Thursday, September 1, 2016

Dr. Congdon and the Act of Faith Theologically Understood

¶ 4

Fourth, Dr. Congdon discusses the nature of the act of faith in Bultmann that has encouraged me to explore this subjective act from a theological perspective. Although the act of faith is subjective, I want to explore it as a way for the believer to align his or her life with Christ. Such a faith involves a transformation of life, orienting it toward making our lives about Christ. I want to explore theologically what we are doing when we turn to what God has done in Christ and enter the process of transformation into the image of the Son and walking in the power of the Spirit. This discussion is at a different level than that of how the pastor or evangelist would actually address people. However, I would like to think that behind the preaching and teaching of the people of the church, its leaders are engaging in such theological discussions.

First, we will explore how Moltmann understands the illuminating and inspiring view of the subjective act of faith we find in Bultmann. In Bultmann, the proclamation of the gospel as kerygma is an eschatological call to decision and as a summons affecting existence. As a true summons, the Word reveals to individuals who they are; it addresses the existential self-understanding; it requires a decision to choose the self who will be. Thus, his understanding of the Word coincides with the human potential for understanding the self. The response of faith verifies the kerygma, for it brings people to their true self. The Word that corresponds to God proves itself by bringing people through faith into correspondence. What Bultmann proposes is an anthropological verification of the gospel. For Moltmann, even granting the eloquence and challenge Bultmann offers on the subjective side, he seems to need the balancing objective side that the history of Christ precedes proclamation and faith as their foundation, something that took place once and for all. The history of Christ took place without us and for us. Thus, the gospel is more than kerygmatic address. The gospel is also a liberating telling of the history of Christ at the same time. Combined, this allows us to hope for the rule of God. As we broaden and deepen our theological understanding of the act of faith, we see that this hope deepens the solidarity of the person of faith with the unredeemed nature of this world. The person of faith sees the alienation of self and world from their true nature. As we ponder the work of God in creation, reconciliation, and redemption, the person of faith sees clearly the disfigurement, enslavement, and pain of this world. Revelation allows us to wait for the glorification of the new creation.[1]

Second, I have found the theological response to Bultmann of Robert W. Jensen, Systematic Theology, Volume I, 167-71 insightful.  

            On the illuminating side, Gerhard Ebeling says the greatest single systematic contribution Bultmann had was his emphasis on the correlation between faith and the actual proclamation of the gospel. His work on the Gospel of John taught him that faith is what happens when someone speaks and someone hears the gospel in such a way that it can only be the speech of God. In Kerygma and Myth, he will say that eschatology is the origin of the New Testament kerygma. He will say that faith is the eschatological mode of existence. How can this be? Faith is surrender of all security and therefore is openness to the future. God is the Coming One, whose deity is that of constant futurity. Jensen thinks that at this point, had Bultmann a more robust theology of the Spirit, he would now speak of the Spirit. In any case, faith involves giving up the self that one attains thus far in life and receiving my new self from the Coming One, who undoes the things in which one has had security. In performing the act, though, I continue the project of securing myself. Thus, only the word of proclamation can free a person from the self. This word challenges me to live from the future of God rather than from the life I have secured myself. Christ creates the possibility for life, he would say (Theology of the New Testament I, 252), and it becomes assured actuality in those who believe. Such eschatological existence is the only possibility open in the moment of hearing. In the event of this word is the future of God. In this word, God happens to me. If I hear the gospel proclamation, it challenges me to stop understanding my life from the past. It addresses me as a word of forgiveness and therefore frees me from my past.

            When I read such statements, my temptation is to say, “Amen.” Generally, the preacher and teacher of the church will not speak or write this way. However, the whole notion of reminding people that their past is not a prison is so important. For so many, a past that includes the disruption of relationships due to their lack of love, their need to give or receive forgiveness, or their need to respect their bodies has become a prison. People need to see the possibility contained in the formation of a new self. The potential newness of self that arises out of a call from a future that is not yet is why Bultmann refers to it as an eschatological decision. The preacher and teacher in the church would most likely not use such language. Yet, I hope the thought is often there. .

            As I often find with Bultmann, I must say something like, “However…”

To begin, Bultmann raises an important question about eschatology. When he explores the eschatological decision, he is engaging in demythologizing the eschatology of Jesus and the New Testament. The theologian might agree with the need for demythologizing eschatology while applying it in a way that differs from Bultmann. I would like to explore three such theological responses to his notion of eschatology. We can read each as proposing a different way from that of Bultmann in practicing the mission of demythologizing.

For one example, as powerful as his reflections are and for all his demythologizing, one thing that Bultmann does not do is deal with the mythological background of the notion of “word of God.” The point here is that in the Bible, we often have an almost mythical or even magical notion of the divine word. Theologians have no right to locate the uniqueness of biblical revelation in representations where we cannot find it. In essence, he establishes a sharp opposition between a theology of the word of God from generally accessible human experience.[2] In a sense, if I dare say it, Bultmann needs to demythologize the proclamation/call/summons he says comes as eschatological address. The way he thinks of the summons coming to the individual through a word of proclamation can almost have a magical feel and even mythic feel. This word of proclamation or summons calls for obedience, yes, but it also invites me to examine its veracity. “Come now, let us reason together” is part of every summons. Such examination exhibits a reasonable degree of caution that any human being ought to take regarding every life-altering decision.

For a second example, Barth engages in his form of demythologizing as he explained the role of the future and eschatology in his own concepts of threefold time in Chapter X, III.2, 47.1 and the threefold Parousia (in the resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the return of Christ at the end) in Chapter XVI, IV.3, 69.4. Barth will offer a powerful exposition of the significance of birth, life, and death. He will do so with the typical Barthian Christ-centered exposition. Time is not absolute. He rejects the self-constitution of time as we find in Heidegger. Death is not absolute. Thus, human beings in their time, as much as they move toward death, also move toward God. God relativizes time and death. These interactions with Heidegger show a proper respect for what Heidegger accomplished combined with a theological dissent. As his letter to Moltmann shows, however, Barth thought that overemphasis on redemption and eschatology would lead to theological imbalance. Barth will refer to the work of redemption as the unveiling of the purpose of the free love God for humanity and the world and therefore the annihilation of all that would hinder this purpose. Redemption is the revelation and the manifestation of the new heaven and the new earth. He related the work of the creation, covenant, and redemption as the reality in which God exists, lives, acts, and makes God known. In these works, God is the Person who expounds divinity and is thus the subject of this work as the work of the free love of God. In fact, the freedom and love of God shown in the works of God are the twin realities that expound divinity. We know freedom and love through the works of God. Barth discusses the reasons why the doctrine of redemption cannot become the center of a system of Christian thinking. He did not know it at the time, but he is making his argument against the approach that Pannenberg and Moltmann would take. For him, redemption needs to co-ordinate with the rest of the system because of their common origin in the Word of God. He admits one could go down the path of constructing a system in which the action of God is one who is not yet present, and whose rule is only future, where the church is in distinct separation from the rule of God in the future. He admits the Reformers left little room for this clear biblical teaching. The danger is that such an approach would lack the balance Barth desires.[3]

As a third example, but briefly, Moltmann and Pannenberg demythologize eschatology by relativizing the imminent expectation of the rule of God. Thus, I must say that neither Moltmann nor Pannenberg could travel with Barth in this self-assessment that he has given eschatology its proper place in theology. In fact, in his Systematic Theology, Pannenberg will insist upon the importance of eschatology with each doctrine of the church. Both Pannenberg and Moltmann make eschatology and the future the organizing principle of their theological perspectives.  

Whether we are discussing Barth, Moltmann, or Pannenberg, we realize that eschatology in Bultmann is something quite different. We need to engage Bultmann critically at this point.

First, Bultmann places Jewish apocalyptic, eschatology, and the act of faith into an intimate relationship. Behind ancient apocalyptic is an understanding of human existence with which the act of faith as an eschatological act can identify. In this sense, Christology becomes a matter of exploring the nature of the contemporary act of faith as a saving act. To put it clearly, the focus on the present act of faith seems to de-value the primary act of revelation in favor of the secondary act of faith. In contrast to Bultmann, the theologian might accept the apostle Paul as establishing the proper pattern in his letters. He emphasized the primary saving act of God in Jesus Christ for us sinners, an act that proves to be a loving, forgiving, and gracious act. He would then follow this exploration with a secondary focus on our response of faith, hope, and love, a transformation of our lives in light of the primary act of God in Christ. He would write like this, in part, because the cross and resurrection involve the work of the Father and the Spirit in such a way that salvation, healing, liberation, wholeness have their basis in the way the Father, Son, and Spirit were at work in Christ. The power to lead a life of faith, love and hope derived from the prior act of God in Christ.

Second, returning to Jensen, the question the reader has of Bultmann is how the gospel is eschatological address, the present speech of God, with the content being Jesus Christ. We legitimately wonder why he still needs to focus on Jesus. He could just speak of any resurrection. He could just say that a Lord exists. The answer of Bultmann is that an eschatological proclamation must proclaim a historical event. We need to remember that the liberal quest for the historical Jesus did nothing for his inner life. He did find his inner life enriched by what he understood as the eschatological Christ present in the kerygma. The implicit Christology of the eschatological proclamation of Jesus becomes the explicit Christology of the kerygma. Thus, the true scandal of the gospel is that a contingent historical event is the eschatological event. As he identifies Christology with soteriology, the effect is to say that the being of Christ is in the ever-new advent of the word. The Christ event accomplishes nothing less than the reality of God. He will abandon metaphysics for that reason. He will join Barth in rejecting discussion of a world-view for this reason. It turns God into an object. In fact, liberal and orthodox unite in the formation of worldviews.[4] The historical event is contingent, and the proclamation is contingent. One can only receive when and if it comes. The Word enters our world accidentally, contingently, as an event. An accidental historical event steps forth with the claim to be the revelation of God. This means that both Barth and Bultmann are fideists in the sense that what confronts us in the proclamation is the saving action of God to which our response is faith, from which we gain knowledge of God. We do so without supporting reasoning.[5] (We see here the almost magical and mythical nature of the Word in Bultmann that actually needs demythologizing.) Bultmann is comfortable demythologizing Easter by interpreting it as the rise of faith in the risen Lord, which then led to the proclamation of the apostles. To this, Barth (CD III.2, 47.1, 443) will respond, “This will not do.” The historical manifestation of the risen Lord gave rise to faith in the risen Lord. He makes the point that Easter faith becomes the first chapter in the history of faith (p. 445). The apostles drew too heavily on their mythical world-view. Not surprisingly, Barth would also challenge the modern world-view that Bultmann so readily accepts (447). Bultmann wants to limit the resurrection to a nature-miracle in an attempt to discredit it. For Barth, the manifestation of God the Creator occurred in the resurrection. The mystery before which the apostolic community could only respond with adoration was in fact to include nature (p. 451).

            Yet, Bultmann has not adequately addressed the issue. Why is the eschatological proclamation news about this historical event, Jesus, instead of another? His answer is that Jesus is the eschatological event in that people have proclaimed Christ as such. Congdon says that what Jensen omits in this formulation is that the church offers this proclamation. To engage in responsible talk of God is to do so within the tradition of the church.[6] Nevertheless, Jensen observes that this answer has satisfied few outside of Bultmann himself. For Bultmann, one cannot derive the truth of proclamation from the course of the life of Jesus, as the older “from below” approaches of Schleiermacher and Ritschl attempted. The text of the gospel is already proclamation. Such truths, for Bultmann, are essential to the eschatological character of the proclamation. To make the context of this theological move clear, what Bultmann has done is follow Heidegger by reducing history to the possibilities of human existence and its self-understanding that find expression in this history. Such possibilities are the basis of the historicity of human existence. The problem here is that the historicity of human beings is not just a constant of their existential structure, but depends upon the experience of history.[7] The desire to cut off the person from their actual experience of history in the name of freedom and new life, while appealing in certain circumstances, may also cut the person off from the narrative resources of history that could bring liberation. The narrative of our lives is not simply as individuals. We are part of a community that involves a tradition, whether the tradition of a nation or that of a religious community. Such a narrative can become a prison, of course, but it also may contain the resources we need for guidance, healing, and liberation.

            For Bultmann, when we confront an eschatological possibility, we deprive the previous course of events of determinative force. The course the event took in time is irrelevant to its meaning as an eschatological event of the moment. This historical event opens the eschatological possibility that Jesus is Lord. Every other historical data, such as parents, sayings, parables, healings, simply suggest the historical figure. He finds justification for his position in the little interest Paul had in the biography of Jesus. All that Bultmann wants to know is “that” the event occurred. It has no specific content. Therefore, the claim of the Christian proclamation does not disclose any new content. As philosopher Gadamer put it, hearing the proclamation seems to release a private experience that is at the disposal of the individual to do with what the individual wants.[8]

            Jensen refers to this position as bizarre. His closest followers could not condone it. This powerful thinker seems to paint himself into an intellectual corner.

Jensen notes that scholars have often noted the sparseness of the eschatology of Bultmann. He renounces wishful thinking. The realization of human life is the criterion for determining the nature of the future of God coming into human existence. He will say that to believe and exist authentically is to be unconditionally open to the future. However, to what future are we open? The only answer Bultmann can offer is the future of being fully open to the future. If we are to move beyond or against Bultmann, Christology needs to move beyond the sparse, blank, and empty, content of eschatology that Bultmann gave it. Eschatology has lost its sense as a goal of history. For that reason, Barth, Moltmann, and Pannenberg offer a holistic account of the past that seems lacking in Bultmann.

A few paragraphs ago, I discussed the powerful exposition of the act of faith that we find in Bultmann. I want to conclude with a reflection by Barth of whether he and Bultmann are saying the same thing regarding the act of faith.[9] Barth grants that the negative element of letting go of personal securities is an important part of the act of faith. They are saying similar things here. However, he stresses that the living Lord Jesus Christ attested by the Bible and proclaimed by the church is the One accepted based on the act of faith. He will go on to say that Christ works with the Holy Spirit to make Christ the object and origin of faith. Through it all, the death and resurrection of Jesus remain the object and origin of faith. Barth has identified the problem many of us with Bultmann.

Among the many things I like about Barth is that, in the midst of his immense intellectual production, we find simplicity. As he embarks upon his theological journey, starting and re-starting through many theological and philosophical issues, the answer proves to be simple. For him, Jesus really is the answer to the human predicament. Jesus is the answer to a problem many human beings do not even know they have. Jesus is the answer to a question humanity has difficulty formulating. The subjective act of faith is not a private experience that allows me to do with it whatever I want. Rather, the act of faith opens the believer to a life-long learning process of what it means to align one’s life with that of Christ. Barth expounds the content of that act of faith in Volume IV of his Church Dogmatics. The Christ we find in the Gospel is king, priest, and prophet, providing the objective basis for our act of faith. Christ addresses the expression of human sin we find in our pride, sloth, and deception. The Holy Spirit gathers the community of believers through faith, builds up the community through love, and gives it true work to do through hope. In Barth, we find a clearer presentation of the subjective act of faith as a way for us as believers to get over ourselves and get on with the process of making our lives more about Christ. In such an act of faith, we will find our healing, liberation, and guidance.

[1] (Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Conribution to Messianic Ecclesiology 1975, 1977), 210-3.
[2] (Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective 1985), 386, 392.
[3] (K. Barth, Dogmatics in Outline 1947, 1949), “God in the Highest.”
[4] Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing, Kindle edition, 6901, 6966, 7099, 7104, 7182, 7217, 7239, 7427
[5] Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing, Kindle edition, 7882
[6] Congdon, Mission of Demythologizing, Kindle edition, 15522.
[7] (Pannenberg, Anthropology in Theological Perspective 1985), 488, 491.
[8] (Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology (2 Volumes) 1967, 1971), Volume I, 113-4.
[9] (Barth 2004, 1932-67), IV.1 [63.2], 761, 767.

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