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“Beyond Bultmann”: A Newly Published Volume

July 17, 2014

I’m pleased to learn that a multi-author volume to which I’m a contributor has now been published:  Beyond Bultmann:  Reckoning a New Testament Theology, eds. Bruce W. Longenecker & Mikeal C. Parsons (Baylor University Press, 2014).  You can view the publisher’s information on the volume here.

Rudolf Bultmann was the dominant NT scholar of his generation, especially in Germany where he exercised amazing powers of getting his doctoral students appointed to university posts.  This made for a Bultmann “school” of sorts (although, as one expects of German scholars, this “school” also developed differences, even differences with Bultmann on some points).  The only other European figure who could be thought of as contending with Bultmann for influence was probably Oscar Cullmann.  Especially in English-speaking circles, Cullmann was known widely, probably at an earlier point more widely than Bultmann, largely because Cullmann’s works were translated a bit earlier and more of them translated.  But in actual influence, Bultmann was way ahead.

As a man he fascinates still.  Son of a Lutheran pastor, as much a theologian as a NT exegete, determined both to take account of what he saw as “modern” thought and life (and that included seeing a good deal of the NT as heavily “myth”), yet equally determined to advocate Jesus as uniquely God’s revelation, an eloquent preacher as well as a scholar, clever in riding out “Hitler-time” in Germany, on these and other counts Bultmann remains intriguing.

The volume just out enlists a galaxy of scholars (some German-speaking, some English-speaking), each one engaging a particular portion of Bultmann’s classic work, Theology of the New Testament.  My own contribution, “Christology and Soteriology,” addresses a section of Bultmann’s work on these subjects.  I’m heavily critical of him for his handling of matters.  I judge him to have approached ancient Christian texts with a theological criterion, in Bultmann’s case, a particular formulation of “justification by faith,” by which he then judged writings either valid or not.

As to his wider history-of-religions positions, these he almost entirely inherited from his teachers, especially Bousset.  I recall reading Bousset’s Kyrios Christos some years after reading Bultmann’s works, and being surprised to realize that many things I’d ascribed to Bultmann were actually attributable to Bousset.  Bultmann simply took good class notes!

But, give him his due.  Bultmann was a giant figure of his time in NT studies.  We shall, I suspect, never see another such phenomenon, largely because the field today is much more diverse in emphases, approaches, demographics, and institutional settings.  Bultmann’s dominance in part reflected the situation of that time:  The prevalence of a theological approach to NT studies, and particularly based in theological faculties (esp. in German) and theological seminaries (in N. America).  But in that situation, he pretty well set the agenda, and one had to take a position in relation to him.

I hope the newly published volume will help today’s generation of students to reckon with Bultmann more intelligently, both appreciating his enormous impact in his time, and also critically appraising the enduring value of his work.

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  1. It is puzzling, though. As you say, Bultmann was highly influential. But as you also say, he was mostly wrong. I’ve just read your review of Wright, and take your points—but much of Wright’s methodology is leagues more robust than Bultmann’s was…

    • It’s a bit simplistic to say about Bultmann “he was mostly wrong”. And even when wrong he was impressive. As to comparing “methodology” of Wright and Bultmann, I don’t know you’d do that. They both, however, are shaped very much by macro-level a prioris, and in them both I think we see reasoning in “top-down” form. That’s OK, I guess, if the premises from which you reason downward are sound. But how would you test that? To my mind, by working up from below.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Bultmann is emblematic of a time when good, progressive, liberal scholarship dominated the study of early Christianity. We are now in the grip of a chill reactionary wind (Nathaniel Johnston: of which Wright may be the standard bearer) but this too shall pass. If this volume is an attempt on the part of conservative scholars to put Bultmann safely to bed and mark their victory, the celebrations may be premature.

    • Donald: Here’s a tip–Try reading a book before you judge it or comment on it. Just a thought.

  3. Nathanael Johnston permalink

    So, you’re not one of those who thinks N. T. Wright is comparable to Bultmann?

    • Well, no. Certainly not in the impact on the field. Wright is a major “player” to be sure, and he has made himself controversial, esp. in some Pauline matters, and also in his “historical Jesus” proposals. But I don’t think that Wright (or anyone else for that matter) has set the agenda for NT studies in the way that Bultmann did. But, as I’ve said, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to do so in the contemporary situation.

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