existed.… Anyone who wishes to set this “Jesus” in quotation marks … and regard it as a valid designation of the historic phenomenon … is welcome to do so [p. 8].

Bultmann wrote this in 1926. Since then forty years have passed, but his views have not essentially changed. He does admit now that we can know a little about the real Jesus through critical inquiry. But it is really not more than a little.

With some degree of caution this much might be said about Jesus’ activity: characteristic for him are exorcisms, the breach of the sabbath commandment, the infringement of the purity regulations, polemic against Jewish legalism, association with the declasse such as tax collectors and prostitutes, his friendliness towards women and children. We can also see that Jesus was not an ascetic like John the Baptist; he enjoyed food and drank a glass of wine. Perhaps too we may add that he called men to discipleship and gathered around him a band of adherents, both men and women [quoted in R. H. Fuller, The New Testament in Current Study, 1962, p. 48].

But this is really all we know, says Bultmann. We do not know, for example, how Jesus interpreted his own death. “All we know is that Jesus was executed by the Romans as a political criminal.”

It is evident that Barth and Bultmann occupy extreme, almost opposite positions on the one critical line. Between them there is an almost endless variety of shades of criticism. And yet all these critics have one thing in common: they all are convinced that the Bible is a human book.

Barth says that “in the Bible we are concerned with human attempts to repeat and reproduce, in human thoughts and expressions, the Word of God (in Jesus Christ) in definite human situations” (op. cit., I, 1, 127). The Bible is through and through a human book, written by sinful men who are not only limited by their humanity but also capable and actually guilty of error by their sinfulness. But how then can we hear God’s voice in this human and fallible book? The answer is that when God’s Spirit uses these human and fallible witnesses, they become the Word of God for us. Behind all this, of course, lies Barth’s conception of revelation. According to him, revelation is always an event. It never means revealedness, so that we can say that we have God’s Word in the Bible; it always is revel-ation, that is, God’s act of revealing himself to us. God’s Word comes to us only when and where it pleases him to speak to us through the human and fallible witness.

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To a large extent Bultmann shares this view. Of course, he goes much further than Barth in criticizing the biblical texts. But he fully agrees that the Bible is a thoroughly human book. He further says that it is not only fallible but also actually full of errors. And yet God can use it as a means of revelation. “The fact that the word of the Scriptures is God’s Word cannot be demonstrated objectively; it is an event which happens here and now. God’s Word is hidden in the Scriptures as each action of God is hidden everywhere” (Jesus Christ and Mythology, 1960, p. 71, cf. pp. 79 f.).

Demythologizing the Bible

For many years Barth was the leading theologian. The whole period between the two world wars was dominated by his theology. After the Second World War, however, the situation changed. In 1952 Paul Tillich, summed up his impression of the theological scene in these words: “When you come to Europe of this day, it is not as it was before, with Karl Barth in the center of discussion; it is now Rudolf Bultmann who is in the center.”

Actually the change had started during the Second World War. In 1941 Bultmann delivered a lecture on “New Testament and Mythology,” in which he outlined his so-called demythologizing program. According to him, the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, is full of mythical conceptions and representations that are unacceptable for modern man. We must therefore demythologize the Bible, i.e., strip the essential message, the kerygma, from its mythical framework.

Bultmann’s program has had a tremendous influence upon post-war theology. Nearly all leading theologians in Germany today are former students of his or at least have been strongly influenced by his way of thinking. In the United States, similar but even much more radical ideas have been advocated by Paul Tillich, and again we must say that many of the leading theologians belong to this school. Some go even so far as to say that the traditional idea of God, based on the Bible, is dead.

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What does this new approach mean for our understanding of the Bible? In brief, it means that what is supernatural in the Bible can no longer be accepted. There is, for instance, no place for miracles. All the miracles recorded in the Old and the New Testament (with the possible exception of those that can be “explained” psychologically—which means, of course, that they are no real miracles either!) must be rejected as myths. This holds true of the miracles that are attributed to Jesus. And, we must go a step further and say that the miracle that, according to the New Testament, Jesus himself is in his own person, is also a mythological representation. There never was a real incarnation: God becoming man. Jesus was nothing else than a man in whom God was present in a special way, or perhaps better, who stood in a special relationship to God. The virgin birth is legend that in pictorial language points to this relationship. We cannot speak, either, of a real atonement, in the sense of an offering by Jesus of his life as a sacrifice to God. Bultmann describes the New Testament view of the cross in this way: “The Jesus who was crucified was the preexistent, incarnate Son of God, and as such he was without sin. He is the victim whose blood atones for our sins. He bears vicariously the sin of the world, and by enduring the punishment for sin on our behalf he delivers us from death” (“New Testament and Mythology,” in H. W. Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth, 1960, I, 35). His comment is: “This mythological interpretation is a hotchpotch of sacrificial and juridical analogies, which have ceased to be tenable for us today.” As to the resurrection, we cannot possibly take this literally and say that Jesus arose in the body in which he was crucified. Furthermore, there never was a real ascension, nor will there be a real second coming. All these matters are pure myths.

But why? Does not the Bible describe them as facts? Modern theologians do not deny this. But they say that the Bible writers could tell stories about such “facts” because they shared the primitive world picture of those days. To put it again in Bultmann’s words:

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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 centre, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings—the angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. Even the earth is more than the scene of natural, everyday events.… It is the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his daemons on the other. These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do [ibid., p. 1].

For people who hold such a world picture, it is not difficult to believe in miracles. In fact, it is the most “natural” thing to do so. But for modern man it is impossible to accept this. In a much quoted sentence Bultmann said: “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of daemons and spirits” (ibid., p. 5).

But what then? Must we cut all these “myths” out of our Bible and simply throw them away? No, Bultmann says. As a matter of fact, this was the great mistake of the older liberals. They eliminated all the myths, with the consequence that all that was left of the Bible was a small booklet with a few basic principles of religion and ethics. Bultmann wants to go a different way. He believes that we should not eliminate the myths but rather reinterpret them. We should try to find out what kind of human self-understanding lies behind them and what kind of personal experience is expressed by them. In this way these myths will furnish us with an important message for our self-understanding and our experience today.

The World View of Modern Science

We cannot here go into the details of the theology of Bultmann and his followers. But we must note that these scholars approach the Bible with certain presuppositions that come, not from the Bible itself, but from somewhere else. And it is obvious that they measure the Bible by these presuppositions and force it to conform to them.

The first presupposition is the world view of modern science. According to many modern theologians of the Bultmann school, this world is a closed entity in which everything is determined by the laws of nature, in particular by the law of cause and effect, so that there is no place for divine “intervention.” Bultmann himself seems to accept this view as absolute truth. Admittedly, he has also said that “the science of today is no longer the same as it was in the nineteenth century, and to be sure, all the results of science are relative, and no world view of yesterday or today or tomorrow is definitive” (Jesus Christ and Mythology, p. 37). But from all his books it is quite clear that he believes that the laws of nature give us the final word about this universe. On the same page from which the above quoted words were taken we read:

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Modern man acknowledges as reality only such phenomena or events as are comprehensible within the framework of the rational order of the universe. He does not acknowledge miracles because they do not fit into this lawful order. When a strange or marvelous accident occurs, he does not rest until he has found a rational cause.

The question must be asked: Is Bultmann’s world view really scientific? I am not so sure that it is. For one thing, it seems to be the world view of nineteenth-rather than twentieth-century science. Since the formulation of the quantum theory based on Planck’s radiation law and the subsequent work in the same field by Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and others, many modern scientists no longer believe that this world is such a “closed” one, regulated by the unbreakable, deterministic laws of nature. But even apart from the present trends in physics, we should never forget that the theory of a “closed” world is not of a scientific but rather of a philosophical nature. In simple words, it is not a matter of science but of belief. It may be helpful to go somewhat deeper into this, because there is so much confusion on this point, both inside and outside the Church.

First of all, we want to state that no one, of course, wishes to deny the relative value of the modern scientific world view. Both the non-Christian and the Christian accept the law of cause and effect as the indispensable starting point for all scientific work. But at the same time we must emphasize the adjective “relative.” The scientific world view deals with only one aspect of reality. It looks at this world from one limited angle and thus sees it as a mechanism ruled by the laws of nature. Or to put it in another way, it studies the “natural” connections between the various parts of this cosmos. But science as science can never go beyond this mechanistic aspect. It cannot make any statement about the relation of this very same cosmos to God, for this relation cannot be observed or measured. This is the realm of faith.

Faith looks at the same reality that is the object of study for science, but it looks at it from God’s viewpoint and says: God is at work here. When science says, “This is a matter of the laws of nature,” faith says, “It is a matter of God’s power upholding everything.” These two statements are not contradictory but rather complementary. Together they form a twofold approach to the same reality. For faith this whole world is the “workshop of God.” It is he who maintains it. It is his power that keeps the various constituent elements of the cosmos in their right relationship and that upholds the forces science describes as “laws of nature.” The cosmos is never, not even for a single moment, without God’s presence. If it were, it would immediately cease to be a cosmos and would become a chaos. Even worse, it would fall back into nothingness, from which it was called forth by God in his act of creation.

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This world is always God’s world. It is always filled with his presence. And there is no reason why he should not do special works, that is, miracles—in his own world. Nor is there any reason why he should not be able to come into this world in a special way, namely, in the incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. In this miracle, God, the same God, is at work in his own “workshop” in a unique way. When therefore Bultmann and many others with him say that miracles are impossible, they simply rule God out of his own world. And we should realize that this is a matter, not of the scientific versus the primitive world view, but of the unbelief versus faith. On this point Bultmann believes in the philosophy of science rather than in the revelation of the Bible.

Modern Existentialism

There is still another major presupposition in Bultmann’s view of the Bible: his acceptance of modern philosophy in the form of existentialism. Again we cannot go into details. It must suffice to say that modern existentialism looks upon man in the same way as many modern scientists look upon the world as a whole. Man too is “a self-subsistent unity immune from interference of supernatural powers.” There is virtually no place for such a thing as the penetration of the Holy Spirit into the close texture of man’s own natural powers. In other words, there is no place for such a thing as regeneration.

Philip E. Hughes trenchantly expresses his criticism of the new theology in these words: “The Holy Spirit has been ushered off the stage, and the human spirit dominates the scene” (Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, ed. P. E. Hughes, 1966, p. 22).

The Form-critical Method

All this also applies to the so-called form-critical method used by Bultmann and other modern theologians in their study of the Bible. There are several critical methods of studying the Bible, used by conservative theologians as well as others. First is textual criticism. It is a well-known fact that none of the original manuscripts of our Bible books has been preserved. All we have are a great number of copies, dating from various periods and greatly differing in purity of text. No single copy is altogether pure. In the course of transmission, all manuscripts have been corrupted to some degree. It is the task of textual criticism to establish, as accurately as possible, the original text, and conservative Bible scholars engage in this task just as much as their liberal colleagues.

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Secondly, there is the method of literary criticism. The books of the Bible, though from one point of view unique because they are inspired and therefore the Word of God, are at the same time ordinary books like all other books, and they share the characteristics of all books written by human authors. This means, among other things, that in them we find different kinds of literature, and these various kinds must be studied carefully if we are to understand them. The ecclesiastical tradition about the authors and the addressees, if not revealed in the book itself, must be submitted to thorough examination. In the case of the New Testament Gospels, there is obviously some kind of relationship among the first three Gospels, the so-called Synoptic Gospels (“synoptic” means giving an account of the same events from a common point of view). It is the task of literary criticism to study this relationship and, if possible, to discover which Gospel was written first and then used by the others. It is also clear to the attentive student of the Bible that several of the books have undergone editing. Because of this, we find so-called interpolations here and there (e.g., in Deut. 2:10–12, 20–23; 3:9, 11, 14). All these matters are studied by conservative scholars as well as non-conservative ones, and rightly so. There is, however, an important difference in approach. The conservatives accept the Bible as the Word of God and therefore refrain from criticizing matters that are clearly mentioned in the books themselves, but the critics include everything in their research and, at least in principle, are prepared to put every statement under the microscope of their criticism.

Finally, there is the third method of criticism, form criticism. By this is meant the critical research that wants to go behind the present form of the Bible books to discover what was the “pre-history” of the present records. For example, form criticism asks: What was the situation in the period before our present Gospels were written? Which were the sources used by the Evangelists? What was the typical form of the oral tradition that preceded the fixation of the kerygma in the Gospels?

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Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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