Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Dr. Congdon and Bultmann: The Strangeness of the Gospel and Demythologizing

¶ 3

Third, Dr. Congdon has made me more aware of the alien or strange nature of the gospel. An important reason for this strangeness is the context that Jewish apocalyptic provides for understanding both Jesus and the apostolic witness contained in the gospel. Jewish apocalyptic will feel strange and alien to the person living in the technocratic, scientific, and democratic setting of today. Demythologizing as Bultmann practices it is way of addressing the nature of this strangeness. Although the theologian may disagree with the direction Bultmann takes the mission of demythologizing, it seems inescapable that the theologian, and therefore the preacher and teacher in the church, will engage in the mission of demythologizing in some form. In effect, I hope I can raise the question for the reader not so much of whether the reader demythologizes, but how and on what basis you demythologize.

In the form of a reminder, Bultmann gained much scholarly attention for his work on myth and demythology. If people know Bultmann today, they will associate him with the program of demythologizing. The focus of my attention in this reflection is the continuing relevance of Jewish apocalyptic. We find Jewish apocalyptic as part of the background of the preaching of Jesus and the formation of New Testament proclamation and teaching. We can see this background most importantly in the witness by the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, we are dealing with the demythologizing of the heart of the Christian proclamation. The question I am exploring is whether this project is legitimate and if so, the form it ought to take.

Given that we are reflecting upon Jewish apocalyptic, an interesting aspect of the matter before us is the continuing significance of Israel for Christian proclamation. In order to introduce this issue, Bultmann viewed Jewish history as the history of the shipwreck of the law. They felt the call of God but remained imprisoned in secular history. Its history becomes an example of the shipwreck of human existence under the law in general. Bultmann has rightly understood that the argument of Paul concerning the Law assumes the general experience of humanity under law. Yet, Paul focused his understanding of salvation by grace and through faith “apart from” Jewish Law. For Bultmann, then, Judaism becomes a negative foil to the gospel and a Christian notion of existence. Israel receives a demotion, becoming like all nations. Its history becomes a matter of indifference. The entire notion of its election and calling is part of its myth that deserves demythologizing. For Bultmann, Christian faith has no interest in world history. The sole interest of Christian proclamation for Bultmann is in the justification of the sinner. The student of the New Testament and particularly of Paul in Romans should recognize a problem with the position of Bultmann. Regardless of his fidelity to his Lutheran emphasis upon justification, he fails to acknowledge the continuing significance of Israel in Paul, especially in his exposition in Romans 9-11. We can agree that the gospel is the “end of the law,” but at the same time fulfillment of the promise received from Israel.[1] For many of us, such a theological connection with Israel and Judaism is an important protection as the church deals with its history of anti-Semitism. If Christianity faces honestly the way Judaism forms Christian proclamation, it may develop a love and appreciation for the Jewish people and Israel. Jews and Christians are in some way united in being the people of God in the world, witnessing to the action of the God of Israel for the reconciliation and redemption (salvation) of the world.

Another introductory matter is an understanding of myth. Stated simply, myth is any sequential narrative about a deity. Thus, demythologizing is identifying the impact of such a narrative in such a fashion as to overcome the narrative. In Bultmann, this means that the Old Testament becomes an antithetic background for the New Testament. In his Theology of the New Testament Bultmann famously wrote that the preaching of Jesus is the presupposition of New Testament theology, but not a part of it. As the history of Israel is a matter of indifference to Christian proclamation, so is the history of Jesus of Nazareth. This view justifies the infamous placement by Bultmann of the preaching of Jesus in the tradition of Jewish faith rather than part of Christian proclamation. The narration of Jesus in his Jewish context is a presupposition because it shows how Jesus was an historical figure. The Jesus of history becomes the background of the eschatological event. Yet, proclamation will have to overcome its mythic narration in order to become the eschatological moment relevant for every time and place.

I want to sharpen the issue further. Such reflections lead to important conclusions about Jesus and the early preaching of the church. Bultmann will identify Jewish apocalyptic as the primary context of the original kerygma/gospel/proclamation of the early church. The preaching of Jesus was eschatological in its focus on imminent the rule of God. He speaks and acts with respect to the coming rule of God. He looks forward to the eschaton. The fact that Jesus is the one who preaches this way is its historical uniqueness. His preaching reduces to contemporary Judaism. Its content is prophetic or radicalized Torah. The novelty is that he announces the coming rule of God on the way to the cross. His “hour” is the last hour. His preaching is decisive, but the content of his preaching is not. Jesus identified himself in his preaching. His preaching is promise. The person of Jesus merges into his words. His Word is event. The scandal is that his physical death ends the eschatological message of Jesus concerning the imminent rule of God. To put it bluntly, the content of his teaching must die with him. What the historian will need to explain, however, is that the proclaimer becomes the proclaimed. Bultmann will heighten our sense of this gap. He explains the preaching of Paul by saying that for Paul, the eschaton that for Jesus was future has become past in the resurrection. His eschatological preaching focused on the righteousness of God already revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. The coming rule of God has already begun.[2]

Such reflections by Bultmann lead him to an important reconsideration of the Jewish apocalyptic notion of resurrection. The traditional notion of resurrection, for example, whether referring to God raising Jesus from the dead or to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of this age, are part of an apocalyptic picture of the world that has become strange and obsolete to us who live in a scientific, democratic, technological age. To continue expecting people to believe this kerygma makes the kerygma oppressive rather than liberating. Bultmann does not want to bind faith to antiquated/alien cosmologies. His program of demythologizing is a missionary attempt to make faith in Christ a liberating possibility in another time and place, where Jewish apocalyptic is strange and obsolete.[3]

The point of demythologizing in Bultmann, then, is to bring the strangeness of the gospel into the arena of the grace of God encountering the human being as a sinner, to which the sinner can respond only with faith and obedience. This leads him to emphasize the new self-understanding that comes with the encounter with grace. Bultmann will focus upon personal encounter, subjective experience, or the existential decision, to which the Easter kerygma leads. This explains why Easter, for him, is not a matter of narrating what God has done in Jesus Christ. Rather, the significance of Easter is the rise of faith in the hearts and lives of the disciples. This faith means the rise of a new self-understanding they had of themselves as sinners who encounter grace from God in Jesus Christ. Now, to be clear, few of us would question such an explanation of the subjective experience of the disciples. The transformation of the disciples is one of the great stories of the New Testament. The question is whether demythologizing the basis or reason for this shift in perspective is legitimate.

Thus, let us consider how another theologian might interpret the theological task of demythologizing differently. One obvious direction to go is to focus upon the historical reality of the witness of the New Testament concerning the resurrection of Jesus. Moltmann, for example, will remind us that the accounts of Easter in the gospels and Paul do not have the intent of simply providing a new self-understanding of faith. Rather, a natural reading of the accounts compels us to ask about the reality of the event of which they tell. For Bultmann, one can grasp the resurrection of Jesus only in revelation. The result is that he remains unconcerned with the historical reality of the resurrection and focuses instead upon how the narrative of Easter concerns our existence. Bultmann assumes that the meaning of text is its existential truth rather than factual truth. The issue Bultmann sees in Easter is the understanding of human existence that finds expression in the narratives. Easter is not about the event, but the Easter faith of the first disciples. Moltmann responds by saying that Bultmann seems to make the resurrection of Jesus hang in the air. The theologian will have to decide whether the texts, read in the context of the question of that in which we may hope, have significance for the future. As Moltmann sees it, meaning stretches towards that which it seeks to indicate. Applied to Easter, we know the historical character of Easter only in light of the future to which it points. We can then see their meaning for our future. Christ rose into the yet undetermined future realm ahead of us. The kerygma points us to this future, and thus, does not need demythologizing in the sense of setting aside the Christian hope of redemption of our history. Kerygma points to the future of Jesus Christ, not just the authenticity of our existence.[4]

The considerations offered by Moltmann remind us of the unique role eschatology played in the early dialectical theology movement, of which both Bultmann and Barth played important roles. Bultmann remains faithful to the early dialectical theology movement and its interpretation of time and eternity. It understood eschatology as the mutual negation of time and eternity. In its existentialist mutation, eternity is the timelessness of the moment of decision, located on a timeline but not extended on it. Eternity is the eschatological. The historical is the temporal. If the historical event is eschatological, it must reduce its historical reality to a sheer moment. Such a moment has no temporal extension and therefore no narration. However, as understandable as the concern is for bringing Christian proclamation to hearers today, Pannenberg points out that this attempt to take primitive Christian eschatology out of time or history has not proved in keeping with the New Testament view of eschatology and time or history.[5]

            The best example in Barth of early dialectical theology is when he said in his commentary on Romans that his dialectical theology consisted in the Kierkegaard principle of the infinite qualitative difference between time and eternity. The dialectic of time and eternity powered the critique of religion by Barth. He overcame the abstractness of the dialectic by transposing it into Christology. Time and eternity touch without overlap as the event of this one creature’s conflicted existence. The suffering of Christ undoes the pretensions of religion. As the death and resurrection of Christ enacts this difference, it constitutes the identification of God with us. In his context, and to be fair to Barth, Barth was able to expound in a fresh way the eschatological message of the lordship of God that concerned his contemporaries. He related this lordship to the human world. He also related this lordship to judgment. The readiness to accept this view occurred in the context of the disaster of WWI, in which European culture of the previous century collapsed. He also adopted the new sensitivity to the meaning of the frontier of death through Franz Overbeck and Heidegger. Barth recovered the relevance of the eschatological mood of primitive Christianity. However, Barth did little to develop the specific theological theme of eschatology. Toward the end of his life, in letters to Pannenberg and Moltmann, we receive an insight into the reason. He did not want eschatology to become the center of theological exposition. He saw a danger in such a theological move that he was not able to overcome in his mind. He also did little to develop the influence of this theme upon the final future of humanity and the world. Barth seems to join Bultmann in focusing his eschatology on the tension between time and eternity. He made the temporal future to which biblical eschatology point irrelevant. In Bultmann, such hopes for a temporal future become metaphors and myths for an existential interpretation of authentic living. Barth saw the danger of this approach as well. Thus, the eschatology of the commentary of Barth on Romans gave way to his Christological focus in Church Dogmatics II.1 and IV. What Barth accomplished was immense. He prepared the way for the next generation of scholars to reflect upon the nature of the future rule of God. Authors like Walter Krek, Jürgen Moltmann, and Gerhard Sauter, along with Pannenberg have picked up the task. Such authors criticize Barth and Bultmann for taking eschatology out of time through their dialectical theology. They want to restore the future sense of biblical eschatology to theological thinking. They do so with the concept that Christ is the promise of this future.[6]  

Let us consider eschatology from another perspective. As we have just discussed, the focus of Bultmann is on Christ as present in the kerygma/gospel/the preached word. Thus, in a sense, our faith today has its basis in something outside us. However, the “something” is the kerygma, which is a product of the faith of the early church. Faith remains ex-centric in that it remains an encounter with and an obedient response to God. God confronts us in Jesus Christ, thereby providing us with the possibility of a new self-understanding. Faith that focuses on itself is not faith, as love that focuses on itself is not love.[7]

Therefore, Christology in Bultmann has more to do with examining the Jesus present today in the preached word. Bultmann will want to separate the kerygma from history. He is willing to separate the historical reality of Jesus from the faith we have today in the eschatological event of Jesus as it confronts us in the preached word. Yet, in a concession to the role of history, Bultmann will admit that the call to decision contained in the preaching of Jesus carries with it an implied Christology. Such a statement became the basis for the new quest for the historical Jesus that we find in his students. His students remind us that the kerygma itself forces hearers to consider its reference to history. However, the interest of Bultmann in Jesus of Nazareth as he relates to the faith we have today in Christ is minimal. The point Bultmann makes here is that eschatology swallows up history. Given the context in which he wrote he is far superior in this matter to Albert Schweitzer and others of the consistent eschatology school of thought. For Schweitzer, the disappointment of the imminent expectation for the rule of God in Jesus and the early church found its replacement in cult, morality, and metaphysics. However, Bultmann divested the eschatological message of Jesus from any temporal reference. He did this to establish the validity of the formal attitude of openness for the future in general, thereby saving faith in Christ for a modern understanding of the world. We can see the missionary emphasis of the program of demythologizing at this point. In order to do this, he brings the apocalyptic movement in Judaism into sharp contrast with history. As eschatology swallows up history, he thinks he has come upon the real meaning of the eschatological element in the message of Jesus. He cuts it free from all reference to history, even if some elements of history remain in it. To put it another way, he refuses to confine faithful God-talk to metaphysical modes of thinking or a worldview foreign to the primitive setting of the kerygma.[8] History is eschatological in the sense that any event is historical in terms of its relation to the future, in which it shows itself what it is.[9]

From this perspective, we must note again that Bultmann is still cutting off the kerygma from a temporal future toward which the coming rule of God points and therefore cutting it off from the very hope that gave it its power in the apostolic age. The life and preaching of Jesus would not have arisen without this temporal hope for the transformation of humanity and this world. Cutting off eschatology from temporality and replacing it with the attitude of unworldly openness in the framework of a noneschatological understanding of the world would mean the message would not endure. Not only that, such an understanding becomes something other than the conduct to which Jesus calls his hearers. To grant an important point to Bultmann, the imminent expectation of the rule of God that determined the activity and life of Jesus is no longer a live option for us and is unnecessary. Could we suggest that the New Testament does its own form of demythologizing? In the New Testament, the imminent expectation had its fulfillment in the resurrection of Jesus. This fact liberates those who believe today from thinking of when the end will come. Therefore, the theologian might say that we can live and think in continuity with apostolic Christianity and thus with the activity of Jesus if we recognize its proleptic fulfillment in the resurrection of Jesus. We can retain the expectation and hope for its universal consequence. Historically, early Christianity seemed to move from one enthusiastic certainty of fulfillment followed by another. Thus, we do not see the New Testament relate it to a particular calendar date. The passage of time does not make its hope outdated. What has appeared in the resurrection of Jesus still lies in the future for those bound to him in faith. Christians can continue to pray for the coming of the rule of God. Yet, to dismiss this expectation is to make the message and fate of Jesus incomprehensible. True, Jesus could have delivered his message of the immanent coming of the rule of God only in his time and place. Yet, the message remains valid for all time by confronting humanity with questions of the ultimate destiny of humanity. The Bultmann restriction of the message to a new existentialist self-understanding seems to move against the kerygma itself. The particularity of the activity of Jesus, who delivered a message for his time, places us all before the ultimate decision in the presence of the God who is coming, just as God came in the earthly ministry of Jesus. For that reason, Christians can confidently proclaim the universal validity of the life and fate of Jesus.[10]

The issues raised here are critical for the theologian. They are every bit as critical for the preacher and teacher in the church. One can see why both Bultmann and Barth had concerns about an emphasis upon the redemption of our experienced time in an act of God that ends our experience of time. For many of us, schooled in philosophy and science, this hope or expectation is simply not plausible. If belief in Jesus and involvement in the church mean acceptance of an implausible hope, then we might be better off to dismiss this apostolic hope as unnecessary. Both theologians, in quite different ways, have demythologized eschatology. Bultmann did so with focusing primarily upon the human act of faith. To be clear, Bultmann loosens the tie with history in order to give contemporaries the opportunity to fill with new content what it means to live out of the act of faith. Barth demythologized with his massive reflection on Christology in Volume IV, by which he sought to give historical content to the act of faith in pointing us to the Christ of the gospels. Either approach would appear to be the easier path for the theologian in terms of addressing the issues modern people may have. In neither case do we find simply a form of pandering to the modern consciousness. Both are willing to push back at many points. Both remove a significant impediment to belief. Yet, the caution here is that both tend to focus upon the individual.

The two most important “post-Barthian” theologians, Moltmann and Pannenberg, chose to go the direction of making eschatology an organizing principle of their theology. Moltmann said that at European theological seminars, he and Pannenberg received the label, “the hope boys” in the 1960s. They went the direction Barth advised them not to go. Both wrestle with the implausibility of eschatology if we relate it to the redemption of our time. Science, philosophy, and history speak powerfully against this aspect of early Christian thinking. Moltmann pushes back in saying that a cosmic eschatology allows one to assert the eschatological existence of humanity. As such, the attempt to reconcile eschatology with a modern or Kantian notion of science and reality will fail.[11] He reminds us that the early church would have no reason or right to proclaim its message if it were not for ideas of cosmological apocalyptic.[12] Moltmann and Pannenberg placed hope or eschatology in the sense of redemption of our historical time at the center of their respective theological reflections. This leads to some important theological reflections that we do not find in Bultmann and receive little attention in Barth. The hope of redemption is communal. They focus upon the redemption of creation and humanity. I would summarize Pannenberg as saying that he is able to live with the victory of Jesus Christ accomplished in the resurrection. The defeat of evil powers and the redemption of humanity and creation began at that moment. The hope of the church for its redemption, and along with it the redemption of creation and humanity, places us between the already of the resurrection of Jesus and the not yet of the redemption of all things. This tension creates a narrative of the eschatological action of God in Christ. This action of God in Christ is an anticipation of the end. This action opens the possibility of a people of God from all nations and a new eschatological life for individuals. In the process, the resurrection of Jesus provides a reliable and trustworthy basis for this hope. It also provides a reliable basis, if not proof, for the act of faith in Christ and in the hope of redemption.

To conclude and affirming it again, the issues for the theologian, the church, and the preacher, are immense. No matter how you demythologize, you will not remove the strangeness of the gospel. Bultmann must deal with the strangeness of his notion of the Christ-centered nature of authentic living. Barth must deal with the strangeness of his Christ-centered answer to human imprisonment in sin. Moltmann and Pannenberg must deal with the strangeness of the resurrection of Jesus and its hope for a redeemed creation and humanity.  

Bultmann tends to focus upon the past as a prison from which one needs liberation. The attractiveness of this approach is that the history of the church is full of teaching and practice from which the church needed liberation. The church has made mistakes that became orthodoxy or orthopraxis. Yet, adopting this approach means that the object of the act of faith can become a matter of filling “Jesus Christ” with any content one chooses. The danger here is that some attractive ideology or worldview becomes our idol, with Christ put into service of that idol. The use Bultmann makes of Heidegger raises this question. The desire of many theologians today to make their theology politically relevant is open to the same danger. Most significantly, the subject of the present act of faith that Bultmann describes as “eschatological life” becomes any kind of life we say it is. Of course, such a life must be “authentic” and “loving,” while the content of such a life remains ambiguous.

In contrast, the theologian may suggest that the past is not something I secure by my decision. Rather, I have acknowledged the free act of God in Jesus Christ as a self-revelation of the God who loves us and is gracious toward us as sinners. I surrender other things in which I might trust in order to trust in this action of God. Yes, the past might be a prison. The church imprisons people if it surrenders to legalism or turning a moment of the past into an idol. Yet, the past can also be the vehicle of a new life of freedom as a child of God. This approach keeps the church today connected with the early church. The church today is still the church of Jesus Christ and therefore an apostolic church. This connection is far from a prison. In fact, having properly acknowledged the past action of God in Jesus Christ and in the apostolic witness to that action, we are now free for the future defined by the coming God and life in the Spirit, recognizing that all my actions and decisions are provisional in light of a future defined by Jesus Christ. Defining this connection to the past action of God as proclaimed in the kerygma gives content to the act of faith, as it centers upon a life of participation in Christ and the scriptural witness to that revelation. Such participation in the risen Christ will internalize the meaning of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as saying to the world that we our lives are primarily about Christ and the Body of Christ. In addition, and in the spirit of wanting to conserve what is liberating in the apostolic witness, here is how I would give further content to this loving and authentic, but also apostolic, life. Participation in the risen Christ will also lead to a life of the love of God and neighbor (Jesus), a life of faith, hope, and love (Paul), a life of nourishing virtue and setting aside vice (Paul), a life of spiritually gifted ministry (Paul) and a life that transforms everyday life (household rules of Paul and Peter).

[1] (Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Conribution to Messianic Ecclesiology 1975, 1977), 140-1.
[2] (Moltmann, The Crucified God 1973, 1974), 117-125; (Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Conribution to Messianic Ecclesiology 1975, 1977), 81.
[3] (Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, Kindle edition, 12611-12880).
[4] (Moltmann, Theology of Hope 1965, 1967), 173, 178, 185-7, 189-90, 212-3.
[5] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume I, 249.
[6] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume 3, 537-8.
[7] Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, Kindle edition, 10495.
[8] Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, Kindle edition, 12155.
[9] Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, Kindle edition, 14865.
[10] Pannenberg, Jesus God and Man, 241-4; (Moltmann, The Crucified God 1973, 1974), 101.
[11] (Moltmann, Theology of Hope 1965, 1967), 69.
[12] (Moltmann, Theology of Hope 1965, 1967), 218.

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