Thursday, February 23, 2006

Kerygma and Myth 3: Julius Schniewind, 'A Reply to Bultmann'

Julius Schniewind, 'A Reply to Bultmann: Thesis on the Emancipation of the Kerygma from Mythology', in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. by Hans-Werner Bartsch, trans. by Reginald H. Fuller, (London: S.P.C.K.,1972). pp. 45-101.

An online version here.



Bultmann is not liberal. He is interested in 'the once-for-allness of the deed, the revelation of God in Christ'. [Note: 'revelation' is God's act of salvation and not an act in which humans are ontologically changed by something outside of themselves. Christ is not an exemplum ... or is he, in effect, only that?]

The Fall of Adam serves to explain the 'why' of every actual sin (p. 46).

Luther himself bemoaned naive literalism in preaching: 'Even Luther poured scorn on such literalism: "Oh, that heaven of the charlatans, with its golden stool and Christ sitting at the Father’s side vested in a choir cope and a golden crown, as the painters love to portray him." (W.A., XXIII, p. 131.)'

Schniewind states that any preacher worth his salt is prepared to 'paraphrase, translate and change terminology' in order to 'speak the Word of God to the concrete situation of the hearers' (p. 47). But what if the New Testament speaks in myth. How are we to deal with that? Demythologising is not simply a translation - and might this then affect the substance of what is said?



Schniewind's definition of mythology differs from Bultmann's: 'By "mythological" we mean the expression of unobservable realities in terms of observable phenomena. It is doubtful whether the human mind can ever dispense with myth. Every attempt to escape from mythology leads either to nihilism or to the question whether the invisible has in fact become visible, and if so, where? The Christian answer is, in W. Herrmann’s phrase, "God is Jesus" (Col. 1:15; John 14:9). Bultmann would agree in principle.'

[The above would appear to say that all talk of God is mythological by definition. Is this true? Depends on your definition of myth!]

Schniewind question's whether Bultmann's existentialist language is mythological. What do "authentic", "symbol", "totality" and "source" refer to?

He then turns to the Incarnation as the supreme example of the transcendent becoming earthly. Col. 1:15: "He is the image of the invisible God". He quotes W. Herrmann: "It is wrong to say that Jesus is God, for that implies that we already know what God is. It implies that Jesus is merely a theios, a divine being. We really ought to say that God is Jesus. Jesus is the very presence of God, the divine being himself."

Schniewind complains that Bultmann has not been definite enough about this when he used such phrases as "God's eschatological emissary" and "the agent of God's presence and activity".

That the psychikos anthropos finds it impossible to accept the faith of Christians is no new phenomenon.

"After all, is not the Christian claim that the eternal God has come to us in an individual man with all the limitations of time and space essentially mythological in character - i.e., does it not speak of the eternal as if it were involved in time and space, and of the invisible as if it were visible?" (p. 52)

[Schniewind has 'upped the ante'. He has claimed that the central event of Christianity which Bultmann himself holds dear is mythological in character. This last quote is interesting: "as if it were" - this is an odd way of putting it. Is he not involved, actually, in time and space?]

[One further point. Has Schniewind changed Bultmann's definition of mythology? And, to concentrate on the incarnation is fine. What about divine providence and Bultmann's worry concerning the interaction between 'the spirit world' and this outside of the Incarnation?]


Any 'act of God' or the concept of sin will appear mythological to modern man. Humans are 'fallen away' from God and are in rebellion and under God's wrath, but none of these concepts make sense philosophically apart from Christ and the Bible. Likewise, we only know the depth of humanity's hubris in the light of the Cross.

Even if sin is a universally understandable concept "Man's radical self-assertion blinds him" to its fact. "Hence it is no good telling that him he is a sinner. He will only dismiss it as mythology." (p. 31, 54) Schniewind points out this equally applies to faith in Christ.

Has Bultmann missed the radical answer to this questions which exists itself in the New Testament - God in Christ?

[What Bultmann has done is demythologised and remythologised. This is a good criticism and all well and good. However, we are still left with the question as to what apocalyptic language, for instance, refers to. We may be uneasy with taking the language literally - but what else is it saying? What are we to do with this language? I assume here that the demythologised political readings of G. B. Caird and N. T. Wright doesn't take us very far.]


Schniewind points out twice that Bultmann has made 'the God of Christian revelation the answer to questions which have been raised within the framework of atheism'.

The first criticism is over the forgiveness of sins. Bultmann defines man's problems using the existential framework. So, faith is the "the freedom of man from himself ... openness for the future ... Such faith is still a subtle form of self-assertion so long as the love of God is still a piece of wishful thinking (p. 32)". Christ is then presented as the solution to our problem of self-assertion.

In response, Schniewind states, "But surely, in justice to the New Testament, the whole argument ought to be reversed. It is because and in so far as we have become the objects of God’s love that we are freed from our past and open for God’s future. Because we are loved by God, our old man, our "adamite existence" as Schlatter called it, our old life in rebellion against God and cut off from fellowship with him, has been delivered over to death. "The old things are passed away" (2 Cor. 5:17). The "old things" in question are our past qualified as enmity to God, not the past in a merely chronological sense, the structure of our Being in time. It means our bondage to this present evil age, to a period of time which is moving towards the day of judgment."

[And yes, Schniewind believes in a coming, literal, Day of Judgement, without taking the mythological language of the New Testament in a literal way. "In other words, the mythological pictures of the day of judgment are simply signposts to the truth. God either rejects us (wrath) or accepts us (righteousness). This takes place at the last day -- that is, when our present time series and the world in which we are enchained have come to an end." (p. 56)]

Secondly, for Bultmann the forgiveness of sins is not a juridical concept but 'freedom to obey'. Schniewind argues that he has once again reversed the New Testament conception: 'Once more the argument should surely be reversed. The primary consideration is God and his coming judgment. It is our encounter with that judgment which betokens our sentence of death. But our acquittal is Christ himself. In the passage quoted by Bultmann (2 Cor. 5:17) the emphasis lies on the words "in Christ". The real meaning of eschatological existence and of the renewal of man is discernible only in the light of the revelation of God in Christ. We have no other means of discovering the meaning of those things. If we had, all God would be doing in revealing himself would be helping us to achieve eschatological existence and the renewal of our being. But the truth is, it is only our encounter with God in Christ which shows us what these things really are. Without that encounter, eschatological existence is misconstrued as the absolute timelessness of the mystics and the renewal of man as moral uplift. And there is a further difficulty. It looks as though for Bultmann the forgiveness of sins does not show its true character until it has produced freedom, from sin and consequent obedience to the imperative. If that were so, the forgiveness of sin would only be a means to an end, and the end would be the ethical renewal of man. This is to place a higher premium on the imperative "thou shalt" than on the indicative "thou art".' (pp. 57-8)


Schniewind believes the central message of the cross is unmythological and involves personal relationship with Christ. [He does not mention the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.] He appears to deny substitution: 'There is not a word here about the balancing of an account, or of wrath and punishment as burdens which Jesus took upon himself. The real meaning is that he entered into our deprivation from God, although he was himself the Son of God, the One "in whom God acts in a unique and final present", "true God and eternal life".' The New Testament contains 'pictoral' depiction of the effect of the cross and Christ's intercession for us, but it discretely knows that these are limited analogy.

In contrast, Bultmann has reduced "the crucifixion of our passions" to "no more than a striking euphemism for self-mastery" (p. 65) - "no more than the ordinary acceptance of suffering" (p. 66).


Bultmann does not believe that the meaning of the cross lies primarily in a past historical event (e.g. ~33AD). Rather the cross occurs beyond the bounds of time as an eschatological event and so an ever present reality. 'It is at this point that the significance of the cross is to be apprehended -- in the concreteness of our human life as historical. Everything Bultmann says about the cross is located not at Calvary but in our human experience. Of a unique event wrought out in the personal relationship between God and men on the stage of history, of a story of the dealings of God with man, of a unique and final revelation of God in Christ crucified (cp. Rom. 3:25; 2 Cor. 5:18), there is never so much as a word.'

[We might say, the cross comes to perform the 'function' of the intercession of the ascended, risen Christ.]

Four points.

1. The above ignores the witness of the New Testament - although Bultmann would probably say 'demythologizes it'.

2. The gospel documents themselves are barely mentioned by Bultmann (with the exception of John) - why? In Mark and Acts, Christ's death and resurrection functions as an historical event and only so as an event of theological significance. Are these Gospels not part of 'the word of the Church'?

3. Nor must we split the Gospels from the Epistles. Bultmann himself pioneered work in identifying the law and eschatology as key unifying elements.

4.Jesus is Lord as the Messiah. This caused the Jewish objection which the apologists engaged with. Bultmann wishes to preserve the scandalon of the cross, but to remove Christ from his basis in the lived history of the first century Palestine is to lose a key element in our continuity with the earliest tradition. The claim of the credibility of the witness is part of the kerygma. (p. 69)


Schniewind circles in on Bultmann's suggestion that the Easter event the beginning of the disciples' faith in the resurrection. [If they had faith in the resurrection, what do we have faith in?]

He agrees with Bultmann that "Christ meets us in the preaching as One crucified and risen. He meets us in the preaching and nowhere else. The faith of Easter is just this -- faith in the word of preaching." (p. 70) And he understands this to mean that we have no access to the resurrection except through the witness of the apostles.

Schniewind is concerned, however, for the uniqueness and finality of the Easter event. The fact that we are dependent on the witness of the apostles' does not change the fact that are Christ's resurrection was the unique event which the disciples witnessed.

Bultmann's 'eschatological event' seems to mean little more than belief in an invisible world. 'If so, what is the difference between it and any other belief in transcendental reality or immortal life? In that case the question remains why the events of the cross and resurrection were necessary for such an eschatological attitude. Do not Bultmann’s disregard of the uniqueness and finality of Jesus and his interpretation of the event of Christ in terms of "historic-personal existence" betray him into reducing the Christological events to the level of symbols or stimuli?' (p. 74)

'Can we hold fast to this kerygma of a unique and final revelation while at the same time avoiding the Scylla of historicism and the Charybdis of a symbolic Christology?' (p.75)


For Bultmann, what does 'eschatology' and 'history' mean? Eschatological existence is in effect the life of the believer, detached from this world reliant on God for security (p. 76).

'"Historic" existence is contrasted with "nature". Nature is the sphere of the demonstrable and calculable, the realm of causality. "Historic" being, on the other hand, is realized in decision and resolve. Nature, we may add, is always consistent, and is therefore patient of experimental research. History, on the other hand, is characterized by the Either/Or, and therefore bears the stamp of uniqueness, contingency, and spontaneity.' (p. 76)

'We may perhaps interpret this somewhat as follows. Life in faith means life based on realities beyond our control. Such a life is realized in decision and resolve, which has to be continually renewed in response to the word or kerygma of the Church. This word is not susceptible to logical proof, but when proclaimed it becomes an event. Is this a fair interpretation of Bultmann’s position? If it is, there is no need for the kerygma to contain anything specifically Christian, no need for it to be riveted firmly to the Man Jesus of Nazareth. Cross and resurrection, in so far as they have a place in the kerygma at all, figure only as symbols of detachment from the world. The suspicions we raised under the two preceding theses would seem to be abundantly justified.' (p. 76)

Bultmann is anxious to assert that this concrete and historical event is only the event of salvation when it is an eschatological event and thus when it 'becomes visible in the word of preaching which is based on that event and brings it to fruition'. (p. 77)

The events of AD1-30 have not present 'existential reality' viewed as 'mere past history'. 'The paradox of the Christian Gospel is just this -- those events are present realities although they belong to past history.' (Bultmann p. 77)

Schniewind is once again concerned for the 'once-for-allness' of the New Testament. He feels Bultmann has lost the character of eschatology as a time of judgement. Christ's resurrection reveals the sentence pronounced ahead of time. We live in a period of the overlapping of ages.

[I'm pretty sure a better appreciation of existential categories would be helpful here. My suspicion is that Bultmann is stuck in these categories, the exclusion of traditional metaphysics. One wonders if he has any way of saying that God 'exists'? Presumably God exists as he makes an eternal decision 'for us'? My point is that the only reality he feels comfortable talking of seems to be human reality described in existential categories. All the rest, at least that which purports to be descriptive of transcendent reality ... is just mythology. Somebody turn the light on, please.]



'Past history is for him something dead and done with, something which does not vitally affect us, something which exists only in the memory, which is dependent on tradition and all its hazards, and which is therefore subject to criticism and essentially relative. The antithesis to Historie is the present, that which affects us vitally, the eschatological, the eternally present, the eternal "now"' (p. 81).


Schniewind is having none of this elevation of the 'present'! 'It is doubtful whether we can speak of "now" in any legitimate sense at all. To say that timelessness is the axiomatic hinterground of time is pure speculation, so is the identification of this timelessness with the present or with eternity. All that the human mind can perceive is the relativity of our concept of time as such.'

[We do not have to be able to affirm or deny what Schniewind is saying to realise how much philosophical weight these terms are carrying in Bultmann's demythologizing.]

[I agree with Schniewind that it is invalid to identify 'eschatological' with 'present'. Even in John's Gospel, it is only the framework of a final judgement which gives such drama to Jesus' claims of present realisation. Yes, it is true that the believer in Christ experiences the eschatological judgement favourably in the present [I think, if we go with Luther, which I would like to. However, even after a couple of years of study I still feel unease about 'righteousness' and 'justification'], but the believer remains in this world and still awaits Christ's return.]

Schniewind asserts a tension between the present and the "historic" (Geschictlich) (p. 82). 'Bultmann’s definition of the "historic" in terms of decision and encounter actually demands a linear conception of time. Every decision means a dividing, a choosing: B follows A. Each event is connected with other events before and after.'


Historie and Geschichte. 'Geschichte means the mutual encounter of persons, Historie the causal nexus in the affairs of men. The latter is the subject matter of historical science, which seeks to divest itself of all presuppositions and prejudices and to establish objective facts. Geschichte, on the other hand, cannot achieve such impartiality, for the encounter which it implies vitally affects our personal existence: it demands resolve and decision, yes or no, love or hate.( The antithesis to "objective" in this context is not "subjective" but "personal", and it would he better to speak of "neutral" than of "objective.")' (p. 82)

'If this be so, it is impossible to run away from Historie to Geschichte. We cannot reject Historie because it is not vitally present for us and accept Geschichte because it is. It is impossible to escape from the relativity of past history. That relativity is not simply due to the limitations which affect history like any other science, nor yet to our dependence on the art of the historian and his capabilities for the reproduction of the past; it is the necessary consequence of man’s creatureliness. We are all inescapably enmeshed in the toils of causality. Our personal relationship with our fellow men involves us also in the relativity of-each successive moment. Every personal encounter is open to ambiguity and misconstruction, yet this very relativity provides the material for the uniquenesses, the events and decisions of Geschichte.'

[Yes, this is true. But is this denying fundamentals of existentialism? If so, I guess Bultmann won't be too happy.]


'It is just here that the scandalon lies -- one who is a legitimate subject for historical research, with all its uncertainties and inferences, is nevertheless the unique and ultimate revelation of God.' (p. 84)

'Historical research may well lead to historic encounter. But the historian can never prove that this is the unique and ultimate encounter with God, even though he cannot ignore the possibility that it is so.' (p. 85)

'The closed world view of modern science, both in physics and in psychology, leaves no room for a unique historical event with an eschatological -- i.e. final and absolute -- significance.'


Schniewind basically denies Bultmann's positions on the incompatibility of the modern and scientific mind set with belief in the end of time, the intercession of Christ for us (see above) and Spirit(s). His treatment of the Devil is interesting. He simply asserts that 'belief in such powers per se is no more affected by scientific knowledge than belief in God himself' and that the rejuvenation of an understanding of the New Testament's daemonology is 'is all the more profound since our view of man and the world is less optimistic than it was'. (p. 93)

'The starting-point for a right understanding of eschatology is the words and deeds of Jesus. Eschatology is neither a mythological picture of the end of the world nor a mythological expression of the idea of timelessness, but the message of the age to come. In the words and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth that age has become a present reality. What eschatological existence and authentic Being really are can only be interpreted aright in the light of Jesus of Nazareth. Only in him, in his cross, is the wretchedness of man made fully apparent. Only in him, in his victory, are Satan and the evil spirits really intelligible and not just an obscure piece of mythology. The signature of Jesus is the cross, and the cross is totalis derelictio, his complete desertion by God.' (pp. 99-8)

The modern preacher 'must not in deference to modern man make light of those elements in the kerygma which modern man is likely to regard as myth, for the simple reason that every attempt to preach Christ God is bound to seem myth to him.' (p. 100)

'The proclamation will never escape the charge of myth. This possibility is part of its scandalon. But where it is rightly understood it is seen at once to be the answer to thc question posed by myth. When late Jewish eschatology asked about the future judgment and the world to come, its question was a legitimate one. The answer is the crucified and risen Lord, an answer which at the same time means the judgment of the Jewish hope, which sought to evade the judgment by pictorial elaboration and by rites of consecration.' (p. 99)

1 comment:

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