Bultmann: Theologian of Perpetual Advent

Books Discussed
Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology
By David W. Congdon
Cascade Books, 195 pp, $23

I had the great pleasure this week of reading Westar Fellow David W. Congdon’s slim introduction to Bultmann’s theology, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. Congdon is a sympathetic reader, willing to give Bultmann the benefit of the doubt. He takes the time to place Bultmann’s statements in context and never jumps to conclusions about the meaning of key words and phrases that underpin Bultmann’s voluminous writings. While at times the theological vocabulary becomes overpowering, Congdon soon follows with a simple and clear summary of his central point. Recommended as a careful but concise overview of one of the twentieth century’s most influential theologians.

In this blog post I share a couple themes I had not associated with Bultmann until I read this introduction, and which may pique your interest in him as well.

Addressing Naïve Cultural Optimism

I remember in my college days reading pre-World War 1 literature and being out-and-out flabbergasted by the writers’ cultural optimism. They really thought we were on our way to becoming gods, or at least “higher than the angels.” Driven in part by racially and ethnically loaded assumptions about evolution and overly simplistic ideas about history, these cultural optimists imagined the Western gentleman as the pinnacle of all human development in direct contrast with the vastly different (read: inferior) cultures they encountered as a result of imperial conquests. Indeed, they spoke of themselves as though they expected to keep on marching in a steady state of progress all the way to an actual, human-constructed Utopia.

The naïve belief that human beings can progress indefinitely toward perfection used to be associated with liberalism, in the sense of freedom from the constraints of tradition or superstition. I would hope that most of us realize by now that we’re never quite free of tradition (or superstition!) but nevertheless, the word “liberal” today doesn’t always imply the naïve cultural optimism of the nineteenth century. That whole idea was interrupted and tempered by two disasters: World War I and World War II. While liberals of course are still associated with a strong desire and orientation toward progress, and—perhaps with justification—also a bit too much in the way of naïve optimism, most liberal voices I encounter nowadays have tempered the language of unhindered cultural progress.

Hence, some readers may raise an eyebrow at the notion that Bultmann was “against” liberal theology, especially those of you who yourselves identify as liberal or progressive. The picture is more complicated. Congdon is quick to point out that Bultmann himself acknowledged his long-standing debt to the liberal theology of his forebears: for instance, much later in his life Bultmann fully endorsed the historical-critical work fostered by liberal theology. What Bultmann couldn’t accept was the uncritical decision by many theologians to retroactively fasten their ideals to early Christians in order to justify modern values and beliefs. Likewise, he was troubled by the idea that one would break relations with God entirely, such as via apophatic theology (the practice of defining God by what God is not).

Because of some of these complex situational dynamics, Congdon begins his introduction to Bultmann with—don’t cringe!—the Christian doctrine of the end, or eschatology. Bultmann didn’t emerge on the theological scene until after the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s highly influential The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which slammed the door on historical study of Jesus by accusing liberal theologians of finding only the Jesus they wanted to find, at the expense of the evidence. Congdon explains:

[Johannes] Weiss exposed the liberal position as an illegitimate imposition of Kantian framework upon the biblical text. The early Christian community did not use this [end-times] language symbolically. They genuinely believed in the imminent arrival of God’s messianic reign within their lifetimes.

… Bultmann was thus trained within a context that recognized the thoroughly eschatological nature of early Christianity but had no idea what to do with this insight theologically. (4–5)

I could go on all day about people’s ideas about the end of the world. What absolutely fascinating to me about this story of Bultmann’s encounter with the liberal theology of his mentors and predecessors is that the concern about eschatology was not just some obscure theological debate confined to church libraries. It was rooted in a practical problem: How do you connect historical study of the Bible with moral and spiritual readings of the Bible? A person can know that ignoring the history of the Bible and early Christianity is a big mistake, but so what? What do you do with that information? Bultmann understood that you couldn’t simply collapse the past with the present with the future. You couldn’t fossilize knowledge and then employ it as a universal idea that is true for all people in all places. You also couldn’t treat it as a verifiable fact that can be incorporated into your life as you would with scientific knowledge. As Congdon sums up, “History is always something happening, not an external thing that has happened” (38).

This brings up a related dynamic. In response to the rising scientific knowledge of his era, Bultmann cautioned against deifying human knowledge and perception. Reality stretches beyond what we humans can perceive. Bultmann was willing to locate God in that reality and, furthermore, he was willing to argue that God lays a claim on us that we can feel and to which we owe a response (even if all we do is stick our heads in the sand).

Advent Theology

This theme segues into another important and fascinating observation made by Congdon. Bultmann was a theologian of the church. As such, he didn’t begin with justifying the existence of the church; he assumed it. This strikes me as one reason I’ve struggled to sustain much interest in Bultmann in spite of his importance to Western theology. As a Millennial, I can’t help but orient myself toward nonreligion and secularity. It’s second nature. Bultmann’s language is so interior to Christian life that I struggle even to penetrate it.

So, bearing that in mind, how intriguing is it that Congdon concludes his work by describing Bultmann as fundamentally a theologian of Advent? Congdon is absolutely right that my picture of Bultmann was something like “a theologian of sanitized, individualized piety” that didn’t actually imagine a real and inbreaking God as part of human reality (153). Congdon immediately goes on to describe Bultmann has having “a robust faith in God’s radically new and invasive action in Christ.” This isn’t an intellectual or existential exercise; Bultmann actually believed that God took prior action, and human beings had the choice to respond.

In this vision of reality, human beings across time and space continually are confronted by the reality of God, by God’s “claim” or “call” on them (I couldn’t help but think of the same language in Jack Caputo’s new book, although the nature of the postmodern call no doubt is very different). This is why Advent makes sense even in a post-resurrection reality. Earlier in the book, Congdon represented this by calling upon an image from Karl Barth’s early theology, which Barth abandoned but Bultmann never did:

According to Barth, the eschaton does not lies horizontally ahead of us on the plane of world history but instead intersects and encounters the person of faith vertically from above on a plane of individual existence. (29)

Drawing this review to a close, I found this book especially helpful in “placing” Bultmann among peers like Heidegger and Barth. I also appreciated very much the acknowledgement that Bultmann was at base a Lutheran and never walked away from that point of orientation. Since I have been learning not to read Paul’s letters through a Lutheran lens, Bultmann’s ideas of kerygma, sin, and salvation feel foreign to me. Congdon’s work did a lot to help me understand better where those ideas originated and why they were important to Bultmann.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

Photo of Martin Luther the Man
2 replies
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Here’s a quote which suggests that Bultmann’s crucifixion existentialism stood firmly in Pauline traditions and protestant orthodoxy in our inheritance from Martin Luther:

    https://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/bultmann-theologian-of-perpetual-advent-congdon/#respond

    “…the redemptive significance of the Cross is not apparent to everyone; while it is often spoken, it is only rarely heard. This is because only the person who listens in faith will recognize the existential anxiety and resolution that the Cross embodies. Bultmann writes that faith ‘… is obedient hearing of the Word—that is, of the Word which tells me that I am a sinner and that God in Christ forgives my sins—and such faith is a free act of decision. For only in the free act of decision is the being of man as a historical being achieved. … Then follows the theological task of guarding this act of faith against the misunderstanding of it as a work’ (Faith and Understanding, 6th ed., 1987, 132).”

  2. James Warren says:

    I would love to browse the book for an hour or so! Perhaps I can request it from our library or it might show up in the Barnes & Noble. The title of the book arrested me. Although I am prevented from knowing why Congdon chose to use the phrase “perpetual advent” I immediately sought to take a private guess and apply it somehow to my own life.

    I take perpetual advent as “finishing business” in the present moment. Personally, it took about 40 hard-won years to attain being in the present. I used to be socially retarded and struggling with the same old issues–returning to the “scene of the crime” over and over again.

    Again, I have no idea about what the author actually means by perpetual advent, other than to see it as a holy and sacred gift that is always there to be experienced.

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