October 31, 2011
There are two things that every student of theology should know about Bultmann. The first is the proper meaning of the term demythologize.
I sometimes find writers—even ones who really should know better—implying or stating that Rudolf Bultmann’s program of demythologizing was a kernel-from-husk operation. That is, Bultmann was attempting to strip away the husk of myth that encapsuled the historical kernel of Jesus in order to grasp the historically certifiable facts. This is critically mistaken and editorially annoying.
Bultmann’s demythologizing was a hermeneutical tool for discerning the existential kerygma of the gospel, in which the entire package, not just the kernel, mattered. George Eldon Ladd stated it well in an old IVP publication from 1964, Rudolf Bultmann, a slender volume in the IVP Series in Contemporary Christian Thought. (I just rediscovered this long-forgotten volume a couple of weeks ago and was reminded that IVP was critically engaged back in the ’60s.)
Ladd tells us that by demythologizing, Bultmann meant “translating the ancient mythologies into modern meanings.” Ladd goes on to point out that whereas liberal theologians rejected (as did Bultmann) “the objectivity of such alleged facts as preexistence, incarnation, virgin birth, miracles … liberal theologians simply cut these mythological elements out of the New Testament and tried to find the truth of the gospel in that which could be verified as trustworthy history” (Ladd, 22-23). As Ladd sums it up, “For liberalism, the historical Jesus, his personality and his teachings, were the true kernel of the gospel” (Ladd, 23). Here they found the famous four affirmations of Harnack: the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the supreme value of the human soul and the ethic of love.
But note what Ladd says of our man Rudolf: “Bultmann differs from the liberal theologians at two closely related points. He insists that the mythological forms in which the gospel is expressed cannot simply be cut out; they must be interpreted—demythologized. He also insists that Christian faith cannot rest on the findings of history as the liberal theologians thought. On the contrary, faith must be independent of history.” (Ladd, 23-24) G. B. Caird summed it up, “Because of eschatology Bultmann found himself forced (though far from unwilling) to demythologize the New Testament and leave us only the bodiless grin of existentialism.” (Caird, New Testament Theology, 242)
So it is mistaken and confusing to speak of demythologizing in the sense of stripping off the “myth” in the Gospel tradition. In fact, Bultmann did not think we could know much about the historical Jesus at all, other than that he existed. Demythologizing is a hermeneutical move involving the whole gospel package.
The second thing every student of theology should know is how to spell Bultmann’s name. I think most students get his last name right. It takes a double “n.” It’s the first name they have trouble with. It’s not Rudolph. That’s the name of a red-nosed reindeer of myth. It’s Rudolf! It ends with “f,” not “ph”! But alas! Even publishers can struggle with this. In the IVP book I’ve quoted above, the name is spelled correctly within the book, and even on the back cover. But when we turn to the spine of this slender book, what do we find? *Rudolph Bultmann! *
While I was tempted to blame this simple error on Kathy Lay (Burrows), our cover designer back in that day, I know her and her barbed wit. And I recall that she was well practiced in sticking it to the man. So I’m taking this misspelling as her subtly turning the tables on Bultmann and his evaluation of myth. And can it be a coincidence that Ladd describes Bultmann as “a short, rumpled, jolly looking man” (Ladd, 2)?
Once we have demythologizing sorted out, we can turn to the word deontology. That too is a deceptive term!