Being Fairer to Bultmann, and the People

When one is a Barthian, and especially when one also studies exegesis heavily, one tends to give Bultmann a hard time. And unlike David Congdon, whose early magnum opus on Bultmann will be coming out soon (with a smaller handbook to follow), I haven't put in anything like the time on Bultmann that I have on Barth. I'm not likely to, anytime soon, either. But I appreciate David's thorough and scrupulous effort to advocate for Bultmann's project; work like this and the Hammann biography makes it much easier to do the hard work necessary to being fair to the man while I continue to disagree with aspects of his approach.

Bultmann is, in many ways, the exegetical counterpart to Schleiermacher—and misunderstood for the same reasons. Both have been taken to be privileging the "cultured despisers" in an apologetic mode that gives away too much of the store to Modernity. But it is far better to see them taking the opposite approach to Gaunilo's complaints from Anselm and Barth. Gaunilo of Marmoutiers is not an outsider, but an incredulous insider, one who sees the archaisms of scripture and the intricacies of dogmatic history as detrimental to a faith that must be sustained in the everyday world of experience. How can we preach the gospel to such a person, when in its native forms it relies on things contrary to experience?

Barth's answer, adapted out of Anselm's, is catechesis: teach the faith, intentionally and intensively, as coherent in ways that preempt the normativity of everyday life. Acknowledge the instincts that lead to incredulity, and the doctrinal failures that reinforce the problem, and proceed from this situation to talk about God—and from God, to talk about everything else. Rebuild the worldview on a God-first perspective that will set everything else in order. But always accept empiricism and its perceptiveness, allowing that things are not necessarily the way they have been described in scripture and tradition either. It's a critical affirmation that aims to bring the full breadth of the faith, in its traditional affirmations, within the grasp of the reasoning Modern.

From that perspective, Bultmann's approach isn't fundamentally different; the difference is in how much credit he gives to Gaunilo as the person whose legitimate worldview shapes the reception of the faith. Barth expects you to rise to his level, where Bultmann, with far greater technical facility, condescends to the level of the audience, knowing that the audience actually lives in this world and shares its perspective. (I, for my part, prefer to use Bultmann's tools to follow up Barth's instincts; we cannot afford to lose so much of how the text speaks, and that must always have priority in deploying Sachkritik for proclamation. But I'll get to that.) David borrows the language of missionary translation to describe this condescension, this meeting the audience where they are. Putting the gospel in their terms, and avoiding terms that no longer carry the weight that needs to be borne in preaching the kerygma.

Bultmann's supposed denial of the resurrection is the classic example. Put as simply and accurately as I can (others may be able to do better), Bultmann believes so much in the resurrection as necessary to our portrayal of Jesus as the crucified one—but he also knows that mere resuscitation of a dead man cannot bear the load that the kerygma has traditionally placed upon Jesus' resurrection. Not in a world where we can, now and again, resuscitate the very-recently-dead on the table, and can revive those whom an ancient milieu might have regarded as dead. Bultmann doesn't surrender the gospel to medical materialism, but he knows that he has to compete with it. Wilhelm Herrmann, his teacher, knew that it was embarrassing to see leaders of the church explaining away miracles as medical interventions. But what natural science no longer regards as impossible or incredible is that much more difficult to use as a support for the proclamation of God's uniquely powerful action for us. Better medicine and extended life isn't our hope. Better technology does not point the way to the eschatological vision. These are not what we preach, and they aren't what Paul or Jesus preached either. Ultimately, that meant for Bultmann that affirming the historical resurrection of Jesus was not a place we could stop, and simply bask in the emptiness of the tomb. It no longer does for us what it did for the authors of scripture in their mythopoetic worldviews. The effect itself must be translated.

This is, as I understand it, where demythologization and Sachkritik—"subject criticism," the pursuit of intended meaning in the interpretation of the text—interact. We do not need to abstract the text from its circumstances; we need to understand how it is conditioned by its circumstances, as thoroughly as possible, so that we can better receive the text as it means. It is never enough simply to repeat the text as it reads, because when we do that we impose our own worldviews upon it and fit it into our systems of meaning. The text is not objective, and reading it as though it were subjects it to our subjectivities. We must be objective, and let the text be subjective in as close to the ways it can originally have been meant as possible. We must do the difficult intersubjective work that translation always requires between two very different contexts. And when we do it, we must always realize that our work is inferior to the original, in some ways a betrayal because of what it does not convey, and what else it can be read to convey. Demythologization is always provisional. At best, its failures are only those necessary to translation, but at worst its failures demonstrate failure at the tasks of Sachkritik, failures in understanding and submitting to the text.

This is why, fair though I try to be to Bultmann in explaining his fidelity, I trust Barth's instincts more. Barth's tools were always inferior, always cobbled together, always learned from behind the curve. He knew it, and he told his readers as much—but he could find no exegetes whose tools were superior, who were willing to see what he saw and use them as he needed to. My favorite quote from Nietzsche:
"But who could perform this service for me? And who would have the time to wait for there to be such capable servants—who too seldom show themselves, and who are thus unlikely in the best of times! In the end, one must do everything oneself in order to know anything for oneself. And that means that one has much to do!"
In the end, Barth is always more willing to tell you what scripture says by submitting to the ways it says it, even if he then argues with it. Bultmann will rather tell you what you need to know, in terms that comport with your experience, even if it means doing without the clear emphases of the text. Both are trying to do a similar job faithfully, but at the service of very different instincts. And in the end, art is in the hand and eye and mind, not the tools.

This is why I tend to steal Bultmann's tools to do Barth's job. I will preach you the gospel, and I will stand before the text in as much incredulity, but I am far more interested in bringing you into the world of the text, and letting that world change how you see your own. I want you to be incredulous at what is around you, and for that I have to distance you from it. That's what good fiction has always done, and in that respect the Bible contains some of the most useful and truthful fiction around.


  1. "This is why I tend to steal Bultmann's tools to do Barth's job. I will preach you the gospel, and I will stand before the text in as much incredulity, but I am far more interested in bringing you into the world of the text, and letting that world change how you see your own. I want you to be incredulous at what is around you, and for that I have to distance you from it. That's what good fiction has always done, and in that respect the Bible contains some of the most useful and truthful fiction around."

    >>> This sounds great. Wondering if you have a written example of how you do this.

    I read Jeremiah 1 today. The text says that God brought the Babylonians to punish Judah for its unfaithfulness to the covenant. I used to not question "thus saith the Lord" texts, but I do now. Empires do what empires do, and I do not think God was the one behind anything there. That beings said, I see that Jeremiah (or the compilers and redactors of the book) attempt(s) to give political events a theological interpretation that would ultimately be able to empower the faithful to hope.

    I wonder if you could do what you spoke of in your conclusion with this (not too difficult) text.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I always learn a lot from you, even though I can't keep up at times;)

    1. This may be the best example of me talking about it; I'm not sure I have good examples on here of me doing exactly what I say. But, at least touching Jer 1, I've done something like it.

      Now, you say "the text says," and I'd like to complicate that. God says that God will call upon the enemy, "all the tribes/families of the kingdoms of the north," and then the enemy will do what the enemy will do, as you say. But God will not do what they do. While the city is besieged, God will speak God's judgments, through the prophet, and the people will do what the people will do in response. We already know that this sets up the exile, because the text says so. But it didn't need to happen.

      The evil of the enemy encamped around the city is no more God's doing than the evil of the people within it. God does not establish their thrones; they do. God establishes the prophet, who has been delegated power to level Judah (or any other kingdom) and to raise it up again. The text tells us that God brings upon the people of Judah a crisis of judgment, triggering an outside force and allowing it to work in order to give strength to the prophet's words.

      Perhaps this is a theological interpretation of merely political events, after the fact, but that is not what the text says. The text says, "we had a way out of this, and this is what we chose in the face of God's own prophet, and this is what happened to us, so we'd better learn from it for next time." And it also says that God remains gracious to the people in the midst of what they have chosen, and its consequences in the face of real enemies in the world. Jeremiah is the story of earning the exile, and of God going into exile with the people.

    2. Of course, this also doesn't seem like a fair Barth v Bultmann showdown, as there's nothing profoundly miraculous that can't be escaped by a close reading of the text. :)


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