The Figure of Jesus Christ in Contemporary Christianity – Part 2
EXISTENTIALIST INTERPRETATIONS OF CHRIST
Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) had been at the beginning of his career anally of Barth, but he later came to follow a very different course. Bultmannwas primarily a New Testament scholar and soon gained the reputation oftaking a very negative attitude towards the historical trustworthiness of theGospel records. In many ways, his thought was close to that of D.F.Strauss.Just as Strauss had pointed to the gap between the first-century mentalitywhich believed in supernatural interventions in human affairs and the modern
mentality which believes that the causation of events in the world is due toother innerworldly events, so Bultmann held that one cannot accept modernscience and the applications which we make of it and at the same time believein miracles and other supernaturally caused events as these are related in theNew Testament. Like Strauss, Bultmann did not hesitate to use of the word‘myth’ for those parts of the New Testament which introduce supernaturalagency, and he also applied it generally to the whole framework of the narrativewhich claimed that God had sent his Son to die for the sins of the world andhad then raised him from the dead and exalted him to eternal life.But Bultmann’s problems about the trustworthiness of the New Testamentwent far beyond the general application of a ban on the supernatural. Inparticular, he took up (though he did not originate) the method of formcriticism.According to the form-critics, the Gospel narratives can be analysedinto distinct paragraphs—this is very obvious as we read these narratives—and the paragraphs can then be classified according to their form. As early as1921, Bultmann had carried out a detailed examination of the synoptic Gospelsalong these lines. His finding was that the paragraphs had originally circulatedas independent units of teaching in the primitive Church and then they hadbeen (to use the comparison that was often applied to the process) strungtogether like beads on a string. Although, as Bultmann did not deny, many ofthe sayings and deeds of Jesus have probably been preserved, we are inuncertainty about the order in which they occurred and are therefore unableto reconstruct the life, career and development of Jesus, except in very broadand inexact lines. So although we can derive from the New Testament someidea of The History of the Synoptic Tradition (the title of Bultmann’s book),we are unable to reach the history of Jesus. But Bultmann does not believethat we read the New Testament for historical information. We read it in the
hope of finding answers to questions raised by our own existence. This is thepoint at which Bultmann’s thought makes contact with existentialistphilosophy, especially the analysis of human existence offered by the earlyphilosophy of Martin Heidegger. Bultmann’s ‘demythologizing’ is the attemptto translate the mythological and even the historical elements in the NewTestament into a language which interprets human existence.So when Bultmann was asked how he could still have faith in Christ whenso little is said to be known about him, he could give several answers. One,which might make some appeal to a Lutheran, was that since historicalresearch is a work, and faith cannot be built on works, it is a mistake to tryto base faith on historical assertions. Again, if we read the New Testament tolearn about our own human existence and the way that leads from aninauthentic to an authentic existence, we need not be too much concernedwith the historical or literal accuracy of the stories, provided we appropriatetheir saving message. Finally, however, this seems to mean that we need notbe too much concerned about the person of Jesus Christ himself. Bultmannbelieved that the personal history and character of Jesus had been absorbedinto his historical significance, so that we need only know the ‘that’ (dass) ofJesus, the fact that he lived and gave the message, not the ‘what’ (was), thecontent or character of his life. His significance seems to be exhausted in hisbeing the bearer of the message.
Bultmann was strongly opposed to any ‘objectifying’ of the belief in Christ.Here we find echoes that go back to Ritschl, Melanchthon and the earlyLuther. To confess that Christ is God is not, according to Bultmann, to makea statement about his nature but to acknowledge his significance for one’sown existence. This is perhaps the key instance of Bultmann’s systematicdemythologizing or existential interpretation of the New Testament. But surelya critical question arises at this point. Can a rational being give a wholeheartedexistential commitment to Jesus Christ or accept the proclamation that he is
the way to an authentic human existence without some assurance about whoor what Jesus was? Though many theologians of the present day haveattempted to get away from objective questions of history and likewise ofmetaphysics, can faith and theology really be insulated from such questions?
Would Bultmann himself have spent all the energy and ingenuity that he didin wrestling with the questions of Christian origins if he had really believedthat only the ‘that’ and not the ‘what’ of Jesus has any existential significance?
Paul Tillich (1886–1965) may be included among those who viewed thefigure of Jesus Christ from an existentialist point of view, for although hedrew on other parts of the philosophical tradition, he expressed a specialdebt to existentialism. So although we find in him remnants of Germanidealism (Schelling), of the mystical tradition (Boehme), and of depthpsychology (Jung), his starting point, like Bultmann’s, is the questioning thatarises out of human existence. But Tillich differs from Bultmann in twoimportant points. For the questions, he looks to the contemporary culture ingeneral, rather than to the individual; and in seeking answers to the questionsin the Christian revelation, he is concerned not just with human existence orhuman society, but with general ontology.
Does this mean that Tillich offers a more adequate interpretation of Christthan does Bultmann? In some ways, perhaps he does. In theory at least, hemaintained that ‘Jesus Christ is both a historical fact and a subject of believingreception’ (Tillich 1953–64:2/98). He insisted on this for the good reasonthat if one leaves out the historic factuality of Christ, one has left out whatappears to be an essential part of Christian faith, namely, the assertion ‘thatessential Godmanhood has appeared within existence and subjected itself tothe conditions of existence without being conquered by them’ (ibid.: 2/98). Itwould seem that quite a weight of historical material is covered by Tillich’sexpressions, but in fact he has very little to say about it, and is far moreinterested in what may be called the symbolic or universal significance ofJesus Christ. Indeed, among twentieth-century theologians, Tillich must becounted among those who set least value on historical information. On theother hand, by concentrating attention on the symbolic significance of Jesus,Tillich was able to give a far more affirmative account of the religious questof mankind than Barth had done, and was able to commend an affirmativeattitude among Christians towards people of other faiths.
to be continued…