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Saturday, November 10, 2012

Bultmann, Berger, and the New Testament

Rudolph Bultmann, the great New Testament scholar of the early 20th century, was probably best known for his project of demythologizing which attempted to reinterpret the New Testament's mythological elements in light of contemporary knowledge. He argued that that only faith in the kerygma (i.e., the New Testament's core message or proclamation) was necessary for Christian faith and not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus. He believed his demythologizing project was necessary because in the modern world, people simply can't (and won't) believe in things like miracles:
It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.
As the sociologist Peter Berger recently noted (First Things, November 2012, pp. 45-46), however, Bultmann was horribly mistaken:
Bultmann was a very pleasant individual. I met him many years ago and was impressed by his unpretentious and open demeanor (also, by the way, by the discovery that this apostle of modernity was afraid of flying). I am hopeful that he now resides in a heaven that modern man supposedly cannot believe in. But if even in this mythological residence, he somehow still holds on to his assumption, I would love to take him on a tour of global Christianity today. He would meet millions of electricity consumers who not only believe in the miracles of the New Testament, but, much more interestingly, in the miracles that supposedly occur in their churches every week.
I think Bultmann was wrong on at least one other account. He appears to have assumed that his demythologizing project could be undertaken in a vacuum where the reinterpretation of the New Testament would be unaffected by modern (and often unconsciously held) "mythologies." In many ways, Bultmann reminds me of many contemporary moral philosophers who seek to derive ethical principles independent of any particular moral community (secular or religious). However, just as moral philosophers are not "free and independent selves" who are unconstrained by the communities in which they move and live and have their being, biblical scholars are not unbiased interpreters of the New Testament text. They bring their own world views to the interpretive task, and Bultmann was no exception. He was influenced heavily by the existentialist philosophy of his day (as were many theologians, such as Paul Tillich), and his understanding of the kerygma reflects this. Indeed, one could argue that his project engaged in as much remythologizing as it did demythologizing.

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