Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A New Introduction to Rudolf Bultmann

In the months after I finished my Fortress Press monograph on Rudolf Bultmann’s theology, The Mission of Demythologizing, I began working on a short introduction to his thought for undergraduate and lay readers. The result was published this week by Cascade Books as Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. The book is on sale through November 15 for 40% when you use the code: Bultmann.

With this work I wanted to give people the tools they need to read Bultmann profitably. While all introductions to Bultmann (apart from readers) are now out-of-print, one of their main drawbacks was a focus on the sources of Bultmann’s theology. They would discuss Heidegger, Herrmann, Barth, form criticism, and other influences, with the expectation that knowing the historical background and source material would enable the reader to dive into Bultmann’s texts.

The problem is that Bultmann is a highly synthetic theologian. He is not simply a composite of various influences. The whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

For this reason I opted instead to approach Bultmann thematically. My guiding question throughout was: how does Bultmann himself think theologically? My aim, in other words, was to discern the nuts and bolts of his thought, to distill his interdisciplinary and wide-ranging work to its essence.

I ended up with ten chapters on the following themes:
  • eschatology
  • dialectic
  • nonobjectifiability
  • self-understanding
  • kerygma (see a sample from this chapter below)
  • history
  • myth
  • hermeneutics
  • freedom
  • advent
In terms of order, the key decisions are to place eschatology up front and advent at the end. I am convinced that the only way into Bultmann’s theology is through the question of eschatology. This is how he begins his Jesus Christ and Mythology, and there is a reason for that: eschatology is both the problem that theology attempts to answer and the norm by which theology develops the answer. Eschatology is the theological nodal point at which the various streams and layers of Bultmann's thought converge to form a coherent image.

Advent is the pastoral and practical counterpoint to eschatology. In that concluding chapter I survey Bultmann's sermons to see the centrality of and the development in his discussion of Christ's advent. As I have argued on this blog before, Bultmann is the modern theologian of advent par excellence. His entire theology is suffused with eschatological expectancy. I argue in this final chapter that he is a theologian of “perpetual advent.”

Bultmann is a challenging theologian. His thought is scattered among various short essays. He ranges across a number of different disciplines and methodologies. He is what Barth would call an “irregular” theologian. For this reason, there is a need for a guide to his thought that brings systematic clarity to his body of work. This is what I have aimed to provide.


A selection from chapter 5, “Kerygma” (pp. 71–74):

Bultmann presents the question regarding the essence of the kerygma . . . most clearly in the passage from his letter to Heidegger in 1932 quoted above. The letter continues as follows:
It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that the central problem of New Testament theology is to say what the Christian kerygma actually is. It is never present simply as something given, but is always formulated out of a particular believing understanding. Moreover, the New Testament, almost without exception, does not directly contain the kerygma, but rather certain statements (such as the Pauline doctrine of justification), in which the believing understanding of Christian being is developed, are based on the kerygma and refer back to it. What the kerygma is can never be said conclusively, but must constantly be found anew, because it is only actually the kerygma in the carrying out of the proclamation.1
According to Bultmann, the NT does not “directly contain” the kerygma, but rather the statements in the Bible are based on and bear witness to the kerygma. The distinction here between kerygma and scripture corresponds to Karl Barth’s distinction between revelation and scripture. In his doctrine of revelation, Barth presents what he calls the “threefold form” of revelation as the word of God revealed (Jesus Christ), written (scripture), and proclaimed (contemporary preaching).2 Barth’s point is that God’s self-revelation, definitively actualized in Christ, is qualitatively distinct from the written and spoken testimonies to it. The sovereign freedom of God precludes the collapse of revelation, as the act of God, into scripture, preaching, or theology as the human witnesses to revelation—scripture being the normative and authoritative witness over church preaching and teaching.

Like Barth, Bultmann refuses to collapse kerygma and theology, and he does so for similar reasons: God’s otherness and nonobjectifiability, the lordship of Christ as the eschatological judge, our absolute dependence upon God’s grace. However we articulate it, the distinction between God and the world means that the kerygma—if it is truly the event in which Christ speaks to us today and so communicates God’s justifying grace to you and me—cannot be conflated with any single human articulation or interpretation. The distinction between kerygma and theology is a distinction between direct and indirect address: “We have made a distinction between christology that is kerygma as direct address and christology that is indirect address and is the theological explication of the new self-understanding of the believer, a critical-polemical explication made necessary by Paul’s historical situation and carried out with the use of a contemporary conceptuality.”3 In the kerygma, God addresses us directly; in theology, we speak and hear about God’s direct address. This speaking and hearing about the kerygma takes place in a specific situation. The terms “historical situation” and “contemporary conceptuality” are Bultmann’s way of saying that every presentation of the kerygma occurs in a particular cultural context—what Bultmann elsewhere calls a “world-picture” (Weltbild)4—and this context always involves a certain language or conceptuality. Every presentation of the kerygma, including those within scripture itself, is therefore already an interpretation:
When, therefore, the science of New Testament theology seeks to present faith as the origin of the theological statements, it obviously must present the kerygma and the self-understanding opened up by it in which faith unfolds itself. And that is just where the problem lurks! For both the kerygma and faith’s self-understanding always appear in the texts, so far as they are expressed in words and sentences, already interpreted in some particular way—i.e. in theological thoughts. Although there are single statements in the New Testament which can be designated as specifically kerygmatic, even they are always formulated in a particular theological conceptuality—take, for instance, that simplest sentence, “Jesus, Lord” (II Cor. 4:5), for it presupposes a particular understanding of the concept “Lord.”5
This means that no presentation of the kerygma can be given universal significance or validity. Though Bultmann does not state so explicitly, scripture itself confirms this judgment by containing an abundance of kerygmatic translations that bear witness to the diversity of cultural contexts out of which the biblical texts and traditions arose. If this is true of scripture, it is even truer for the later creeds and confessions of the church, which are attempts to make sense of the church’s proclamation within a different historical situation. None of these texts can presume to offer timeless and universal truths. They are translations of the truth into a specific cultural-linguistic form. But if we bind the kerygma to any single form, we bind God’s act of revelation to a single cultural context, thereby implying that God does not speak to other contexts and communities. Insofar as Christianity presupposes that the gospel can be translated to every culture or language, it follows that the kerygma “can never be said conclusively” but has to be discovered ever anew.6

1 Bultmann and Heidegger, Briefwechsel, 186.
2 CD 1.1:98–140
3 Bultmann, “Christology,” 280–81, rev.
4 Bultmann, “New Testament,” 1.
5 TNT, 2:239, rev. This passage is from a 1950 essay on “The Problem of the Relation of Theology and Proclamation in the New Testament,” included as an epilogue to his Theology of the New Testament.
6 Bultmann and Heidegger, Briefwechsel, 186.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The Mission of Demythologizing is now available

My book, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology, is now available from Fortress Press. The book is an expanded version of my dissertation. My thesis is that, even in his later hermeneutical work, Bultmann never abandoned the dialectical theology he shared with Karl Barth in the early 1920s. I argue that the famous program of demythologizing is the hermeneutical fulfillment of dialectical theology. Bultmann’s program of existentialist interpretation is the extension of Barth’s theology into the realm of hermeneutics.

Here is a selection from the opening chapter where I set up the problem, what I call the “myth of the whale and the elephant.” Attentive readers will notice that this is a play on a section from Bultmann’s programmatic essay, “New Testament and Mythology” (compare the paragraphs below with New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert Ogden [Fortress, 1984], 1–9).


The theological world-picture of the relation between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann is a mythical world-picture. According to this picture the world is a two-part structure, with Barth on one side and Bultmann on the other, incapable of meaningful communication. Barth is, to some, the champion of the gospel against the errors of modern liberalism, while to others he was an important figure early on whose theology eventually lapsed into yet another ossified dogmatic edifice. Bultmann is, for a select few, the one who made the gospel meaningful within the modern world, while for most others he was the liberal exegete par excellence who eviscerated the kerygma of any meaningful content. According to the dominant perspective within this picture it was Barth who rescued theology from the clutches of extrabiblical presuppositions and so-called natural theology, while Bultmann was the one who made anthropology—and an individualist, existentialist anthropology at that—the starting point for theological discourse, thus subordinating theology to philosophy. All of this is mythological talk, and the individual motifs can be easily traced to the mythology of Anglo-American neo-orthodoxy. Contemporary Christian academic discourse is therefore confronted by the question whether, when it discusses these two figures, it is really Barth and Bultmann who are under discussion or whether it is in fact asking people to acknowledge a myth about them in place of an actual understanding of their theologies. It has to face the question whether there is a truth about Barth and Bultmann that is independent of the mythical world-picture, in which case it would be the task of responsible theological discourse to demythologize the received message about these two theologians. 
It is the claim of this author that there is indeed such a truth, and that we are charged with the task of demythologizing the myth of the whale and the elephant. Bultmann himself always insisted that demythologizing is not the elimination of myth but rather its interpretation and translation. Our task today is to demythologize the relation between Barth and Bultmann, and thus to hear again their joint witness to the gospel within a new theological situation. Moreover, it is impossible to repristinate an earlier world-picture, in which the world was a single story with Barth and Bultmann in a joint alliance against liberalism. We must address the mythical world-picture by going through their later writings, not by ignoring them. Such a task cannot be carried out by simply reducing the amount of mythology through picking and choosing which aspects to demythologize. We cannot, for example, reject the notion that Bultmann abandoned dialectical theology and still retain the view that he subordinates the kerygma to Heideggerian existentialism, nor can we reject the claim that Bultmann subordinates theology to anthropology and still retain the idea that Bultmann denies that God acts in history. We can only completely accept the myth of the whale and the elephant or completely reject it. If the genuine theological insights and contributions of Barth and Bultmann are to remain valid for us today, there is nothing to do but demythologize this myth. (12–13)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

My Forthcoming Book: The Mission of Demythologizing

My nearly 1000-page study of Rudolf Bultmann’s theology and hermeneutics is nearing publication. The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology is scheduled for release on June 1 from Fortress Press.

You can preorder the book now for 40% off the list price, so pick up your copy now! [Update: the 40% discount is over for now.]

Here are the endorsements for the book, for which I am most grateful:

“In this substantial work, David Congdon has produced the most creative and scholarly study of Rudolf Bultmann’s theology for more than a generation. In refuting the standard charge of a capitulation to modernity, he shows how Bultmann’s demythologizing project is rooted in a robust set of convictions about God as subject and the act of faith as existential and practical. This reassessment of Bultmann as a dialectical theologian is long overdue. In an increasingly secular culture which too readily dismisses Christian faith as ‘believing six impossible things before breakfast,’ Congdon’s work promises to rehabilitate Bultmann as an important resource for theological understanding.”
—David Fergusson, University of Edinburgh

The Mission of Demythologizing systematically deconstructs the slogans with which New Testament scholars have long caricatured Rudolf Bultmann's hermeneutic. Yet this is no mere demolition job, as David Congdon replaces the stereotype with a Bultmann fully invested in a missiological hermeneutic on behalf of dialectical theology. This book and the discussion it generates will be with us a long time.”
—Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Baylor University

“This is a quite remarkable volume. It seeks to overturn two generations and more of scholarship on the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, not only revisiting and reconceiving the relationship between Bultmann and Karl Barth, but also revisioning and rehabilitating Bultmann's program of demythologization. The bold trajectory of argument which Congdon advances arcs round the central claim that Bultmann’s dialectical theology and demythologising programme represent a fundamentally missionary endevaour. To evidence this ambitious claim, Congdon engages with the full diachronic range of Bultmann’s corpus, and thereby interacts with the full range of attendant issues, including the crucial relationships between kerygma and hermeneia, objective and subjective, and mission and liberalism. The result is a painstakingly researched and lucidly presented work that is both compelling and a joy to read, one which evidences the kind of depth, insight, and passion that are the hallmarks of the very finest research in theology. This volume will make an immediate and significant contribution to the reception of the work of Bultmann (and of Barth); but more than this, the constructive and generative agenda which it sets suggests that the work of Protestant theology is far from done and that tales of its demise may be somewhat premature.”
—Paul T. Nimmo, University of Aberdeen

“David Congdon's work is essential reading for anyone interested in Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, or Christian theology in the modern period. Meticulously researched, lucidly written, and brimming with constructive energy, this is a work of enormous sympathy, intelligence, and creativity.”
—Adam Neder, Whitworth University

“This book is one of the most important and perceptive studies on Rudolf Bultmann and his often misunderstood program of Entmythologisierung (demythologizing) ever written in English.”
—Michael Lattke, Emeritus, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia

“For two generations theology has ‘gone around’ Bultmann rather than through him. This evasion has led either to scholarly retreats into the false securities of the old historicism or to circling the wagons of Christian traditionalism. In this brilliant book worthy of its subject, a voice from the youngest theological generation now presents a fresh understanding of Bultmann’s daring missional program. David Congdon urges the church to look outward and forward by interpreting the news of Jesus Christ on the shifting frontiers of an emerging world.”
—James F. Kay, Princeton Theological Seminary

“Comprehensively researched and clearly written, this volume provides a convincing reinterpretation of Bultmann’s thought as well as a compelling account of its constructive significance for the future of missional theology and hermeneutics. This is an impressive interdisciplinary contribution to the literature of modern Christian thought by one of the most promising young theologians at work today.”
—John R. Franke, Evangelische Theologische Faculteit, Leuven, Belgium

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Top 50 Albums of 2014

I found it hard to keep up with the music in 2014. It was a busy year, to say the least. I defended my dissertation in January, signed four book contracts, had three journal articles and three book chapters published, submitted three other articles to journals, submitted a 900-page manuscript for publication, gave a conference paper, finally saw published the book I coedited with Travis McMaken on Karl Barth, and made serious headway in writing two more book manuscripts. And that is all on top of the dozens of books I edited for publication with IVP Academic. So I’ve had a lot on my mind in 2014. Unfortunately, my music listening suffered.

That being said, I still listened to many albums this year—many very good albums. A number of these albums are by artists who are known for a particular instrument: Arve Henriksen on trumpet, Owen Pallett on violin, Ernst Reijseger on cello, Hauschka on piano, and James Blackshaw on guitar. 2014 was the year I discovered both Henriksen and Reijseger, and I suspect they will feature on future lists. Many of my favorite albums—Henriksen, Richard Reed Parry, David Lang, Reijseger, Hauschka, Blackshaw, Glenn Kotche, A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Barnett + Coloccia, and Golden Retriever—could be classified as experimental or contemporary classical, which is a growing area of interest.

With that said, here is my list of the best albums of 2014.

1. Arve Henriksen, Chron + Cosmic Creation, The Nature of Connections, World of Glass (with Terje Isungset)

Picking Henriksen for #1 is not merely penance for overlooking his Places of Worship on last year's list. Any of his 2014 albums would be worthy of this spot – and all of them together make for a stunning output in a single year – but the release of Chron and Cosmic Creation is the clear highlight. This is daring, eye-opening experimental music. But do not miss World of Glass, where all of the music is played on instruments made out of glass.

2. Flying Lotus, You’re Dead!

3. Owen Pallett, In Conflict

4. Richard Reed Parry, Music for Heart and Breath

5. Perfume Genius, Too Bright

6. D’Angelo, Black Messiah

7. Ibibio Sound Machine, Ibibio Sound Machine

8. Hundred Waters, The Moon Rang Like a Bell

9. FKA twigs, LP1

10. David Lang, Love Fail

11. Ben Frost, A U R O R A

12. Clark, Clark

13. Ernst Reijseger, Feature

14. St. Vincent, St. Vincent

15. Caribou, Our Love

16. Brian Eno/Karl Hyde, High Life

17. Lykke Li, I Never Learn

18. Aphex Twin, Syro

19. Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2

20. Arca, Xen

21. Lost in the Trees, Past Life

22. Future Islands, Singles

23. Marissa Nadler, July

24. The Antlers, Familiars

25. Museum of Love, Museum of Love

26. Kate Tempest, Everybody Down

27. Hauschka, Abandoned City

28. Lone, Reality Testing

29. Todd Terje, It’s Album Time

30. Strand of Oaks, HEAL

31. Death Vessel, Island Intervals

32. James Blackshaw, Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat

33. Lyla Foy, Mirrors the Sky

34. Spoon, They Want My Soul

35. Grouper, Ruins

36. Jess Williamson, Native State

37. Glenn Kotche, Adventureland

38. A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Atomos

39. Lockah, Yahoo or the Highway

40. CEO, Wonderland

41. How To Dress Well, “What Is This Heart?”

42. Mark McGuire, Along the Way

43. Mr Twin Sister, Mr Twin Sister

44. Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty

45. Barnett + Coloccia, Retrieval

46. Golden Retriever, Seer

47. Sun Kil Moon, Benji

48. Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues

49. The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream

50. Landlady, Upright Behavior