Sunday, June 01, 2014

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.


At 6/01/2014 2:23 AM, Blogger Keen Reader said...

Yes, I was chatting to some fellow worshippers in the pew behind me before the service last Sunday morning and they mentioned this very issue as one of their pressing concerns.


At 6/01/2014 2:28 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hurray, my internet troll is back making snarky comments. We all rally appreciate the efforts of internet trolls


At 6/01/2014 2:46 AM, Blogger Jim said...

Maybe instead of chatting during worship MS Reader should be, oh I don't know, worshiping.

Anyway, Chris, it's not a real troll until it threatens your life. Till then, it's just an imbecile.

At 6/01/2014 2:47 AM, Blogger Jim said...

Great post! and Carnivalized.

At 6/01/2014 4:20 AM, OpenID afkimel said...

I'm not a big fan of Bultmann's demythologization project ... but it's hard to see how we can avoid it, to one degree or another.

At 6/01/2014 5:12 AM, Anonymous Wayne Coppins said...

Since you led me astray with the picture of of the great Ernst Käsemann, I feel compelled to note that Käsemann's treatment of the demonic in his posthumously published book On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene shows that he can hardly be accused of thinking something happens independently of humans, or "over our heads"! With that said, here's a link to some Käsemann posts I found in the blogosphere for your edification:

At 6/01/2014 10:43 AM, Anonymous Jamie Davies said...

@Keen Reader: I am glad that you are talking to fellow worshippers at church. I hope those conversations are sometimes about the gospel. I wonder if, from time to time, the question of 'what the gospel means' comes up. Allow me to add some of my own questions into that conversation. Does Jesus' death take the punishment for our sins (and if so, how does that work exactly)? Or is his death better understood as victory over God's enemies (including Death itself)? If the answer is in some sense 'both' (Paul does seem to say both in various places), then how does that work exactly? While we're on the subject, are God's enemies 'real' or is the belief in demons and evil spirits an ancient way of talking which we now need to translate into 'modern terms' (whatever that means)?

I hope you can see that these are all fascinating questions at the heart of the gospel and the church's preaching of it. So please don't mock those of us who are trying to serve Christ and his church (yes, including you) by studying these questions closely.

[And, to anticipate the comment "well, why didn't Chris put it like that then!?", the above paragraphs are full of broad-sweeping language which really needs more precision. Scholarly shorthand language (as in all fields) allows us to be more precise in our discussions without constantly defining terms. I know some of it can be off-putting, but it's necessary. If you are interested in being part of the conversation, there are many good theological dictionaries which would help.)

@Chris: thanks for this. As you know I'm knee-deep in this stuff right now. Your reflections are very helpful indeed, though I think I would still want to take issue with the "not - rather" of your penultimate paragraph and say that for Paul it's both human culpability and those multi-dimensional relationships, the two being intertwined in - you guessed it - the covenant. I'll take some time to think this through and might come back with more.

At 6/01/2014 2:10 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Wish I could like these comments! Consider them all (expect the first) "liked"!

Alvin, yes, I do think we all "demythologise", whether we know it or not. The ascension is a good example, not the ascension itself but the direction Jesus travels!

Wayne, yes, absolutely agree that Käsemann cannot be put in the "over our heads" box. Apologies! I wrote this post after midnight and I didn't think to make myself clearer or qualify myself, but I take your point. The immediate goal was more to detail the thematic dynamics of that particular debate between K and B, rather than to summarise K in toto. Your point is taken.

Jamie, great to hear from you and I loved your comment! On covenant, I like that, and I've been thinking for a while about your comments in London, about slavery, exile and the exodus. My major hurdle at the moment remains the nature of themes and emphases within Paul, first and foremost (this is the methodological point I keep hammering on about). While I would agree that Paul is a covenantal theologian, and while the covenant category can, when suspended across the canon and over 2nd Tem Judaism, include both themes of human culpability and enslavement, my concern is what we find in Paul, and how Paul himself interweaves themes. Put that way, I am not yet sure how the conclusion is avoidable, that retributive notions, focusing on culpability and guilt, are peripheral to Paul. I know you are busy, but I look forward to continuing our discussions on this.

At 6/02/2014 9:09 PM, Blogger David W. Congdon said...

Wayne & Chris,

Let me weigh in here a big on the "over our heads" phrase, which is my wording from the essay cited here. I was referring strictly to the early two essays by Käsemann where he made the historical argument that apocalyptic was the mother of Christian theology. The definition of apocalyptic worked out in those essays, though rather ambiguous at times, comes down to something that does seem to take place "over our heads," insofar as it is not intrinsically a matter of human salvation but rather the enthronement of Christ. One of Bultmann's main critiques is that this presentation, while accurate in certain respects, is not theologically adequate for today and so cannot be considered normative as the "mother of theology."

And in my more recent view (which I'm working out in a new article), I think Käsemann agreed with Bultmann, or at least came to agree in his later writings. Käsemann seems conflicted about apocalyptic himself in these early essays, admitting that it proved to be a delusion but must somehow remain a part of Christian theology today. However, by the time we get to Paulinische Perspektiven in 1969, he's talking about justification as the apocalyptic act of God, and not some future enthronement of Christ in a world-ending event of parousia. This is further reinforced in his 1982 Kirchliche Konflikte, especially in the 1980 essay "Die endzeitliche Königsherrschaft Gottes."

Finally, when we get to the posthumous In der Nachfolge des gekreuzigten Nazareners, we find Käsemann basically endorsing a more radically politicized version of demythologizing. You can track this by looking for the appearance of "dedemonizing" in Käsemann's works, which first appears, I think, in Paulinische Perspektiven and is a dominant theme in the posthumous writings.

What explains this development? I think Käsemann writes as a historian initially, but he transitions into writing as a theologian (systematic/biblical) in his later works, though still determined, of course, by historical-critical science. Bultmann writes as a theologian from start to finish, since he does not think we can isolate history from interpretation. Käsemann, at least early on, does think we can separate the two, and therein lies the distinction between them, one that dissolves over time.

At 7/16/2014 5:43 AM, Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...

Chris, You wrote, "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."

Inextricably? So who or what, or what combination of powers does Paul believe is the cause or causes of sin and death? Is there some way to tell via reading the inter-testamental works that Paul alludes to in his letters?

The apostle Paul–in both his speeches and writings–made extensive use of the late apocryphal work known as The Wisdom of Solomon [not to be confused with the Book of Proverbs, but instead, a late non-canonical apocryphal work attributed to “Solomon,” and which contained some definitely “weird” ideas:

Romans 1:19-23 (compare Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-5)

Romans 1:24-23 (compare Wisdom of Solomon 14:22-31)

Romans 5:12-21 (compare Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24)

Romans 9:19-23 (compare Wisdom of Solomon 12:12-18 and 15:7)

Romans 13:10 (compare Wisdom of Solomon 6:18)

1 Corinthians 2:9 (compare the non-canonical Ascension of Isaiah 11:34; also note that the early church father Origin said this verse in 1 Cor. was from the non-canonical, Apocalypse of Elijah–-Origen, Commentary on Matthew 27.9. Origin’s idea was bitterly disputed by Jerome (Letter 57 [to Pammachius] §9 [NPNF, 2nd series, vol. 6, p. 117]), who claimed the verse was taken from Isaiah 64:3-4 “according to the Hebrew text.” In fact, however, the Hebrew is only a very rough approximation of Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 2:9, so Jerome may well have been wrong on this point. So, compare the Ascension of Isaiah 11:34 as originally noted.)

1 Corinthians 6:2 (compare Wisdom of Solomon 3:8)

1 Corinthians 10:4 (Jewish tradition)

2 Corinthians 11:14 (Life of Adam and Eve)

Galatians 3:19 (Jewish tradition; cf. also Acts 7:38, Acts 7:53, and Hebrews 2:2)

Ephesians 5:14 (Apocalypse of Elijah–So identified by Epiphanius, Against Heresies 1.3.42; see also Jerome, Commentary on Ephesians 3.5.15.)

Ephesians 6:11-17 (compare Wisdom of Solomon 5:17-20)


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