What Am I Reading? David Congdon’s “The Mission of Demythologizing”

David and I have been friends for a long time. We became acquainted as undergrads who spent two years living on the same dorm floor, and then we went and spent all our graduate study in the same programs. In other words, David and I spent a decade being less than a mile apart. Now we are quite a few miles apart, but we continue to be key influences on one another’s intellectual lives. Well, I shouldn’t speak for David: he continues to be an important intellectual influence and stimulation for me, at the least. Consequently, I was perhaps uniquely pleased to see the publication of his tome (indeed, that is the only word for it…):

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

I had read chunks of this work in development, and worked over the whole in conversation, but now I have introduced back-end to chair for a considerable period of time and read the whole. It is a stupendous work. David has—and I say this in all seriousness—reconfigured the historical picture of dialectical theology’s development and persistence, and he has breathed a new life into it as well.

This work is far too large and intricate for me to attempt a neat summary. In its place, I offer three brief comments about what Congdon has accomplished and why anyone interested in 20th century Protestant theology should read this volume carefully.

  • Congdon gives us a new Bultmann - This is perhaps the most important thing that Congdon accomplishes. Reception of Bultmann, and especially of demythologizing, has been obscured by polemics from the very start, and this problem is especially pronounced in English-language scholarship. This problem is further compounded by bad translation, as well as overshadowed by Barth’s own misunderstanding of Bultmann. David cuts through all this noise (he does this throughout, but see especially section 8.5 where he addresses the criticisms that Moltmann, Bayer, and Jenson lodged against Bultmann), drawing upon the best German scholarship but also going beyond it, to articulate a compelling account of Bultmann’s thought. And it is an approach that (1) maintains continuity with the dialectical theology movement of the 1920s, and (2) is driven by the engine of mission. That Congdon has given us a new Bultmann is especially important for all those, particularly those of the “Barthian” persuasion, who have heretofore written-off Bultmann. These folks have rejected a bogeyman (bogeywoman? bogeyperson?) that does not exist. The only proper response is to tolle lege! anew.
  • Congdon gives us a new Barth - Barth scholars will perhaps find this point most surprising, but I’m convinced that it is now impossible to discuss Barth’s development without recourse to Congdon’s work. His excursus on Barth’s development (p. 123ff) is valuable on its own, but his most important contribution is to clarify the impetus for Barth’s turn from the liberalism in which he was trained. The usual story is that an “Appeal” of 93 German intellectuals, including many of Barth’s teachers, in support of World War 1 gave Barth the critical nudge. Congdon, however, identifies another “Appeal” that appeared a month earlier, also signed by Barth’s teachers in support of World War 1, and that proved more critical. This appeal made the case for war on missionary grounds, which repulsed Barth. Consequently: “Dialectical theology, in the sense defined by Barth, was forged in the crucible of a theopolitical dispute between the pseudo-mission of Germany and the genuine mission of God, between the mission of a ‘No-God’ and the mission of Jesus Christ” (p. 258; see all of 3.1, beginning on page 237).
  • Congdon brings Barth and Bultmann together - I don’t mean to suggest that Congdon argues for the position that Barth and Bultmann are identical, because he does not make that argument. Real differences remain. However, Congdon does show that they are much closer together than even Barth ever recognized. Barth famously likened their relationship to that between a whale and an elephant who can never meet and, if they could, would have nothing to say to one another. Congdon calls this “The Myth of the Whale and the Elephant,” and he sets out to demythologize it and gain a proper picture of where Barth and Bultmann disagree. I can’t tell the whole story here, obviously, but I want to highlight a piece of it. See the below.

One of the things that soured Barth on Bultmann was the former’s intuition that the latter engaged in some clandestine (and sometimes not-so-clandestine) natural theology. Congdon often uses the phrase “fog of war” to refer to Barth’s thinking in the very late 1920s and early 1930s as the dialectical movement fell apart, and I think this is apt. What Congdon does in the following paragraph is show that Barth’s intuition was wrong with reference to Bultmann, and that – in fact – what Barth call’s natural theology is what Bultmann calls “objectification,” the very thing that the program of demythologizing is aimed at combatting. As usual, bold is mine and italics are not.
What Barth variously identifies as abstract speculation, natural theology, metaphysics, or the analogia entis is identical with what Bultmann calls “objectifying thinking.” Barth and Bultmann share the same overarching concern, namely, the need to differentiate responsible theological speech from those forms of God-talk that implicitly annul the creator-creature distinction. For Barth such God-talk occurs when God is brought to speech in a way that is not controlled by the concrete reality of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Similarly, for Bultmann, inappropriate analogical God-talk occurs when God is objectified as something worldly and immanent, that is, as “an existing thing, an object of knowledge.” Objectifying God-talk fails to speak responsibly of the God who is absolutely transcendent; it forgets that “God remains a mystery in revelation and is never rationally knowable, because God remains the Thou.’ When Bultmann thus interrogates the mythical “analogy” between the world’s creation and the work of an artist, or when he criticizes the way myth presents divine power as “analogous” to immanent powers, he is criticizing as myth what Barth criticizes as natural theology or the analogia entis. Where Bultmann critiques myth for speaking about the gods “as human beings . . . endowed with superhuman power,” Barth critiques liberalism for speaking about God by “saying ‘humanity’ in the loudest tones.” These are all modes of expression that confuse the divine with the realm of human beings. In each case God is brought to speech as a mere extension of the world and not as a transcendent agent who graciously and savingly comes to the world from a genuine beyond. [623–24]
You can be sure, gentle readers, that I will highlight other aspects of this important work in later posts. But you should really go get it and read it for yourself. Or, if this volume is too overwhelming or too expensive for you right now, at least consult Congdon’s even more recently released - and much more manageably sized - handbook from Cascade: Rudolf Butlmann: A Companion to His Theology.



Juan C. Torres said…
This book is intense. I'm in section 4.2.1. The book has definitely changed the way I view both Barth and Bultmann.
Jim said…
nicely done. it shall be included in the carnival. you're welcome.

Thanks, Jim. ;-P

Indeed, PostMoltmannian!
Wyatt said…
My opinion of Bultmann was radically changed by Congdon's book, but maybe the resolution is that Bultmann was closer to Barth than he realized, and maybe with some convincing he would have been won over to Barth's side by Congdon!

Bultmann knew how close to Barth he was; Barth didn't know how close to Bultmann he was. The resolution, based on the argument in David's book, is that Barth still had some things to learn or gain great clarity and consistency about.
Thanks for the post, Travis, and for the kind comments.

If my argument is correct, then the biggest obstacle to Barth reconciling with Bultmann is Barth reconciling with himself! Since I argue that it was Barth who departed from the original dialectical theology, not Bultmann, the main difficulty is that the later Barth fundamentally rejects the earlier Barth. Bultmann really isn't the issue here. The main question is: can the Barth of CD IV be at peace with the Barth of Romans II and Göttingen?
A fundamental point of divergence between the Barth of Church Dogmatics and Bultmann has to do with the objective pole of salvation. Bultmann's program of "demythologizing" forces him to reject a real Incarnation, a vicarious, substitutionary atonement as something efficacious in itself, and a bodily resurrection of Jesus. For Barth these doctrines are non-negotiable and absolutely essential to our salvaiton. Take a look at Bultmann's essay where he rejects the 1948 World Council of Churches confession which affirms "the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour." Bultmann explicitly rejects the use of the word "God" in this confession. The biggest obstacle to Barth reconciling with Bultmann has to do with Bultmann's dissovling everything into the subjective ("existential") pole of salvation -- a move that seems to me to be both fatal and incoherent.
Hi George - always a pleasure to have you stop by! :-)

David gives his reading of Bultmann's response to the 1948 WCC document on pp. 364-69 of his book, so you may be interested in seeing what he makes of it.

But I certainly agree that Bultmann does not have the "objectivist" motif as robustly developed as Barth. Though David has brought them much closer together, very real differences remain.
Well, I haven't read David's book, but I have read a lot of Bultmann.

Does he uphold a Nicene doctrine of the Holy Trinity? No.

Does he affirm the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God -- in line with Chalcedon? No.

Does he allow for a vicarious, substitionary atonement as efficacious in itself? No.

Does he affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus? No.

These themes are not only "underdevelopped." They are for the most part openly rejected as "mythological."

I will look at the passage you mention. But I doubt that any amount of special pleading can rescue Bultmann from these fatal theological errors.

There is nothing in pp. 364-69 of David's book that would make me change my mind.

Butlmann's distinction between the "historical" (=existential) and the "metaphysical" (=objective and ontological) is at once tendentious and spurious.

Nicaea affirms that the eternal Father an the eternal Son have one and the same "essence" (homoousia).

Bultmann denies this, because he thinks he can dispense with the very idea of an essence by reducing everything to an "event." This is confused and untenable.
I can't contradict you, nor am I interested in contradicting you, on most of these points. The one I might quibble with is the Chalcedonian one: it seems to me that much of the logic of Bultmann's thought is modeled on the Chalcedonian pattern. But perhaps you mean that he fails to affirm Chalcedon because he thinks that the concept of "eternal Word of God" is "mythological," in which case I suspect that you are right.

But one of the things that I really value about David's book as a whole is how he asks us to reassess Bultmann's thought and see it in a new way. One of the key points that he makes is that Bultmann's "demythologizing" project is at its heart an anti-natural theology project. Seen in that light, when Bultmann declares something to be mythological, he means that the concepts are not properly theological. This is why Butlmann might be chary with reference to the concept of "essence," much as Barth was with the concept of "nature."

Given this interpretation, it seems to me that Bultmann's work can be seen as an instructive attempt to rethink traditional Christian confession under new socio-historical / conceptual conditions. That doesn't mean we have to agree with his attempt, or that we can't make our own, etc.

Anyway, that's the impression that David's book made on me. :-)
One key point would be not to allow Bultmann to define the terms of the debate. He is not merely "rethinking" traditional Christianity. He is rejecting esssential tenets of it. His deviancy is smuggled into his definition of terms.

He does not uphold the trinitarian faith of Nicene Christianity. This has far-reaching consequences for revelation, reconciliation and not least worship. For Bultmann Jesus is not properly the object of worship.

Bultmann's theology is at best sectarian and heterodox, but beyond the pale at worst.

As David points out in the pages to which you referred me, Bultmann argues that christology is a function of soteriology. This is diametrically opposite to Barth, and that is why any attempt to force them into convergence can only end in shipwreck.

With reference to Bultmann rejecting essential tenets of traditional Christianity by way of his redefinition of terms, wouldn't you say that the history of Christian theology can be described as one long argument over the definition of terms? The traditional terminology - ousia, hypostasis, physis, etc. - took centuries to develop, after all. To what extent can they be considered essential tenets? I affirm that the tradition developed these terms to safeguard important judgments that I share, but it seems to me that we need to continue refining those judgments precisely by reconceptualizing them. Barth does this too, it seems to me, although he is perhaps more interested than Bultmann in maintaining contact with the traditional terminology.

I don't know of any place where Bultmann says that Jesus is not properly the object of worship, but I'm sure you're more widely read in Bultmann than I.

As for the point about christology being a function of soteriology: isn't it the case that one first believes that Jesus saves and one then believes that Jesus is Lord, at least logically speaking? I'm reminded here of (how I learned from you to read) the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2: Jesus forgives the paralytic's sins and then performs a healing miracle to confirm that he has the power to forgive sins, and on this basis we are invited to think of Jesus as God because Jesus never contradicts the statement that no one can forgive except for God. What Bultmann is doing on that point doesn't strike me as all that different.
Unknown said…
For me, Rudolf Bultmann answers the questions that most of his opponents have not even thought of. As I approach my 8th decade of life, theological opponents (on either side) don't bother me too much as I find it quite common that people don't want to understand each other. Perhaps our failure in God talk follows directly from our failure in wanting to understand each other. Paul Hopkins, Tamworth, NSW, Australia.
Unknown said…
Related to your comments about Bultmann and the issue of God and objectification in mythological language, I was much impressed, as a person initially trained in the physical sciences, when Bultmann reminded us of the dangers in objectification of the person - both you and I. This especially so when, from a scientific perspective, we have to objectify the person so that we can cure disease, etc, etc, etc. Is it possible that when we de-objectify the person such that we can appreciate the "absolute otherness of the other", then we have a tiny grasp on the concept of transcendence and can so have some understanding of God as transcendent. Is this an "analogy of being"? If so, perhaps the next question is, "How good is the analogy?" Thanks for the stimulation. Paul Hopkins, Tamworth, NSW, Australia.

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