Rudolph Bultmann

Who Is Bultmann?

One of the most influential theologians of our time, a man whose significance still continues to grow, is the now eighty-one-year-old German scholar Rudolph Bultmann. For many years he was professor of New Testament at Marburg, and through his great learning he has won for himself an international reputation. His investigations have not been restricted to the New Testament alone, but have included its historical background, especially in the Hellenistic world and its religious manifestations. In addition, Bultmann, a typical German scholar, has great interest in philosophical and theoretical problems, which interest has had a profound effect upon his theology. In the area of the synoptic gospels he is one of the fathers of the so-called “Form Criticism School” (Formgeschichtliche Schule), which finds in the gospels not so much a historical witness to Jesus’ words and deeds as the faith and theology of the early Christian Church. Thus the historical figure of Jesus recedes markedly into the background (as no longer capable of being reached by us), which development has in the last years caused the controversy concerning “the historical Jesus” to break out with renewed intensity.2 Further, in addition to a large number of other publications, Bultmann has written an extensive theology of the New Testament as well as a comprehensive commentary on the Gospel of John. Though he cannot be considered a liberal theologian in the historical sense of that word, yet Bultmann continues the radical tradition of the liberal and “history of religion·· school. And he has gathered a large group of disciples about him, who are at present among the most influential professors on the German theological faculties (Kasemann, Fuchs, Ebeling, G. Bornkamm, etc.). While he himself still participates in the theological discussion, his ideas have been adopted and are being propagated by many others, particularly in Germany, but also abroad (in England, for example, by J. A. T. Robinson, and in America by J. M. Robinson of the Southern California School of Theology at Claremont). Bultmann’s theology in Germany stands in sharp antithesis to that of such scholars as K. Barth and O. Cullmann who place the gospel’s great facts of sah’ation in the center of their thinking. Over against them Bultmann sets the anthropological interpretation of the New Testament, which is characterized by two main motifs: viz., that of Entmythologisierung (“Demythologizing”), and that of Existential Interpretation. In order better to understand the significance of these motifs, we shall attempt to describe them both successively in greater detail.


The point of departure for Bultmann’s theology is the conviction that the gospel in its historic form is unintelligible for the modern man and that pastoral concern for today’s man compels us to distinguish between the kernel of the gospel and the mythological form in which it comes to us.

It cannot be said that Bultmann’s definition of “mythos” is lucidly clear. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt about his intention. The “mythical” mind, says Bultmann, explains certain phenomena and occurrences by the intervention of supernatural, divine (or demonic) powers. Modern scientific thought, however, can only operate on the basis of a closed relationship of natural causes and effects. It knows, therefore, the world about man, and man himself as well, to be a self-contained unity; and it can no longer accept the idea of a divine or demonic intervention in nature or in the function of the human being. Bultmann concedes that the prevalent concept of man and the universe in modern science is no longer that of the nineteenth century, but he rejects as naive and unrealistic any pious attempt to justify belief in miracles on the ground of its modified concept of the law of causality. Nor can man accept both the miraculous and the scientific view. Every representation of the Bible that does not respond to the modem concept of a closed world order, Bultmann tells us, must be dismissed by the modern mind.

One can ask the question: Just what is new in all this? Is this not the old liberal concept of reality, which ever since the days of the Enlightenment has dominated definite sectors of theology? In a certain sense this is the case. However, Bultmann maintains at the same time and with great emphasis that that which the New Testament presents to us in mythological form can, nevertheless, be the expression of a profound truth which contains an abiding appeal and forces us to make a decision (Entscheidung). In order to understand this abiding significance of the New Testament and to make it intelligible to modern man, one must, therefore, not only release it from its mythological form (“demythologizing”), but at the same time see in this mythological form the continuing and ever new message that proceeds to us from the gospel.

Existential Interpretation

This naturally brings with it the question as to what principle it is by which the New Testament should then be interpreted, in order to make its contents intelligible to modern man. It is the hermeneutical principle that is involved here (Bultmann speaks of Vorverstandnis ). Bultmann has occupied himself extensively with this starting point, and among his followers the discussion concerning hermeneutics is being continued with great power and acuteness: Bultmann opposes the method of interpretation of the old liberal school, which saw in the myths of the New Testament the expression of general religious ideas. Over against that he maintains that the heart of the New Testament message does not consist in general truths or ideas, but in the involvement of man in the event of salvation (heils-gebeuren ). The mythological molding of the New Testament message (for example, the supernatural birth of Christ, the death of the Son of God, the resurrection, eschatology) is nothing other than that which takes place with man, who is addressed by the gospel and who permits himself to be addressed by it. The entire Christ0logy and eschatology allow themselves, therefore, to be expressed in anthropological categories. Theology is anthropology. For this reason Bultmann time and again appeals to the expression of the Reformers (Melanchthon): “hoc est Christum cognoscere: beneficia eius cognoscere” (“to know Christ is to know His benefits”).

Yet one would be mistaken should he attempt to discover Bultmann’s principle of interpretation, his hermeneutical point of departure, with the Reformers. In point of fact this is to be sought in an entirely different area, namely in the existential philosophy of Heidegger. The philosophy of existentialism, according to Bultmann, teaches us to understand the structure of human existence; it likewise enables us to see that man can never come to true freedom and fulfillment, so long as he “remains with himself and with that over which he himself exercises control. In this respect, thinks Bultmann, the philosophy of existentialism has basically the same concept of man as that which Paul intends when he calls man “flesh,” when he demonstrates the need and sin of man from the fact that he wishes to come to liberty through his own “works,” and when he describes existence in the visible and perishable world as the lost and desolate situation in which man (who remains with himself) finds himself. This is also, however, the point at which the gospel confronts man. The gospel constrains man to make the decision: to remain with himself and with the world over which he has control; or to choose exactly that over which he has no control. In the event that he does the latter, then he becomes involved in the salvation-event (heilsgebeuren), of which the New Testament speaks (in mythological terms); then, too, he is crucified with Christ and raised with him. The possibility of all this comes to man only through the gospel. It is that which the New Testament means by “the Holy Spirit.” And this decision bears an eschatological character; that is to say, it continually confronts us anew, we are never delivered from it, we are again and again directed to our future. Our freedom does not lie in that which we have and over which we exercise control, but in that which we constantly must and may receive: viz., when we choose that which we do not control, etc.

In this way Bultmann believes he has grasped the message of the gospel for modem man. For man remains essentially the same, though his view of the world (wereldbeschouwing) changes. The gospel intends to teach us neither the knowledge of all manner of supernatural and miraculous matters, nor an “objective” knowledge of God or of the origin or future of the world. The gospel wishes to enable us to understand ourselves in the cause of our misery, which is at the same time our sin, and in the possibility of our freedom, our redemption, our inclusion in the divine salvation-event (heilsgebeuren), which finds its unique—be it mythological—expression in the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Inter-relation of Both Motifs

According to Bultmann himself the basic motif of his theology is not the problem of the myth, but the problem of hermeneutics and the existential interpretation of the gospel. One can, he judges, evaluate the various “mythical” elements of the gospel differently; one may believe more or less in the historical character, for example, of Jesus’ Messianic consciousness or of some of his miracles. However, the main point for everyone is that the power and scope of the gospel do not lie in the certainty of that which has or has not taken place at a given time. Indeed, for as all this has become Historie, and is not subject to verification with absolute certainty. The chief thing is that which in the preaching of the gospel can happen now, to and in man, when the gospel summons us to a decision (Entscheiclung), in the sense of the word indicated above. In that continuing operation lies the real, geschichtliche, character of the gospel, and not in that which it relates concerning Histone (in this way a distinction is constantly made in German literature between Historie as the dead past and Geschichte as the living and continuing reality).

We must not, however, allow ourselves to be seduced into losing sight of the inter-relation of the two main motifs in Bultmann’s theology. The theme of existential interpretation in Bultmann cannot be separated even for a Single moment from his demythologizing program. In a certain sense the former is the result of the latter, and in any case the only possible alternative. It is an illusion to suppose that the gospel still speaks fully in Bultmann’s attempt to disclose the true core of it. It can speak only in so far as the a priori of the demythologizing allows it to do so. That entails a tremendous limitation of the content of the gospel. As soon as a closed order of the universe is accepted and whatever does not fit into this scheme (because of its unworldly and transcendent character) is disqualified as myth, then there is only room for God—if any!—in so far as he calls men to conversion and decision. But this is at the cost of the God of the Scriptures and of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For he is the Lord of the universe and of history, and that not only because he is its creator, but all the more so because in Christ he acts upon man and upon the universe. The whole of history, including the history of redemption, in Bultmann’s conception becomes irrelevant, a blind spot. All that remains, and can remain, is the event that takes place hie et nunc (here and now) with the individual man in the appeal that comes to him from the gospel. With this supposition there can be no question of an eschatology in which God shall be all in all. Only one eschatology can remain, in the existential sense of the word—one in which man is constantly being pointed to his (unfulfilled) future.

The situation is no different with the interpretation of the advent and work of Jesus Christ. There can, of course, be no supernatural birth, no resurrection in the sense of the gospel. The only thing that matters is Jesus’ demand for decision, his authority with which he confronts us, and his own willingness to surrender himself unto death. To be engaged in this willingness and this faith means to die with Christ, and to participate in this freedom means resurrection. This is what remains as existential interpretation after the demands of demythologizing have been met. But can one fairly say that this is the core and kernel of the New Testament message? Is it possible to understand the death of Christ apart from its expiatory significance once and for all? And can the resurrection of Christ be exchanged for a belief in the resurrection as the expression of the importance of his death? Can anyone claim, after the knife of Entmythologisierung has cut through the gospel, that in what remains the message of the New Testament is still to be discovered?

The Hermeneutical A Priori Is Decisive

For all that, one can approach the matter from a different motif and inquire whether “the great blame” does not lie in the existential point of departure in Bultmann’s theology. At least it should be asked whether this does not explain the fact that he can with such apparent ease dispose as mythical various truths that have always been part of the unchangeable content of the church’s confession.

Doubtless there is an element of great positive significance in the heavy emphasis that Bultmann places upon the anthropological mean ing of the gospel. The true knowledge of God effects true knowledge of oneself, and God’s acts in Jesus Christ are rightly understood only when thrust into the very existence of man, converting, changing him. That is what the Reformed fathers have called the “practical” significance and appropriation of the death and resurrection of Christ. And that, too, is the reason why the Apostle Paul, for example, can “translate” the Christological categories into anthropological ones when he says, for instance, that our “old man” is “crucified” with Christ, that we must “put to death” our members that are upon the earth. And Jesus himself says that we must “take up our cross” and follow him.

Still, we are convinced, there is here a fundamental difference. This difference lies in the hermeneutical point of departure (Vorverstandnis). According to Bultmann the whole gospel in its content must be understood from the point of view of man; and at that of man as he has been discovered by existentialist philosophy. Whatever in the gospel falls within this point of view—viz., how man shall truly be man—is to Bultmann the essence of the New Testament message. Whatever falls outside it is not essential knowledge, since it is not related to the being of man. It is speculation, knowledge of that which does not concern me, etc., etc.

The approach in the New Testament is radically different. The hermeneutical principle of the gospel is not in the first place the idea of what man is, but the idea of who God is. For that reason Paul declares concerning those who deny the resurrection of the dead that they have no knowledge of God (I Cor. 15:34), and therefore they have no idea of what can and will happen with man. The Bible places man in the light of God’s redeeming acts in Jesus Christ and of the whole history of salvation. In that light the Bible teaches man also to understand himself. Bultmann, on the contrary, places the acts of God in Christ in the light and the limits of what he knows about man.


The conclusion is negative, which fact generally speaking gives little satisfaction. Is not thus Bultmann’s pastoral concern to translate the gospel for the present generation insufficiently appreciated? And does not the problem of history and the way in which God governs the world often overwhelm us in such a way that the roads to pietism or to existentialism appear to us to be the only ones that remain? This may seem to be the case. Nevertheless, neither for the church nor for the world of today or tomOrrow is there redemption or prospect except only through faith in that God of whom and through whom and to whom are all things; as well as in such preaching of the death and resurrection of Christ as that in which not only is the possibility offered man to be truly man but also God is glorified in his triumphant and finished work of redemption.

Faith cannot be satisfied with less. For man can only be truly man when God is truly God, as Christ has revealed God to us. I am convinced that here lies the radical difference between the biblical message and the interpretation of it in the theology of Bultmann.

1. Cf., e.g., the large composite work Der historische Jesus und der kerygmatische Christus, in which no less than fifty scholars cooperated.

2. Cf., e.g., The New Hermeneutic (“New Frontiers in Theology”, Vol. II) ed. by James M. Robinson and John B. Cobb Jr. (Harper and Row, pub.), 1964.

Once again our attention is directed to an influential thinker of our age, Rudolph Bultmann, whose attempts to present the message of the gospel to modern man have won for him a wide following. Prof. Dr. Herman Ridderbos of the Reformed Theological Seminary, Kampen, the Netherlands, carefully analyzes the method which Bultmann has so long and vigorously advocated and finds it completely at variance with the New Testament message.