Comments Brought to Light: David Congdon on Bultmann, Barth, Heidegger, Scripture, Tradition, and Sache
In any case, I wanted to highlight these comments because I thought that they were particularly helpful articulations, and I wanted to provide a separate comment thread so that discussion on these topics can continue in their own dedicated location. I have only provided Congdon’s comments here, and I encourage you to go read the original comments thread in order to get a sense of the context.
Comments by David W. Congdon
1. Bultmann has almost no indebtedness to Heidegger, as surprising as that will sound. Indeed, all of his material decisions are made prior to encountering Heidegger; Heidegger actually read Bultmann before Bultmann read Heidegger, so the influence may very well be in the other direction; Heidegger provides Bultmann with formal concepts but that's it; and at every point that Heidegger transgresses a limit determined by the material norm of theology, Bultmann objects. So Heidegger is of no material significance where Bultmann's theology is concerned. (This is not a new thesis. Roger Johnson made the case for it in 1974, and the publication of Heidegger's Nachlass in the years since has confirmed it.)
2. Bultmann explicitly appeals to the tradition of the church as the starting-point for Christian theology. I may have given the wrong impression when I criticized appeals to tradition. Bultmann is quite clear in 1925 that the “concrete situation” for exegesis is “the tradition of the church of the word.” Since “I stand in my existence in the tradition of the word, there is a readiness for faithful questioning.” And in 1929 Bultmann says that the communication of the church “belongs itself to what is communicated,” since it is not a “mere conveying” of facts but rather a word that addresses each person. The church’s teaching “has the character of tradition, which belongs to the history that it narrates. The tradition belongs to the event itself.” I could go on, but the point is that Bultmann affirms that the gospel message includes the tradition. The only question, of course, is in what sense. How are we to understand the way in which kerygma and tradition relate?
3. Everyone seems to get tripped up over Bultmann's discussion of existence. It all goes back to his infamous statement in 1925 that “if one wishes to speak of God, one must evidently speak of oneself.” Most people stop reading at this point, which is a shame, because he ends up explaining what he means in a way that debunks (demythologizes!) the false reports about him. Later in the same essay he writes: "We cannot speak about our existence, since we cannot speak about God; and we cannot speak about God, since we cannot speak about our existence. We could only have the one with the other. . . . In any case, a speaking of God, if it were possible, must be at the same time a speaking of ourselves." The key here is the "at the same time" (zugleich). Bultmann never reduces talk of God to talk of human existence, as if God is directly accessible in or identified with existential questions. On the contrary, his point is a soteriological one: if God is only known in revelation, and if revelation is always also reconciliation (as Barth rightly perceived), then God is only known where God savingly acts upon us, and that means we can only speak of God if we are also at the same time speaking of ourselves. The two (divine and human) are coterminous. Thus Bultmann could say in 1924 that “the object of theology is indeed God, and theology speaks of God in that it speaks of human beings as they stand before God, and therefore out of faith.” God is the object of theology (not human existence), but since God is only known in revelation, theology speaks of God in speaking of the human person standing before God. And so, returning to the 1925 essay, we read: “if our existence is grounded in God, i.e., it is not available outside of God, then the apprehension of our existence just means the apprehension of God.” Our existence is not available outside of God, and thus when Bultmann says that theology speaks of human existence, this is just code for "speaks of God." Bultmann's posthumously published lectures on theology reinforce the point that the normative Sache of exegesis is found only in the divine object and never in the human subject: “the criterion of truth [of our God-talk] is not given in the individual subjective relation to the object, but rather in the object itself.” And just to show that these are not merely statements from the early "dialectical" Bultmann that he leaves behind when he turns in a more explicitly existentialist direction in the late 1930s, we find the following statement in his 1961 essay on demythologizing: “Because God is not an objectively discernable phenomenon of the world, we are only able to speak of God’s action if we speak at the same time [there's the zugleich again] of our existence as affected by God’s action.” That is to say, the existence in question is existence “affected by God’s action,” and this affectedness “has its origin strictly in God,” such that in the presence of this divine action we are “merely those who are passive, those who receive.” In sum, the human existence with which theology is concerned is existence affected by God's prior act in Christ, existence standing before God, existence in God.
4. As you admit, you have not read much of Bultmann's work. If you want to see where he develops these ideas, take a look at my reading guide to Bultmann that I posted recently on my blog. You can find all you need there. I would also recommend the book Christus Praesens by James F. Kay, which is probably the best book on Bultmann's christology.
[Ed. note: Here David moved from addressing questions of Bultmann interpretation to more independent theological considerations caught-up in the discussion.]
1. There is a false dichotomy that I discern in your comment about the regula fidei. You seem to suggest that we have two options: either (a) starting from "a clean 'pre-creedal' slate" and building up to a full theological system or (b) presupposing the received tradition as normative. I reject both options. It all depends on responsibly and clearly differentiating between kerygma/gospel and text/tradition. The normative Sache encounters us in and through the text and its traditions without ever identifying itself with them. There is indeed something "pre-creedal" that is not some ahistorical blank slate. The tradition of Christian faith cannot and must not be identified with the dogmatic creeds that are a historically situated translation of the eschatological message of Christ. The received tradition is only truly tradition, i.e., the handing-on of the faith, insofar as it becomes, in the moment, the medium of God's speech to us. It is not in itself the bearer of this message.
2. Staying on this theme, let's turn to the witness/reality problem. Here is where we truly disagree -- and perhaps fundamentally so. You write: "I am not saying (that Barth etc. says) that there is no gap, but I am saying that gap is 'bridged,' and that happens pneumatologically. To use Childs’ phrase, the text is 'infused with its full ontological reality...'" Notice the apposition of "pnematologically" and "the text." This indicates where you side with the postliberalism of Childs over against the actualism of Barth and Bultmann. For the latter, the work of the Spirit does not occur in the text itself but in the encounter with the text here and now. The text is never "infused" with anything; it is a fully human document that simply attests what particular people and communities understood about God. The reality never becomes a property of the text, nor does it become a property of the reader. Instead, the text becomes the medium of God's speech when and where the Spirit illuminates the reading of it, which occurs when and where we hear the kerygma as a message that concerns us. And this encounter with the reality of God occurs again and again, ever anew, so that we cannot speak of a gap being "bridged." Indeed, we can only really speak of a "bridging" ever anew. But I think we have to dispense with gap language altogether. The gap only exists on the human side, and that's simply because of the ontological differentiation between creature and creator; it is nothing unique to the text. On the divine side, there is no gap at all, because God is noncompetitively present in the world. God is paradoxically identical with the creaturely factors that become the sites for the human encounter with Christ. So on the divine side, there is no "gap" to cross; on the human side, the distinction between reality and witness remains even in the moments of paradoxical identity (i.e., it remains paradoxical), simply because God can never be objectified as something available at hand.
3. I agree with you that we need to do some careful dogmatic thought, but such thought is always, for me, controlled by what God savingly does in Jesus Christ. The soteriological action of God is constitutive of who God is. And since God does not reconcile us by infusing us with anything, because I understand God's saving action to be a forensic act of justification by grace alone (for reasons we can discuss another time), it follows that God is not a God who infuses anything into the text of scripture. So I disagree with your entire understanding of how God relates to the text, and for basic dogmatic reasons.
4. "I totally agree with this statement of yours: 'The Sache that is Christ becomes the hermeneutical key for understanding the genuine message within a fallible and historically situated document.' Except that I think the substance of Scripture is the Trinity and not Christ per se (see Chris Seitz’s debate with F. Watson)." Two problems. First, the Sache is not "the substance of scripture." It is the living Christ himself in his kerygmatic encounter with us. Second, I reject any distinction between trinity and christology regarding the Sache. Such distinctions trade on what I consider to be a false understanding of the trinity. The Christ-event in its historical actuality is the being of the trinity: the Father is the one Jesus experiences as the power of his sending, while the Spirit is the one Jesus experiences as the power of his mission. This historical event simply is the eternal trinity. Also, Bultmann has no aversion to thinking about God's being, once we understand that this being is not something above or prior to God's actions in history. I discuss this at length in my dissertation and describe his position as an "eschatological theological ontology."