Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Rudolf Bultmann: Hero or Villain?

Today, in my course on "Modern Christian Thought," I lectured on Rudolf Bultmann. I tried to explain how on the one hand his theology was similar to Karl Barth's in that both emphasized the transcendence of God and the confrontation of divine revelation in the form of the kerygma (the authentic message of the gospel). But on the other hand, Bultmann sounded like a liberal Protestant in his claim that the Bible was permeated by mythologies. Bultmann, nevertheless took great pains to distance himself from liberal Protestants like Adolf von Harnack, who said that we must strip away the "husk" of Hellenistic influences and mythologies that disguises the gospel. Instead, Bultmann suggested that we must "demythologize" the Bible.

Bultmann believed that if we try to remove the foreign influences in the Bible, we could damage the kerygma, the true message of the New Testament. We must therefore leave the Bible in its current form, recognizing the presence of mythologies in the New Testament writings, but reinterpreting these elements so that the "Christ of Faith" (rather than the historical facts of Jesus) can speak to us.

Applying the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Bultmann argued that having a personal confrontation with the living Christ produces authentic faith. The existential meaning in the Bible, rather than the historical interpretation, is the only way to realize a transcendent God. Transcendence meant for Bultmann that God appears to us at an existential moment in which we must decide by faith to believe in him. If we accept this gift of divine grace, we become authentic Christians. Bultmann insisted that we cannot speak of God objectively, in the sense of a series of propositional truths about his nature. Rather, we can only know God by an individual response of faith that comes to us in the form of the kerygma.

It was interesting to open up discussion on Bultmann's theology, trying to decide whether his theology was helpful or harmful for Christianity. Some people saw him as a villain who undermined traditional doctrines, while others sympathized with Bultmann's attempt to modernize Christianity while still preserving its power.

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