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Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography
by Konrad Hammann
Polebridge, 624 pages, $60

In his recently translated biography of Rudolf Bultmann (originally published in German in 2009), Konrad Hammann largely accepts and presumes the modern Protestant theological story. It’s the German version of our “up from fundamentalism” narrative: Heroic theologians lead the Church out of complacent confessionalism and its equally complacent moralistic liberalism to an intellectually serious, existentially engaging modern faith.

Hammann, who teaches church history on the Protestant faculty of the University of Münster, does not give the reader much help in understanding the extent to which Bultmann’s scholarship and churchmanship was shaped by and contributed to that story, perhaps because he takes it to be so obvious. As a result, this finely detailed and comprehensive biography, rich in citations from Bultmann’s letters and other illuminating sources, leaves it to us to discern the larger achievement—and limitations—of the most important biblical theologian of the twentieth century.

Born in 1884, the son and grandson of pastors on both his father’s and mother’s sides, Bultmann studied with the great scholars of the time: Adolf von Harnack, Hermann Gunkel, and Adolf Jülicher. Their methods, which formed him as an intellectual, involved rigorous use of comparative historical analysis.

The idea was to identify the distinct strands within the biblical text, and then to speculate about the historical context of their composition, thus illuminating their original meanings. For example, Gunkel pioneered the interpretation of Genesis against the background of Babylonian creation myths. Bultmann’s doctoral dissertation (defended in 1910) carried this comparative approach forward: “The Style of the Pauline Preaching and the Cynic-Stoic Diatribe.”

Along with his teachers, Bultmann believed this work enriches and renews traditional Christian preaching and teaching, a Church-affirming view of modern historical analysis that goes back to Hegel. As he famously put it later in his life, the historical task is to demythologize the Bible, which means distinguishing between kerygma (the gospel proclamation) and myth (the historical vocabulary in which the kerygma is expressed).

Demythologizing doesn’t seek to deny biblical teaching and then replace it with a different teaching. Rather, the pastor informed by historical scholarship interprets Scripture and in so doing renews the power of traditional biblical language and doctrine.

Bultmann felt this critical renewal to be imperative. His father’s generation tended to reduce faith to a few liberal pieties: the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. This made a great deal of the Bible seem irrelevant. What is one to do with the vivid scenes of final judgment we find in the New Testament where God doesn’t seem at all fatherly or brotherly?

Bultmann’s historical analysis provides an answer. Late antique Jewish culture had developed an apocalyptic vocabulary to proclaim God’s kingdom, which Jesus naturally used. We can thus demythologize and restate the essence of his message in existential terms: The gospel destroys our worldly assumptions about existence, freeing us for New Life.

Bultmann was, in other words, much more than a learned and adept historical critic. He was also a key player in the German Protestant rebellion against theological liberalism. In the 1920s Bultmann recognized the importance of the dialectical theology of Friedrich Gogarten and Karl Barth. Dialectical theology insisted that there was something unique and indigestible about the gospel.

When we domesticate and seek to control the proclamation of Christ, we’ve falsified his message. If we are to proclaim the gospel, we must critique all structures, teachings, and formulations that claim to capture and embody it. Thus the term dialectical: The “no” of critique is internal to the “yes” of faith.

Like Barth and Gogarten, Bultmann shared his generation’s dissatisfaction with the close connections between German Protestantism and middle-class respectability. In one of his letters, he writes disparagingly of “bourgeois values and philistinism.” He was concerned that a great deal of Protestant piety was conventional, “religious” in a generic way, absorbing Christ into what is already presumed to be right and proper.

It was this historical context—the complacency of the older forms of theological liberalism—that made dialectical theology so appealing. As Barth put it pungently in his youthful tracts, Christianity is not a “religion.” It is instead the explosive uniqueness of Christ proclaimed.

Dialectical theology also reflected larger trends in Europe. The disaster of World War I undermined confidence in established habits. In countless ways, aesthetic standards, architectural traditions, principles of governance, and moral traditions were called into question, were “exploded.”

In that sense, dialectical theology was of a piece with the emerging culture of transgression. For the avant-garde artist or intellectual, saying “no” to convention was seen dialectically as a “yes” to freedom and new possibilities. Although conventionally bourgeois in his daily life, as Hammann helpfully details, Bultmann appreciated many of the avant-garde artistic and literary movements of his time. In them he saw an opportunity to overcome the “old world of Realpolitik, of economic interests, of materialism, of expediency, bourgeois values, and philistinism.”

The academic and ecclesiastical establishments disliked dialectical theology for the obvious reason that they were the targets of its “no.” Bultmann and his allies were unperturbed by this opposition, but, as Hammann shows, they felt deeply challenged by the theologian Erik Peterson’s criticisms. “Up until now, nobody has gotten onto us like this,” Bultmann wrote.

Put simply, Peterson argued that theological critique alone is insufficient. Without a positive theology of affirmations, we have no lasting place to stand. No matter how powerful the critique, dialectical theology can’t sustain the proper independence of the gospel as an enduring reality. Thus, in spite of the intentions of Bultmann and the others, it gets reabsorbed by the world.

Peterson’s criticism forced the central issue. Is the gospel an “event,” a moment of explosive interruption? Is the experience of having no enduring place to stand the essence of faith? Or is faith historically and socially substantial? Does it involve first and foremost a “standing with” Christ’s teachings in his Church, and only thus allow us to “stand against” the world?

Peterson opted for substance over event, and his reasoning brought him into the Catholic Church. Barth saw the force of Peterson’s insight, and he turned to dogmatic theology as an affirmative rather than dialectical discourse. However, Bultmann (and Gogarten) remained true to dialectical theology.

Dialectical theology provided Bultmann with the concepts for unifying his work as a biblical critic and theologian, and so it’s a serious defect of the biography that Hammann does not adequately explain how. Historical-critical study of the Bible seems, at first, to deny the literal truth—a “no” to traditional readers. But Bultmann insisted it “breaks open” our complacent readings of biblical texts, a standard claim among nearly all advocates of “critical thinking.” He goes a step further, however. Demythologizing opens space for the “event” of proclamation. The “no” of critique makes possible the “yes” of the gospel.

Thus he characteristically refers to “the Christ event”—a telling phrase. Even the sequential narration of Christ’s life in the New Testament domesticates the gospel and so must be broken open, as it were, which is precisely what historical criticism often does when it atomizes the Gospels into so many pericopes. The Jesus of history is Christ “after the flesh,” as he often puts it in his letters, not Christ “after the spirit.”

In an important essay in the late 1940s, Bultmann’s student (and leader of the “new quest” for the historical Jesus) Gerhard Ebeling drew out the implications of Bultmann’s fusion of dialectical theology with historical-critical scholarship. He argued that the “no” that critical history says to the letter of Scripture represents the final triumph of the Reformation’s gospel of free grace. We must rely on Christ alone rather than the authority of Scripture.

Bultmann was throughout his life very much a nineteenth-century man. He wrote sweet, conventional poetry and read classical literature with his friends. Moreover, he was a moral and generous person. Yet when the Nazis took over the German Protestant church, Barth thought that Bultmann’s theology could provide no basis for resistance.

But he underestimated him (and perhaps grotesquely overestimated the importance of theology). Bultmann was consistent and courageous in his fidelity to the Confessing Church, the movement that resisted the Nazification of Christianity. He was also uniquely loyal to his Jewish colleagues. These and other episodes testify to how seriously Bultmann took his academic friendships. He was a first-rate citizen in the Republic of Letters.

Hammann’s biography brings us to admire Bultmann as a man, but the tremendous influence he exercised after World War II has been uniformly for the worse, something Hammann seems unable to perceive. Remaining true to dialectical theology, he unwittingly provided a Christian justification for the emerging culture of transgression, which has now become the ideal of “Bobos in paradise,” if not their norm.

Defending himself in 1952 against church leaders who worried that demythologization dissolved the substance of faith, Bultmann echoed Ebeling: “As does the doctrine of justification, it destroys any false security and any false demand for security on the part of the human being, whether that security grounds itself in good works or in a kind of knowing that provides proof.” Anything other than the explosion of kerygma—the Christ event—encourages works righteousness, the supposed false security of enduring substance.

Legion were the pastors and theologians who used this way of thinking to equate doubt with faith, license with grace. It’s a disastrous legacy, and a reminder that the opposite of Barth’s misguided assumption that bad theology makes for moral weakness is also mistaken. Honorable character does not guarantee good theology.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.