David W. Congdon Interview: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology

David W. Congdon Interview: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology



We had the honor and privilege of interviewing David W. Congdon on his latest book, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology published by Fortress Press. This massive volume (in my opinion) should be read by everyone who is theologizing (like exercising, only with your thoughts/thoughts of others, and the Bible). For more on David click here to see his quick bio. We hope that you (the reader) will be blessed by David's thoughts and theology - we also hope that you buy this book, it's worth every penny.

1) What led you to write a 900+ book on Rudolf Bultmann? How long did it take you to write this massive volume? 

The book began as a dissertation, which itself began over lunch with Bruce McCormack in the spring of 2008. He told me I should write on Rudolf Bultmann, a theologian that, like many people then and now, I knew about but had not read. My interests at the time were in Karl Barth and Eberhard Jüngel, Barth's premier interpreter in Germany. I knew Bultmann was connected to both of them, but I did not understand how. My charge from Prof. McCormack was to investigate the relationship between Barth and Bultmann and figure out just what was the nature of their relationship. It is hard enough to do justice to just one of those figures in a long monograph. Doing justice to both of them was well nigh impossible. I initially set out to write a book that would actually have equal parts on Bultmann and Barth. Fairly early on I realized this was impossible. I cut down the Barth material to the bare minimum—mostly just the historical second chapter—and decided to save the rest for a future volume. Once I made that move the rest fell into place nicely. I ended up writing the whole book in about 16 months, beginning after I left Princeton and began my present position as associate editor at IVP Academic.

2) What is Dialectical theology? Where did this theology and thinking come from (origin)? 

This is a very difficult question to answer. In a way, answering that question is the goal of my book. Historically, the answer used to be that dialectical theology (DT) refers to a theology that says both Yes and No, that contains both affirmation and negation. This is largely due to the assumption that "dialectical" in DT is genetically connected to "dialectic" in Plato, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. There is truth in this, but that approach is ultimately misleading. Bruce McCormack, drawing on the work of Michael Beintker, provided what has been the definitive definition when he described Barth's version of DT as a "Realdialektikof veiling and unveiling," which basically means that the dialectic involves an objectively real event in which God sovereignly acts to unveil God's self within a veil—eternity in time, deity in the human flesh of Jesus. If McCormack's definition is too narrow, Christophe Chalamet's definition of DT—which goes back to the Yes and No style of dialectic, though he replaces Yes and No with Gospel and Law—is too broad. My own approach is a bit of bricolage, since I agree with certain aspects of all of these scholars. But my main innovation is to see that DT was originally and consistently concerned with the mission of the church. I uncovered an early manifesto signed by Barth's teachers that explicitly supports the German cause in the First World War on the grounds of the Great Commission. Barth responds to this document in a sermon in 1914. Moreover, many of his early writings (especially in the 1909-14 period) are concerned with mission and colonialism. I argue that DT is fundamentally about the relation between gospel and culture and seeks to prevent the collapse of the gospel into culture, while also preventing the complete separation between them. Barth achieves this through a combination of reformational soteriology, apocalyptic eschatology, and post-Christendom missiology. The result is what I call the "dialectical thesis," which defines DT as an "eschatological missionary soteriology." (Say that ten times fast!) So, in a way, I agree with Prof. McCormack regarding the unveiling and veiling character of dialectic, but I reframe it as a matter of the eschatological mission of God and the missionary nature of theology. Seeing DT in that perspective provides the basis for finding continuity between Barth's theology (early and late) and Bultmann's theology (early and late). Both theologians are seeking to articulate the essentially missionary character of the gospel.

3) What did Bultmann mean by myth? Did he mean that Christianity was a myth like the ancient Greek myths? 

In a word, no—but slightly also yes! For Bultmann, myth is characterized by two main features: (a) it belongs within and presupposes an ancient "world-picture" (more on that in a moment), and (b) it brings to expression a truth about the human situation. Let me explain how these work together. Many people charge Bultmann with not recognizing that we are surrounded by modern myths. But Bultmann wants to restrict the term "myth" to the ancient world. When he refers to modern myths, like Nazi ideology, he will begrudgingly use the term "perverted myth," and that's because most people use the word "myth" nowadays to refer to something completely false, something entirely lacking in truth. Bultmann's project, despite the famous name "demythologizing," is really an attempt to recover and appreciate the genuine truth of myth. This is an insight from Eberhard Jüngel that I seek to draw out and develop in my work. Bultmann resists those who seek to define myth as simply a primitive form of science that modern science renders obsolete. He views this as culturally elitist and dismissive of religion. For Bultmann, myth is the means by which ancient cultures expressed in language truths about God, humanity, and the world. As he wrote in one of his earliest essays on the topic, "myth knows the idea of revelation," and as such myth was appropriate as the vehicle for scripture. To use an analogy, Bultmann understands the role of myth in the Bible the way theologians today generally understand the role of philosophy: it is something that can and often needs to be appropriated for the purpose of articulating divine truth. But this means we have to distinguish between the message itself and the mythical language in which that message comes to expression. Bultmann thus writes: "The Gospel of John itself is not mythology; it only uses the forms of expression of myth with a sovereign certainty, along with the forms of the older Gospel tradition, in order to present its understanding of the revelation of God in Jesus." Once we understand this, we are in a position to answer your question. Christianity, for Bultmann, is emphatically nota myth, and yet the Christian scriptures make use of myth in order to articulate and bear witness to the truth of God's revelation in Jesus.

4) What was different about Karl Barth's work and Bultmann? Can you maybe explain briefly why you interacted with Barth in your book? 

I answered the second question already, so I will focus on the first. In a sense the differences are obvious: Barth is a Reformed dogmatician, while Bultmann is a Lutheran New Testament scholar. The rest of the differences follow from this basic point of divergence. But of course the picture is more complicated than that. The differences are not static, because Barth's own theology changes dramatically over the course of his career. This is one of the main insights of Prof. McCormack's work, and it has significant implications for Barth's relationship with Bultmann. I trace this in detail in my second chapter, but let me summarize the highlights. Initially, between 1920-1929, Barth and Bultmann are in broad agreement on numerous points, including the eschatological nature of revelation. Barth begins to transition to a new approach in 1929, thanks to his dialogue with Roman Catholic theologians. This new theology takes shape between 1936-39 and manifests itself in his new doctrine of election, which shifts the event of revelation from the present to the past, from the moment of justification to the history of Jesus Christ. Barth also shifts from an eschatological grounding of revelation to a protological grounding. Following that, the so-called "later Barth" remains more or less consistent. Whereas the early Barth was much more open to the kind of existential and hermeneutical explorations that characterize Bultmann's work, the later Barth openly rejects these and favors a more "naive" (his word) approach to the biblical text.

5) Why has Bultmann been a bad child amongst evangelical theologians (at least it's perceived this way), he seems to offend many people, can you explain why? 

Where to begin! There are the many obvious reasons: his denial of nature miracles, his rejection of the doctrines of the virgin birth and physical resurrection of Jesus, his form criticism of the Synoptic Gospels, his opposition to the quest for the historical Jesus, his use of existentialist philosophy and history-of-religions research, his rejection of traditional substitutionary atonement theories, etc. Most people look at a list like that and stop reading. They say: "I've heard enough. There's nothing here worth listening to." And to them I want to say: Wait! Keep reading. Don't focus on his negations. Look instead at his positive affirmations and, even more importantly, at how he arrives at these affirmations. If you read his sermons (a good place to start), you will likely find yourself shocked at how evangelical they sound. Despite his critique of traditional church doctrine, Bultmann was a genuine believer in the saving reality of Jesus Christ, and he preaches a gospel that is profound and moving. Even if you end up disagreeing with some or many of his conclusions, he sheds a fresh and honest light on our theological claims and biblical interpretations. He forces us to ask hard questions about the text. He does not let anyone get off easy, and in doing so he provides a salutary service for the church that we dismiss at our own great risk.

6) What do you hope readers will take away from your work on Bultmann's work/theology? 

Some of what I have just said—read Bultmann with charity and openness. So much of what passes for theology nowadays is little more than propaganda for a choir; it is a noisy gong within an echo chamber. We have inoculated ourselves from all criticism, dismissing critics as faithless unbelievers out to destroy our faith and erode religious freedom. Bultmann shows us a better way. He approaches modernity not as a street preacher declaring its eternal condemnation, but as a missionary seeking to make the gospel meaningful to a culture that is thoroughly alien to the historical world of the Bible. Like crosscultural missionaries today, Bultmann rejects an imperialism that would impose a foreign culture upon another. Modern men and women do not have to adopt the cultural context of the ancient apostles in order to be genuine believers, any more than new believers in Nepal have to adopt the culture of Great Britain. If that is true, and I believe it is, then the task of theology and biblical interpretation is to translate the gospel ever anew, so that we can hear it today as scandalous good news. Bultmann's critique of so much traditional theology is that it is neither good news nor a proper scandal. Traditional theology is not the scandal of the cross but the scandal of an imperialistic imposition of a foreign culture upon the recipients of the message. The church can do better, and it must.

7) Do you have another book in the works that we can look forward to reading?  

Indeed I do. I have several in fact. Last fall I published my introduction to Bultmann, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology, which I commend to all who are looking for a primer on Bultmann. But I am now working on a full textbook introduction for Bloomsbury/T&T Clark called Bultmann: A Guide for the Perplexed. I am also writing a constructive work in dogmatic theology that takes Bultmann's hermeneutical insights and develops a contemporary articulation of Christian faith today. It is called The God Who Saves: A Dogmatic Sketch. I hope to have this out by the end of this year. Lastly, I am editing and introducing a volume of Barth and Bultmann's writings during their public dispute in the 1950s. This will bring together in one book the key writings between them, which will hopefully help people see where they are both similar and different.

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