Friday, August 26, 2016

David Congdon, Revelation, Salvation and Making Connections

¶ 2

Second, I would like to offer a way of clarifying the relation between the revelation of God on the one hand to other phenomenological descriptions of humanity, culture, and nature on the other. Bultmann opens this door with his use of the existential nature of human existence. The point here is to clarify revelation as our primary source for knowledge of God, but our knowledge of humanity and world might serve as an important point of contact for theology, preaching, and witness in the world.

The debate between Bultmann and Barth, as Dr. Congdon describes it, has made one thing increasingly clear. If we are to know anything about God, it will be because God reveals who God is. The initiative is from God. Revelation is therefore an expression of the grace and love of God for humanity. We hear revelation as a strange or foreign presence. In part, such strangeness arises out of differing cultural and intellectual settings. Yet, its strangeness also arises out of its eschatological and therefore divine nature. Its strangeness is a sign of human sin. Therefore, the revelation of God is manifestation of divine love and grace. God revealed who God is in Jesus Christ, especially in his cross and resurrection.

In considering the revelation of God, the cross is central to Bultmann. He says the cross is a permanent historical fact. As an historical act, crucifixion was a political act by the Roman Empire against rebels to their rule. However, Bultmann thinks his death as a political criminal was an accident of misunderstanding by Roman authorities. Historically speaking, his death was accidental and meaningless. To bring another theologian into the conversation, Moltmann disagrees with this assessment because that age united politics with religion. He thinks Pilate assessed the situation well, given the refusal of early Christianity to engage in emperor worship and willingness to experience martyrdom.[1] Moltmann says that historically, Bultmann is quite correct that we do not know whether Jesus found meaning in his death and if he did how he arrived at that meaning. He may have simply suffered a collapse. However, he wants it clear that Jesus died with the experience of God forsaking and abandoning him. Jesus clearly did not have the fine or beautiful death praised in Socrates or in the Stoic philosophy.[2]

The abiding and saving significance of the cross is that it reveals the judgment and deliverance of humanity. Preaching the cross is the event of redemption that challenges all who hear to appropriate this significance for themselves. We experience crucifixion with Christ through this turn to the cross in faith. Thus, Bultmann resists turning the cross into a myth. He also resists making it a meaningless historical event by stressing the role of faith. Authentic existence today depends upon this turn in faith to the cross. Yet, in criticism, it would appear that Bultmann deprives the cross of any significance of its own. It has significance only in the existential process of crucifixion with Christ, whereas this should be secondary. Bultmann wants to translate the cross into an eschatological history that originates in the historical event of the cross and continues in the life of the believer. If the crucifixion of Jesus is primary, then our crucifixion with Christ derives its significance from the death of Christ “for us.” The revelation of God in the cross, the one crucified for the godless, makes it possible for us to follow him. The danger in Bultmann is the cross becomes an example for the Christian to follow.[3]

Salvation of humanity is possible because of the eschatological nature of the revelation of God. One of the questions Bultmann as theologian raises is whether studies of the phenomena of the human can help the theologian explain the nature of this salvation and revelation. For Bultmann, this revelation reveals the future. Bultmann will provide an historical point of reference by focusing upon the eschatological preaching of Jesus as opening the door to understanding Jesus himself as the eschatological action of God. (In this approach, Pannenberg has learned much from Bultmann.) More importantly, Bultmann will rely upon the existential analysis of human existence to understand the nature of the turn to Christ by those who have faith. He can say that the revelation of God is a matter of human beings coming to themselves and understanding themselves truly. Arriving at our authentic self is salvation. Thus, revelation is the basis of authenticity. One cannot achieve authenticity through individual effort. Divinity discloses itself in authenticity. Revelation addresses us. Preaching is revelation. Faith discloses the object of faith. Faith belongs to revelation. Revelation has no content. Rather, it means individuals come to a new awareness of themselves. Revelation is the arrival of the eschaton.[4] In this way, his devotion to the existentialist analysis of human existence becomes a way to bring the revelation of God into contact with humanity as understood in a particular way. I should also stress, with the help of the study of Dr. Congdon, that Bultmann never lost the Christ-centered nature of this salvation and revelation. We will discuss this in another section.

I happen to think that this use of Heidegger by Bultmann the theologian is reasonable. In fact, his approach raises the question of other human reflections on the phenomena of the human relate to the theological attempt to understand and proclaim the revelatory act of God in Christ.

I suggest that Pannenberg can assist us in this question. He will also engage Heidegger, for example, but in a quite different way than does Bultmann. In fact, as I have kept reading Pannenberg over the decades, I have come to appreciate the nuance he brings to the table. Neither philosophy nor science can demonstrate anything like the existence or character of God. Orienting ourselves to this eschatological action of God will always be a matter of faith. However, he wants to probe human existence, most thoroughly in Anthropology from a Theological Perspective. He also wants to probe nature, mostly in his Systematic Theology and in several essays. He will do all of this from a phenomenological perspective because our capacity to even hear the "foreign" and "strange" word from God relies upon some kind of capacity (we might call this creation in the image of God or prevenient grace) that allows us to hear it as revelation. Human openness to the world becomes a "hint" of the divine orientation of humanity. He sees this in the religious orientation of humanity, which is for him constitutive of human existence. In this, Pannenberg and Bultmann intersect. Faith is openness to the future. Both see anthropology making an important contribution at this point. Bultmann will not broaden this conversation with philosophy into other areas. Pannenberg will do so. Thus, he wrestles with biology and physics because for him, the systematic theologian has the responsibility of showing that God could have created the world science describes. Again, this is not proof. He engages science because he wants to show that it does not make theological talk irrational. He is also willing to use science as an analogy for certain theological truths. Christ as the Word, for example, has an analogy in the information systems of biology and physics. The Spirit is life-giving and pervasive in the way that field theory describes energy. For him, he is following the same theological method as John in the use of the philosophical term Logos. I like the designation of this approach as a "reserved apologetic,” as a friend shared with me. I do not know if Pannenberg would agree with the term, but I like it because I think it accurately describes what Pannenberg is doing.

The theologian may well conclude that Heidegger is deficient in his analysis of human existence. What will be the different point of contact such a theologian will attempt to establish? The theologian may want to engage critically such an approach to human existence in a way we do not find in Bultmann. Such a critical engagement with a variety of the human sciences shows the ad hoc character of such connections for theology in a clearer way than the approach of Bultmann.

To conclude, I have high regard for Karl Barth. This regard does not blind me from seeing his deficiency here. Barth rightly saw the danger of a full-blown natural theology that would bring one far from the revelation of God. He wrongly believed Bultmann fell into this error. The devotion of Bultmann to his studies of the New Testament ought to suggest to us, if not to Barth, that Bultmann remained committed to understanding this revelation. Thus, I think Barth became so alert to the danger that any intentional and positive use of studies of the phenomena of the human in theology he tended to dismiss. I think he makes a category mistake here. The reality, I think, is that Barth himself uses philosophy, especially Kierkegaard, Sartre, Buber, and Heidegger, in a powerful and critically engaging way in Church Dogmatics III.2. He actually provides a good example of how a theologian can utilize the best efforts of studies of the phenomena of the human to provide a point of contact with culture today.


[1] (Moltmann, The Crucified God 1973, 1974), 136-45.
[2] (Moltmann, The Crucified God 1973, 1974), 145-53.
[3] (Moltmann, The Crucified God 1973, 1974), 61-2.
[4] (Moltmann, Theology of Hope 1965, 1967), 65-6.

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