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A Clear Portrait of Bultmann's Theology,
This review is from: Jesus Christ and Mythology (Paperback)
Jesus Christ and Mythology consists of two groups of lectures Bultmann gave at Yale and Vanderbilt in 1951, and since the lectures were aimed at intelligent students unaquanted with his work, they serve as an excellent introduction to Bultmann's theology. I had read a good deal about Bultmann's thought in other theology books, but this was the first of his actual works I read, and it was certainly worth reading.
Bultmann's primary point is that God is not comprehended by thought, but by experience. Rationality is not the tool for approaching God; relational experience is. There are essentially two spheres of existence (derived from Kant); the rational, ordered external world which we understand via science, and the a-rational world including the supernatural (including God, "faith knowledge, etc.) which we understand via experience and faith. Jesus was indeed a historical person existing in the first sphere of existence, but he is the Jesus Christ of Christianity only in the second sphere, which has nothing to do with rationality. As Bultmann says, " The incomprehensibility of God lies not in the sphere of theorical thought but in the sphere of personal existence" (43 [note that I have the 1958 edition]).
What does this have to do with mythology? The scriptural account of Jesus is clouded in mythology. The entire world-view of the ancient authors of the New Testament is now rejected as primitive by modern men, so we must go about the task of de-mythologizing (stripping the myth from reality) Jesus to discover who he truly was. This de-mythologizing is Bultmann's proposed hermeneutic method (45). But we are not doing this for knowledge of the first sphere. We want to "understand in a new way the concept of knowledge which as a rule does not mean theoretical, rational knowledge, but mystical intuition or vision, a mystical union with Christ" (48). Bultmann delves into existential philosophy to tie together this search for mystical truth with the search for self knowledge. He ends up concluding that "the question of God and the question of myself are identical" (53). We study history (in this case, we de-mythologize New Testament history) to "gain an understanding of the possibilities of human life and thereby of the possibilities of my own life. The ultimate reason for studying history is to become conscious of the possibilities of human existence" (53).
Of course, since all of this is happenining in the non-objective, a-rational second sphere of existence, we have nothing even resembling certainty. We can literally have no rational reason whatsoever for believing what we do about what is going in the realm of faith, for the two spheres of existence are utterly divided. This also means that God cannot be acting in human history, for God is of the second sphere and human history (or natural history) is of the first sphere. Of course, Bultmann needs God to be acting in some way to justify even his extremely liberal version of Christianity, so he finds his solution in a very unconvincince explanation; God acts "within" worldly events, not actually changing anything or effecting anything. As he says, "The thought of the action of God as an unworldy and transcendent action can be protected from misunderstanding only if it is not thought of as an action which happens between the worldy actions or events, but as happening within them. The close connection between natural and historical events remains intact as it presents itself to the observer. The action of God is hidden from every eye except the eye of faith... It is within them [natural events] that God's hidden action is taking place" (61-62). In other words, God is not actually causing anything in the natural world, but through faith we can understand him to be working. This not only leaves one with the severely unsettling conclusion that everything would have turned out exactly the same if God did not even exist (since he isn't actually causing anything in the physical world), but it also rules out miracles (65-66), as God cannot be encountered in the physical sphere of existence. It is only through experince that we can speak of God acting. "Only such statements about God are legitimate as express the existential relation between God and man. Statements which speak of God's actions as cosmic events are illegitimate" (69). This includes the crucifixion as atonement (69-70).
In short, God is not to be comprehended by reason, and does not operate in the physical world as a causal agent in any sense of the term. Jesus Christ is a messianic figure of truth only in the realm of faith and mystical experience, which is not built upon historical reality. If we believe in Christ, it is not for any reason, but is in spite of reason. In fact, we do not even believe because of experience. "We can believe in God only in spite of experience," for "God withholds himself from view and observation" (84). We are to define nothing, aviod systematic theology like the plague, and trust in Christ as the Lord of the faith realm, although it is never really clear what exactly Christ does, or how he is messianic in any way since Bultmann took away all the historical importance attached to him.
While I very strongly disagree with nearly all of Bultmann's main points (I lean toward orthodox Christianity), this is definitely a book worth reading. Bultmann is very clear (except a few times he delves into existential philosophy and gets a bit vague), very intelligent, and very influential. This book will provide a very useful introduction to the theology of a prominent figure in 20th century theology and hermeneutics. Whether you agree with him or not, he needs to be dealt with, and this books is a good a place as any to begin to tackle the issues he raises. His theology is, I think, the intellectual pinnacle of what theology should look like if we accept Kant's dichotomization of reality into separate shperes of knowledge. The question is, of course, whether we accept that or not.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 10, 2012 4:14:50 PM PDT
Posted on Apr 21, 2013 10:38:58 AM PDT
Excellent review! You did a better job of explaining Bultmann than some dictionary articles. And I agree that Bultmann is worth understanding due to his influence on NT theology and Jesus studies; yet I also disagree with his theology, as I too, am conservative/orthodox. DL
Posted on Nov 22, 2014 1:32:37 PM PST
C. Lewis says:
Came upon this discussion via blog of Dr James Tabor, UNC. You blew me away with this synopsis of book. I doubt if I will proceed to further study b/c too far afield just now from my basic studies. However, have written into my "someday" memo, just in case I am smarter than I think I am.
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