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BULTMANN

ON THE
NEW TESTAMENT
AND MYTHOLOGY

Joseph Wayne Smith & Sharyn Ward*

*University of Adelaide,
Australia.

1.

INTRODUCTION

Rudolf Bultmann has claimed that an outstanding task of the


contemporary Christian theologian is to demythologize the New
T e s t a m e n t proclamation and advance an existentialist
reinterpretation I. In this paper we shall argue that Bultmann's
proposals are seriously defective. Not only is his case against
the 'mythical' view of Christianity extremely weak, but his own
existentialist theory is inadequate. We shall argue that if
Bultmann's criticisms of the 'mythical' account of Christianity were acceptable, then there is no good reason for attempting to save Christianity by an existentialist reinterpretation.
This move is nothing more than a quite arbitrary strategy advanced to save an inadequate position. Hence we either accept
Bultmann's mythical view of Christianity, or else we eliminate
any explanatory reference to Christian phenomena in our
cognitive attempts to construct a systematic Weltanschauung.

2. AN E X P L I C A T I O N
TIANITY

OF THE

'MYTH' OF CHRIS-

The mythical view of Christianity discussed by Bultmann is


what we shall call, to use a parallel from the philosophy of
science, a realist interpretation of the Scriptures 2. On such a
view, the rationally reconstructed, literal statements of the
Scriptures are either true or false and the essential terms of such
statements typically refer. This claim requires explication.
Clearly not all statements of the Scriptures are either true or
false: some statements are purely devotional statements of emo-

tion and praise~. Our interest is restricted in this paper to


Weltanschauung-statements. These statements individuate
Christianity as a unique religion.A m o n g these statements are
the following:.
(1) There exists an omniscient, omnipotent, loving, good being, God, who is outside of the world.
(2) This being created ex nihilo the world or else guided evolutionary processes.
(3) There also exist demonic powers which m a y causally influence human history. Alternatively God m a y inspire human
thought and influence human history.
(4) The world was created to be morally perfect b u t human
kind was created with the free will to reject or disobey God.
The result was the 'fall of Adam', an original act of disobedience
of human kind.
(5) An authentic life for the Christian consists in the overcoming of sin b y faith in the grace of God, with eternal salvation
as the ultimate judgement for such faith. Not to obtain an
authentic life, is to enter into damnation, separation from God,
and to ultimately become the playthings of the demonic powers.
(6) The transcendence of sin was made possible b y the birth
and crucifixion of J e s u s Christ, the son of God, who appeared
on the E a r t h as a man.
Whilst much more could be added, this constitutes the basic
assumptions of Christianity accepted b y many non-academic
Church goers. It is a story of Divine influence upon human affairs, and anything further added to this picture incorporates
this influence (e.g. the Eucharist). It is such a view that
Bultmann regards as a myth. We shall state his objections.

3.
B U L T M A N N ' S C R I T I C I S M S OF ' M Y T H O L O G I C A L '
CHRISTIANITY
Bultmann's first objection to the 'mythological' view of Christianity is that it is both senseless and impossible. The threestoried moral universe of the New Testament is simply wrong;
there is no Heaven or Hell as ontological places, and consequently, God cannot be in Heaven, nor can we. Indeed: Now that
the forces and laws of nature have been discovered, we can no
longer believe in spirits, w h e t h e r g o o d or evil. We know that

the stars are physical bodies whose motions are controlled by


the laws of the universe, and not daemonic beings which enslave
mankind to their service. Any influence they may have over
human life must be explicable in terms of the ordinary laws of
nature; it cannot in any way be attributed to their malevolence.
Sickness and the cure of disease are likewise attributable to
natural causation; they are not the result of daemonic 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 ~.
Contemporary humanity, viewed in the light of the biological
and psychological sciences, finds the sacraments utterly strange
and incomprehensible in Bultmann's opinion. It is unclear how
God can causally interact with him-her. The atonement is also
incomprehensible to contemporary humanity, involving nothing
more than primitivb ideas of sacrifice 6. Likewise for the resurrection of J e s u s 7.
Bultmann i n s h o r t rejects any realist account of Christianity. Such a view is an outright m y t h which is rendered obsolete
b y modern science. Bultmann claims that the mythical view of
the world must be accepted or rejected in its entirety, for even
eliminating aspects of this viewpoint such as the virgin birth
of J e s u s Christ, the mythical character of the viewpoint still
remains. Once we start subtracting from the kerygma, where
can we non-arbitrarily draw the line? Nowhere Bultmann
b e l i e v e s . H e n c e the N e w T e s t a m e n t is in n e e d of
demythologizing.

4. B U L T M A N N ' S A T T E M P T AT D E M Y T H O L O G I Z A T I O N
The point of m y t h is not to present an objective picture of the
world as it is (as any realistic theory a t t e m p t s to do), b u t to
express an image of the nature and limits of the human condition. In particular, m y t h is an expression of the conviction that
human kind is not master of his-her own being; it expresses a
sense of cosmic independence. Bultmann's departure in
demythologizing the New Testament is to a t t e m p t to understand existentially mythological propositions: "we have to

discover whether the New Testament offers man an understanding of himself which will challenge him to a genuine existential decision. ''8
Our criticism of Bultmann will be of his entire programme,
so we need not sketch his entire a t t e m p t at demythologization.We are interested solely in his methodology. To review this,
consider B u l t m a n n ' s a t t e m p t to provide Christian selfunderstanding without Christ. The prima facie difficulty which
Bultmarm faces is t h a t in the New Testament faith is always
faith in Christ, being revealed only at a certain m o m e n t
in history (Gal. 3.23,25). How can a Christian u n d e r s t a n d i n g
of Being without Christ be given? B u l t m a n n ' s answer to this
question, one which we believe given his assumptions is less
t h a n satisfactory, is t h a t through Christ, GOd has reconciled
the world to himself. The suffering of Christ for humanity's sins,
enables us to stand before God as righteous. To do so is to
become an authentic person, who stands open to the rich
possibilities of the future, and whose past life of nonauthenticity is dead and done away with.
The event of J e s u s Christ is therefore the revelation of the
love of God. It makes a man free from himself and free to be
himself, free to live a life of self-commitment in faith and love.
But faith in this sense of the word is possible only where it takes
the form of faith in the love of God. Yet such faith is still a subtle form of self-assertion so long as the love of God is merely
a piece of wishful thinking. It is only an abstract idea so long
as God has not revealed his love. That is why faith for the Christian means faith in Christ, for it is faith in the love of God revealed in Christ 9.
About the crucifixion Bultmann says:
By giving up Jesus to be crucified, God has set up the
cross for us. To believe in the cross of Christ does not mean
to concern ourselves with a mythical process wrought outside of us and our world, with an objective event turned
by God to our advantage, but rather to make the cross
of Christ our own, to undergo crucifixion with him. The
cross in its redemptive aspect is not an isolated incident
which befell a mythical personage, but an event whose

meaning has "cosmic" importance. Its decisive,revolutionary significance is brought out by the eschatalogical
framework in which it is set. In other words, the cross is
not j u s t an event of the past which can be contemplated,
b u t is the eschatalogical event in and beyond time, in so
far as it {understood in the significance, that is, for faith)
is an ever-present reality L0
Finally, about the existential significance of the resurrection
Bultmann states:
...the resurrection is not a mythological event adduced in
order to prove the saving efficacy of the cross, b u t an article of faith just as much as the meaning of the cross itself.
Indeed faith in the resur~rection is really the same thing
as faith in the saving efficacy of the cross, faith in the cross
as the cross of Christ. Hence you cannot first believe in
Christ and then in the strength of that faith believe in the
cross. To believe in Christ means to believe in the cross
as the cross of Christ. The saving efficacy of the cross is
not derived from the fact that it is the cross of Christ: it
is the cross of Christ because it has this saving efficacy.
Without that efficacy it is the tragic end of a great man I~.
It is necessary for our criticisms of Bultmann's position that
the reader has before him/her copious examples of Bultmann's
method of argument. We will now argue that Bultmann's position is logically contradictory, a direct contradiction of his own
claims of 'the inadequacy of mythological Christianity.

5. A C R I T I Q U E OF B U L T M A N N ' S P R O P O S A L S
On the one hand Bultmann claims that a mythological view of
Christianity is inadequate. Bultmann tells us that the
cosmology of such a view is obsolete. In particular the doctrine
of the atonement is taken by Bultmann to involve nothing more
than the primitive notions of guilt and sympathetic magic. If
this is so, then it is difficult to reasonably see anything other
than a contradiction in Bultmann's statements about the event
of J e s u s Christ, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. These
statements all involve talk about a God who seems to be 'out-

side' of the human condition, who is capable of revealing


Himself through Christ -- or else they involve merely vague
mystifications.
In his talk about the crucifixion Bultmann on the one hand
speaks of this event as having "cosmic" importance, and claims
that it is an eschatalogical event in and beyond time. This seems
once more to be mere myth making. On the other hand
B u l t m a n n speaks of the cross of Christ as our own, t h a t
somehow we undergo crucifixion with Him. If this is interpreted
as an existential symbol, we fail to see any reason for regarding this act as any less 'primitive' than the viewpoint of the
'mythical' account of Christianity. If Christ was not the son
of God, then how absurd it would have been to have died on
a cross. If this was an example of a general way to obtain
authentic being, it seems rather pointless for it is historically
limited. Crucifixion is not a common phemonenon in contemporary society and its mere material significance is lost on
modern people. W h a t then can its point be beyond being a
method of execution?
B u l t m a n n of course says t h a t the resurrection is the same
thing as faith in the saving efficacy of the cross. He maintains
t h a t the saving efficacy of the cross is not derived from the fact
that it is the cross of Christ, but it is the cross of Christ because
it has a saving efficacy. But let us recall t h a t we have seen
B u l t m a n n ' s prior rejection of spiritualism at all levels. W h a t
then is this prior 'saving efficacy' of the cross? In natural and
existentialist terms, the cross did a n y t h i n g but save: it spelt
the end of Christ, it was the murder weapon. Bultmann m u s t
either be talking nonsense, or else contradicting himself by a
tacit appeal to a spiritual agency.
Let us push this general line of argument further. Surely to
speak of God acting, is to use mythological language, for the
term 'God' is a proper name of some Being and has a referential use. W h y does Bultmann still use this term? Medicine no
longer uses terms referring to entities such as 'vital spirits'.
These entities are mere conceptual baggage which are
eliminated with a change in conceptual scheme ~2. W h y should
a consistent existentialist interpretation of the New Testament
make use of such terms? For us, this seems little more than an

att~,mpt t,~ throw out the bathwater and the babe and have both
as well. [;se of ()ccam's razor requires the elimination of such
terminology. This means t h a t we are left with a certain
historical narrative plus existentialism. If the mythological view
of Christianity is untenable, then Bultmann only confuses matter~ by using the same terminology. Consistency requires its
abandonment: talk of 'GOd', 'sin' and 'faith' is replaced by talk
invoh'ing only existential terms.
To do this however, while restoring consistency, only serves
to leave Christianity conceptually vacuous. There is no difference then between Christianity and Existentialism, because
what in effect one has done is to replace Christianity by Existentialism. Bultmann's first criticism of the mythological view
of Christianity can now be applied to his own position: there
is nothing specifically Christian in his view as such.
Does Bultmann's criticism of mythological Christianity hold?
The criticism is primarily that this position is inconsistent with
modern physics, biology and psychology. This criticism is
stated in a very inadequate fashion in B u l t m a n n ' s writings for
he never considers how one would establish t h a t elements of
the mythological viewpoint actually conflict with the best contemporary physical, biological and psychological theories. As
far as we can see, no contradiction as such can be derived, for
the good reason t h a t scientific theories describe mechanisms
in this world. God as an agent outside of the world is not
necessarily subject to its laws. Bultmann's argument then is
not circular, for it only succeeds if it is already assumed t h a t
God is not a Divine Being. The best t h a t Bultmann can
establish from his argument from science, is that by considerations of parsimony, explanatory reference to God need not be
made. However, to argue in this fashion only leads Bultmann
back into the set of difficulties which we previously noted 13.

6.

CONCLUSION: T H E STATE OF T H E A R G U M E N T

We have argued t h a t Bultmann's existentialist Christian


theology suffers from theoretical defects. His position is open
to the following destructive dilemma: if the 'mythological' account of Christianity is inadequate, then Bultmann must in

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many instances {as citations indicate), contradict himself. On


the other hand, a consistent existentialist Christian theology,
should by the principle of parsimony, eliminate all 'God-talk'.
This is to result in a position which is not specifically Christian at all.

References:
1.

Cf. R. Bultmann, 'New Testament and Mythology", in

Kerygrna and Myth, (ed.)H. W. Bartsch, (Harper Torch Books,


New York, 196.)pp. 1-44.
2. For an account of the realist position in the philosophy
of science cf R. Harre, The Principles of Scientific Thinking,
(Macmillan, London, 1970); R. Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of
Science {Harvester Press, Sussex, 1978) and W. H. NewtonSmith, The Rationality of Science, (Routledge and Kegan Paul,
London, 1981).
3.
It is also possible that at a surface level, some statements
of the Scriptures m a y be paradoxical, expecially those describing the nature of God. We have argued elsewhere ("Dialectical
Logic and Theological Paradoxes", {submitted for publication))
that such difficulties m a y be eliminated by a rejection of
classical logic. If non-classical logics are needed to resolve
various paradoxes in classical logic and quantum mechanics,
then it s e e m s t o us not unreasonable to believe that a dialectical logic may be of ready use to theologians. If the world could
seriously be considered to be 'inconsistent' {cf. R. Routley, Exploring Meinong's Jungle and Beyond, (Australian National
University, Canberra, 1980)), then it is not unreasonable after
all that a trancendental object such as God may be 'inconsistent' as well.
4. Bultmann, op. cit, note 1, p. 3.
5. Ibid, pp. 4-5.
6. Ibid, p. 7.
7. Ibid, p.8.
8. Ibid, p. 16.
9. Ibid, p. 32.
10. Ibid, p. 36.
l l . Ibid, p. 41.

II

12.
For an account of such an elimination, applied to the
mind-body problem cf, R. Rorty, "Mind-Body Identity, Privacy
and Categories", The Review of Metaphysics , vol. XIX, 1965,
pp. 24-54.
13.
This is of course to presuppose t h a t we know what
'science' is, an assumption open to considerable controversy.
See W. H. Newton-Smith, The Rationality of Science, op. cir.
note. 2.

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