Bultmann – Jesus and the Word


I want to apologize for the lateness of this post. The next month will primarily focus on works about the historical Jesus and Christology. I want to highlight a couple of points in this work by Bultmann:

1) The Importance of Making Decisions – According to Bultmann, Jesus preached an ethic that disallowed any neutral option. At all points in life, men and women are faced with a choice between good and evil. Any attempt to remain neutral would be a refusal of a decision. Bultmann writes, “obedience is radically conceived and involves man’s whole being. This means that the whole man is under the necessity of decision” (78). Bultmann also argues that any notion of a divine nature is foreign to Jesus’ consciousness. Rather, God is “the Power who constrains man to decision, who confronts him in the demand for good, who determines his future” (103). For Bultmann this forecloses any objective investigation of God’s nature in and of itself. People can only encounter God in their subjective experience of making decisions in accordance with God’s commands.

2) The Marginalization of Satan – Bultmann believes the figure of Satan is a “Persian intrusion into Judaism” (136). Throughout this work, Bultmann minimizes the role Satan and demons in Jesus’ life and ministry. Satan means little or nothing to Jesus since he believes that the world is bad because men make evil decisions. Hence, Satan is nothing more than a passing away of the old world which was enslaved to the powers and principalities. I want to make a comment here. I’ve been reading through Luke’s Gospel this week to prepare for my class on Latin American liberation theology. I am constantly amazed just how much time Jesus spends casting out demons throughout the synoptics. I have great difficulty knowing what to make of this fact and understand why Bultmann felt the need to implement a demythologization project. A world full of demons is so radically strange to our (post)modern consciousness.

3) View of Salvation – Bultmann believes the church has been led astray by Greek philosophy in attributing salvific significance to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Bultmann worries that objectifying these events leads the believers astray. He worries that we trivialize forgiveness when we demand that believers rely on these cosmic events as the source of forgiveness. The Christian believer is transformed into an observer who cannot existentially experience the importance of sin and grace. He goes on to argue that Jesus never understood his death and resurrection in this manner and verses that might support such an interpretation are later additions.

I have some brief criticisms of Bultmann’s work. First, many of the criticism I leveled against Harnack would also apply to Bultmann’s work, although he does make some advances in my mind. I can’t help but thinking that this radically individual message has been contaminated by his Lutheran background. The focus on individual justification (or in Bultmann’s terms authentic decisions) really fails to do justice to the social nature of Jesus’ message. Jesus did not meet with individuals. He travels in groups and ministers to groups. Certainly, he has something to say to the individual, but he is also addressing social realities and social groups. I’ll have more to say later when I review Bultmann’s Jesus Christ and Mythology.


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