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Wednesday, May 03, 2006


The Relevance of Bultman

This is part three of a five part series, Is the Bible a Myth?

For all his heresy, Bultmann is wrestling with a real problem. If the Bible is the truth, why can’t we agree on how to interpret that truth? In short, I believe Bultmann is trying to justify the act of interpretation.

Bultmann seems to assume that human language is unreliable. According to Bultmann, the Bible was written using unreliable language drawn from the mythological worldview of the first century. This unreliability of language leads to the need for interpretation. Interpretation opens the possibility of differing interpretations. Differing interpretations of a text that claims truth lead to the differing visions of the truth itself. The existence of so many different interpretations of truth lead some to reject the concept of an absolute truth altogether.

Truth is relative to human experience, they say. Or “truth” is just another unreliable concept of human language.

Yet, every human feels the need to find meaning and truth. Christians claim the Bible reveals Truth. We just can’t agree on what Truth it reveals (and that, I argue, is the essential problem Bultmann wants to address). Because Christians can’t state Truth precisely, because we present such shifting views of Truth, non-Christians use our dissension to justify their claims that Truth is unstable at best or simply relative and personal.

Certainly, the Truth of the gospel is more about my personal relationship with Jesus than my academic relationship with the Biblical text. The Bible is just the most tangible part of my relationship with Jesus, but Bultmann claims the Bible is limited by the unreliability of language.

And yet, if we reject the Bible (in part or whole) as unreliable myth, what then do we rely on except the unreliability of human reason, the unreliability of human experience, or human motives, or emotion, or something else unreliable? And furthermore, if we reject the Bible as unreliable myth, why would we seek a personal relationship with Jesus at all if not for the Bible’s declaration that we should do so?

Of course, Bultmann does not believe a personal relationship with Jesus is possible–except in an academic and esoteric way that reduces the person of Jesus to something more like a metaphoric embodiment of his teachings.

We might choose to agree with Bultmann that human understanding is unreliable. (The claim is worth consideration, at least.) Christ himself demands we recognize our own unreliability. We cannot avoid sin. We cannot reach perfection ourselves. Instead, we must be made perfect.

To put it another way, mainstream Christians are unreliable in the way they read the Bible. Christians do not obey the entire Bible or treat it as literal truth. For example, 1 Corinthians 11 tells women to cover their heads. Yet few churches suggest women do this. Nor do we all greet each other with holy kisses, celebrate communion at every assembly, refrain from wearing jewelry, etc. Not only do we disregard many of the Bible’s commands–sometimes arguing that such cultural advice does not constitute a command–we do not even suggest that we should do these things. For whatever reason, these passages have been dismissed by the majority of churches as unreliable.

In many ways Bultmann’s statements about the mythology in the New Testament are the same as recent statements about the cultural bias in the New Testament. This argument often concludes Paul’s teaching about women are chauvinistic, for example. Yet both methods of thinking, whether the Bible is corrupted by mythology or cultural bias, lead to the problem of distinguishing God’s truth from human distortion.

Whatever our justification for deeming certain passages unreliably distorted, we must agree that Christians do treat certain passages of the Bible as if they are unreliable. Some passages contradict others. Some passages contain paradoxes. Other passages are just not clear. We see the Bible through a glass darkly, and the truth which comes to us is distorted by that dark glass.

The ambiguity of scripture gives purpose to theological study as men spend time trying to understand which parts of the Bible are useful for understanding God and which are not, which parts are applicable to daily life and which are not. In short, many theologians seek to decide which parts of the Bible are reliably true and which parts are not.

Yet our logic and argument can always and only take place within the confines of our own unreliable worldview and our unreliable language for describing that worldview. All this talk about unreliability only leads to another paradox1: we cannot even reliably say that language is unreliable.

HillCountryWriter Category: Church stuff
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What a great way to drive the point home! "We cannot even reliably say that language is unreliable."
Hence the importance that faith always take form. The words, concepts, theories, principles, truth statements, doctrines, creeds, etc. cannot capture what is in essence a lived reality.
My confession of faith is most fully expressed and most succinctly articulated in how I treat others.
I like your take on this phrase, Karl. Too often as a former English teacher, I get caught up in language itself. Language can't fully communicate truth, though. I'm not even sure our actions can--but our whole lives (words and actions) surely approach the truth more closely than just one or the other.

Of course, I talk about truth here like it is some vague and self-defined thing. But the truth of my life only has validity when it more closely resembles God's purpose for my life, His Truth for all creation.

Now if Christians could just agree on what His Truth is...

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