Demythologizing the Divide between Barth and Bultmann
Subtitle: Jüngel’s Gottes Sein ist im Werden as an Attempt toward a Rapprochement between Karl and Rudolf
The debate between Barth and Bultmann has long since passed into the realm of myth. Today, we all too often hear caricatures of each position: Barth was a theologian of the Word of God, while Bultmann was a theologian of humanity’s word; Barth upheld the objectivity and realism of Jesus Christ, while Bultmann collapsed everything into subjectivity and existentialism; Barth was captive only to God’s Word, while Bultmann was captive to Enlightenment rationalism and the idols of modernity. But, to echo Eberhard Jüngel’s question, “Why then are the most questionable interpretations of Bultmann preferred to an interpretation of Bultmann in good part?” (41).
While a much more complete analysis would need to look at the historical context for this debate in detail, here I only wish to sketch each theologian’s positions while reflecting on the way Jüngel mediates between the two sides in his seminal work, Gottes Sein ist im Werden (ET, God’s Being Is in Becoming; all citations will be taken from Webster’s English translation unless otherwise noted).
According to Jüngel, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity performs “the same function” in theology that Bultmann intended his program of demythologization to perform (34). In saying this, Jüngel does not mean to suggest that there are no lasting differences between Barth and Bultmann, only that the differences cannot be understood properly apart from the important similarities between them. Their seemingly contradictory approaches stem from the same basic intention: to ensure that our talk about God is truly talk about God. I will first look at Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity and then examine Bultmann’s program of demythologization as Jüngel interprets each.
Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity
As Jüngel understands it, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity “concerns the being of the God who reveals himself” (36). The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to understand the God we encounter in revelation. God’s self-revelation is the revelation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Such revelation is an event that occurs in the economy of grace, but the God encountered in this economy is the selfsame God who exists through all eternity. Revelation is, in other words, “God’s self-interpretation” (27).
[A]s the self-interpretation of God, revelation is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity. Consequently, the doctrine of the Trinity is the interpretation of revelation and thus the interpretation of the being of God which is made possible by revelation as God’s self-interpretation. (ibid.)In the event of God’s self-revelation, we discover that God is a being of unity-in-distinction, who exists as “the revealer, the revelation, and the revealedness” (28; CD I/1, 299). That is, in the event of revelation, we have to do with the very being of God. God’s eternal being is a being-for-revelation, a being-for-us. Jüngel summarizes the implications of Barth’s doctrine well: “If revelation is God’s self-interpretation, then in revelation God interprets himself as the one who he is. . . . Therefore the dogma of the Trinity is the appropriate expression for the being of God. It protects the Christian doctrine of God from becoming mythological or slipping into metaphysics” (33).
Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity thus serves a “critical and polemical function” in theology, a function which Jüngel argues “has not been considered adequately” (34). First, Barth’s doctrine rejects subordinationism, arguing that such a view undermines the single subjectivity of God by introducing a creaturely distinction between a “more” and a “less” within the Godhead. By differentiating between God and God, between the true part of God and the lesser parts of God (or perhaps the greatest parts of creation), subordinationism objectifies God—i.e., it compromises God’s lordship and makes the Trinity an object “we can survey, grasp and master” (CD I/1, 381). Subordinationism turns the God who confronts us as Thou into an It; it replaces second-person address into third-person analysis, turning God into a creature to be examined rather than the Lord to be worshiped.
Second, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity rejects modalism, which asserts that there is a true God behind and above the three moments of Father, Son, and Spirit that we encounter in revelation. Like subordinationism, modalism involves “an objectifying of God,” in which “the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God who does not exist” (CD I/1, 382). Modalism and subordinationism are, therefore, both efforts to master God, to place God at one’s disposal, either by undermining God’s single subjectivity in revelation or by going behind God’s revelation altogether to uncover some abstract entity.
Against both subordinationism and modalism, Barth argues that the burden of the doctrine of the Trinity is to articulate how God is both “our God” and “our God,” that is, both Lord over all and God with us (ibid., 383). The heresies seek to ensure that God is with us, but only by denying God’s Lordship; however, this means that it is no longer God who is with us but instead merely ourselves. The doctrine of the Trinity states instead that
[God] can be our God because in all His modes of being He is equal to Himself, one and the same Lord. . . . And this Lord can be our God, He can meet us and unite Himself to us, because He is God in His three modes of being as Father, Son and Spirit, because creation, reconciliation and redemption, the whole being, speech and action in which He wills to be our God, have their basis and prototype in His own essence, in His own being as God. As Father, Son and Spirit God is, so to speak, ours in advance. (ibid.)The doctrine of the Trinity states that God’s being-in-revelation (Deus ad extra) corresponds to God’s being-in-eternity (Deus ad intra). The God who is for us and with us in Jesus Christ is the true God from all eternity. For this reason, we can address God as “Thou.” God is truly a personal God who meets and confronts us. The person of Jesus Christ is not a secondary form of God or simply a mode confined to the economy, but is rather the eternal God incarnate. And this means that God “is both to be feared and also to be loved,” feared because God is truly God and loved because God is truly our God.
Bultmann’s Program of Demythologization
Jüngel argues that Bultmann’s program of demythologization plays a similar role in Bultmann’s theology as the doctrine of the Trinity does in Barth’s. Unlike Barth, Bultmann focuses on hermeneutics rather than on ontology; that is, he is concerned with how humans interpret and speak about revelation. This includes both the interpretation found within Scripture, as an authoritative form of human talk about God, and our interpretation of Scripture. All such talk, however, can easily reduce God into an immanent reality, an object within the limited sphere of our understanding. To the extent that one’s anthropological perspective “objectifies” God, such talk is mythological in nature. For this reason, Bultmann often clarifies the word “mythology” with the term “objectifying representations.” For him, mythology is an objectifying mode of discourse about the divine.
According to Bultmann, in his 1941 essay on “New Testament and Mythology,” myth “talks about the power or the powers that we think we experience as the ground and limit of our world . . . within the circle of the familiar world, . . . within the circle of human life . . . Myth talks about the unworldly as worldly, the gods as human” (New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984): 9; hereafter cited as NTM). In an attempt to illuminate the divine, myth ends up illuminating the existential perspective of those who speak about the divine. Any interpretation of mythology must, therefore, also be existential in nature. The myth must be “translated” into our own contemporary context in order for the message to be rightly heard. Demythologization is thus a process not of excising mythological ideas from the pages of Scripture, but of translating the New Testament.
Demythologizing seeks to bring out the real intention of myth, namely, its intention to talk about human existence as grounded in and limited by a transcendent, unworldly power, which is not visible to objectifying thinking. Thus, negatively, demythologizing is criticism of the mythical world picture insofar as it conceals the real intention of myth. Positively, demythologizing is existentialist interpretation, in that it seeks to make clear the intention of myth to talk about human existence. (ibid., 99)Demythologization, as Bultmann defines it, is primarily a positive attempt to interpret Scripture for the sake of hearing the kerygma as modern persons. It seeks to let the transcendent remain transcendent—i.e., to let God remain God—for those who no longer accept a “mythological world picture.” The program of demythologization does not reduce God to us, but interprets Scripture so that we, as modern persons, know that God is indeed for us.
Barth and Bultmann: Friends or Foes?
The theological “friendship” between Barth and Bultmann becomes clear when we see that both the doctrine of the Trinity and the program of demythologization intend, to use Barth’s terminology, to show that God is both “our God” and “our God.” In order to ensure that we are indeed speaking about God, each position is set in polemical opposition to both mythology and metaphysics, because both objectify God—they turn God into an object under our control. As Jüngel says, Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity “protects the Christian doctrine of God from becoming mythological or slipping into metaphysics” (33). The same can be said of Bultmann’s demythologization. In a 1952 essay, Bultmann further defines myth in a way that demonstrates the affinity between mythology and metaphysics:
Myth talks about gods as human beings, and about their actions as human actions . . . Myth thus makes the gods (or God) into human beings with superior power, and it does this even when it speaks of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, because it does not distinguish these qualitatively from human power and knowledge but only quantitatively. (NTM, 98-99)According to Bultmann, myth speaks about God as quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, distinct. God becomes a human being “with superior power,” not a truly transcendent being. This kind of quantitative distinction between God and humanity constitutes the nature of metaphysics. The via causalitatis, the via negativa, and the via eminentiae attribute to God aspects of creaturely existence. One cannot truly speak about God by first speaking about creatures. On this point, both Bultmann and Barth agree as dialectical theologians who understand God first and foremost as the Wholly Other.
What, then, is the abiding difference between these two theologians? We can begin by first identifying the points of agreement: (1) both theologians intend to speak about God as our God, as one who is both Wholly Other and wholly pro nobis; (2) both theologians reject mythology and metaphysics as improper modes for thinking about God and set their own theologies in opposition to them; and (3) both theologians seek to let us hear the kerygma, the Word of God, anew in our contemporary context. As Jüngel states, “The difference between the theology of Karl Barth and that of Rudolf Bultmann is therefore not grounded in the fact that Barth’s theological statements leave out of account the anthropological relation given in revelation, whereas Bultmann, by contrast, dissolves theological statements into anthropological statements.” (73).
But a difference remains. In what follows, I will parse Jüngel’s understanding of the difference before offering some comments on whether there remains room for a greater “friendship” between these two theologians. Jüngel begins by stating:
The difference [can] be seen in the fact that Barth believes that a distinction must be made between God’s being-as-object in his revelation as “secondary objectivity” and a “primary objectivity” in the innertrinitarian being of God which makes possible this “secondary objectivity,” whereas Bultmann holds that the question of the possibility of revelation (which is grounded in God) is forbidden. (ibid.)Jüngel is correct to notice a sharp difference here regarding the Trinity. For Barth, the question of divine ontology is necessary on the basis of revelation. For Bultmann, divine ontology is always an objectification of God. According to Bultmann, “we cannot talk about God or what transcends the world as it is ‘in itself,’ because in doing so we would objectify God or the transcendent into an immanent, worldly phenomenon” (ibid.). His basic point is that we only know God as God relates to us, as God encounters us in revelation. We only know God for us. If God truly transcends all human speech about God, then talk about God in se is inevitably talk about humanity—i.e., it is inevitably metaphysics, and thus mythology. While Barth is also opposed to ontology as the pursuit of a system of being within which one may include God (76), he is nevertheless convinced that we must do the work of theological ontology when revelation demands it. Bultmann, however, remains convinced that all divine ontology is finally mythology, in the sense that such ontology requires metaphysics to get it up and running (at least as he understands it).
This difference might seem to be the end of the story, but it isn’t. In fact, the difference may actually be located somewhere else entirely. Jüngel goes on to complicate and illuminate the distinction between these two thinkers, and here I quote him at great length:
Barth does not seek to reach behind revelation by transcendental questioning, but rather sees himself induced to make his inquiry on the ground of revelation…. Nevertheless, for Barth, the anthropological relevance of theological statements is not the criterion of their truth. The criterion of the truth of theological statements is, for Barth, given in the fact that in all theological statements the freedom of the subject of the revelation remains safeguarded. Conversely, for Bultmann, the anthropological relevance of theological statements is the criterion of their truth because, for him, revelation is always an eschatological occurrence which as such becomes an event in an historical (historisch) “that.” It is a matter of the “paradoxical identity” in which an historical (historisch) “that” becomes historically (geschichtlich) meaningful as eschatological event. Bultmann insists on the “est” of this paradoxical identity, whereas for Barth, in accordance with the distinction between God’s “primary” and “secondary objectivity,” God himself has actually come into the picture, but “only” in his work which points to him as a sign. For Barth, even Jesus’ humanity is in this sense a “sacramental reality,” a parable. What finally separates Barth from Bultmann is the same reservation which Barth also has towards Luther’s teaching on the Lord’s Supper: God’s presence in the parable of sacramental reality must not lead to an equation between God and our reality, if God is not to be objectified. The intention which bound Barth and Bultmann together in their common beginnings has thus remained unchanged in both….The problem of the relation of Barth’s theology to that of Bultmann can only be set out with systematic adequacy through a contrast between “analogy” and “paradoxical identity.” (73-74)According to Jüngel, Barth’s criterion is the freedom of God, while Bultmann’s criterion is the anthropological relevance, i.e., its relation to us in the present-tense. Both Bultmann and Barth are dialectical theologians who understand God as the Wholly Other, but Bultmann interprets the event of revelation as the primary reality of God, whereas Barth—on this point, closer to Gollwitzer—interprets the event of revelation as the secondary reality of God. As Jüngel rightly points out, this does not mean that God’s “primary objectivity” is somehow abstracted from revelation. On the contrary, Jüngel points out that Barth’s entire dogmatics is a “thorough exegesis” of the axiom that “God corresponds to himself” (36). God’s being-in-revelation corresponds to God’s being-in-eternity. Revelation is therefore God’s self-interpretation.
Jüngel’s analysis of Barth and Bultmann, however brilliant, does not quite go far enough. In the final, more constructive section of the book, Jüngel presents some thoughts regarding God’s being-in-becoming which might help to bridge the differences between Barth and Bultmann. Following the insights of Barth’s mature doctrine of reconciliation, Jüngel proposes that we think of God “in a thoroughly historical way” (107), so that God’s freedom is a freedom for revelation and reconciliation. On the basis of the event of revelation, “God’s being is originally event” (ibid.). Since this event is an historical event, God’s being is “historical being” (109). According to Jüngel, “we must in any event formulate God’s historicality” (ibid.), and this involves thinking ontologically about God on the sole basis of the historical event of revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result, insofar as we think about God on the basis of God’s self-reiteration and self-interpretation in revelation, God’s being is “not only able to bear historical predicates (despite their unsuitability) but also requires them” (110). God is “historical being,” because God’s being is grounded in and defined by the concrete event of revelation. This does not mean that God is constituted by the other with whom God enters into covenant fellowship. God simply is an historical event. God is eternally historical in that God has eternally elected this man Jesus and thus made space within God’s being for this particular historical predicate. The Logos, as Barth says, is the “stop-gap” for Jesus (113).
The triune being of God thus has a double relationality: God enters into relation with another because God’s being “is a being related to itself” (114). This most certainly does not mean that God ad intra is “in and for Godself” while God ad extra is “for us.” On the contrary, both aspects of God’s being are pro nobis, the one in actuality (ad extra) and the other by way of anticipation (ad intra). And so, as Jüngel says, the doctrine of the Trinity “understands God’s self-relatedness in his modes of being, not as a kind of divine ontological egoism, but rather as the power of God’s being to become the God of another” (ibid.). In other words, both aspects of God’s relationality are in becoming; both are aspects of God as historical event. Jüngel remarks, almost in passing, that in this affirmation and the corresponding rejection of a phenomenology of the divine being, “Bultmann may stand nearer to Barth than to any philosopher” (ibid.).
I want to suggest that Bultmann and Barth—at least the later Barth—indeed stand together. They may not sing the same melody, but they at least sing in harmonious counterpoint. While it does not become immediately clear in Jüngel’s fine treatment of Barth’s theology, the basis for a rapprochement between Karl and Rudolf can be found in this short monograph—a reunion that is only strengthened by Jüngel’s later work, God as the Mystery of the World. The important concept in that work, which is crucial to this debate, is the notion of the “humanity of God,” an idea that Barth himself only takes up late in his career, most notably in the lecture from 1956. There he says the following, in criticism of his own earlier theology:
[I]t was pre-eminently the image and concept of a “wholly other” that fascinated us and which we, though not without examination, had dared to identify with the deity of Him who in the Bible is called Yahweh-Kyrios. We viewed this “wholly other” in isolation, abstracted and absolutized, and set it over against man, this miserable wretch—not to say boxed his ears with it—in such fashion that it continually showed greater similarity to the deity of the God of the philosophers than to the deity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. . . . We did not believe nor intend any such thing. . . . Who God is and what He is in His deity He proves and reveals not in a vacuum as a divine being-for-Himself, but precisely and authentically in the fact that He exists, speaks, and acts as the partner of man, though of course as the absolutely superior partner. He who does that is the living God. And the freedom in which He does that is His deity. It is the deity which as such also has the character of humanity. . . . It is precisely God’s deity which, rightly understood, includes his humanity. (The Humanity of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1960): 44-46)According to Barth, “there may be godless humanity, but there is no God without humanity,” no “humanless God,” so to speak (137). To say God is also to say humanity, because the being of God includes the being of humanity as that which God elects from all eternity in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no God behind or before the God who exists as the covenant partner of humanity. As a result, God is most truly God when God becomes human in Jesus of Nazareth, and God is most truly divine when God goes into the far country and dies for the sake of humankind. As Jüngel would say, God’s being is located in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In short, God’s deity includes humanity, and God’s freedom is the freedom to be human.
Barth’s doctrine of the humanity of God offers the basis for a rapprochement with Bultmann. God’s freedom is the freedom to be anthropologically relevant, not only in Jesus himself but in the ongoing proclamation of the gospel as an event of the Word of God. Bultmann’s “paradoxical identity” of the human Jesus with God is no longer an objectification of God, because this humanity is itself constitutive of what it means to be God. The deity of God includes this—and therefore all—humanity. If God is by nature an historical event, then human history is not located only in God’s “secondary objectivity.” God’s eternal being includes and can therefore be identified with the historical event of Jesus. Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary objectivity, prominent in Barth’s doctrine of God, fades from view in his later doctrine of reconciliation. The point is that “God [can] not be conceived as God without humanity; conversely, God . . . always [has] to be brought to speech with the concept of humanity” (105). There can be no talk of “God’s being in and for itself” if this means God apart from or without humanity. Similarly, as Barth says, “we do not have to reckon with any Son of God in Himself, with any logos asarkos, with any other Word of God than that which was made flesh” (CD IV/1, 52). On the contrary, there is only “God for us,” the God who elects to live together with humanity, the God who is an historical event, the God who becomes human—the God whose being is truly in becoming.
Response to David Congdon
Contributed by Sergi Avilés.
Congdon’s central idea is one of the more interesting, if not the most interesting, topic in Jüngel: Is there a deeper similarity beyond the difference between Barth and Bultmann? The question is a difficult one, and a full account must – as Congdon correctly says – point to God as the Mistery of the World. In my opinion, Jüngel is closer to Barth than to Bultmann, although he likes to use the word “hermeneutics” a great deal. But, he uses it in a very different sense than does Bultmann.
Congdon conclusion is that the union Jüngel finds between these two great theologians is the historicity of God. Barth achieves this through his doctrine of trinity, and Bultmann by his demythologization project. Congdon’s demonstration of that point in Barth is excellent, as is suggested by the scope of his arguments and his extensive quotations. But, and here is my only criticism, I am not sure about Bultmann.
Is true that Bultmann’s project is to focus on God’s historicity? Is it true that for Bultmann God’s being is in becoming?
For Bultmann, history disappears when one is confronted by the true kerygma. That is why some of Bultmann’s critics say he leaves no room for future hope. If the time of salvation is now, history has vanished. The future does not matter; the present decision is all that really exists.
Faith in Bultmann is not a history made of successive events. This is clear in the so-called ‘history of salvation’: Jesus’ crucifixion, death, resurrection, and exaltation. For Bultmann, these are not historical, successive or chronologically ordered facts. They are, rather different expressions of the kerygma. For him, there is no link between Jesus’ resurrection and his exaltation. In fact, they are two different traditions that were connected only in late stages of the Gospels’ development. All this is to say that history vanishes when God appears, and that God’s appearances are not historically connected in successive events. They are unique moments, and we are not able to control their appearance.
In conclusion, I do not agree with Congdon that God may be defined as historical in Bultmann. But, I am willing to concede that a further study of Jüngel’s later work may shed new light on this.