Saturday, 11 August 2012

WHY did Barth and Bultmann's exegetical roads split?

Recently, an Oxford friend contacted me with the following request: “... do you know off-hand where to find Bultmann’s quote about how Jesus rose only in the faith (or preaching) of the disciples? I’m having a heck of a time tracking it down!”

Because my PhD is all about the resurrection, I was able to get the quote right away for my friend. As I read Bultmann’s famous paragraph once again (probably for the tenth time since 2006), it made me think back very fondly of the interactions between Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann between 1922-1966 which I analysed to some degree while studying in Durham, UK in 2008/9.

What struck me in particular this time around, was how the later Barth reacted against Bultmann’s demythologizing programme as well as his existential reading of Scripture in his famous article: “Rudolf Bultmann – An Attempt to Understand Him”. This parting of the ways between them, can be observed by their respective views about the resurrection. I quote snippets from Bultmann first and then from Barth’s reaction.

“Christ meats us in the preaching as one crucified and risen. He meets us in the word of preaching and nowhere else. The faith of Easter is just this – faith in the word of preaching ... The word of preaching confronts us as the word of God. It is not for us to question its credentials ... Faith and unbelief are never blind, arbitrary decisions. They offer us the alternative between accepting or rejecting that which alone can illuminate our understanding of ourselves ... If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord, since it was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection ... But the historical problem is not of interest to Christian belief in the resurrection. For the historical event of the rise of the Easter faith mean for us what it meant for the first disciples – namely, the self-attestation of the risen Lord, the act of God in which the redemptive event of the cross is completed ... Through the word of preaching the cross and the resurrection are made present: the eschatological “now” is here, and the promise of Isa. 49. 8 is fulfilled ...” (Rudolf Bultmann, The New Testament and Mythology, [ed.], Hans-Werner Bartsch, [trans.], Reginald H. Fuller, Kerygma and Myth. A Theological Debate, Vol. 1 [London: SPCK, 1972]), 41-43.

“Surely, if we want to understand any given text, the provisional clue to its understanding must be sought from the text itself, and moreover from its spirit, content and aim. Surely we should be condemning our text to silence in advance if we approached it with such a criterion, alien alike to its spirit, content and aim. How can we decide even before we have read the text what it actually says, and what is only temporary imagery?.. Is not Bultmann’s very concept of myth, the infallible criterion which dominates his hermeneutics, quite alien to the New Testament?” (Karl Barth, “Rudolf Bultmann – An Attempt to Understand Him”, in Kerygma and Myth. A Theological Debate [ed.] by Hans-Werner Bartsch, [trans.] by Reginald H. Fuller [London: SPCK, 1972]), 108.

“Is the demythologized kerygma allowed to say anything about God’s having condescended to become this-worldly, objective and – horror of horrors! – datable? Apparently [for Bultmann] it is not allowed ... Nor can it admit that it originated in the concrete fact that the disciples saw with their own eyes, heard with their ears, touched with their hands, in space and time, not only the dereliction of the Word made flesh hanging on the cross, but also as the glory of the same Word made flesh risen from the dead ... Apparently the demythologized kerygma must remain silent about what caused faith ... Apparently the kerygma must suppress or even deny the fact that the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the total Christ event, is the event of our redemption, that it possessed an intrinsic significance of its own, and that only because it has that primary significance has it a derived significance here and now. Yet this event is the ground of our faith and of the kerygma, and faith and kerygma are only secondary to it and derivative from it” (Ibid., 109-10).

Over the past few years, I’ve been struck by how often some biblical scholars forget that there was an early and a later Barth. It seems that Barth’s later exegesis did become more historical compared to i.e. his Romans commentary. Did he go far enough though? Scholars remain divided on that.

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