Wednesday, August 24, 2016

David Congdon on Bultmann and Barth: Introduction


I have a strong interest in matters theological and philosophical. Among my recent explorations has been re-thinking biblical scholar and dialectical theologian Rudolph Bultmann. Outside of my time in Seminary in the 1970s, I have done little with his writings. I have valued his Theology of the New Testament at times. The persistent theological influence upon me has been Wolfhart Pannenberg. Pannenberg takes Bultmann seriously in his writings.

When Pannenberg wrote Anthropology in Theological Perspective (1985), he could say that the understanding of the human being played a foundational role for modern theology. In part, the reason was the victory of an existentialist interpretation of the Christian message that we received through Rudolf Bultmann which opposed what we might call a God-centered, Christ-centered, or revelation-centered presentation of the Christian message we find in Karl Barth.[1]

I started down this journey in reading David Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing as he engages the relationship between Bultmann and Karl Barth. My primary interest for over a decade now has been reading Church Dogmatics by Barth. Thus, this book, with Barth in its subtitle, aroused my curiosity. I have valued the way he approaches the theological difference that developed between Barth and Bultmann.

I have understood Bultmann through the lens of Barth. Congdon has helped me to read Bultmann differently. The book is largely the PHD dissertation for which he found a publisher. It is an example of what a good PHD dissertation should do! It challenges conventional assumptions about Bultmann. It also proposes that the person who changed was Barth. Barth has shifted from his eschatological orientation of the Romans commentary and the Prolegomena to Christological orientation that began in Volume II.2 on election and comes to full flower in Volume IV. Their relationship began as companions in the dialectical theology of Germany in the 1920s. Both theologians dealt with recent studies in the apocalyptic/eschatological studies in Jesus, Paul, and the early church. Bultmann stayed with his original eschatological orientation, but with a twist that we will explore. In my view, this twist in his view of eschatology may have led Barth to shift his focus away from eschatology and toward giving the gospel more Christ-centered content than Bultmann would allow. In any case, Congdon also has some interesting biography of the two men. They seem to part ways with the rise of Hitler and the signing of a loyalty oath to Hitler. Yet, Bultmann stood firm against the German National Church movement and Hitler. His discussion of demythologizing as an enterprise always engaged in by the church in missionary settings is an interesting one. He has inspired me to look again at the role existentialism, especially that of Heidegger, might play in the formation of a theological approach to humanity. He has inspired me to clarify in my thinking the place philosophy and science have in relation to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He has given me a new way to think about the strangeness of the kerygma/gospel to modern ears, even if I find I must part company with him in an important area. He has helped me look upon the nature of the act of faith in Jesus Christ with greater clarity. As a long-time reader of Wolfhart Pannenberg, he has challenged me to look again a Jewish apocalyptic and eschatology and their continuing relevance for theology and church today. I can heartily recommend the reading of this important work of theology.

I propose a few reflections based on some theological issues Congdon raises for me in the context of the debate between Bultmann and Barth. Since I learn by writing, I can only hope that the length is not prohibitive. I will engage in this discussion through some of the writings of Pannenberg and J├╝rgen Moltmann. Congdon does not engage Pannenberg. He tells us the reason is the tie of Pannenberg to past authors. I get that. Pannenberg does not engage contemporary movements, such as Pentecostalism, Feminism, and Liberation theology perspectives at the same level as he does the history of theology and philosophy. In any case, I will engage these theological issues as a United Methodist pastor who simply enjoys matters theological and philosophical. Yet, I must say that I keep thinking of ways in which these matters affect preaching, teaching, and Christian life in the church.

[1] (Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective 1985), 11.

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