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.↩
Why not ‘Stalin is risen!’?
When I was invited to respond to David Congdon’s book on Bultmann I was eager to take the assignment. Bultmann was formative for me as a young theologian emerging from the train wreck of Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod fundamentalism. Scales fell from my eyes reading his Theology of the New Testament, a book which I still assign to upper level undergraduates. While I came in time to agree with certain critiques of his program of demythologizing—the beating heart and enduring legacy of Bultmann’s theology in Congdon’s account—I have devoted major portions of my books to continuing debate and dialogue with Bultmann in recognition of his fundamental significance for theology after Christendom in Euro-America. I am also a product of the “apocalyptic” school at Union Theological Seminary, New York, where the work of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ernst Käsemann and Jürgen Moltmann, as filtered by Paul Lehmann, Christopher Morse, Dorothee Soelle, James Cone, and J. Louis Martyn provided those aforementioned critiques of Bultmann’s program (as Congdon is aware, 591n48). Finally, the “best” contemporary critics of Bultmann with whom Congdon ends his book—Moltmann, Oswald Bayer, and Robert Jenson—are theologians with whom I have affiliated through the years. I mention all this at the outset to make clear that as Congdon treats Jenson as a “most sympathetic” critic of Bultmann, readers might also take what follows as “most sympathetic” criticism of Congdon’s proposed retrieval of the mission of demythologizing.
Broadly, Congdon shows how Bultmann’s program is predicated on the crisis of Christendom that dialectical theology embraced in the 1920s and remained faithful to it. True to the dialectical theology of crisis from the 1920s, it is quite erroneous to see the later Bultmann of the demythologizing program as retreating to theological liberalism. In fact both liberalism and fundamentalism are equal and opposite attempts to preserve Christendom (“constantinianism,” as Congdon calls it). Neither of these nineteenth-century theologies have a future consonant with the kerygma of the New Testament, which, in Bultmann’s discovery, impels and propels the mission of translating the saving message of God across all would-be human boundaries while settling down in none. In this cause of the kerygma, the truth of the Christian myth in which it is cloaked is not to be vacated or abandoned, but rather interpreted intra-culturally. That is the missionary task of theological exegesis of the New Testament, indeed of Christian theology as such.
Prior to reading Congdon, I had frequently commented that Bultmann asked the right question, even if his own answer to it was inadequate. I was not disappointed, then, in working through his book to appreciate once again the rightness of Bultmann’s questioning of the mythical picture of the world in which the New Testament kerygma is clothed. Briefly put, to the extent that mythical elements are primitive science, they simply are antiquated by today’s science (though the question might remain whether we would then be justified in pursing the scientific [“aitiological”] intention of this aspect of myth). More importantly for Congdon, however, to the extent that elements of a culture’s picture of the world are absolutized, as if ingredient to the saving kerygma of God, they are idolatrous. Indeed, the pluralism of New Testament mythical motifs—think of the varying Christological titles—already relativizes each one of them over against the others. There is a mythical multiculturalism present in the New Testament itself; knowing this, none of the myths can as such claim normative status, as if a “canon within the canon.” This observation indeed poses the right question for theological understanding of the kerygma’s—for Bultmann, “normative”—claim about God’s saving deed in Christ.
Thanks in part to Bultmann, such critical understanding of New Testament mythology is widely received today, although it was a matter of bitter controversy within the Confessing Church and thereafter when Bultmann insisted on intellectual honesty in this regard. But how to understand this criticism theologically is still a matter of dispute. Congdon denies that the distinction between kerygma and myth is to be understood on the metaphor of kernel and husk, but the alternative remains murky in that there is no way to state what the kerygmatic content, die Sache, is apart from some myth, i.e., some “story of the gods.” To affirm howsoever minimally that “God speaks” or “God acts” is all the same “mythical” speech, which would imply, as Congdon also expressly affirms, that we will also have to demythologize God. Perhaps, but this sure sounds like diving down the rabbit hole! While Congdon dismisses Helmut Thielicke’s objection along these lines as that of a mere “conservative,” the deeper point is that the program of demythologizing founders here on an aporia. The kerygma—the proclamation of God about God for us in the man Jesus Christ—is itself “myth.” The very distinction founders. Back to the drawing boards!
Or, perhaps, forward! I was taken by Congdon’s bold thesis that Bultmann’s program of demythologizing is missiological, rather than apologetic, in nature and thus theologically, even “dogmatically” motivated as normed by the offense (cf. 1 Cor 1:23) of the kerygma (see, i.a., 637). This thesis challenges my own critique of Bultmann even as it puts Bultmann’s answer to the problem of Christian mythology in the new light of an intracultural theology of mission. For that kind of challenge good theologians are grateful. A deliberation along these lines has hope of advancing the argument in which we are all engaged about how to understand the New Testament “myth,” or, less melodramatically, “story” of Christ theologically. My point will be that the gospel narrative of Jesus, his Father, and their Spirit is not ultimately translatable, but must rather be learned on its own scriptural terms—the “catechetical” way to theological subjectivity that extends pneumatologically through time, not by a random series of punctiliar kerygmatic interruptions, but by the gospel’s mission to the nations.
This first work of a young theologian is as impressive as it is ambitious. Consequently, it must be evaluated on at least three levels that I can see. First, in featuring Bultmann and his relation to Barth, the book is a historical-theology account of the rise of dialectical theology. In a nutshell, dialectical theology is the theology that asserts in Christ an infinite sic et non, such that in the evanescent event of revelation human language is captured to assert the divine subjectivity, “I am the Lord your God!” Dialectical theology thus resists the capture of revelation by human language, as in the notorious Gott mit uns inscribed on the Wehrmacht belt buckle. In terms of Protestant tradition, dialectical theology continues the so-called extra-Calvinisticum. That is to say, while the divine Subject truly expresses itself in the Christ event, it is not confined or exhausted in the man Christ. According to Congdon’s richly, even exhaustively detailed account, Bultmann aligned himself with the early Barth’s dialectical theology in the 1920s and never deviated from it. Indeed, if anyone deviated from it, according to Congdon, it was Barth in his turn in CD II/2 to a protological doctrine of divine election!
Congdon’s historical-theology work on this first level of his book rivals Bruce McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic, Dialectical Theology and supplements it in important ways. That is no small praise, for the book lays bare Barth’s subsequent misunderstanding of Bultmann as if he were retreating like erstwhile fellow travelers in the 1920s theology of crisis to nineteenth-century apologetics in order to connect theologically with the “new thing God was doing” in the rise of National Socialism. When Bultmann’s comportment during the Church Struggle did not match this assessment of his theology, however, Barth was pleased but flummoxed. In spite of every subsequent effort to understand Bultmann, Barth finally likened the two theologians to a whale and an elephant at the shoreline gazing upon each other in reciprocating cognitive dissonance.
So, second, the book attends to the mutual incomprehension that developed between Barth and Bultmann by carefully teasing out all the many threads woven into Bultmann’s account of myth: Platonic, Kantian and modern scientific threads but also hermeneutical, religiongeschichtliche, and existential threads. This allows Congdon to differentiate precisely the crucial notions of Weltbild and Weltanschauung. Weltbild is the tacit precognitive understanding of the surrounding world shared in any culture to which the kerygma comes. Weltanschauung is the articulate ideological sacralization of such a cultural picture of the world as if permanent and superior which the kerygma puts into crisis when it comes as the crisis-event of eschatological revelation.
As a result of this important differentiation, the theologian comes to understand the kerygma as Word of God precisely in the act of translation into cultural intelligibility that simultaneously destabilizes cultural self-idolization. One does not dance a two-step, first understanding historically what it meant and then deciding theologically what it means. Rather, one understands historically and theologically together, and only together, and thus ever anew since both culture and kerygma are in perpetual motion.
Congdon explicates Bultmann’s hermeneutical program this way with the expert aid of Eberhard Jüngel’s studies (see inter alia the summary on 629 or the note on 754–55n149). This resource is not surprising. Jüngel himself was motivated by the desire to reconcile his teachers, Bultmann and Barth, showing their programs to be two versions of the same dialectical theology. We should observe, however, that this procedure does some violence to both Bultmann and Barth in the sense that Jüngel-cum-Congdon have repeatedly to say about each: “This is what they (misleadingly) said, but here is what they (in fact) meant.” Demythologizing the tale of the whale and the elephant thus has to work a kind of hermeneutical violence. Nevertheless, it has the conceptual merit of imposing retrospectively a certain consistent trajectory, especially on Bultmann’s side, regarding those many threads woven together in his ideas of myth and mythology. In absence of this reconstruction, those loose threads, construed polemically and taken in isolation from each other, have continually misled Bultmann’s readers (beginning with Barth) into regarding him as an Enlightenment liberal, or a Heideggerian existentialist, or apologetic mediating theologian, or just incoherent rather than a consistent dialectical theologian.
I won’t have anything more to say here about these first two levels of Congdon’s work other than to pronounce the happy verdict: mission accomplished! Congdon’s work is a major contribution to theological scholarship. It is thus a third level of his book that I wish next to engage. Here Congdon develops his own constructive thesis for systematic theology that takes the missiology of demythologizing as its fundamental task. This thesis goes beyond the historical Bultmann, but it is consonant with him, as the previous two levels of analysis have shown. So it is Congdon, not Bultmann directly, with whom I am now engaging, though I will return in the end to the critique I hold of the program of demythologizing in favor of an alternative conception of postmodern theology as critical dogmatics (a terminology that intends an alternative way of synthesizing and extending the fruits of the theological labors of Barth and Bultmann).
It is always helpful first to articulate areas of agreement. I recognize the following virtues in Congdon’s proposed missiology of demythologizing. First, the fundamental achievement that Congdon retrieves and appropriates from Bultmann is Sachkritik, the criticism of the biblical text by the content it bears. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels in order that you may know that the surpassing power comes from God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7). This differentiation not only undermines impossible and hermeneutically misleading doctrines of biblical inspiration, but requires a critical discernment in our understanding that frees the “surpassing power of God” at work in the kerygma of God’s deed of reconciliation in Christ from cultural or linguistic capture. Bound to Paul’s gospel, we are not bound to Paul tout court; and if Judas or Herod or Balaam’s ass proclaim Christ rightly, then we receive these enemies and strangers as ambassadors of God in the revelatory event—even as Paul was once an enemy and stranger (and sometimes also an ass).
Second, faith and God are correlative concepts, for “a god is that to which one’s heart clings in every time of trouble” (Luther). Everything depends here on distinguishing, not only conceptually, false faith as self-securing ideology from genuine trust which risks and ventures in hope and love. In this latter way, human self-understanding and theology as knowledge of true God stand and fall together, with the consequence that only the engaged believer knows God objectively, namely as God who reveals God in the interruptive address concerning the human and apparently defeated man Jesus. This true correlation is thus not a universal anthropological datum. Faith in the sense of risky trust in God’s gospel word proceeding in new lives of hopeful love is precisely what mythology evades, substituting for God a myth, or a metaphysics, about God. God becomes here the idol of human self-security. Stories about God or ideas about God serve to secure against true creatureliness by fixing order at the expense of love, especially love for the stranger or enemy. But God is God in sovereign and disruptive address, laying a claim for obedient faith that “desecularizes” (Entweltlichung) the believer in the sense of demythologizing the ideological Weltanschauung. God is God in achieving God’s claim in faith as the (literally) responsible decision to leave behind one’s culturally given world to embrace the unknown future that God in his address promises.
The decisive point in understanding Bultmann here, according to Congdon, is that this correlation of faith and God is not and may not be taken as a natural theology given; it is rather given by God in the historical contingency and particularity of the kerygmatic address. As a result, with Bultmann—but against the transcendental objectivism of Barth’s mature doctrine of election—the problem of theological subjectivity cannot be pushed into the background as a secondary question. The question of who believes rightly remains foregrounded as the missiological frontline of the advancing kerygma.
Third, theological cognition is perspectival. All critical thinking distinguishes appearance from reality. The classically metaphysical way of doing this is by dualizing becoming and being and then, by a kind of optical illusion, reifying the no-thing of being itself as the really real, aka, “God.” This way “objectifies” God as the highest good of creatures vulnerable to non-being—what Heidegger called ontotheology. So it turns God into an idol of security for the unconverted who want to use God for their own purposes, who want to capture God in pictures or ideas or stories in service to the human, all-too-human fortresses they build.
The Pauline way of critical thinking by contrast distinguishes how the one world appears in the flesh and how the same world appears in the Spirit who voices the kerygma of “Christ crucified.” In this Pauline view, there is some apprehension of truth in every perspective; everyone sees something in what appears to her or him. That is exactly why all can be guilty of suppressing the truth in idolatrous acts of self-securement that make the something that appears to oneself into a totalizing account universally valid for all. Teasing out the Pauline alternative, the problem of critical thinking turns instead on the partiality of creaturely perspective, whether naively in myth or with sophistication in the putatively critical thinking of metaphysics. In either case, what is seen from a finite perspective is absolutized. The remedy in the intracultural dialogue which is the body of Christ is to widen perspective and eliminate blind spots. But carnal humanity is incapable of this diagnosis of our human predicament, let alone this achievement of intercultural dialogue; it is trapped in its sinful egocentricity, bound to its own limited vision, desperately self-justifying and walling out other perspectives. Needed is the disruptive intervention of the kerygma which introduces the crisis of Christ crucified as the challenge to human self-justification according to its own (sinfully egocentric) perspective in favor of God’s gracious judgment on (justification of) this sinner.
In all these points, curtly reducing Congdon’s rich discussion, I am in agreement with him. That is no small agreement. In the light of it, let me spell out in equal curtness my dissents.
First, despite Congdon’s valiant attempt to cast Bultmann otherwise, he, like Barth, remains a Kantian thinker (so Oswald Bayer) within the parameters of Euro-American modernity, even if Congdon’s embrace of missiology wants to escape that intellectual prison-house and move into the fresh, clean air of postmodernity—epistemically, post-Kantianism! Dialectical theology is the dialectic of the phenomenal and the noumenal, in concepts laid down by Kant for all of “modern” theology. What I mean is this: theoretical knowledge here remains the work of science (or of bad theology that wants to be like science), while existential knowledge is practical and moral. So we have a separation of reality into two mutually delimited spheres policed by the Tribunal of Reason—the real “Two Kingdoms dualism” that ought to be critiqued!
Kantian theology thus refers to “God” and the “deed of God” like Kant referred to noumenal freedom of will to account for the impossible possibility of morally altruistic acts of pure duty against the grain of carnal inclination in the scientifically deterministic phenomenal order, where “faith” acts als ob (as if) there were a Sugar Daddy in the afterlife (thus, in putative radicalness, de-secured, without any metaphysical or historical assurances). It makes no difference to the structural logic of this Kantian account that what Kant mystifies as noumenal freedom Kantian theologians mystify as grace. Indeed, this mystification, as genuinely atheistic thinkers like Feuerbach and Marx see more clearly, is the modern mythology from which, pray true God, the kerygma of Christ crucified ought to deliver us!
Second, the problem with the foregoing theologically is not, as Congdon has shown, that Bultmann deviates from dialectical theology. On the contrary, the problem lies with a merely dialectical theology. As Jewish philosopher Peter Ochs has argued in defense of post-liberal Christian theology, dialectical thinking is a dyadic polarization or infinite juggling act between subject and object, philosophically resulting (as I have argued in my systematic theology) in the sterile and non-ad judicable choice between constructivism or naturalism (not incidentally, the two caricatures of Barth and Bultmann respectively). Under this dyadic logic, for Bultmann as for (the early) Barth, God gets to be the subject and never the object, so that transcendental subjectivity is what makes God God.
To be sure, given the Kantian parameters of modern theology, that protest of dialectical theology over against the nineteenth-century domestication of transcendence into the idol-object of human religiosity is a step forward. The problem, however, lies with the parameters of Kantianisn itself, which overlook (the very thing Congdon in his missiology wants to affirm) the anti-foundationalist fact that every act of knowledge by which a subject constructs an object is always addressed hic et nunc to an audience as an act of interpretation, which interpretation itself becomes an artifact in turn, an object in need of interpretation, ad infinitum, pending the eschaton of judgment. So traditions of discourse and matrices of understanding are formed and bear along an embodied argument, pending an eschaton of judgment.
Such triadic thinking therefore goes beyond the sterile dialectic of Kantianism in a pragmatist direction; that is to say theologically, it moves beyond the abstract dialectic of deity and humanity, eschatology and history; manifestly, it moves towards Trinitarian personalism’s dialectic of Word and Spirit and therewith towards a single-subject Christology (Bultmann’s paradoxical Christological identity of divine and human comes close to the latter, but lacks the conceptuality of Trinitarian personalism with which to articulate it). This necessary movement beyond Bultmann (and Barth) pushes theology in the Reformation tradition beyond an abstract dialectical play of divine and human natures along modalist lines to an Incarnate Word as objectively there for faith (as also for unfaith) as the cross on which Jesus was killed and the bread and loaf by which that messianic death of his is proclaimed till he comes again—manducatio indignorum! The incarnation as this objectivity of God!
This movement beyond dialectical theology was marked in the latter half of the twentieth century by Moltmann’s critique of Kantian transcendental subjectivity in both Barth and Bultmann in favor of the apocalyptic scope of God of the gospel (cf. Romans 8); by Bayer’s similar attack on the tacit metaphysics of the transcendental ego in favor of the primacy of aesthetics (i.e., turning Kant’s order on its head by making the third critique precede over against Kant’s ordering privileging Newtonian science as knowledge properly speaking) in that embodied beings must love something, desperately enough, anything; and by Jenson’s important Christological critique of Bultmann’s neo-docetism in favor of the significance of Jesus for saving faith in the Christus praesens, lest demythologizing be taken to mean the de-narrativizing of the gospel proclamation.
Commendably, in treating these three best contemporary critics of Bultmann at the conclusion of his book, Congdon tries bravely to incorporate their objections into his new missiological reading of Bultmann. The interesting exploration of intercultural missiology aside, in so doing, Congdon overrides, I fear, deeper points in these objections because of his own commitment to dyadic rather than triadic theology.
Moltmann’s deeper point is that the Bible as a whole speaks about God as the One coming to bring the reign of righteousness, life and peace to the afflicted creation, and that apart from this biblical description of the one God clothed in such messianic promises, God is reduced to the modern but not innocent cipher of transcendental subjectivity: a pure I, the sovereign Self, asserting itself like a bully in a random event rather than giving itself, indeed committing itself for those lesser and unworthy in hope against hope. Bayer’s deeper point is that this Bible—the same canonical whole telling about God—forms the social a priori, the aesthetic matrix, within which the Vorverständnis of theological subjectivity arises to engage the biblical text as Word of God. (Congdon points out that Bultmann also acknowledged the culture of the church of the Word as formative of theological subjectivity; along the same lines Congdon acknowledges Jenson’s comment in this regard about a tacit doctrine of the Holy Spirit that goes undeveloped in Bultmann.) Jenson’s deeper point is that without the Bible playing these roles telling about God by the messianic story of Jesus in the gospel narrative and so forming pneumatologically our questions about God, Bultmann has no way of saying why Jesus should be anything more than the accidental occasion of a timeless kerygma that strikes home like a bolt out of the blue. Is it not the case in Bultmann that Jesus, howsoever “paradoxically,” is but the “occasion,” the “presupposition,” das Dass? Why ever should Jesus be the irreplaceable content of the kerygma of God, the Subject who speaks to be sure, but in order to be the Object who is believed?
Congdon to his credit attempts to deal with these objections before he draws his conclusions about intercultural theology as the future of the mission of demythologization. Whether he meets them, however, is another question. In my Christological view, he does not and indeed cannot meet Jenson’s question, Why Jesus? In Bultmannian principle, Jesus is simply a contingent fact that cannot be further grounded or accounted. The reason is that any grounding or accounting would contaminate faith, betraying the same old sinful search for security and turning Jesus into a Christian idol. Thus Jesus must reduce to a cipher, standing for the fiat of divine subjectivity asserting itself in an arbitrary act scandalously commanding decision and obedience. Faith that would have or give any reasons for the Jesus in “Jesus Christ” must be suspect as wanting to master God who instead shows divine mastery by giving no reasons for his allegedly reconciling deed other than that he says so.
Thus it is Congdon’s own proposal for the freedom of the kerygma from genuine incarnation that troubles me. Here we have a Christology of the anhypostasis but not of the enhypostasis, a sophisticated monophysitism or neo-docetism. This troubles me in a world which is troubled not only by cultural captivations of the deity with inferiorizations of others but, just so, all the more by false saviors and pseudo-messiahs (cf. Mark 13).
So I end with a parable. “I have good news. God has spoken. God has acted. His servant has risen from the dead. His servant has conquered death. Now he is on the march. He is coming again to bring us his victory. We rise to greet him. And his name is . . . Josef Stalin.” Why not?
No Room for the Church?
David Congdon is convinced that the family history of modern Protestant theology needs to be retraced. Running through the heart of The Mission of Demythologizing is a revised genealogy of some key theologians and theological movements, the newly drawn lineages of which unfold according to Congdon’s well-supported claim that Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth were related much more closely than subsequent generations have either proposed or assumed. Congdon is by no means the first scholar to suggest a family resemblance between Bultmann and Barth. Mission, to point to one prominent instance, builds upon a thesis that Eberhard Jüngel publicized as early as 1965;1 namely, that Bultmann’s hermeneutical strategy of demythologization is closely akin to Barth’s theology of revelation and the doctrine of the word of God that animates it. However, and for a variety of reasons, the familial bonds between the Marburg Neutestamentler and the great Basel theologian have often been underemphasized or ignored, especially by Protestants in Great Britain and North America.
Further to all of this, while Barth’s polling numbers among Anglophone Protestants are increasingly favorable, Bultmann is persistently viewed with suspicion or even outright hostility. Embedded within Congdon’s restructured genealogy is a tacit critique of some Protestants, particularly evangelicals, who have accepted and subsequently promoted a false caricature of Bultmann. The source of the anxiety-cum-misportrayal is Bultmann’s program of demythologization. It is widely assumed that his use of the concept of “myth” to categorize certain passages of the New Testament implies a decision that such portions are untrue. According to this reading, demythologization is, sheerly, the hermeneutical realization of modern science’s assertion that myth is constitutive of the outdated worldview of prescientific cultures. We thus (so the mischaracterization of Bultmann goes) de-mythologize the New Testament by sifting out myth from fact, thereby restoring scripture’s truth to its unsullied, mint state.
Congdon settles the case that, in fact, the opposite dynamic is at work in Bultmann’s hermeneutics. Throughout the volume and by way of careful engagements with both Bultmann and Bultmann’s foils, he demonstrates that, for Bultmann, the goal of demythologizing interpretation is to uncover the truth encapsulated in the mythical worldview at the basework of the New Testament texts. The commitment animating the program of demythologization is that myth has an “essentially soteriological function” (598); it communicates the Christian gospel, and is thus hardly simply outdated cosmological dross to be dumped aside for the sake of evangelical truth. New Testament myth, rather, as the original interpretation of the gospel, must be reinterpreted for the sake of evangelical truth.
Returning to the matter of Bultmann’s relation to Barth, Congdon proposes that demythologization is the extension into hermeneutics of the latter’s theology of the self-revealing God. Dialectical theology—both in the form of Bultmann’s rejection of historicism in New Testament studies and in Barth’s revolt against the antecedent liberal tradition—was, in Congdon’s reading, profoundly missionary (in an anti-constantinian and anti-colonial vein), rather than apologetic. Bultmann and Barth are depicted as Christian missionaries to modernity, contextualizing the gospel (as good missionaries must do) so that it can speak anew. Demythologization is missionary recontextualization of the gospel, insofar as it
seeks to recognize what we might call the kerygma’s double contingency or double historicity: its inescapable connection to the contingent person and message of Jesus of Nazareth and its simultaneous connection to the contingent situation of the one who hears and encounters this message in the present. Demythologizing “unfreezes” the message from its mythological accretions and thereby liberates it to become a truly historical word of address that turns toward each person in his or her historicity. (590–91)
Such a (brilliant!) reading of the heart of the program of demythologization recasts Bultmann as an unsung hero of Christianity’s missionary engagement with modern culture. And it suggests that Bultmann himself should be read and heard again by those Protestants who consider him to be the foe of faith. To the contrary of that sentiment, Congdon shows that Bultmann’s work, when freed up from the misinterpretations and false narratives that have dominated the discussions of myth and demythologization, in fact supports faith’s missionary endeavors by providing hermeneutical stratagems for merging the ancient texts and the world of today’s hearers.
* * *
I strike no quarrel with any of this, to the degree that I have understood it and correctly reiterated it above. Having cut many of my own theological teeth on the work of Jüngel, himself an indirect heir of Bultmann through the “New Hermeneutic” school of Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling, I have long suspected that contemporary theology suffers from a false refraction of Bultmann’s thought, and welcome Congdon’s insistence that Bultmann deserves a fresh hearing. Moreover, I am largely persuaded by Congdon’s development of a Jüngelian hermeneutic for the Bultmann/Barth relationship (if I might dare call it that) that frames their interwoven legacies against the backdrop of the modern missionary impulse. My hunch is that this latter pathway of thought will stand as Mission’s abiding contribution to research into the story of modern Protestant theology.
But I remain anxious about a particular aspect of Bultmann’s program, my fears unalleviated upon tackling Mission. I have yet to warm to the entailments of demythologization for ecclesiology. To be sure, Congdon’s fine and important study has challenged me to rethink and newly appreciate Bultmann concerning a number of points. But the ecclesiological problem continues to dog me. In raising the issue in this forum—and publically tipping my hand to reveal my own theological and confessional commitments! —I hope to continue, now with a special focus, an ongoing conversation with Congdon over the legacy of mid-twentieth-century German theology. I doubt we will resolve anything here. But the virtue of the Syndicate project is to bring discussion and debate on such difficult matters to the fore. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate!
To my misgivings: Simply put, I worry that Bultmann leaves no room for the church; no space and no time.
* * *
We will follow a circuitous route, touching upon themes of Bultmann’s theology that emerge in Mission, but presented here in my own idiom, such as it is. Probably the most difficult puzzle Bultmann bequeathed to subsequent theology and hermeneutics is embedded in the claim that Christ is resurrected into the church’s kerygma. This move encapsulates Christologically Bultmann’s existentialist understanding of the relation between history and eschatology and language. In the background to this nexus of issues is the Jesus of nineteenth-century positivistic historicism; that is, the so-called “Jesus of Nazareth” as distinct from the “Christ of faith”; Jesus the itinerant Jewish religious figure, just as he really was before the church’s dogmatic tradition(s) distorted Christianity’s memory of him, or so the argument has typically gone. The nineteenth-century biographers of Jesus were committed to the presupposition that objective historiographical research, undertaken in the laboratory of the “enlightened” university and as a science, would yield the Historie of Jesus “behind,” or apart from, the texts of the New Testament, themselves samples of the earliest Christian theological traditions concerning Jesus.
One of the great ironies of the story of modern Christian thought is the fact that many have assumed, on the basis of misunderstandings of some of Bultmann’s key hermeneutical commitments, that he is an unabashed champion of the movement of Protestant Liberalism. In fact, he strenuously objected to one of the chief tenets of the Liberal Protestant project; namely, to the axiom that Christianity is “a historical phenomenon, a religion, whose vocation can be traced from the vocation of Jesus,”2 and that, just therefore, the essence of Christianity is discoverable via historical research into the original teachings of Jesus. Bultmann—and Congdon decisively demonstrates this in Mission—never flatly denies that God acted historically in Jesus, that his action really occurred as an event of our history. However, he insists that it is inappropriate to conceive the event of God’s historical act as an object to be grasped, examined, and rearticulated by the knowing subject. For Bultmann, God’s self-revelation is not at our academic disposal as Historie.
Language plays a decisive role in Bultmann’s counterproposal to the historical-critical program just described. The subject/object structure of thought and speech, according to which language furnishes the mind the tools—words, concepts, a grammar, etc.—for use in objectifying the objects of study, falters in the event of God’s self-revelation. Moreover, language spoken in the mode of objectification is incapable of grasping the hearer in her or his existential situation; it can inform, indicate, and even incite, but cannot compel the hearer to decide for authentic existence. Putting all of this together, Bultmann suggests that if we follow the nineteenth-century biographers of Jesus by approaching the Nazarene as if his history were available to us through the employment of research executed by means of objectifying language, we end up silencing Jesus by, as it were, locking him up in the past.
Bultmann proposes that this dilemma is only solved when we acknowledge that the early Christian proclamation of Jesus—the apostolic kerygma—was an instantiation of language in a mode that is fundamentally different from the subject/object structure of wissenschaftlich speech. The kerygma, rather, was eschatological speech, the presence in language’s now of the one who was raised from the dead. And this kerygmatic “now” recurs, as it were, interruptedly in Christian proclamation. The preaching of the gospel in consonance with the apostolic kerygma presents the resurrected Christ to the hearer in such a way that the possibilities of authentic existence interrupt the continuity of inauthentic life, mired as it is in the pursuit of self-authentication.
What Bultmann does, then, is to supplant the quest for the Jesus of history with an emphasis on the presence of the kerygmatic Christ in Christian proclamation. This recalibration of the tasks and goals of the study of the New Testament is right at the heart of Bultmann’s program of demythologization. He insists that myth is inextricably component to the early Christian kerygma. Generally, for Bultmann myth is analogical speech in which the religious relation is expressed through symbolism and comparison. The myths found in the New Testament are instantiations of analogical speech used to express the kerygma. Hence, according to Bultmann’s strategy, demythologization involves the interpretation of old myth for the sake of discovering the kerygma; Christian preaching, in an evangelical and missionary vein, is the reinterpretation of the kerygma for the sake of hearers today.
All of this sets the stage for Bultmann’s understanding of what the church is. We should not be surprised to discover that the kerygma, the proclamation of the word of the gospel in preaching, becomes the organizing principle of Bultmann’s ecclesiology. For Bultmann, the church does not and cannot lay any claim upon the kerygma, for such a claim would lead ecclesiology into the subject/object cul-de-sac. Rather, the kerygma makes the church; or better, upon every occasion that the kerygma is proclaimed, the church happens. Bultmann puts it this way in his American lectures of 1951: “As the word is God’s word only as an event, the Church is genuine Church only as an event which happens each time here and now; for the Church is the eschatological community of the saints, and it is only in a paradoxical way identical with the ecclesiastical institutions which we observe as social phenomena of secular history.”3 The “genuine” church is located on the razor’s edge of the “here and now” of the proclamation of the kerygma. As pure “eschatological community,” occurring interruptedly in the “event” of “God’s word,” the church is only related to observable institutions paradoxically. The answer to my titular question: Bultmann’s church is hardly roomy, as its temporality and spatiality (we dare say, apostolicity and catholicity) are deflated to the “hear and now” of interruptive kerygmatic event.
* * *
To be quite sure, this conception of the church begs a host of questions concerning (a) the identity and location of the resurrected and ascended Christ, and (b) that identity and location vis-à-vis the church. I haven’t the space or time (pun intended) to address all of these here. Rather, a couple of additional comments on the idea of the church’s room will lead us to a tentative conclusion.
Congdon puts forth Bultmann’s program of demythologization as “not merely a hermeneutical task” but “a mode of faithful Christian existence,” specifically “a missionary mode of existence in the sense that it seeks to understand the kerygma in the context of each new intercultural encounter, but always in the relativizing light of God’s future.” As the interpretation of old myth to uncover the kerygma and the reinterpretation of the kerygma for today, demythologization “obeys the commission of Jesus Christ by confronting every tradition, community, and individual with the challenge to participate anew in the eschatological mission of God” (827). The hermeneutical practice of demythologization for the sake of the clear proclamation of the kerygma is the confrontational event in the occurrences of which the church’s mission is actualized.
One need only spend a few moments perusing the “comments section” below an internet political or religious piece for proof that many of us possess a profound distrust for traditions, institutions, and other cultural, social, and economic power matrixes. Demythologization strikes a nerve in our present contextual situation possibly because it incorporates into its agenda the confrontation of traditions and communities by the kerygma. The nineteenth-century critical biographers of Jesus argued that Christianity’s theological traditions impede our access to the historical man. For those historical critics, that is, the church is a problem to be overcome in the course of unadulterated historical research. While Bultmann roundly rejected many of the presuppositions and stratagems of the first quest, he remained wary of institutionalized Christianity and traditional dogmas. The problem, once again, is the fear of objectifying the gospel; of encrusting it within a thing—here, a community and its doctrines and practices; its institutions—such that the gospel can be acted upon, or worse, such that the community becomes confused with the gospel. Rather than conceiving the church as something that lays a claim upon the individual, for Bultmann the church can only be interrupted by the eschatological newness of the gospel occurring in Christian preaching. It is no accident that the salad days of Bultmann’s Anglophone reception occurred during the 1960s, when young theologians and ministers-in-training discovered in his work a flexible theology capable of withstanding the church-political hegemonies on the ascendancy during that tumultuous decade. Interruptive theologies—anti-imperial, post-colonial, liberationist, countercultural, and otherwise—were then all the rage. Given the striking similarities between those days and ours, Bultmann indeed may be just the theologian for the current mood.
For others of us, however, the idea of a roomy church has emerged as a powerful symbol (or even sacrament) of evangelical significance. By no means simply serving as a source of security against the anxieties of these times, participation in the church, in practices and traditions that occupy space and take time—creedal and liturgical patterns, trajectories of theological discourse mediated in texts, official ministries and sacramental rites, etc.—reminds us that we are, ineluctably, part of a global and historical movement of faith that far transcends our own experiences. Even a few of us, as a result of exploratory hikes on the banks of the Tiber, are warming to the possibility of a genuine Protestant retrieval of a Catholic “great tradition” ecclesiology, perhaps best expressed by Yves Congar, O.P., who describes the nexus of revelation, tradition, and church in this way: “The Father’s gift is communicated to a great number of people throughout the world, and down the successive generations, so that a multitude of people, physically separated from it by space and time, are incorporated in the same unique, identical reality, which is . . . the saving truth, the divine revelation made in Jesus Christ.”4 We are not betraying an uncritical reception of Congar’s definition, nor is our aim to polemicize. Rather, we have allowed ourselves to wander in this direction to show, in the starkest possible terms, the antithesis to Bultmann’s ecclesiology: the roomy Church of Rome. And it is, we should note, the ecumenical antithesis to Bultmann. So far as I am aware (and Congdon can please correct me if I am mistaken), Catholic ecclesiology, undertaken in an ecumenical key, has hardly batted an eye at Bultmann’s idea of the church. It appears too radically Protestant; too drastically deflated.
Congdon is certainly well aware of these issues, and of others that unfurl from this point. His comments in The Mission of Demythologizing on “objections” to demythologization, particularly those of Robert Jenson (see 804ff.), to whose “evangelical catholic” reading of this nexus of themes I am admittedly deeply indebted, display an impressive sophistication in defense of Bultmann’s reading of ecclesiology on the basis of demythologization. Indeed, his summary comparison between Jenson and Bultmann nicely encapsulates the impasse: “According to Jenson, Jesus speaks to us through the church’s tradition, so that the regula fidei itself becomes the kerygma. Conversely, according to Bultmann, it is the church’s tradition that speaks to us through the keyrgmatic word of Jesus, so that the regula fidei can only ever again become the rule of faith when it is heard as a genuine proclamation of the kerygma.” And later, “Bultmann is a missionary theologian, that is, a theologian of intercultural translation, in which the unanticipatable retranslation of the kerygma itself constitutes the mission of the church. Jenson, by contrast, is an ecumenical theologian who understands mission as the inclusion of others within the practices of the church” (817).
I now fully tip my hand. I stand on the “evangelical catholic” side of the impasse, so stated; undoubtedly closer to Rome than Congdon, but myself closer still to the ecumenically engaged Protestants from which I inherited my basic ecclesiological postures. Jüngel and Bultmann—and now Bultmann once again, this time mediated through Congdon’s outstanding monograph—have failed to force a change of mind or heart. I long for a roomy church.
Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth, translated by John Webster (Bloomsbury, 2014), passim.↩
James F. Kay, Christus Praesens: A Reconsideration of Rudolf Bultmann’s Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 11.↩
Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner, 1958), 82–83.↩
Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, translated by A. N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 12.↩
The Coming of Contemporary Conversations
Feminist Theology in Dialogue with Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology
It is by living, no—more—by dying and being damned to hell that one becomes a theologian, not by knowing, reading, or speculating.—Martin Luther
In his substantive and probing work, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology, David Congdon sets out not only to revise the common understanding of the relationship of Barth and Bultmann as dialectical theologians, he also convincingly argues that a missional hermeneutic is the natural outworking of dialectical theology to its proper end. More than just a descriptive task, his constructive project intends to desecure us in ourselves “in order to secure us eschatologically in Christ, in the future of God that comes to meet us in the present moment.”1 As such, his book is an exercise par excellence in fides quaerens intellectum precisely because it aims at freeing us to ask hard questions about God and ourselves.
As will be clear in what follows, I approach Congdon’s text as someone committed to the dialectical theology of Barth and Bultmann and convinced that Bultmann’s demythologizing, properly understood, is especially pertinent to contemporary theological conversations if not to the lived life of faith. In that sense, I have been a most grateful benefactor of Congdon’s exacting research and paradigm-changing conclusions. That said, my aim in this essay is very straightforward. First of all, I grant the validity of Congdon’s contribution to theological discourse and to his revision of the historical narrative of Barth and Bultmann as dialectical theologians. Thus I will not be squabbling with any of the features of Congdon’s argument. Instead, I will bring to the table one particular dialogue partner to interact with various lines of Congdon’s main argument about Bultmann’s theology. I hope what I do will not be seen as diminishing the painstaking work of Congdon. It is my contention that some of the most beneficial results of his work are to open new space for dialectical theology to make a contribution. For example, it goes without saying that dialectical theology is not thought to have much to contribute to discussions within feminist theology. Such a lacuna, I hope to show, is not only unfortunate but also unhelpful. In what proceeds, I create a dialogue partner for Bultmann through the work of feminist theologian Janice McRandal and her study of feminist discourse on difference
What Hath Dialectical Theology to Do with a Feminist Theology of Difference?
In Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference: A Contribution to Feminist Systematic Theology, Janice McRandal notes that feminist theology has charged traditional theism with binary thinking and the resulting destruction of difference which relegates “whole legions of others to the margins.”2 McRandal rehearses how feminist theory about binary constructs has been buttressed by the philosophy of Derrida, which speaks of a “third and fluid space that sign and meaning point to, and yet retreat from.”3 At this point, McRandal includes a footnote addressing dialectical theology, which she indicates “many proponents see as a means of overcoming pure dualism (or reductionism).”4 Citing Derrida’s concern with the desire for mastery implied by the Aufhebung of dialectic methods and Peter Elbow’s similar concerns with the “Hegelanian dialectic,” McRandal concludes that “dialectics are considered . . . far too violent an option for discourse that affirms the dignity of human difference in and of itself.”5 She then suggests that it is the Christian doctrinal narrative of the Triune God who “gently transgresses all supposedly fixed binaries, with a strange and inexhaustible Threeness” that can undo dualism and binary modes of thinking.6 Here I would suggest that it is not the metaphysics of the Triune God that transgresses binary constructions but rather the coming of the Triune God, who is a self-interpreting God “involved in the contingencies and particularities of history within God’s very being”(20)—which can and does save us from all of our idolatrous and imposing strictures on ourselves, others, and God. Furthermore, I would wager that Congdon’s redefinition of dialectical theology, which is, at one point, summarized as “the constant differentiation between creator and creature for the sake of their proper relation” contains the needed resources for achieving a nonviolent theology of difference (227). To illustrate the contribution of dialectical theology in moving beyond the impasse of difference in contemporary feminist theology, I explore McRandal’s argument on Augustine’s conception of original sin and creaturely difference. I argue that dialectical theology can in fact achieve the ultimate goal McRandal intends, which is for Christian theology to make a contribution to feminist concerns regarding difference.
McRandal contends that because Augustine, in some of his later writings, historicizes Adam and Eve and the Genesis fall account, casting sin as “biological determination descending to all humanity”7 and women as created in a subordinate position to men, Christian theology needs to remythologize the Genesis fall narrative.8 With the suggestion of remythologizing, McRandal follows the work of Kevin Vanhoozer, who calls for a “spring back into metaphysics”9 with regards to scriptural mythos, which is the “antithesis of Bultmann’s ‘mythologizing.’”10 Vanhoozer is clear that his project of remythologizing is the opposite of Bultmann’s demythologizing, which he summarizes as Bultmann’s “strategy for translating biblical statement about God into existential statements about a human being.” He illustrates this by stating that “according to Bultmann, the New Testament stories about Jesus are myths: not descriptions of historical or other-worldly realities but expressions of ‘a certain understanding of human existence.’”11 Her goal is to prevent the complete abandonment of the doctrine of original sin by feminist theologians since she finds the doctrine accounts for the relation of sin to all humanity and speaks of God’s relationship to fallenness. To that end, she lifts up instead Augustine’s account of original sin in the Confessions. There, his understanding of original sin contributes to, rather than works against, his affirmations of “the created order and embodied experience.”12 McRandal claims that by “remythologizing the Genesis creation and fall narratives, theological accounts of creation and sin are unburdened not only of the obvious scientific difficulties of Augustine’s later claims of human creation and sin’s transmission, but also unburdened of the enormously problematic implications of this heteronormative narrative.”13 Yet I would contend that McRandal’s ultimate goal is achieved with demythologizing not remythologizing. Here’s why. Remythologizing keeps us locked into the historical-cultural limitations of the biblical texts, whereas demythologizing is “the interpretive repetition of the capture of language through revelation, in which the mythological element of myth is rejected as an attempt to capture revelation through language.”14 Demythologizing protects the core of what McRandal seeks to maintain: a proper account of humanity in relationship to God. If we follow Congdon’s lead and get right on terminology, we will go a long way in clearing up miscontruals of Bultmann’s contribution at precisely this point.
First, Bultmann understands myth in the biblical text to be the way the biblical writers understood “revelation in their particular context”15 since “myth expresses how human beings understand themselves in their being in the world.”16 As Congdon explains, mythology for Bultmann is a “mode of God-talk that intends to speak responsibly of God but does not, by virtue of historical-cultural limitations.”17 Thus we see that Bultmann does not reject myth as such. In its essence, myth “is opposed to the objectification of God.”18 The problem comes in myth’s limitation. “Myth thus makes the gods (or God) into human beings with superior power, and it does this even when it speaks of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, because it does not distinguish these qualitatively from human power and knowledge but only quantitatively.”19 This is, in essence, the problem of metaphysics. It is also the reason remythologizing is not the solution McRandal needs. Insofar as McRandal follows Vanhoozer’s suggestion of a return to metaphysics, the kerygma of the Genesis creation and fall narratives is stripped of its soteriological power. In contrast, one of the tasks of demythologizing is to locate and critique “the mythical world picture insofar as it conceals the real intention of myth.”20
McRandal lifts up Augustine’s move in the Confessions to interpret biblical texts “allegorically to push toward theological truths”21 by telling the story of his own life to reveal something about God’s creation. Interestingly, this brings to the fore the correlation between Augustine and Bultmann, which Congdon also recognizes.22 She follows Butler’s claim that the universalizing of experience is not the problem but rather “an operation of universality that fails to be responsive to cultural particularity and fails to undergo a reformulation of itself in response to the social and cultural conditions it includes within its scope of applicability.”23 Yet to focus, at the end of the day, on personal experience in isolation from the event experienced, highlights the problem with Butler’s claim, as helpful as it still can be. Essentially, Butler’s suggestion does not escape the problem of justifying “one’s own cultural assumptions . . . by securing a certain understanding of the kerygma”(685n271) even as it recognizes that one’s own self-understanding is the only basis on which we can understand a text. This becomes clear when we note that McRandal’s solution is to state that “original sin is the root metaphor, a universal doctrinal claim that names the proliferation of sin” without introducing “totalizing categories” thereby upholding the cultural particularities of creaturely difference—“indeed the doctrine points to difference.”24 For what she seeks to achieve, McRandal would be on firmer conceptual ground if she had affirmed the validity of Augustine’s approach to interpret mythological biblical texts in an existentialist way and critiqued his failure to make normative the saving character of the event of the God who speaks to us ever anew in revelation. As Christian Wiman puts it: “Truth inheres not in doctrine itself, but in the spirit with which it is engaged, for the spirit of God is always seeking and creating new forms.”25 “Demythologizing, as a missionary hermeneutic of translation, never results in a demythologized kerygma” as “there is no final outcome, no permanent interpretation, no universal worldview.” (826)
The ironic twist is that remythologizing still fails to acknowledge, right at this point, the particular limitations of the cultural context embedded into the Genesis accounts. Of course, failing to do this is to fall right back into the elements of the text that feminist theology rightly pushes against—elements that do anything but “secure creaturely difference and dignity.”26 If instead we follow Bultmann’s approach, we find that demythologizing, in its positive task, is “existentialist interpretation, in that it seeks to make clear the intention of myth to talk about human existence.”27 Demythologizing allows for “dialectical space between kerygma and culture, between eschatology and history,” which “is the space of God’s own freedom to speak ever anew. Without this paradox we end up binding God to a particular historical moment.”28 The “kerygma is . . . the event of God’s self-involving word to us,” which is best disclosed to us when the text is “translated into the conceptual idiom of the present hearers.”29 Here, it is crucial to note that the kerygma is not the doctrine of original sin but the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. What this amounts to in the present moment is that “the kerygma makes Christ present by forgiving my sins.”30 Yet in this, the kerygma has an intrinsic flexibility that is “able to inhabit and embrace an infinite variety of contexts, while always presenting a challenge to every context by virtue of the way it liberates us from our sinful past and calls us to a new life of obedience.”31 The work of demythologizing “embraces the radical contextuality of the kerygma for the sake of ‘preventing a petrification of the kerygma.’”(826). This, I believe, better accomplishes what McRandal and Butler seek.
To sum up, the need for Christian theology to “provide a coherent account of how sin relates to all humanity in light of the Christian narrative and where God stands in relation to fallenness”32 cannot be accomplished by remythologizing the Genesis texts. Doing so would only bind the kerygma to a single form “thereby implying that God does not speak to other contexts and communities.”33 The surest way to promoting the dignity of difference is to follow the eschatological and missionary logic inherent in the event of the missionary God, “who acts in relation to us in Christ” (833) in particular ways in each particular moment. What is needed is for Christian theology to renew its commitment to the kerygma. The kerygma is always soteriological and Christocentric, which, of course, “has profound implications for numerous doctrinal loci,” (833) including the doctrine of sin.34 The task of Christian theology in relationship to understanding our sin is to free us “to be addressed by the grace that encounters” us “in the word of Jesus Christ.” (394) McRandal’s instincts are right when she notes that in book 2 of the Confessions it is “only the experience of God’s forgiving grace that brings light to Augustine’s sins.”35 Indeed, she comes very close to endorsing demythologizing when she concludes that “without reference to the Christian eschatological narrative, theology forfeits its ‘unique explanatory power.’”36 If the God who comes in Christ by the Spirit’s power is the hope of Christian theology, surely this Advent God would have us test anew all of our theological statements about sin, gender, and difference “before the eschatological tribunal of the kerygmatic Christ, whose word resists every objectification and calls us into the insecurity of God’s future.”37
Congdon’s project has suggested that demythologizing, more than simply a hermeneutical task, “is a mode of faithful Christian existence” that “seeks to understand the kerygma in the context of each new intercultural encounter, but always in the relativizing light of God’s future.” (827) If that is true, one of the challenges of contemporary Christian existence is to find ways to follow the missionary God into authentic encounters and understandings of the stranger, and then to proclaim the kerygma in the context of all sorts of pressing issues, including gender and difference. With McRandal I affirm that feminist theology must continue the conversation between Christian and secular discourse in order “to witness to the gospel’s capacity for being at home in more than one cultural environment, and to displace enough confidence to believe that this gospel can be rediscovered at the end of a long and exotic detour through strange idioms and structures of thoughts.”38 McRandal notes feminist theology’s impasse in regard to difference has come “because it has largely failed to draw on the categories that give rise to its own discourse—that is, theological categories.”39 Yet rather than turning back to Christian theological discourse for solutions from our tradition, we must go through tradition so that Christian doctrine can instead “be reformulated anew” if it is going to “bear witness to the truth of the Christ-event,” (832) today. The goal of reading the biblical text in meaningful ways for feminist theology today cannot be to remythologize but to interpret the biblical text in new ways that speak into today’s context. That is our task.
David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 830. Hereafter, all citations to The Mission of Demythologizing will be parenthetical)↩
Janice McRandal, Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference: A Contribution to Feminist Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 61.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 88.↩
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), 7.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 99n67.↩
Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, 15.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 100.↩
Eberhard Jüngel, Gottes Sein ist im Werden: Verantwortliche Rede vom Sein Gottes bei Karl Barth: Eine Paraphrase (4th ed., Tübingen: Mohr, 1986), 24n34, quoted in Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 21.↩
Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Eugene: Cascade, 2015), 105.↩
Rudolf Bultmann, Theologie als Kritik: Ausgewählte Rezensionen und Forschungsberichte, ed. Matthias Dreher and Klaus W. Müller (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), 214, quoted in Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 103.↩
Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 21.↩
Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 109.↩
Bultmann, “On the Problem of Demythologizing (1952),” in New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2015), 98–99, quoted in Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 109–10.↩
Bultmann, “On the Problem,” 99, quoted in Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 119.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 102.↩
Congdon notes that Bultmann’s thesis about “the correlation between talk of God and talk of onself” is “not unique to him—having its roots in the Reformers, and before them Augustine.” Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 112.↩
Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 6, quoted in McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 102.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 103.↩
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 11, quoted in Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 829.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 104.↩
Bultmann, “On the Problem,” 99, quoted in Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 120.↩
Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 78.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 105.↩
Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 74.↩
We should be grateful to Congdon for translating Bultmann’s 1925 lecture on “The Christian Meaning of Faith, Love, and Hope” in appendix B of The Mission of Demythologizing. There, we find this helpful gem: “Accordingly, faith speaks of sin and forgiveness. Just as sin is not something a person has (something opposed to a better self)—rather, the person who refuses the decision is disobedient—so too forgiveness is not grasped in the notion of a general grace of God, but instead the action of God, which renews people, is directed to these particular persons.” Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 847.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 105.↩
Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 144.↩
Rowan Williams, prologue to On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), xiv, quoted in McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 16.↩
McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 13.↩
10.3.16 | Phil Ziegler
Mission and Myth
It is a pleasure to be drawn into this conversation around David Congdon’s very instructive and important new book, The Mission of Demythologizing. My own aims in relation to it are quite modest. I would simply like to venture some observations concerning certain of its prominent lines of argument and to think a little about their significance for the ongoing work of contemporary theology.
The overarching aim of the book is not only to give a full and fair account of the most important features of Bultmann’s theological lifework in its relevant historical and intellectual contexts, though it does this masterfully. It also ambitions to recommend these same essential features of Bultmann’s theological and hermeneutical programme—understood to be dialectical and missionary because evangelical—as viable, vital and even necessary for the responsible practice of Christian theology today. One might take the whole then as a kind of theological prolegomenon that accounts for the emergence during the twentieth century of the basic conceptual conditions under which the author adjudges contemporary Christian dogmatics must and can be done.
The opening third of the volume stands in its own right as a comprehensive review and revision of the historiography of the emergence of dialectical theology and its development during the first half of the twentieth century. Attending centrally to the place of Bultmann in this story allows Congdon to see the matter differently than when the figure of Barth provides the sole or prime focus. Congdon’s engagement with other now standard substantive discussions—e.g., those of McCormack, Jüngel, and Chalamet—is critically appreciative. He argues for the heuristic importance of the proximate and highly fraught church-political context within which Bultmann and Barth forged their paths. The distinctiveness of his own account derives in part from this, in part from the revisionist “leverage” the focus on Bultmann itself provides, but also in part from the suggestion that concrete missional concerns are ingredient in the dialectical “breakthrough” from the first. The result is the claim—ironic in the context of Barth’s own influential telling of the tale—that it is in fact Bultmann who most fully and consistently keeps faith with the prospect and programme of dialectical theology, and this in no small part because it is he who makes and keeps the problem of the free communication of the gospel central.
In the last two-thirds of the text Congdon undertakes an extended exposition of Bultmann’s works to vindicate this claim. The reading is as fresh as it is close. He revisits well-worn and hardened terrain in ways that break up the ground and allow for new and different appreciations of the great Neutestamenter and his achievement to take root. It is fair to say he does Bultmann’s thought an immense service by displaying its at times inchoate form, identifying its proximate polemical horizons, clarifying its several ambiguities, filling in its gaps, and negotiating its internal tensions, sometimes conceptually and sometimes developmentally. Bultmann is very much the better as a theologian for having Congdon as his sympathetic expositor and advocate. Of course, other expositors have gone before, and Congdon is fully conversant with their insights and incisive concerning their missteps. In my view, one of the book’s most notable services in this regard is to lift up the acuity and importance of Eberhard Jüngel and Gerhard Ebeling as both interpreters of Bultmann and as preeminent creative advocates for at least part of the theological programme Congdon himself is recommending. The other is its creative engagement with contemporary “intercultural theology” in an effort to illuminate the intractability of the hermeneutical problems with which Bultmann wrestles. The claim that such matters should be understood to be intrinsic and proper to the theological task of a missional church, rather than thought of as alien imports from the intellectual culture of “high modernity” is one of Congdon’s key interpretive gambits.
The core effort throughout is to take Bultmann’s work precisely seriously as theology and to contend with it as such. At every stage of the argument therefore, Congdon insists that Bultmann’s work be received as a self-conscious and legitimate outworking of fundamental Christian convictions, consistently concerned to do justice in thought to the soteriological concreteness of the eschatological gospel of God addressed to us. Aspects of Bultmann’s thinking which have regularly raised theological hackles—e.g., his investment in modern existentialist conceptualities, his commitment to radical historical criticism of biblical texts, and of course the demythologising programme in hermeneutics—are shown to be fully subordinate to, or indeed the proper outworking of, Bultmann’s singular concern to hear afresh the justifying word of God attested by John and Paul in particular, and to see the effective truth of this same word declared in the present with both the self-involving subjectivity of faith and indelible eschatological freedom from cultural and conceptual “captivity” which marks it as the word of God. The correlation of the saving event of God in Christ and human faith in it, is the heart of the matter: theology is tethered to this centre and its substance and form are decisively determined by it.
Bultmann’s theology, in short, is a theology of properly Protestant faith in the gospel of justification by grace through faith alone worked out consciously under the conditions of late modernity. It is as and because it discerns the fundamentally eschatological and soteriological character of the evangelical kerygma, that this theology becomes critically attuned to the problematically “mythical” character of biblical texts, inherited doctrine and worldviews (both old and new), concerned to surface and negotiate interpretative “pre-understandings,” as well as alert to Christianity’s ideological entanglement with weaponised Western colonial cultures. The freedom of a Christian, Bultmann wagers, includes and even demands the freedom to be critical and modern in these and other ways. Theological dialectics, historical criticism, and demythologising hermeneutics are, Congdon suggests, but fitting discursive servants of this same freedom.
Let me continue to express my appreciation for what Congdon has undertaken and accomplished here by trying to formulate three questions whose aim is to learn more about the argument of the book and its consequences.
Why theology unto mission, rather than theology unto proclamation?
In his recent review of this same work, Martin Westerholm has puzzled over the prominent place given to mission as a decisive interpretative horizon against which to understand and advocate for Bultmann’s work, and Congdon has already offered a public reply.1 I want to ask about this as well, but from a different angle. Is the meaning of mission in the context of this argument identical with proclamation, such that the questions concerning the need and complexities of the gospel’s intercultural “translation” in the work of mission could readily be substituted by questions concerning the need and complexity of “translating” the gospel in the pulpit? Despite the suggestive evidence Congdon has offered to signal the missional horizon of Bultmann’s project, surely the situation of the preacher is the more proximate, “native,” and apt locus at which to explore the need, promise, and perils of Bultmann’s programme. The task of proclamation is the place where the likes of Ebeling, Fuchs, and Jüngel sought to drive the matter home, crucially always focussed on the importance of Luther’s “preached God.” Is the pulpit—and around it the pastorate as such—not the primary place of the work of contextualisation which the gospel elects and demands for itself? One imagines that this is not an either/or, but it would be good to learn more about what, if anything, additional focus on the site of mission brings to light which remains obscured at the site of proclamation.
More than this, I wonder whether it not be right to think that the moment of proclamation in fact ought to belong within Bultmann’s own theological argument? A theology that talks about talking of God to suggest that one cannot in fact rightly talk about God but can only faithfully talk of God should, finally, itself talk of God. It ought finally to testify. Would Bultmann agree with Gerard Forde’s claim that proclamation is not just the practical or pastoral application of completed theological arguments but that actually “the move to proclamation is itself the necessary and indispensable final move in the argument”?2 Does this moment of witness occur (and recur?) in Bultmann’s theology, or is it merely “shown” in the form of his thinking even if not actually “said”? Could Bultmann’s sermons be taken to be just such a final move in the argument? If that is so, it would suggest that the material content of his preaching will be very important indeed in understanding what properly non-objectifying talk of the God of the gospel here and now looks like.
“God acts to save”—the last myth?
Following on from this, and more briefly, I would like to invite Congdon to say more about how it is that Bultmann’s correlative theology resists a full dissolution into the subjective, human pole. The peril of this reductio is regularly rehearsed by critics to Bultmann’s “right” (e.g., Barth and recently again by Vanhoozer),3 and it was advocated as the honest “end game” of demythologising by certain critics to his “left” (e.g., Braun and Buri). In the teeth of both views, Bultmann simply “refuses to dispense with the kerygma,” as Congdon notes (482). A defence of the irreducible eschatological objectivity of the kerygma would engage on both fronts at once, demonstrating on the one hand that correlational theology is adequately insured against subjective reduction, and on the other that the original kerygma was not itself myth “all the way down” as it were, and so not itself properly liable to demythologizing without remainder. It would be able to give an account of the meaning and referents of the terms in the phrase “God in Christ acts to save” that would withstand either test. The presentation of Bultmann’s answer to this is, I think, distributed across the whole of Congdon’s argument, but given its crucial importance as a focus of fundamental contention of Bultmann’s project, I wonder if he might be willing to distil it into a concise statement as well.
Whither a theological ethic for an entweltliche Christian existence?
Finally, I was very interested in Congdon’s explication of Bultmann’s notion of Entweltlichung—or “deworldizing”—towards the end of the volume (773f.). Congdon suggests that it is by way of this concept that Bultmann’s dialectical theology orients its account of the Christian life as paradoxical existence in the world “as if not,” and that this concept carries “the utmost socio-political significance” (779). I admit to being very much drawn to thinking further along these lines. For just that reason, it seems important to seek some further clarification on this score, and in particular on the latter claim concerning the socio-political significance of an entweltliche Christian life. What prompts the question in particular is the ease with which one can conjure up a vision of a Christian life in such terms which would have absolutely no socio-political significance whatsoever. Such a vision is embodied in an exemplary way in the figure of the “knight of faith” as imagined by Kierkegaard in de Silentio’s Fear and Trembling. Here, the infinite eschatological qualification of human life is registered with full intensity in human subjectivity as it embraces the “paradox” of faith, but in a way that leaves the external world entirely intact and is, as such, invisible in that world. Such is his faith that “after having made the movements of infinity” he “makes the movements of finitude” in ways which appear identical to “bourgeois philistinism” though now the authentic enactment of a radical de-worlding, i.e., “as if not.”4 Everything is different, but in way that leaves everything in the world “out there” intact. Aware of Kierkegaard’s influence upon dialectical theology, one might think that when Congdon notes in this connection Bultmann’s view that “justification is ontically real without being ontologically visible and objectifiable” (381), things are moving in this same direction.
Importantly, Kierkegaard’s second authorship suggests that the first vision of the paradoxical inner life of the “knight of faith”—suspended entirely from the mere Daß of revelation—can and must be supplanted by one of active obedience to Christ “as attested in Scripture” as Lord and prototype—a substantiation of revelation’s Was. This move would seem to be one Bultmann must deny himself. Yet Congdon’s claim about of the socio-political significance of Entweltlichung suggests that the “knight of faith” is not the paradigmatic form of Christian existence as Bultmann conceives it. It would be interesting to consider in fine just how a consistently dialectical theology like Bultmann’s should substantiate an ethic of the Christian life beyond—or better around—the consistent eschatological “setting at odds” with all possible worlds to which Entweltlichung points.
Martin Westerholm, “Creation and the Appropriation of Modernity,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 18:2 (March 2016), 210–32. The reply is at https://fireandrose.blogspot.co.uk/2016/05/dialectical-theology-and-mission.htm ↩
Gerald O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 5.↩
See Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 17ff.↩
Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling / Repetition, edited and translated by H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 38ff.↩
10.3.16 | David Congdon
Reflections on Proclamation, Myth, and Politics
The Mission of Demythologizing had its origin while I sat in courses on the theology of mission at Princeton Theological Seminary taught by Darrell Guder and John Flett—and before that in my anthropology course at Wheaton College led by Brian Howell. There I encountered a robust argument for missionary translation as basic to the gospel. When I read Bultmann making his argument for existentialist translation as basic to the gospel, I had an experience of theological déjà vu. If one accepts the former, I came to see, there is every reason also to accept the latter. Philip Ziegler has articulated this central claim of my book with his usual clarity and eloquence, and I am grateful to him for his sympathetic engagement with my work. Ziegler has asked me to explore three important issues in further detail. The first two questions—on proclamation and myth—are matters of clarification, but the third question, regarding a Bultmannian political ethic, will require a more constructive reply.
Ziegler asks an important question: Why focus on mission rather than proclamation? Is not Bultmann concerned more immediately and consistently with the latter? The answer, of course, is yes. Bultmann himself speaks about proclamation (Verkündigung) so frequently that it rivals both faith (Glauben) and understanding (Verstehen) as the key concept of his theology. Gerhard Ebeling thus appropriately titled his book on Bultmann: Theology and Proclamation. A search through the text of my book reveals that the word appears slightly over one hundred times. The bulk of these appearances come in the context of speaking about Jesus’s proclamation of the coming reign of God and the early church’s proclamation of Jesus as the fulfillment of this messianic promise. This is where Bultmann himself uses the word most frequently: at the intersection of the Jesus of history and the Christian community. Bultmann sometimes uses other words for this purpose, such as “message” (Botschaft) and “preaching” (Predigt)—following the example of his teacher Johannes Weiss in the latter’s pathbreaking Die Predigt Jesu vom Reiche Gottes. Where the focus is exclusively on the church’s proclamation, Bultmann also uses his famous term “kerygma.”
What makes these terms useful is their flexibility; they can refer to both the past words of Jesus and the present words of the Christian church. And since Christ is present and active today in the proclamation of the church, the flexibility of the concept allows one to speak simultaneously of the divine object and human subject of Christian preaching. Proclamation is both a divine and human action. In the present life of the church, therefore, the various terms often blur together, as when Bultmann says: “Christian preaching is kerygma, that is, a proclamation addressed not to the theoretical reason, but to the hearer as a self.”1 Finally, and this brings us to the topic at hand, Bultmann saw proclamation as the ground and goal of Christian theology: “Theology is in the service of a church whose task is in any event proclamation, preaching, teaching. Students prepared in theology should be able to preach and teach. . . . The method of teaching in the church is proclamation, preaching. Theology thus searches for the pure doctrine by seeking to determine what should be preached.”2 Here we see the basic agreement between Bultmann and Forde, though I would argue that at times Bultmann’s position is even stronger than Forde’s, at least insofar as proclamation is not merely the “final move in the argument” but is actually the first and basic form of all theological speech.
So why mission? Perhaps the first thing to clarify is that “mission” in my work is not synonymous with “evangelistic speech” or “preaching to nonbelievers.” I presuppose the work of missiologists over the last thirty or more years who have defined mission not as evangelism but as the contextualization or translation of the Christian gospel. In doing so they have moved mission out of practical theology into the realm of theology in general as a feature of all meaningful God-talk. (I wonder, in light of my exchange with Martin Westerholm, whether this may indicate an instance of crosscultural, transatlantic miscommunication; perhaps “mission” has a narrower meaning in the UK?) Mission does not stand alongside proclamation as a specific form of Christian speech; proclamation does not refer to speaking to Christians (i.e., the pulpit) while mission refers to speaking to non-Christians (i.e., the so-called “mission field”). But this means we cannot talk about mission being “identical with proclamation,” nor can we speak about substituting one for the other. That would assume mission and proclamation are two species of one genus. Instead, mission refers to the problem of the relation between the norm of Christian theology (the gospel) and the context of Christian theology (culture); it thematizes the cultural character of all God-talk. The question of mission is thus the question of theological language as such.
The reason I emphasize mission is twofold: (a) I wanted to clarify the relation between gospel and culture (i.e., world-picture), but the question of culture is often ignored by theologians while most of the significant work on the subject has been done by missiologists; (b) I want to convince those who are interested in mission—especially Barthians and American evangelicals—that they should see Bultmann as an ally. He uses different language but he is making the same basic point. Bultmann advances the missiological conversation by showing that missionary translation is involved in the very text of scripture itself, and thus every act of exegesis has to be understood in missionary terms as a recontextualization of the biblical message.
Ziegler asks me to give a clearer “defence of the irreducible eschatological objectivity of the kerygma” in order to ward off the claims that (a) Bultmann’s theology involves a complete “subjective reduction” and (b) the original kerygma is myth “all the way down.” Ziegler is right that these are the standard objections from both the right and the left—with the right claiming that Bultmann went too far and the left claiming he did not go far enough. But I want to suggest that these objections actually betray a basic misunderstanding of Bultmann’s project.
First, regarding the issue of subjectivity: Bultmann’s project fundamentally rejects the opposition between “objective” and “subjective,” as if a subjective reduction competed with the kerygma’s objectivity. Both the right and the left share this presupposition regarding a competition between subjective and objective: the right (represented best by Barth) insists on the priority of the objective over the subjective, while the left (represented best by Buri) denies there is something objective at all. Bultmann’s position is that “the ‘most subjective’ is here the ‘most objective.’”3 The relation between subjectivity and objectivity is proportional: we will understand the objectivity of the kerygma the more we understand the subjective existence of the person who hears and encounters this kerygma. Those who worry about a “subjective reduction,” as if subjectivity could squeeze out objectivity, are worrying about a view of subjectivity that Bultmann rejects.
The same holds for the question of myth. Those who worry about the kerygma being completely myth—as if myth is untrue or illusory—are worrying about a view of myth that Bultmann rejects. In order to understand the relation between kerygma and myth, we have to keep clearly in mind what these terms mean for Bultmann. Kerygma has two senses: (1) the original Christian proclamation about Jesus as the Christ (call this K1) and (2) the present divine-human event in which we hear and respond to God’s address (call this K2). Myth is an objectifying form of God-talk that occurs when we conflate the content of the kerygma with the ancient world-picture into which it was originally translated—and, by implication, with any other cultural world-picture. It is crucial to see that myth refers not to the content of the kerygma itself but only to the cultural-historical form in which this kerygma encounters a person. Since K1 is a historically situated speaking about God, it is indeed mythical “all the way down,” which is to say, it is culturally contextualized “all the way down.” But this does not mean K1 contains no truth that transcends its historical moment. This transcendent truth is K2, the kerygma as eschatological and existential encounter. K2 is the divine event that norms K1 and all future God-talk, and as such we cannot access K2 directly through language or historical research or scientific analysis. In itself it has no propositional form, no concrete historical modality, and thus it does not compete with any world-picture, past or present, even as it resists being identified with a specific world-picture and thus becoming myth. As a statement, “God in Christ acts to save” belongs to K1 and thus to myth; insofar as it becomes transparent to the actual event in which God saves me in Christ, it belongs to K2. (Remember: K1 only becomes myth for those who belong to a different world-picture than the original apostles; in their context it was simply the translation of K2 appropriate for their time and place.)
Once we grasp this point it becomes evident how Bultmann would respond to his critics on the right and left. Both groups fail to recognize K2: they both think the kerygma for Bultmann is a propositional kernel that remains after one has stripped away all these cultural accretions. The right then wonders why demythologizing removes some content while preserving other content; the left wonders why any content remains untouched by demythologizing at all. On my reading, we have to think about demythologizing in an entirely different way. There is no pure kerygmatic kernel, nor does demythologizing strip anything away. Demythologizing critically assesses to what extent a particular contextualization of K2 remains faithful to it in our particular time and place, and then it engages in a recontextualization of K2 through a process of translation (what Bultmann calls existentialist interpretation). The kerygma is the action of God, and demythologizing seeks to ensure that we encounter this divine act and not merely human language about this act.
One of the most widely misunderstood features of Bultmann’s theology is his concept of Entweltlichung or deworldlizing, often mistranslated as desecularization or unworldliness. The concept is the ethical counterpart to his hermeneutical concept of demythologizing, and I am grateful to Ziegler for focusing attention on this subject. It is much more central to Bultmann’s project than most people recognize. While my discussion of it appears in the final chapter, it is in truth the foundation for the whole program.
For the sake of those who have not read my explication of deworldlizing, here is a brief summary. Deworldlizing articulates a dialectical mode of existence that corresponds to the dialectical event of salvation in the “Word made flesh.” As he does with his christology, Bultmann situates deworldlizing in opposition to the “right” and the “left,” both of which place flesh and spirit in opposition: the fundamentalist-gnostic position withdraws from the world as the realm of sin, while the liberal-pragmatist position collapses authentic existence into the social programs and ideologies of the world. Bultmann is often read as being on the side of the gnostics, largely because Entweltlichung is interpreted as a nondialectical rejection of the world (much the way Entmythologisierung is interpreted as a nondialectical rejection of myth). But for Bultmann deworldlizing is a genuine freedom to be in the world and for the world—a freedom that comes from being simultaneously freed from the world. The Christian lives in the dialectical position of Paul’s “as though not” (1 Cor 7:29–31), in which the Christian is both at home in the world and at odds with it.
But what does this mean concretely? This is where things become trickier. I want to suggest that Bultmann is after something substantially different than the “knight of faith,” but articulating exactly what that something is can be quite complicated. We have to remember that Bultmann’s theology developed in a situation of great crisis—initially the crisis of the Great War and the failure of liberal theology, and later the crisis of the Kirchenkampf and the Second World War. Dialectical theology formed in part as a negation of overly positive accounts of God-talk that turned Christianity into the partisan of German nationalism and imperialism. Bultmann himself spent his peak years carving out a space of resistance to the Nazi regime. We can thus understand why his work stresses the negative moment much more strongly than the positive: his main concern in his sociopolitical context is to separate Christianity from alliance with imperial power and racist ideology. We can see why Bultmann’s thought resonates with younger generations today—especially North American post-evangelicals—who are fed up with Christianity’s support for systemic injustices such as global financial capitalism, American imperialism, mass incarceration, and the oppression of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities. Many of these people gravitate to negative and radical theologies (e.g., Slavoj Žižek, Catherine Keller, and John Caputo) precisely because of the emphasis on negation. They have had enough of theologians and ethicists declaring this or that to be the clear fulfillment of God’s will. I am not suggesting that Bultmann should be seen as being in continuity with these schools of thought. I am simply observing that one can stress the negative without thereby withdrawing from concrete political witness. Sometimes the most truly positive political action must take the form of a refusal to act. I think here especially of conscientious objectors to military service. Bultmann’s deworldlizing does not simply leave the world intact but rather challenges and disrupts exercises of power that undermine authentic freedom.
One hears the negative note more clearly and loudly than the positive not only because of Bultmann’s historical context, but also because of Bultmann’s conviction that the kerygma does not provide us with an ethical worldview that could tell us in advance what the Christian should do in any given situation. Bultmann shares with Barth an actualistic understanding of ethics in which the divine will becomes known only in the situation itself. There is no fixed Christian morality that is timeless and transcultural. This is what Bultmann means by defining revelation as a Dass and not a Was—it is an ever new event and not a fixed determinate program. Consequently, Christianity cannot be directly identified with a sociopolitical ideology, such as socialism or pacifism, though in each new moment the norm of the kerygma may indeed compel actions that could be described as socialist or pacifist. For example, I can say that the kerygma demands that I be a conscientious objector in this situation, but I cannot say that it mandates pacifism. The kerygma may demand I join an Occupy protest, but it does not mandate socialism. Bultmann’s 1922 essay on “Religion and Socialism” represents his position well:
Bultmann’s ethic is a “wholly particular negation,” but one that is grounded in a “positive possession,” namely, the grace of God in the kerygma. He would refine his terminology in his later years, but this dialectical statement captures his basic position.
Some will no doubt think Bultmann’s theology is too radical, and others not radical enough. Perhaps it is Bultmann’s fate to be caught in the middle. That is not to say he was merely a bourgeois moderate who refused to side with the oppressed, though I readily acknowledge that his position could potentially take such a form. Bultmann himself was outspoken on matters such as the “Aryan paragraph,” human dignity, and social democratic policy, but he was unwilling to say that one could extrapolate a concretely defined Christian ethic from the kerygma for the reasons noted above. He held to a Lutheran two-kingdoms position and was opposed to turning the gospel into a political message. The gospel that frees a person from the world necessarily also frees that person for engaging (and even changing) the world in the form of the law, which is the realm of human reason. As he said in response to Dorothee Sölle, the “inward freedom that makes faith independent of political structures does not release it from this responsibility [for societal structures and, as the case may be, for changing them], but rather demands it.”5
While I am inclined to defend Bultmann from charges of quietism, I nevertheless think this is an area where we need to press beyond him, particularly with respect to his unwillingness to think in systemic and structural terms. Sölle in particular was right on this matter. Sin cannot be confined to individual guilt but also has to be understood structurally. Contrary to some critics, Bultmann’s theology does not require that one think in strictly individualistic terms; there is a deep revolutionary impulse within dialectical theology. As I write in my book, “the dialectical revolution is a theological uprising against every form of colonialist thinking” (303). I would want to take this a step further and translate Bultmann’s program into an emancipatory deworldlizing that situates authentic eschatological existence in the dialectical relation not only to the world as such but also to social structures and political systems. To be deworldlized is to be freed from those systemic forces that confine a person to one’s ontological or phenomenological actuality—for instance, to the work that the economic system deems productive, to the past deeds by which the penal system evaluates one’s worth, to bodily norms and categories that are seen as fixed and natural—and thus freed for modes of social existence that acknowledge and empower new ontic possibilities. These new social forms are not merely the sphere of law but of the gospel itself, since the norm of the kerygma, which understands persons eschatologically as those who have their being outside themselves, generates modes of collective action where power and resources are not hoarded but rather shared for everyone’s mutual benefit, but with a preference for those persons who have been systematically denied a future in order to maintain unjust structures of privilege.
Clearly, much more work needs to be done on this topic. My point here is that an emancipatory interpretation of deworldlizing is a faithful extension of, and not a break with, Bultmann’s project. Bultmann articulated the eschatological norm of the kerygma within a totalitarian context, and thus his political ethic took a decidedly negative form. He advocated for individual freedom in opposition to a repressive, authoritarian state. We still need that negative mode of resistance today, but we also need to translate it into a positive, liberative social ethic that responds to the sham freedom of a libertarian market economy. Perhaps this will be the subject of a future book.
Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner, 1958), 36.↩
Rudolf Bultmann, What Is Theology?, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 33, 35.↩
Rudolf Bultmann, “Das Problem der Hermeneutik ,” in Glauben und Verstehen: Gesammelte Aufsätze, 4 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1933–1965), 2:230.↩
Rudolf Bultmann, “Religion und Sozialismus,” Sozialistische Monatshefte 58 (1922) 446; quoted on p. 373 of my book.↩
Quoted in Konrad Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography, trans. Philip E. Devenish (Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2013), 493.↩