Rudolf Bultmann, theological giant of the neo-orthodox era, died last month at his home in Marburg, Germany, where he had lived since he formally retired as a university professor in 1951. Had he lived until August 20, he would have been ninety-two.
Until very recently, Bultmann continued to exert a powerful personal influence over German theological scholarship. Associated with Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, and lesser figures in the articulation of “dialectical theology” in the thirties and forties, he not only lived longer than they but his influence—for better or worse—was ultimately much greater in the world of academic theology.
Much that is positive could be said about his life and work, even by those who deplore the distinctives of his theological system (see editorial, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, August 16, 1974, p. 24). His scholarly labors, for example, were immense. Few biblical scholars of any theological persuasion have been his equals in either quality or quantity of work. And there is no question that his practice of developing warm, personal relationships with his students offers a model for all who teach theology. But there are also negative lessons to be learned.
As Barth observed on one occasion, no one ever talked more about understanding yet complained more that he was misunderstood than Bultmann. The irony of his program of “demythologization,” ostensibly an attempt to translate the Christian gospel into terms that “modern man” (whoever he/she is) could understand, was that nobody understood—at least not in the way that Bultmann intended (so he said). Many who heard his lectures or read his books concluded that he had given up the traditional heart of Christianity for secularism, and so they turned to secular humanism in its purer form. Others who maintained an orthodox faith concluded the same and denounced his teachings as heretical. A small but extremely influential group of disciples sought to interpret and to defend his thought to the world and thus were responsible for his continuing influence in the theological arena.
Bultmann admitted the impossibility of “presuppositionless exegesis” of the Bible. His presuppositions began with a conscious rejection of theological orthodoxy and did not allow for the presence of a personal, transcendent God who acts decisively and historically to redeem his people and who speaks in an intelligible manner to reveal himself and his ways to men and women. He excluded the supernatural by definition from his system, as also any real intervention of the living God into the affairs of the world; therefore, the concept of miracle was ruled out, including the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Little wonder, then, that he evoked more controversy in the German Protestant church during the past four decades than any other theologian.
Wedding his theology to the existentialist philosophy of the early Martin Heidegger, Bultmann assumed the most radical tradition of biblical criticism. He denied the historicity of all but a few basics of the life of Jesus (the “thatness”) and essentially dismissed the Old Testament and all Jewish elements in the Bible as irrelevant for Christian theology.
Though the influence of Bultmann is still strong, there are evidences of its waning during the past few years. For one thing, most of his immediate students are now retired or about to retire from their academic posts, and new leaders who “knew not Joseph” are coming to prominence. For another, many church leaders have begun to listen to the cries of laypeople (and also to note their absence from the pews) who have long been aware that they have been given stones instead of bread.
In spite of the widespread influence of Bultmann, it seems unlikely that he will be remembered as a “father of the church” by subsequent generations of believers. Rather, his writings—brilliant though they may be—will probably be of interest primarily to future generations of scholars who specialize in the history of theology (as is true also of the work of Baur, Overbeck, Harnack, and Tillich). Bultmann, unlike Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, will be remembered for his passing influence on Christian theology rather than for an enduring contribution to Christian faith and practice.
Abortion: No Adjustment
The U.S. Supreme Court had the chance this year to restore some legal standing to unborn children. So far it has chosen not to do so. The court issued decisions last month which showed that a majority of its members are no more respectful of the personhood of the fetus than they were three years ago when state laws prohibiting abortion-on-demand were ruled unconstitutional.
Three more abortion cases will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall, including one which asks for a determination as to whether public hospitals should be forced to perform abortions if their staffs object on religious grounds.
The July decisions struck down a Missouri law that required written consent of both the woman and her mate before an abortion could be performed, except that when the father withheld his approval an abortion could be performed if a licensed physician certified it necessary to preserve the life of the mother. Also ruled unconstitutional was a requirement that an unmarried woman under eighteen could not have an abortion unless at least one of her parents (or a person in loco parentis of the woman) gave written consent, again with the exception of maternal jeopardy. Even though the parents are legally responsible for an unmarried minor, the court’s argument was that “any independent interest the parent may have in the termination of the minor daughter’s pregnancy is no more weighty than the right of privacy of the competent minor mature enough to have become pregnant” (italics added).
When one considers that the court’s 1973 ruling insists that medical advice is appropriate and medical assistance should be required by the state, some arguments in the 1976 decision lose their force. If only the woman has veto power, then the state is in no position to make her go to a certified physician.
Part of the problem was that the Missouri law was somewhat inadequately drawn. Christians need to realize that a great deal of intensive work is necessary if legislative relief from the 1973 ruling is to be obtained. Polemics is not enough. We need to channel more energy into seeking better jurisprudence.
Scientific Evidence For Life After Death?
Our Victorian forebears were reluctant to talk openly about sex, but not about death. The age in which we live turned the tables. Talk about sex is frank and explicit, while death has until recently been an unmentionable.
The most forceful influence in the development of a new openness concerning death has been the work of Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who first began interviewing terminally ill patients in the hospital of the medical school of the University of Chicago a decade ago. Her book On Death and Dying (1969) brought the subject to public attention and launched her into a career as the foremost writer, lecturer, and leader of seminars on thanatology, the study of death and related subjects.
In her early work Kübler-Ross was agnostic—perhaps “uninterested” would be the better word—concerning the question of life after death. Recently she has joined a growing number of researchers impressed by the testimonies concerning out-of-body experience (OBE) by people who have been declared “clinically dead” (i.e., their hearts have stopped beating) but who have subsequently regained consciousness.
An article in Harper’s Weekly for July 12 (“Is There Life After Life?”) surveys some of the evidence for OBEs. A Virginia psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond A. Moody, in a recent book, Life After Life (Stackpole), details the stories of one hundred fifty patients who came close to death but lived to describe their sensations. And an August Reader’s Digest article tells of Kübler-Ross’s OBE investigations.
Before Christians run to jump on the bandwagon or add these data to their apologetic arsenal, they should be aware that no essential difference is reported between the OBEs of believers and unbelievers! All testify to a distinctively positive experience—a feeling of perfect peace, floating outside the body, restoration to wholeness (in the case of those who have lost limbs), hearing beautiful music, and the like. Christians testify to seeing Christ while Hindus say they come face to face with Krishna. Cultists tend to have their worldview validated, and some nominal Christians adopt heterodox opinions. A Scottish Presbyterian, for example, testified: “I know beyond a doubt that the Christ I saw will accept everyone, good or bad.”
Christians should encourage further serious research in the area while recognizing that faith cannot be “proved” by scientific research. The only certain evidence we have for the existence of life beyond the grave is the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:20–23; 2 Cor. 4:14) and the indwelling Holy Spirit, who has been given to believers as a pledge of the good things prepared for those who have put their faith in Jesus (2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13–14).
‘If My People … Pray’
In the closing days of October, Christians will gather in Dallas, Texas, to claim the promises of Second Chronicles 7:14 for the United States and Canada. This gathering, a National Prayer Congress sponsored by “Here’s Life, America,” will take place just before America’s presidential election, and sponsors hope that some five to ten thousand Christians will come to pray at this crucial time.
We urge that churches in the United States and Canada keep their doors open during this period, October 26–29, and that they ask their members to make these days a time when they “humble themselves, and pray, and seek God’s face, and turn from their wicked ways,” and ask God to heal their land.
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