Rudolf Bultmann: A Reader’s Guide
I am constantly asked where a new reader of Rudolf Bultmann should begin. It’s a difficult question to answer, since he wrote in so many different fields and on so many different topics. And now I see that Brian LePort is reading Bultmann in 2014 and is looking for guidance on where to start. This my reply to him, as well as my attempt to assist and encourage those who have not explored Bultmann very deeply to make the effort. It can be a very rewarding experience.
What follows is an annotated reading list. I assume that most of my readers will not be able to read the German, so I have restricted the list primarily to translated writings. I have ordered the list beginning with what should be read first.
First, we need to review just what is translated and what remains untranslated. Bultmann wrote a number of major books, most of which are available in English (dates of original publication): History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921), Jesus and the Word (1926), The Gospel of John (1941), Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (1949), Theology of the New Testament (1948–1953), History and Eschatology: The 1955 Gifford Lectures (1957), Jesus Christ and Mythology (1958), The Johannine Epistles (1967), The Second Letter to the Corinthians (1976), What Is Theology? (1984). Obviously, the last of these is a posthumous publication and was not prepared for publication by Bultmann himself. We should also mention This World and the Beyond: Marburg Sermons, the translation of his 1956 book of Marburg sermons.
While Bultmann wrote many seminal books, he was a true master of the essay, and those are where many of his most famous ideas and claims can be found. Most of his essays were published in four volumes entitled Glauben und Verstehen (1933, 1952, 1960, 1965). The first volume, minus two essays, was published by Fortress in 1969 as Faith and Understanding (hereafter FaU). The essays left out include a mostly forgotten piece on the command to love one’s neighbor and a more famous essay on the significance of the Old Testament for Christian faith. The entire second volume was published by SCM in 1955 as Essays Philosophical and Theological (hereafter EPT). Some of the third volume was included in the book Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, edited by Schubert Ogden, who also included some rarer pieces that have a significant bearing on understanding Bultmann. A few of the essays from the third and fourth volumes can be found in various journals and multicontributor books, if you know where to look. Some of the later essays from Glauben und Verstehen, including a couple published in previous volumes, are included in the 1984 volume, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, also edited by Ogden (hereafter NTM). The NTM volume is the best of all the translated volumes of Bultmann’s writings: it includes the most important essays and in the best translation (it’s even gender-neutral!). Also, some very important early essays are available in the highly significant and overlooked volume, The Beginnings of Dialectical Theology, edited by James Robinson (the 2-volume German original was edited by Jürgen Moltmann).
As is well-known, the programmatic demythologizing lecture of 1941 initiated a flurry of scholarly conversation and debate. Most of this was published in a series of German volumes under the title, Kerygma und Mythos. Some of them were then translated in two volumes as Kerygma and Myth. While Bultmann was generally well-served by his translators—Louise Pettibone Smith, Schubert Ogden, and others did a far better job with Bultmann than did those translators responsible for Barth—the translation of the essays in Kerygma and Myth are the least accurate and should be avoided if possible. Do not read Bultmann’s programmatic essay in this volume, but instead read the vastly superior version in Ogden’s 1984 volume. Most importantly, a point to which I will return, do not read “Bultmann Replies to His Critics” in the first volume of Kerygma and Myth. This is a truncated version of a much longer and better essay, “On the Problem of Demythologizing (1952),” translated in its entirety in the same 1984 volume edited by Ogden.
Finally, we must also mention the translation in 1981 of the first edition of Barth-Bultmann correspondence. The first edition was published in 1971 and stretched from 1922–1966. In 1994 a second edition was published that went from 1911–1966. Oddly, the second edition is smaller than the first, and that is because some letters and appendices were removed that pertained to Barth’s removal/departure from Bonn in 1934–1935. These documents, along with many others, were published in 1977 as part of Hans Prolingheuer’s Der Fall Karl Barth, 1934–1935. This leads us, naturally, to the question of what remains untranslated in Bultmann’s corpus.
The major items are obvious. Bultmann’s dissertation, Der Stil der paulinischen Predigt und die kynisch-stoische Diatribe, and habilitation, Die Exegese des Theodor von Mopsuestia, remain untranslated. In 1967, Erich Dinkler edited a collection of Bultmann’s historical-exegetical essays, published as Exegetica. Bultmann had left many of his more history-of-religions and historical-critical writings out of Glauben und Verstehen. For Bultmann, historical analysis is necessary and useful for theology, but it does not have access to the object of faith, which is, of course, God. The scientific historian has access to everything that is not the object of faith, and thus this work serves a negative role in clarifying the true object of faith, which faith alone sees and hears. By and large, Glauben und Verstehen collects theological writings that speak from faith, so Bultmann passed over many of his interesting exegetical writings. A few of them are translated elsewhere, such as in Existence and Faith. But many of them remain untranslated.
There are, of course, many other essays besides his exegetical pieces that remain untranslated. Some of the most important ones are in the last two volumes of Glauben und Verstehen. My personal favorite being “Das Befremdliche des christlichen Glaubens” (GuV 3). There are also many early essays that were never collected and have been largely forgotten. These include his 1913 essay, “Theologische Wissenschaft und kirchliche Praxis,” his 1922 essay, “Religion und Sozialismus,” and his 1925 lecture sketch, “Der christliche Sinn von Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung.” Most important of all is the essay he wrote against the Aryan Paragraph in 1933 as part of the struggle against the German Christians, “Der Arier-Paragraph im Raume der Kirche.”
In 1984, along with Theologische Enzyklopädie (What Is Theology?), a volume of sermons and short writings was published under the title, Das verkündigte Wort. This is a highly illuminating collection, especially for those interested in the early Bultmann. More recently, in 2002, Matthias Dreher and Klaus Müller edited Theologie als Kritik, a volume of Bultmann’s book reviews, which show just what a master he was at reading and analyzing the works of others. There are some long review essays included as well that are very important for understanding his theology and development. The German volume is also prohibitively expensive. In 1916–1917, Bultmann wrote some fables and poems for his then-fiancée, Helene Feldmann, and these were edited by Werner Zager for publication in 2011 as Wachen und Träumen.
Finally, we must mention the volumes of letters that are now appearing with some regularity. These include, so far, his correspondence with Gogarten (2002), Heidegger (2009), and Althaus (2012). Letters with Käsemann and Bornkamm are forthcoming. These volumes also include very important essays and writings in the appendices. The Gogarten volume includes Gogarten’s scandalous 1933 document, “Denkschrift zum Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche,” which was a strong petition in support of the German Christian movement. The Heidegger volume includes Heidegger’s 1924 presentation on Luther’s understanding of sin that he gave in Bultmann’s seminar on Paul, as well as Bultmann’s 1963 reflections on Otto Pöggeler’s Der Denkweg Martin Heideggers. The Althaus volume includes the most important piece of all: Bultmann’s most extensive clarification of the concept of myth, written sometime between 1942–1952, “Über den Begriff Mythos.”
In sum, we can be grateful for the widespread interest in Bultmann’s thought among English-speakers in the 1950s and 1960s, since it resulted in the translation of many of his most important works. But we should also be sad that there is so little interest in him today, because some of the most interesting and important publications are only appearing now, as part of a Bultmann-renaissance in Germany. Let us hope that this renaissance crosses the Atlantic.
Reading List for English Speakers
There are any number of reasons to read Bultmann. Those interested in New Testament biblical studies already know how important it is to understand his work. I am writing primarily for those who want to understand Bultmann as a theologian. He is widely underappreciated by those in the theological guild, and this is no doubt due, in part, to the influence of Barth. And yet Bultmann is a formidable theologian in his own right, someone who deserves to be taken much more seriously than he currently is. So for those English-speakers looking to dive into Bultmann’s theology, consider this a step-by-step reading list.
First, though, a tip on how to read Bultmann’s essays. Bultmann mastered a particular art of essay writing that may confuse American readers who are used to a rather different style. One has to remember that the majority of his essays were originally lectures, and thus they exhibit standard marks of classical rhetoric. In particular, readers will notice that some of his essays begin by establishing a certain rapport with a figure or text or idea that he wishes to problematize or criticize. And so he will make statements up front that may strike one as questionable. That is intentional on his part. At some point later, maybe at the midpoint, and sometimes not until near the end, Bultmann will pull a rhetorical twist that reveals his actual position. This is most apparent in polemical or controversial writings, such as those dealing with the natural theology or natural revelation.
Now for the list. I have arranged this in a very intentional order to facilitate the greatest possible understanding. I have also grouped them by theme, in the order in which they should be read.
Two works in particular should be read and consulted constantly and thus don’t belong in a specific place in the reading list.
Karl Barth – Rudolf Bultmann Letters, 1922–1966. The translation of the first edition of the Barth-Bultmann correspondence is an invaluable resource. Many important insights into Bultmann’s own theology are revealed here. Unfortunately, this translation is only a selection. Many of the letters are only summarized by Bromiley in a brief paragraph, justified by him on the grounds that “many of them contain matters of practical or academic or political interest that do not directly advance the main argument.” Essential reading include the letters on the following dates: Dec. 31, 1922; June 8, 1928; Feb. 5, 1930; Nov. 11–15, 1952; Dec. 24, 1952.
This World and the Beyond: Marburg Sermons. Bultmann’s collected sermons from Marburg, delivered between 1936 and 1950, provide one of the best entryways into his theology. Bultmann’s entire theology serves the church’s proclamation. His sermons show what his talk of hermeneutics actually means for the life of the church. Most of these sermons were preached within the context of Nazi rule, and they should be read with that sociopolitical context in mind.
Part 1: Revelation
1. “Science and Existence” (1955) in NTM. This may seem an odd place to start. This essay, originally in GuV 3, is not well known or highly regarded, and yet it zeroes in on the key issue underpinning his entire theological project with admirable clarity. Here Bultmann focuses on the issue of “objectification” (Objektivierung) and the need for a nonobjectifying God-talk. The essay closes with one of the single best paragraphs in his entire corpus, presenting God as one who never stands still, who is always running ahead of us, whose futurity is transcendence.
2. “What Does It Mean to Speak of God?” (1925) in FaU. Among Bultmann’s most famous pieces of writing and deservedly so. It forms the perfect counterpart to “Science and Existence” and shows that Bultmann’s entire career orients around a single problem: How can we think and speak responsibly of God so that our God-talk is genuinely about God? Bultmann’s answer involves differentiating between “talk about God” (Reden über Gott) and “talk of God” (Reden von Gott); pay very close attention to the use of “about” and “of”! Also pay attention to the phrases “picture of the world” and “view of the world” or “worldview.” These are translations of Weltbild and Weltanschauung, respectively, and they ought to be consistently translated as “world-picture” and “worldview.” The terms must be strictly differentiated, a point that becomes very important if one is to understand the program of demythologizing. Finally, this essay is most famous for the oft-quoted but little understood line: “It is therefore clear that if one wishes to speak of God, one must evidently speak of oneself” (my translation). It is simply false to claim that Bultmann is here reducing theology to anthropology. A little later in the essay he adds the all-important zugleich (“at the same time”): “In any case, talking of God, if it were possible, would necessarily be talking at the same time of ourselves” (emphasis mine). The point is the inseparability of God and the self (not the reduction of God to the self), that is, the inability to talk of God outside of faith, outside of the relation of obedience to God. Moreover, for Bultmann, there is no natural existence that forms a given starting-point for theology outside of revelation, since “our existence is grounded in God and is nonexistent outside God.” The opposition to natural theology is a point established more clearly elsewhere, but it’s important to keep it in mind from the beginning.
3. “The Question of Natural Revelation” (1941) in EPT. In 1940 Bultmann gave this lecture before a group of theologians in the Confessing Church. The following year he published it along with his programmatic essay on demythologizing, which was given before the same group. The two essays together are a response to the political situation of Nazi Germany. One has to keep in mind this sociopolitical context when reading both essays. In the case of “The Question of Natural Revelation,” the context is explicit, since he embeds within the argument a strong criticism of those who would try to make German culture a criterion of revelation. Bultmann walks a very fine and nuanced line in this piece, arguing in the end that all appeals to nature and natural revelation are false. Christianity “asserts that all answers apart from the Christian answer are illusions,” and thus to speak of God outside of God’s revelation in Christ is “actually sin.” He concludes: “This finally is the significance, therefore, of the revelation in nature and history: it constantly refers us to the revelation of the forgiving grace of God in Christ. But it is only in doing this that it is revelation for us; and that means that, apart from Christ, it is not revelation for us. But when we do start from Christ, the whole of the world in nature and history can receive the illumination of revelation.” In this lecture, Bultmann reveals himself to be a consistent and unwavering theologian of the word of God.
4. “Theology as Science” (1941) in NTM. Having set down the foundation for understanding Bultmann through some choice appetizers, we can now turn to the main courses. We begin with “Theology as Science,” which I regard as the best of all Bultmann’s essays, and certainly my personal favorite. It is actually a lecture that he gave at the very same conference in Alpirsbach where he gave the famous demythologizing lecture, “New Testament and Mythology.” Unfortunately, he never published it, and it was only finally made publicly available in 1984. The essay constitutes a brief theological encyclopedia. The term encyclopedia in German refers to something that programmatically sets out the nature of a particular discipline. In theology the classic example is Schleiermacher’s Brief Outline of a Field of Study. This essay has two halves. The first summarizes his understanding of the object of theology, viz. God. The second examines the procedure of theology, as NT theology, systematic theology, OT theology, church history, and practical theology. This lecture rewards multiple readings and should be read carefully. Embedded within are many of his best insights.
5. “Liberal Theology and the Latest Theological Movement” (1924) in FaU. Bultmann’s first essay in GuV is also one of his most important. In this lecture he expresses his clearest agreement with the dialectical theology of Barth and Gogarten. The essay is a difficult read, which is why I did not put it earlier. It contains some of his trademark ideas, including his rejection of the quest for the historical Jesus on the basis that historical criticism as only negatively useful for theology, given that God is only revealed to faith in the word of God. The final section is the most important. That’s where he delivers his axiom: “God is not a given entity.”
6. “The Significance of ‘Dialectical Theology’ for the Scientific Study of the New Testament” (1928) in FaU. An excellent counterpart to the 1924 essay. This one is especially important for the insight it gives into Bultmann’s understanding of dialectical theology and of theology as such. He articulates his existential concept of truth, in which truth is not something timeless and static, but rather a response to the question posed by a concrete situation. Truth is an event—the event of God’s word heard in faith. One of the earliest instances of Bultmann’s use of the term “preunderstanding,” which he started using in the spring of 1927.
7. “On the Question of Christology” (1927) in FaU. Bultmann’s response to Emanuel Hirsch, and a good counterpart to “Theology as Science,” particularly with respect to the distinction and relation between the fides quae creditur (“the faith that is believed”) and the fides qua creditur (“the faith by which it is believed”). Provides important insight into Bultmann’s own theology.
8. What Is Theology? (1984). If I had to recommend one book to read by Bultmann to get a sense of his theology, it would be this one, the posthumously published edition of his lectures on theology that he gave between 1926 and 1936. In a way, this is the book-length version of “Theology as Science.” Some of the material can be found elsewhere—certain passages are repeated verbatim in “On the Question of Christology”—but much of this material is new and incredibly illuminating. I’ve long believed that had this material been in print during Bultmann’s lifetime, the debates about his theology would look very different today. In any case, people ought to read this book in its entirety, but the two key chapters are “Revelation as Historic Event” (§11) and “Faith as Historical Deed” (§14). I also recommend the discussion of the object of theology in §§4–6 and §9.
9. “The Question of ‘Dialectic’ Theology” (1926) in The Beginnings of Dialectic Theology. This essay will be harder for many to obtain, but it is well worth the effort. In 1925 a dispute broke out over Erik Peterson’s criticism of dialectical theology. Barth and Bultmann joined forces in the pages of Zwischen den Zeiten to respond to Peterson. Bultmann’s contribution is a marvelous synthesis (or anticipation) of many of the themes addressed in the above writings.
Part 2: Hermeneutics
10. “The Problem of Theological Exegesis” (1925), in The Beginnings of Dialectical Theology. Now that we have a basic understanding of Bultmann’s account of God and revelation, we can turn to look at his hermeneutics. The best place to begin is Bultmann’s 1925 lecture on Sachkritik/Sachexegese—“material [or content] criticism/exegesis,” terribly translated as “objective criticism/exegesis” for reasons that cannot be explained here—which is one of his most important statements about exegesis and hermeneutics. It’s important to note the year that this was written. Not only is 1925 a pivotal year in the Barth-Bultmann relationship, but it also precedes the turn to a more rigorous existentialist hermeneutic, initially in 1927 and fully in 1934. This means that many key concepts, such as preunderstanding, do not appear. The concept of self-understanding appears in the form of “self-interpretation” (Selbstauslegung). This article rewards repeated readings. I cannot help but think that the demythologizing debate would have looked rather different had more people paid attention to this lecture.
11. “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?” (1957) in NTM. While Bultmann was a hermeneutical theologian from the start, he only set out to systematically clarify his hermeneutical program in the 1950s. This involved a substantial amount of ground-clearing, and the best example of that is his little essay on whether presuppositionless exegesis is possible. Short answer: no. But exegesis should still be without prejudice. We cannot avoid presuppositions, but we can avoid dictating the outcome of the exegesis in advance.
12. “The Problem of Hermeneutics” (1950) in NTM. A classic treatment of the topic. Bultmann sets out the concept of preunderstanding here in more systematic detail, though this essay read in isolation from other writings can be misleading. It closes with one of Bultmann’s most important criticisms of Barth, a criticism that, to my knowledge, Barth never addressed.
13. History and Eschatology, chaps. 8 and 10. Bultmann’s Gifford Lectures are full of wonderful historical and theological insights and deserve to be read in their entirety. I have highlighted chapters 8 and 10 because there he summarizes his hermeneutical position. It is important to see that Bultmann differentiates between two aspects of historiography (p. 117): (a) the perspective of the historian who is situated within a particular historical situation and (b) the existential encounter with history. These two aspects correspond to Bultmann’s key concepts: preunderstanding (Vorverständnis) and self-understanding (Selbstverständnis). The 1957 essay (#10 above) only focuses on the first aspect, while Bultmann is very clear that an authentically Christian interpretation of scripture concerns the second aspect, a point that is often misunderstood.
14. “The Task and the Problems of New Testament Theology (the Relation between Theology and Proclamation)” (1950) in Theology of the New Testament, vol. 2 (epilogue). Every NT theology, hermeneutics, and systematic theology course should have this essay, or at least the first section of it, assigned as required reading. It was originally published in a 1950 Festschrift as “The Problem of the Relation of Theology and Proclamation in the New Testament,” and it constitutes his most important statement on the relation between theology and scripture. As he says, “there can be no normative Christian dogmatics.” This provides the ideal segue into demythologizing.
15. “New Testament and Mythology” (1941) in NTM. We turn, finally, to the programmatic lecture on demythologizing, the so-called Entmythologisierungsvortrag. I have put it off until now, because it is important to see that demythologizing is nothing new; it is the consistent outworking of basic theological convictions that he shares with Barth. Demythologizing is simply the hermeneutical extension of dialectical theology. This particular essay, however, is not the clearest or best expression of his program, but it launched the discussion, so I have placed it first in this section of the reading list. I already pointed out that Bultmann delivered this lecture before the Confessing Church, and that he published it with his 1940 lecture on natural revelation. We must see his demythologizing program as an attempt to oppose the contemporary political myths of Nazi Germany at their hermeneutical root.
16. “On the Problem of Demythologizing” (1952) in NTM. This is among the most important of all Bultmann’s writings, and it may be the single most significant thing he wrote regarding demythologizing. In this essay one finds a synthesis of his mature hermeneutical theology, arranged in three parts: (a) the concept of myth and the program of demythologizing, (b) the role of existentialist philosophy, and (c) the nature of divine action. Of these, the first and third are the most important. In the first section Bultmann gives his most extensive clarification of the concept of myth and defines demythologizing as a task with two aspects: negatively, critique of the mythical world-picture (for more on Weltbild, see below); positively, existentialist interpretation. Understanding what each of these mean is the subject of my own research and is a topic for another day, but it is significant how Bultmann frames his program in this essay. The third section is important for many reasons. There we find the most extensive description of “paradoxical identity,” one of his most important concepts. And, to cap it all off, we have the concluding paragraph, where he declares: “In point of fact, radical demythologizing is the parallel to the Pauline-Lutheran doctrine of justification through faith alone without the works of the law. Or, rather, it is the consistent application of this doctrine to the field of knowledge.” Study this essay carefully. NB: The 1961 essay with the same name is a kind of précis of the 1952 essay, though it has its own merits and is well worth reading on its own.
17. Jesus Christ and Mythology. In October and November 1951, Bultmann gave the Shaffer Lectures at Yale Divinity School and the Cole Lectures at Vanderbilt University. These were published in 1958 as Jesus Christ and Mythology, whose main text is really just an expansion of the material from the 1952 essay (or rather the 1952 essay is an abridgment of the 1951 lectures); chapters 3–5 cover the material in the 1952 essay, while chapters 1 and 2 add important historical and exegetical context for his program. This short book—the main text is only seventy-five trade-size pages—should be read cover to cover. One of its most important features is the way Bultmann situates demythologizing within the rediscovery of the apocalyptic eschatology of Jesus and the early church. Bultmann is often viewed as carrying on the legacy of Wilhelm Herrmann. There is some truth in that, but my own work contests this on the grounds that the most central aspect of Bultmann’s theology is the role of eschatology: his theology, and really dialectical theology as such, is eschatological theology. But this is precisely what Herrmann lacks, and Bultmann repeatedly criticizes him for it. This is why Bultmann is really the descendant of his earlier teacher and mentor, Johannes Weiss. And Jesus Christ and Mythology is significant for the way it emphasizes the importance of Weiss to his hermeneutical project. The last chapter on divine action also should be read with care, since it is so central to Bultmann’s theology.
18. “The Christian Hope and the Problem of Demythologizing” (1953), in Expository Times 65, nos. 8–9 (1954): 228–30, 276–78. This article may be hard to find, but it’s worth the effort. In July 1953, Bultmann, Günther Bornkamm, and Friedrich Karl Schumann gave papers on the question of Christian hope and demythologizing. These papers and a conversation between the three of them were published together. Bultmann’s contribution to this forum was translated for a journal. It is especially helpful for the way it makes explicit how demythologizing has been going on throughout the life of the church, and even in scripture itself.
19. “Theology for Freedom and Responsibility” in The Christian Century (August 27, 1958): 967–69. Another article worth the effort to find. This one extends demythologizing into the realm of sociopolitical responsibility. According to Bultmann, “Theology must be sharply on guard against any identification of the Christian faith with a political program.”
Part 4: Christology
We have already touched on christological themes many times in the above essays, but I want to close this list by tracing Bultmann’s thinking on this most central of theological topics. I’ve ordered the list in terms of whether the emphasis is on the “historical Jesus” or the kerygmatic Christ, beginning with the “historical Jesus” of Jesus and the Word and ending with the magnificent account of the kerygmatic Christ in The Gospel of John. I put historical Jesus in scare quotes because Bultmann does not believe we have direct access to the actual Jesus of history; what we have are the synoptic accounts of Jesus, accounts that originated in a later Hellenistic Christian community. That does not mean Bultmann thinks we have no knowledge whatsoever about the Jesus of history, simply that our access is entirely mediated through accounts shaped by later traditions and cultural conceptualities.
20. Jesus and the Word. Bultmann’s 1926 book, titled simply Jesus in the German, is one of his most beautiful and compelling documents. The methodology behind the book was set out in his earlier form-critical study, History of the Synoptic Tradition. Jesus and the Word presents the message of Jesus as we can discern it in the synoptic tradition. Bultmann presents us with a radically eschatological Jesus, who confronts his hearers with the demand of God’s coming future. One of the most important arguments of the book is that Jesus’ teaching of the coming reign of God does not conflict with but rather complements Jesus’ teaching of God’s will
21. “The Significance of the Historical Jesus for the Theology of Paul” (1929) in FaU. Bultmann’s essay on Paul and Jesus is a classic study on the topic and highlights one of his central theses: namely, that what Jesus expected as future, Paul confessed as something already past and present. In this distinction lies the differentiation between the Jewish Jesus and the Christian Paul, between the proclamation of Jesus and the kerygma of the church.
22. “The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus” (1960) in The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ: Essays on the New Quest of the Historical Jesus, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Roy A. Harrisville (Abingdon, 1964). In the late 1950s, Bultmann was facing criticism from his former students, in particular Ernst Käsemann, Gerhard Ebeling, Ernst Fuchs, Günther Bornkamm, and others. All of them in one way or another were arguing for a new quest for the historical Jesus on the grounds that Bultmann’s theology needs to show that kerygma is historically grounded in the Jesus of history. By 1960, Bultmann had had enough and decided to break his silence. His paper, technically titled “The Relation of the Early Christian Christ-Message to the Historical Jesus,” was a bombshell dropped on the new questers. It single-handedly brought the dispute to an end and forced his former students to recast their argument in a different manner. The essay remains one of Bultmann’s most important writings, in particular the remarkable concluding paragraphs, where he states that “there is no faith in Christ which would not also be faith in the church as the bearer of the kerygma; that is, using the terminology of dogmatics, faith in the Holy Spirit.” The final paragraph provides one of his clearest affirmations of the Christus praesens, that is to say, that Christ is genuinely and actively present in the kerygma.
23. “The Christological Confession of the World Council of Churches” (1951) in EPT. In 1951 Bultmann was asked to comment on the confessional statement of the World Council of Churches. His response is perhaps his most important writing on christology proper, i.e., on the theology of the kerygmatic Christ as opposed to the question of the historical Jesus. This ranks with the very best of his articles, combining exegetical reflection with creative and provocative theological judgments. In section 3 he presents one of his most important questions: “Does [Christ] help me because he is God’s Son, or is he the Son of God because he helps me?” Bultmann sides with the latter and puts forward what we might describe in retrospect an “actualistic ontology,” namely, that Christ is what he does. This becomes clear in the final section, where he develops his notion of Christ as an event and not as a metaphysical entity. Humanity and deity both are active events, not substances: “Humanity can be interpreted as a φύσις just as little as what we call ‘deity’ may be.” This article warrants close attention.
24. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, esp. “The Prologue,” “The Judge,” “The Hiddenness and Contingency of the Revelation,” “The Mystery of the Death of Jesus,” “The Community in the World,” and “The Believers’ Future as the Eschatological Situation.” I conclude this part of the reading list with what I consider to be Bultmann’s greatest work. Do not listen to those who would dismiss this commentary on the grounds that Bultmann’s source criticism is outdated, or that his claims about Gnosticism have been falsified. None of that is relevant to the theological significance of this commentary, which is enormous. I believe it is the greatest piece of theological exegesis since Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, and indeed The Gospel of John is to Bultmann what Epistle to the Romans is to Barth. I cannot begin to do it justice here, but let me give some context. The commentary was released in parts between 1937 and 1941, when it was finally released as a single volume. That this is the same year as his demythologizing lecture is no accident. In many respects, it is the commentary that drives the program, not the other way around. Nor is it accidental that Bultmann wrote this commentary in the context of Nazi Germany. Just as Barth’s Romans is an exegetical exorcism of the liberalism that led to the German church’s warmongering in 1914, so too Bultmann’s Gospel of John is an exegetical exorcism of the liberalism that led to the German church’s racist and nationalist propaganda in 1932 and beyond. Bultmann’s interpretation of the Jews in John as symbolic of the “unbelieving world” is part of his attempt to undermine the anti-Semitic ideology of his day. And his interpretation of Pilate as symbolic of the state is a thinly-veiled critique of the Nazi state. But the primary reason to read this commentary is for Bultmann’s profound and often beautiful theological exposition, particularly as it pertains to the eschatological invasion of the world in Christ and the eschatological existence of believers. Jesus is “the one who always breaks the given to pieces, who always destroys every security, who always irrupts from the beyond and calls into the future,” and consequently faith can never be stabilized and petrified as an element of culture, a philosophical theory, or a religious worldview.
There is so much more worth including on this list. The entire Theology of the New Testament should be read by anyone seriously interested in Bultmann, though I have left it off this list because much of the key material can be gleaned from other, shorter writings. His commentaries on the Johannine epistles and 2 Corinthians are also full of exegetical and theological gems, but they can be hard to find amidst the dense analysis of the Greek text. For those who wish to dive into the deep end of the pool, however, surprising treasures await.
I have not addressed matters of translation or the issue of Bultmann’s conceptuality, which may be foreign to most English readers. In the future I plan to put together a brief glossary of key terms that should prove useful to new readers. Unfortunately, much of the confusion regarding Bultmann’s theology is due to mistranslations and concepts that carry false connotations in English. But for those who approach with an open mind and a receptive spirit—for those who are prepared to encounter in Bultmann a powerful witness to the word and claim of God—the translations above should more than suffice.