Bigger Than Bultmann?

The April issue of CT features a panegyric to N. T. Wright by Jason Byassee (“Surprised by N. T. Wright”) that is full of hyperbolic statements (or quotes) like: “people … quickly run out of superlatives”; “when Wright speaks, preaches, or writes, folks say they see Jesus”; “he sounds like the voice of God”; “if he were to issue an altar call, folks would come.” While I certainly appreciate Wright’s work, such language in a CT article serves to give the evangelical imprimatur upon Wright’s theology. In this sense, CT is indicating to readers that it is not going to toe the conservative Baptist/Reformed line, represented by the likes of John Piper and D. A. Carson. We can be grateful for that much, at least.

But we have to ask: why this investiture of Wright with evangelical authority? It certainly cannot be because his works have received universal acclaim and acceptance. Book sales alone do not an evangelical doctor of the church make. Nor can it be explained simply as an attempt by CT or the author to thumb their noses at Piper & co. The answer can be found in a running theme throughout the article: Wright is a bona fide academic. By making Wright one of “our own,” evangelicals gain significant academic credibility.

Nowhere is this theme more pronounced than in the section titled, “Bigger Than Bultmann.” Commenting on the way university religion courses “taught students to sneer at Scripture,” Byassee asks:
How could one overturn this status quo? What scholar could dethrone, say, theologian Rudolf Bultmann? Not so much in the weeds of Bultmann's thought—he's hardly read that carefully any more, and two generations of theologians and biblical scholars have critiqued and overturned him. But more for Bultmann's position of eminence—the way he turned subsequent scholars into modernist questioners. Wright mentions Bultmann like an upstart prizefighter speaks of the reigning champ, as if he were saying, "Let me at him." For Bultmann, Scripture is true only in our souls, and always wrong in its claims about history, miracles, and politics. Who could overturn him?
There is so much wrong here it is hard to know where to begin. This paragraph is chock full of erroneous statements—not to mention a tone of smug disdain. So let’s start by getting our facts straight about Bultmann. We’ll go in reverse order.

“For Bultmann, Scripture is true only in our souls, and always wrong in its claims about history, miracles, and politics.” First of all, politics? What exactly is Byassee talking about here? If the suggestion is that the Bible provides a political worldview, then I think many people would beg to differ. Or at least we have to ask, which one, given that both right-wing libertarians and left-wing Marxists claim the Bible for their side, not to mention the vast range of positions in between. Do we really want to bestow divine blessing upon a single political system? If, however, he is suggesting that Bultmann denies that the Bible has any political relevance, then he is simply wrong. To be sure, others have made this accusation in the past (Moltmann, Sölle, etc.), but it is a highly misleading one. Bultmann was not opposed to seeing the political significance of the gospel, but he was opposed to the politicization of the gospel, as he explained in his article for the Christian Century, “Theology for Freedom and Responsibility.”

As for history and miracles, all of his begs certain questions. Bultmann does not deny divine action in the world, and he even speaks of the “miracle” of faith. But he denies divine action that is empirically observable like other worldly occurrences (and thus competitive with the forces of nature), and he rejects this on strictly theological grounds. His position is based on a rigorous adherence to the transcendence of God as revealed in God’s justification of the ungodly. It has nothing to do with a dismissal of scripture; it is a position rooted in a deep Christian faith. As for history, Bultmann is hardly unique in questioning scripture’s historical accuracy in all matters. But Bultmann nowhere comes close to saying that scripture “always wrong in its claims about history.” That is an irresponsible statement. Though Bultmann is certainly a radical historical critic, he is nevertheless confident that we can say quite a bit about the historical Jesus, as his 1926 work, Jesus, indicates. I suppose by “always wrong” Byassee actually just means the resurrection. But again that begs the question as to whether the resurrection is actually an occurrence within empirical “history” as opposed to being a genuinely divine act, and thus accessible to faith alone.

As for the bit about being true “only in our souls,” this is a widespread misunderstanding. I find it fascinating how frequently people accuse Bultmann of retreating into the interiority of the soul, given that such language is utterly foreign to his theology. Indeed, as Bultmann said in a 1931 sermon about the incarnation, “The coming of the Lord, which the Christian community anticipates in Advent and celebrates at Christmas, is not at all primarily his coming to the individual, his entering into the soul, but rather his coming to the world.” Evangelicals seem incapable of understanding existential theology, as if this means a retreat from the world. The truth is that the existential nature of faith is realized, for Bultmann, in our being in the world, in our concrete acts of love for others. The love of God is that which “determines me in my being-with-others,” Bultmann wrote in 1930. Eberhard Jüngel thus says regarding Bultmann’s doctrine of faith as self-understanding: “the understanding-of-oneself that faith implies is the exact opposite of a dwelling-on-oneself.”

“. . . he turned subsequent scholars into modernist questioners.” Bultmann did that? Surely one could argue that this was done long before him, at least a century or two earlier. If anything, Bultmann, like Barth, found a way to preserve and promote a robust Christianity within modernity. To be sure, Bultmann did not oppose modernity; he did not try to escape from it, as so many evangelicals seem to think is necessary these days. Do we really want to say that one cannot be Christian and modern? If so, we better consign a lot of profound theology to the dustbin of history. But this would be a tragic mistake, one rooted in a thoroughly problematic notion that some cultural contexts are beyond redemption. To reject the possibility of a modern Christianity is to reject Lamin Sanneh’s missionary principle that “all cultural forms . . . are in principle worthy of bearing the truth of Christianity.” We need to tread very carefully here.

“. . . two generations of theologians and biblical scholars have critiqued and overturned him.” This statement betrays a basic ignorance of the current Bultmann renaissance taking place both in Europe and in North America. Among English works, one thinks of James Kay’s Christus Praesens, Christophe Chalamet’s Dialectical Theologians, and Tim Labron’s Bultmann Unlocked. The 2009 biography by Konrad Hammann corrected many false pictures about Bultmann. And in time I hope my own work will see publication soon, where I present a thorough reinterpretation of demythologizing as a missionary/intercultural hermeneutic. I have a forthcoming article in the Journal of Theological Interpretation that will set the record straight on some issues (see “Kerygma and Community” in JTI 8, no. 1).

“. . . he's hardly read that carefully any more.” Well, Byassee is right about at least one thing!

There is more in the article. Here are other statements that inspire a sad shaking of the head:
  • To overturn Bultmann, a scholar would have to “pass through the challenge of historical criticism (which scissors out Scripture that doesn't fit modern beliefs about historical reliability) and come out the other side.” The notion that historical criticism is a matter of “scissoring out” scripture confuses Bultmann with Thomas Jefferson.
  • “And he or she would have to exalt Jesus as Lord.” The pious self-righteousness in this statement is appalling. As if a historical critic cannot “exalt Jesus.” Please.
  • “Except that it's now been done. I asked Richard Hays . . . Hays believes his friend has surpassed Bultmann. Wright has published more, in more areas, with more influence, than the one who had so impressed the professors who taught my family members.” Wright has “more influence” than Bultmann? I beg to differ. Given that Wright’s work is largely a response to Bultmann, one has to conclude that Bultmann’s influence remains far larger.
  • “Of course, genius does not make one faithful, as Bultmann, Borg, and other great Bible scholars have shown.” So Bultmann is now to be ranked alongside Borg as an “unfaithful” biblical scholar? It’s one thing to dismiss his scholarship; it’s another thing to impugn his fidelity to Jesus Christ.
It is pretty clear what’s going on here. In order to cement the evangelical embrace of N. T. Wright, it is necessary for Byassee to hammer home the point that Wright is not one of them, not one of those unfaithful, non-Jesus-exalting, scripture-rejecting, modernist liberals. It doesn’t matter whether any of that is true. Truth is now a means to an end. Bultmann has become collateral damage in the evangelical turf wars.

Everyone wants to be the true heir of the Reformation, the genuine preacher of the gospel, the academically respectable theologian who is still accepted as an evangelical. But in order to reach the mountaintop, we might have to step on the faces and reputations of those who came before us.

Is that really faithfulness?

I am reminded of the words of Ernst Käsemann, one of Bultmann’s students and one of his fiercest critics: “The principal virtue of the historian . . . is the cultivation of the listening faculty, which . . . does not think that violence is the basic form of engagement.”

Author's note: I bear no ill will toward Jason. I don’t know him. So I feel a little bad about having to render such a harsh verdict on this article. And honestly, these views about Bultmann could have been written by almost anyone. They are not unique to him by any means. My guess is that Jason, like almost every other Christian I’ve ever met, has not actually studied Bultmann with any real seriousness. He and others simply repeat what they’ve heard. My hope is that, in the future, some will think twice about disparaging the great Marburger. He deserves better.


Anonymous said…
The other thing wrong with this is the idea that Wright wants to fight Bultmann. Even his well-known arguments with Borg and with Crossan are conducted politely. He considers them colleagues. He isn't trying to win a fight--except in the sense that all scholars want their views to be accepted. CT doesn't get that and never has.

Further, it is hardly the average evangelical who considers Albert Schweitzer his hero in reconstructing the historical Jesus. Like all creative scholars, Wright doesn't easily fall into accepted categories. Neither did Bultmann. Creative scholars take risks and so they make mistakes--but they also make discoveries.

I have my issues with Bultmann, but his commentary on John was one of the best ever written. I also want to read your interpretation. One should always be open to new interpretations.
Preacherzson said…
As one of those "most Christians" who have never studied Bultmann, are there any resources do you recommemd for a jumping off point (or was that tacitly implied via the title list in the Bultmann rennaisance paragraph)?into
I probably should have mentioned this in the post itself, but those interested in reading Bultmann should consult the "reader's guide" that I posted last year. Let me know if you have any questions about it.
A provocative and interesting take on an important discussion. I actually do know Jason, who is a careful scholar and close reader. Perhaps Internet polemics are not the best way to get at the nuance of this conversation.
Paul.G said…
Ugh... The whole "Bultmann is a subjective pietist!" Objection , makes my eye twitch. Especially when they cite 'Jesus Christ & Mythology' (Lectures that thoroughly refute that objection) to make their point! (David Bentley Hart).

I'm looking forward to the upcoming 'Beyond Bultmann' book , and hope that he receives fair treatment.

Good post , David.
Matthew Frost said…
False panegyric and true polemic seem balanced, to me. Not that this really seems like a polemic. Let's not confuse detailed antagonistic (struggling-against) analysis with war.
Kim Fabricius said…
I've mentioned this story somewhere in blogdom before, told to me by a ministerial colleague and an esteemed theologian, but it bears repetition. As a young man my friend went with a mate to hear the famous Welsh conservative evangelical preacher and bête noire of theological liberalism Martyn-Lloyd-Jones preach. In his sermon "The Doctor" laid into Bultmann. On leaving the chapel, the friend of my friend said, "What a demolition of Bultmann. Jesus would have loved it." To which my friend replied, "Maybe. But at least Jesus would have read him."

Thanks, David. The one problem I have reading your stuff is that I always get a stiff neck from nodding in agreement.