Symposium Introduction

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.

  1. Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (New York: Mariner Books, 2002), p. 30.

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.

  1. Martin Westerholm, “Creation and the Appropriation of Modernity,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 18:2 (March 2016), 210–32. The reply is at 

  2. Gerald O. Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 5.

  3. See Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion and Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 17ff.

  4. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling / Repetition, edited and translated by H. V. Hong and E. H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 38ff.

  • David Congdon

    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:

    In essence religion is not the motif of world-transformation, for thereby it would abandon its absolutely transcendent character. But it is also in essence not the conservative affirmation of any economic or state-political condition, for then it would identify itself with a particular course of world-configuration. It is also in essence not a flight from the world and asceticism. . . . Religion is not the simple negation of the immanent in a flight from the world and asceticism but a wholly particular negation, which is only the consequence of a positive possession.4

    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.

    1. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner, 1958), 36.

    2. Rudolf Bultmann, What Is Theology?, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 33, 35.

    3. Rudolf Bultmann, “Das Problem der Hermeneutik [1950],” in Glauben und Verstehen: Gesammelte Aufsätze, 4 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1933–1965), 2:230.

    4. Rudolf Bultmann, “Religion und Sozialismus,” Sozialistische Monatshefte 58 (1922) 446; quoted on p. 373 of my book.

    5. Quoted in Konrad Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography, trans. Philip E. Devenish (Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2013), 493.

Paul Hinlicky


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?

  • David Congdon

    David Congdon


    Demythologizing as Denarratizing

    Paul Hinlicky’s magnum opus, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom, was published exactly one month before my book, and the two works have almost exactly the same number of pages—though his book is far superior as the magisterial work of a seasoned theologian. I mention this because his engagement with Bultmann in Beloved Community, as well as in other works, is incisive and significant enough to warrant Hinlicky’s inclusion in the final chapter of my book as one of the sympathetic critics of Bultmann, alongside Moltmann, Bayer, and Jenson. I am therefore greatly honored and pleased to have the opportunity to respond to his discussion of my work.

    Hinlicky expresses broad agreement with my project in its historical-exegetical capacity as an attempt to present Bultmann’s program in a more charitable light, setting Bultmann free from Karl Barth’s denigrations while drawing on the interpretive insights of Eberhard Jüngel. He appreciates my claim that Bultmann is best read as a missionary rather than apologetic theologian. The disagreement concerns demythologizing itself. Hinlicky sides with the three critics mentioned above whom I engage at the end of my work—Moltmann, Bayer, and Jenson—and does not think I have addressed their “deeper points,” specifically with respect to the objectivity of God. Hinlicky agrees with my argument that Bultmann is a dialectical theologian, but this is precisely the problem. Dialectical theology is part of the Kantian legacy that we must overcome, he claims. Though I do not think his criticisms represent my own views accurately, I appreciate Hinlicky pressing me on this issue. I wrote Mission for those who were already convinced by dialectical theology but were skeptical about Bultmann. Consider this response my initial effort to widen the net.


    I begin with a correction. In the course of summarizing my argument, Hinlicky says the following:

    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!

    There is tangled nest of problems here that we need to sort out. First, I expressly reject the definition of myth as a “story of the gods” in my discussion of Barth (see 183–85), where I say that “this definition of myth has little, if anything, to do with Bultmann’s concept and is in fact directly opposed to it” (184). 1 Hinlicky compounds the misunderstanding by claiming that “God speaks” or “God acts” is “all the same ‘mythical’ speech.” Again, this is precisely what I argue against at some length. Bultmann himself addresses this very issue in Jesus Christ and Mythology. He opens the last chapter by writing: “It is often said that it is impossible to carry through de-mythologizing consistently, since, if the message of the New Testament is to be retained at all, we are bound to speak of God as acting. In such speech there remains a mythological residue. For is it not mythological to speak of God as acting?” 2 Bultmann’s answer is no, and the bulk of the seventh chapter of my book is devoted to explaining and defending this answer through a clarification of just what he means by myth. Central to my argument is a discussion of analogy and the connection between Bultmann’s demythologizing and Barth’s analogia fidei. While they express their positions very differently they both ultimately conclude that talk of God is analogical talk grounded in Jesus Christ; insofar as our God-talk is christologically and soteriologically normed it is not mythical or metaphysical. In the course of making this argument I have an excursus on Thielicke where I show that his rejoinder to Bultmann involves an explicit appeal to the analogia entis and natural theology (see 598–607). It is therefore not at all accurate to say I dismiss Thielicke as a “conservative.” In truth I show that Thielicke is only able to reject Bultmann by also rejecting the heart of Barth’s theology, which only confirms my main claim that anyone who embraces Barth’s theology should also embrace Bultmann’s demythologizing.

    I therefore do not recognize Hinlicky’s description of demythologizing as faithful to Bultmann—unless he meant to represent the position I am arguing against, in which case it succeeds admirably! Whatever the case may be it is essential that we are clear about this up front: the kerygma as such is not myth. As a divine act of justifying judgment, the kerygma is an event that commandeers human language to bear witness to God, language that belongs to a particular cultural context or world-picture. This God-talk only becomes mythical when the cultural-linguistic form is conflated with the event itself, which is precisely what I fear has happened in Hinlicky’s counterproposal, as is the case with the sympathetic critics with whom he aligns himself. Unfortunately, like Jenson, Hinlicky “misses the whole point of demythologizing: not to reject story or narrative, but to reject ideology and propaganda” (809).


    In his most recent book Hinlicky calls himself an “anti-Kantian extraordinaire,”3 so it should not surprise us to find that the main criticism he lodges against dialectical theology (DT) is that it is Kantian, because it is allegedly “the dialectic of the phenomenal and the noumenal, in concepts laid down by Kant for all of ‘modern’ theology.”4 He calls Kantianism an “intellectual prison-house” that separates reality “into two mutually delimited spheres policed by the Tribunal of Reason.” I want to reflect on this for a moment since I go to great lengths in my work to free DT from its close association with Kantianism—efforts that Hinlicky does not mention. Indeed, Hinlicky is largely repeating Oswald Bayer and Jürgen Moltmann on this point, just as evangelical critics of Barth often end up repeating Cornelius Van Til, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Both evangelicals and postliberals make the common mistake of reducing DT to Kantian theology on the basis of a merely formal similarity. And no one denies the similarity: there is certainly a correspondence of some kind between the relation of noumenal and phenomenal and the relation of eschatology and history. But formal similarity does not equal material determination. Moreover, once one realizes that, at least in the case of Bultmann, the dialectic of eschatology and history is not a static dualism but a dynamic, paradoxical identity, even the formal similarity finds itself stretched to the breaking point.

    I challenge those who reduce DT—particularly the DT of Bultmann—to Kantianism to show me any place where Barth and Bultmann make a theological claim on the basis of Kant’s philosophy. The use of Kantian concepts alone proves nothing. We might as well reduce Augustine to Plato, Aquinas to Aristotle, Jüngel to Hegel, and Gutiérrez to Marx. I do not find reductionistic claims of this nature compelling, especially in the case of Bultmann where one rarely finds the use of Kantian categories.5 What we find instead is the use of pairs like sin and grace, flesh and spirit, law and gospel, world and eternity, history and eschatology. These are all clearly Pauline, Johannine, and/or Lutheran concepts. The most plausible point of connection is in the contrast between theory and praxis, which Jüngel uses to explicate demythologizing. But this too originates in Luther’s rejection of speculative or theoretical theology in favor of the claim that vera theologia est practica (473). As I state in my book, “the reformational claim that faithful God-talk is a theologia practica” depends on neither “the modern Kantian differentiation between theoretical and practical reason” nor “Aristotle’s differentiation between theoretical and practical knowledge” (474); it stems from a soteriological claim regarding the justifying action of God.

    Does it therefore make more sense to say that Bultmann is a Kantian or that he is a Pauline and Lutheran theologian working in a modern context? We should apply Ockham’s razor. It is far simpler to say that DT is an eschatologized Lutheran theology than to go through the exegetical hurdles of arguing that DT is Kantianism disguised. Since I already made this point in my book, I think it is best if I simply quote what I say there:

    If dialectical theology is a consistently eschatological version of Luther, we can see not only why Barth and Bultmann could profitably make use of Kantian philosophy but also why such philosophy was never essential to their thought. Their radically eschatological theology of the Reformation was already predisposed to posit a differentiation between the intuitable and unintuitable, between the given and the nongiven, between the visible and the invisible. It already had the basic building blocks of a thoroughly postmetaphysical approach to theology. Friedrich Gogarten called it “the dialectic of what is past and what is present,” which was simply a way of referring to Luther’s dialectic of sin and grace, law and gospel.6 Neither Barth nor Bultmann was dependent on Kant to establish these claims; Kant merely provided a conceptuality to buttress their theologically-grounded dialectic. In the end the primary role of Kantian (or neo-Kantian) philosophy in the early development of dialectical theology was to force the dialectical theologians to think carefully about epistemological matters. The post-Kantian context meant that Barth and Bultmann had to radicalize the Reformation in the direction of a new theological epistemology. Anything less would have failed to let the gospel respond to the present situation. (290–91)

    I would go even further and argue that both DT and Kant are branches stemming from a common Lutheran heritage. If Kant is Lutheranism squeezed into the mold of the Enlightenment, then DT is Lutheranism refined through inquiry into the eschatological origins of the New Testament and the missionary situation of modernity.

    Towards the end of my book I quote Bruce McCormack on the relation of theology and philosophy in Barth, which I then apply to Bultmann. The quote is worth repeating here:

    Barth had no desire to be a philosopher. He was first, last, and always a theologian. Like Herrmann before him, Barth was willing to take for granted the validity of certain aspects of Marburg neo-Kantianism, where to do so strengthened the case he wanted to make theologically—or at least, did not infringe upon that theology. Where he agreed with Cohen and Natorp, he did so without ever having troubled himself to test their philosophy on philosophical grounds; where he disagreed with them, he did so for theological reasons. At every point, his theological concerns governed his use of philosophy.7

    I would echo McCormack’s words in response to every charge that DT is reducible to Kantianism. DT is not Kantian but rather evangelical; it is theology normed by the gospel of God’s saving action in Christ. For this reason, at its best moments, it displays a cool nonchalance towards Kant, as well as to any other philosophy. It is free to appropriate or to reject philosophy at will. The burden of proof is on those who disagree to show that Barth or Bultmann has actually let philosophy infringe upon theology, thus compromising the message of the gospel. Perhaps still more importantly, those who are explicitly anti-Kantian must show why their theology is not parasitic on Kantianism by virtue of being defined in opposition to it and thus bound far more closely to Kant, albeit negatively, than DT ever was.


    Let’s unpack this issue further. Hinlicky claims, with an assist from Peter Ochs, that DT is “a dyadic polarization or infinite juggling act between subject and object,” with the result that, “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.” Reading these words is rather like going back in a time machine at least twenty years to an era before McCormack’s work on Barth’s epistemology. I am tempted at this point to say, “Read McCormack,” but to be fair I do spend a great deal of time discussing the subject-object relation in my book, so perhaps I am to blame for confusion on this issue.

    In any case the point needs to be made that for both Barth and Bultmann, God is both subject and object. McCormack makes this argument throughout the course of his work with respect to Barth, and I do the same in my work with respect to Bultmann. The challenge Barth faced in overcoming liberalism was how to affirm the genuine objectivity of God without collapsing the Creator into the creature. Barth’s solution came through his doctrine of divine self-revelation in which “God remains the Subject even in the earthly form of a revealed object.” Whereas Hegel directly identifies subject and object, Barth maintains a dialectical relationship between them: “God is Subject in the earthly form; God does not become the earthly form.”8 Bultmann does not reflect on these matters to the same degree that Barth does, but he arrives at substantially the same point. He achieves this through his doctrine of paradoxical identity: whereas liberalism “believes in the direct identity of worldly occurrences with divine action,” DT believes in their “paradoxical identity,” in which the revelatory action of God “is not represented as something taking place between the worldly occurrence but rather as something happening in it.”9 For both Barth and Bultmann God is indeed the object—but the question is what kind of object. An object in which God is not also always the subject is not an object but an idolatrous objectification. Barth and Bultmann charge both liberalism and orthodoxy—and I would add, postliberalism—with objectifying God. Liberalism objectifies God in history; orthodoxy objectifies God in scripture and tradition; and postliberalism objectifies God in the narrative of the canon and the culture of the church.

    Against DT, Hinlicky appeals to “an incarnate Word as objectively there for faith (as also for unfaith[!]).” He speaks of “the incarnation as this objectivity of God!” And near the end he even speaks of “Congdon’s own proposal for the freedom of the kerygma from genuine incarnation.” One could come away from Hinlicky’s essay with the impression that I deny the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Thankfully, I do no such thing! Indeed I develop my argument for demythologizing—following the lead of Bultmann and Jüngel—precisely on the basis of John’s claim that the “Word became flesh.” Divine revelation genuinely occurs in human flesh without becoming something we can possess and control; it is truly objective without being objectifiable. Hinlicky would likely want to argue that my account of the incarnation is insufficient—and I welcome that conversation—but he settles for the assertion that I develop “a sophisticated monophysitism or neo-docetism,” this despite the fact that both monophysitism and docetism are only possible where the paradoxical nature of the relation between Word and flesh is neglected or denied.

    If anyone is denying the paradox it would seem to be Hinlicky himself. Notice above that he says the incarnate Word is “objectively there” even “for unfaith.” Even if we grant that Jesus can be there for unfaith, how can the Word be there for unfaith unless one thinks that God is demonstrably self-evident, in which case there is nothing paradoxical about revelation? Hinlicky adds:

    In my Christological view, [Congdon] 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.

    Hinlicky is concerned with the church’s ability to “ground and account” for Jesus in a way that publicly verifies the claims of the church. The objectivity of incarnation for Hinlicky apparently means something given in the world that can be observed and acknowledged outside of faith. Following Moltmann and Jenson, especially, he locates this objectivity of God not in historical data but in the narrative of scripture, which speaks “about God” and in which Jesus has a necessary role to play. From what I can tell, the Word of God on this account is objectively incarnate as text. God is a story that we tell, and we participate in God insofar as this story absorbs the world in the cultural-linguistic form of the church. Once we recognize that this narrative does not simply descend from on high but arises from specific cultural and historical situations, we can draw two conclusions: this account (a) effectively identifies God with a set of human words about God and (b) promotes a missionary method that is indistinguishable from colonialism, since this cultural narrative is untranslatable and can only encounter other cultures as an imperialistic power. As I say in response to Jenson, so I say to Hinlicky: “This position comes at a steep cost. And as with Moltmann, the cost is the price of mission, or at least a mission marked by intercultural dialogue and translation” (821). There is a fork in the road, and one side (supposedly) gives you a textually objective incarnation but only if you are willing to embrace the cultural imperialism of Christendom. The other side rejects a textual incarnation precisely to prevent its imperialistic consequences. If the narrativizing of the gospel means yoking Christ to the culture of the church, then demythologizing must take the form of denarrativizing in order to remain faithful to God.

    If we accept that the postliberal theological infrastructure is the absolute norm for fidelity to Jesus Christ as the genuine incarnation of God, then of course it makes sense for Hinlicky to assert that Jesus in my account “must reduce to a cipher, standing for the fiat of divine subjectivity asserting itself in an arbitrary act scandalously commanding decision and obedience.” The options have been determined in advance: either Jesus is objective as a story or Jesus is reduced to an empty, arbitrary cipher. Why this must be the case is not explained, nor does it follow from anything I say in the book; it only makes sense once we realize the larger theological system that Hinlicky presupposes as normative. He has here repeated the charges that Jenson levels against Bultmann without addressing any of my rejoinders, presumably because those rejoinders issue from a theological perspective that he assumes is Kantian and therefore obsolete.

    In my view, the divine act is always concretely kerygmatic and so always grounded in and expressive of the singular Christ-event, and thus the divine act materially corresponds to the church’s proclamation of the crucified Christ but is not restricted to a specific form of this proclamation. While the divine act is separable from the historically situated narrative about Christ, it is inseparable from the specific person of Christ himself. Christ is present and active outside the cultural forms of scripture and liturgical practices. Faith—and faith alone—acknowledges that the forgiveness of God encounters us in Christ in a unique and irreplaceable way. All attempts at securing the uniqueness of Jesus in a way that is objectively demonstrable only end up destroying it. It is ultimately a divine gift that comes through an encounter with the message of the gospel.10 For Bultmann this can happen in prereflective and unconscious ways, though it is normed by the tradition of church proclamation. Much like Jenson, in fact, Bultmann’s response to the question “Why Jesus and not someone like Josef Stalin?” is that the church proclaims Jesus as such.11 There is nothing arbitrary about this if you believe, as Bultmann emphatically does, that God actually speaks to us in the words of kerygmatic proclamation. The difference is that Jenson is anxious to make sure the church’s tradition remains secure and inviolable in the face of cultural degradation and thus he creatively (and disastrously, in my opinion) conflates Christ with the church, so that Jesus is risen in the cultural institution of Western Christianity. Bultmann, by contrast, recognizes the freedom of God to speak a new word to the people of God today, a word that may require new traditions, practices, and doctrines. For Bultmann, the church always stands under the galvanizing and mobilizing event of the kerygma, and thus tradition is always subject to revision. God is free to establish the church in new forms appropriate to the present situation. This insecurity about the future of the church is essential to the gospel, according to Bultmann. But for some, like Jenson, this is too much insecurity to bear.12


    I want to end on a more positive note by inviting Hinlicky to elaborate further on his “triadic” hermeneutic. In his response to my book he briefly alludes to his alternative to the Kantian subject-object schema, which he calls “triadic thinking.” For a clearer picture of what this involves we must turn to his Beloved Community. In a note on “the triadic structure of theological knowledge,” Hinlicky draws on Josiah Royce’s The Problem of Christianity to argue that interpretation has the triadic structure of subject-object-audience. Interpretation is an inherently open and social process. Applied theologically, the structure takes the following form:

    The theological subject is the person who is formed by Spirit-wrought faith in Christ, thus the subject who exists in the world as crucified with Christ and in just this way raised to membership in the community of interpretation that is the ecclesia drawn to faith from the nations through the ages. . . . The object that interests this theological subject is Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, a union of the sign and thing signified, who is as such believed, known, and confessed before the world. . . . And while it is certainly true that the proximate audience of this act of interpreting Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and savior of the nations . . . is the very “nation” in which and to which these subjects and communities are in mission and vocational service, the final audience of this action is the eschaton of judgment, the day of judgment before the eternal Father.13

    Adopting this triadic subject-object-audience model means that theology begins with pneumatology (the Spirit-empowered subject), moves to christology (the object), and concludes with patrology (the Father as audience). The result is that “subjects know objects in addressing audiences and interpreting social experience.”14 Hinlicky draws on pragmatist social theory to flesh out this creative and compelling account of theological knowledge.

    I see broad agreement between my account and Hinlicky’s. My intercultural interpretation of Bultmann, which frames demythologizing in social terms, moves in this direction. The fact that I identify myself with DT hardly justifies describing my position as trapped within “the sterile dialectic of Kantianism” and “the abstract dialectic of deity and humanity, eschatology and history.” Once we set aside the assumption that DT is by definition dyadic and Kantian, the possibility of integrating my missiological account with Hinlicky’s pragmatist account becomes clearer. What Hinlicky calls the audience I call the cultural context. Since I deny that theology can be done in abstraction from this context, it follows that my model is triadic in content if not in form.

    At the same time, comparing Hinlicky’s triadic interpretive model with my dialectical-intercultural model reveals why Hinlicky comes to the conclusions that he does. His is an account of knowledge: the subject is the human person seeking knowledge of God, while the object is the incarnate and crucified Christ. By contrast, as I argue throughout my book, dialectical theology is primarily a soteriology and only secondarily an epistemology. DT is an account of salvation: the subject is the God who justifies, while the object is the sinner who is justified by God. Theological knowledge within DT is therefore existential, since it only occurs in the saving event of justification. The human subject of knowledge thus comes into existence in the same moment that the human person is the object of God’s saving action. DT’s focus on soteriology explains why the audience does not figure as prominently in its account of God-talk. But if one accepts the validity of my intercultural interpretation of DT, there is no conflict between a soteriological understanding of the subject-object relation and an epistemological understanding of the subject-object-audience relation.

    I am honored to have someone of Hinlicky’s stature engage my work with such care and incisiveness. I am grateful to him for his sympathetic critique, though I think there are ample grounds for being even more sympathetic than he is. I look forward to exploring these points of connection in future conversations.

    1. Parenthetical citations refer to my book, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).

    2. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner, 1958), 60.

    3.  Paul R. Hinlicky, Divine Simplicity: Christ the Crisis of Metaphysics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 69.

    4. Hinlicky writes: “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 post-modernity—epistemically, post-Kantianism!” Why, given these positive comments, am I a Kantian thinker? The next line reads: “Dialectical theology is the dialectic of the phenomenal and the noumenal, in concepts laid down by Kant for all of ‘modern’ theology.” In other words, Hinlicky asserts that DT is necessarily Kantian, and therefore anyone who identifies with DT must by definition be a Kantian as well—regardless of what that person actually says.

    5. I would make a similar argument regarding Bultmann’s alleged Heideggerianism. For that argument, see my article “Is Bultmann a Heideggerian Theologian?,” forthcoming in the Scottish Journal of Theology.

    6. Friedrich Gogarten, Ich glaube an den dreieinigen Gott: Eine Untersuchung über Glauben und Geschichte (Jena: Diederichs, 1926), 79.

    7. Bruce L. McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development, 1909–1936 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 42.

    8. Ibid., 354.

    9. Rudolf Bultmann, “Zum Problem der Entmythologisierung,” in Kerygma und Mythos, Band II: Diskussion und Stimmen zum Problem der Entmythologisierung, ed. Hans-Werner Bartsch (Hamburg-Volksdorf: H. Reich, 1952), 196–97.

    10. Christian faith does not claim that God could only have acted in Jesus of Nazareth; it says instead that God did act decisively in Jesus. The contingency is not a threat to faith. Jenson (and Hinlicky) wrongly attribute to Bultmann the notion that revelation must be contingent in order to be divine. By contrast, “Bultmann actually says that revelation is contingent because it is divine. Revelation is contingent because it occurs in the man Jesus of Nazareth; it does not occur in Jesus because someone has determined that it must be contingent. The contingency is not a precondition for revelation’s eschatological character but a consequence of it” (807). Since most of Hinlicky’s objections are identical to Jenson’s, readers are advised to read my response to Jenson on 804–23.

    11. There is another answer to “Why Jesus?” that is more implicit in Bultmann’s work, namely, that the experience of salvation, the decision of faith, necessarily takes a christological shape—not a narratival shape, but the shape of the Christ-event as a being-place-outside-oneself. This is the answer one finds in Jüngel, and it is present in Bultmann, however obliquely. The event of the cross is an offense that deworldlizes and desecures a person, placing her outside herself. Wherever this deworldlizing occurs, with or without any acknowledgment of the biblical narrative, there one has encountered the living Christ.

    12. Ironically, Jenson and Hinlicky represent the position that Bultmann understands as myth. In my interpretation, “whereas myth moves a person into its own narrative reality (i.e., its alternative explanation of the world), a demythologizing kerygma moves a person into the transcendent reality of God” (450).

    13. Paul R. Hinlicky, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 83–84.

    14. Ibid., 414.

    • Paul Hinlicky

      Paul Hinlicky


      Weltbild and Weltanschauung

      I think that David Congdon has made a very able defense of his project in response to me, and the conclusion was gratefully most constructive.  Yet we have a disagreement. I hope it is not another round in the elephant and whale myth, but it is hard to state the disagreement in neutral terms that we could both agree on. It may turn on the subtle difference between Weltbild and Weltanschauung.

      For me, the name Jesus denotes a Jew, just as the title Christ, designates Israel’s messiah. This reference is thus to the historical particularity of Jesus Christ –that is, to the divine givenness (i.e., the “resurrection” cf. Romans 1: 2-4) backing the paradoxical proclamation of Jesus who ended on a cross as victim nevertheless made Christ the Victor in the train of Joshua and David. Needless to say, this act of God’s self-identification with the Crucified as Father to Son by way of terms from the first century, Second Temple, Palestinian Weltbild challenged the Weltanschauung of contemporaries – folly to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews.

      The issue for me is whether this “scandal of particularity” –one individual Jew from among countless thousands of his time, one particular religious and cultural world as kairos in relation to all others—survives “demythicizing,” or more precisely de-narrativizing. What blocks dissipation is that these terms, Jesus and Christ, are not translatable (we transliterate them and interpret them); they are given as something with a particular content, to be learned catechetically (not in the momentary event of proclamation, but in the time between proclamations, in school). Jesus Christ is to be understood theologically, then, in relation to His Father who sent Him and their Spirit who raised Him, as also for others – preeminently, “for me” the sinner who as catechumen prepares for baptism into His death and new life in the world as member of His body. These affirmations signal my chief worry about neo-docetism in Bultmann (and lesser minions, not I think Congdon), namely, the vacating of the incarnation by a monophysitism for which the particular humanity of the Incarnate Son has not only been absorbed into a timeless notion of deity, but His historical obedience “to death, death on a cross” erased as the very righteousness which justifies the ungodly. The testimony of the Fourth Evangelist is that the Logos did not become flesh for a moment of proclamation and then disappear again, as if the flesh were merely an instrument of communication rather than the place of divine salvation. But He became flesh and dwelt among us, tangibly full of grace and truth (manducatio indignorum) and remains this same flesh forever). If we do not affirm this, we can still vocalize the word Jesus but we have turned the word into a cipher, a waxen nose at the disposal of contextual religious needs and the hawkers of salvation or liberation or personal prosperity or of whatever else other than Israel’s hope in God for the redemption of the creation in travail.

      If myth stands for Weltanschauung, Congdon and I agree on demythologizing. If myth stands for Weltbild, however, then it stands for the historical self-understanding (to put it in Bultmann’s Heideggrian idiom) by which any particular agent identifies as someone in particular in the world. In that case, we don’t agree on demythologizing. Congdon, speaking for himself and not for Bultmann, may agree on the historical particularity of the One whom the gospel proclaims as the Incarnate Son. But he would perhaps deny that the Incarnation as such or the particular identity of Christ crucified is saving. That would be the old Lutheran truism that fides historica is not justifying fiducia. Agreed. But why then is historical particularity necessary to affirm at all? Why isn’t Tillich right when he claims that Jesus is the Christ by virtue of denying everything that is Jesus about Himself? Tillich it seems to me carries through in systematic theology on the logical implications of neo-docetism, provoked to it as he was like Bultmann by the exaggerated historical skepticism of the times. Bultmann dodges this implication –or is it presupposition?—of his own thinking in a way that I believe cannot responsibly be dodged.
      That is why I urge that the dyadic thinking of Cartestian-Kantian modernity has be overcome and that a merely dialectical theology cannot surpass this infinite juggling between the absolute and the relative. But a real Incarnation does not see a tangential event; it sees a divine appropriation of a particular instance of humanity on behalf of all humanity, not once upon a time nor momentarily in an event, but henceforth and forever.

    • David Congdon

      David Congdon


      Liminal Theology

      Does myth stand for Weltanschauung or Weltbild? My response is: both. And perhaps that is where Hinlicky and I disagree.

      Bultmann expressly understands myth as an objectifying mode of God-talk within a particular ancient Weltbild. Myth is only objectifying because we no longer share the Weltbild of the text. Insofar as this objectifying God-talk is given universal and normative authority, it becomes a Weltanschauung. So myth only functions as a Weltanschauung because it is the objectification of a particular Weltbild. The Weltbild itself is not myth, of course; it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for myth, which forms when people attempt to speak about God according to the conceptuality belonging to the Weltbild. The question Bultmann presses is whether the kerygma of Jesus Christ, in principle, can be differentiated from the ancient Weltbild of the biblical text. He insists that it can be—indeed, that it must be—while it seems that Hinlicky denies this.

      I am interested in mission because I find theorists in the field of missiology wrestling with this same question—namely, to what extent can the gospel become inculturated within new contexts and still remain in continuity with the larger Christian faith? And beyond that, what does continuity even mean in the first place? This is why I find John Flett’s work on apostolicity and Henning Wrogemann’s work on intercultural hermeneutics so important and relevant.[1] Flett and Wrogemann are working in the area of missiology on the same problems that I am dealing with in the area of hermeneutics. In both cases the issue of what we mean by the “gospel” poses itself as a question that evades any easy answer. We cannot simply appeal to the biblical text, to the doctrinal or cultural traditions of the church, or to some other set of beliefs or practices as a self-evident and transcultural norm. There is no interpretation of the gospel kerygma that does not thrust us into the uncomfortable waters of cultural syncretism and hybridity. If we therefore wish to speak about a kerygmatic norm relevant to people of all cultures, we must articulate it in such a way that it is translatable into every context. In my view that is only possible if we understand the kerygma as an event. This is perhaps the focal point of our disagreement.

      I certainly agree with Hinlicky that we should stress the historical particularity of Jesus. But I do not think his historical particularity—or at least the way we articulate that particularity in narrative—is the kerygma. It is a matter of historical fact, yes, but that historical fact is not itself the saving event of God, and it is possible, I wish to say, for one to express one’s faith in this event without making any reference whatsoever to those historical particularities. This is happening as we speak in various tribal communities around the world, where the Jewishness of Jesus is utterly meaningless. Do we insist on giving these communities a rigorous education in world history before they are able to claim their adoption as God’s children in Jesus Christ? If we say no, as I believe we must, then this opens up a gap between kerygma and narrative, between eschatology and history, that reveals something I take to be axiomatic: the saving action of God is not confined to or defined by the set of texts, doctrines, practices, and rituals that are often taken as constitutive of Christianity. I think there is sufficient diversity within western Christianity already to arrive at this insight. In any case, I take dialectical theology to be the theological program that recognizes this gap and systematically organizes Christian doctrine in its light.

      [1] See and

R David Nelson


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.

  1. 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.

  2. James F. Kay, Christus Praesens: A Reconsideration of Rudolf Bultmann’s Christology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 11.

  3. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner, 1958), 82–83.

  4. Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition, translated by A. N. Woodrow (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 12.

  • David Congdon

    David Congdon



    The most significant ecumenical experiences generally occur not when the various parties achieve agreement on some doctrine or practice but when everyone involved clearly articulates and understands their differences. In this sense I receive R. David Nelson’s perceptive and insightful summary of my work—along with his firm but charitable demurral—as a genuinely ecumenical act. For this I am deeply grateful to him.

    At the same time, there is a deep irony in his ecclesiological objection to Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing, since this was the very point at which Karl Barth thought “liberals” like Bultmann did not go far enough! In his preface to the part-volume on baptism in Church Dogmatics 4.4 Barth criticized the apparent reluctance among those he considered to be liberal theologians to apply their hermeneutical skepticism to the tradition of infant baptism: “Everything may be ‘demythologized’ in this quarter—right up to the triunity of God and God’s existence—but in this matter [of infant baptism] there is the deepest silence in the woods.” 1 And in the preface to Church Dogmatics 4.2, Barth says regarding the term “sacrament” that “here, if anywhere, I have learned to regard something like a cautious and respectful ‘demythologizing’ as advisable.”2 My point is that Bultmann is not unique in his demythologizing of the church—assuming we can describe his few remarks on the church this way—and in fact Barth is even more radical on this point. It is therefore in the spirit of both Barth and Bultmann that I must issue the strongest possible “No!” to postliberal (i.e., evangelical catholic) ecclesiology.3 I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say that the gospel itself is at stake in this matter. My own counter-postliberal ecclesiology can be found in my book, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cascade, 2016). Instead of trying to summarize that material I will instead explain why dialectical theology requires this “No!” and argue that dialectical theology’s opposition to the postliberal “roomy church” does not actually deny the church its own timespace but only a normative and secure timespace. Bultmann does not reject the institutional church and its traditions but rather a “thoughtless traditionalism” that demands a sacrificium intellectus.4


    As Nelson demonstrates well, my work is a synthesis of historical and systematic theology, providing both a reading of Bultmann’s work and the prolegomena for future dogmatic inquiry in the tradition of dialectical theology. So before I turn to the theological reasons for rejecting postliberal ecclesiology—which is a constructive development of Bultmann’s thought—let me begin by first registering some historical corrections.

    In a recent (and still ongoing) debate with Walter Moberly in the pages of the Journal of Theological Interpretation, I responded to Moberly’s claim that Bultmann ignores the church in his account of biblical interpretation.5 While Moberly and Bultmann are sharply divided on the nature of the church itself, I also wanted to show that Moberly overlooked some key pieces of counterevidence. For instance, according to Bultmann, the “concrete situation” for exegesis of the NT is “the tradition of the church of the word.”6 The church is thus a presupposition for faithful Christian interpretation. Similarly, in response to the new quest for the historical Jesus, Bultmann declared: “There is no faith in Christ which would not be at the same time faith in the church as the bearer of the kerygma.”7 It therefore is not accurate to say that for Bultmann “the church can only be interrupted” and does not “[lay] a claim upon the individual.” In fact, it is precisely because the church lays a claim on a person that she encounters the event of the kerygma. The church is the context for the interruptive event, but the church does not possess, determine, or norm this event. The communication of the church, if it is truly tradition or “handing-on,” belongs to what is communicated. Or as Bultmann says, “the tradition belongs to the event itself.”8 In other words, the church belongs to the event; the event does not belong to the church. This asymmetry between kerygma and community is one of the defining characteristics of dialectical theology.


    What is at stake in the debate over dialectical theology is the nature of divine revelation and thus the nature of the God-world relationship. Most textbook introductions to this period focus on the relation between faith and history (the quest for the historical Jesus) or the relation between faith and nature (the dispute over natural theology). Both are important. But my work aims to highlight a third relation that is implicit in the other two and equally, if not more, fundamental: the relation between faith and culture, which is the question of mission. I take dialectical theology to represent a certain position on the faith-culture dynamic (which I elaborate below), and I take postliberalism, in all its various permutations, to represent the opposite position. This is why I find Nelson’s response so instructive: it places in clear relief a basic theological decision one has to make. As Barth told the group of Tübingen students in 1964: “I think the whole talk of ‘decision’ could now become relevant again in this sense. Forty years ago we had to make a decision. And it might be promising for the development of theology if it once again came to a decision—as Adolf used to say: ‘one way or the other!’”9

    What, then, does a decision in favor of dialectical theology entail? It not only means (a) that revelation is an event, a divine act, that is accessible to faith alone, but it also and crucially means (b) that revelation always remains an event and does not become an object within the world among other objects. The gospel, the word of the cross, “is an event and always again an event in the proclamation of this word.”10 The revelation of “the being of Jesus Christ and our being in him . . . is always an event, not a state.”11 In the words of Eberhard Jüngel, “the always still greater similarity between God and the human person remains an event and only as such is true and actual.”12 The permanent eventfulness of God’s act—and thus of God’s being—is the defining characteristic of dialectical theology. This alone ensures that we are genuinely speaking of God and not of the creature in our attempts at meaningful God-talk.

    This account of revelation places dialectical theology in polemical opposition to at least three key parties. First, dialectical theology opposes Protestant orthodoxy for the way it collapses revelation into the biblical text (e.g., inerrancy or verbal plenary inspiration). Second, dialectical theology opposes Roman Catholicism for the way it collapses revelation into a particular ecclesiastical institution (the church as incarnatus prolongatus) and the tradition authorized by the church’s magisterium. Third, dialectical theology opposes Protestant liberalism for the way it collapses revelation into history and culture. It is this opposition in particular that birthed the dialectical revolution. For Barth, Bultmann, and Friedrich Gogarten, it does not matter whether one takes the more experiential route of Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Herrmann or the more historical route of Adolf von Harnack and Ernst Troeltsch, the end result remains the same: the collapse of what is normative in Christianity into the given norms of one’s sociocultural context. Gogarten thus wrote in 1924 that Troeltsch’s “real norm is . . . the idea of Europeanism.”13 Barth, in his public dispute with von Harnack in the pages of Die Christliche Welt, rejected the latter’s identification of the gospel with the historically accessible “revelations in the Bible.”14 In contrast to this Barth says that “the one revelation of God should be taken into consideration as the theme of theology.”15 One discovers the content of the gospel “exclusively through an action (through a doing and speaking) of this ‘content’ (of God or Christ or the Spirit).”16 This action of God is the eschatological event of revelation that precludes the identification of God’s word with anything static and objectifiable within the world. Within the context of the origins of dialectical theology, the target of this critique was the collapse of revelation into cultural-historical norms. Barth later became more concerned with nature, philosophy, and church doctrine. Bultmann, however, kept his focus firmly on the issues of history and culture, and this is what eventually led him to develop his program of demythologizing. Either way they both were keenly attuned to any confusion of the norm of theology with the cultural context of the theologian, and thus they were cobelligerents in the struggle of the Confessing Church against Nazism and the German Christians.


    I rehearse all of this to keep us mindful of what is at issue when it comes to the church. The question is not whether the church has a concrete timespace, nor even that this timespace serves as the primary context within which one can hear and encounter the claim of God upon oneself. Insofar as “roominess” means that the church has a specific time and space, Nelson has no reason to fear Bultmann; the event of the kerygma necessarily takes a historical form, just as the kerygma takes on the linguistic form that is appropriate to a particular world-picture. But roominess seems to mean something much more than mere timespace. The roominess is itself revelatory; it identifies the ecclesial institution as normative. Nelson thus speaks of the church as a “sacrament,” as “a source of security against the anxieties of these times”; he refers to the “Catholic ‘great tradition,’” the “roomy Church of Rome,” and “the nexus of revelation, tradition, and church,” drawing on Yves Congar. To his credit, Nelson even voices the main objection to this ecclesiology: the concern that one is “objectifying the gospel” in the church’s historical form—including its doctrines and practices—in which case “the community becomes confused with the gospel.” Nelson names the objection but does not defend against it, which is what we should expect given that postliberalism can be defined as the identification (or confusion, depending on how views it) of gospel and community. And that also is to Nelson’s credit, for it shows the consistency of his thought. Unfortunately, from the vantage point of dialectical theology, it is the same consistency that led the liberal theologians to support the Kaiser’s war policies and, later, the Nazi regime.

    If Nelson were simply voicing the Roman Catholic position, the dividing line would be more clearly defined and we could focus on the different sources of authority between Catholicism and Protestantism.17 But the situation becomes much more complicated for Protestants aligned with evangelical catholic ecumenism. For in the absence of a single church authority capable of determining what the tradition is and how it should be understood, Protestant postliberals have had to redefine the norm to embrace an array of confessional traditions: in place of a clearly defined set of doctrines and practices—an explicit regula fidei—postliberals instead locate the norm in “the animating culture of the church.”18 By defining the church as a culture, as a certain way of life, postliberals are able to identify the church as an extension of God’s revelation in Christ without relying on the traditional account of apostolic succession.

    Robert Jenson epitomizes postliberal ecclesiology when he says “the church obviously has—or rather is—a specific identifiable culture.” He claims that “if the church is, or has, a culture of her own, then the church’s claim somehow to be Israel must also be a claim somehow to continue the culture of Israel.”19 Jenson can even say that “a relation between, say, Christ and Chinese culture is in itself a relation between Jewish culture and Chinese culture.”20 Leaving aside for now the issue of supersessionism—of which I find postliberalism to be especially guilty, pace Ochs—let us look at the implications of this position. Jenson himself names two of them. The first is that “like any community, [the church] is responsible to cultivate her culture, and can lose her identity if she does not.” The church’s mission is thus cultural cultivation. Second, “since the church is a culture, there are limits on ‘inculturation.’”21 Postliberals are wary of any translation, since this involves changing the cultural form. If the church’s mission is to cultivate its culture then it naturally follows that translation is at odds with the gospel. Jenson tells us in his Systematic Theology that the culture of the church comprises various signs and symbols that are not “disposable by translation.”22 The only acceptable form of translation, according to Robert Wilken, is “translation into the Lord’s style of language, bringing alien language into the orbit of Christian belief and practice and giving it a different meaning.”23 The mission of the church takes the form of assimilation. This is consistent with George Lindbeck’s famous thesis that “the text . . . absorbs the world, rather than the world the text.”24 If interpretation, as Lindbeck argued, takes the form of social embodiment, then it would seem that the task of interpretation properly involves absorbing the cultural goods of the world into the social orbit of the church with the ultimate goal of producing an ecclesial society—namely, Christendom. Postliberalism results in a mission that is formally indistinguishable from colonialism.25 This does not mean that postliberals are necessarily promoting cultural imperialism; most of them advocate a separatist understanding of the church as an alternative polis in the midst of an alien culture. But separatism and imperialism are the twin offspring of the church-as-culture ecclesiology. They share a common theological DNA. Postliberal ecclesiology, in its collapse of revelation into culture, thus unwittingly lays the foundation for a colonialist mission. And if the church’s culture becomes blurred into the culture of one’s nation (as in the Religious Right), one has all the ingredients for the confusion of God’s will with the will of the nation that Barth and Bultmann saw exemplified by German theologians in the early twentieth century.

    Let me be clear: I am not saying that postliberalism is imperialism or that it necessarily leads to baptizing nationalist ideology. What I am saying rather is that postliberalism makes it possible to justify such positions theologically. In this way I am making the same kind of critique that Barth made against natural theology. It is not as if Emil Brunner or Erich Przywara were ever close to promoting German nationalism as the will of God. The problem that Barth saw (correctly, in my view) is that their natural theologies made it possible to promote nationalist ideology as the will of God. If a theological position makes something possible that is antithetical to the gospel, then you know there is something wrong at the root.


    Nelson criticizes the implicit ecclesiology of Bultmann on the grounds that it is all interruption and no roomy tradition. But postliberal ecclesiology is the opposite: all roomy tradition and no interruption. Indeed, interruption—as the disruptive event that judges the sinful human conflation of revelation with culture and empowers new forms of intercultural recontextualization—is ruled out from the start. If we are forced to choose between church-as-interruption and church-as-culture, we should choose the former. This at least is consistent with the eschatological community of the New Testament and incorporates a critique of idolatry into its understanding of the church.

    Of course, while interruption is the first word in a dialectical ecclesiology, it is not the only word. Interruption calls into existence a community of the word that responds obediently to the demand of the moment. The church is thus the bodily site—the worldly trace, to use the language of Alain Badiou—of the kerygma; it is where the kerygma takes concrete shape in accordance with its particular context. But this site or trace cannot be identified with the institutional church and its traditions and practices. This claim is not based on some millennial disregard for institutions as such but is rather a consequence of the gospel witness to the eschatological freedom of God. With Barth we must confess that “God can establish the church anew and directly when and where and how it pleases God. . . . God can speak to us through a pagan or an atheist, and thus give us to understand that the boundary between the church and the secular world can still always and ever again take a wholly other course than what we think we discern.”26


    In last twenty years of his life, Barth openly criticized Bultmann for reverting to liberalism. Bultmann’s talk of existence and existentialist structures suggested to Barth that Bultmann was once again confusing revelation with something given and static in the world. Barth never understood that Bultmann was actually clearing the ground for revelation to remain an ever new event in the life of the believer. Barth’s criticisms should have been directed elsewhere but he died too soon. If he had only lived another decade or two, he would have seen the rise of the one movement that represents Protestant liberalism redivivus: the ironically named “postliberalism.”

    In closing, I am profoundly grateful to my friend David Nelson for his masterful summary of my work and his incisive comments in response. But his plea for a “roomy church” leaves me cold and I can only plead with him in reply: do not return to the fleshpots of Egypt!

    1. KD 4.4:ix; CD 4.4:xi.

    2. KD 4.2:ix; CD 4.2:xi.

    3. I am not going to sort out the terminological dispute associated with “postliberalism.” Essentially I mean everyone discussed in Peter Ochs’s Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

    4. In Konrad Hammann’s magisterial biography he observes: “Opposition to established forms of traditional churchliness that have become outdated does not involve challenging the church’s role as the institutionalized manifestation of Christianity. In his criticism Bultmann is guided rather by the constructive motive of liberating church praxis from the Procrustean bed of a thoughtless traditionalism and thus enabling it to assure its future by deploying suitable reforms.” Konrad Hammann, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography, trans. Philip E. Devenish (Salem, OR: Polebridge, 2013), 64.

    5. See R. W. L. Moberly, “Theological Interpretation, Presuppositions, and the Role of the Church: Bultmann and Augustine Revisited,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 6:1 (2012) 1–22; David W. Congdon, “Kerygma and Community: A Response to R. W. L. Moberly’s Revisiting of Bultmann,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 8:1 (2014) 1–23; R. W. L. Moberly, “Bible and Church, Bultmann and Augustine: A Response to David Congdon,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 9:1 (2015) 39–48.

    6. Rudolf Bultmann, “Das Problem einer theologischen Exegese des Neuen Testaments,” in Anfänge der dialektischen Theologie, Teil II: Bultmann, Gogarten, Thurneysen, ed. Jürgen Moltmann (München: C. Kaiser, 1963), 66–67.

    7. Rudolf Bultmann, Das Verhältnis der urchristlichen Christusbotschaft zum historischen Jesus (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1960), 26.

    8. Rudolf Bultmann, “Kirche und Lehre im Neuen Testament,” in Glauben und Verstehen, 1:160.

    9. Karl Barth, Gespräche 1964–1968, ed. Eberhard Busch, Gesamtausgabe 4 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1971), 125.

    10. KD 2.1:493; CD 2.1:438.

    11. KD 4.2:317; CD 4.2:286. See also KD 4.2:319. Notice that this is found in the later Barth, which the postliberals often focus on for support of their position, and not merely in the early Barth of Der Römerbrief.

    12. Eberhard Jüngel, Gott als Geheimnis der Welt: Zur Begründung der Theologie des Gekreuzigten im Streit zwischen Theismus und Atheismus (Tübingen: Mohr, 1977), 393–94.

    13. Friedrich Gogarten, “Historismus [1924],” in Anfänge der dialektischen Theologie, 2 vols., ed. Jürgen Moltmann (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1962), 179. Whether one agrees with how the dialectical theologians read these Protestant liberal theologians—or anyone else, for that matter—is beside the point. Their criticisms of others illuminates their own positive theological convictions.

    14. Adolf von Harnack, “Fünfzehn Fragen an die Verächter der wissenschaftlichen Theologie unter den Theologen,” in Offene Briefe 1909–1935, ed. Diether Koch, Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe 5 (Zürich: TVZ, 2001), 59.

    15. Karl Barth, “Sechzehn Antworten an Herrn Professor von Harnack,” in Offene Briefe 1909–1935, ed. Diether Koch, Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe 5 (Zürich: TVZ, 2001), 62.

    16. Karl Barth, “Antwort auf Herrn Professor von Harnacks offenen Brief,” in Offene Briefe 1909–1935, ed. Diether Koch, Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe 5 (Zürich: TVZ, 2001), 76.

    17. While Nelson is not wrong to say that “Catholic ecclesiology, undertaken in an ecumenical key, has hardly batted an eye at Bultmann’s idea of the church,” this does not necessarily mean that Catholics were dismissive of Bultmann on the church. Instead, we have to keep in mind that Bultmann said virtually nothing about ecclesiology, at least compared to his writings on christology and hermeneutics. Moreover, his global reception was almost exclusively focused on his demythologizing program. The 1968 volume, Rudolf Bultmann in Catholic Thought, is entirely concerned with demythologizing and the historicity of Jesus. So it is probably more accurate to say that most Catholics have simply not considered Bultmann’s views on the church.

    18. R. R. Reno, “Series Preface,” in Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005), 14.

    19. Robert W. Jenson, “Christ as Culture 1: Christ as Polity,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 5:3 (2003) 324.

    20. Ibid., 323

    21. Ibid., 324.

    22. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997–1999), 2:60.

    23. Robert L. Wilken, “The Church’s Way of Speaking,” First Things 155 (2005) 30.

    24. George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, 25th anniversary ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 104.

    25. For a full argument along these lines, see John G. Flett, Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 103–85.

    26. KD 1.1:54, 56; CD 1.1:54–55.

Shannon Smythe


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.

  1. 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)

  2. Janice McRandal, Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference: A Contribution to Feminist Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 61.

  3. Ibid., 66.

  4. Ibid., 66n11.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibid., 69.

  7. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 88.

  8. Ibid., 99.

  9. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge: CUP, 2010), 7.

  10. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 99n67.

  11. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology, 15.

  12. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 100.

  13. Ibid.

  14. 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.

  15. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Eugene: Cascade, 2015), 105.

  16. 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.

  17. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 21.

  18. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 109.

  19. 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.

  20. Bultmann, “On the Problem,” 99, quoted in Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 119.

  21. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 102.

  22. 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.

  23. Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), 6, quoted in McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 102.

  24. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 103.

  25. 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.

  26. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 104.

  27. Bultmann, “On the Problem,” 99, quoted in Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 120.

  28. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 78.

  29. Ibid., 121.

  30. Ibid., 69.

  31. Ibid., 121.

  32. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 105.

  33. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 74.

  34. 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.

  35. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 105.

  36. Ibid., 106.

  37. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann, 144.

  38. Rowan Williams, prologue to On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), xiv, quoted in McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 16.

  39. McRandal, Christian Doctrine, 13.

  • David Congdon

    David Congdon


    Demythologizing, Past and Future

    Let me begin by thanking Shannon Smythe for her constructive and thoughtful engagement with my work. I wholly affirm her dialogue between demythologizing and feminist theology. In fact, my project was conducted from the start with questions of gender and sexual identity on my mind. I will say a few words about this before offering my own contribution to this dialogue.


    The connection of mission to Bultmann’s theology began as a result of two separate lines of inquiry. On the one side I was reading and studying missiology and theology of mission, and I began to notice repeated parallels between the arguments for the contextualization and pluriformity of the gospel in the missiological literature and the arguments for new understandings of gender and sexual norms in the liberationist literature. In effect both were arguing for more nuanced and complex relations between the kerygmatic or Christian norm and the cultural contexts in which that norm comes to expression. Insofar as missiologists recognize that the gospel must not come prepackaged with specific cultural forms, they open up a hermeneutical space for interrogating to what extent certain biblical (especially Pauline) texts need to be criticized in light of the gospel itself.

    On the other side I was studying Bultmann’s hermeneutical writings and realized (a) that his discussion of world-picture was in fact an early form of cultural analysis and (b) that his writings on the church in particular, especially with respect to the Aryan paragraph controversy, were making the very same moves that both missiologists and liberationists would make decades later. Brent Hege helped me to see this in his excellent monograph on Georg Wobbermin, where he draws the connection between Bultmann’s response to the Aryan paragraph and the current dispute over gender and sexuality in mainline Protestant denominations.1 While Bultmann himself did not draw these larger sociocultural implications, his hermeneutical program provides a framework for assessing an array of other issues. My footnote on gender equality and inclusion is thus not a tangential aside but an indication of the inner heart of the whole project (see 684n271). As I say there, “the contemporary culture wars are simply ‘hermeneutical wars,’ and as hermeneutical wars they are in fact ‘missiological wars.’” The connection between politics, hermeneutics, and mission was the catalyst and guiding insight of the entire work. If The Mission of Demythologizing provides the methodological foundation for addressing these matters, future works will, I hope, tackle these issues head-on.


    With respect to the engagement with Janice McRandal, I concur with what Smythe has said, though I eagerly invite McRandal’s thoughts. The issue of remythologizing is complicated. In a forthcoming article 2 I briefly engage Kevin Vanhoozer’s work and point out that, inasmuch as remythologizing means that “the forms of biblical discourse [are] themselves indispensable means for articulating and thinking the reality of God,” Vanhoozer presupposes precisely what Bultmann seeks to call into question.3 For Bultmann, the “forms of biblical discourse” are not merely literary genres; they are instead culturally and historically situated conceptualities that express the judgments and assumptions of a particular context. This means that we cannot make them indispensable and untranslatable without effectively conflating the kerygma with an ancient cultural framework. The result is that the dissemination of this cultural kerygma is formally identical with colonialism. Smythe recognizes all this and suggests that demythologizing, rather than remythologizing, achieves McRandal’s intention.

    At the same time, it is possible to see Augustine’s “remythologizing” (if that is actually what it is) as being in continuity with Bultmann’s demythologizing. In his article on demythologization for the Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, James F. Kay observes that “Bultmann’s existentialist interpretation can be seen in continuity with older symbolic or ‘spiritual’ interpretations of scripture, including allegorical readings.”4 Kay reaches this counterintuitive conclusion by recognizing key similarities. Both methods of interpretation are forms of deliteralization: they penetrate behind the litera to discern the deeper spiritual truth of the text, a truth that is understood to be immediately and existentially meaningful to the hearer of the text. Spiritual and demythologizing interpretations thus re-present this hidden, spiritual meaning in a conceptuality native to the hearer—such as Neoplatonic philosophy or Heideggerian existentialism. When McRandal lifts up Augustine’s “remythologizing” as a way to hear the Genesis account of creation and sin free from scientific and sociocultural difficulties (i.e., in a way that transcends Augustine’s limited cultural horizon), this would seem to be an exercise in a kind of ancient demythologizing. I am not alone in seeing Augustine this way. Edmund Hill, the translator of De trinitate, says that, “If one is going to interpret the eschatological images of scripture at all, to demythologize them, as the classical Christian tradition always has done, then with Augustine and this tradition, one must divinize them.”5

    If we therefore understand remythologizing as a mode of spiritual exegesis, then it seems to me there is ample space to find a positive and constructive continuity between Augustine and Bultmann—and thus between the eminently flexible interpretive practices of the ancient mothers and fathers of the church and the equally flexible practice of demythologizing. Both provide hermeneutical resources for exploring creative and hybrid interpretations of the biblical text that are responsive to the exigencies of our contemporary contexts.


    I am grateful to Shannon Smythe for initiating an important conversation between Bultmann and feminist thought, and I hope this is only the beginning. Throughout my book I make reference to the postcolonial, emancipatory implications of dialectical theology. In my view theology that is not carried out in a way that is explicitly and thoroughly emanicpatory is not a theology faithful to the gospel—indeed it cannot count as genuine theology at all since it does not bear witness to the liberating Spirit of God. Understood in this way, the future of dialectical theology is thus the future of theology as such: a revolutionary theory-and-praxis that participates in and constructively furthers the common human movement towards a positive freedom for the earth and for fellow creatures, human and nonhuman like. Toward that end we will need many more intercultural, interdisciplinary, and interfaith dialogues; we must enter these dialogues open to new ideas and practices. A theology of freedom will be a theology without fear—without fear of transgressing orthodox traditions, cultural assumptions, political allegiances, theological paradigms, and ecclesial customs. Dialectical theology is a theology without security, for “they alone find security who let all security go, who—to speak with Luther—are ready to enter into inner darkness.”6

    1. See Brent A. R. Hege, Faith at the Intersection of History and Experience: The Theology of Georg Wobbermin (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 175n20.

    2. David W. Congdon, “Demystifying the Program of Demythologizing: Bultmann’s Theological Hermeneutics,” Harvard Theological Review 109 (2017).

    3. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 17.

    4. Ian A. McFarland et al., The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), s.v. “Demythologization.”

    5. Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, The Works of Saint Augustine I/5 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991), 96n82; emphasis mine; quoted on p. 692 in my book.

    6. Rudolf Bultmann, “Zum Problem der Entmythologisierung,” in Kerygma und Mythos, Band II: Diskussion und Stimmen zum Problem der Entmythologisierung, ed. Hans-Werner Bartsch (Hamburg-Volksdorf: H. Reich, 1952), 207.