The theological construction of Rudolph Bultmann, the ‘old master’ of a modern group of existentialist theologians within German Protestantism, has exercised a bewitching influence. Bultmann is the champion of “a new way” in theology that would pre-empt such absoluteness for his teaching that all other conceptions should be swept aside as useless. Bultmann’s theology stresses its capacity for a “deeper understanding” and a “more penetrating renewal” of the real import of the Reformation. Many of his followers actually believe that Bultmann gives the “sola fide,” the dominating Reformation principle of “faith alone,” the exclusive significance it deserves.

Currently there are some indications that the radical existentialism of Bultmann is on the wane and that many disciples of Bultmann have decided to strike out on their own in a way which deviates from the course set by the “master.” But the consequential reaction set off by Bultmann’s theological and philosophical construction is still as indisputable now as it was before. Thus the question, “Dare we follow Bultmann?” is certainly justified. We must subject his theses to an exacting examination in order to discern whether the tasks that Bultmann sets for theology are valid and justified.

Background For Bultmann

The disturbance engendered by Bultmann’s thought is healthy in that it has sparked renewed self-reflection in theology and the Church. What we are concerned with here touches the very theological foundation of the Church and its message; it deals with our understanding of the decisive, fundamental questions of Christian theology.

From the standpoint of the history of ideas and in connection with the theological development denoted by the movement proceeding from Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Herrmann, Bultmann’s teacher, one can trace that tendency of Bultmann’s theology which is bent upon accommodating the Christian truth to modern man in a new conceptualization. In this endeavor three facets of Bultmann’s thinking stand out:

1. It is impossible to harmonize present-day “cosmology” with the so-called “mythical cosmology” of the Bible. The framework, concepts, and images of biblical thought are declared antiquated; to modern man they appear “incredible,” “meaningless,” and “impossible.”

2. Then there is the matter of radical historical-critical research. This approach is consciously affirmed by Bultmann and carried out to its logical conclusions. Bultmann is prepared to surrender the entire New Testament tradition to dissolution and destruction, and to allow its “incineration” in the crematory of criticism.

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3. Finally, the acceptance of the existentialist philosophy of Martin Heidegger as an integral part of his theological construction provides Bultmann an escape from the difficulties and negations standing in the way of an effective proclamation of the Christian message. Reflection on “Being,” on modern man’s “self-understanding,” becomes the key for Bultmann in his apprehension of the Christian truth and, in the language of existentialism, for making this truth understandable to modern man.

Critical Counter-Questions

Are these allegedly manifest premises, submitted by Bultmann, tenable and theologically legitimate?

What is the real state of affairs in regard to Bultmann’s conception of “cosmology?” It is quite amazing to discover that Bultmann confuses the term “Weltbild” [cosmology] with “Weltanschauung” [world-view]. “Weltbild” is always in a process of transformation as a result of the ever-advancing scientific knowledge. “Weltbild” is both the object and product of rational knowledge. “Weltanschauung” is a matter of religious or philosophical interpretation. “Weltbild,” which one could say is a phenomenon related to the “horizontal plane,” can never contradict the meaning given to it through religion, philosophy, or faith, which are all related to the “vertical dimension.” All cosmologies, whether primitive, geocentric, or that of modern atomic physics, can be interpreted materialistic-atheistic, idealistic-religious, or in the Christian understanding of creation. Even in the Bible the mythical attachment of faith to space and time is broken. Bultmann thus is involved in a serious error in his treatment of the confrontation of cosmology and faith (cf. Ps. 139; 1 Kings 8:27; Jer. 23:24; Acts 27:28; Heb. 4:14; 7:26). Consequently it is plain nonsense when Bultmann emphasizes that, in view of all the modern technical advances, it is impossible for the man of today, who listens to the radio and uses electricity to uphold “the faith which reckons with angels, demons, and miracles.”

It is impossible to be any less critical of Bultmann’s fundamental historical skepticism. Even Bultmann’s followers have renewed the concern over knowledge about “the historical Jesus.” It is certainly true that the New Testament witness does not present an historical report; but as confession to Jesus Christ it always contains historical statements at the same time and without any doubt also possesses “historic” source value.

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Finally, one must also ask the critical question: Is the language of existential philosophy adequate to express the message of biblical revelation? True as it is that the task of translating represents a theoretical obligation, nevertheless the modern way of interpretation dare not becloud and distort the biblical message. The danger with Bultmann is that his philosophical position leads him not to a modern interpretation of the theological substance but rather to a reconstruction or even destruction of it.

What Does Bultmann Teach?

In accordance with his existentialist maxim Bultmann develops the following new interpretations of the Christian tradition. Since the material of the primitive Christian tradition assertedly bears the stamp of “the contemporary mythology of Jewish Apocalyptic,” as well as the mark of “the redemption myths of Gnosticism,” in seeking to uncover the real Christian self-understanding, everything hinges upon “Demythologization.” Through this existentialist “purification-process,” all the miracle accounts, the “Son of Man” words and exalted titles of Jesus, the concept of preexistence, just like “the doctrine of the vicarious satisfaction through the death of Christ,” and the utterances over “the high priestly office” of the exalted Christ are to be discarded. For Bultmann only the “Existentialist Interpretation” of the mythological language of the New Testament, which sets forth the genuine existential connection and thus mediates a new understanding of Being, is decisive. This goal is entirely independent of historical factuality; for, according to Bultmann, one must make a sharp distinction between “historical facts” and “historic encounter.” The Christian kerygma of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, however, has for him nothing to do with facts which may have happened between A.D. 1 and 30, but with the “kerygmatic Christ” who, in “the Word,” calls men “here and now” to the decision of faith. “Revelation is an event which places me in a new situation” so that I can attain salvation, that is, achieve the real purpose of my existence. Only in the word of actual proclamation is Christ manifest. Thus this kerygma “for me” itself represents the event of salvation which justifies me the sinner and leads me from death to life. Faith is not to be understood as faith in the personal Saviour but means “emancipation from the past,” “to be open for the future.”

Here again serious critical questions must be directed to Bultmann. Does not the rejection of every form of ontological thinking lead to a hopeless subjectivism? Isn’t the existentialist thought-scheme far too narrow to present the fullness of saving revelation in an adequate manner? The existentialism of Bultmann is nothing more than a modern variation of that anthropocentrism which, beginning with the Enlightenment, has continued to plague theology, and according to which the standard of validity is seen in existential significance.

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The position of Bultmann becomes even more dubious and questionable when attention is focused upon the disorder, evident in his use of concepts, and caused by his new terminology. It is certain that through his contemporaneous, coeval interpretation of history, with utter disregard for historical factuality of the past, Bultmann basically misses the central concern of the Christian kerygma, which specifically proclaims a revealing action of God that is bound to history. Thereby the uniqueness of the biblical witness is reduced to the level of the usual and robbed of its historic basis and specific meaning. This is a repetition of that well-known process of classical idealism represented by Kant, Hegel, and Fichte whereby, indeed, Christian words are used, but through which an entirely different content is offered. Thus Bultmann’s existentialist theology means the opposite of biblical clarity and only serves to add to “the confusion of spirits” in these troubled times.

Why Must We Oppose Bultmann?

In effect, the new direction in theology taken by Bultmann amounts to a total conceptual metamorphosis. This process of transforming or modifying the central concepts of Christianity carries with it some disastrous features. The following examples are cited in confirmation of this contention:

Bultmann’s dreology is a “Kerygma-theology” whereby kerygma, the actual address of the message of Christ, is understood as the formal event of the call to the decision of faith. Only in this moment of proclamation is Christ real; only in this moment does salvation occur. According to the New Testament, however, kerygma is primarily and essentially the report of a completed event of salvation; it is the report of the perfected whole of the revelation of Christ which, indeed, happened “for the world” but which also happened “objectively,” and that means beyond the boundaries of human relationships.

For Bultmann there is no Incarnation. I he eternal “Logos,” “Word,” did not take human flesh, for the “pre-existent Son” becomes a mythological concept. It is impossible to make any statements about the “historical Jesus” of Nazareth. Doubt about his existence is indeed “unfounded,” “but not of essential importance.” Over his life it is impossible to make any biographical assertions or to give any chronological data. Thus the person of the historical Jesus shrivels up to an imaginary point, to an X, for only the formal “that” of his coming is important.

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In the same way, under Bultmann’s interpretation, the fundamental importance of the cross of Jesus evaporates to the position of being a mere sign for the fact that it is worthwhile to bear one’s own suffering willingly. The message of a vicarious, sacrificial death is a myth.

The Resurrection, the fundamental event of salvation, is reduced by Bultmann to the mere knowledge of the “meaning of the cross.” The Easter reports are dismissed as legends and, so far as faith is concerned, the appearances of the Resurrected are dispensable and unessential. Here also the only norm is the existentialist understanding of “man’s rising with [Christ] as a present event.” With these theses the very heart is extracted from the original Christian kerygma.

Consistently with this distorted method of interpretation, it is inevitable that Christian eschatology must also be demolished. Bultmann stresses: “Awaiting the coming of the Son of Man is over,” for, as he sees it, the expectation of the parousia of the Early Church has been shown to be an error. But also the Christian hope in a “unique transportation into a heavenly world of Light” is for Bultmann rationally inconceivable” and “insignificant.” The concept of the “final day of judgment” is merely a mythological way of speaking.

In summary, we must conclude that for Bultmann the name “Jesus Christ” represents not a personal living reality of God’s saving revelation in the sphere of history but merely a concept, an ideogram, a symbol or a principle for the event of contemporary preaching. For this purpose, however, no importance is attached to the message of the event of salvation that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died for the world and was raised by God and exalted to Lord, since this content merely reflects the language of mythology. Nothing but the formal existentialist claim of the kerygma understood in this way possesses theological validity.

“Dare we follow Bultmann?” This question is clearly answered with the observations of our investigation. The norm for the theologically tenable and necessary “Yes” or “No” to Bultmann’s theology is posited in the original Christian witness itself. Measured by this the following insights become evident:

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All the theologically-decisive results of Bultmann’s construction stand in irreconcilable contradiction to the central message of the New Testament and to all ecumenical confessions of the Christian Church. Bultmann’s theological proposal is, in the real sense of the word, no theology at all, but it is rather a philosophical wisdom in Christian garb. In existentialist categories, “revelation” of God becomes a synonymous concept for the attainment of a new self-understanding; but in no way does it mean the reality of an actual intervention of God in the historical world of space and time. The reality of God’s revelation did not take place in Jesus Christ. The “new” is not the fact of world redemption completed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It is only existence becoming open for God. Since Christ is not the living Lord, and represents nothing more than a symbol for the kerygma, it is also impossible for faith to represent a personal bond of trust in Jesus Christ. Thus faith is merely to be identified with the actualization of the new understanding of existence. Therefore it appears somewhat absurd to describe Bultmann as an executor of the last will and testament of the Lutheran Reformation on the basis of his philosophical elocution.

Bultmann’s endeavor to accommodate the Christian message to the problems and needs of modern man is doomed to failure because he is able to offer nothing more than anthropological solutions without any real knowledge of revelation. Bultmann’s theology is a pseudo-theology for it lacks the only enduring and all-sufficient foundation, Jesus Christ, who is none other than the historic man and at the same time the resurrected and transcendent Lord. With Bultmann’s kerygma, robber of its substance, it is impossible to preach, to comfort, or to carry on the work of missions. The same very serious question which in sharpest intolerance Paul directed to the congregation in Galatia must also be asked here: Is it a matter of another gospel? (Gal. 1:6).

The pretentious way to which Bultmann directs us shows itself to be a wrong way of dangerous heresy. In solid opposition to the way Bultmann would have us go stands the entirely other, genuine, apostolic kerygma: “that … which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled … that declare we unto you” (1 John 1:1, 3).

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