Wednesday, March 09, 2011

A Liberal Scholar Who "Gets It" Better than Most

Rudolf Bultmann, a liberal, twentieth century critical scholar of theology, had this interesting take on Jesus’ relationship to ethics. George E. Ladd provides this summary and translation of Bultmann’s thoughts in Theology of the New Testament:

Bultmann views Jesus’ ethics as setting forth the conditions for entering the coming Kingdom. These conditions are not, however, rules and regulations to be obeyed in order that one may merit entrance into the coming Kingdom. The content of Jesus’s ethics is a simple demand. Because the Kingdom is at hand, because God is near, one thing is demanded: decision in the final eschatological hour. In this way, Bultmann translates Jesus’ ethics into the existential demand for decision. Jesus was not a teacher of ethics, either personal or social. He did not teach absolute principles or lay down rules of conduct. He demanded one thing: decision.

Bultmann basically asserts that Jesus did not teach moralism; he called for surrender and commitment. What is interesting about his analysis is that Bultmann, while personally professing to be a Christian, accepted very few of the tenets of orthodox Christianity. For example, he did not believe in the scriptures as the Word of God and rejected the reality of a bodily resurrection. Bultmann was a critical scholar who dedicated much of his career to “demythologizing” the claims of the Gospels. He rejected the supernatural works and personhood of Jesus, labeling them “mythologies.”

As overly skeptical as many consider Bultmann to be, it is interesting that he “gets” Jesus’s call, in some ways, better than most people in the church today. In his efforts to strip away the superfluities and concisely synopsize the call of Christ, he essentially says that Jesus called for faith over moral performance. (However, it is important to note that his concept of faith in Christ is different in many ways than that which orthodox Christianity has espoused.)

Bultmann’s quote challenges us to take a fresh look at the Gospels and the basic call that Christ issues. A fair reading shows Christ is not the ethical teacher, to which secular culture and academia try to reduce him. Christ is a Savior proclaiming the Gospel and calling for full surrender.

Our student ministries need this reminder. We need to question whether we are “ethical teachers” or proclaimers of the Gospel, hoping and praying for fully surrendered students.


  1. Hi,I am from Australia.
    Please find a unique Spiritual Understanding of the Secrets of the Kingdom via this reference:

    An Understanding which is very much about unconditional Surrender.

  2. You have to be careful how you characterize Bultmann. For instance, he most certainly does believe that the Bible is God's Word, but it all depends on what you mean by that term. If God's Word means that it is an inerrant text superintended by God to say exactly what it says, then a huge number of theologians throughout history would have to reject it. But that's not what we mean when we say that the Bible is God's Word. We mean that it speaks a divine word, that it lays claim upon us, that it judges us and offers us new life, that in it we hear the saving revelation of God. That is Bultmann's position.

    Also, it's ironic that people call him a "liberal," since he spent his career fighting against German liberal theology. If by liberal we mean one who critically analyzes and questions certain "orthodox" statements, then many people are liberals. But the word "liberal" referred in his day to a very specific line of theological thinking that made Christianity a matter of individual experience and personal religious piety. Bultmann is better characterized as a dialectical theologian in line with the likes of Karl Barth.