Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

1. Background

Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976) was born on August 20th in Wiefelstede, in (what was then known as) the grand duchy of Oldenburg. His father, Arthur Bultmann, was an Evangelical-Lutheran pastor, his paternal grandfather a missionary to Africa, and his maternal grandfather a pastor of the pietistic tradition. Thus, young Rudolf came from a family line heavily invested in the theological milieu of his time. This family’s gradual move toward Protestant liberalism—especially on the part of his father—would prove to have a significant impact on this young theologian-to-be.

Rudolf’s education began at the humanistic Gymnasium at Oldenburg; incidentally, he studied concurrently with the philosopher-to-be, Karl Jaspers, who was only a few grades ahead of young Bultmann. Following his graduation, he studied theology at the Universities of Tübingen, Berlin, and Marburg, respectively. It is important to note that all three of these institutions were heavily committed to liberal theology. His greatest influence came from Marburg, including the systematic and liberal theologian Wilhelm Hermann and New Testament scholars Johannes Weiss and Wilhelm Heitmüller of the history-of-religions school.

Bultmann received his doctorate in 1910 from Marburg and, two years later, qualified as an instructor at his alma mater. In 1916, he accepted an assistant professorship at Breslau, where he married and had two daughters. Four years later he went to Giessen for his first full professorship. Only one year later, however, he returned to Marburg where he accepted his last full professorship, succeeding Heitmüller as the chair of New Testament. Among the colleagues Bultmann encountered there were Rudolph Otto (who succeeded Hermann) and Martin Heidegger (who was at Marburg from 1922-1928). In addition, both Karl Barth and Friedrich Gogarten lectured at Marburg. All four of these would influence Bultmann’s ensuing theology, each in his own way.

It is important to note that—barring his dissertation and a myriad of theological and related book reviews—Bultmann failed to publish any significant theological works until the mid-twenties. Walter Schmithals suggests that this is because his dissatisfaction with liberal theology prevented him from making a serious contribution to the theology of his time; moreover, he had not developed a sufficiently independent position from which to critique the theology of his teachers. This premonition is supported by the fact that, while Bultmann counted himself a member of the liberal theology camp, four years later—at the advent of his flood of publications—Bultmann counts himself among those critiquing and moving beyond Protestant liberalism.

Rudolf Bultmann is one of the most influential theologians and biblical scholars of the twentieth century. Known for his erudite contributions to both disciplines, he synthesized his wide-ranging efforts into a unified and provocative theological vision. He is perhaps best remembered for his call to demythologize the New Testament so that the Christian Gospel might be separated from its mythological trappings. Yet, a thumbnail sketch of demythologization often fails to appreciate Bultmann’s positive intent. Bultmann’s project is best seen as plotting out a middle course between nineteenth-century German theological liberalism and Karl Barth’s subsequent critique of that movement. Bultmann wanted, with Barth, to proclaim the saving act of God in Christ, yet without providing unnecessary stumbling blocks to the modern listener.

2. Works (Selected List)

Barth, K. (1933). The Epistle to the Romans. New York, Oxford University Press.

Bultmann, R. (1969). Faith and Understanding. Philadelphia, Fortress Press.

Bultmann, R. (1984). New Testament & Mythology And Other Basic Writings. Philadelphia, Fortress Press.

3. Themes

Kerygma as the Source of Faith

Bultmann’s existentialist theology was founded on the Cross of Christ. He saw this event not as a primarily historical event, but rather as an existential event. Christ’s life and death, as proclaimed in the kerygma, form the catalyst for the existential crisis that reconciles humanity to God. The kerygma thus survives independent of the historical question of Jesus and of Jesus’ own claims of Messiahship (Bultmann 1991, 123). In fact, Bultmann felt that the Christian faith did not exist until the kerygma was formed (i.e., the kerygma proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen One, to be God’s eschatological act of salvation), an accomplishment Bultmann largely cedes to the theological developments of the apostle Paul (Bultmann 1991, 103). It is in Paul’s writings that the Christianity gains an adequate self-understanding, as he concentrates not on Jesus’ teachings and their further development, but rather on the significance of Christ and the kerygma of the early community (Bultmann 1991, 213).

Bultmann’s precise conception of kerygma was decisively influenced by his training in the history of religions school. This influence led Bultmann to his basic theological principle that God’s word or revelation never appears in a pure or direct form. According to Bultmann, we can know revelation only through the mediation of language. Language, in turn, is affected by the cultural forms in which it arises. Therefore, in order to understand the kerygma of the early church, one must examine the existential conditions dominant in the church’s culture of origin.

Thus, in his quest for the kerygma of Christianity, Bultmann examined in addition to Christianity such contemporary Hellenistic religions as apocalyptic Judaism, Astral Worship and Gnosticism (to name a few). He noted that each of these told mythical stories about cosmic battles between the forces of evil and good. The remarkable similarities between these stories led Bultmann to conclude that Christianity was itself "a remarkable product of syncretism" (Bultmann 1991, 185). That is, the mythological mindset so commonplace among other religions in the first two centuries undoubtedly impacted the mindset of Christianity such that its own mindset was comparably mythological. Therefore, Bultmann felt that it was no surprise to see the origins of the kerygma imbued with these mythological forms of thought.

But despite the many similarities between Christianity and the other Hellenistic religions—particularly gnosticism—Bultmann argued that the theological core of the kerygma itself was unique to Christianity, and in fact independent of any mythological worldview. This core was the proclamation that God, as that which is the ground of any person’s "world," had sent Jesus to bring humanity to a consciousness of its own finitude and thus dependence on God. That is, one’s "world" (viz., oneself) is not complete outside of its grounding in God, and thus can be restored to its true nature only by reorientation to that ground. Until one has appropriated the grace of God manifested in Christ’s work, he is "alienated from his own true nature, alienated from life, enslaved under hostile powers and in bondage to death" (Bultmann 1991, 186).

This reorientation is accomplished only through the recognition of God’s judgment in the event of the cross. It is here where God proclaims that a person’s very being is not their own, but is the gift of God; every being might otherwise not have been, and thus one’s very existence is not one’s own. Christ is the example par excellence of authentic living, and by His death demonstrates that mortality is beyond our control. By Christ’s example, it becomes evident that people have failed to recognize their creatureliness, and thus have structured their "worlds" inauthentically. By not acknowledging their dependence on God as that in which their very existence rests, all human beings have sinned and stand guilty before God.

The Cross of Christ, however, is not simply a revelation of God’s judgment upon the world; it is also a revelation of God’s grace. Inasmuch as Christ’s example and death on the Cross bring to human attention that character of an authentic orientation to existence itself, it also prescribes the appropriate means by which humans can reorient their lives to achieve just such an authentic orientation. That is, in pointing out the problem, God has also made available the solution. Thus, Bultmann writes, "Only the man who knows himself to be a sinner can know what grace is. He knows himself as a sinner only in so far as he stands before God; therefore he can only know of sin when he also knows of grace. The sight of God’s judgment and God’s grace together belongs to the nature of faith" (Bultmann 1987, 51).

Adherence to the gospel message is thus an act of faith, according to Bultmann. When one recognizes the true nature of one’s existential situation in God, one adopts a new existential understanding of selfhood. "It is an act of obedience, in which man surrenders all his "boasting", all desire to live on his own resources, all adherence to tangible realities, and assents to the fact of a crucified Lord" (Bultmann 1991, 197). Echoing Paul, Bultmann claims the "scandalous fact of a crucified Lord" is the center of Christian proclamation (Bultmann 1991, 197).

The kerygma is not itself a guaranteed success. Rather, it is somewhat limited in three respects. First, the redemptive significance of the Cross is not apparent to everyone; while it is often spoken, it is only rarely heard. This is because only the person who listens in faith will recognize the existential anxiety and resolution that the Cross embodies. Bultmann writes that faith "… is obedient hearing of the Word—that is, of the Word which tells me that I am a sinner and that God in Christ forgives my sins—and such faith is a free act of decision. For only in the free act of decision is the being of man as a historical being achieved. … Then follows the theological task of guarding this act of faith against the misunderstanding of its as a work" (Bultmann 1987, 132). Listening in faith is listening in a way that is receptive to a truly authentic response to the most fundamental of human concerns: one’s own existence. It is thus of utmost importance that the kerygma be preached often, with boldness, and with utmost clarity.

Second, the kerygma does not entail a permanent change. Bultmann is in this respect quite down-to-earth in his appraisal of human faith. Just as it was nearly impossible to gain an authentic existential orientation to life, it is equally easy to lose that orientation as life brings on new situations and challenges. That is, the realities that had previously appeared sufficient to the exclusion of God continue even after the encounter with the Cross to tempt the believer to rely on them instead of God. Thus, Bultmann writes that faith "can be, indeed it must be, doubted time and again" (Bultmann 1987, 50). Thus, the kerygma is not merely a singular event in the life of the believer, but a lifelong process of faith; "it has reality only as the obedience of faith that is always new" (Bultmann 1991, 231).

Finally, the kerygma as the church receives it is itself buried in the mythological structure of its roots. Yet, despite its close connection to the Word in the New Testament, the kerygma cannot be confined to any sacred formula from the past. As mentioned above, the kerygma becomes God’s liberating word only when it is heard, only when it confronts people in their concrete situation and demands a decision. Thus, the kerygma can never be fixed because it is ever extending itself to new people, and hence its language will always reflect the changing contexts of the people who hear it. This problem was of particular concern to Bultmann, and thus will receive detailed attention below.

The Necessity of Demythologization

Bultmann first proposed the concept of demythologizing the New Testament in a 1941 lecture, published as the essay "New Testament and Mythology" (Johnson 1991, 39). The essay provoked a heated controversy in Germany, but the project of demythologization was not generally recognized in the rest of the world until the 1948 publication of Kerygma and Mythos (Johnson 1991, 39). This book quickly placed Bultmann into the American theological scene, and its subject of demythologization became the center of controversy in the theological material of many countries. The debate became so heated, in fact, that heresy trials were instituted in Germany and the United States against those who used Bultmann’s theology in their preaching (Johnson 1991, 39).

The uproar around demythologization was ironic because the program presented no ideas that were not already contained in Bultmann’s earlier works. Indeed, "demythologize" was new to his theology only as a word. But the project itself was important because it allowed him to synthesize several themes of his theology into one theological approach. The goal of demythologizing the New Testament was just as the word would suggest: the removal of mythology from the Christian kerygma. It is in the analysis of exactly what Bultmann considered mythology that we see his old themes showing up.

For Bultmann, the “real content” (sache) of the gospel proclamation about Jesus is closely bound to the pre-scientific cosmologies of the ancient Jewish and Greek world.  For instance, Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven because it was thought to sit, literally, above the earth.  Bultmann argues that the modern Christian cannot be expected to take this mythical world seriously, and so “there is nothing to do but to demythologize it” (Bultmann 1984, 9). Demythologizing was not a new idea in German theological scholarship.  Protestant liberals in nineteenth-century Germany had offered a similar critique, yet in Bultmann’s opinion they had failed.  In attempting to purge the New Testament of outdated thinking, they had eliminated the kerygma, a Greek word which Bultmann identifies with “the message of God’s decisive act in Christ” (Bultmann 1984, 12).  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 New Testament talks about an event through which God has brought about our salvation.  It does not proclaim Jesus primarily as a teacher…” (Bultmann 1984, 13).

Despite Bultmann’s acceptance of Barth’s critique of liberalism, he was certainly not a Barthian.  He could not follow Barth’s strict acceptance of the biblical text, myth and all.  Barth himself addressed their differences in the preface to the third edition of his Epistle to the Romans:

[Bultmann] asks me to think and write WITH Paul, to follow him into the vast unfamiliarity of his Jewish, Popular-Christian, Hellenistic conceptions; and then suddenly, when the whole becomes too hopelessly bizarre, I am to turn round and write ‘critically’ ABOUT him and against him—as though, when all is strange, this or that is to be regarded as especially outrageous (Barth 1933, 18).

But Bultmann was not simply asking Barth to challenge Paul; he took for granted that such challenging is unavoidable.  How can persons living in a modern scientific society accept a mythical world picture as true?  Furthermore, while Barth’s approach might be faithful to the letter of the text, for Bultmann it was not faithful to the kerygma, to which the text is supposed to bear witness.  Faith that accepts the worldview of the New Testament (or even the modern worldview of science) “has not grasped the hiddenness and transcendence of divine action and…seeks God’s act in the sphere of what is worldly” (Bultmann 1984, 122).  Thus, Bultmann did not see demythologization as something one might choose to do in order to preach to scientific Westerners, but rather as an opportunity to reflect on the nature of faith itself.

The Method of Demythologization

Having examined Bultmann’s case for the need to demythologize, let us see how he actually goes about doing it.

First, Bultmann judged mythological as the prevalent world-view of the first Christians. As discussed above, Bultmann realized that the earliest Christians framed the kerygma within the generally accepted mythological outlook of their time. He felt that this world-view could not be accepted in the modern world, where a scientific world-view was prevalent. It is important to understand that demythologizing is not simply “updating” the cosmology of the New Testament so that it might align with modern physics. From this perspective, any reference to supernatural acts has mistakenly objectified the transcendent into the immanent (Bultmann 1984, 99). The distinction between the two is best clarified by their respective view on miracles. The mythological world-view has no problem accepting the existence of supernatural violations of the natural order. But for the scientific mentality, the universe appears as a closed system of law abiding cause-effect relations, and therefore this concept of miracle is no longer credible in the modern era. If one is to understand the “true intention of the myth,” one will have to translate the biblical accounts into language that reveals how human existence is “grounded in and limited by a transcendent, unworldly power” but that does not violate our scientific worldview. In this sense, to demythologize the gospels means to strip away their outdated and unacceptable world-view so that the kerygma may be heard in the modern context.

Bultmann argued that demythologization does not mean the elimination of every mythological story from the New Testament. Rather, it is a method of interpretation that recognizes mythology and rejects any attempts to ascribe ultimate significance to it. As such, demythologizing is only the negative step of a more comprehensive method of interpretation that Bultmann had been propounding for many years before he introduced the word "demythologize", the existentialist interpretation of scripture. For example, returning to the example of the Jesus' eschatology described above, Bultmann demythologizes the eschatology of Jesus so that his existentialist analysis can uncover its real meaning and significance. For Bultmann, the ‘No’ of demythologization exists only for the positive work of the existentialist interpretation, the rendering "clear the call of the Word of God" (Bultmann 1991, 304).

Second, Bultmann viewed mythology as a particular way of thinking about God. Mythology uses objectifying concepts and images to understand that which transcends the world. Thus, mythology speaks of God in terms of space (heaven) and time (eschatology), when in fact these categories can only distort the reality of God. In this sense, mythological thinking is not confined to a certain time in history, but is prevalent in all eras, from the ancient Christians to liberal Protestantism. At the same time, Bultmann can talk about Paul’s demythologization despite his mythological world-view because Paul de-objectified a prior understanding of God. Understood this way, demythologization is a rejection of objectifying thinking about God and of any philosophy that would not recognize God as Wholly Other.

In order for Bultmann to accurately translate the mythical language of the Bible, he must rely heavily on a philosophy that deals “scientifically” with human existence rather than with natural science (Bultmann 1969, 324). Bultmann is not interested in how any particular scientific theory relates to the New Testament, but rather in what science tells him about the world, namely, that supernatural powers cannot interrupt the laws of cause and effect. Bultmann says, “What is involved here, is not only the criticism that proceeds from the world picture of natural science, but also—and even more so—the criticism that grows out of our self-understanding as modern persons” (Bultmann 1984, 5).  Because Bultmann thinks that we cannot say that God acts in the physical world without mistakenly “objectifying” God (that is, treating God like any other human object), the interpretive task is to question what the text is saying about human existence.  Theology, for Bultmann, is intimately tied to anthropology.  On this point he follows his teacher, Wilhelm Herrmann, for whom it was not possible to “say of God how he is in himself but only what he does to us” (Bultmann 1984, 99).

For Bultmann, the philosophy that best understands human existence is the existentialism of the German philosopher Martin 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 1984, 23).  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.  In Bultmann’s presentation of Heidegger’s philosophy, humans are “ever in the moment of decision between the past and future,” which we can accept responsibility for and live out “authentically” or “lose ourselves” to the variety of outside pressures that try to deny our freedom (Bultmann 1984, 23).  For Bultmann the Christian gospel is that God has liberated humanity from “our factual fallenness in the world” so that we can live authentically as human beings (Bultmann 1984, 26).

Consider a few examples of demythologization.  Bultmann rejects any supernatural account of Adam’s original sin, and instead locates sin in the human refusal to accept the gift of authentic existence (Bultmann 1984, 29).  Likewise, living life “according to the Spirit” does not refer to any supernatural influence, but describes “a genuine human life” that lives out “of what is invisible and nondisposable and, therefore, surrender[s] all self-contrived security” (Bultmann 1984, 17).  The judgment of God to which Scripture refers, “is not a cosmic event that is still to happen but is the fact that Jesus has come into the world and issued the call to faith” (Bultmann 1984, 19).  And the significance of Jesus is not to be found in his supposed placating of a wrathful God but in the fact that through him “our authentic life becomes a possibility in fact for us only when we are freed from ourselves” (Bultmann 1984, 30).  Bultmann recognizes that not all of the New Testament can be translated in this way (Bultmann himself focuses mostly on John and Paul), but he thinks this is a necessary sacrifice if the kerygmatic message is to be clarified.

To many, this theological method seems strange.  Does such radical historical criticism not cut one off from the object of the church’s proclamation, Jesus Christ?  Does Bultmann not think that history, and in particular the historical Jesus, is important to Christianity?  Bultmann’s answer is clearly, “No.” He argues that the historical Jesus is of limited value; we can only say that Jesus was a historical person who died on the cross.  Even this can be dangerous, for historical thinking can mislead one into presuming “that this historical presentation is the knowledge which reveals the object of faith” (Bultmann 1984, 122).  For Bultmann, the Jesus of history is mute. Any attempt to base Christianity on him must fail. 

Why then does Bultmann find the Christian kerygma so compelling?  How does one come to believe in the cross as the event of salvation?  Bultmann argues, “Here there seems to be only one answer: because it is proclaimed as such, because it is proclaimed together with the resurrection.  Christ the crucified and risen encounters us in the word of proclamation, and nowhere else.  And faith in this word is the true faith of Easter” (Bultmann 1984, 39).  God does not reveal himself in the documents of history which are limited by their historical context; instead the Word of God is to be identified with what meets us in the proclamation of Jesus Christ.  Thus, there is something inherently mysterious in the Word of God, for there is no way to “objectify” it by putting it human language, even if that language is found in Scripture.  Christian theologians can “abandon absolutely the search for the proof of the Word of proclamation, either external proof or proof within ourselves (in ‘experiences’)” (Bultmann 1969, 138).

Here the radical nature of Bultmann’s theological program becomes clear. Bultmann’s critics wanted him to answer “how I rescue myself from the situation created by my critical radicalism; how much I can still save from the fire… (Bultmann 1969, 132).”  He responds by saying that the Word of God is not something that human effort can save.  “I calmly let the fire burn, for I see that what is consumed is only the fanciful portraits of Life-of-Jesus theology, and that means nothing other than ‘Christ after the flesh’” (Bultmann 1969, 132).  Like a good Lutheran theologian, Bultmann argues that just as human effort cannot justify one’s self before God, human effort cannot secure the basis for our belief in God.

God as Wholly Other

It is significant that Bultmann succeeded Heitmüller’s position at Marburg. His move—along with such theologians as Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Friedrich Gogarten—to dialectical theology meant that the liberal history-of-religions approach was precisely the method that Bultmann would not pursue. No longer would Bultmann suffice to treat Christianity as simply one religion amongst many similarly developing religions as he had been trained to do. Rather, he would henceforth approach the Christian faith in a way authentic to the faith claimed by that faith.

Bultmann described this move as follows. Liberal theology, he claims, has substituted humankind for God. The underlying premise of liberal theology is that God can be found in the world by some means of human introspection. While that movement certainly encompasses a broad diversity of approaches, each of the approaches has focused on something that humankind can do in order to come about the knowledge of God. That knowledge is the denouement of human progress, by which both human freedom and God’s plan for the world is actualized. In short, the coming-to-terms with God is a purely human affair, a justification by (humankind’s own) works.

Bultmann’s objection—as well as Barth, Brunner, Gogarten and the ensuing dialectical movement—is that the God accessed by liberal theology is not God at all, but simply a deified humanity. That this is the case can be seen in the conflicting and merely relative results of the liberal project. For example, the search for an historical Jesus by which to provide a foundation for faith has produced only diverse and often conflicting results. One scholar establishes one truth, while another establishes a contradictory truth, each established on a comparable basis of truth (or rather, untruth, as Bultmann would perhaps say). This repeated failure is what lead Bultmann and the dialectical theologians to conclude that God is not an object that can be known. If God eludes the grasp of liberal theologians, it is only because God is not "there" for humankind to grasp in the first place. Briefly stated, God is not a given entity to be objectified by human propositions. Rather, God is "Wholly Other."

This term—"Wholly Other"—is one that Bultmann borrowed from Rudolph Otto; however, it is also a term that Bultmann quickly made his own. While this notion had various meanings in his earlier writings, by 1925 it had become one of the fundamental tenets of his theology. This notion is for Bultmann not a metaphysical category (as it was for Otto) but a relational category. That is, God is Wholly Other because humankind, in its sin, is unable to relate to God. Bultmann writes,

The statement that the God who determines my existence is nevertheless the "Wholly Other" can only have the meaning that as the "Wholly Other" he confronts me who am a sinner. Furthermore, in so far as I am world, he confronts me as the "Wholly Other." To speak of God as the "Wholly Other" has meaning, then, only if I have understood that the actual situation of man is the situation of the sinner who wants to speak of God and cannot; who wants to speak of his own existence and cannot do that either. He must speak of it as an existence determined by God; but he can only speak of it as sinful, as an existence such that he cannot see God in it, an existence in which God confronts him as the "Wholly Other" (Bultmann 1991, 84, italics original).

As will be seen below, the utter lack of a proper orientation to God prior to repentance and the sporadic and incomplete orientation after repentance render God of a character that is inaccessible to humanity.

This is not to say that the Bultmann—or the dialectical theologians, for that matter—has rendered God completely inaccessible in every way. God must be accessible to humankind in order to be of any relevance to human life; indeed, were God not so, the term "dialectical theologian" would itself be oxymoronic. Rather, Bultmann insisted that God reveals Godself on God’s own terms, not on human ones. That is, the encounter with God is a justification by faith, without regard for any accomplishments (works) of humankind. This revelation is a stumbling block to human comprehension, and it is one that Bultmann claims the liberal theologians are wrongfully trying to remove.

Existentialism and the Existentialist Interpretation of Scripture

Describing God as "Wholly Other" allowed Bultmann to establish what he considered an appropriate distance between God and human comprehension, but it seemed to obviate any connection at all between God and humanity. Bultmann realized that God’s "distance" from humanity can be relevant only as a characteristic of a larger relationship between humans and the divine. Stated logically, if A is in every way disconnected from B, then A is irrelevant to B. In the interest of providing a coherent description of the Christian faith, Bultmann sought a theological apparatus by which he could maintain God’s radical difference without sacrificing God’s relationality. He would find this apparatus within the existentialist philosophy of his Marburg colleague, Martin Heidegger.

Bultmann believed that Heidegger provided a penetrating account of the human situation, particularly with respect to the categories of consciousness, finitude, anxiety, and decision. Although Bultmann’s use of these categories is too complex for a full discussion, one can get at least a sense of his system (and his indebtedness to Heidegger) by looking at his analysis of choice or decision. Bultmann felt that people face certain decisions in their lives that are of existential signficance. These decisions are not just one aspect of what a person does; rather, they constitute the very heart of what it means to be an existent individual. That is, a person exists in and through the choices that he or she makes in any particular moment. Bultmann argues that what is involved in these decisions is the person’s self-understanding in light of the possibilities of the person’s life. This self-understanding is not a conception that arises through philosophical reflection on one’s own existence, but instead is a part of the act of existing itself – it is pre-philosophical, ontic reality (Schilling 1966, 83). In light of the importance Bultmann places of decision, it is no surprise that he approaches theology by speaking of faith in terms of decision and in terms of its transformative effects on the person’s self-understanding.

Bultmann would call the individual’s act of deciding an "existential event", as opposed to the philosophical description of this event, which he would call an "existentialist conceptuality." In general, Bultmann uses the word "existential" to refer to an individual human being experiencing his or her own existence and making choices that determine his or her future. As such, the word refers to a concrete event within the life of the existent person. Bultmann uses "existentialist", by contrast, to refer to a coherent body of philosophical concepts and a specific method of interpreting existence (Johnson 1991, 22). Existentialist thought makes use of concepts to illuminate human existence, but these concepts do not refer directly to individuals. Therefore, while an individual’s experience is the existential event, it only constitutes the data for reflection by existentialist thought. (A good example of this is the actual person’s experience of being in love, an existential event, versus a highly developed theory of love, an existentialist conception).

Later in his career, Bultmann used this distinction to sharply distinguish between faith and theology. For Bultmann, faith is the existent person’s decision in the concrete moment to accept a new self-understanding and, as such, is an existential event. Theology, on the other hand, attempts to be coherent reflection on the meaning of faith. It, therefore, requires an appropriate theoretical model (for Bultmann, his own existentialist model). So while the layperson has no need of existentialist concepts to be confronted by God’s word and the choice of faith, the theologian must use these in order to engage in the disciplined and scientific study of faith that Bultmann calls theology.

Perhaps Bultmann’s most important use of his existentialist methodology is in his interpretation of scripture. Indeed, Bultmann was at least as important a New Testament scholar as a theologian (Amongst other accomplishments, he invented Form Criticism, a method that notices that certain classes of pericopes in the synoptic gospels such as healing stories and exorcism stories often have a formulaic structure. These structures would indicate liturgical use in the church and thus imply a composition date much later than the death of Jesus). To understand what Bultmann meant by an existentialist interpretation of scripture, it is helpful first to see why he thought it was necessary. After all, why not just use the objectifying modes of thinking so successful in the natural sciences? Bultmann’s answer is that the approach of the natural sciences is inappropriate to hermeneutics because a person’s relation to history, and thus to texts of our history like scripture, is wholly different from her relationship to nature. For Bultmann, humans are right to differentiate themselves from nature and perceive it as truly other. But the case with history is different – humans cannot separate themselves from their historical existence. Unlike the natural scientist, the person engaged in historical studies is considering a living complex of events in which she is essentially involved. Therefore, the history complex cannot be observed "objectively" in the sense used in the natural sciences, for every word spoken about history is at the same time said about the person speaking (Bultmann 1991, 92).

Bultmann felt that many exegetes of his day had not recognized this insight. Thus, they chose a hermeneutic that attempted to be neutral, when in fact such neutrality is impossible. Bultmann argued that instead of assuming a posture of distance and control, the exegete ought to approach a text with the consciousness of the problematic character of his own existence. According to Bultmann, when we ask the question of the meaning of a text, then we are asking questions about the possibilities for our existence that arise from the encounter with the text, questions that may only be asked when we recognize that our existence is open and therefore uncertain (Bultmann 1991, 133). Since the exegete’s interpretation is at the same time an elucidation of his own existential possibilities, he ought to confront the text "just as we confront other men to whom we stand in living relationship and with whom we first achieve any existence at all, that is, in the relation of I and Thou" (Bultmann 1991, 134). Thus, just like we relate to people, we must relate to a text in a way that acknowledges its claim upon us, its claim to inform our existence and say something new.

Bultmann’s argument applies to any text that makes claims about history and human existence, not just scripture. For Bultmann, the distinctive character of New Testament exegesis is that the exegete is confronted by the New Testament contention that humanity does not have its own existence at its disposal in such a way that it can pose the question of existence for itself – this is found only in the experience of faith (Bultmann 1991, 135). The decisive question for understanding the scriptures, then, is whether or not the demand of faith is acknowledged. Bultmann felt that the exegete accomplishes this "believing questioning" only if she stands in her existence under the tradition of the church founded upon the word (Bultmann 1991, 135).

An example of Bultmann’s existentialist interpretation of scripture is his reading of the eschatology of Jesus. Like other theologians, Bultmann realized the problem of having an eschatological Jesus who wrongly proclaimed the end of the world and the impending Reign of God. But Bultmann repudiated the effort to explain these teachings of Jesus by pronouncing them a later product of the Church. Instead, he saw the eschatological teachings as constituting a unity with the ethical teachings that, according to Bultmann, may be stated as the following: "Fulfillment of God’s will is the condition for participation in the salvation of his Reign" (Bultmann 1991, 118). Interpreted through existential categories, Bultmann sees Jesus affirming that it is the person’s relation towards God that decides his fate and that the hour of decision for or against God is of limited duration. Thus, Jesus’ eschatology represents, in existential terms, the demand for a decision here and now that is of ultimate significance. Of course, Jesus himself understands his message in terms of an eschatological world-view, which mythologizes the individual’s hour of decision to a decisive event for the entire world. But the existentialist interpretation allows us to see that it is not the belief in the end of the world that is the religious significance of Jesus’ eschatology. Rather, it is the idea of God that operates in it and the idea of human existence it contains (Bultmann 1991, 120).

Later in his career, Bultmann would repudiate the personalistic, existential elements of his hermeneutical theory in favor of a more scientific, existentialist methodology. This is particularly evident in his 1950 essay "The Problem of Hermeneutics," where he first draws the sharp distinction between faith and theology described above (Johnson 1991, 24). This essay is also significant because it is representative of the distance that had grown between Barth and Bultmann since Bultmann’s favorable review of Barth’s Epistle to the Romans in 1922. In the 1950 essay, Bultmann argues that interpretation only comes about when the author and interpreter have the same "life relation" to the subject matter under discussion (Bultmann 1991, 142). This is only possible if the exegete brings a particular pre-understanding to the text, an understanding that allows the basic intentions of the questions asked by the exegete to correspond to the intentions of the answers given in the text. So for a scientific understanding of theology, "everything turns on the appropriate interpretation of the question" posed to the scriptures (Bultmann 1991, 155). For Bultmann, this meant that philosophical reflection on the questions we want to ask is required even before we look to scripture for answers. Bultmann’s conviction of philosophy’s importance in theology stood fundamentally at odds with Barth’s own opinion (who rejected any philosophical intrusion into theology), and thus it is no surprise that the 1950 essay portrays Barth only as a theological opponent who must be combated.


What should one make of Bultmann’s theological proposal?  Positively, it must be said that he deals directly with the problem of faith in the modern era.  He was able to combine a thoroughly naturalistic account of the world with the accounts of the Christian Gospel that witness to the “Living God” who actively calls men and women through Jesus to a redeemed life.  But the enduring problem for modern theology generally is that these accounts do not fit neatly together, which makes Bultmann an easy target for criticism.

Biblicists find his radical criticism of the New Testament excessive.  While it might be admitted that history itself cannot prove faith, this does not mean history is irrelevant.  If the early Christians, as Bultmann repeatedly claimed, drew heavily on the Gnostic redeemer myths (a view which many New Testament scholars today discount), why should we think Jesus’ life was different from that of any other human being?  What if the post-Easter church has so radically altered the message of the Christ of faith, that it bears no resemblance to the Christ of history?   Would this not cast doubt upon the entire New Testament message, a message that is explicitly rooted in historical events?  Thus, it seems that Bultmann’s method lets Christianity off the historical hook.  Doubts about the New Testament’s history cannot but lead to doubts about the New Testament’s message.  Moreover, what would prevent people of other religions from making the claim that God authenticates their historically dubious claims?

A similar criticism has been offered by Protestant liberals.  Why demythologize all of the New Testament, only to stop arbitrarily at the claim that Jesus is in someway uniquely used by God?  Is this not also a supernatural claim that can be translated, without remainder, into anthropological terms?  Trying to escape this question by appealing mysteriously to the Word of God in proclamation seems simply to be a fideistic move, in that it asserts what cannot possibly be disproven.

Questions also arise regarding Bultmann’s account of science.  While it is apparent that a scientistic viewpoint denies the possibility of supernatural intervention, it is not clear that any particular scientific theory does so.  Indeed, this is a highly debated topic in the contemporary science-and-religion literature.  Much of this literature argues that a non-interventionist account of divine action is possible, if one is so theologically inclined.  Thus, many theologians would question whether Bultmann has conceded too much to a mechanistic, scientific worldview.

But even if one opts with Bultmann for a purely naturalistic account of the world, he was clearly overly optimistic to think that there could be a “scientific understanding of human existence” (Bultmann 1969, 324).  The complexities of human life raise insuperable problems for any explanations of human “existence” or even personality, which is why academic psychology has increasingly moved to more biologically-based paradigms such as cognitive science. As a result, it seems doubtful that there could ever be an adequate translation of Christian scripture into anthropological terms.  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.  The failure of Bultmann’s theological program partly explains the emphasis on narrative among recent theologians, for they assert that New Testament accounts cannot be reduced to more basic philosophical, theological or anthropological propositions. 

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Works Cited

Primary Texts

Bultmann, Rudolf. 1987 [1969] (trans from Glauben und Verstehen I 1966 [1933]. 6th ed. J.C.B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], Tübingen). Faith and Understanding. ed. with an intro, Robert W. Funk. trans. Louise Pettibone Smith. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Bultmann, Rudolf. 1958 [1934] Jesus and the Word. Trans. Louise Pettibone Smith & Erminie Lantero. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons.

Bultmann, Rudolf. 1991 [1987]. Rudolf Bultmann: Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era. Ed. Roger Johnson. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. This is a collection of essays from throughout Bultmann’s career, ranging from 1917 to 1958.

Additional Bibliography Items:

Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, 1921 (The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 1963)

Das Evangelium des Johannes, 1941 (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1971)

Theologie des Neuen Testaments, 1948-1953 (Theology of the New Testament, 1951)

Kerygma und Mythos, 1948-1953 (Kerygma and Myth, 1953 partial, 1962)

History and Eschatology, 1957 (Gifford Lectures, Edinburgh)

Existence and Faith, 1960 (Collection, New York)

Secondary Sources

Ashcraft, Morris. 1972. Rudolf Bultmann. Waco, Texas: Word Publishers.

Johnson, Roger A. 1991. Introduction to Rudolf Bultmann: Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Kegley, Charles W. 1966. The Theology of Rudolf Bultmann. New York: Harper and Row.

Roberts, Robert C. 1976. Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology: A Critical Interpretation. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Schilling, S. Paul. 1966. Contemporary Continental Theologians. New York: Abingdon Press, pp. 81-101.

Schmithals, Walter. 1967. (trans from Die Theologie Rudolf Bultmanns, Eine Einfürung, 2nd ed., 1967, J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], Tübingen) An Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann, trans. John Bowden. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.

7. Internet Resources


8. Related Topics


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