Saturday, January 07, 2006

Rudolf Bultmann - the Neglected Giant

Pick up any survey of theological history, and the list of the 20th-century's great thinkers will invariably include the names "Barth, Tillich, Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer, and Bultmann." However, while the first four individuals on this list are still widely-read and influential, the same cannot be said for Rudolf Bultmann, who seems to have lost his audience entirely. The number of (non-academic) books published on Bultmann's thinking within the past twenty years can probably be counted on one hand, and when he does make an appearance in a recent book, it's typically as part of a list like the one above. His presence on the Internet is scant, to say the least, and almost non-existent in the blogosphere. As James Kay writes in one of the (very few) recent Bultmann books, students of theology "today do not even go through Bultmann; they go around him."

Why is this? I've been reading Bultmann a fair amount lately, and I'm continually amazed by the richness and breadth of his theology. Not only was he a "comrade in arms" with Barth in the early days of dialectial theology, but he was also a renowned biblical scholar (who arrived at some fairly controversial conclusions), an existentialist thinker par excellence, and a captivating preacher. But he never made a big impact on this side of the Atlantic, probably because he first caught the attention of North Americans with his program for "demythologizing" - a concept with an unfortunate name that was misunderstood from the very beginning. He was thereby dismissed out-of-hand by many, who have subsequently paid little attention to his full body his work. This is a shame, in my opinion, because Bultmann has an uncanny ability to be both thoroughly orthodox and thoroughly modern, and thus his theology holds great promise for our current age.

Over the next few days, I plan to elaborate further on Bultmann's theology, hopefully justifying my high opinion of it in the process. If anyone is reading (a dubious proposition), then perhaps we can have a discussion about it. I know the blogosphere loves controversy, and Bultmann is plenty controversial (for gosh sakes, he was nearly branded a heretic by the German Lutheran Church!) .

No comments: