Barth, Bultmann, and demythologization: Egyptian bondage?

With Jüngel, I have argued that Barth and Bultmann are both concerned about proper speak about God. This similarity is evinced in the former’s emphasis on the self-communicative God who reveals Godself in divine self-revelation in order to commandeer human language for the sake of bearing witness to this self-revelation. The emphasis with the latter is on demythologizing human language in order that our words might actually speak about God, and not about some particular historical concept that we happen to call “God” but which may have nothing to do with the actual God. While both Barth and Bultmann are interested in the relation between God and human language—i.e., the question of hermeneutics—the two approach the issue from very different perspectives.

According to Barth in an essay on Bultmann, Ein Versuch, ihn zu verstehen:
The basis of man’s knowledge, as we saw it, depended on his being known by the object of his knowledge. We were concerned with the Word, God’s (gift and) message to man. ... Our aim was to emancipate understanding, both of the Bible and, for this reason, of things in general, from the Egyptian bondage in which one philosophy after another had tried to take control and teach us what the Holy Spirit was allowed to say as the Word of God and of man in order to be understandable. Although we did not know the word, we were seeking to ‘demythologize’ the belief that man was the measure of his own understanding and of all other understanding. ... Now, as I see it, Bultmann has forsaken our road and gone back to the old one again. He has gone back to the old idea of understanding which we had abandoned. (60; ET 127; qtd. in Burnett, 61)
What’s fascinating about this quote is that Barth confirms Jüngel’s interpretation by explicitly adopting Bultmann’s notion of demythologization to describe what he was up to in his own theology. Even more interestingly, Barth uses his own demythologization against Bultmann, the one who first coined the term!

But why does Barth think Bultmann has gone back to the “old idea of understanding”? Richard Burnett, in Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis, locates the difference between Barth and Bultmann in terms of their relation to Schleiermacherian hermeneutics—i.e., hermeneutics which begins with the anthropological rather than the christological. The difference might be stated as one between anthropology and christology, or between hermeneutics and dogmatics. Whereas Barth emphasizes our knowledge of God in terms of God’s knowledge of us—“being known by the object of his knowledge”—Bultmann seeks to place the modern human person at the center of the epistemological question. The modern human person is the measure of what is appropriate speech about God. Hermeneutics, for Bultmann, focuses on the human subject rather than the divine object.

What is worth noticing is that both Barth and Bultmann claim “demythologization” to describe this process of clarifying speech about God. Even so, the two have radically different ways of understanding this word. Barth claims that Bultmann falls into the “Egyptian bondage” of making the human person the center of knowledge of God. Bultmann might respond that Barth falls into the “Egyptian bondage” of confining the Word of God in an archaic and historically conditioned form of speech that is no longer adequate to the reality of God about which we wish to speak responsibly. Barth accuses Bultmann of an empty and ultimately non-theological anthropology, while Bultmann accuses Barth of an outmoded and ultimately meaningless dogmatics.

If Barth or Bultmann were alive today, what or who would they accuse of being in “Egyptian bondage”? What is the central hermeneutical concern today? Where is the issue of speech about God most apparent?


Lydia said…
hi david congdon. ^^
this is Lydia Ra from wheaton. i just wanted to say hi~~~
o, i found you on facebook. i hope you're doing well!
i think part of what bothers me about both, and it bothers me more about Bultmann than Barth, is that both seem to have determined ahead of time what proper talk about God looks like.

it's easy to see how this goes in Bultmann. by querying the culture and his own personal lack of faith in this or that element of traditional Christianity, he then proceeds to declare it impossible for moderns. he determines what sorts of things can be said about God quite independent of theological history or relevation, and then allows us to query tradition and revelation for the purpose of selecting between the statements on the approved list-of-ways-moderns-are-allowed-to-talk-about-God.

for Barth, a very similar dynamic is going on; for Barth, some principles about God are being swallowed whole from Reformed tradition and philosophical commitments (though without very much honest admission in the latter case); all under the rubric of maintaining the radical otherness and freedom of God. then the Bible and the tradition are read through that filter, which is so allowed to color everything that comes that one is again dealing with an antecedent commitment about who God is and what God does which comes not from the Bible at all, but from some other source.

i really don't think it's helpful at all to characterize them both as being concerned with proper talk about God; that is equally true of Aquinas, Kant, Plato, and Nietzsche. what they do have in common is that they import into theology a theory about how we can talk with God which is not very closely based on the actual facts about how actual Christians are talking about God.

Bultmann doesn't believe in the virgin birth. i get that. but i find terribly insulting his attempt to torque his lack of faith into something else and denigrating the rest of us poor benighted souls in the process.

Barth doesn't think that the glories of creation declare the glory of God. i get that. but i find insulting his attempt to torque this into some kind of biblical interpretation, when it is simply a prior bias brought in for the pure purpose of bolstering a polemic against those of us who are content with the Biblical language that the Protestant Reformers (irony!) jettisoned.

the "issue" of speech about God is really the same one which Aquinas and Maimonides explored, and the amazing thing is that, like all philosophical problems, this one need not be solved to go on successfully talking about God.
D.W. Congdon said…

I'll give you Bultmann, but not Barth. You clearly do not understand what Barth was trying to accomplish or why Barth rejected Bultmann.

Barth would be appalled at you for accusing him of imposing anything external to the biblical witness upon the Bible. In fact, his entire "project" was precisely in opposition to such an imposition. His rejection of natural theology, of classical metaphysics, of the modern anthropologizing of theology (Bultmann) is all for the purpose of eradicating what he saw to be the bane of Christianity: "theology and ..."

By rejecting the "and," Barth was removing any external theory or metaphysic and attending to the biblical witness qua biblical witness. I believe you have either never read Barth or you have been spoonfed Barth by someone utterly incapable of reading him.

I think the burden of proof is on you to show that you are not also engaging in "theology and ..."
um, i know full well that this is what Barth thinks he is doing.

so let's see it: where do we find, in the Bible, the support for statements as crucial to Barth such as this: that God cannot be known as such in nature or through natural theology (the apparent statements of Psalm 19 and Romans 1 notwithstanding)? that the Canon of Scripture comprises such-and-such books as opposed to some others? that the Scriptures are not written by the Church, but only to the Church?

since i'm re-reading KD now from the beginning (having read it all many years ago out of order), these are the questions which exercise me, since they come up right at the beginning.

Barth very frequently argues by starting with a statement of alternatives, and then determining that this alternative obtains rather than that one on the basis of some antecedent presuppositions about what God must be up to.

an example is I.I.4, where the argument against the existence of a succession of teaching office is that this would domesticate the freedom of God, etc., etc. ok, now why is that wrong? he admits that God could have done it that way; what is the argument that he hasn't? it boils down to these two sentences: "Whatever there may be of such spiritual-oral tradition in the Church, since it does not have written form it obviously cannot have the character of an authority irremovably confronting the church. In unwritted tradition the Church is not addressed; it is engaged in dialogue with itself."

Ok, now what is the Biblical argument here? We have gone from "it might have pleased God to do such-and-such" to "God didn't do such-and-such because there is this role that I believe must be filled and can't be filled if God did such-and-such." Is this not simply a precedent conclusion?

The entire small-type section after this cites Papias as having already marked a "change" in the beginning of the second century "which was so disastrous in its effects", to the view of an apostolic tradition beyond Biblical text. Now, there is no evidence presented from before Papias, so we have the blank and unsupported assertion that it was thus, and then by the time of Papias things have already gone sour.

Good grief; the distance between 2 Peter and Papias isn't very long; things went wrong that fast? And where is the evidence that it was ever as Barth says it somehow always was, before the sixteenth century?

So, let's just pick those few issues: you're going to insist that Barth arrived at his positions here purely from Biblical considerations, and not any antecedent notions about what God is and does?

and, btw, i have read Barth (as i have tried to make clear). the fact that i think that there is a mismatch between his self-presentation of his method and what, in fact, his method really is, is not anything unfair or unusual. it is a commonplace among philosophers to question whether, for example, Kant's statements of Kant's technique are actually correct statements of Kant's technique.
D.W. Congdon said…

I fail to see what the point of your argument is. Are you suggesting that the Catholic church is right to hold Scripture and tradition side-by-side as equally valid sources for revelation? Barth does not deny apostolic tradition, but like any Protestant, he denies that this tradition is equally authoritative for bearing witness to the self-revelation of God.

That aside, I really have to ask: Have you actually read anything outside of CD/KD I/1? I have a hard time believing that you have.

The notion that "the Canon of Scripture comprises such-and-such books as opposed to some others" is a "crucial" argument for Barth is simply ludicrous. This was an issue for Luther and Calvin. Barth? Honestly, you convince me more and more that you have utterly failed to read Barth sympathetically, if at all.

The priority the church gives to the written Word of God should be a given. And Barth gives more validity to oral tradition than any other Protestant. By locating preaching within the threefold Word of God is a lot more than the Reformers and the Protestant Scholastics could have admitted. So rather than denigrate Barth both unfairly and inaccurately, I would argue instead that he places Scripture and tradition in a very proper order. His polemic against the Catholic church on this point is both necessary and valid, and Vatican II shows that some of these concerns were heard.

But that Barth of CD I/1 is not the same as the later Barth, and I would hope you are able to sense the radical differences within Barth -- rather than characterizing Barth monolithically.
Shane said…
i'm sympathetic to thomas's point, but note his attitude toward prejudices. color me a gadamerian but I think prejudice plays a vital and important role in the formation of our own thoughts. In fact, you could even say, in a kind of kantian way, that prejudices are the conditions of the possibility of the hermeneutic relation. The problem arises only when one is a unable to revise one's prejudices in the light of new evidence.

Something david said just now highlights this difficulty for Barth, i think. Insofar as Barth still wants to do theology without imposing any apriori judgments from elsewhere on dogma, he remains a thoroughly modernist theologian.

Thomas is objecting that Barth probably does smuggle some nice philosophical prejudices in there (the enlightenment prejudice against prejudice itself if no others). And i've worked elsewhere to try to point out to david and WTM moments where barth or juengel advance a claim and say that it is derived from exegesis when it is in reality just a basic logical principle (e.g. "everything actual is necessarily possible"--someone told me that this principle in barth is derived exegetically.)

It's not that I mind people starting with metaphysical and logical presuppositions. It's just that I think we shouldn't be in the business of pretending that we aren't starting with them.

D.W. Congdon said…

I agree with you on the point about prejudices, and I probably should make clear what my disagreement is with Thomas. It's not that I think Barth has no prejudices or no presuppositions. That would both wrong and naive. All of us have presuppositions, and it is precisely these presuppositions which theology attempts to place under critical scrutiny. Barth, for example, presupposes that epistemology changed with Kant -- and it changed for good, and for the better. Barth has other presuppositions as well, which it may be worth examining.

What Thomas seems to be suggesting is that Barth imposes these presuppositions and prejudices that are wholly formed apart from and before encountering Scripture upon Scripture in his reading of the biblical text. This is where Thomas is wrong. Like all thinkers, Barth employs categories of logic and reason that are not found in the biblical text itself. This is, of course, not original to modern theologians. The notion of a hypostatic union or Jesus Christ being "of one substance with the Father" are examples of employing philosophical concepts in the interpretation of Scripture. Barth is no different, except that his presuppositions are different.

Like the Church Father, Barth adapts these concepts in order to enable the interpretation of the Bible; if they prove to be of no more use or if they prove to be misleading, Barth is free to discard them. He does this with the notions of "primal origin" and "primal history," which are prominent philosophical concepts used in his Romans commentary but then dispensed with soon thereafter. The biblical text controls his usage of these external ideas.

Barth is no different from any responsible theologian. I have no problem with saying that the phrase "whatever is actual must be possible" is a logical principle not found in Scripture itself (at least not in this form). But the fact that this principle simply makes sense of reality and is necessary for making sense of Scripture demonstrates that we are not imposing something upon the Bible by affirming this statement. Rather, we can say that the biblical authors had a similar prejudice. What God does God can do. This is a basic biblical axiom, even if not found directly in the Bible.
Barth does nothing different in these regards from any other theologian: quite true!

So then we should expect from him some statement of the ways that, for example, antecedent commitments about history and logic color our dogmatics.

The problem isn't what Barth does: it's his insistence that he isn't doing it, and that it's wrong to do, and that this is what's wrong with Modernists and Roman Catholics.

As for this: Are you suggesting that the Catholic church is right to hold Scripture and tradition side-by-side as equally valid sources for revelation? Barth does not deny apostolic tradition, but like any Protestant, he denies that this tradition is equally authoritative for bearing witness to the self-revelation of God.

I'm not suggesting it, because I am entirely agnostic on the question. (I think the terms of the debate are quite ill-founded on both sides.) But Barth is not agnostic on the question, and does he not owe us something defense of his position? I am hardly surprised that Barth adopted the normal Protestant position. If he were not a dogmatician, there would be little more to say. But should he not be questioning that position, deciding if it's right sola scriptura?

Or, alternatively, is it that we may help ourselves to any position we like, without defense, provided it is "Protestant"? I think that can't possibly be right.

It's all very well and good to say that everyone has philosophical starting places; the problem is when the person in question proudly asserts that one must do theology without such things, and then turns out to have them just like everyone else.
D.W. Congdon said…

You missed my point again, or perhaps I'm not making it clear enough. Barth is explicating the Word of God. If he has certain prejudices and presuppositions, it is because he finds those prejudices supported within the Word of God which he is explicating. If Scripture refuted or called into question those presuppositions, he would either revise them or toss them out altogether.

So Barth can rightly claim that he is not importing anything into the text which does not belong there. That's because he isn't. If you wish to challenge this point, so be it. But do not confuse "having prejudices" with "imposing prejudices which do not belong." Those are two very different assertions.

Finally, it seems clear that you are just upset Barth was a Protestant. You would rather him be an Anglo-Catholic. Well, in that case, I can do nothing to help you. You'll have to look elsewhere for someone who will give you what you want.

By the way, I am just so confused about your claim that you have read Barth. I know I keep on this, but I will remain unconvinced that you have read more than one part-volume. Another piece of evidence: your insistence that Barth's opponents are Modernists and Roman Catholics. Barth only speaks of "Modernism" in CD I/1 -- and only in this single part-volume! The fact that you keep going back to it is testimony enough to the fact that you do not know what you are talking about. And you seem to think that the polemic against Catholicism has mostly to do with the canon. Wrong again, but that's too big an issue to talk about now.
Todd said…
ugh... why didn't I find this blog earlier...

I'll disagree with thomas Bushnell on his assessment of Bultmann. It's not that Bultmann has a lack of faith... far from it!

something I wrote for seminary this past semester...

"Bultmann wishes to radically reinterpret the mythology of the New Testament. He does not wish that the mythology should be eliminated. This was the error of nineteenth-century liberalism. The elimination of mythology “reduces the kerygma to a few basic principles of religion and ethics. Unfortunately this means that the kerygma has ceased to be kerygma: it is no longer the proclamation of the decisive act of God in Christ” (Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology 1: 13). Bultmann also does not wish simply to reduce mythology to the longing for transcendence, as the History of Religions School did. This meant that Christianity too, was an “abiding source of power which enabled man to realize the true life of religion, and Christ was the eternal symbol for the cultus of the Christian Church” (Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology 1: 14-15). This too is problematic because it ceases to speak of the act of God in Christ proclaimed as the event of redemption.
The reinterpretation of myth, in accordance with the History of Religions school, sees myth as an expression of an understanding of human existence: “It believes that the world and human life have their ground and their limits in a power which is beyond all that we can calculate and control” (Bultmann, Jesus Christ 19). Myth is inadequate because it communicates this understanding of human existence within an immanent objectivity. Demythologizing expresses the understanding of human existence derived from the myth and restates it within the framework of existential philosophy. Thus, demythologizing is first and foremost a program of translation between two worlds that express a common understanding of man using different language.
Let me just clarify that I now reject my earlier assessment of Bultmann, which accepted Barth's critique of him uncritically. I am now much more favorably disposed to Bultmann's theology, and I am working on a fresh approach (in the tradition of Jüngel) to his work which sees Barth and Bultmann as theological partners rather than enemies, albeit from different perspectives.