Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Time to Reconsider Bultmann's Protestant Existentialism


Bultmann died in July 1976, and he was the last of the theological giants of the Kaiser’s Germany. His major teaching position was as professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg from 1921 to 1951. Bultmann, along with Karl Barth, was a major pillar of the neo- orthodox movement in European Protestant in theology after World War 1. Even though Bultmann and Barth had major hermeneutical and theological differences, they agreed on the rejection of the popular classical liberalism of the German theological establishment.

Classical liberal theologians, inspired by Hegelian idealism, had reduced the message of the Christian gospel to a series of moral lessons, with Jesus as the great teacher and exemplar of ethical behavior. As a key figure of the existential neo-orthodox movement Bultmann sought to restore the direct intention of the scriptures themselves and read them as the proclamation of what the real God, acknowledged in all his transcendent sovereignty, had done through Jesus Christ for real and therefore for sinful and undeserving man. The Gospel message is not a series of ethical principles but the announcement of an extraordinary, redeeming event. Man who could not make his way to God on his own is told that God has come to him. The God who is beyond history has acted in history. Through the Christ he has made himself and a saving relationship with him possible for all men. Thus the New Testament is not a set of ethical stories whose morals one might well learn from conscience, though in the Gospels they have an appealing Semitic drama and color. The New Testament is the unexpected good news of God’s work for man. This proclamation, this announcement, this declaration, this promise, this demand is called the kerygma in the New Testament Greek, and it was the neo-orthodoxy concern for the kerygma that became central to New Testament research.


It is in Jesus Christ and Mythology, a small volume of his lectures delivered at Yale Divinity School, 1962, that we get to clearly meet Bultmann, the devout evangelical Lutheran, leading scripture scholar of his day, pastor preacher and significant Protestant existentialist. “We have seen that the task of de-mythologizing received its first impulse from the conflict between the mythological views of the world contained in the Bible and the modern views of the world which are influenced by scientific thinking, and it has become evident that faith itself demands to be freed from any world view produced by man’s thought, whether mythological or scientific. For all human world-views objectivize the world and ignore or eliminate the significance of personal encounters in our personal existence. This conflict shows that in our age faith has not yet become aware of the identity of its ground and object; that it is has not yet genuinely understood the transcendence and hiddenness of God as acting.”

Primarily, I am suggesting a reconsideration of Bultmann’s attack on classic liberalism. James Kay, in his work Christus Praesens, A Reconsideration of Rudolf Bultmann’s Christology, addresses the need to return to the Protestant existential biblical critique of contemporary biblical liberalism. “Bultmann, therefore, regards modern reconstructions of the “historical Jesus” which typically speak of his ‘natural origin,’ his ‘messianic consciousness’ ‘his inner life,’ ‘his heroism’ and his ‘faith’ to be futile exercises in ‘Christ after the flesh.’ In light of Jesus destiny as the turning point of the ages, to portray his personality is to betray his eschatological significance. Such portrayals are now anachronistic for Christian faith…the word proclamation is no mere report about historical incidents or teaching…which could simply be regarded as true


without any transformation of the hearer’s own existence. For the word kerygma, personal address, demand, and promise; it is the very act of divine grace.” (Kay, James F., 1994, P. 44-45)

            The classical old liberalism of Herrmann and Albrecht Ritschl has reappeared in Dorothee Solle’s, Political Christ, Jurgen Moltmann’s Eschatology of Glory, Marcus Borg popular return to  an ethics grounded on the evolution of the Jesus personality doctrine. Bultmann, on the other hand, gives the local community grounded on the kerygma a heft that no other theology in this century provides; it is a profound understanding of the pastoral ministry and the preaching of the word as the primary locus of Christ’s presence in the world. Christ is our contemporary, addressing us with the demand and a promise of grace. Christ presides over our time, and every time, from his place in the pulpit. (Kay, James, F., 1999, P.176)

            Finally, I suggest the reading of James Wellman’s book Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures; it is a well-done piece of research on the failure of the new liberal theology. Also, in the Barna Study of Religious Change since 1991 to 2011, people are looking for churches where they feel a personal relationship with Jesus that is highly applicable to their daily life, i.e. their existential biblical quest.











  1. Right on Brother! You nailed it. When we don't preach transformation through personal encounter with Christ/ the Word, we cheat both God and our neighbors.

    Illuminating contrast between liberal and evangelical hermeneutics!

  2. Personal relationship has the problem of being personal and subjective. I was watching the movie "Tears of the Sun", which begins with Bruce Willis saying God has abandoned Africa and ends with him and his military gang saving a group of Africans from their tormentors. No personal encounter with Christ in this, but God acting through people, who chose to act in saving ways. Mythologizing the personal encounter with Christ does not guarantee ethical action on behalf of those who need saving. Bultmann sounds Lutheran and not particularly helpful.

  3. Thank you Trish. Yes, Russ,Bultmann demythologizes the encounter with Christ. It is real and concrete. I doubt that it is much of an issue with the opening of Tears of the Sun. There is a necessary universal human erhics,but I still find Luther extremely necessary.

  4. I'm interested in your view of the "saving" act of Jesus. I'm beginning to wonder what that act of salvation means--and did Jesus understand that action as being from himself? Theology has added some complex and interesting identifications upon Jesus.

  5. I agree that Bultmann's theology still provides a refreshing alternative to the approaches of people like Borg. However, I do not believe Moltmann belongs in the same category.

    Some of Bultmann's disciples certainly provide a similar perspective, people like Bornkamm and Kasemann.

    David Perkins+