Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth

This is a handshake introduction to an extremely influential work: Kerygma and Myth by Rudolf Bultmann and Five Critics. The work was originally published in Germany in 1948; the original English translation appeared in 1953.

The first two parts of the piece reproduce Bultmann’s 1941 paper, translated as New Testament and Mythology. The paper is most easily accessible in the Kerygma and Myth collection, and it is accompanied by some useful commentary.

James F. Kay, now Princeton Theological Seminary’s Dean of Academic Affairs, wrote in 1991 in an article marking the 50th anniversary of the paper,

Bultmann spoke at nine o’clock in the morning [of 4th June, 1941], and, with the exception of prayers at noon and again at four o’clock, the whole day was devoted to discussing his lecture. Thus appeared, a half century ago, what Schubert M. Ogden later called “perhaps the single most discussed and controversial theological writing of the century.”

The prayers are a nice touch. Kay offers some flavour of Bultmann’s theology.

For Bultmann, myth embraces those reality claims that do not square with scientific understanding. For example, the kerygma’s claim that Jesus rose from the dead cannot refer to a real fact or event about Jesus inasmuch as facts and events are held to be recovered, or reconstructed, through scientific means. [Emphasis mine.]

However, Bultmann’s reputation had suffered by 1991. Myth was overtaken by narrative as the theological mode-de-jour. Should we cheer? Not yet. Kay discusses Hans W. Frei’s The Identity of Jesus Christ as a seminal essay in the rise of narrative theology. He writes,

Frei, as a believing Christian, … must show how a literary character possesses saving significance for people today. Frei … ingeniously… infers the present factuality of the Savior on the basis of his literary identity. The fictional Gospel narrative renders an identity of Jesus that entails the claim of his factual presence today. [Emphasis and italics mine.]

Got that?  You may have noticed that no-one in this discussion actually believes the Gospels, nor does anyone feel the need to explain their disbelief.  The discussion is about how, given that the Gospels do not witness to actual events, to construct some elaborate rationale for calling oneself a Christian at all. Note that all of these folks are descendants of the Reformation. Whither sola scriptura?

In the linked version of Kerygma and Myth, John Reeves, in an introduction written in 2005, points out that Bultmann was defining a position that was more traditional than that of his teachers such as Harnack.

For Adolf Harnack and other German liberals, the significance of Jesus lay only in his moral teachings. Following Karl Barth, Bultmann argued that “[t]he NewTestament talks about an event through which God has brought about our salvation. It does not proclaim Jesus primarily as a teacher…”

From the perspective of 1941, the devastation that is Bultmann looked like a green shoot. German liberal theologians had laid waste the landscape in the generations before, in the manner of Strauss and Harnack. The Gospels were full of mythical tales, which no “modern” man could believe. German theology proceeded from this bedrock of understanding to construct a theological mythology—or narrative—of its own. Bultmann, also a “believing Christian,” had to try to convince himself and others that salvation remained a term with any meaning.

Bultmann thought to base a new understanding on the correspondence he saw between the existentialism of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a sometime colleague at Marburg, and the “existentialism” Bultmann detected in his particular reading of the New Testament. Reeves writes,

For Bultmann, the philosophy that best understands human existence is the existentialism of … Heidegger. Or rather, “…Heidegger’s existentialist analysis of human existence seems to be only a profane philosophical presentation of the New Testament view of who we are…” Bultmann rejects the charge that he is translating the kerygma into an alien philosophical framework, for Heidegger’s philosophy “all by itself”has discovered the New Testament message about the human condition.

We might well ask which came first, the New Testament or the profane philosophy.  As Reeves says in summarising, “While Bultmann had hoped to anchor the Christian gospel in a secure existentialist framework, in fact this framework secured its irrelevance as soon as Heidegger’s philosophy became dated.” In another post I will look at some of the “mythology” that Bultmann sought to strip out of the new New Testament.

All of this was occurring in Germany between the wars, simultaneously with the rise of Hitler and the savage paganism that effectively swept Christianity aside in that country. When New Testament and Mythology was delivered, Nazism was at the apogee of its power and security. Within a few months, Operation Barbarossa would be launched against the Soviet Union, and the cataclysm would be set in motion. German theology could not possibly have any bearing on all that, though.

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