Bultmann and Barth

Margaret had never read much of Rudolf Bultmann’s work before this year of her doctoral program, so she messaged me to ask some questions. We were intrigued to chat about some of the patterns of similarity and difference between Bultmann and Karl Barth, and what Margaret might make of Bultmann for her own work.

One of the peculiarities of our discussion was our very firm demurrer from Bultmann’s own Heideggerian theology — but our common resistance wasn’t based on the (frequent) argument that Bultmann “imports alien concerns into the text,” or that his existential interpretation was anachronistic, or that “demythologizing” misses the point of the writings he claimed to be interpreting. On our hermeneutical perspective, there’s no “importing” or “exporting” in interpretation, so we can’t indict him on the first charge. We all contextualize what we read in terms that aren’t already implied by the text before us, so Bultmann’s not formally different from any other reader on that score. We rejoice in anachronism, so long as it’s practiced with due caution; Bultmann was more reckless than we’d approve, but we’d have to acquit on the charge of anachronism too, on the basis of selective enforcement if no other. And complaints about “demythologizing” beg the question by presupposing that some other context is intrinsically more fitting for reading Paul and John than is Heideggerian existentialism — and we don’t buy that, either.

Our objections to Bultmann fall into two main categories. First, he seems at various pivotal points not to be offering a convincing account of the text he’s ostensibly interpreting, but rather is explaining what would have to be true in order for his interpretation to be correct. But since we don’t already buy his interpretation, the gesture heightens our sense of critical sleight-of-hand. We can see Bultmann deal from the bottom of the deck, and though he shows us a handsome poker hand, we still question the fairness of his dealing. Second, and more interesting to us, is the point that although we don’t dispute his critical prerogative to interpret the New Testament in terms of a particular strain of twentieth-century German existential thought, we can’t understand how one warrants that as a work of Christian theology. Isn’t it more like the current vogue of dressing Paul up in a black turtleneck and saying that he’s the progenitor of a postmodern ethics of difference? (I’m looking at you, Badiou and Zizek, among others.)

But if you’re going to take up the vocation of being a Christian theological interpreter of the New Testament, why not lend a little more attention to the deep, subtle interpretive tradition that provides for your guidance such brilliant readers as Origen, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Thomas, and all that bunch? Of course, part of the answer is that he’s a Protestant, and part of the answer that he’s a modern Christian who can’t submit his intellectual liberty to the judgments of the ancients — but as a result of his inability to give a rich account of the church’s theological deliberations over the centuries, his theology suffers from a foreshortened perspective on the truth-claims he makes. While he may produce an exquisitely wrought theological text in the end, it holds little interest whatsoever to Christians who regard the New Testament as more canonically pertinent than, for instance, Being and Time. That’s a good book, and Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament is an excellent, fine, careful exercise in interpretation; but as Christian theology, it leaves nigh onto twenty centuries out of the picture. Anachronism we can live with, and contextualization we can live with, and “eisegesis” we can live with, but we can’t say much on behalf of a theological proposal that ignores the creeds and the great articulators of theological soundness.


Derek says:

I am intrigued by your post, particularly as I spent the summer reading Zizek (and others), and have just finished Badiou’s Saint Paul – The Foundation of Universalism. With that said, here are my thoughts and questions.

You said by way of comment on Bultmann, “Isn’t it more like the current vogue of dressing Paul up in a black turtleneck and saying that he’s the progenitor of a postmodern ethics of difference? (I’m looking at you, Badiou and Zizek, among others.)” I certainly recognize this is an apt description of the moves B&Z are making, I am not as sure that they are doing so under the guise of Christian theological readings. Butlmann claims his existential reading is Christian theology. Badiou explicitly disawows this. Zizek I think is unclear; sometimes he seems more like Badiou, and others more like Bultmann. Is there more to this that I am missing?

In my estimation, their readings are not helpful because they are theological per se, but because they generate challenges for reading the text in relation to late modern global consumer capitalism. I am particularly moved by some of their Leninist-Lacanian articulations about the law and its suspension. Here, I find Agamben’s Romans commentary of use as well. Much like Jeff Stout, I view them as sympathetic provocateurs or provocative sympathizers.

These are just some first thoughts. I haven’t even beta tested them with my wife or colleagues. I’d like to hear/read more about your readings of these and others.

Yours,

DWL

Well said, Derek. You observe,

I am not as sure that they are doing so under the guise of Christian theological readings.

No, absolutely not. Both they and Bultmann “know” what’s really right about Paul (or whomever), and it has no durable relation to the Christian theological tradition. The point is that the move whereby one decides at the outset that that some third point of reference is what Scripture is “really” all about (whether it be Heideggerian existentialism or the poltiics of universality and Otherness or Javanese astrology), one has separated oneself from that point on from the Christian theological tradition.

So Bultmann’s claim to stand within that tradition strikes a false note; his gesture is more like Badiou’s than like, for instance, Barth’s.

Butlmann claims his existential reading is Christian theology. Badiou explicitly disawows this. Zizek I think is unclear; sometimes he seems more like Badiou, and others more like Bultmann.

No, my acquaintance with these thinkers tends to follow yours (though I take Zizek’s flirtations as more a matter of display than of substantial commitment).

In my estimation, their readings are not helpful because they are theological per se, but because they generate challenges for reading the text in relation to late modern global consumer capitalism. I am particularly moved by some of their Leninist-Lacanian articulations about the law and its suspension. Here, I find Agamben’s Romans commentary of use as well. Much like Jeff Stout, I view them as sympathetic provocateurs or provocative sympathizers.

Indeed — and again, the point is that Bultmann would not self-represent as a sympathetic outsider, but as a vigorous defender of the gospel — which gesture I find unconvincing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *