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August 20 Bultmann and Demythologisation

Today we travel to Germany where the influential Lutheran theologian Rudolf Karl Bultmann was born in 1884. One of the pioneers of the ‘historical Jesus’ research and did important work in attempting to reconcile faith and reason in a modern context. His program to “demythologize” the New Testament was influenced by existentialist philosophy, but now it is widely discredited by scholars. His legacy is disputed, he was a deeply influential figure in liberal Christian theology whose views shaped the teaching of Christian theology well beyond his own lifetime. Praised by some with 'rescuing' Christianity from atheism and condemned by others for being practically an atheist himself!


Bultmann established his reputation by publishing The History of the Synoptic Tradition which was a key work in the development of what would become known as Form Criticism. This was a method of understanding the Bible that classifies units of scripture into literary patterns (such as love poems, parables, proverbs, wisdom literature, legends) and the attempts to trace each type to its period of oral transmission. Much more controversially he was the primary exponent of demythologization, the process of distinguishing the essence of the Christian message from its ancient mythical trappings. He maintained that the Gospels were not historical narratives but theology reshaped into the form of a story. He believed that Christianity needed to be understood in terms of the early philosophy of Martin Heidegger rather than what he regarded as the mythical world view of the biblical writers. Attempting to reconcile Christian teaching with emphasizing that each person experiences judgment not in the afterlife or during some future cataclysmic event, but in each moment, as he or she chooses to reject or accept the call of God in the human heart. While he insisted that much of New Testament Christianity was mythical rather than historical, Bultmann stopped short of denying the basic Christian message that "Christ is Lord." His commitment to conscience above conformity led him to act as part of the confessing church in Hitler's Germany (see pod of May 30 ) which refused to condone National Socialism and the Nazi treatment of the Jews. After the war he lectured widely and was one of the most influential theologians of the post-war era.

A strong critic of his, recently has been Pope Benedict. Acknowledging that in the last hundred years, Biblical exegesis has had many great achievements, but it has brought forth great errors as well. Bultmann would be among these, and some of the errors according to the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger have in some measure grown to the stature of academic dogmas, In his Erasmus Lecture delivered in New York in 1988, “Biblical Interpretation in Conflict, Ratzinger explains that A fundamental axiom for modern exegesis since the time of Bultmann: is the notion of discontinuity. Not only is there no continuity between the pre-Easter Jesus and the formative period of the church; discontinuity applies to all phases of the tradition. This is so much the case that Reiner Blank could state, “Bultmann wanted incoherence at any price.” This suspicion of history has to be understood as Bultmann’s attempt to explain to a modern audience how one got from the messianic, apocalyptic, prophetic Jesus to the apocalyptic community which worshiped him as Messiah. His attempt to connect the original message of Jesus to Christian life today, is often referred to as the quest for the Historical Christ.

Bultmann was particularly interested in why the Gospel of John was so different to the synoptic Gospel. Studying the differences lead Bultmann to conclude that Christianity had emerged out of Gnosticism and many other source religions and mythos across the Ancient Near East. In his inaugural lecture as professor at Tubingen, published in expanded form as The Son of God – the Johannine Christ is described as "the hypothetical Gnostic myth of the sending of the Son of God into the world" as a "pseudo-scientific development of a myth." Although this theory was very popular in his time, although it has since been discredited by the discovery that proto-Gnosticism arose much later -- and out of Christianity. Bultmann was proven fundamentally wrong, Gnosticism had not giving birth to Christianity , but in reality Christianity gave birth to Gnosticsm, This has lead many to quip that it is time to demythologize Bultmann.

A leading sociologist of Religion, Linda Woodhead, considers the development of religions over time by examining how they confirm or challenge power relations in wider society. She explains why Liberal Christianity has declined in modern Europe partly because of its failure to engage with modernity, with Bultmann being an example.


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