A syllogism

1. Interpretation is translation—specifically, translation from one culture to another, from one time and place to another time and place.

2. The Bible is a document written within a particular cultural location, a specific time and place.

3. We live in a cultural location that is radically different from that of the Bible.

4. In order to interpret the Bible, we need to engage in cultural translation.

5. Ergo, something like Bultmann’s program of demythologization is a crucial necessity for the church if we are going to understand the biblical text.


Anonymous said…
I'm sorry David, but cultural translation does not equal demythologization.

Also you first point can be questioned. It supposes that the primary purpose of interpretation is contemporary expression rather than simple understanding.

It seems to me that you are missing a step here.

"I'm sorry David, but cultural translation does not equal demythologization."

You're wrong. Read Bultmann.

"It supposes that the primary purpose of interpretation is contemporary expression rather than simple understanding."

All interpretation is contemporary expression. Please show me how it is otherwise.
Anonymous said…
"They are the lenses through which human beings see and respond to their changing worlds or media in which they formulate their descriptions. The world and its descriptions may carry enormously even while the lenses or media remain the same…What is important is that Christians allow their cultural conditions and highly diverse affections to be molded by the set of biblical stories that stretches from creation to eschaton and culminates in Jesus’ passion and resurrection"
Here Lindbeck is referring to Doctrine, but I think his point has some sway in this conversation...or maybe I am just wrong too. What are your reasons for rejecting Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic framework? I haven't read Bultmann either which I know won't help me here. Peace.
Anonymous said…
I see "radically different" (pt. 3) as the main contestable point. Certainly after the work of folks like Thomas Torrance, we can't seriously say that Bultmann's mechanistic presups (determining history and what is "allowable" in dogmatics) are correct -- at least, he is certainly not our only alternative.

Are you really this much of a Bultmannian, David? Or are you just trying to get us riled up? I do really appreciate Bultmann (I even used him positively in my undergraduate dissertation), but his limitations are far too serious and fundamental. He's good to dip into and take what good you can.
Bob MacDonald said…
Some sort of 'translation' is needed to be sure, but obedience is better than understanding. We will need to undermine the mythical assumptions of our culture (that our technical might is better than yours). Repentance is not too hard a concept - but doing it may be.
mshedden: I don't like postliberalism in general, which is a much bigger story. If you'd like I can flesh that out.

Kevin: I am probably more of a Bultmannian than you are comfortable with. I would probably describe myself as Jüngelian, which is a hybrid of Barthian and Bultmannian. And with Jüngel, I think that Barth and Bultmann are allies, not enemies.

Bob: Yes, obedience comes first. That's always what Bultmann himself taught. No one stressed the obedience of faith more than he did. The question is: to what are we called to be obedient? To Jesus Christ? Or to a mythological framework that we no longer share?
Just for fun, I would like to point you all to this lovely interpretation by Bultmann: http://primalsubversion.blogspot.com/2005/06/bultmann-reads-mother-goose.html
Anonymous said…
what I have been finding useful (in part because I am mired in it) is a sociological lens to investigate this notion. There is an odd assumption, especially in evangelicalism and in Catholicism, that the socio-cultural traditions in the bible are somehow homogeneous and immutable structures that call for a strange assimilation into any current cultural norms that must then accommodate to those imagined biblical socio-cultural norms. To that degree the way that the socio-cultural norms of the bible are used is through a very mythical lens that is untenable and sociologically incoherent.

What needs to happen first, it seems, is an understanding of the socially relative nature of many of the norms we read in the bible. that can free us to understand the purpose for the narratives in order to apply a more realistic set of outcomes and expectations for any current socio-cultural environment. Peter Berger's dialectic of externalization, objectivation, and internalization is helpful to get at the core of this process.

To be sure this is not new as cultures have done this with any religious Scriptures, purity rules, dogmatic proscriptions, etc. over time. However, being self-conscious of this and directing it is an insight that we should use. It can only increase wisdom. Of course that means change to which those in power are resistant.
Bob MacDonald said…
David, I am glad to hear that Bultmann stressed the obedience of faith. I have read some Bultmann in translation and I was only disappointed over a word or two. It is the philosophy of meaning before obedience of faith that is problematical. Israel responds with 'we will do it and we will understand', a nice bit of consonance נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע Exodus 24:7 - (and it is a 24-7 requirement!)

Of course there are problems with faith too. Faith in what? you ask. But then you give a 'who' response. Jesus is not a what but a who. Christ is a consequence to the serious engagement with Jesus. The question of how we deal with Jesus is the problem of translation. My own work is reading the psalms as dialogue of the Anointed with God. Will this lead me to a redefinition of the meaning of Christ? Or will this lead to some new system that has to be unpacked - demythified - before it can be heard? I don't know in advance.

I also don't know how to get others to obey - I can only deal directly with my doing and hearing. But every bit of translation that I do is a reaching out from my own faith to the engagement with another. Our reaching out breaks our isolation and may heal our solitudes.

Outside of the person to person engagement in faith, I still have a lot of questions on governance and the nature of family, community, church and work. Maybe we could make these more person to person rather than power to power and maybe we will.
Anonymous said…
Or maybe the theological message of the bible is just not true.

Or maybe you are just trying to secure future employment.

Both reasonable and easier conclusions.
Halden said…
It might help your readers if you were to flesh out how you think that demythologization is simply univocal with cultural translation (as per your abrupt response to anon above).

Virtually everyone agrees that cultural translation is necessary in biblical interpretation but it is by no means clear to many how this means we should be Bultmannians. Some would argue that at least portions of Bultmann's theology reflect not simply a translation of biblical idiom into formulations that are intelligible to us, but rather allows certain modern philosophical frameworks to overdetermine what elements of bible are and are not believable.

And more to the point, cultural translation is not simply the translocation "from" one cultural "location" to another as if interpretation only goes one direction so to speak. The spatial language you've deployed here gives the (hopefully unintentional) impression that there is some sort of trans-cultural stable "meaning" located within cultural forms that can be transferred from one form to another via translation. This is not, I think, what you want to say and would be exceedingly problematic.

Interpretation is not simply translation between cultures, it is an encounter of agents which happens across cultures and as such does not involve simple translation from "then" to "now", but a genuine transformation of the "now" in light of the "then."

Some would argue that Bultmann imports a level of givenness to the present that renders problematic this transformative encounter with the text.
David, I'd like you to at least define what you mean by Bultmann's program of demythologization. You advocate "something like" it for the sake of understanding the biblical text. For those of us who don't know Bultmann, it'd be helpful to hear your definition of his demythologization, since there are probably far too many caricatures of him (as there are of Barth). Also, have you found in your study of Bultmann any difference between his stated program of demythologization and how it actually affects his exegesis?
Anonymous said…
You are naive and desperately misguided. Read Bultman for yourself and not through someone else's eyes. Think objectively not subjectively.

I'm hoping you're talking to someone else and not to me. But regardless of who you're talking to, on what grounds are you able to judge that someone is not thinking "objectively" and is thinking "through someone else's eyes"? How exactly have you come to such knowledge? Moreover, how exactly is an individual's thought supposed to be purely objective and not subjective? Am I not the subject of my own thought? And is not my subjectivity conditioned by factors outside of myself and the object which I am investigating? For example, do you not read the Bible with the voices of the past reverberating? Or are you suggesting that you do all your thinking, reading, and interpreting in a vacuum?

In my opinion, you appear to be the one who is naive and misguided. Case closed.
Halden et al,

Demythologization has to do with two things: (1) cultural translation and (2) the rejection of objectifying conceptions of God (i.e., mythology and metaphysics). These go hand-in-hand.

Bultmann’s program of demythologization, as Bultmann himself makes clear, begins with three basic presuppositions: (1) the Christian scriptures were written in an ancient cultural context, (2) “there is nothing specifically Christian about the mythical world picture” that arises from this context, and (3) we no longer share that cultural context or the mythological views of the world presupposed by the prophets and apostles of the church. With these axioms in place, Bultmann sets about his massive translation project.

In a way, his entire program develops out of his rejection of the liberal theology of the 19th century, which identified the faith with various psychological and historical experiences and objects. This is called historicism, and both Barth and Bultmann rejected it together. Both of them, in their own way, said that what is accessible to historical research cannot be the basis for faith. Divinity cannot be objectified as an object among other objects within the matrix of creaturely reality. Barth thus said in Romans that the resurrection is not an event in history, and Bultmann said that the historical Jesus is not the object of our faith.

Both Barth and Bultmann are dialectical thinkers, and demythologization follows from this dialectical starting-point. While Barth came to disagree with Bultmann later, I think the nature of this disagreement is much misunderstood, and has to do with soteriological differences rather than any disagreement about this basic dialectical starting-point.

Now I reject the postliberal notion that we can simply get around the historical-critical problem by letting the text read us rather than having us read the text. I have a lot to say about postliberalism, which maybe I will save for a future post, but in short, I think it exchanges Jesus Christ for a Story. The two have to be distinguished. With Barth, I think the Bible witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but is not itself identical with it. The kerygma transcends the text, in my opinion, insofar as the kerygma is Christ.

There is certainly a level of givenness to the present that Bultmann presupposes. But he would say, and so would I, that the writers of the Bible wrote out of a certain givenness regarding how they viewed the world. The question is whether these "givens," these different world pictures, are essential to the gospel. Is it essential to the Christian faith that the sun stop in the sky in Joshua? Is it essential that we accept a three-tiered universe? Is it essential that we accept miracles as the breaking of natural laws? The answer I think has to be no.

As Bultmann says, we need to get rid of the false scandal of believing in an antiquated world picture that no one actually accepts anyway so that we can actually hear the real scandal, which is that in the word of the cross we encounter the event of salvation.
John Roberson said…
Hi David,

I'm just a regular guy who loves to read your blog, a sympathetic guy but certainly no doctoral candidate in theology! But I don't quite see how these three axioms square with ecclesiology..?

1. Bible is in its culture.
2. That culture isn't necessarily Xn.
3. We're not in that culture.

But isn't God's people itself supposed to be a culture? Abraham's nation as a response to the nations scattered at Babel? And if so then the Church is Christian and the Bible is written from within and for her, and therefore when the Church reads the Bible she is not a foreigner examining something.

But of course my knowledge of ecclesiology may be terribly imprecise. I'm just a stock trader. =/

Peace to you in Christ, my friend.
Unknown said…

I have no stake in postliberal theology, so my question is not an attempt to justify postliberalism. I share your basic concern there, that the story becomes a replacement for Jesus Christ. However, in your opinion, is it possible to cherry pick from postliberalism and utilize the insight into Scripture as narrative as a witness to Jesus Christ? Christ is still encountered, but out of the witness of the biblical narrative.
Anonymous said…
David, it seems Stan's right. You seem to be latching onto a currently under-worked figure to appear interesting. Demythologization is for the birds. I'd rather read East of Eden than demythologize it. And the same goes for the Bible.
Anonymous said…
Barth thus said in Romans that the resurrection is not an event in history, and Bultmann said that the historical Jesus is not the object of our faith.

On this point, Barth is hard to understand, and Bultmann is a heretic. If "divinity cannot be objectified as an object among other objects within the matrix of creaturely reality," then logos sarx egeneto is nonsense. But I forgot - we don't share John's "world picture" so we can't agree with him on that score....
Stan & Anon:

Your suggestion that I'm simply trying to get myself into the academy is insulting. Are you really serious? Bultmann has virtually no street cred today. He would actually lose me jobs, not gain them. So the entire assertion is bogus.

But even the suggestion that I would do such a thing is absurd. I take Bultmann seriously, and I think others should as well.

Also, I've ranted on here before about anonymous posters. Please post your name or don't post anything at all.
Stan & Anon:

Your suggestion that I'm simply trying to get myself into the academy is insulting. Are you really serious? Bultmann has virtually no street cred today. He would actually lose me jobs, not gain them. So the entire assertion is bogus.

But even the suggestion that I would do such a thing is absurd. I take Bultmann seriously, and I think others should as well.

Also, I've ranted on here before about anonymous posters. Please post your name or don't post anything at all.

Barth and Bultmann are saying the exact same thing: both rejected the historical Jesus as the object of faith. Our faith is not placed in a reality that is accessible to historians and scientists. God cannot be objectified as one immanent thing among other things. For Barth, God is the "primal origin" of all things; for Bultmann, God is hidden as the invisible ground of all reality. For both, we cannot encounter this God through rational investigation. We can only encounter God through faith as an event of Word and Spirit.

Unless you wish to defend apologetics, the analogy of being, and the ability to reason our way from creaturely reality to the divine -- that is, unless you want to be a true heretic, in my opinion -- Barth and Bultmann are in agreement about a key point represented well by Jesus' statement to Peter in Matthew 16:17: "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, by my Father in heaven."
micah said…
Hey David, as someone who's own lay theology involves a fair bit of (my naive understanding of) demythologizing, I agree w/ some of Stan's sentiment: demythologizing does sometimes feel like a last minute attempt to claim the bible as true and inspiring when its just wrong by common standards. It seems rather bizarre to lift something up and identify with it when there is so much we disagree with and think is wrong. Surely we don't give this generosity to the other messages that we hear! And, in the end, what message wouldn't we accept after filtering out the objectionable parts?
Anon, I can't make heads or tails out of your comment about East of Eden and the Bible. Is Scripture merely a good bit of literature that we ought to read and be inspired by? Furthermore, what is literary criticism if not demythologization? And does not literary criticism shed new light on a literary work's meaning and provide for it to be understood and appropriated in contexts other than its own?

For myself, I have some misgivings about David's project with reference to Barth and Bultmann, but some of the things said in these comments by others have simply been mind-numbing.
Anonymous said…
David, I have no idea whether you are still following this discussion, but I'd like to raise an issue

concerning the degree of agreement between Barth and Bultmann regarding the issue of the historicity

of the events of Jesus' life, e.g. the Ressurection. Apperently Barth does say (in the Romans book)

that the Ressurection is not a historical fact that can be established via scientific means, but then

he turns around and insists (in Chruch Dogmatics) that "it far more certainly really happened in time

than all the things that the historians as such can establish." Bultmann is perplexed by this. (See

his 1950 essay "The Problem of Hermeneutics.") I tend to agree with Bultmann here, that Barth is

guilty of double-speak and/or indicisiveness regarding whether or not "historie" has any bearing on

the reception of the Ressurection qua kerygma. I also agree with Bultmann that it does not.

Bultmann consistently maintains Kahler's distinction between the historical Jesus vs. the historic

Christ. Barth wavers, I think, ultimately adding some mysterious third leg, something like the "real

Jesus" who "really" lived, and died and was resserected. Thus when Barth says that the ressurection

is not a historical fact, he means only the narrow claim that modern historians can't know it via

scientific investigation. But he never denies so far as I can tell that it is a "real" fact of

hisotry past. It is just that we can only know it to be true via God's revelation of this fact via

Scripture. In the end, I am convinced that Barth is guilty of a kind of irrational fideism that

Bultmann is not. You say that the only differences between them are minor soteriological issues.

That seems wrong. They disagree at a much deeper level, namely, in that Barth keeps the Ressurection

as "world event" in tact, where Bultmann does not. This is no small difference. Second question:

How familiar are you with Kierkegaard? Where do you think his place is in this mess? I ask this

latter question because it is my reading of Kierkegaard (with whom I am fairly familiar) that drove

me to Bultmann (who I started reading yesterday).

Good comment. I have a lot to add on this point. Obviously my full research into this debate is not presented here, so it's hard to debate my claim regarding soteriology without doing a lot more work. But let me just take up your claims here.

I agree with you that Barth and Bultmann differ on the role of history. And I also agree that Barth maintains his rejection of the "historical Jesus" while still grounding the kerygma in an event that occurs within time and space, though still always inaccessible to the historians. Your suggestion of a "real Jesus" as a kind of third way is interesting and potentially correct. I simply think that Barth's mature position is the more radical one in that he makes Historie and Geschichte coincide in a relation of non-competitive, asymmetrical simultaneity, comparable to what he does with the doctrine of the divine concursus in Church Dogmatics III/3. But that's a conversation for another time.

My point will simply be that the underlying reason for why Barth and Bultmann differ on this understanding of history is soteriological. Barth wants and must have an ontic event of reconciliation which is universal in significance. He needs something to have happened for us, but also apart from us. Bultmann fundamentally rejects that point. Bultmann refuses to consider that redemption could be accomplished in an event that is outside of us and has significance for us apart from our decision of faithful obedience. Hence he rejects all talk of ontology, whereas Barth emphasizes ontology. And this distinction has its basis in soteriology.

Does this seem right to you?
Aaron said…
Hi, I am the anonymous poster from yesterday. Thanks for your reply. I am definitely no expert. As I said, I basically just started reading Bultmann a few days ago. I am actually a philosophy student, not a theologian. However, at first blush I would take issue with your reading of Bultmann at two points. First, you say that the kerygma must take place in time and space for Barth and you oppose this to Bultmann. This, I think, is a mistake. Bultmann would insist that the kerygma does take place in time and space. He says explicitly that it is not a "timeless fact." The real issue is whether the redemption is a "world event" that took place 2000 years (as it seems to be for Barth), but takes place for me, here and now. Second, I think it is a mistake to say that Bultmann refuses to think redemption is an event that takes place "outside of us." To the contrary, I think Bultmann would refuse to say that redemption is something that I can accomplish for myself, apart from a genuine (albeit punctiliar rather than historical) revelation. I suppose that if you only mean to suggest that Barth accepts a Calvinistic doctrine of irresistible grace whereas grace is quite "resistible" for Bultmann, then you are correct. But then I fail to see the connection to the debate over the ontological status of kerygma. Thanks again for your reply. You’ve got a great blog here.

On both points I perhaps misled you or you misread me. Either way, clarification is in order. On the first point, you misread me as saying that the kerygma "takes place" in time and space, whereas I actually said that for Barth the kerygma is "grounded in" an event that takes place in time and space. But even with your unintentional misreading, I did not explicitly contrast Barth and Bultmann on the "time and space" issue. I was only trying to indicate that, for Barth, the kerygma is grounded in a "historical Jesus" — albeit inaccessible to historians — whereas this is not strictly the case for Bultmann. Of course the kerygma occurs in time and space. The question is whether it is grounded in a "flesh and blood" ontic reality that has significance apart from our faith. And that brings us to the second point.

Your second criticism collapses or confuses things that need to be distinguished. Saying that redemption occurs "outside of us" is not equivalent to saying that redemption is something I cannot bring about on my own. Certainly that's one way of reading the phrase. But I was clearly using it to say that redemption, for Barth, occurs outside and apart from our individual response of faith. For Barth, Christ's death and resurrection has universal ontological significance apart from the existential decision of faith. That is what I mean here when I say that redemption is "outside of us."

Now, having said that, Bultmann can also say that redemption is outside of us insofar as the kerygma encounters us as an alien word that confronts us from without and calls us into the obedience of faith. In that sense, redemption comes to us from outside of us. It is most definitely not something that we conjure up. It is not a work.

Of course, this is also connected to the doctrine of irresistible grace, as you rightly note.
Aaron said…
Hey, sorry to be so long in responding. I follow your points, and your distinctions/clarifications are helpful. However, I still fail to understand why you think that Barth's claim that the kerygma must be grounded in a "flesh and blood" reality "outside of us" is a grounded in soteriological concerns. Is this related to something like a penal substitution theory of the Atonement perhaps? But if so, then I think that says something about the approach to doctrine that Barth takes vs. the approach that Bultmann takes, making the difference between them much more than merely soteriological.

I never said that the problem was merely soteriological. I said that their differences are primarily rooted in soteriology. You're still misunderstanding my point about Barth. What is key for him is not (merely) that there is a flesh-and-blood reality, but that in this flesh-and-blood reality, a completed soteriological event has taken place which is effective for all. I don't know how else to make it clearer for you.

I suggest you keep reading both theologians. I take it you haven't read much Barth. Is that right?
Todd Brewer said…
two years later and you're still right about Bultmann's demythologizing... the fact is that everyone demythologizes, Bultmann was just explicit (and thoughtful) about his intentions.