Bultmann, Rudolf Karl

views updated Jun 08 2018


New Testament exegete and theologian, educator, author; b. Aug. 20, 1884, Wiefelstede, Oldenburg, Germany; d. Jul. 30, 1976, Marburg/Lahn, Federal Republic of Germany. The eldest son of the Rev. Arthur Bultmann, an evangelical Lutheran pastor, and of Helene (Stern) Bultmann, Rudolf Karl Bultmann had two brothers, Peter and Arthur, and a sister, Helene. One of his brothers was killed in World War I, the other died in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. His paternal grandfather, a Pietist, had been a missionary in Africa, and his maternal grandfather a pastor in Baden. This family information is important for an understanding of Bultmann whose family ties, especially those with his wife and three daughters, were unusually close and influential. The classical training of his gymnasium years at the Humanistisches Gymnasium in Oldenburg, 18951903, developed in Bultmann a deep interest in the Greek classics, classical philology, literary criticism, and in humanistic education as such. After completing his gymnasium studies, he studied theology for three semesters in Tübingen, two in Berlin, and two more in Marburg. Bultmann was influenced in Tübingen by church historian Karl Müller, in Berlin by Old Testament scholar Hermann Gunkel and historian of dogma, Adolf harnack, in Marburg by New Testament professors Adolf Jülicher and Johannes Weiss, and systematic theologian Wilhelm Hermann.

After he had taught for one year in the gymnasium at Oldenburg, he accepted (1907) the position of Repetent in the Seminarium Philippinum in Marburg where he had a scholarship to the university. He received the licentiate in theology in 1910, after submitting his thesis Der Stil der paulinischen Predigt und die kynisch-stoische Diatribe, a topic suggested to him by Weiss. In 1912, he received his Habilitation with the thesis Die Exegese des Theodor von Mopsuestia, a subject proposed by Jülicher. He was Privatdozent in New Testament exegesis at Marburg until 1916, when he became assistant professor at the University of Breslau. It was while he was at Breslau that he began to write Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (The History of the Synoptic Tradition, New York, 1968), in which he rigorously applied the methods of literary form criticism and historical analysis to the Synoptic Gospels in order to ascertain the earliest forms of that material known to the early Church and then to determine what part of that material may, with some confidence, be ascribed to Jesus. The book raised serious questions about the liberal theological conviction that the historical Jesus could be known through the Gospels and that he was or should be the central concern of Christian faith. This work was completed at the University of Giessen where, in 1920, Bultmann had succeeded Bousset as professor. In 1921, he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Marburg where he remained until his retirement in 1951.

By 1922, then, there existed for Bultmann a kind of moral imperative to formulate a theology of the New Testament commensurate with the achievements of the historical-critical method as exemplified in Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition. The catastrophic social, cultural, and religious effects of World War I evident then in Germany and Bultmann's personal and academic disenchantment with the anthropocentric naïveté of liberal theology, among other factors, led to his efforts to develop a dialectical theology in response to the program outlined by Karl barth in his 1919 Commentary on Romans. Though there is some evidence of a Neo-Kantian influence, fostered perhaps by the Marburg philosophers Cohen and Natorp, in two articles written in 1920, the dominant philosophical influence on Bultmann in formulating his theology was Martin heidegger, who taught at Marburg from 1923 to 1928 and with whom Bultmann maintained a close personal relationship and conducted a joint seminar.

In his 1924 essay, "Die liberale Theologie und die jüngste theologische Bewegung," Bultmann claimed that Christian faith had to be associated with an absolute beyond the vicissitudes of history and hence that faith is not in fact necessarily related to the historical jesus, but is rather dependent upon the eschatological act of God in Jesus and in the Christian kerygma. In a decisive essay in 1925, "Das Problem einer theologischen Exegese des Neuen Testaments," clearly employing the thematic categories of Heidegger, Bultmann holds that theological exegesis can not operate from a detached neutral viewpoint, but biblical texts are rather to be accepted as statements meant to determine the existence of the reader. The subject matter of the Bible is possibilities for understanding human existence and the object of theology is nothing other than the conceptual presentation of man's existence as determined by God, that is, as man must see it in the light of Scripture.

Bultmann's assessment of the historical Jesus may be found in his 1926 work Jesus (Jesus and the Word, New York 1934), in which he claimed that much that is known about the man is encrusted with myths that originated with the early Christians. Jesus was Jewish, an existentialist, and an apocalyptic preacher challenging his contemporaries to radical obedience in view of the imminent coming of the reign of God. Like other historical figures he challenged people's understanding of their existence, but in historical fact, he is one presupposition among others for the theology of the New Testament. Thus, the historical Jesus is not of constitutive significance for theology, for Christian faith is not a response to the message of Jesus but to the Church's message about him.

Though he eschewed political involvement, Bultmann took a determined and early stand against Nazism. In 1934, he associated himself with the Confessing Church which rejected the paganism and racial teachings of Hitler's state church and scattered throughout his articles written between 193360 are rejections of any exaltation of blood, nation, and race.

Although he previously had written on myth in the New Testament (e.g. in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 1930), Bultmann's lecture of Apr. 21, 1941 entitled "Neues Testament und Mythologie," given before the Gesellschaft für Evangelische Theologie in Frankfurt/Main and repeated the following June in Alpirsbach, made him a controversial figure among churchmen and biblical scholars, and gave his name high prominence in the world of theology. He distinguished between the truths contained in the Gospel and the mythological language in which they are presented. He stated that if the truth of the New Testament is to influence modern man, who cannot accept myths, the New Testament itself must be stripped of its mythological trappings and restated in language that addresses man in his existential condition. A fundamental datum of that condition is that the world of nature and history is a closed world in which God cannot directly be known. The demythologization controversy that ensued is examined in detail in Bultmann's five-volume Kerygma und Mythos; Ein theologisches Gespräch (see de mythologizing).

Among his other works are Das Evangelium des Johannes (1941; tr. G. R. Beasley-Murray, The Gospel of John; A Commentary, Philadelphia 1971); Offenbarung und Heilsgeschehen (1941); Das Urchristentum im Rahmen der antiken Religion (1949; tr. R. H. Fuller, Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting, Cleveland 1956); Der alte und der neue Mensch in der Theologie des Paulus (1964; tr. K. R. Crim, The Old and New Man in the Letters of Paul, Richmond, Va. 1967); and his most important three-volume work, Theologie des Neuen Testaments (2 v. 194853; tr. K. Grobel, Theology of the New Testament, New York 195155). Some of his moving sermons were published in the volume Marburger Predigten (1956; tr. H. Knight, This World and Beyond, New York 1960). His Shaffer Lectures given at Yale in 1951 were published in the volume Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York 1958), and his Gifford Lectures of 1955 were collected in the volume Presence of Eternity: History of Eschatology (New York 1957). Bultmann also contributed articles to Kittel's Theologisches Wöterbuch zum Neuen Testament.

Much honored during his lifetime by honorary degrees (St. Andrews and Syracuse), by membership in academies (Oslo, Göttingen, and Heidelberg), by the Federal Republic of Germany (Grand Cross of Merit), Bultmann received enduring tribute in the influence he has had on New Testament theologians. For whatever a theologian may think about Bultmann, his methodology and thought must be confronted by all serious scholars.

A bibliography of Bultmann's own writings may be found in R. Bultmann, Exegetica, E. Brinkler, ed. (Tübingen 1967). A complete bibliography is to be published soon by P. Joseph Cahill.

Bibliography: h. w. bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth, tr. r.h. fuller (New York 1961); Kerygma and Myth II (London 1962). c. e. braaten and r. a. harrisville, eds., Kerygma and History (Nashville 1962); The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ (Nashville 1964). p. j. cahill, "The Theological Significance of Rudolf Bultmann" Theological Studies 38 (1977) 231274. j. b. cobb, jr., Living Options in Protestant Theology (Philadelphia 1962). t. c. oden, Radical Obedience: The Ethics of Rudolf Bultmann (New York 1964). s. m. ogden, Christ without Myth (New York 1961). n. perrin, The Promise of Bultmann (Philadelphia 1969). j. m. robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus (Naperville, Ill. 1959). w. schmithals, An Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann, tr. j. bowden (Minneapolis 1968).

[t. j. ryan]

Bultmann, Rudolf

views updated Jun 11 2018


BULTMANN, RUDOLF (18841976), Christian theologian and New Testament scholar. Born in Wiefelstede, in what was then the grand duchy of Oldenburg, Bultmann was the son of a Lutheran pastor, himself the son of a missionary to Africa, and also the grandson on the maternal side of a pastor in Baden. He attended the humanistic Gymnasium in Oldenburg before studying theology in Tübingen, Berlin, and Marburg. After receiving a scholarship to Marburg in 1907, he took his doctoral degree there in 1910 and qualified as university lecturer in 1912. He taught as instructor in Marburg until 1916, when he was appointed assistant professor in Breslau. In 1920 he was called to Giessen as full professor, only to return after one year to Marburg, where he taught as full professor until becoming professor emeritus in 1951, and where he continued to live until his death.

Bultmann's special field of competence as a theologian was the New Testament, and it is quite possible that he is the most influential scholar in this field in the twentieth century. His first major work, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (1921; The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 1963), established him as one of the cofounders of form criticism of the synoptic Gospels. Together with his book Jesus (1926; Jesus and the Word, 1934), it has been decisive for the ongoing quest of the historical Jesus as well as for subsequent critical study of the tradition redacted in the Gospels. Hardly less significant for research in the field are his studies of the Fourth Gospel, epitomized by the commentary that is perhaps his masterwork, Das Evangelium des Johannes (1941; The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1971), and his interpretation of the theology of Paul, especially in his other major work, Theologie des Neuen Testaments (19481953; Theology of the New Testament, 1951, 1955). In any number of other respects as well, from the general problem of biblical hermeneutics to the special question of gnosticism and the New Testament, his work and the critical discussion of it continue to be determinative for serious study of the New Testament.

Yet it is not only or even primarily as a New Testament scholar that Bultmann is significant for theology and religious studies. In his own mind, certainly, he was, first and last, a Christian theologian, who did all of his historical work in service of the church and its witness, and it is in this capacity that he is now also widely regarded as one of the two or three Protestant theologians of the twentieth century whose impact on theology promises to be lasting. The warrants for this promise in his case are many, but two features of his thought in particular are basic to its significance.

First of all, Bultmann was distinctive among his contemporaries in clearly distinguishing and resourcefully addressing both of the essential tasks of Christian theology. Thus, as much as he agreed with Karl Barth that theology's first task is to interpret the Christian witness appropriately, in accordance with the normative witness to Jesus Christ attested by scripture, he differed from Barth in insisting that theology also has the task of interpreting this witness understandably, in terms that men and women today can understand and find credible. On the other hand, if his efforts to deal with this second, apologetic task brought him into close proximity to Paul Tillich, his deep concern with the first, dogmatic task gave his thought a very different character from the more speculative, unhistorical cast of Tillich's kind of philosophical theology.

The other equally fundamental feature of Bultmann's thought was his thoroughgoing interpretation of Christian faith, as of religion generally, in existentialist terms. In this respect, there is no question of the formative influence on his theology of the existentialist philosophy of the early Martin Heidegger, who was his close colleague in Marburg from 1923 to 1928. But if Heidegger provided the conceptuality for Bultmann's existentialist theology, he had already learned from the Lutheran pietism out of which he came and, above all, from his teacher Wilhelm Herrmann, that faith can be understood only as an existential phenomenon. Consequently, while he never doubted that faith does indeed have to do with the strictly ultimate reality called God, he was convinced that faith always has to do with this reality, not in its being in itself, but in its meaning for us, and hence as authorizing our own authentic existence.

The first of the four volumes of Bultmann's collected essays, Glauben und Verstehen (1933; Faith and Understanding, 1969), shows that the theology defined by these two basic features had already taken shape during the 1920s. But it is also clear from the three later volumes (1952, 1960, 1965; Eng. trans. of vol. 2, 1955) as well as from his other writings during the so-called demythologizing debate, all of which appeared in the series edited by H. W. Bartsch, Kerygma und Mythos (19481955; Kerygma and Myth, partial Eng. trans., 1953, 1962), that the same theology found its classic expression in 1941 in his programmatic essay "New Testament and Mythology," which provoked this famous debate. If Bultmann was insistent in this essay that theology has no alternative but to demythologize the New Testament, he was also clear that the demand for demythologizing is not merely apologetic but, as he later formulated it, is also "a demand of faith itself." And when he explained the demythologizing he called for positively, as a procedure for interpreting rather than for eliminating myth, it proved to be nothing other than thoroughgoing existentialist interpretation now applied to the mythological formulations of the New Testament.

Even today, Bultmann's theology remains the most controversial of the twentieth century, and it is still uncertain whether he will be reckoned among the fathers of the modern church or among its arch heretics. But there seems little question now that this is the level at which his work must be judged, and its impact already confirms that the history of theology, no less than the history of philosophy, is never quite the same after the shock of a great thinker.


Works by Bultmann in English in addition to those cited above include his Gifford Lectures, History and Eschatology (Edinburgh, 1957), and the selection of his shorter writings I edited and translated in Existence and Faith (New York, 1960). His most important contributions to the demythologizing debate are all available in my edition and translation of New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings (Philadelphia, 1984). Among works on his theology, the volume edited by Charles W. Kegley, The Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (New York, 1966), provides a useful orientation to the extensive critical discussion, while the best general introduction is Walter Schmithals's An Introduction to the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (London, 1968).

Schubert M. Ogden (1987)

Rudolf Karl Bultmann

views updated May 29 2018

Rudolf Karl Bultmann

The German theologian Rudolf Karl Bultmann (1884-1976) altered the direction of biblical studies by his work in the interpretation of the New Testament.

Rudolf Bultmann was born August 20, 1884, in Wiefelstede, the eldest son of an Evangelical Lutheran pastor. He attended the humanistic gymnasium in Oldenburg and in 1903 began to study theology at Tübingen. In the manner of German university students, he spent several semesters at Berlin and later at Marburg and thus studied with most of the leading German scholars of biblical and dogmatic theology. His degree was awarded in 1910, and after submitting a qualifying essay two years later, he was admitted at Marburg as a lecturer on the New Testament. After brief lectureships at Breslau and Giessen, he returned to Marburg in 1921 as a full professor. He retained this position until his retirement in 1951.

Bultmann applied to his exegesis of Scripture certain key ideas borrowed from the "existential analysis" of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger attempted to discover the fundamental concepts which must be used in any understanding of human existence. Thus, for example, his treatment of "authentic" existence was adopted by Bultmann to illuminate the biblical conception of the life of faith. Bultmann also used Heidegger's treatment of alienation and anxiety to clarify the biblical notions of sin and guilt, and the philosopher's emphasis of human mortality influenced Bultmann's ideas of dying to the world and to oneself.

Another important aspect of Bultmann's biblical interpretation was his effort to separate the essential gospel message from the 1st-century world view. This "demythologizing" did not mean the elimination of the miracle stories or the account of demonic powers. Rather, it meant their reinterpretation "existentially" in terms of man's understanding of his own situation and its fundamental possibilities. To Bultmann the story of the Resurrection is not an account of the reanimation of a corpse; instead, it expresses the possibility of man's entrance into a new dimension of existence, free from guilt and anxiety and open to all people in love. Less plausibly, Bultmann argued that Paul began this process of demythologizing by giving an existential interpretation to the Gnostic mythology of demons. The most complete statement of Bultmann's biblical exegesis is found in his Theology of the New Testament (trans. 1951).

In his later writings Bultmann continued with his form-critical analysis of New Testament sources. The History of the Synoptic Tradition (1968) was an influential examination of the compositions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971) was considered a significant new interpretation of the difficult fourth Gospel. One of Bultmann's last works, Jesus and the Word (1975), was an investigation of the teachings of Jesus that provides readers a glimpse of the theologian's theory of history, as well as Biblical interpretation.

During the Nazi regime Bultmann was one of the most outspoken members of the "Confessing Church," which refused to follow the "German Christian" clergy in supporting Hitler's non-Aryan exclusion policies. Throughout his career Bultmann continued to preach as well as teach. Bultmann married and became the father of three daughters. He died on July 30, 1976, in Marburg, (then West) Germany.

Further Reading

The literature on Bultmann's work has grown enormously since the end of World War II. Charles Kegley, ed., The Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1966), contains a brief autobiographical sketch by Bultmann, important essays of interpretation, and criticism of his major ideas, together with Bultmann's replies. It also contains an exhaustive bibliography of his works to 1965. André Malet, The Thought of Rudolf Bultmann (trans. 1971), is comprehensive and very readable. More recent studies include Gareth Jones, Bultmann: Towards a Critical Theology (1991) and Schubert M. Ogden, Christ Without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (1991). □

Bultmann, Rudolf

views updated May 23 2018

Bultmann, Rudolf (1884–1976). Christian interpreter of the New Testament and its environment, associated especially with the programme of demythologization. He pioneered the study of form-criticism, developing scepticism about the possibility of recovering much, if any, historical detail about Jesus, beyond his summons to decision. His commentary on John argued for dependence on gnostic ideas, and in an essay on NT and mythology (circulated from 1941, but published in H. W. Bartsch, Kerygm and Myth, Eng. tr. 1953) he claimed that the pre-scientific world view of the Gospels and NT needed to be demythologized (decoded, so that its essential message could be extracted from the accidents of its environment).