Have scientific findings problematized the affirmation of the basic Christian doctrines of God as Creator—e.g., God as Creator of the cosmos, humanity and the world as in some way corrupted through the entrance of sin and evil, and ontological claims about humanity as created in God’s image?
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), Professor of New Testament at Marburg from 1921-1951, certainly believed so. Bultmann provides an interesting and illuminating, albeit, in my view, problematic, way to think about how we might respond to these questions.See further the remarkable biography by Konrad Hamman, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography, trans. Philip E. Devenish (Salem: Polebridge, 2013). Interesting and illuminating because Bultmann poses as sharply as anyone I know the challenges of the relationships between science and theology, faith and myth/worldview thinking, and subject and object. Problematic, however, because at the heart of Bultmann’s hermeneutics and theology are profound and untenable dualisms.
Rudolf Bultmann: Myth, Science, and Hermeneutics
In order to understand Bultmann’s attempt to affirm faith in God as Creator, we must set out his hermeneutical program of demythologizing and his understanding of science and myth. At the heart of Rudolf Bultmann’s understanding of the Christian faith and its continuing relevance in a scientific age is the appropriate interpretation of myth. For Bultmann, myth is a certain form of “thinking and speaking that objectifies the unworldly [Unweltliche] as somethingMyth and science are not concerned with the same tasks or motivations, given that the former is ultimately concerned with the grounds of human existence. worldly [Welthafte].”Rudolf Bultmann, “On the Concept of Myth.” Published in David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 853-863, here, 853. Should one, for example, portray the creation and origins of the world analogously to an emergence of a piece of art, one is using mythical language or human analogy to portray the divine. Bultmann moves from this claim to the belief that myth thereby does not intend to say anything about the world and its workings; rather, for Bultmann, myth is a primitive sort of objectifying thinking that is ultimately concerned with the individual human’s relationship to the cosmos. Mythical language about the world is indeed rendered obsolete if it is taken as a form of primitive science, but ultimately myth, in Bultmann’s view, has as its purpose a form of speaking about God from within the realm of human existence. In other words, we are confronted here by a stark dualism between human existence and the physical-substantive cosmos in Bultmman’s thinking. Myth and science are not concerned with the same tasks or motivations, given that the former is ultimately concerned with the grounds of human existence.There is, however, some similarity between science and myth in that they both engage in objectifying thinking, though it is only the latter that attempts to speak about the truth of human existence. See here Congdon, “Demystifying the Program of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Theological Hermeneutics,” HTR 110 (2017): 1-23, here, 6-7. They do not seem to overlap in any way for Bultmann. “Guided originally by the question of one’s own existence, mythical thinking does not inquire, like distance-establishing scientific thinking, after the new, the interesting, and the strange in order to reduce them to the known and familiar,” says Bultmann, “but rather it inquires after the uncanny and the frightening . . . in order to secure itself against them.”Bultmann, “On the Concept of Myth,” 854. Scientific thinking speaks of the world rationally, objectively, and from a distance.
Operant within science, of course, is a divide between the human subject and the object; there is no concern for an existential encounter or a search for the truth of human existence in scientific thinking. In contrast to science, myth is ultimately concerned with human existence in its descriptions of the cosmos. Thus, Bultmann argues that myth is to be interpreted not “in cosmological terms but in anthropological terms—or, better, in existentialist terms.”Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology: The Problem of Demythologizing the New Testament Proclamation,” in New Testament and Mythology: And Other Basic Writings, ed. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 1-43, here, 9. And yet myth still remains the vehicle for divine revelation, for Bultmann, since myth is ultimately concerned with the interpersonal, concrete, subjective encounter of God.Congdon, “Demystifying the Program of Demythologizing,” 8-10.
Bultmann suggests that this is good news for those who would wish to remain Christians as accepting myth on its own terms, or “repristinating the mythical world picture,” is simply impossible given that “all of our thinking is irrevocably formed by science” and would involve a “forced sacrificium intellectus.”Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” 3. Science and philosophy, for Bultmann, have demonstrated the impossibility of accepting myth as a primitive but nevertheless objectively truthful account of the world. One thinks of Bultmann’s now cliché but memorable way of saying this: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”Ibid., 4. Bultmann is nothing if he is not clear about the impossibility of believing in miracles or wonders. Why have they become impossible? Modern science, according to Bultmann, says so. “The idea of wonder as miracle has become almost impossible for us today because we understand the processes of nature as governed by law. Wonder, as miracle, is therefore a violation of the conformity to law which governs all nature, and for us today this idea is no longer tenable.”Rudolf Bultmann, “The Question of Wonder,” in Faith and Understanding (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 241-261, here, 241.
Thus, the modern interpreter’s hermeneutical program is not one of myth elimination, but rather, one of theological demythologizing. This does not entail the elimination of myth; rather, the program involves interpreting myth for its views on human existence. This is crucial to grasp if we are to understand Bultmann’s theological engagement of the Bible’s claim that God is Creator. Cosmology must be interpreted in “anthropological terms—or, better, in existential terms” as it expresses, not an objective or scientific portrait of the world, but instead our experiences “as the ground and limit of our world and of our own action and passion.”Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” 5.
Affirming Faith in God as Creator in an Age of Science
If the scriptural cosmologies—which are classic expressions of mythological thinking for Bultmann—do not give us a truthful account of the world, how is it that the modern Christian can affirm faith in God as Creator when the mythical world-picture of Genesis 1–3 has become impossible? Modern science has, says Bultmann, “destroyed the old creation stories, even that of the Old Testament.”Rudolf Bultmann, “The Meaning of the Christian Faith in Creation,” in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann (Cleveland: Living Age Books, 1960), 206-225, here, 209. But this is no problem for the modern Christian since these creation myths are not intended to advance a scientific or even rational explanation for the origin of the cosmos and humanity’s place within it. Faith in God as Creator “is not a theory about some past occurrence such as might be depicted in mythological tales or cosmological speculation and natural scientific research; rather it is faith in man’s present determination by God.”Ibid., 220. And this faith in God the Creator is something that cannot be possessed as a piece of information or an item of knowledge; rather, faith in God as Creator must be appropriated and realized constantly in one’s life.
Bultmann’s interpretation of the creation myths provides an insightful example of how his demythologizing hermeneutic works. For Bultmann, creation myths originate out of humanity’s anxiety in the world, namely, out of a sense that humanity is not the lord of its own existence and is subject to powers and forces out of its control. The creation myths originate, then, as an attempt to teach humanity something about its present situation, namely, that God continues to always be the source of humanity’s existence (e.g., Ps. 104:30; Isa. 45:9-12; 64:8).Ibid., 208. Faith in God as Creator reminds humanity that it is not the lord of its world, that its very existence is contingent and dependent upon powers greater than itself, and that the unpredictability of this world cannot be banished. Faith in God as Creator of this world reminds us that “human life is insecure; its course is not at man’s disposal. The man who is entrusted to himself does not have himself in hand. His life restsFaith in God as Creator reminds humanity that it is not the lord of its world, that its very existence is contingent and dependent upon powers greater than itself, and that the unpredictability of this world cannot be banished. on the basis of a riddle, of the uncanny, and is constantly threatened.”Ibid., 215. Humanity further learns from the creation myths that God did not intend for it to be an isolated subject existing “from himself and for himself” but has rather been created to be in relation to other humans.Ibid., 216. When humanity forgets that “he is himself from others and for others” this demonstrates the reality of original sin which poisons our interpersonal relationships and leads to further insecurity and even hatred of our fellow humans.Ibid., 216-17.
Bultmann finds similar theological reasoning in Paul. The apostle, says Bultmann, invokes God as Creator not as “a cosmological theory which professes to explain the origin of the world” but rather as “a proposition that concerns man’s existence.” In other words, the knowledge of God as Creator is in reality “knowledge of man…in his creatureliness and in his situation of being one to whom God has laid claim.”Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel (New York: Scribners and Sons, 1951-1955), I. 228. This dynamic is seen clearly in Bultmann’s explanation of Paul’s affirmation to the Corinthian church that for us “although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:5-6). Of course, we no longer believe in these many gods and lords, and yet when interpreted rightly from the standpoint of myth, we see Paul is denying that the Christian can find his or her life in the so-called gods. In other words, wherever “the ultimate reality that gives meaning to our life and demands our worship is seen to lie in these powers, the many gods and lords still hold sway.”
Bultmann says that these so-called gods and lords seek to exert power “in natural life and gives form to the nomos of nation and state, which, indeed, is frequently identified with it.”Rudolf Bultmann, “Faith in God the Creator,” in Existence and Faith, 171-182, here, 174. God is beyond every form of nationhood, history, art, and scientific discovery. God is their source. Thus, to affirm that God is Creator and that we are from him “means absolutely and in every present to have one’s source in him, in such a way that were he to withhold his creative will the creature would fall back into nothing.”Ibid., 175. Thus, the first article of faith in God as Creator is a faith that we, along with all of human history, are absolutely nothing. This is what the Psalmist speaks of when he says: “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Ps. 104:29).Ibid., 177-78. But this faith in God as Creator becomes Christian faith when we can further affirm that we exist from and for the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 8:6). Bultmann here moves to the cross of Christ to explain Christ as Creator. “To have faith in the crucified one means to permit oneself to be crucified with him, to permit this judgment also to be passed against oneself. To have faith in the cross of Christ means to be prepared to let God work as the Creator. God creates out of nothing, and whoever becomes nothing before him is made alive.”Ibid., 181. For Bultmann, when we appropriate this understanding of God as Creator we are empowered to live in the world in such a way that we give tribute not to the so-called gods and lords but rather to God the Creator.
God, Cosmology, and Science
Bultmann’s legacy in the study of the New Testament as well as his hermeneutical contributions to the interpretation of Scripture have been studied and debated at great length,See, for example, many of the essays in Beyond Bultmann: Reckoning a New Testament Theology, ed. Bruce W. Longenecker and Mikeal C. Parsons (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014). but only recently has Bultmann been described as a theologian of mission or even an intercultural theologian.I am referencing here the learned work of David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015). See especially chapter four. In short, what is meant here is that Bultmann’s hermeneutical approach to myth emancipates theology from its captivity to any one particular culture, worldview, scientific theory, or cosmology. Bultmann has presented powerful and moving readings of the scriptural creation stories as they pertain to how humanity understands God as the source of its existence and how humanity has been created not for isolation but for interpersonal relationships. In one sense, Bultmann’s articulation of Scripture’s portrait of God as Creator nicely illumines how creation is invoked for anthropological purposes. The biblical depictions of God as Creator are clearly not articulated by a rational and disinterested observer but are, indeed, concerned with God’s bearing upon the world and human life.
At its heart, however, Bultmann’s project enshrines within itself a set of dualisms that many Christians will find unacceptable and unnecessary. First, Bultmann’s opposition to objectifying thinking within theology results in a science/faith dualism that I find unnecessary and unhelpful. This science/faith dualism would seem to result in science not contributing or illuminating anything about the Christian faith, and even more seriously in my view, has resulted in a view of God who does not actively interact with and upon the world. For Bultmann, to engage in ontological or metaphysical talk about God leads both misunderstands the eschatological nature of revelation and inappropriately turns God into an object of human culture and knowledge.See here Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing, 372-374. Congdon views Bultmann’s project, however, much more positively: “Bultmann’s proclamation of an eschatological God is thus, finally, the proclamation of a missionary God. A God who is soteriologically transcendent and wholly other, whose being is in the ever new coming to the world, and whose saving act occurs in a forensic-eschatological kerygma is a God who is always in via to the new situations. Such a God cannot be objectified and so grasped as something available for observation and enjoyment” (p. 374). Most Christians have affirmed that the Christian God is a personal being who creates, conserves, and rules the world.See Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 65-68. But has science actually destroyed these beliefs, thereby providing Bultmann with one cue for demythologizing the cosmologies in the Bible?Again, I hope I have said enough above to indicate that this is not the only reason for Bultmann’s demythologizing hermeneutic. But I do not think one can deny that it is indeed one very important reason for his program. Has science rendered obsolete the Bible’s constant claims that God acts within the world? Karl Jaspers argued that Bultmann’s hermeneutical program operated with a superficial understanding of science which exaggerates the surety and finality of its results, as well as the differences between the ancient world and the modern.Karl Jaspers, “Myth and Religion,” in Myth and Christianity (New York: Noonday, 1958), 134-137. More generally see here Del Ratzsch, Science and Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2000), 92-99. Similarly, Hans Jonas took Bultmann, his former teacher, to task for having “given more to modern science than is its due.”Hans Jonas, “Is Faith Still Possible? Memories of Rudolf Bultmann and Reflections on the Philosophical Aspects of his Work,” HTR 75 (1982): 1-23, here, 9. Modern science, says Jonas, does not engage in ontological claims. To quote Jonas: “[S]cience merely says that for every occurrence one should seek a natural explanation until it is found, yet without endowing the laws of nature…with that kind of inviolability on principle…which only logical and mathematical rules enjoy. In other words, science issues a methodological command, not a metaphysical proposition”.Ibid., 10 (italics mine). I am not a scientist and I’m sure there are a diversity of informed opinions, but I wonder whether Bultmann’s treatment of science seems fair for contemporary believers who are trained scientists, many of whom do not believe that science precludes wonder and miracle. Alvin Plantinga gets precisely at this point when he notes that quite a few “well-educated people (including even some theologians) understand science and history in a way that is entirely compatible both with the possibility and with the actuality of miracles. Many physicists and engineers understand ‘electrical light and the wireless’ vastly better than Bultmann or his contemporary followers, but nonetheless hold precisely those New Testament beliefs.”Alvin Plantinga, “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship,” in Theology, History, and Biblical Interpretation: Modern Readings, ed. Darren Sarisky (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015), 367-402, here, 395. Further, Plantinga has presented, so it seems to me, a powerful argument, in fact, that there is a deep concord between science and theistic faith as it pertains to the image of God, the reliability and regularity of the world’s operations, human cognitive capacities, mathematics and law.Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, 265-303. In other words, not only is the supposed conflict between science and theism superficial, there are actually good, rational reasons for believing theism and science to be deeply compatible. And if science has not rendered impossible or obsolete the belief that God acts as a personal being within the world, then we may question whether the cosmological claims of the Bible are best interpreted solely within an existential and anthropological framework.
Second, Bultmann is right that the scriptural creation texts are certainly deeply concerned with human life and existence. But does this mean that revelation is unable to engage in any meaningful or truthful talk of ontology, metaphysics, or cosmology? The biblical authors were almost certainly not interested in giving a scientific account of the origin of the world, but their concerns to say who God is, who and what humanity is, how humanity relates to animals and the rest of the created order, the institution of marriage, the nature of sin, and how God relates to the world seem to depend upon our ability to engage in some articulation of the meaning of God’s past act of creation.See, for example, Anthony C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 198-207. In other words, knowing how we should live, who and what we are, the kind of world that we inhabit, and the telos of human existence “depends in some measure on how we think the world is founded.”Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 44. And this will, in my view, demand a deeper relationship between both science and theology, subject and object, and faith and worldview/cosmology. Bultmann believed that his demythologizing hermeneutic enabled one to encounter the truth of divine revelation, in part, by making it clear that one need not accept the mythical picture of the Scriptures as providing a primitive but still objectively truthful account of the world. The kerygma or gospel simply cannot be bound to stories, cosmologies, worldviews, creeds, or cultural artifacts. But this complete opposition to all forms of worldviews seem to me to come at too great a cost, and one that puts one at odds with the New Testament’s advancing of the common confession that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, crucified, buried, risen, and enthroned at God’s right hand.
I have made it clear that I do not think Bultmann’s hermeneutical and theological approach to the doctrine of creation provides a viable way forward for those who want to affirm the traditional view of God as one who has acted and continues to act within the world, for those who want to affirm that the Bible’s cosmological claims do make meaningful ontological statements about the world we live in, and for those who see a more dynamic relationship between science and theology. But I would imagine that most who read Bultmann’s essays on God as Creator will find his analysis to be powerful in its articulation of the way in which these texts do indeed illuminate humanity’s deepest questions, hopes, and fears. Can we provide a better way forward? A way forward that avoids Bultmann’s dualisms but one that continues to find in the Bible’s doctrine of creation a revelation that meets humanity’s deepest longings?