Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann

NB: This essay was originally published in a smaller form as part of the 2008 Karl Barth Blog Conference. The conference focused on Eberhard Jüngel’s monograph on Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity, God’s Being Is in Becoming. In my contribution, I seek to explore Jüngel’s radical thesis that Barth and Bultmann are striving toward the same idea: that God, as an historical event, is God for us. Sergi Avilés, researcher in chief in philosophy and theology at Centre Borja, wrote a response to my essay.

Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann: Jüngel’s Gottes Sein ist im Werden as an Attempt toward a Rapprochement between Karl and Rudolf

1. The Mythology

The debate between Barth and Bultmann has long since passed into the realm of myth. Today, we all too often hear caricatures of each position: Barth was a theologian of the Word of God, while Bultmann was a theologian of humanity’s word; Barth upheld the objectivity and realism of Jesus Christ, while Bultmann collapsed everything into subjectivity and existentialism; Barth was captive only to God’s Word, while Bultmann was captive to Enlightenment rationalism and the idols of modernity. All too often, we are spoon-fed these fictitious figures in theology, though it is certainly Bultmann who receives the most abuse. He is the punching bag of conservatives everywhere for his project of demythologization, and specifically for his statements about the resurrection. Today, most people associate the name of Bultmann with a negative view about the resurrection, a negative view of the Bible, and a positive view of modern technology (i.e., the famous quote about the light bulb). We are thus led to echo Eberhard Jüngel’s question: “Why then are the most questionable interpretations of Bultmann preferred to an interpretation of Bultmann in good part (in bonam partem)?” (41).

While a much more complete analysis would need to look at the historical context for this debate in detail, here I only wish to sketch each theologian’s positions while reflecting on the way Jüngel mediates between the two sides in his seminal work, Gottes Sein ist im Werden (ET God’s Being Is in Becoming).1 My analysis will begin by briefly surveying the theological debate in Germany which precipitated Jüngel’s response. Then I will parse out Jüngel’s radical suggestion that “Barth accorded to his doctrine of the Trinity (1932) the same function which the programme of demythologising performs in the theology of Rudolf Bultmann” (34). I will conclude by arguing that this debate continues to have great significance for us today.

2. Braun and Gollwitzer

Jüngel sets his work in the context of a debate between Helmut Gollwitzer and Herbert Braun. Gollwitzer, who died in 1993, completed a doctorate under Barth in 1937 and was a highly regarded Barthian dogmatician. He was active in the Confessing Church, was a medic during World War II, and became a POW in the Soviet Union between 1945-49. He was also a Christian socialist and an outspoken critic of both capitalism and the Vietnam War. Braun, on the other hand, was a New Testament scholar, particularly on Qumran and the relation between the NT and its Jewish-Hellenistic context. He was influenced by Luther, Kant, and Kierkegaard, and falls within the broadly “existentialist” vein of NT interpretation. Hendrikus Boers notes that Bultmann commended Braun in 1960 “for consistently carrying through the intention of an anthropological, i.e., existentialist, interpretation of the New Testament.”2

The debate between Gollwitzer and Braun in the 1960s concerned the nature of God-talk. According to Jüngel, this is a later form of the same debate between Barth and Bultmann. Bultmann’s position is aptly summarized in the title of his 1925 essay, “What Does It Mean to Speak of God?” (Faith and Understanding, 53-65).3 His focus is on the nature of human speech about God. Barth’s position focuses, rather, on the nature of the God about whom we must speak. As Jüngel puts it: “for Bultmann, speech about God is the proper topic for investigation, whereas for Barth, the question concerns God’s being” (2). Labeling the former theological tendency “existentialist” and the latter “dogmatic” is not inaccurate, but neither is it helpful, insofar as it gives the impression that the two sides are incompatible.

Jüngel spends the majority of the time in the introduction to this book criticizing Gollwitzer, and one might accurately call God’s Being Is in Becoming the response to Gollwitzer’s book, The Existence of God as Confessed by Faith (ET 1965). The fundamental criticism that Jüngel levels against Gollwitzer is that he posits a bifurcation in God’s being between nature and will, between essence and existence. In other words, Gollwitzer inserts an ontological separation between “God-in-and-for-Godself” and “God-for-us,” between Deus in se and Deus pro nobis. Jüngel summarizes the issue in the following way:
Gollwitzer stresses that the mode of being of revelation . . . has its ground “not in the essence of God but in his will,” so that it is “not possible per analogiam to argue back from it to the essence of God in the sense of how God is constituted, but only to the essence of his will, i.e., from his will as made known in history to his eternal will as the will of his free love.” (5)
Gollwitzer affirms that God ad extra reveals God ad intra, but he rejects the notion that God’s historical acts reveal God’s eternal being; instead, they only reveal God’s eternal will. Gollwitzer backs away, then, from the work of theological ontology. He does this in order to preserve God’s freedom, which Gollwitzer secures by—as Jüngel puts it—“leav[ing] a gap in a metaphysical background to the being of God which is indifferent to God’s historical acts of revelation” (6). He separates the “essence of God” from the “essence of God’s will”: the former existing as the ontological ground of the latter, though otherwise having no obvious relation to it. The constitution of God’s eternal being is, therefore, static and unaffected by the acts of God in time and space. Unfortunately, in speaking about the “essence of God’s will,” Gollwitzer failed to speak correspondingly of the “will of God’s essence” (ibid.). By separating essence and will, he ends up creating an abstract hidden “God behind God,” in which case there is no guarantee that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is ontologically the same God who exists from all eternity.

While Jüngel sets up the Gollwitzer-Braun debate as a later form of the Barth-Bultmann debate, the rest of the work proceeds to argue that Barth’s own theology (1) rejects the split between essence and will found in Gollwitzer’s polemic against Braun and, consequently, (2) is far more in agreement with Bultmann than most theologians recognize. I will focus the rest of my attention in this essay on explicating the second part of Jüngel’s argument.

3. Demythologizing the Divide

According to Jüngel, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity performs “the same function” in theology that Bultmann intended his program of demythologization to perform (34). In saying this, Jüngel does not mean to suggest that there are no lasting differences between Barth and Bultmann, only that the differences cannot be understood properly apart from the important similarities between them. Their seemingly contradictory approaches stem from the same basic intention: to ensure that our talk about God is truly talk about God. I will first look at Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity and then examine Bultmann’s program of demythologization as Jüngel interprets each.

3.1. Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity

As Jüngel understands it, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity “concerns the being of the God who reveals himself” (36). The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to understand the God we encounter in revelation. In the event of God’s self-revelation, we encounter the Son, Jesus Christ, and through him the Father, and with him the Holy Spirit. God’s self-revelation is therefore a revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While revelation is an event that occurs in the economy of grace, i.e., in relation to human persons, the triune modes of being are not confined to the economy. What we encounter in God’s movement ad extra is the selfsame God who exists through all eternity. Revelation is, in other words, “God’s self-interpretation” (27).
[A]s the self-interpretation of God, revelation is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity. Consequently, the doctrine of the Trinity is the interpretation of revelation and thus the interpretation of the being of God which is made possible by revelation as God’s self-interpretation. (ibid.)
In the event of God’s self-revelation, we discover that God is a being of unity-in-distinction, who exists as “the revealer, the revelation, and the revealedness” (28; CD I/1, 299). That is, in the event of revelation, we have to do with the very being of God. God’s eternal being is a being-for-revelation, a being-for-us. God encounters us in Word and Spirit, not as some secondary form of God, but as the eternal triune God in the unity of essence and existence, content and form, nature and will, being and act. The doctrine of the Trinity prevents the triune reality of revelation from becoming, as Barth says, “an economy which is foreign to his essence” (35; CD I/1, 382). Jüngel summarizes the implications of Barth’s doctrine well: “If revelation is God’s self-interpretation, then in revelation God interprets himself as the one who he is. . . . Therefore the dogma of the Trinity is the appropriate expression for the being of God. It protects the Christian doctrine of God from becoming mythological or slipping into metaphysics” (33).

Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity thus serves a “critical and polemical function” in theology, a function which Jüngel argues “has not been considered adequately” (34). First, Barth’s doctrine rejects subordinationism. The heresy of subordinationism distinguishes the Son and/or the Spirit from the Father, making the former subordinate in some sense to the latter. Barth rejects this view of the Trinity because it undermines the single subjectivity of God by introducing a creaturely distinction between a “more” and a “less” within the Godhead. By differentiating between God and God, between the true part of God and the lesser parts of God (or perhaps the greatest parts of creation), subordinationism objectifies God—i.e., it compromises God’s lordship and makes the Trinity an object “we can survey, grasp and master” (CD I/1, 381). Subordinationism turns the God who confronts us as Thou into an It; it replaces second-person address into third-person analysis. According to Barth, however, “the One who reveals Himself according to the witness of Scripture does not become an It or He, but remains Thou” (ibid.). Any alternative to the Trinity as a single subject who, in all three eternal modes of being, is the true God and Lord is an objectification of God which gives the human person control over the divine being. It turns God into a creature to be examined rather than the Lord to be worshiped.

Second, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity rejects modalism. The heresy of modalism states that the three modes of God ad extra are in fact “alien to God’s being as God” (CD I/1, 382). That is, there is a true God behind and above the three moments of Father, Son, and Spirit that we encounter in revelation. If subordinationism makes the Father the true God behind the Son and the Spirit, then modalism goes one better and posits a divine essence behind all three persons or modes of God’s triune existence in the economy of grace. Also, like subordinationism, modalism involves “an objectifying of God,” in which “the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God who does not exist” (ibid.). Modalism is a denial of the God who encounters us in revelation in an attempt to discover some abstract deity which is available for human persons to manipulate and control. Modalism and subordinationism are, therefore, both efforts to master God, to place God at one’s disposal, either by undermining God’s single subjectivity in revelation or by going behind God’s revelation altogether to uncover some abstract entity.

Against both subordinationism and modalism, Barth argues that the burden of the doctrine of the Trinity is to articulate how God is both “our God” and “our God,” that is, both Lord over all and God with us (ibid., 383). The heresies seek to ensure that God is with us, but only by denying God’s Lordship; however, this means that it is no longer God who is with us but instead merely ourselves. The doctrine of the Trinity states instead that
[God] can be our God because in all His modes of being He is equal to Himself, one and the same Lord. . . . And this Lord can be our God, He can meet us and unite Himself to us, because He is God in His three modes of being as Father, Son and Spirit, because creation, reconciliation and redemption, the whole being, speech and action in which He wills to be our God, have their basis and prototype in His own essence, in His own being as God. As Father, Son and Spirit God is, so to speak, ours in advance. (ibid.)
The doctrine of the Trinity states that God’s being-in-revelation (Deus ad extra) corresponds to God’s being-in-eternity (Deus ad intra). The God who is for us and with us in Jesus Christ is the true God from all eternity. For this reason, we can address God as “Thou.” God is truly a personal God who meets and confronts us. The person of Jesus Christ is not a secondary form of God or simply a mode confined to the economy, but is rather the eternal God incarnate. And this means that God “is both to be feared and also to be loved,” feared because God is truly God and loved because God is truly our God.

Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity precludes any objectification of God. His theology is set in polemical contrast to metaphysics and mythology, both of which are attempts to define God from a starting-point in anthropology. Against these modes of talk about God, Barth insists that we speak from a starting-point in revelation alone, always mindful that in revelation we encounter who God truly is from all eternity.

3.2. Bultmann’s Program of Demythologization

Jüngel argues that Bultmann’s program of demythologization plays a similar role in Bultmann’s theology as the doctrine of the Trinity does in Barth’s. Unlike Barth, Bultmann focuses on hermeneutics rather than on ontology; that is, he is concerned with how humans interpret and speak about revelation. This includes both the interpretation found within Scripture, as an authoritative form of human talk about God, and our interpretation of Scripture. Both forms of interpretation are existentialist in nature, meaning that we, like the biblical authors, talk about God from a particular anthropological perspective: Scripture talks about God from within the perspective of a “mythological world picture”; we talk about God as modern persons who are thoroughly, if often unconsciously, shaped by a scientific understanding of the cosmos.

All such talk, however, can easily reduce God into an immanent reality, an object within the limited sphere of our understanding. To the extent that one’s anthropological perspective “objectifies” God, such talk is mythological in nature. For this reason, Bultmann often clarifies the word “mythology” with the term “objectifying representations.” For him, mythology is an objectifying mode of discourse about the divine. This is precisely how Scripture often speaks about God, because of its pre-modern, pre-scientific understanding of the world. Though Scripture seeks to speak about the transcendent, it often ends up objectifying the divine because it is rooted in a particular anthropological situation. Scripture thus treats God like an immanent object, a being within the world as understood by those who talk about God.

According to Bultmann, in his 1941 essay on “New Testament and Mythology,” myth “talks about the power or the powers that we think we experience as the ground and limit of our world . . . within the circle of the familiar world, . . . within the circle of human life . . . Myth talks about the unworldly as worldly, the gods as human” (New Testament and Mythology, 9).4 To be clear, myth does not intend to speak in this way. Though it seeks to speak about the transcendent qua transcendent, myth speaks about the transcendent as immanent: “[myth’s] real intention to talk about a transcendent power to which both we and the world are subject is hampered and obscured by the objectifying character of its assertions” (ibid., 10). In an attempt to illuminate the divine, myth ends up illuminating the existential perspective of those who speak about the divine. In other words, “myth gives expression to a certain understanding of human existence” which is foreign to our own (ibid., 98). Any interpretation of mythology must, therefore, also be existential in nature. That is, the myth must be “translated” into our own contemporary context in order for the message to be rightly heard. Applied to Scripture, “the task, then, is also to interpret the dualistic mythology of the New Testament in existentialist terms” (ibid., 15). Despite its best intentions, Scripture speaks about God in thoroughly human terms, from a very particular existential perspective. Scripture must therefore be “translated” into our own anthropological situation for us to truly hear the kerygma. Hence, the need for a critical hermeneutics, i.e., a program of demythologization.

Contrary to a common misunderstanding, demythologization is not the elimination of mythology. This misunderstanding is itself understandable, given statements like the following: “We can only completely accept the mythical world picture or completely reject it” (ibid., 9). While Bultmann assumes that we already reject the mythical world picture represented in the biblical writings, he does not mean that demythologization is simply a process of excising such mythological ideas from the pages of Scripture. Bultmann explicitly rejects this as an old form of demythologization prominent during the nineteenth century, in which “with the elimination of the mythology the kerygma itself was also eliminated” (ibid., 11). If, back then, “the mythology of the New Testament was simply eliminated, the task today . . . is to interpret New Testament mythology” (ibid., 12). The goal of interpretation is to enable us to hear the kerygma for what it actually is:
Demythologizing seeks to bring out the real intention of myth, namely, its intention to talk about human existence as grounded in and limited by a transcendent, unworldly power, which is not visible to objectifying thinking. Thus, negatively, demythologizing is criticism of the mythical world picture insofar as it conceals the real intention of myth. Positively, demythologizing is existentialist interpretation, in that it seeks to make clear the intention of myth to talk about human existence. (ibid., 99)
Despite its negative appearance, demythologization, as Bultmann defines it, is primarily a positive attempt to interpret Scripture for the sake of hearing the kerygma as modern persons. In other words, demythologization seeks to let the transcendent remain transcendent—i.e., to let God remain God—for those who no longer accept a “mythological world picture.” A common criticism of Bultmann is that he reduces theology to anthropology and makes the transcendent into the immanent. But this is precisely what he seeks to overcome. The program of demythologization does not reduce God to us, but interprets Scripture so that we, as modern persons, know that God is indeed for us.

3.3. Barth and Bultmann: Friends or Foes?

The theological “friendship” between Barth and Bultmann becomes clear when we see that both the doctrine of the Trinity and the program of demythologization intend, to use Barth’s terminology, to show that God is both “our God” and “our God.” In order to ensure that we are indeed speaking about God, each position is set in polemical opposition to both mythology and metaphysics, because both objectify God—they turn God into an object under our control. As Jüngel says, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity “protects the Christian doctrine of God from becoming mythological or slipping into metaphysics” (33). The same can be said of Bultmann’s demythologization. In a 1952 essay, Bultmann further defines myth in a way that demonstrates the affinity between mythology and metaphysics:
[M]yth talks about this transcendent reality and power inadequately when it represents the transcendent as spatially distant, as heaven above the earth, or as hell beneath it. It talks about the transcendent powers inadequately when it represents them as analogous to immanent powers and as superior to these powers only in force and unpredictability. . . . Myth talks about gods as human beings, and about their actions as human actions . . . Myth thus makes the gods (or God) into human beings with superior power, and it does this even when it speaks of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, because it does not distinguish these qualitatively from human power and knowledge but only quantitatively. (NTM, 98-99)
According to Bultmann, myth speaks about God as quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, distinct. God becomes a human being “with superior power,” not a truly transcendent being. This kind of quantitative distinction between God and humanity constitutes the nature of metaphysics. In the three classical modes of metaphysical thinking, one talks about God by first talking about something else, namely, humanity: in via causalitatis, one begins with a creaturely reality and then posits a supernatural cause (God as first cause or unmoved mover); in via negativa, one begins with a human attribute and then negates it (God is infinite or immortal); in via eminentiae, one begins with a human attribute and then raises it to the level of infinite perfection (God as omnipotent or omniscient). In each case, the attribute ascribed to God remains part of the creaturely realm. One cannot truly speak about God by first speaking about creatures. On this point, both Bultmann and Barth agree as dialectical theologians who understand God first and foremost as the Wholly Other. And each person’s contribution is thus set in opposition to such mythological-metaphysical thinking.

What, then, is the abiding difference between these two theologians? We can begin by first identifying the points of agreement: (1) both theologians intend to speak about God as our God, as one who is both Wholly Other and wholly pro nobis; (2) both theologians reject mythology and metaphysics as improper modes for thinking about God and set their own theologies in opposition to them; and (3) both theologians seek to let us hear the kerygma, the Word of God, anew in our contemporary context. In other words, neither theologian divorces the objective from the subjective: Barth does not speak about the theological at the expense of the anthropological, nor does Bultmann speak about the anthropological at the expense of the theological. Barth intends, via his doctrine of the Trinity, to articulate how the relation between God and humanity in revelation is grounded in the eternal being of God. Bultmann intends, via his program of demythologization, to articulate how the relation between God and humanity in revelation is not merely a mythological relationship but is grounded in the kerygma. Both theologians, in other words, ground theology and anthropology in the event of Jesus Christ. Consequently, the mythological division between the two outlined at the start of this paper proves to be vacuous. As Jüngel states, “The difference between the theology of Karl Barth and that of Rudolf Bultmann is therefore not grounded in the fact that Barth’s theological statements leave out of account the anthropological relation given in revelation, whereas Bultmann, by contrast, dissolves theological statements into anthropological statements. Such descriptions label the theology of both theologians superficially and so fail to understand them at all” (73).

But a difference remains. In what follows, I will parse Jüngel’s understanding of the difference before offering some comments on whether there remains room for a greater “friendship” between these two theologians. Jüngel begins by stating:
The difference [can] be seen in the fact that Barth believes that a distinction must be made between God’s being-as-object in his revelation as “secondary objectivity” and a “primary objectivity” in the innertrinitarian being of God which makes possible this “secondary objectivity,” whereas Bultmann holds that the question of the possibility of revelation (which is grounded in God) is forbidden. (ibid.)
Jüngel is correct to notice a sharp difference here regarding the Trinity. For Barth, the question of divine ontology is necessary on the basis of revelation. For Bultmann, divine ontology is always an objectification of God. Two quotes are important for Bultmann: from Melanchthon, “To know Christ is to know his benefits, not to contemplate his natures and the mode of his incarnation”; and, from Wilhelm Herrmann, “We cannot say of God how he is in himself but only what he does to us” (NTM, 99). According to Bultmann, “we cannot talk about God or what transcends the world as it is ‘in itself,’ because in doing so we would objectify God or the transcendent into an immanent, worldly phenomenon” (ibid.). His basic point is that we only know God as God relates to us, as God encounters us in revelation. We only know God for us. To speak about God-in-and-for-Godself, as divinity in the abstract apart from revelation, is to return to “objectifying representations.” Why? Because if God truly transcends all human speech about God, then talk about God in se is inevitably talk about humanity—i.e., it is inevitably metaphysics, and thus mythology. While Barth is also opposed to ontology as the pursuit of a system of being within which one may include God (76), he is nevertheless convinced that we must do the work of theological ontology when revelation demands it. Bultmann, however, remains convinced that all divine ontology is finally mythology, in the sense that such ontology requires metaphysics to get it up and running (at least he understands it).5 We can see how the Braun-Gollwitzer debate is at heart a continuation of this basic distinction.

This difference might seem to be the end of the story, but it isn’t. In fact, the difference may actually be located somewhere else entirely. Jüngel goes on to complicate and illuminate the distinction between these two thinkers, and here I quote him at great length:
In order to reach agreement, it is necessary to perceive that in asking about the possibility of revelation, Barth does not seek to reach behind revelation by transcendental questioning, but rather sees himself induced to make his inquiry on the ground of revelation. But then he cannot leave out of account the fact that all further theological statements are anthropologically relevant. Nevertheless, for Barth, the anthropological relevance of theological statements is not the criterion of their truth. The criterion of the truth of theological statements is, for Barth, given in the fact that in all theological statements the freedom of the subject of the revelation remains safeguarded. Conversely, for Bultmann, the anthropological relevance of theological statements is the criterion of their truth because, for him, revelation is always an eschatological occurrence which as such becomes an event in an historical (historisch) “that.” It is a matter of the “paradoxical identity” in which an historical (historisch) “that” becomes historically (geschichtlich) meaningful as eschatological event. Bultmann insists on the “est” of this paradoxical identity, whereas for Barth, in accordance with the distinction between God’s “primary” and “secondary objectivity,” God himself has actually come into the picture, but “only” in his work which points to him as a sign. For Barth, even Jesus’ humanity is in this sense a “sacramental reality,” a parable. What finally separates Barth from Bultmann is the same reservation which Barth also has towards Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper: God’s presence in the parable of sacramental reality must not lead to an equation between God and our reality, if God is not to be objectified. The intention which bound Barth and Bultmann together in their common beginnings has thus remained unchanged in both. On the other hand, the ways of thinking which led both theologians to move away from each other are fundamentally distinct. The problem of the relation of Barth’s theology to that of Bultmann can only be set out with systematic adequacy through a contrast between “analogy” and “paradoxical identity.” (73-74)
This analysis—remarkable for its brevity and depth of insight—has much to commend it. Jüngel’s suggestion that the divide between Barth and Bultmann can be understood as a divide between the concepts of “analogy” and “paradoxical identity” or between a Lutheran and Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is one that remains almost entirely unexplored, and unfortunately I won’t be able to comment on it at any length in the present discussion. What concerns me here is the distinction that Jüngel articulates between the two criteria for evaluating the truth of theological statements. According to Jüngel, Barth’s criterion is the freedom of God, while Bultmann’s criterion is the anthropological relevance, i.e., its relation to us in the present-tense. Bultmann’s interest in the kerygma’s existential relevance leads him to posit a “paradoxical identity” between the historical event of Jesus of Nazareth and the eschatological kingdom of God. Barth’s interest in the freedom of God, by contrast, leads him to posit an analogical relationship between historical-creaturely reality and the reality of God. Analogy is here understood in the classical sense of “a still greater difference in the midst of such great similarity,” to use Jüngel’s definition from God as the Mystery of the World.

Both Bultmann and Barth are dialectical theologians who understand God as the Wholly Other, but Bultmann interprets the event of revelation as the primary reality of God, whereas Barth—on this point, closer to Gollwitzer—interprets the event of revelation as the secondary reality of God. As Jüngel rightly points out, this does not mean that God’s “primary objectivity” is somehow abstracted from revelation. On the contrary, Jüngel points out that Barth’s entire dogmatics is a “thorough exegesis” of the axiom that “God corresponds to himself” (36). God’s being-in-revelation corresponds to God’s being-in-eternity. Revelation is therefore God’s self-interpretation.

Jüngel’s analysis of Barth and Bultmann, however brilliant, does not quite go far enough. In the final, more constructive section of the book, Jüngel discusses Barth in relation to Gollwitzer. Here he presents some thoughts regarding God’s being-in-becoming which might help to bridge the differences between Barth and Bultmann outlined earlier in the book. Jüngel queries the logic in Gollwitzer’s attempt to affirm both that “God is in and for himself” and that “God is for us” (104-07). He discovers that Gollwitzer’s position falls apart, in that he has maintained a classical substance ontology for God ad intra while attempting to join this with a relational ontology of event for God ad extra. There is, therefore, an ontological split between the economic and immanent Trinity in Gollwitzer’s doctrine of the Trinity. This is precisely what Barth seeks to overcome.

Against Gollwitzer, and following the insights of Barth’s mature doctrine of reconciliation, Jüngel proposes that we think of God “in a thoroughly historical way” (107), so that God’s freedom is a freedom for revelation and reconciliation. On the basis of the event of revelation, “God’s being is originally event” (ibid.). Since this event is an historical event, God’s being is “historical being” (109). According to Jüngel, “we must in any event formulate God’s historicality” (ibid.), and this involves thinking ontologically about God on the sole basis of the historical event of revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, insofar as we think about God on the basis of God’s self-reiteration and self-interpretation in revelation, God’s being is “not only able to bear historical predicates (despite their unsuitability) but also requires them” (110). God is “historical being,” because God’s being is grounded in and defined by the concrete event of revelation. This does not mean that God is constituted by the other with whom God enters into covenant fellowship. But it does mean that God from all eternity is constituted for the sake of the Christ event. God simply is an historical event. God is eternally historical in that God has eternally elected this man Jesus and thus made space within God’s being for this particular historical predicate. The Logos, as Barth says, is the “stop-gap” for Jesus (113). In saying this, Barth has removed every last vestige of metaphysics, so that, unlike Gollwitzer, there is no separation between essence and existence in the being of God.

The triune being of God thus has a double relationality: God enters into relation with another because God’s being “is a being related to itself” (114). This most certainly does not mean that God ad intra is “in and for Godself” while God ad extra is “for us.” On the contrary, both aspects of God’s being are pro nobis, the one in actuality (ad extra) and the other by way of anticipation (ad intra). And so, as Jüngel says, the doctrine of the Trinity “understands God’s self-relatedness in his modes of being, not as a kind of divine ontological egoism, but rather as the power of God’s being to become the God of another” (ibid.). In other words, both aspects of God’s relationality are in becoming; both are aspects of God as historical event. “God’s being cannot be considered in abstraction from the becoming proper to his being, just as, conversely, this becoming cannot be understood either as a ‘contingent illustration’ of the divine being or as something different from the divine being” (115). Jüngel follows this comment by remarking, almost in passing, that in this affirmation and the corresponding rejection of a phenomenology of the divine being, “Bultmann may stand nearer to Barth than to any philosopher” (ibid.).

I want to suggest that Bultmann and Barth—at least the later Barth—indeed stand together. They may not sing the same melody, but they at least sing in harmonious counterpoint. While it does not become immediately clear in Jüngel’s fine treatment of Barth’s theology, the basis for a rapprochement between Karl and Rudolf can be found in this short monograph—a reunion that is only strengthened by Jüngel’s later work, God as the Mystery of the World. The important concept in that work, which is crucial to this debate, is the notion of the “humanity of God,” an idea that Barth himself only takes up late in his career, most notably in the lecture from 1956. There he says the following, in criticism of his own earlier theology:
[I]t was pre-eminently the image and concept of a “wholly other” that fascinated us and which we, though not without examination, had dared to identify with the deity of Him who in the Bible is called Yahweh-Kyrios. We viewed this “wholly other” in isolation, abstracted and absolutized, and set it over against man, this miserable wretch—not to say boxed his ears with it—in such fashion that it continually showed greater similarity to the deity of the God of the philosophers than to the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. . . . We did not believe nor intend any such thing. But did it not appear to escape us by quite a distance that the deity of the living God—and we certainly wanted to deal with Him—found its meaning and its power only in the context of His history and of His dialogue with man, and thus in His togetherness with man? Indeed—and this is the point back of which we cannot go—it is a matter of God’s sovereign togetherness with man, a togetherness grounded in Him and determined, delimited, and ordered through Him alone. . . . Who God is and what He is in His deity He proves and reveals not in a vacuum as a divine being-for-Himself, but precisely and authentically in the fact that He exists, speaks, and acts as the partner of man, though of course as the absolutely superior partner. He who does that is the living God. And the freedom in which He does that is His deity. It is the deity which as such also has the character of humanity. . . . It is precisely God’s deity which, rightly understood, includes his humanity. (The Humanity of God, 44-46)6
According to Barth, “there may be godless humanity, but there is no God without humanity,” no “humanless God,” so to speak (137). To say God is also to say humanity, because the being of God includes the being of humanity as that which God elects from all eternity in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no God behind or before the God who exists as the covenant partner of humanity. As a result, God is most truly God when God becomes human in Jesus of Nazareth, and God is most truly divine when God goes into the far country and dies for the sake of humankind. As Jüngel would say, God’s being is located in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In short, God’s deity includes humanity, and God’s freedom is the freedom to be human.

Barth’s doctrine of the humanity of God offers the basis for a rapprochement with Bultmann. The earlier division between the criteria of God’s freedom and anthropological relevance is now so heavily qualified as to be almost nonexistent. God’s freedom is the freedom to be anthropologically relevant, not only in Jesus himself but in the ongoing proclamation of the gospel as an event of the Word of God. Bultmann’s “paradoxical identity” of the human Jesus with God is no longer an objectification of God, because this humanity is itself constitutive of what it means to be God. The deity of God includes this—and therefore all—humanity. If God is by nature an historical event, then human history is not located only in God’s “secondary objectivity.” The humanity of God is not found “‘only’ in his work which points to him as a sign,” as Jüngel says (74). God’s eternal being includes and can therefore be identified with the historical event of Jesus. Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary objectivity, prominent in Barth’s doctrine of God, fades from view in his later doctrine of reconciliation. The point is that “God [can] not be conceived as God without humanity; conversely, God . . . always [has] to be brought to speech with the concept of humanity” (105). It is this idea “that Gollwitzer wants to prevent” (ibid.), but it is precisely here that Barth and Bultmann finally stand together in unison. The door to both mythology and metaphysics remains closed for both, so that, as Schubert Ogden states, “the only man and God we know anything about are, in the words of Emil Brunner, a ‘man-who-comes-from-God’ and a ‘God-who-is-turned-toward-man’” (Christ without Myth, 153).7 There can be no talk of “God’s being in and for itself” if this means God apart from or without humanity. Similarly, as Barth says, “we do not have to reckon with any Son of God in Himself, with any logos asarkos, with any other Word of God than that which was made flesh” (CD IV/1, 52).8 On the contrary, there is only “God for us,” the God who elects to live together with humanity, the God who is an historical event, the God who becomes human—the God whose being is truly in becoming.

4. Conclusion: The Debate between Barth and Bultmann and Its Contemporary Significance

The debate between Barth and Bultmann continues. The attempt here to argue that Jüngel’s analysis offers substantial grounds for a rapprochement between the two theologians does not mean there are not still serious disagreements. I am suggesting, however, that the mythology surrounding their divide has more to do with form than content: Barth is primarily a dogmatician, while Bultmann is primarily a biblical exegete; Barth focuses on theological ontology, while Bultmann focuses on hermeneutics; Barth rejects the view that Scripture is mythological, while Bultmann assumes this, based on rather different definitions of “myth.” Moreover, each theologian is inconsistent at times and, like all polemical thinkers, tends toward one side more than the other. So Barth often uses language that sounds like God has an abstract divine freedom rooted in a doctrine of God’s being in-and-for-itself, while Bultmann sometimes collapses theology into anthropology, even saying that Paul’s theology “is most appropriately presented as the doctrine of man,” when his position logically supports calling Paul’s theology a doctrine of God, as Ogden rightly notes (Christ without Myth, 148). The point is not that these two theologians always speak harmoniously but that the substance of their mature positions need not be viewed as contradictory. I argue, in fact, that Barth and Bultmann are essentially in agreement about the fundamental nature of the gospel message and what it means for God and humanity, even if they approach it from different angles and for different purposes.9

Just as important as the original debate—and its later instantiation in the conflict between Braun and Gollwitzer—is the ongoing significance of this historical dispute. Demythologizing the divide between Barth and Bultmann is not enough. We must continue to “think after” God’s self-revelation today in the context of contemporary arguments in which the being of God is at stake. The objectification of God remains a constant danger. Currently, we are witnessing a third phase in the dispute between (the early) Barth and Bultmann, this time between Bruce McCormack and those who disagree with his position on the logical relation between election and the Trinity in the now infamous essay, “Grace and Being.” The same basic issues are being addressed, viz. the nature of divine freedom and the relation between the immanent and economic Trinity. The main difference is that the existentialism of Bultmann and Braun is not explicitly a part of the discussion, though it certainly lurks in the background. I will make no claims here about what the original debate means for this current dialogue about the doctrine of the Trinity, except to suggest that moving forward will require that we first look to the past. These debates are by no means new, and it behooves us to familiarize ourselves with those who have gone before us.

David W. Congdon
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, NJ


1. All citations will be taken from Webster’s English translation unless otherwise noted.

2. Hendrikus Boers, “Herbert Braun’s Quest for What is Essentially Christian,” JAAR 35, no. 4 (1967), 351.

3. Rudolf Bultmann, Faith and Understanding, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith (London: SCM Press, 1969).

4. Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); hereafter cited as NTM.

5. While I stated at the beginning that Gollwitzer also avoids ontology, he does so in order to preserve divine freedom. He avoids speaking about God’s being on the basis of revelation in order to preserve a divine being apart from revelation. Against Barth, he separates God’s essence and will, confining revelation to the latter; against Bultmann, he continues to speak about God’s essence in the abstract, behind and apart from the event of revelation. Gollwitzer speaks about God without us, the God who is free to not be for us but only for Godself. Barth and Bultmann are united in rejecting this position, as Jüngel shows, but while Barth does speak about the divine being in the event of revelation, Bultmann refrains from such talk, focusing only on the hermeneutical question, not the ontological one.

6. Karl Barth, The Humanity of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960).

7. Schubert M. Ogden, Christ without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (New York: Harper, 1961).

8. After citing this quote from Barth, Jüngel then quotes a lengthy passage from Hermann Cremer, in which he states: “Each distinction of this kind [i.e., between ‘ontological’ and ‘economic,’ ‘self-relation’ and ‘relation to the world’]—even of only a conceptual distinction—contains not merely no advancement or deepening of our knowledge of God, but works rather to the detriment of it, in that it then becomes almost impossible to hold fast to the fact that it is the essence—and, indeed, the whole essence—of God which in its revelation offers itself to us, and thereby opens itself to us. When God gives himself completely to us, and thereby becomes known by us, as he who is and will be completely for us, then there is nothing more beyond his revelation, even if eternity will not be long enough to exhaust everything that he is for us. But if in his actions he is everything which he actually is for us in his revelation, then he possesses no other attributes at all—neither ontological nor economic—than those which we perceive in his revelation” (120; quoted from Die christliche Lehre von den Eigenschaften Gottes, 19f.).

9. A monograph version of this essay would have to explore the relationship of Barth and Bultmann to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. I would make the case that in order to fully understand this debate, one has to first understand Heidegger (not to mention Hegel). Ogden says that if “one is to understand Bultmann’s work, he must first understand Heidegger’s existential analysis” (Christ without Myth, 46). While true, I suggest that something similar holds for Barth. Not many people still know that Heidegger went through a shift in his understanding of metaphysics in the mid- to late-1930s. The shift involved moving from a modified metaphysics to an anti-metaphysical position, to the “overcoming” of “the onto-theo-logical nature of metaphysics.” Whereas metaphysics is the objectifying attempt of Dasein to “ground itself” in a supreme substance, Heidegger comes to realize that being is not a static essence but a dynamic “happening.” In other words, being is in act. Being is an “arriving,” a “taking place.” As James M. Robinson states, “The ‘being of beings’ is formulated ‘the arriving of what arrives.’ . . . The essence of being and the truth of being tend to converge in Heidegger’s focal understanding of being as an event of unveiling or revealing. . . . ‘Being’ is not a fixed concept, but an occurrence that happens to us, something that dawns on us.” There is a substantial similarity between the philosophy of the later Heidegger and the theology of the later Barth. In fact, Heinrich Ott argues that the later Heidegger is more in line with Barth than with Bultmann, who represents the earlier Heidegger. Many of Bultmann’s pupils, including Jüngel, have questioned this thesis, but the suggestion is an interesting one. In any case, the historical development of Heidegger’s thought, and the differing reactions to Heidegger by both Barth and Bultmann, need to be investigated in order to properly understand this debate over metaphysics, mythology, and the doctrine of the Trinity. For more on this, see James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb, Jr., eds, New Frontiers in Theology, Vol. 1: The Later Heidegger and Theology (New York: Harper, 1963).


JohnLDrury said…
This is sharp. Thanks for the analysis. It seems your project is really coming together.