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Bultmann, Rudolf (1884–1976)


Rudolf Bultmann, the biblical historian and theologian, was born in Wiefelsted, Oldenburg, Germany. He studied at Marburg, Tübingen, and Berlin and taught first at Marburg and then at Breslau and Giessen. In 1921 he became professor of New Testament studies at Marburg, where he remained until his retirement in 1951.

Bultmann's work and the controversies it has generated are of undoubted importance for the philosophy of religion. His ventures in "demythologizing" the New Testament and in reinterpreting its content "existentially" have raised (and have tried to answer) crucial questions about the logical status of religious language and the nature of Christian belief.

Christian Faith

Bultmann's thought was inspired by his keen sense of the remoteness and unacceptability of the thought forms of New Testament Christianity to most people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We do not and cannot see our world as a theater of conflict between supernatural powers, the demonic seeking to possess and destroy us, and God intervening to secure our salvation. Moreover, miracle stories lie at the very heart of New Testament belief: "If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain" (1 Corinthians 15:17). Thus, the critical question is: Must a man, in order to be a Christian, commit himself simultaneously to two mutually incompatible world picturesthat of twenty-first-century science and that of first-century prescientific speculation? According to Bultmann, to attempt this is to make Christian belief unnecessarily difficult. It is equally unrewarding to view Christianity as a strictly and objectively "historical" religion and anxiously to sift all the evidence for and against the recorded events of the life of Jesus. The evidence is substantial enough to show that Jesus indeed lived and that he made a quite extraordinary impact upon certain contemporaries. But if religious faith is to stand or fall with the historicity of, say, the birth stories or the Easter narratives, if its degree of assurance must rationally be tempered with the historical probabilities, the assurance will be pitifully uncertain, and faith will almost certainly fall.

To these perplexities Bultmann offers a bold remedy. The Christian may properly grant that a very large part of the New Testament message is couched in mythical language and does not record objective history. This mythical material is not, however, an embarrassment, and it need not be discarded. It can be interpreted as indirect description not of the cosmos but of the conditions and possibilities of human existence. Historical studies derive their real seriousness not from sheer factuality but from what they discover about viable ways of life and viable options for human decision. Among such options, the Christian gives preeminence to that displayed in the accounts of the cross and the resurrection. For it is through these that God makes available a distinctively "authentic" and free mode of existence to all humanity.

Influence of Heidegger

"Authentic" is Martin Heidegger's term. It is only one of Bultmann's many borrowings from Sein und Zeit. There is a prima-facie oddness herea Christian theologian reinterpreting the New Testament teachings in terms of concepts drawn from atheist existentialism. Nevertheless, the concepts are undeniably relevant and, within limits, illuminating. There are clear and suggestive analogies between Heidegger's general picture of inauthenticity and the New Testament's accounts of life "in" and "after" the flesh, the life of the "natural man" who is alienated from God. In both views humans are uneasy, anxious, and guilty over their condition. If to Heidegger Angst reveals that man is "not at home" in the world, the New Testament affirms that here we have no continuing city but seek one to come. To both we are strangers and pilgrims.

On the "authentic" type of existence, there are both marked similarities and differences in the views of Heidegger and Bultmann. Heidegger's account centers upon a total acceptance of the fundamental conditions of our life. This involves, for any man, a realization of his own death, not as some vague, unpleasant, but indefinite future event, but as something whose constant presence, in possibility, should modify his sense of his own existence at every moment. Christianity, too, speaks of renouncing the world and a life entangled with the world, of "dying" to the life of self. It has, howeveror ought to havesome very different things to say about life eternal.

Heidegger's authentic man sees and accepts the limitations on his freedom imposed by the given circumstances of his life as so far lived ("facticity"); he sees the present moment as the locus of decision, and it is in the future that he will work out those authentic possibilities of existence for which he decides. The Judeo-Christian tradition also has a dualism of facticity and freedom: It claims both that man was created "out of the dust of the ground," stressing the given factuality of human existence, and that God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life," endowing him with freedom to pursue his diverse possibilities.

How can we discover our authentic possibilities? In answering this question both Heidegger and Bultmann point to the thoroughly temporal, historical nature of human life. History discloses human possibility. For Bultmann the Christian is he who, in R. G. Collingwood's term, "incorporates" the essentials of the New Testament story in his present thought and action.

Bultmann's account of the human situation is, therefore, an "existential" analysis, and to call it that is to contrast it both with the findings of empirical psychology and with a philosophical analysis of nonpersonal structures. Far from being based on empirical investigations, existential analysis tries to uncover the concepts that are, and have to be, employed in any such researchesthe fundamental concepts of personal existence.

But there are complexities to be noted here. Although to Bultmann the New Testament has much to say about the general human predicament, we must not analyze its discourse exhaustively as delineating permanent and universal human possibilities. The authentic life, crucially, is available to a man only by virtue of divine grace and through his appropriating the Word revealed in Christ.


There is, however, an uneasy duality in Bultmann's thought. Almost everything in the New Testament is to be understood as describing modes of personal existence, but not so the central claim of the kerygma itself, the claim that God decisively acted in Christ. This contains a reference to God that cannot be eliminated. Yet it must be noted that although Bultmann refuses to "dekerygmatize," others (Fritz Buri, for instance) have tried to do just that. They have been unable to stop at what looks to them like a halfway house and have taken the kerygma too as material for existential analysis.

Other theologians have offered various arguments to show that Bultmann's position is too extreme. They claim that he has underestimated the importance of objective history, that he has made too many concessions to twentieth-century skepticism, that his existentialist concepts cannot express the full meaning, the nuances, the complex mesh of associations of the biblical writings, that the myth must be kept intact.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the controversy over demythologizing has been intense and involved. This entry shall single out for brief discussion only a few of the most crucial issues, beginning with the question of Bultmann's existentialism.

crucial issues

(1) Without doubt, Heidegger's existential analysis has provided Bultmann with a valuable nonmythical vocabulary, able to express an important part of the New Testament message. However, there are certainly some points at which his analyses appear to clarify the Christian position but in fact tempt a theologian to distort it seriously. For example, if Christianity were no more than a philosophy of life, then matters of objective history would not be crucial to it. So long as we knew that someone had lived roughly the sort of life Jesus allegedly lived, we could at least take the "imitation of Christ" as an ideal for human living. "Possibility," in this rather weak sense, would be enough. But if we want to go beyond that (as Bultmann certainly does) and claim that God was actually imparting himself in a quite distinctive and decisive way in the events of Jesus' life, then it is a matter of immense seriousness to learn what these events were. We cannot have a historical religion, in that strong sense, without historical vulnerability. For all its subtlety (most likely because of its subtlety), the existential analysis of historicity deflects attention from this uncomfortable fact.

One should not conclude, however, that Bultmann has never stated a coherent and clear position on historicity and Christian belief. In History and Eschatology (1957) he expressed himself much more lucidly in alternative terms derived from Collingwood. But the link between his position in this book and traditional Christian theology has become very tenuous indeed. Whatever the impression we receive from other writings of Bultmann, in History and Eschatology the Gospel seems to be about human self-understanding from first to last; dependence on objective historicity has receded to the vanishing point.

(2) Several important and difficult New Testament concepts seem to yield very readily to existential analysis; yet these concepts remain philosophically problematic. The concept of "body" has clear existential meaningrelated to Heidegger's concept of what it is to "exist-in-a-world." Likewise, "eternal life," in the New Testament, characterizes a manner, or quality, of living. Yet even if much of the meaning of these expressions is translatable into existentialist language, there surely remains a vital part that is not. The existential analysis by itself cannot answer such a question as "Does our existence end with our bodily death?" Nor does it help solve the problems of meaning and logic (particularly problems of personal identity) that arise over concepts like life after death and the resurrection of the dead.

(3) Because the life and personality of Jesus play so muted a part in this theology, and because the summons to authentic existence tends to be rather individualistic in its emphasis, it is very difficult to build up an adequate account of Christian discipleship and Christian love on Bultmann's foundations. The quality of the Christian ethical life has always been determined by the believer's response not simply to the bare proclamation that a new life has been made available to him, but to the concrete particularities of the life and teaching of Jesus. One guesses that a theology like Bultmann's can succeed in expressing this quality only through implicit dependence on a more conservative view of the New Testament that is still secretly operative in the religious imagination.

(4) From the philosopher's point of view, perhaps the most urgent need is for Bultmannian theology to construct a much more precise logical map of its key concepts, myth, mythology, and analogy. "Mythology," Bultmann wrote, "is the use of imagery to express the other worldly in terms of this world and the divine in terms of human life, the other side in terms of this side." But Bultmann does not want to conclude that discourse about God is always, and necessarily, mythological. To speak mythologically is to represent God as a kind of superentity, observably acting upon and interacting with natural entities. However, Bultmann has claimed (in Kerygma and Myth ) that it is possible to speak of God's "acts" analogically, and to do so with the help of concepts borrowed once again from the field of human personal existence.

Bultmann is here in pursuit of what may well be a valuable distinction, but it has not been at all clearly articulated. The different modes of discourse about God are not rigorously defined, and thus a good deal of uncertainty is left about appropriate tests for sense and nonsense, truth and falsity, in claims about God. It is by no means obvious, for instance, whether one can really think through those existential, "analogical" utterances about God without implicitly relying upon a mythological picture of God as a superperson and superentity. Further, since both mythological discourse and analogical discourse are indirect or oblique, we need to ask whether any direct, literal talk about God is possible, or whether it is necessarily all oblique. If it must all be oblique, the problem of how we can refer to God and relate the myths and analogies to him surely becomes unmanageable. If it is not all oblique, then we still need to discover what, and how much, can be affirmed directly and literally about God. The temptation is to resort to theological makeshiftsto analyze virtually all talk about God in terms of human self-understanding, but to rely, devotionally and pastorally, upon an unanalyzed transcendent remainder, of which, however, no clear account is given in a systematic theology.

All these puzzling instabilities in Bultmann's thought are not careless or stupid blunders of reasoning. They are illuminating, disturbing indications of how immensely hard it is to steer between, on the one hand, a wholly secularized Christianity, a humanism, and, on the other, a religion of the supernatural and the miraculous.

See also Christianity; Collingwood, Robin George; Existentialism; Heidegger, Martin; Philosophy of Religion; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Religious Language.


other recommended works

Barth, Karl, Rudolf Karl Bultmann, and Bernd Jaspert. Karl Barth-Rudolf Bultmann, Briefwechsel, 19221966. Zürich: Theologischer Verlag, 1971.

Barth, Karl, Rudolf Karl Bultmann, Bernd Jaspert, and Beoffrey William Bromiley. Karl Barth-Rudolf Bultmann Letters, 19221966. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1981.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Das Evangelium des Johannes. Gottingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1968.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Das Urchristentum in Rahmen der antiken Religionen. Reinbek b. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1969.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Das Verhältnis der urchristlichen Christusbotschaft zum historischen Jesus. Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1965.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Der zweite Brief an die Korinther. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1987.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Die drei Johannesbriefe (1967). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1967.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Die zweite Brief an die Korinther. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1976.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. The Gospel of John; A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1963). New York, Harper & Row, rev. ed. 1968.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. The Johannine Epistles: A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (1956). New York: Meridian Books, 1965.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. What Is Theology?. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, and Erich Dinkler. The Second Letter to the Corinthians. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, Friedrich Gogarten, and Hermann Götz Göckeritz. Briefwechsel, 19211967. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, Friedrich Gogarten, and Hermann Götz Göckeritz. Rudolf Bultmann-Friedrich Gogarten: Briefwechsel, 19211967. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, and Bernd Jaspert. Rudolf Bultmanns Werk und Wirkung. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, and Roger A. Johnson. Rudolf Bultmann. Collins, 1987.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, and Roger A. Johnson. Rudolf Bultmann: Interpreting Faith for the Modern Era. London; San Francisco, CA: Collins, 1987.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, Eberhard Jüngel, and Klaus W. Müller. Theologische Enzyklopädie. Tübingen: Mohr, 1984.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, Karlis Kundzins, and Frederick C. Grant, ed. and tr. Form Criticism; Two Essays on New Testament Research. The Study of the Synoptic Gospels. New York: Harper, 1966.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, and Andreas Lindemann. Neues Testament und christliche Existenz: Theologische Aufsätze. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, and James McConkey Robinson, ed. The Future of Our Religious Past; Essays in Honour of Rudolf Bultmann. New York, Harper & Row, 1971.

Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, Rudolf Zingel, and Otto Kaiser. Gedenken an Rudolf Bultmann. Tübingen: Mohr, 1977.

Malet, André, and Rudolf Karl Bultmann. Bultmann et la mort de Dieu; Présentation, choix de textes, biographie, bibliographie. Paris: Seghers, 1968.

Ronald W. Hepburn (1967)

Bibliography updated by Michael J. Farmer (2005)

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