Archive: A Death to Contemplate

By Charles W. Keysor, Editor

Death often leads us to ponder … to reflect upon the earthly life and labors of one now departed. We remember what he or she has accomplished between the terminal points of birth and death. We consider how the world may be different because of this one particular life.

On July 30 this year, Rudolf Karl Bultmann died in Marburg, West Germany. He was 71 years old.

Probably Bultmann was the greatest theological giant of our times. Alongside him in the pantheon of the central 20th century theology, would be Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Reinhold Neibuhr. But Bultmann’s influence was surely the greatest. There is little doubt it will be the longest-lasting, for the disciples of Rudolf Bultmann permeated theological education in the Western World. They transmitted Bultmann’s thinking to several generations of highly influential church leaders-preachers, teachers in colleges and seminaries, writers, editors, bureaucrats, and bishops.

Rudolf Bultmann was deep and complex, to say the least. That he was a great mind, none can question. But what matters is not so much his massive intellect as the presuppositions he held concerning ultimate realities.

“It is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world,” Bultmann declared. “In fact, there is no one who does.”

Christianity Today, in an editorial commenting on his death, offered this cogent summary:

“His presuppositions began with a conscious rejection of theological orthodoxy. [He] did not allow for the presence of a personal, transcendent God who acts decisively and historically to redeem His people and who speaks in an intelligible manner to reveal Himself and His ways to men and women. He excluded the supernatural by definition from his system, as also any real intervention of the living God into the affairs of the world. Therefore [for Bultmann] the concept of miracle was ruled out, including the greatest miracle of all, the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. …”

“Wedding his theology to the existentialist philosophy of the early Martin Heidegger, Bultmann assumed the most radical tradition of Biblical criticism. He denied the historicity of all but a few basics of the life of Jesus (the “thatness”) and essentially dismissed the Old Testament and all Jewish elements in the Bible as irrelevant for Christian theology.”

This statement is accurate. It correctly describes Bultmann’s philosophical life-blood, and so it helps us to understand better his powerful influence on three generations of seminary professors and students.

“The tragedy of his influence and the painful burden it bequeathed to us stems from a good intention and a much-needed corrective gone amiss,” explains Rev. Dr. Paul Mickey, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology, Duke Divinity School, and Chairman of the Good News Task Force on Theology. “His was a concern for the sofa fides principle, salvation by faith alone. This was nobly lifted up by Martin Luther during the Protestant reformation.

“As a Lutheran himself, Bultmann was eager to reaffirm this principle in opposition to 19th century liberalism. He correctly perceived the need to reaffirm that salvation is sola fides, by faith alone. But he went too far. He jumped on a ‘faith bandwagon’ and rode off into existential psychologism, away from history.”

Here is where heresy enters Bultmann’s work, the Duke professor said. “For Bultmann, atonement [i.e., the death of Christ on the cross in payment for our sins] was reduced to ‘self-understanding’ and history was pushed aside. The same principles which whisked away the historicity of the Bible also made history irrelevant for the modern believer.”

What is our faith apart from its history? A cross that may have happened if you choose to believe this. A tomb that was really empty only to those who make it so by believing that “He lives!” A record of early church growth and witness which may be only propaganda that was concocted to sell Christianity as a miracle religion.

If the Bible record of events is not reliable, then those who trust it are really fools and simpletons—as Bultmannians sometimes suggest.

Time Magazine for October 19, 1976, reported a major archaeological find at ancient Ebia in Syria—large number of clay tablets dating between 2400 and 2250 B.C. Describing the first discovery, Time reflected the wide spread assumption that Bibiical events and places are really not historical: ” … it [the discovery] also provides the best evidence to date that some of the people described in the Old Testament actually existed ….

“The Biblical connections appear to be numerous. The tablets contain accounts of the creation and the flood which are strikingly similar to those found in both the Old Testament and Babylonian literature. They refer to a place called Urusalima, which scholars say is clearly Ebia ‘s name for Jerusalem. (If so, it is unquestionably the earliest known reference to the Holy City, predating others by hundreds of years.)

“We always thought of ancestors like Eber as symbolic,” says [ David Noel Freedman, a University of Michigan archaeologist who worked in the excavations], “at least until these tablets were found. Fundamentalists could have a field day with this one.”

Such is the common assumption: Biblical places, people, and events probably did not actually exist. Bultmann has done more than any other, in our time, to increase this distrust in the Bible’s historicity.

“If history is at best irrelevant theologically,” Dr. Mickey observed, “if not untrue, then the atonement, the idea of God as Creator and the notion that we have social responsibilities in obedience to God—all these are lost and gone forever! Bultmann’s heresy was not his affirmation of sofa fides, but his exclusivism which rejected history and good works.”

Everything was reduced to subjectivism, or to purely personal judgment and opinion, Dr. Mickey said. Under Bultmann’s thinking there was “no need or power for good works and a lively social witness. Without history there is no social order.

“Thus the epithet, ‘Faith without history and good works is dead heresy’ may be the final judgment of Christian history on Professor Bultmann.”

Rudolf Bultmann tore the very heart out of Biblical Christianity, and this same characteristic is widely evident in our church today. Shortly after Bultmann’s death, a tribute was given by Dr. F. Thomas Trotter, staff executive for the UM Board of Higher Education and Ministry (in charge of our colleges and seminaries). UM Communications circulated a story about this tribute. It reported that Dr. Trotter had said that the church, if it is to survive and compel the attention of modern persons, will need theologians like Bultmann. Why? To keep the church thinking about its mission and its gospel, Dr. Trotter declared. He also observed that Bultmann’s legacy to the church is his care for the authority of the Word of God, spoken in modern situations and in speech direct I enough that the personal meaning will not be missed.

“Such scholar-prophets [as Bultmann] will have their detractors and they will risk our displeasure,” Trotter confessed. “But what they have to say to us is this: if our language is archaic, our response to the Gospel is merely formal, and our preaching is vacuous, then the power of God’s possibilities for men and women will be absent from the world.”

“The world does not require so much to be informed as reminded,” Hannah Smith once said.

The church is reminded, upon the death of Rudolf Bultmann, that men die in a few swift years, but the truth of God survives. In Eternity, when a final accounting is made, belief will be judged more enduring than doubt. That is why Paul wrote to young Timothy: “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths ” (II Timothy 4:3, 4).


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