Bultmann, “the powers” and human culpability
In my paper for the “Evil Conference” recently, I spoke about three key issues, one of which I mention now. 1) I argued that Sin, Death and such like are not seen, by Paul, to be in a hermeneutically separate compartment from “the powers”, satan, angels, demons, ta stoicheia etc. They are all interrelated, so one set (usually Sin & Death) cannot be used (as some like Dunn, do) to suggest a Pauline “demythologisation” of the other set, “the powers” etc.
But put like this, real difficulties remain. Although a straightforward “demythologisation” project (as practiced by Dunn in this respect) runs in to problems, what does one do with “demons” and such like? Bultmann had a (flawed) answer. Let me back up to explain.
David Congdon, in his essay (“Eschatologizing Apocalyptic”) in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology, details the debate between Käsemann and Bultmann. B agrees with K that Paul speaks of “the powers” and such like, but it would be a mistake to conceive of this as something happening independently of humans “over our heads”. As David summarises: “Without this intrinsic relation to the particularity of life in the world, apocalypticism becomes little more than mythological or metaphysical abstraction” (123).
For what it is worth, in many ways I tend to side with Bultmann in this debate – he gave K a bit of a whooping - and I likewise remain unconvinced that K was right to accuse B of being systematically “overly individualistic”. This was K’s famous critique of B’s understanding of σῶμα. But §17 of Theology of the NT, as well as his “relational” ontology in §21 is arguably enough to correct this caricature (see also Christof Landmesser, “Existentiale Interpretation und Historische Kritik. Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Im Gespräch Zwischen Rudolf Bultmann und Ernst Käsemann,” in Theologie und Wirklichkeit: Diskussionen der Bultmann-Schule, eds Martin Bauspieß, Christof Landmesser, and Friederike Portenhauser).
My problem with B is different. His brilliant section, “Flesh, Sin, and World” (pp. 227-269 of his TNT), is the best summary of the Pauline data I have ever read. Seriously. Yet in avoiding the danger of abstraction it ends, especially im §25, with a strong emphasis on particularly human culpability and guilt. This is how Paul’s Sin language is ultimately parsed, a result of B’s apologetic concerns, dovetailing as they do with a beautiful account of the truth of theology being bound up with the relation between the human and God (as in §21). But this is the problem: that account of the human involves an emphasis largely foreign to Paul, and one which then distorts B’s understanding of Paul’s “justification” language (which as a result becomes about the solution to legal culpability and guilt).
So what went wrong? The claim that theology must also be a movement of human faith is one I affirm. Abstraction is a danger. Check. But it has been undertaken by B, in this instance, with an account or concept of “the human” that required further “evangelising”. In Paul, the human is not primarily the locus of a scheme of culpability-guilt, but is rather grasped in terms of relationships, with others, with God, with “powers” and forces of evil and much besides. B loses sight of this in his otherwise superb section, “Flesh, Sin and World”.
I suggest this, then, as a solution, one that keep B’s precious insights, particularly the goal to avoid abstraction, without allowing his “unevangelised” account of “the human” to wreck mischief in the loosing of a form of retributive justice into Paul. The apocalyptic realm is certainly not “over our heads”, but it is reflected in communal practices, relational networks and such like. In this way, valuable insights from the “Paul and empire” crowd can also be engaged fruitfully, and abstraction is avoided. What is more, it i) seems to trace the dimensions of Paul’s own arguments more precisely. And ii) one does not need to naively deny the “ontological reality”, if that is the right language (bearing in mind Augustine and others!), of the “realm” of “the powers” in the name of a “modern worldview”. In holding on to B’s concerns in this way, with a more profoundly evangelised notion of the human, one need not feel that the interpreter is engaging in anachronistic apologetics, but rather exploring the network of Pauline themes themselves.