St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Theology Course 07:
Demythologising and Keeping a Distinctive Christianity:
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976)

Resource Paper Extracted

One of the essential questions about a historical faith located in time is the very different way the people of the time thought from the way people think later on. This is not just theoretical thought, but basic assumptions of reality that frame how we behave. Their religious beliefs were a total world of belief created within their own cultural categories. For example, why did people die? They died because of the weight of sin: demons entering the body and encouraging sin, thus leading to ill health, poverty and death. Thus a person without sin would not die: and why a healer removed demons and would say “sin no more’. The Kingdom of God would be a sinless place where the struggle was over; plus God would reanimate the bodies to be saved that had died because after judging them and in the Kingdom they would be as angels.
Now we know that people die because of biology: cells don't reproduce sufficiently or properly, and this has no direct connection with any moral conduct; and people rot very quickly when dead.
How on earth do we believe in a faith of crucifixion and resurrection, of rising bodies on the last day, when there is such a shift of thought? The theologian who tackled this the clearest was Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). This introduces the topic of myth and the mythic world view. Myths change over space and over time. Social anthropologists spend time and mind-bending energy trying to inhabit and summarise the mythical worlds of people in other places; some historians try to mind-inhabit the narrative of a different time.
In this course we have looked at the background of nineteenth century liberal theology that modern theologians like Barth, Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Bultmann have sought to correct and reject. What did the nineteenth century theologians make of myth? Remember that these were the theologians who reinterpreted the gospel according to the open yet limited  approaches of history, sociology and sciences, and tried to open out theology: they did create accessibility at a cost of removing the uniqueness of Jesus, or of turning the Kingdom of God into a programme of social and economic action, as was the case with the optimist Rauschenbusch but not the pessimist of corporate sin, Reinhold Niebuhr.
Myth was not a problem for nineteenth century theologians. Living in a world of miracles had been judged unhistorical, by the techniques of the historical theologian and sociologist Ernst Troeltsch on the grounds of improbability, continuity and generality. Quite simply, myths were reduced away and translated into a contemporary mode: that's what Rauschenbusch did, after all. Key Christian concepts become goals of exemplary achievement, the flower of human culture - this culture.
It soon becomes obvious that this won't really do: that myth contains something valuable that cannot simply be translated away into something else. The social anthropologist no longer translates into the categories of this place and this time, but seeks to describe in a way that brings the reader into another place, however difficult this can be. Thus it must be with another time - but how to explain, to interpret, to translate?
Now there has already been discussion about the difference between kernel, kerygma and the wrapping paper. To revise this: the nineteenth century theologians looked for a kernel: the essence and simplicity of Christianity when all was stripped back and made accessible, including myth. The modern theologians instead preserved and protected christology, ring-fencing theology and approaching other academic disciplines only from this stance, but seeing this as artificial (but also seeing reductionism as a form of violence), postmodernists keep the whole of the wrapping paper of Christianity: you just do it, perform it, and let it speak for itself with neither kernel nor kerygma sought out.
Bultmann as a modernist, seeks out the kerygma. That means recognising and accepting and holding on to the myths, but seeing what the crystal of Christianity is within those myths. It is important to realise that Bultmann is no simple demythologiser: not in the way a nineteenth century theologian did, when all was reduced to history or social science.
Why recognise these myths? Because they are motivators: the myths we live by at any one time are the world views that cause development. Christianity grew and developed using its formative myths. These were three main kinds:
1.Jewish apocalyptic thought. This is present in inter-testament Messianic Judaism and, as a part if this,with Jesus himself, and in the Jewish element of the early Church as it was expecting the return of Jesus the human, first of the resurrected, transformed, Messiah. The Kingdom of God will come in supernaturally. In no way can this motivating belief be adequately translated into social and economic action.
2.The gnostic redeemer myth of the Primal Man. Gnosticism as a category pre-dates Christianity and soon produced a Gnostic Christianity. Nevertheless its concepts are seen in Paul and the gospel of John. Paul's Adam Christology is an example of the Primal Man and the redemption of what is lost in between; also the cosmic body of Christ relates to this pure archetype, and so do miracle workings. However, the use of these concepts is heavily Christianised, that is, made specific and particular to Jesus Christ and not simply left as a guiding myth.
3.The Hellenistic dying and rising God motif. This is of Paul and his immersion in the Hellenistic world just as he was a Jew. This also ties in with the use of baptism, that it gives access into the dying and rising God. It also ties in with the mysteries of the sacraments, such as Paul's understanding of the Eucharist rite. It is a Hellenistic cult derived from the natural cycle of the seasons. This view makes good of crucifixion, and brings in the Jewish apocalyptic of resurrection, and puts them together, and connects them with rites and rituals of followers, just as the Hellenistic Gods had rites and rituals and their use had a saving purpose for the individual undergoing these rites and rituals.
The dying and rising motif is so sweeping that it led some history of religions people, those followers of Troeltsch, to suggest that Jesus himself was myth and never existed. What is interesting now is that Jesus as a tribal Jew really himself lived by the Jewish apocalyptic thought and was not motivated by the Hellenistic dying and rising motif and probably not the Primal Man gnostic myth, even though he will have believed in Adam and the creation myths of the Jews. For Jews, Adam is one of the patriarchs, as is Abraham, a different view from having a Primal Man.
For the liberal Protestant, the apocalyptic myth did not upset the kernel of the Gospel preached by Jesus, which was a set of ethical teachings, and the Kingdom was either in the heart or to be made socially. Miracles were ignorable because Jesus in his teachings downplayed their value. Hellenistic culture was ignored by cutting away Paul from Jesus.
Yet the Gospel kerygma is said to be in what the proto-orthodox Early Church taught:: that is the crucifixion and resurrection, the acceleratingf divinity of Jesus as Primal Man, and the Church being a holding station of Christ's body expressed in the Eucharistic rite as a taste of heaven before the the second coming and the universal resurrection. In doing work on the fourth gospel, Bultmann himself showed the connection with Gnosticism and claimed that the Gnostic redeemer myth added an input into the faith of the early Churches.
So what do we do with these myths if we do not reduce them away, if we say that these were formative for Christian construction and Christian interpretation? After all, Christianity is not just the viewpoint of Jesus, but of the whole package that the Early Church grasped - that package inside the myth-maintaining New Testament. Rudolf Bultmann understood this: he did not want to explain these away or reduce them but he did want to communicate them, to translate them.
Rudolf Bultmann comes in and out of fashion in terms of how to understand the New Testament. He was particularly anti the liberalism of the nineteenth century. He was little interested in the historical Jesus, if such could be penetrated; rather he wanted to examine the role of myth in creating the ancient message and culture and translate its totality into terms we might understand.
So Bultmann was a New Testament scholar and a historical scholar. This meant he worked on the New Testament as sources. He agreed with Bonhoeffer that the essential aspect of the Gospel was the scandal of the cross, but fell out with Barth and Bonhoeffer because these two theologised the texts into revelation. Bultmann did not so theologise because made a distinction between mythic presentation and its essential within; he wanted to make the scandal of the cross (and all else) explainable in modern terms. Nevertheless Bonhoeffer was influenced by Bultmann´s 1943 essay on New Testament and Mythology, and partly because of this wrote about a secular and religionless Christianity - yet Bonhoeffer retained, more like Barth, the importance of a delivered revelation standing over and penetrating into a secular world.
Bultmann believed the mythic was important and contained the essence; belief was authentic then as a whole, and should be authentic now. It is as if, For Bultmann, we have not come of age, but we have our own mythical world. See the difference: for Barth and Bonhoeffer, revelation is delivered, and our world is just what it is: for Bultmann the world is a meaning-making place, and religion is a part of this. Now we have changed meaning we need translation to get the Gospel kerygma.
Here is gets complicated, if it isn't already.
First of all, Bultmann was accused of both demythologising and not demythologising. After all, if you are going to translate, isn't that just what the nineteenth century liberal theologians did? They may have been crude about it, but translation is to convert from one understanding to another. And yet Bultmann was also accused of keeping and preaching the resurrection and Christ, when resurrection and Christ are as much mythical concepts in need of interpretation or translation as is the three-decker universe or demons causing people to sin and sin leading to body to its death. It is so easy for preachers to say well Jesus did not literally ascend at the Ascension but refuse to say that he did not literally resurrect at the Resurrection?
Here's the complicated bit. If Bultmann is uninterested in the historical Jesus, but the texts contain all that is, isn't he basing Christianity on the absolutising of an historical text? Isn't he doing with the text what some nineteenth century theologians have done with Jesus? And do we even have a secure enough text to do this with? In the end, does he ever actually translate anything, or just tinker at the edges. Big deal, we might say.
Plus Bultmann leaves us with no basis by which these texts contain something different -  that essential kerygma - from any other myth. The nineteenth century theologian James Martineau said that these biblical near-Eastern texts were just one example of something greater: religion itself; similarly Karl Jaspers said all mythic texts are a gateway to transcendence. In other words, despite claiming otherwise, there is no basis for an exclusive Christ just because of a text. All myths are just, well, myths, and let's treat them the same. Just because Bultmann translated so little doesn't mean others can't do more.
In any case, how does Bultmann know what the inner, translatable meaning is, for these mythic concepts? Do they actually mean anything at all in a contemporary Western culture? Are not concepts intimately tied to their cultural setting?
What was the essence of Christianity then, according to Bultmann? In the context of mythical language of the end-time, Jesus called his followers to give up their worldly security in favour of that security given by divine grace under faith. We have to be willing to undergo crucifixion with Christ to be liberated from this world and join God's world. This is a matter of  individual responsibility: to become devoted to others as an expression of God's love but the Church should not engage in political and social matters. That's how Bultmann in Marburg got through the Nazi period, despite his membership in the Confessing Church. For many, Bultmann's approach promotes a dangerous and subjective individualism and of no use in a collective world. How different, then from Reinhold Niebuhr.
Why individualist? Because it seems the demythologising comes down to illuminating what we should do. That really is individualist and subjective. But he doesn't settle with this, because he holds to this kerygma in the texts. The myth does not collapse down into subjective interpretation, it remains intact. How - because the text remains.
We need to be clear here, then, that if he does translate, Bultmann soon remythologises in order to do his illuminative preaching. In other words, his own project is a failure: he is having to preach the message in ancient thought forms. Just how do you, in any contemporary understanding, have a scandal of the cross? In modern understanding, a person who is killed tragically simply dies; in modern understanding rapidly decomposing bodies do not rise on the last day or transform themselves into some spiritual body. We don't think like that: perhaps the nineteenth century theologians were the more courageous and showed what does happen when looking for a kernel of a message. The kerygma is locked away in its own box: it is untranslatable. No wonder then that so many postmodern preachers today, who think ordinary thought, present Christianity as a total package in its own terms about which they can say little other than repeating its own terms: when these preachers then talk about us as authentic-seeking people and relating to ethical demands, they give the problem away. It's straight back to the nineteenth century again, and there is no half way house. The kerygma is lost in the wrapping paper.
There are other criticisms of myth: where the New Testament uses analogy and metaphor already, for example, in a rich use of language that needs no demythologising; and this includes the diversity God-talk in the New Testament that Bultmann regards as needing interpretation and yet pretty immediate remythologisation too. The text is subtle in its variety and yet is being hit over the head by a single project.
Rudolf Bultmann is seen influencing the highly critical and sceptical historical New Testament studies and theologies of Anglican Dennis Nineham and secularist Michael Goulder, who gave up his priesthood and Christianity but continued to teach New Testament. Both of these point to the diverse source of early texts and the radical otherness of such cultural thought from our own and both as writers pose more questions than answers.

Main Points Summary:


Beeson, T. (1999), 'Rudolf Bulmann (1884-1976)', Rebels and Reformers: Christian Renewal in the Twentieth Century, London: SCM Press, 81-82.

Dunn, J. D. G. (1977), 'Demythologizing: The Problem of Myth in the New Testament' in Marshall, I. H. (1977), 285-307, particularly 292-300.

Marshall, I. H. (ed.) (1977), New Testament Interpretation: Essays in Principles and Methods, Exeter: The Paternoster Press.

McEnhill, P., Newlands, G. (2004), 'Bultmann, Rudolf', Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, Routledge Key Guides, London: Routledge, 85-90.

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Adrian Worsfold