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 ...1
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