Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann on "Sachkritik": Once More with David Congdon

Congdon’s work is full of insightful historical tidbits and encapsulations of the relationship between Bultmann and Barth. It would have to be, given the book’s subtitle!

David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Fortress, 2015).

I’ve posted on Congdon’s book already, but I have not yet posted in any detail on how he handles this relationship between Barth and Bultmann. This post will plug that gap, and it is an important gap to plug. I will do so by highlighting Congdon’s discussion of the debate that the two Bs had over the question of Sachkritik in 1922. Barth’s preface to the first edition of his Romans commentary provided the origin for this debate. Barth distinguishes in that preface between the “subject matter” [Sache] of the biblical text and the “document” that communicates this message (e.g., Paul’s epistle to the Romans). As Congdon explains, Bultmann was teaching a class on Romans when the second edition of Barth’s book came out. Bultmann interacted with the book in his course and then wrote a review that pushed Barth on this point. This led to responses from Barth in later prefaces, all the details of which Congdon lays out in admirable clarity. What I give you below is the conclusion of Congdon’s discussion wherein he draws the moral from the story, as it were. As always, bold is mine and italics is in the original.
In the end, the debate between Barth and Bultmann over Sachkritik is an instructive moment in theological history, not only because they are arguably the two most important theologians of the twentieth century but also because it is emblematic of a debate that long preceded them and continues to live long after their deaths. While Bultmann was, in the opinion of this author, the victor in their exchange, each represents a positive value that must be upheld in any consideration of scripture. Barth champions the claim that the revelation of God, the kerygmatic word of Christ, cannot be objectified as one voice within scripture among others, but rather stands beyond the text as the divine Krisis of all human words. Bultmann affirms this soteriological point, but recognizes that just because God’s word is “wholly other” does not mean that all human words are equally negated and equally affirmed; instead, some human words echo the word of God more clearly and responsibly than others. The divine kerygma becomes a light by which to discern those human voices that serve as more appropriate witnesses to God’s saving action in Christ.

In sum, Barth lifts up the divine “yes and no” while Bultmann lifts up the corresponding human “yes and amen.” Both need to be heard together, but in their distinctiveness: the divine as divine, the human as human. But this means we simultaneously affirm the necessity of criticism, for the human word is always imperfectly analogous to the divine; it is always a word rendered at least partially opaque to the kerygma by virtue of its being situated within the contingencies of history. Sachkritik is necessary because, as Jüngel puts it, the biblical texts are “human speech of their time.” Biblical interpretation therefore requires an analogia fidei, a critical understanding of God on the basis of faith’s relation to Christ. . . . Barth’s own dogmatic method is, in truth, a program of Sachkritik: it is a discriminating evaluation of our God-talk in accordance with the Sache of God’s self-communication to faith. Just as the truth of myth demands a program of demythologizing, so too the truth of the witness to Christ demands the critical analysis of the corresponding human witness. Sachkritik, as a mode of the analogia fidei, serves revelation’s capture of language by criticizing language’s capture of revelation. (735-37)



Darren said…
Thanks for this, Scott. I'm glad to have a chance to glean some of David's insights before I make my own trip through the book. (That last line is especially fantastic!)
All due credit to Scott, but I wrote this one. ;-P
Darren said…
Wait, you still work here? ;)
I have a cage in the back and sometimes Scott forgets to lock it...

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