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Monday, May 01, 2006


Summary of Bultmann

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

A few months ago, as part of my job as Research Editor, I began a study of Bultmann and "demythologization." Essentially, a Christian speaker stirred up some controversy by discussing the mythology of the Bible. I was asked to explain what she meant by the "demythologization" of the Bible.

Of course, I can't speak for this woman, but I did my best to summarize the idea of demythologization that started with a German theologian named Bultmann.

I'll post a series of thoughts about Bultmann beginning with this summary:

Not being a Bultmann scholar, I can only summarize what I have read of Bultmann so far–which is not nearly enough to justify a generalization. Nevertheless, being as egotistical as he is, I will presume to do so.

In my opinion, much of Bultmann is an attempt to explain “eschatological” thinking about the New Testament. Eschatology is the theological study of end times. Mirriam Webster explains it to be “any of various Christian doctrines concerning the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, or the Last Judgment.” Specifically, Bultmann disagreed with a literal reading of Revelation. He would disregard books like Tim LeHayes’s Left Behind series as “mythological.” Bultmann traces the modern debate in eschatology to Johannes Weiss. According to Bultmann, Weiss argues “that the Kingdom of God is not immanent in the world and does not grow as part of the world’s history... God will suddenly put an end to the world and to history, and He will bring in a new world.”

As far as I can tell, Bultmann claims to reject these teachings because they place the Kingdom of God in the future. The Kingdom of God is not in the future according to Bultmann. Jesus is not coming again in a literal sense. Instead, in Kerygma and Myth Bultmann explains the second coming as way of using mythology to emphasize the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion. He writes, “Christ is crucified ‘for us’, not in the sense of any theory of sacrifice or satisfaction. This interpretation of the cross as a permanent fact rather than a mythological event does far more justice to the redemptive significance of the event of the past than any of the traditional interpretations. In the last resort mythological language is only a medium for conveying the significance of the historical event. The historical event of the cross has, in the significance peculiar to it, created a new historic situation. The preaching of the cross as the event of redemption challenges all who hear it to appropriate this significance for themselves, to be willing to be crucified with Christ.”

Bultmann argues that first century mythology distracts modern thinkers from the truth of the gospel. He sees two primary problems with the “mythology of end times,” specifically.

First, theology that expects the literal end times of Revelation places the Kingdom of God out of our reach. According to Bultmann, the Kingdom of God, the power to be free from bondage to this world, is already fully attainable. The mythology of end times distracts Christians from the present gift of the Kingdom and denies Christians the full peace and joy of their faith.

Second, theological interpretations are a distraction that can never be resolved. I am interpreting Bultmann’s motives to some degree here, but I think he wants to unify theologians and the Church (and receive credit for the unification, no doubt). According to Bultmann, the New Testament only contains paradoxes when we try to take its mythology as truth.

Once Bultmann begins this process of “demytholigization,” he hopes to explain the kerygma (or preaching) of the New Testament in terms that the modern world will understand. The modern world has a scientific worldview, he says. The New Testament is written from the first century’s mythological worldview. The Church alienates non-Christians when it forces them to accept the first century mythology along with the timeless truth of the kerygma.

His logic goes like this. God is “wholly Other.” Our human minds cannot comprehend him because he is greater than we are and completely separate from us. Thus, any attempt to explain God, understand God, or relate to God is limited and distorted by human language and thought. Bultmann includes the scriptures as one such distortion. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, and the rest could only describe God and the story of Jesus with the language and world view of the first century. They used such language to explain an approximation of God that would be understood by the people who shared their language and their mythological understanding of the world (including demons, spirits, miracles, heaven, hell, etc.)

According to Bultmann, the role of the church is to strip away these myths. Our society no longer believes in the possibility of miracles, he would say. Therefore to teach the miracles of the Bible is to force the people around us to understand God in terms of an archaic and irrelevant mythological worldview that we no longer accept in our daily lives. Instead, the church must identify places in the scripture where the first century worldview distorts the message of God. Once we recognize the distortions through a process Bultmann calls demythologization, the truth of God will be distilled—acceptable to modern man because no longer dependent upon an arbitrary acceptance of first century mythology.

HillCountryWriter Category: Church stuff
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I suspect the task of demythologization is as fraught with falacious assumptions as the first century worldview.
The fact remains that God chose first century Palestine to incarnate human fulness. I wonder what that was about?
For my own life, I'm not so interested in getting it right as I am in living it fully.
Anyone who can help me with that is a friend.
Thanks for these insights into Bultmann's contribution.

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