Monday, October 15, 2007

Cosy bedfellows: Bultmann and Evangelicalism

Poor old Rudolf has often been labelled the liberal 'bad guy' by Evangelicals - most of the time, I suspect, by people who have never read him. And while I hate to admit this in the presence of Jim West, I have come to learn that a teaspoon of Bultmann's work is far more profound than buckets of much modern scholarship. This is not intellectual snobbery on my part – just read his work and you'll see! He's still the beast of Revelation, of course. I proved that ages ago.

But as an evangelical, surrounded by Evangelicals, I have noticed something rather odd that I wanted to share. It began when I read something in one of Tom Wright's (peace be upon him) books. I think it was The New Testament and the People of God, and he argued something to the effect that evangelical and existentialist hermeneutics are very similar. 'Strange bedfellows indeed', Wright remarked. The more I have considered this, the more sense it makes. Bultmann's existentialism finds confused yet striking echo in the Evangelical treatment of scripture that tends to think every verse of the bible must be relevant to me right now and how I live and feel in my private world today.

For example, I was recently in an Evangelical meeting that was discussing Isaiah 43:19: 'I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?'. The discussion proceeded to 'apply' the text in a rather direct existential manner, to the effect that one needs to now look and see what God is doing new in our lives. Passage discussed.

While I don't see any harm in this procedure in and of itself, when it is the only way people read are taught to the bible, we have a problem. It is simply the sickly ahistorical, anti-intellectual, pragmatic, and individualistic Zeitgeist reading the bible through the eyes of popular Evangelicalism.

Bultmann isn't simply the same as all this, of course, but it is this individualism (think of Käsemann's critique of Bultmann) and ahistoricism that one finds in his work, where 'significance' is pushed into the perpetual advent of the (ahistorical) eschatological, as David Bentley Hart puts it in his hilarious rhetorical scolding of Bultmann's project (cf. The Beauty of the Infinite). The inability of many Evangelicals to think beyond the 'how does this apply to me now' to consider the larger biblical narratives, and their significance, and how these are rethought and reflected in the canon and in church history, is a crippling and tragic weakness in popular Evangelicalism.

But it also occurred to me that it is this existential and ahistorical, pragmatic 'rushing to relevance' that gives Evangelicalism some of its appeal, especially to those who have grown in other more traditional denominations. All of a sudden, it is as if the bible becomes more real, more personal – i.e. it is read with something of Bultmann's hermeneutic – under the guise of Evangelical orthodoxy.

My proposal, then: It is the same spirit that animated Bultmann, albeit poured into a different mould, that gives Evangelicalism part of its glimmer of appeal.


At 10/15/2007 9:53 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

This cruel juxtaposition of Bultmann and Ostink has caused me to burst a blood vessel in my brain. I'm sending you my medical bill.

At 10/15/2007 10:06 PM, Anonymous Steven Harris said...

"It is the same spirit that animated Bultmann"

Spirit eh? Sounds like a cue for some serious spiritual warfare, binding, loosing, and taking back territories.

I'll go and fetch my exorcism tongs.

At 10/15/2007 11:30 PM, Anonymous volker said...

Brilliant post, Chris!

At 10/16/2007 12:23 AM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...

This is why I'm a Reformed evangelical. Reformed theology emphasises the redemptive historical meaning of Scripture as well as seeking to apply the Bible to every day life.

At 10/16/2007 12:24 AM, Anonymous mike aubrey said...

this post doesn't elevate Bultmann in my probably lowers it.

its that kind of hermeneutic of relevance right now to me that irritates me to death.

At 10/16/2007 3:28 AM, Anonymous James Pate said...

Well, I don't know about you, but I am pumped for Wednesday, when I'll be getting my audio CDs of Joel's BECOME A BETTER YOU.

At 10/16/2007 4:14 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"it is as if the bible becomes more real, more personal"

What a concept...To think we could apply it for us today! Who knew?!

At 10/16/2007 4:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend of mine had a similar post on the matter a few years back that I thought was quite well done:


Different Anonymous

At 10/16/2007 5:42 AM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...

"While I don't see any harm in this procedure in and of itself, when it is the only way people read are taught to the bible, we have a problem."

That "only" makes all the difference in the world and sadly (as I'm sure you are aware) that is the way that many of our Charismatic brethren read the Scriptures.

On a side note, do you think that always asking the questions: what does this mean to me, how does this apply to me, what does God have for me, etc. take the focus off of God and place it on the one asking? In other words, is it possible that this is really anthropocentrism masquerading as existentialism? Or is it possible that are they one and the same?

At 10/16/2007 10:48 PM, Anonymous W. Travis McMaken said...

Provocative and interesting comments as usual, Chris. It would be interesting to figure out Bultmann's relation to Schleiermacher, because there is quite a trend of crypto-Schleiermacherianism bedding the evangelicals these days too.

At 10/16/2007 11:20 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Jim, the next post is for your benefit ...

Hi Curious Presbyterian,
I think his two band volume NT Theology is a good place to start – though it depends. Perhaps a commentary would suit you better – on John, or 2 Cor. Perhaps dip into an essay or two of his in Faith and Understanding.

Steven, can I have a pair of exorcism tongs? – sounds sexy.

Thanks, Volker!

Anon 1, Nobody denies it should be applied for today. It is when this impulse leaves behind the necessity to grapple with scripture in serious exegesis – short circuits the whole thing.

Different Anon, Great link, Thanks!

JB, let you off your ‘faith pledge’??!? What a digit head!

Nick, you put it so well. Great comment. I wonder about books like those of NT Anderson, how much of a focus is given to ‘biblical anthropology’ – cf. Bultmann Theology of the NT!!

Hi WTM, Of course Bultmann is this side of the ‘consistent eschatological’ school. But comparisons can surely be drawn to an extent.

At 10/16/2007 11:51 PM, Anonymous derek said...

Thanks so much for this post! I've been working on presenting a paper at my "alma mater" that deals with some common evangelical misuses of Scripture. Your insights were very helpful to me. Can i mention some of your thoughts here? Let me know. Either way, thanks for this . . . great work

At 10/16/2007 11:53 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Derek, feel free to use what you want. I'm just gald you found it helpful!

At 10/16/2007 11:53 PM, Anonymous derek said...

Oops, didn't give you my current blog site address. If i can quote you, let me know here:


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