We might be able to characterize the typical understanding and evaluation of Rudolf Bultmann’s proposal of demythologization with the following line from the great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye: “to ‘demythologize’ any part of the Bible would be the same thing as to obliterate it.”1 David W. Congdon’s The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015) not only seeks to overturn this standard and simplistic interpretation of Bultmann’s theology, but offers a great, great deal more in the process. The Mission of Demythologizing consists of three parts, each of which could be a small book in its own right: “The Myth of the Whale and the Elephant” (Part I), “The Mission of Dialectical Theology” (II), “The Mission of Demythologizing” (III). In Part I Congdon provides a historical, political, and theological narration of the rise of dialectical theology with especial attention given to the relationship of Barth and Bultmann to each other, and to Wilhelm Herrmann, their common teacher. In Part II Congdon argues that the origin and essence of dialectical theology lies in mission, and that Bultmann is fundamentally a theologian of mission. In Part III he further shows the missionary logic and impulse driving demythologizing, using intercultural theology, the promise and need of moving beyond theology’s Constantinian captivity, and the interrelationship of eschatological existence and ‘existential translation’ as ways of understanding the movement and implications of demythologizing.
As perhaps intimated in this brief description, the historical and theological scope of Congdon’s book is remarkably bold, the project’s multiple aims ambitious, and the figures and movements fielded in interpreting what is often taken to be an outmoded theology surprising and fresh. Congdon confidently and ably introduces and guides his readers into and through a whole theological world. While much of the work is taken up by substantial and illuminating interpretations of Bultmann texts, figures such as Karl Barth, Theo Sundermeier, and Eberhard Jüngel receive perceptive and extended treatment, and Congdon also continually notes the precedents and disagreements with Reformation and nineteenth-century theology taking place in theologians and theologies being discussed. It is clear that Congdon is comfortable working within, expositing, and evaluating the whole range of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Protestant theology. The book is, in a sense, an impressive mixture of historical and contextual details, careful exposition and reconstruction, and positive theological proposal. By any standard Congdon’s book would be necessary reading for those interested in the Bultmann, Barth, and the course of modern Protestant theology.
That this book is such a noteworthy and productive piece of research and proposal is evident from the topics covered in our responses. Philip Ziegler registers the merits of Congdon’s narration of the emergence of dialectical theology and the helpfulness of Congdon’s readings and interpretations of Bultmann. He goes on to ask whether proclamation might have been a more natural conceptual fit with demythologizing as opposed to mission; whether critics to Bultmann’s “right” and followers to his “left” are correct in seeing the demythologization of God as the final necessary stage of Bultmann’s program; and about the political-social implications of demythologization. Paul Hinlicky notes the historical and interpretative achievements of Congdon’s book and then follows with areas of agreement and disagreement within Congdon’s positive theological proposals. More particularly, Hinlicky questions the residual Kantianism within dialectical theology; whether dialectical theology, with its emphasis upon the dyadic rather than triadic, is theologically sufficient; and whether Congdon’s proposal can allow for the grounding of the kerygma in Jesus of Nazareth as a specific and irreducible individual who brings us the blessings and tidings of God. R. David Nelson offers words of appreciation for Congdon’s book and yet wonders whether the missional dialectical theology of demythologization leaves sufficient room, time, and space for the church. In contrast to the ecclesial and doctrinal effects of Bultmann’s mission of demythologization, Nelson proposes the ‘roomy church’ found in some ‘evangelical catholic’ ecclesiologies. Finally, Shannon Smythe brings some of the themes present in Congdon’s work into dialogue with Janice McRandal’s recent book, Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference: A Contribution to Feminist Systematic Theology. Smythe proposes that an eschatologically conceived dialectical theology can fruitfully address feminist concerns regarding the negotiation and affirmation of difference, whether creaturely or theological. In particular, Smythe argues that demythologization is more helpful than remythological when it comes to matters of exegesis and discernment regarding Genesis’ accounts of the fall and the doctrine of original sin. Each of these responses is perceptive and sophisticated in its own right and will hopefully provide a solid foundation for a fruitful discussion of what is a remarkable, bold, and able book.
Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Mariner Books, 2002), p. 30.↩