Wednesday, October 12, 2016

In Honor of Books & Culture: A Review of The New Measures by Ted A. Smith

Yesterday John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, announced that the next issue of the venerable magazine of Christian arts and letters would be its last. I have been a loyal reader of the magazine for the last decade, and some of the most intellectually compelling essays I have ever read were in its pages. Back when this blog was more active, I often engaged in critical dialogue with John, and this ultimately led to his asking me to write a review of a new book, The New Measures, by Ted A. Smith. I jumped at the opportunity. The review took me too long to write—it is always hardest to review a book that you love. I finally submitted it in fall 2009. Unfortunately, it was never published. In honor of both Ted Smith, whose book is one of the best scholarly books I have ever read, and in honor of Books & Culture, which I will miss dearly, I now present my review for the first time.

Redeeming the Past

A Startling New Look at the Second Great Awakening

Ted A. Smith, The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xiii + 340.

In his 1834–35 Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875) presents his argument for the use of what he calls “new measures” for preaching, by which he means those tactics or aids employed by ministers in order to grant the gospel the best hearing possible:
Ministers ought to know what measures are best calculated to aid in accomplishing the great end of their office, the salvation of souls. Some measures are plainly necessary. By measures I mean what things should be done to get the attention of the people, and bring them to listen to the truth. Building houses for worship, and visiting from house to house, &c. are all “measures,” the object of which is to get the attention of people to the gospel. (167)
In an age of mass media, market strategies, and mega churches, Finney’s pragmatic logic—do whatever works—is simply part of the air we breathe. We are surrounded by “new measures.” We seem to be bombarded by new methods of getting our notice and keeping it. In this sense, the church is often no different than the local business or the latest pop star. The preaching of the gospel is just one more voice in a global cacophony—all clamoring for our undivided attention.

What is second nature for us today was scandalous in the age of Finney and the Second Great Awakening. In his unwavering pursuit of conversion, Finney believed that preachers must do whatever is necessary to ensure the greatest possible “success,” that is, the greatest number of “saved souls.” This might mean rebelling against the status quo, whether cultural or religious. It might mean wearing the latest fashion, addressing the congregation in different and unusual ways, changing the architecture and design of the church, and even jettisoning long-held doctrines which inhibit the preaching of the gospel.

Most (in)famously, for example, Finney rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination on the basis that, “Anything brought forward as doctrine, which cannot be made use of as practical, is not preaching the gospel” (184). Because conversion was the central goal, Finney believed it was necessary for every person to have the individual freedom to make a decision of faith. Instead of a God who elects sinners to salvation, Finney argued that sinners must elect God. This theological revolution coincided with what Ted Smith calls a “revolution in choices” within American society more broadly, in which political, economic, and religious choices proliferated. The disestablishment of religion and the rise of consumerism joined with Finney’s revivalist conception of human agency to permanently shape the nature of American culture.

These evangelistic strategies or “measures” were highly controversial at the time, provoking cries of heresy and the use of counter-measures—which, of course, only further solidified the new measures as permanent staples of American religion. As a result, today, the “new” measures are simply old hat. They are commonplace features of modern democratic, religious life—as common as the fact that men and women, rich and poor, black and white, are able to sit together. The new measures are ubiquitous, and thus practically invisible. We see them in the evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham, in “seeker” mega-churches with the latest technology and stadium seating, in emergent communities that appeal to the younger evangelicals. Each of these examples, and the many more like them, adheres to Finney’s utilitarian frame of mind. And just as in Finney’s time, if today’s measures provoke controversy, that only further guarantees their dominance in the American religious landscape.

When assessing these measures, it is all too easy to become either the curmudgeonly traditionalist or the cheerleading progressive. The one disparages all measures (and the utilitarianism undergirding them) as capitulations to the present culture and thus as deviations from God’s Word or from “the way our ancestors did it.” The other champions the new measures as the basis for today’s democratic virtues, including individual freedom and social equality. The one adopts a “narrative of decline,” the other a “narrative of progress.” For both, the history of the new measures becomes an example within a larger story about the rise or fall of American religion and culture. The measures simply reinforce one’s ideological “worldview.” By treating Finney and the new measures in this way, one refuses to let the history speak for itself—with its unique successes and tragic failures, promises kept and promises deferred. The result is the loss of concrete particularity and the inevitable disappearance of history itself.

In his ambitious and brilliant study of Finney and the new measures, Ted Smith, associate professor of preaching and ethics at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology,1 charts a radically different approach to history. Smith takes his cue from the conclusion of Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, in which we find the following statement:
The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought. (247)
Adorno’s statement has been discussed at length by philosophers such as Jacob Taubes and Giorgio Agamben. What makes Smith’s study so remarkable is that he has applied Adorno’s axiom to the field of church history. The result is what Smith calls “theological history,” which strives to avoid all narratives of progress and decline by viewing the past “from the standpoint of hope.” The New Measures is therefore an exercise in theological history applied to the life and work of Finney and the new measures that he championed.

Smith’s stated goal is to bring this fertile period of the Second Great Awakening under the “messianic light.” Put another way, Smith seeks to interpret the American religious past through an act of “eschatological memory.” For him, this means acknowledging “the complexities and discontinuities within the new measures” and recognizing “the indirect, ironic relationships between human projects and the saving work of God.” The result is, as he says, “both empirical and theological at every point.”

The key to Smith’s “eschatological memory” is that he refuses to construct an immanent historical continuum (read: Hegelian philosophical history) in which the new measures are evaluated wholly on the basis of their historical consequences in relation to some immanent teleological norm. Narratives of progress or decline view the past entirely in terms of whether the end result is positive or negative: “Both depend on a morally charged ending that is continuous with other moments in the story.” Against this, Smith’s “eschatological memory” places the new measures in relation to an end that is not historically continuous with them. This is Adorno’s “standpoint of redemption,” what Smith calls the perspective of hope. In addition to being eschatological, this hope is also apocalyptic; it comes, like Christ himself, as an interruption of our existence, an incursion into the world. For that reason, the stories of the past “do not run smoothly on, but tangle to a halt.” The redemption of the past “will come neither from a little more progress on the road they are already on, nor from a quick reversal to retrace their steps and then run in the other direction. It will come in death and resurrection, or not at all.” In other words, the work of theological history depends upon a thoroughly christological and eschatological hermeneutic. This gives the historian freedom, as Adorno says, to “displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.”

The theological historian is able to present the past neither as a long-lost Golden Age nor as the start of our current cultural ills. Instead, the theological historian speaks about the past as it actually was, with all its “rifts and crevices,” but also as it is and might yet be in the light of our redemption. As Smith puts it, “I try to offer a perspective that neither damns democratic practice, nor celebrates it, nor depicts it as a project in which we might bring in the Reign of God if we worked a little harder. I argue that the new measures never kept their explicit promises, but that in and in spite of those promises deeper covenants were kept. . . . I hope neither to affirm the new measures as if they did the work of God directly nor to reject them as if God had utterly forsaken them, but to break them open so that they might testify to a hope against their hope.” For Smith, this hope against hope occurs in the messianic Jetztzeit, or “now-time,” discussed by Walter Benjamin: “the NOW of redemption.” And it is only from this perspective that the new measures appear neither as an artifact of the past nor as a novelty to be recaptured nor as a banal feature of democratic life today, but instead as “a gift for us” who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

With this ambitious theological-historical method, Smith has crafted a book that not only succeeds as an illuminating work of church history, but also, and perhaps more importantly, serves as an excellent work of theology. More accurately, we should say that Smith has elided the distinction between history and theology altogether. The genre of “theological history,” as conceived and practiced by Smith, results in a project that enriches both fields, challenging historians to be more theological and theologians to be more historical. On this point alone, Smith has done us a great and lasting service.

Smith’s methodology provides the architectonic structure of the book. Smith limits his focus to six new measures. This forms the book’s backbone. These six chapters each have six sections which loosely imitate the form of a sermon by Finney: (1) Smith begins with a story that encapsulates the point of the chapter; (2) he describes a particular crisis in its social and religious context; (3) he introduces the new measure that seeks to address the problem; (4) he tells how this new measure was eventually adopted by two opponents of the measure; (5) he demonstrates how the new measure failed to live up to its promise (what he calls “mortification”); and (6) finally he seeks to bear witness to the eschatological “transposition” of the new measure. Instead of an easy progress from failure to fulfillment, Smith juxtaposes the “mortified” measure with its eschatological redemption. His goal is to employ what Jürgen Habermas called Rettendekritik, redeeming-critique, in order to “speak of practices as justified and sinful at the same time.”

Because of their “resistance to definition,” there is no list of the new measures, nor can one identify some common “essence”—other than the fact that they were used to increase the effectiveness of one’s preaching. They arose individually in response to specific social issues. As a result, they simply “invite illustration,” as Smith says. The choice of six measures is, he admits, arbitrary. Smith has chosen what he calls a “constellation” or a “hodgepodge of practices.” There is no necessary connection between them: they could be treated individually, ministers might use some but not others, and taking them together does not somehow constitute “revival culture.” As he puts it, “Neither the new measures nor this book pretend to organic coherence and completion.”

Instead, Smith looks at six concrete practices which have had an enormous impact on American society. The first is Finney’s pragmatic instrumentalism, which transformed everything in life into a means toward conversion (that is, into a measure), such that things “had value only as they served the end of saving souls.” The inevitable issue with this instrumental logic is that “in order to be effective, [the measures] had to attract attention.” As a result, the second measure is the endless pursuit of novelty and sensation as part of the ongoing competition for the attention of the people. In his Lectures, Finney thus writes, “The object of our measures is to gain attention, and you must have something new.”

The third measure, already noted, is the emphasis on the freedom of the will, illustrated nicely by Finney’s sermon entitled, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.” Fourth, the new measures brought about a kind of egalitarianism, in which middle-class respectability joined with a formal equality. This affected everything from doctrine to architecture. The fifth measure is the shift in concern from the sincerity of new converts to the sincerity of the ministers. Along with this comes the rise of the “star system” and what we now call “cults of personality,” as well as the ongoing debate over the relation between public life and private life that continues to dominate political discourse today. The sixth and final measure that Smith treats is the use of “typological narratives” that illustrate a higher truth through a rhetorically compelling story, something we now almost expect preachers to do.

While Smith repeats the process of mortification and redemption for each of these measures, one example should suffice to show how this plays itself out in practice. Let’s consider the third chapter, on the issue of equality in the church. There is considerable ambiguity regarding the egalitarianism of the new measures. On the one hand, Finney preached a universal atonement in which all are potentially included. This change in the gospel message corresponded to a change in the layout of churches. Whereas the pews were formerly separated by sex, class, and race, the “free church” movement enabled men and women to sit together, eliminated the practice of pew rent, and in some cases even allowed for racial integration. And along with the changes in the church came changes in education, as gender and racial boundaries were abolished at Oberlin. On the other hand, this “formal equality” of all people went hand-in-hand with particular assumptions about middle-class respectability. As long as each person maintained a certain level of social decorum, everyone could enjoy “the respectable, static equality of a purified mass of formally identical subjects.”

The breaking point—the moment of the measure’s mortification—came with the infamous “lynching at Oberlin” in 1840. Without rehearsing the entire ordeal, the basic story centers around Horace Norton, who sent sexually explicit notes to several female students. A plot was devised to lure him out at night. While walking with a female student, Norton was attacked by a group of male students and faculty, dragged by rope to a barn, and strung up on a post while the men beat and interrogated him. The ensuing controversy revealed that the real issue behind the lynching was, as Smith puts it, that Norton’s notes “called into question the respectability of Oberlin’s style of equality. White and black women and men mixed freely as equals in the public spaces of classrooms, the church, and the dining hall. Such mixing retained respectability because it involved the transcendence, rather than the transgression, of differences.” In the end, “Norton became a demon who had to be exorcised so that the fragile union of equality and respectability cobbled together at Oberlin could survive.”

Smith identifies the mortification of this new measure with the fact that “universal equality” became “a badge of respectability, a marker of class distinction.” Ironically, “Formal equality became itself a marker that enabled distinctions that grounded inequality.” In fact, as Smith points out, such equality “not only marked but also legitimated inequality.” From this mortifying perspective, the new measure of universal equality becomes little more than class ideology. It is a form of “cheap grace” that proclaims equality while further baptizing social injustice. In this sense, we must give this measure a quick burial.

But there is another perspective—the perspective of grace. From this new angle, the “practices of formal equality ask to be remembered eschatologically.” We must look at equality in the messianic light. Instead of a formal equality that reduces every individual to a more general and abstract class of “human being,” this eschatological community “features amalgamation without loss of distinction.” It is a universal equality which will “risk difference, desire, and disrespectability.” Drawing upon Walt Whitman, Smith argues that the redemption of equality will come not through the violent transgression of social differences, nor through their formal abolition, but rather through a kind of “adhesiveness” in which love “binds different people together as citizens, church members, classmates, lovers, and equals.” The new measures witness to this eschatological end without ever being able to realize it in practice.

This is only one example from the book, yet it speaks to the overall depth of theological insight that Smith discovers in the new measures. And while it is a work of history, every page seems to be part of a grand sermon addressing the church in America today. The new measures are still with us, perhaps more now than ever before. Ted Smith’s book is thus truly a gift: he not only speaks about an eschatological hope, but his work embodies it.

1 At the time I wrote this review, Smith was assistant professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The God Who Saves: Early Reader Reviews

My latest book, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch, has not even been out for a month and already the reviews are coming in. Here are some tweets from two readers, Josiah Daniels (@josiah_Rdaniels) and NC Clair (@nc_clair). Daniels read an early draft, while Clair read the ebook version.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The God Who Saves: A Preview of My New Book

I am pleased to announce that my new book, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch, is now available from Cascade Books. This work is near to my heart. For one thing, it is the first book contract I ever signed. The project originated in January 2010 at a request from Robin Parry, an editor at Wipf and Stock, who was familiar with my work. I tell the whole story of the book’s origin in the prologue, so I will not relay the details again here. Suffice it to say, it has been on my mind for the last half-dozen years and, in a certain respect, it is the project for which all my previous writings were the prolegomena.

The book is essentially a dogmatics in outline, but it is controlled throughout by a very specific claim, namely, that salvation—not trinity, not christology—is the orienting center and guiding norm of Christian theology. To give a sense of what I mean, here is a sample from chapter 2, where I outline my theological method.
From Chapter 2: “Soteriocentrism: Prolegomena to a Dogmatic Sketch” 
I have argued that Christian faith confesses a God who saves. Theology is the conceptual interpretation and clarification of this axiom of faith. It is a scientific, hermeneutical, and practical discipline that humbly and rigorously reflects on the relation between God and humanity in the light of God’s reconciling self-revelation in Jesus Christ. But what does it mean for God to save? What does it mean for us to be saved? These questions—which lie at the very heart of Christian self-understanding—elude easy answers and must be asked anew by every generation. The difficulty of reaching any kind of agreement is only compounded by the fact that there has never been a dogma of the atonement. No ecumenical conciliar statement about the meaning of salvation exists. The ecumenical councils were content with clarifying the nature of Christ’s person without clarifying the nature of his saving work and how we participate in it. This has left the church with “an inherited heap of proposals” and little agreement about how to evaluate them.
The following chapters attempt to offer a systematic theological account of salvation, a soteriological dogmatica minora. That is to say, they seek to articulate various doctrines of the Christian faith in terms of the economy of grace. Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and creation—these and other doctrines will be explicated in light of the saving event that Christian faith confesses has taken place in Christ. This project is thus the consistent application of Melanchthon’s axiom (“to know Christ means to know his benefits”) to the whole of Christian theology. To know God is to know the God who saves. Theology is only properly Christian theology when it interprets the subject-matter of theology—the material content of dogmatics—in terms of its salvific significance for us. 
The implication is that, as Eberhard Jüngel puts it, “you are not teaching the matter properly if you do not at the same time think of its use.” . . . To adapt Luther, unless we learn to know God in this way (i.e., soteriologically), we necessarily go wrong. Unless theology speaks of a reality that is “useful for us as believers,” that “helps us,” it speaks in vain. To borrow an image from Wittgenstein, theology that is not determined by soteriology is language “idling,” that is, not “doing work.” If any doctrinal statement is irrelevant to the question of salvation, then it is highly questionable whether it has a place in a distinctively Christian articulation of faith. To paraphrase Luther, it is not Christian theology when you explicate doctrines from a historical or metaphysical point of view; they must be interpreted in terms of their usefulness and significance for us as believers. (53–55)
All of this talk about salvation is situated within the context of trying to work out a problem regarding Christian universalism—a position I have defended and articulated on this blog in the past. Over the years my thoughts on the matter have changed. I came to see the individual person’s historicity to be a significant problem for most universalistic soteriologies, indeed, for soteriology as such. Most classical Christian thought began to strike me as hermeneutically uncritical and highly metaphysical (in a pejorative sense that I define in the book). I had to subject my own views to thoroughgoing scrutiny and reconstruct my theology from the ground up. This book is the result. The purpose of The God Who Saves is thus to construct an alternative account of salvation that addresses these concerns and provides an internally coherent and consistent presentation of Christian theology.

What Is Salvation?

You may be thinking: if this is a reconstruction of theology around soteriology, what exactly is that soteriology? The answer, in a nutshell, is that I define salvation apocalyptically. Salvation, in other words, is an eschatological event—one that existentially destroys our old existence by crucifying us with Christ. I make this argument in conversation with recent work in apocalyptic theology (especially Ernst Käsemann and J. Louis Martyn), but hermeneutically filtered through the critical lens of Rudolf Bultmann and Eberhard Jüngel. I then appropriate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of unconscious Christianity to argue that the apocalypse is an inherently unconscious event. I distinguish between unconscious faith/Christianity—as the level at which God’s saving act occurs—and conscious faith/Christianity, which is the level at which religious practice takes place. Conscious Christianity fulfills its mission as it orients us toward and connects us with the unconscious faith that is its transcendent ground. From this the other doctrines follow: the Spirit is the agent of unconscious faith, the church is primarily an unconscious community, and the creature is defined by its unconscious, unnatural existence.
Reading tip: If you want to get right to my reconstruction of Christian theology, then skip ahead to chapter 3. The first two chapters are introductory material. The main course—and really the heart of the book—is found in the third chapter, where I articulate my account of salvation as apocalypse. 
How Does This Book Relate to My Previous Books?

There is a close connection between The God Who Saves and my previous work. In The Mission of Demythologizing, I attempted to figure out what the relationship between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann actually is. What I discovered is that Barth and Bultmann part ways over soteriology—over universalism in fact. Barth’s mature theology, in which he rejects the form of dialectical theology he previously shared with Bultmann, is a thoroughgoing attempt to secure the universality and sovereignty of divine grace. His later doctrine of election claims that all human beings are elect in Christ, who alone is the elected and rejected one. Bultmann opposes this idea and argues instead that election takes place in the act of faith itself, which is the position of the early Barth. This is a clear impasse and I make no attempt to reconcile Barth and Bultmann on this point in my previous books. I have always been convinced that Barth was right to make God’s grace universally effective, but I became convinced that Bultmann was equally right to emphasize the freedom and historicity of the human person. The God Who Saves is my attempt to develop an account of universal salvation within a Bultmannian approach to theology.

This has been a personally meaningful book to write. I hope it proves as meaningful to those of you who read it.


Table of Contents
Prologue: How My Mind Has Changed
1 Introduction: The Problem of Christian Universalism
Dare We Hope? Can We Know? 
Defining Universalism: A Typology 
The Problem of Universalism 
Toward a Universalism without Metaphysics 
2 Soteriocentrism: Prolegomena to a Dogmatic Sketch
Exordium to a Soteriocentric Theology 
Theology as Science 
Theology as Hermeneutics 
Theology as Praxis 
Theology as Soteriology 
Orthoheterodoxy: In Defense of the Freedom of Theology 
3 The Act of Salvation: Apocalypse
Soteriological Multivalence and the Hermeneutical Problem 
Salvation as Apocalypse: Interrogating New Testament Soteriology 
Salvation as Embarrassment: Eberhard Jüngel’s Eccentric Eschatology 
Salvation as Cocrucifixion: The Participatory Event of the Apocalypse 
Unconscious Apocalypse: “. . . You Did It to Me” 
4 The Agent of Salvation: Christ-Spirit
Soteriology and Christology 
Person before Work: The Internal Incoherence of Chalcedonian Christology 
Person as Work: Toward a Soteriocentric Christology 
The Interruptive Event: Apocalyptic Christology 
The Interruptive Agent: Apocalyptic Pneumatology 
Deus Praesens: Apocalyptic Pneuma-Christology 
5 The Site of Salvation: Apostolate
Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus? 
The Problem of Ecclesiocentrism 
The Church as the Apocalyptic Apostolate 
Toward a New Letter to Diognetus 
6 The Space of Salvation: Unnature
The Destroyer of Eden 
Reversing the Loci: Two Ways 
Existential Theanthropology: A Theology of the Creature 
Existential Theocosmology: A Theology of Creation 
Existential Epektasis: The End of Creation 
7 The God of Salvation: Trinity
Trinity as Schluss 
God the Christ: The Inbreaking of the Apocalypse 
God the Spirit: The Power of the Apocalypse 
God the Creator: The Ground of the Apocalypse 
The Apocalyptic Trinity 
The Ex-Centering God 
Epilogue: Faith, Love, and Hope
Universalism and Religions 
Universalism and Justice 
Universalism and the Afterlife

Monday, June 06, 2016

Eberhard Busch to Rolf Italiaander, 1968

The question of Karl Barth’s position on homosexuality was raised recently by Wyatt Houtz, who has quoted George Hunsinger’s reference to a letter near the end of Barth’s life that indicates a change of mind on this issue. Since this letter is only available in German, Wyatt asked if someone could translate it. In answer to the call, I have done precisely that. It’s a rough translation, and no doubt others could improve it, but the gist should be clear enough. Below I have included the letter in both German and English.


To the ethnologist Rolf Italiaander, Hamburg 1968
Letter from Eberhard Busch (at the instruction of Karl Barth) written on June 21, 1968.

Sehr geehrter Herr Italiaander!

Professor Karl Barth hat Ihren Brief vom 10. Juni zur Kenntnis genommen und hat sich gefreut, daß Sie bei der von Ihnen geplanten Sammlung zum Problem der Homosexuellen und ihrer sozialen Stellung und Anerkennung daran gedacht haben, auch seine Stimme zum Klingen zu bringen.

In der Tat hat er sich bereits einmal (Kirchl. Dogmatik III/4, 1951, S. 184f. [note]) zu diesem Problem geäußert - freilich in einem Sinn, der jenen Abschnitt für Ihre Sammlung wohl nicht als geeignet und passend erscheinen läßt. Damit Sie seine dort überwiegend negative Einstellung zu homosexuellen Beziehungen nicht falsch oder überbewerten, sei kurz angedeutet:

1) daß die dort - nur beiläufig - gemachte Äußerung nur auf dem Hintergrund des ganzen Zusammenhangs jenes Abschnitts zu verstehen und zu würdigen ist: ein Zusammenhang, in dem K. Barth das dem Menschen als Kreatur und in seiner Kreatürlichkeit gegebene Gebot Gottes unter einem von mehreren Aspekten, nämlich unter dem der »Freiheit zur Gemeinschaft» auslegt. Wobei für ihn die Urgestalt aller mitmenschlichen Gemeinschaft die des (nicht bloß «ehelichen», sondern des ganzen natürlichen) Gegenübers von Mann und Frau ist.

2) In diesem Zusammenhang erscheint ihm nun die Homosexualität ihrem Wesen nach als eine Gestalt von unfreier Gemeinschaft - bzw. als ein Verhalten, in dem sich der Mensch seiner Freiheit zur Gemeinschaft verschließt und entzieht. Sie dürfen aber gewiß sein, daß diese seine Meinung zu diesem Punkt als solche für ihn prinzipiell keine Erlaubnis zur «Diffamierung», geschweige zur (ja unsinnigen) juristischen «Bestrafung» der Homosexuellen (jedenfalls soweit sie nicht Andere «verführen» oder «belästigen») implizierte und impliziert. Für wirklich schlimm hält er nicht sie, sondern vielmehr den emotionalen Pharisäismus, der - sei es mit degradierenden (zudem oft nicht mit gleichem Maß angewandten) Gesetzesparagraphen, sei es im verächtlichen Flüsterton gegen sie einschreitet oder Stimmung macht. So auf keinen Fall!

3) Prof. Barth ist mit seinen damaligen beiläufigen Äußerungen heute - angesichts der seit ihrer Niederschrift eingetretenen Wandlungen und neuen Erkenntnisse - nicht mehr ganz zufrieden und würde sie heute sicher etwas anders abfassen. Man darf also denken, daß er gerade auf dem Hintergrund des Zusammenhangs, daß Gottes Gebot grundsätzlich auch als «Freiheit zur Gemeinschaft» wahrgenommen und befolgt sein will, - im Gespräch mit Medizinern und Psychologen - zu einer neuen Beurteilung und Darstellung des Phänomens kommen könnte.

Das würden Sie natürlich jetzt gern von ihm hören. Dazu hat er, der sich als über 82jähriger allerlei Beschränkungen gefallen lassen muß, aber nun nicht mehr die dazu erforderliche Zeit. Sie meint er mit den ihm verbliebenen Kräften auf die Arbeit an ihm gegenwärtig noch wichtiger erscheinende Themen und Aufgaben verwenden zu sollen. Haben Sie bitte freundliches Verständnis dafür!

In seinem Auftrag grüßt Sie ergeben
Eberhard Busch

Dear Mr. Italiaander!

Professor Karl Barth took note of your letter on June 10 and is pleased that, in your planned anthology on the issue of homosexuals and their social status and recognition, you thought to give space to his voice.

In fact he has already once expressed himself on this issue (Kirchliche Dogmatik III/4, 1951, 184f.)—though in a sense that probably would not be appropriate and suitable for that section of your anthology. Lest you view the predominantly negative attitude toward homosexual relations in that passage in a false or exaggerated way, the following was briefly mentioned:

1) That one has to understand and appreciate what is expressed there—only incidentally—against the background of the whole context of that passage: a context in which Karl Barth interprets the command of God given to human beings as creatures and in their creatureliness under one of several aspects, namely under the “freedom for community.” For him the original form of interpersonal community (not merely “marital” but all natural community) is the counterpart of man and woman.

2) In this context homosexuality in its essence appeared to him as a form of unfree community—namely, as a behavior in which one closes oneself to and withdraws from one’s freedom for community. But you can be sure that his opinion on this point did not and does not imply as such a license for “defamation,” let alone for the (nonsensical) legal “punishment” of homosexuals (at least insofar as they do not “seduce” or “harass” others). For he does not consider them actually wicked but rather he considers it emotional Pharisaism when, on the one hand, there is a degrading of the articles of the law (though often not carried out to the same degree), but on the other hand in contemptuous whispers people take actions against them or create a hostile environment. By no means!

3) With respect to his former incidental remarks—in view of the changes and new discoveries that have occurred since its writing—Professor Barth is today no longer entirely satisfied and would certainly today write them somewhat differently. One may think, therefore, precisely against the background of the context in which God’s command fundamentally wants to be perceived and followed as “freedom for community,” that—in conversation with doctors and psychologists—one could come to a new evaluation and presentation of the phenomenon.

You would naturally now like to hear this from him. But having endured eighty-two years of all kinds of limitations, he now no longer has the time required for this purpose. They say that he should make use of his remaining strength to work on those themes and tasks that presently appear more important to him. We ask for your kind understanding!

Greetings on his behalf,
Eberhard Busch

German text in: Offene Briefe 1945–1968 (Gesamtausgabe 5.15), 542–43.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Theological Pluralism at the End of the Mainline

Eighteen years ago William J. Abraham published a dire warning about the future of the United Methodist Church in First Things: “United Methodists at the End of the Mainline.” The article has been shared recently in light of the current social media firestorm surrounding the 2016 United Methodist Church General Conference (#UMCGC). Abraham in 1998 saw his denomination facing a “breakdown of a working consensus.”

The problem, he argues, is that the United Methodist Church is composed of three groups—the liberals, radicals, and conservatives—with the liberals in leadership. The liberals have a policy of inclusion and pluralism, but they have excluded those who do not share their pluralistic vision and principles. The result is the old cliché: liberals are tolerant of everyone except the intolerant. Abraham sees the liberal position as inherently unstable and incoherent. The conservatives and radicals, by contrast, are defined by being explicitly exclusionary: the conservatives exclude those who are confessionally out-of-bounds, while the radicals exclude those who are politically out-of-bounds. Abraham is clearly sympathetic to the conservative camp and defends their position in the rest of the article. He clearly appreciates the liberals for being able to hold the three groups together for so long, and he seems to blame the radicals for undermining this “working consensus” by forcing the liberals to take a hard stand against certain conservative factions.

What interests me here is his case against theological pluralism. Here is the heart of his argument:
It has long been agreed that United Methodism is a coalition of diverse conviction and opinion, having been formed under the banner of theological pluralism. Church leaders took the view in the 1970s that the core identity of United Methodism, if there was one at all, was located in commitment to the Methodist Quadrilateral (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience), and that this not only permitted but in fact sanctioned and fostered doctrinal pluralism. 
Doctrinal pluralism, despite its intellectual incoherence, will work so long as something akin to Liberal Protestantism is held by the leadership of the church and so long as those who are not Liberal Protestants acquiesce. In fact pluralism is part of the intellectual structure of Liberal Protestantism. If you believe that Christian doctrine is essentially an attempt to capture dimensions of human experience that defy precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations, then the truth about God, the human condition, salvation, and the like can never be adequately posited once and for all; on the contrary, the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine as mediated through Jesus Christ. The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends. In these circumstances pluralism is an inescapable feature of the church’s life. Pluralism effectively prevents the emergence of Christian doctrinal confession, that is, agreed Christian conviction and truth; and it creates the psychological and social conditions for constant self-criticism and review. 
The incoherence of this position is not difficult to discern, despite its initial plausibility. On its own terms it cannot tolerate, for example, those who believe that there really is a definitive revelation of the divine, that the church really can discern and express the truth about God through the working of reason and the Holy Spirit, and that such truth is necessary for effective mission and service. Hence pluralism is by nature exclusionary. Thus it is no surprise that pluralists readily desert their pluralism in their vehement opposition to certain kinds of classical and conservative theology. 
Pluralism is at once absolutist and relativist. It is absolutely committed to the negative doctrine that there is no divine revelation that delivers genuine knowledge of God; it is absolutely committed to a radically apophatic conception of Christian theology, so that no human language or concept, no product of reason at all, can adequately express the mystery of the divine; and it is absolutely committed to using theology to articulate Christian doctrine given the needs and idiom of the day. But it is relativist in its vision of what constitutes the material content of Christian doctrine at any point in history. Doctrine for the pluralists is the expression of Christian teaching as worked out by some appropriate theology and expressed in terms adequate to the culture of the day. To them, Christian tradition constitutes a series of landmark expressions of the faith which are worth exploring, but which must change to incorporate new insights and new truth. On this analysis tradition is seen to be a relatively benign, if not strictly binding, phenomenon.
I am not interested in the internecine squabbles within the UMC, so I will mostly ignore the rest of his article. What concerns me is the characterization of pluralism in this piece. Abraham thinks that the pluralist position is rooted in apophaticism, that is to say, the notion that we cannot have definitive knowledge of God. Because our language does not actually refer to God, our God-talk is merely about human experience. And since human experience is pluriform and constantly changing, our theology must necessarily be pluralistic and provisional.

The liberal position as Abraham describes it makes a crucial—and, to my mind, erroneous—presupposition. It assumes that one cannot confess a definitive revelation of God and hold to a pluralistic and provisional understanding of God-talk. If we have knowledge of God, then doctrinal pluralism is impossible. Whether this is Abraham’s own position or simply the position of the UMC liberals he describes is beside the point. What matters here is that this is not the only option available to us.

Theological pluralism is the necessary consequence of faith’s knowledge of God’s revelation. That is because pluralism is grounded not in a pragmatic attempt to address human diversity but in a theological conviction about the very being and action of God. Pluralism is valid because God embraces sociocultural multiplicity within God’s own being. Revelation is not objectifiable in a text or historical occurrence but is and remains a divine event that confronts us in history. This event of divine self-revelation—insofar as it is concretely defined by the Christ who transgresses cultural boundaries and the Spirit who brings cultural strangers into emancipatory coexistence—is inherently translatable, and thus God is perpetually in the act of translating Godself into a multiplicity of contexts.

The result is that we can affirm each of the three factions that Abraham describes:

  • In agreement with the liberals, revelation “def[ies] precise expression in language because of personal and cultural limitations,” doctrine “can never be adequately posited once and for all,” “the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine,” and the church must engage in “constant self-criticism.”
  • In agreement with the radicals, this revelation is an emancipatory event that stands on the side of the marginalized and disenfranchised, those who have been oppressed by the unjust distribution of power and the enslaving system of neoliberal capitalism.
  • In agreement with the conservatives, this revelation is grounded in a definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ and is thus the norm and criterion for genuinely confessional claims about God, the world, and the church.

By grounding the liberal project in the being-in-act of God, one can thus move beyond Abraham’s charge of incoherence. The liberal project is, properly understood, not inclusion and pluralism for the mere sake of pluralism and inclusion. Instead, inclusion is grounded in and follows from a particular understanding of God, and since this God has a very particular character the inclusion that follows from revelation has certain limitations. It is not pluralism for pluralism’s sake. It is pluralism as the expression of God’s constant going-beyond-Godself in the action of Christ and the Spirit in the world. Certain positions are necessarily excluded as being unfaithful to this God.

In other words, conservative positions that attempt to stabilize doctrine as timeless and universally valid are in fact denying the truth of the gospel. Positions that attempt to establish certain gender and sexual norms as permanently valid on the basis of creation are in fact opposed to God’s revelation. Positions that do not take matters of oppression and liberation into account fail to follow the way of God in the world.

The charge of incoherence is only plausible where one does not probe the underlying basis for theological pluralism. Once we do, we begin to see that it is possible—nay, necessary—to develop what we might call a radical liberal evangelicalism. Such a position insists on a genuine knowledge of God that makes possible meaningful God-talk. But such a position equally insists that the God we come to know is a God who does not stand still, who is perpetually in movement, who does not put up with being made a stable object for our observation and inquiry. Moreover, this God is in movement on the underside of history, breaking in among those who have been systemically silenced and subjugated. The most genuinely conservative theology is thus the most genuinely radical: a theology that hears and speaks of God in revolutionary action.

My forthcoming book, The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cascade, 2016), is an initial attempt to outline what a theology of this nature looks like. In that work I propose what I call an orthoheterodoxy: theology must always speak differently, but in the right way, namely, in accordance with the norm of God’s translatable event of revelation. You can see the table of contents here. Stay tuned for more details.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Dialectical Theology and Mission: A Response to Martin Westerholm

I am grateful to Martin Westerholm for his generous review article on my book, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Fortress, 2015), which he places alongside Kevin Hector’s new work, The Theological Project of Modernism: Faith and the Conditions of Mineness (OUP, 2015). The article is in the latest issue of the International Journal of Systematic Theology (18, no. 2: 210–32). On the whole I think Westerholm has done an admirable job summarizing and exploring the key themes of my work. In this post I want to address some areas of critique that he raises and reflect on what this reveals about the state of the conversation.


Westerholm understands well the structure of my argument. He recognizes that it is framed in concentric circles leading, at its heart, into the program of demythologizing. The argument is not primarily that demythologizing itself has been completely misunderstood—though in some respects it has been—but that the program needs to be placed in the proper context: “Rehabilitating this hermeneutic does not mean changing its basic definition, but rather constructing a new framework around it that changes the terms on which it is understood. Congdon’s book is long because it not only describes its object but also reconstructs the theological and historical world in relation to which the object is judged” (218). The new framework I provide is a new understanding of dialectical theology (DT), one that does justice to the theological concerns and historical trajectories of both Barth and Bultmann. Westerholm examines my tripartite definition of DT as soteriological, eschatological, and missional (I use “missionary” in my book, but “missional” captures the same meaning).

Westerholm focuses his main critique around the third term and here it is worth taking a closer look. He writes:
The fly in the ointment is the addition of mission as the third constitutive feature of dialectical theology. The addition appears to be crucial, for Congdon wishes to argue that it is the ‘missionary logic’ that ‘governs’ dialectical theology that demythologizing ‘extends’ into hermeneutics; but the association between dialectical theology and mission is a soft spot in his argument. At the most conceptually consistent moments in the work, Congdon depicts dialectical theology as a soteriological-eschatological form of thought that has implications for mission; but we are in the sphere of fallacy if we name the essence of the thing according to its implication, and stronger claims regarding ‘essence’ typify the book. Congdon seeks to secure these claims through a reinterpretation of Barth’s development that depicts concern for mission as a decisive factor in moving Barth towards dialectical theology; but, in a book in which the historiographical work is generally thorough and rigorous, the evidence provided for Barth’s missional interest is strikingly thin, and even were the interest well substantiated, we should again be guilty of fallacy were we to treat genetic factors as constitutive of essence. (219–20)
Westerholm has a long footnote in here where he attempts to review all the places in which I cite mission appearing in Barth’s early writings (220n38). Readers are encouraged to read the note for themselves. All I want to say here is that he seems to have misunderstood the point of this historiographical section. The point was not to document every appearance of mission in the early Barth. When he says that “mission is then largely absent from Barth’s writings between 1910 and 1914,” that is because I chose not to discuss those years in order to hit the main highlights. Parenthetically, the recent publication of Barth’s 1911 sermons shows that mission was indeed a concern on his mind during that time. Westerholm concludes the note by stating: “No evidence that Barth engages with the theme after 1915, when he actually began working out his dialectical theology, appears, a lack that stands in sharp contrast to the frequency with which other spheres in which a separation between kerygma and culture has implications – social, political, economic – are mentioned.” But again, that is because I largely chose to conclude my investigation with Barth’s turn to DT—though, strangely, Westerholm ignores section 3.3 (esp. pp. 295–303) where I document the way this missionary theme plays out explicitly in 1932. Others, especially John Flett, have already commented on the importance of mission to Barth’s later theology, and I did not want to retread the same territory in a book focused on Bultmann.

But there is a more important issue here. Westerholm seems to think that only explicit mentions of mission count in favor of my argument that there is a missionary logic in DT. This connects with his charge that I have confused essence and implication. Perhaps this is something I should have been clearer about in my book. When I speak about mission as part of the “essence” of DT, I am referring to the “missionary logic” (a term I use frequently and that Westerholm quotes) of DT. When I speak about “implications for mission,” I am referring to the way DT has practical applications for how we think about and practice mission today. I claim both as true, but the former does not require explicit reference to mission. And this is where I think Westerholm misunderstands a key piece about my overall argument.

Westerholm finds my “interest in mission” to be a “liability” because “the emphasis appears in important senses to have been unnecessary to the larger argument.” He writes:
Congdon depicts mission as a third term that is needed to connect dialectical theology to demythologizing; but the most parsimonious form of the claim that demythologizing extends the principles of dialectical theology into hermeneutics bypasses mission entirely and presents demythologizing as the hermeneutical application of the eschatology of dialectical theology. A thesis of this kind would say that dialectical theology is marked by separating human realities that are put under judgement from the event of revelation, and that demythologizing applies this separation to hermeneutics. (220)
Actually, this does not bypass mission at all but is in fact deeply interwoven with it! Here is the real heart of the matter: Westerholm seems to have missed a crucial part of my book’s argument, something I state very clearly in the introduction, namely, that DT is fundamentally about reconstructing theology within modernity and mission is the logic that makes this reconstruction possible:
How is it possible, to use Cahill’s phrase, for Christianity to “be subject to creative transformations?” The only satisfactory answer to this question is one that understands the logic behind such creative reconstruction as internal to Christianity. Understood appropriately, mission is this logic. It is what makes the transformations of Christian faith possible, insofar as mission is essentially the pursuit of vernacular modes of Christian existence. Mission is the daring venture of theological reconstruction. It articulates the possibility and process of (re)interpreting the faith for a new time and place. (The Mission of Demythologizing, xxii)
Westerholm focuses so much of his time in the trees that he misses the forest. DT as a whole is a project in theological reconstruction, an attempt to rethink Christian theology from the ground up within a modern context. This reconstruction is another way of describing mission. Mission, as I define it in the opening pages of the book, concerns the recontextualization of the Christian kerygma. My book is then an attempt to investigate the condition of possibility for this reconstruction/recontextualization. That involves getting at the missionary logic underlying DT.

What I argue is that DT was a contextualization project from the very beginning. It articulated the norm for missionary contextualization—namely, the eschatological event of salvation—and contextualized this norm in response to a missionary situation in 20th century Germany. I argue that, despite the changes in Barth’s theology, his work is a consistent attempt to recontextualize this kerygma in response to present missionary demands. Bultmann extends Barth’s project by reflecting on the methodological basis for this contextualization. Demythologizing articulates DT’s implicit hermeneutic.

To put all of this in another way, what Westerholm misses is the importance of culture. As I state, “the field of mission studies or intercultural theology examines the relation between ‘gospel’ . . . and ‘culture’” (The Mission of Demythologizing, 524). Westerholm seems to think that DT in its original form can be reduced to eschatology, but this eschatology cannot be understood if we do not recognize the way it functions to criticize a certain (liberal-colonialist) collapse of gospel and culture and, conversely, to authorize a more open and free relation between gospel and culture. The point of my review of the early Barth is to show that the gospel-culture relationship is front and center in his mind. Surely Westerholm would not dispute that Barth was responding to a problematic conflation of Christian truth with German culture. My point is simply this: responding to this conflation is already to engage in missionary thinking.

Westerholm is correct to say that “dialectical theology is marked by separating human realities that are put under judgement from the event of revelation, and that demythologizing applies this separation to hermeneutics,” but these “human realities” are cultural realities and thus to engage in this “separation” is to engage in missionary contextualization. Westerholm seems on the verge of making this very point. He says that “Barth’s eschatology implies that no human reality is identical with the movement of God, and so the kerygma cannot be identified with the constructs of a particular culture,” and he adds that “the kerygma must be distinguished from all cultural constructs.” All of this “is, for Congdon, the essence of a missional form of thought.” So why then does he spend so much time questioning the place of mission in my argument? There is an odd disjunction between his summary of my argument and his later assessment. Mission seems essential in the former but then appears unnecessary in the latter. This remains perplexing to me.


Westerholm concludes the article by evaluating the continuity of my position with the classical Christian tradition. Here again mission is at issue:
Mission is invoked at points in Congdon’s work as a criterion of theological propriety; yet that which is significant for us is the recognition that mission must itself be normed by a prior account of Christian teaching, for the missionary work of intercultural translation hinges on concrete judgements regarding the essential content of the message that the translator seeks to convey. . . . On these terms, mission depends on prior judgements about the essential content of Christianity, and is thus normed before it is norming. (228)
Before going on to assess his evaluation of my account of the norm, let me pause for a minute to examine this statement. Westerholm sets up a relation between gospel and culture that I explicitly critique in my book, that is to say, one in which the gospel contains the “essential content of Christianity” that mission then translates for a specific context. This is precisely the view of mission that Barth adopts in his later theology and that I criticize by drawing on the resources of Bultmann and contemporary work in intercultural theology, especially Theo Sundermeier. The point is that the kerygma, insofar as it is given linguistic expression, is already contextual, already situated within history, and thus grasping the message itself is already a missionary endeavor. The kerygma as norm is a divine event that is prelinguistic and preconceptual. DT recovered this understanding of the kerygma in its focus on the eschatologically transcendent word of God.

Westerholm wants to argue that Barth abandoned this early eschatological norm because he realized it was theologically inadequate. He challenges my claim that “the choice for Barth is necessarily at the same time a choice for Bultmann” (The Mission of Demythologizing, 9). First, let me clarify this claim. I am responding to those who think that Bultmann is the one who departed from DT, so my claim is simply that if you accept that Barth was a dialectical theologian then you ought to accept that Bultmann was as well. Westerholm takes my statement in a stronger sense that I did not intend and that is actually contrary to my argument: namely that to be on the side of the later Barth is also to be on the side of Bultmann. On the contrary, I show in my book why that is not the case.

Having said that, while Barth certainly abandons the version of DT he held in the 1920s, I do want to affirm a continuity between the early and later Barth. In this respect I remain the student of Bruce McCormack. If one accepts my argument that DT is fundamentally about mission—about a missionary distinction between gospel and culture—then I believe it is eminently possible to see continuity between the early and later Barth, and thus between Barth and Bultmann. This does not mean that the later Barth and Bultmann represent the same position; rather it means they share a fundamentally consistent norm, even if this norm is fleshed out in contradictory ways. This explains the significant points of contact between their later writings.

But Westerholm does not seem nearly so sanguine about the claim of Barth’s consistency. He states his agreement with Przywara and Balthasar’s criticisms of the early Barth (229), he defends Balthasar (229n71), and his reference to McCormack is tepid: “If, with Bruce McCormack, we define dialectical theology in terms of the concepts that cluster around Barth’s understanding of the formal structure of revelation, then we may perhaps say that Barth always remained a dialectical theologian” (231). Westerholm seems to be of the opinion that the later Barth breaks with the early Barth in a fundamental way. If that is the case, then he is certainly correct that my claim about continuity between Barth and Bultmann cannot be sustained. But my work assumes McCormack’s thesis about continuity between the early and later Barth and only asks what that continuity suggests about Bultmann. Westerholm cannot fairly criticize my claim that “the choice for Barth is necessarily at the same time a choice for Bultmann” without acknowledging this presupposition of my work. By not doing so he shifts the goalposts and then criticizes me for not sharing his own take on Barth.


In closing, I wish to express my genuine appreciation to Westerholm for taking my work seriously. It is an honor to be read so carefully and to be placed in conversation with Kevin Hector, whose work I admire greatly. I found it curious that Westerholm does not mention that Hector and I were both students at Princeton Seminary and both had McCormack for our Doktorvater. I initially assumed this was the reason he evaluated our books together, but he never mentions it. He also does not mention that I have a section in my book where I critically evaluate Hector’s first book, Theology without Metaphysics (see

Westerholm’s overall point of critique is that Hector and I affirm a modern Christianity. To that I must say: guilty as charged! We do not see any intrinsic tension between modernity and the Christian faith. A modern reconstruction of Christian theology is not only possible but even necessary. Westerholm questions whether such a reconstruction “is continuous with the broader Christian tradition” (228). This is a common rejoinder, but it reflects a disagreement over what counts as tradition and thus what counts as continuity. Bultmann reflects on this issue in his own writings. His position is decidedly Protestant in his view that tradition is only genuinely tradition if it “is actually a part of the event which it preserves, celebrates, laments, or even merely describes” (Faith and Understanding, 191). The tradition has to “speak to me” and confront me with the same address and summons. Only insofar as it communicates this kerygmatic event does it actually count as tradition. In other words, the tradition does not stand as an independent norm for evaluating translations of the kerygma. To treat the tradition in this way is already to abandon the tradition—that is, to abandon the gospel itself.

I have said before that the challenge Bultmann poses is whether we are willing to affirm that modernity is a valid context within which to translate and articulate the Christian kerygma. Over the past half-century the tide within the church has turned against Bultmann (and DT for that matter). Today it is a widely held opinion that modernity is in key respects antithetical to the gospel. In our own ways Hector and I disagree with this opinion. For the sake of clarity and honesty I hope that future engagements with our work explore this issue in more depth.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

New website

For those looking for a current list of my publications (including articles available for download) or an update on my research and writing, you can now consult my personal website:

There you will find my CV, descriptions of my books, lists of my articles and book chapters (including download links), and a statement about my current areas of research and writing.

Thanks for visiting!

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.