Bultmann: The Problem 2. Obsolete Mythology

This is a follow-on from my previous post. It looks at the subsection that follows from the summary view of the NT as mythology. I urge you to read this subsection in its entirety in Kerygma and Myth. I will summarise it here, but it is such an unreasonable and unreasoning series of assertions that you may want to verify that this is, indeed, what Bultmann wrote.

2. The Mythological View of the World Obsolete

[Italics in original are marked by [Bult]. Other italics and bold emphasis mine.]

the kerygma is incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete.[Bult]… Can Christian preaching expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true?[Bult] To do so … would be senseless, because … [i]t is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age. …[I]t would be impossible, because no man can adopt a view of the world by his own volition — it is already determined for him by his place in history. … [H]e can [alter his world-view] only when he is faced by a new set of facts so compelling as to make his previous view of the world untenable. … The discoveries of Copernicus and the atomic theory are instances of this, and so was romanticism … and nationalism

…[A]ll our thinking today is shaped irrevocably by modern science. A blind acceptance of the New Testament mythology … as an article of faith would … involve a sacrifice of the intellect… Modern thought as we have inherited it brings with it criticism of the New Testament view of the world[Bult]

Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world[Bult] have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world-in fact, there is no one who does… The only honest way of reciting the creeds is to strip the mythological framework from the truth they enshrine-that is, assuming that they contain any truth at all, which is just the question that theology has to ask… There is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense of the word. The same applies to hell… And if this is so, the story of Christ’s descent into hell and of his Ascension into heaven is done with. We can no longer look for the return of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven or hope that the faithful will meet him in the air (I Thess. 4:15ff.).

Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered, we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil.[Bult] … Sickness and the cure of disease are … attributable to natural causation; they are not the result of demonic activity or of evil spells. … The miracles of the New Testament have ceased to be miraculous, and to defend their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders or hypnotic effects only serves to underline the fact. And if we are still left with certain physiological and psychological phenomena which we can only assign to mysterious and enigmatic causes, we are still assigning them to causes, and thus far are trying to make them scientifically intelligible….

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. … We may think we can manage it in our own lives, but to expect others to do so is to make the Christian faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world.

The mythical eschatology[Bult] is untenable for the simple reason that the parousia of Christ never took place as the New Testament expected. History did not come to an end, and, as every schoolboy knows, it will continue to run its course… There is the still more serious challenge presented by modern man’s understanding of himself.[Bult]

Modern man … may regard himself as pure nature, or as pure spirit. In the latter case he distinguishes the essential part of his being from nature. In either case, however, man is essentially a unity. He bears the sole responsibility for his own feeling, thinking, and willing. … He is not, as the New Testament regards him, the victim, of a strange dichotomy which exposes him to the interference of powers outside himself. If his exterior behavior and his interior condition are in perfect harmony, it is something he has achieved himself, and if other people think their interior unity is torn asunder by demonic or divine interference, he calls it schizophrenia.

[B]iology and psychology recognize that man is a highly dependent being… This dependence is inseparable from human nature… If he regards himself as spirit, he knows that he is permanently conditioned by the physical, bodily part of his being, but he distinguishes his true self from it, and knows that he is independent and responsible for his mastery over nature.

In either case he finds what the New Testament has to say about the “Spirit” and the sacraments utterly strange and incomprehensible.[Bult] Biological man cannot see how a supernatural entity like the spirit can … set to work within him. Nor can the idealist understand how a spirit working like a natural power can touch and influence his mind and spirit. Conscious as he is of his own moral responsibility, he cannot conceive how baptism in water can convey a mysterious something which is henceforth the agent of all his decisions and actions. He cannot see how physical food can convey spiritual strength…

…The only relevant question for the theologian is the basic assumption on which the adoption of … every … Weltanschauung rests, … the view of the world which has been molded by modern science and the modern conception of human nature as a self-subsistent unity immune from the interference of supernatural powers.

Again, the biblical doctrine that death is the punishment of sin[Bult] is equally abhorrent to naturalism and idealism, since they both regard death as a simple and necessary process of nature. To the naturalist death is no problem at all, and to the idealist… [d]eath may present him with a problem, but he cannot see how it can be a punishment for sin. Human beings are subject to death even before they have committed any sin. And to attribute human mortality to the fall of Adam is sheer nonsense, for guilt implies personal responsibility, and the idea of original sin as an inherited infection is sub-ethical, irrational, and absurd.

The same objections apply to the doctrine of the atonement.[Bult] How can the guilt of one man be expiated by the death of another who is sinless…? What primitive notions of guilt and righteousness does this imply? And what primitive idea of God? … Moreover, if the Christ who died such a death was the preexistent Son of God, what could death mean for him? Obviously very little, if he knew that he would rise again in three days!

The resurrection of Jesus[Bult] is just as difficult for modern man, if it means an event whereby a living supernatural power is released which can henceforth be appropriated through the sacraments. To the biologist such language is meaningless, for he does not regard death as a problem at all. The idealist would not object to the idea of a life immune from death, but he could not believe that such a life is made available by the resuscitation of a dead person. If that is the way God makes life available for man, his action is inextricably involved in a nature miracle. Such a notion he finds incomprehensible, for he can see God at work only in the reality of his personal life and in his transformation. But, quite apart from the incredibility of such a miracle, he cannot see how an event like this could be the act of God, or how it could affect his own life.

Welcome to the world of Rudolph Bultmann.

What strikes me immediately about this is the tightly self-referential nature of the system that Bultmann expresses. Bultmann defines his own New Testament by throwing most of it away, and by selectively quoting and re-interpreting the bits that he finds congenial. The result is a caricature and a straw man that he can beat up as he sees fit. But the caricatures don’t end there. He introduces a deliberate but useful (to him) confusion into the argument.

Bultmann equates New Testament mythology, New Testament world-view and New Testament cosmology. He does not actually spell that out, but is is an underlying assumption of his argument. Therefore the three-tier Jewish cosmology becomes reason to reject the NT holus-bolus, in Bultmann’s view. This is an absurd contention. It is also no more reasonable to call the three-tiered universe of the Old Testament a mythology than it is to call the big-bang theory, or the steady-state theory of the universe that preceded it, mythological. Each is a theory, based on observation, of the nature of the universe. The steady-state theory was firmly held within astro-physics at the time Bultmann’s paper was written. It was, we now believe, mistaken. Bultmann’s mythological NT should be (and is being) thrown out, but not because of his mistaken theory of the universe.

“Now that the forces and the laws of nature have been discovered,” e.g. the steady-state universe, “we can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil.” Bultmann seems to assume that there was no knowledge of or recourse to medicine in first-century Judea and Samaria, and that all ailments were attributed to evil spirits. Yet there is no mention of evil spirits in the restoring of the withered hand, nor in the curing of the woman with the haemorrhage, nor the man born blind, nor the man born lame, nor in the deaths of the eighteen when the tower fell at Silo’am.

Almost immediately after this, Bultmann contradicts himself in the matter of spirits.

Modern man, he says, comes in two, and only two, versions: biological and idealistic. Biological man is what we know as modern man: a scientific materialist. That is, a man deluded into the unshakable belief that scientific methodology is compatible only with philosophical materialism—materialist man. Against biological man Bultmann puts idealist man (not idealistic), who is some peculiarly German oddity who can on the one hand consider himself “pure spirit,” and on the other “permanently conditioned by the physical, bodily part of his being.” How one can be both, I’m not sure. However, how a “modern man” can consider himself to be “pure spirit,” whilst simultaneously he “can no longer believe in spirits, whether good or evil,” is not explained. It cannot be. And, if there are no spirits, good or evil, why do we still have theologians?

Bultmann insists that “no one…does” hold seriously the NT world-view, by which he means virtually everything in the NT.  That is clearly false. However, I would defend the view that no one seriously acts on the understanding that he is a biological machine, and that the mind is a delusion propagated by the brain’s neurochemistry. Everyone acts on the basis of the reality of the mind, including materialists. No matter how often, and by what authoritative figures, the mind is proclaimed to be of purely material origin, such a mechanism cannot logically be demonstrated. The reason for the unreasonable insistance that the mind is a purely material phenomenon is that the alternative is that it is spiritual. That conclusion must be fought unrelentingly.

Christian anthropology recognises the spiritual reality of the mind of man. That is, man is a hybrid of the physical and the spiritual realms, uneasily straddling both; the bridge between the realm of pure spirit and the purely physical universe.

Likewise, the parousia, a future event in the NT, is mythological because of the early expectation of an early return, an expectation which was not realised. Even within the NT, however, this expectation is revised. The Second Coming is a fundamental part of Christian belief in the 21st century, as it was in the first, the second, and the third, by which time it had been noticed that Christ had not yet returned. But Bultmann puts the sometime expectation of a future event—the return of Christ—in the same category as Jewish cosmology, in order to support his hypothesis.

The Ascension, an event reported in the Synoptics, is likewise dismissed because of the cosmology. Having come this far, the Resurrection must also be disposed of. For, if there was a Resurrection, there must be a body. And if there is no Ascension and no Second Coming, there was no Resurrection. As Bultmann points out, nobody nowadays believes in a heaven above the clouds, or a hell under the earth’s mantle. Yet they, we, believe in the Resurrection; and the Ascension and the Return follow logically from that belief. That we can offer no physical explanation for the mechanics of the Ascension  should not be surprising. We can no more explain that than we can the sudden appearances and disappearances of the risen Christ. Add that to the almost infinite number of things that “modern man” believes without being able to offer a physical explanation for. Mind, for example.

Christians have always understood the NT as the fulfilment of the Old. In particular, the coming of Christ, His death and Resurrection are the resolution of the Fall, even as the whole of Hebrew sacramental history is addressed to atonement. So Bultmann must throw that away as well. There is no atonement, there is no original sin, there was no Fall, there was no rift with God at the beginning of the history of mankind. What, then, to say about death and suffering?

No worries. Literally. Death is not a problem to biological man. It is of some concern to idealist man, because he frets that the control he exercises over nature by his spirit eventually succumbs to nature. Suffering, we simply won’t mention. All in all, this central question of human existence sinks without a bubble to disturb the smooth surface of German theology.

The year, I remind you, is 1941.

How did he get away with it?

Within the closed universe of academic theology, Bultmann had clout, as had Harnack and, very belatedly, Strauss before him. Academic worlds are self-perpetuating. They define the standards by which academic activity will be judged and rewarded, and the awarding of approval. In the case of theology, that approval is essential for those who seek to be priests, ministers or pastors in all of the main-stream churches. These will be the shepherds of the flock, and they have a strong incentive to find approval, the stronger is their sense of vocation. Others seek a career in the academy itself. Again, approval is essential. An honest academy does not discourage dissent. However, it greatly esteems cleverness, and cleverness is most readily displayed in developing startling and difficult new interpretations.

This dynamic was in play before Bultmann arrived, and the “findings” of earlier generations were taken within the academy as “gospel,” so to speak. The narcissism and destructiveness of the “scholars” was context in which all “theological development” occurred. Within this circle, Bultmann became “one of the great New Testament scholars.”

The academy is essentially unchanged. If you went to, say, a Catholic seminary a decade ago, the rejection of traditional Christianity was complete. A believer, entering this environment in furtherance of a vocation was bullied into intellectual submission. No quarter was given in the onslaught against simple faith. Those who could not, or would not, adopt the prevailing view were winnowed out. And the process was never even brought out into the open. The faculty operated in the manner of the Emperor’s tailors. And the graduates were sent naked into the world.

The statement, It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles, is widely quoted. In A Man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt has Thomas More ask Richard Rich, newly appointed Collector of Customs for Wales, after he has perjured himself at More’s trial, “What profits it a man if he should gain the whole world, but lose his soul? But for Wales, Richard?” What profits it a man if he should gain the whole world, but lose his soul? But for wireless, Rudolph?

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