Monthly Archives: November 2021

Reflections on Bultmann’s ‘Task of Theology’ (1)

A couple of days ago I posted an exposition of Rudolf Bultmann’s ‘The task of Theology in the Present Situation’ from May 1933. I want to reflect a little further on this lecture and task.

First, Bultmann reflects on the contemporary political situation as a theologian, and more specifically, “on the meaning of our theological work in this situation” (158). That is, what does it mean to be a theologian and to undertake theological work in a situation of dramatic political change and inflamed nationalist sentiment? His intent is neither to affirm nor to criticise the events themselves: ‘Rather we must look at these events simply from the standpoint of their immense possibilities for the future and ask ourselves what our responsibility is as theologians in face of these possibilities” (158, original emphasis). He takes it as a given that the theologian works in the service of the church ‘to develop the basis and meaning of Christian faith for our generation’ (158). Again, toward the end of the address he states, ‘it is not my task to expound how we might wish things to be, but only how they actually are, according to the teaching of the church’ (163). And this he has done:

Ladies and gentlemen! There cannot be the slightest doubt that this is the meaning and the demand of the Christian faith, and that these are the thoughts that the theologian has to advocate. For what I have said is simply taken from the thoughts of the New Testament and the Reformers . . . We have attempted in face of the immense possibilities that are now open to us to understand our responsibility as it becomes clear to us through the critical power of the Christian faith (163-164).

Bultmann views theology as a work in service of the church in its task of nurturing the faith—and the life of faith—of the Christian community. He claims to be reiterating only the message of the New Testament and the Reformers—Scripture and tradition. From these sources he affirms the ideas of the ‘ordinances of creation,’ and their ambiguity due to human sinfulness, the love commandment and with it, one’s responsibility to one’s neighbour, and all within an overarching understanding of God as creator, judge, and redeemer. Together, these lines of thought provide the ‘critical perspective’ (163) he brings to his reflection on the situation.

My second reflection concerns the idea and role of faith. Prominent in Bultmann’s understanding of the task of theology is the responsibility to ‘develop the basis and meaning of Christian faith for our generation’ (158). Just what he means by this phrase requires more extensive grounding in his work than I presently have (this is my first direct engagement with his work). But it is suggestive. The focus of the theological task is constructive and creative for without it Christian faith would seem to have ‘in our [any] generation’ no basis or meaning. He must intend this in a relative rather than absolute sense for the faith he wishes to commend is faith in the biblical God. Yet his focus is on faith, the human response as it is directed toward God as Creator and Judge of the world, and its Redeemer in Jesus Christ. That the theologian’s task is to develop the basis and content of this faith suggests that these are not givens, that the basis for faith must be developed (created?), as must its content. This stands in contrast to Barth’s approach in which the task of theology follows the objectivity of revelation given us in Jesus Christ and in which God himself creates the possibility and reality of faith.

This faith is evident more in its demonstration than its content as such, realised ‘precisely in our experience and action as obedience’ to the Lord who encounters us in the concrete situation of the moment (159). Faith, then, is not merely, perhaps not even, a belief in God as the cause or source of the world, but an acknowledgement of God’s lordship that meets us in our existence in the world. Human life and action are not determined by a timeless plan of providence but by the concrete situation of the moment within which we have been placed and wherein we are confronted by the divine lordship. This suggests a divine immanence that Bultmann will quickly relativise: God is not to be identified with the ‘ordinances of creation’ although one’s action with respect to them may be characterised as responsible obedience or as sin (160).

Bultmann’s ‘faith’ refers ultimately to Christian faith: faith ‘knows God not only as the Judge, but also as the Redeemer, who through Jesus Christ restores his original creation’ (162, emphasis added).

Only he who knows the transcendent God who speaks his word of love to the world in Christ is able to extricate himself from this sinful world and to achieve a perspective from which the world’s ordinances can really be known as ordinances of creation—i.e., as ordinances for which he must gratefully rejoice and in which he must silently suffer and serve as one who loves. He alone has a critical perspective over against the loud demands of the day, in that he measure the good and evil in such demands by asking whether and to what extent they serve the command of love. And he alone also has a critical perspective with respect to himself, which enables him to ask whether his own action is really selfless service (163)

Faith, therefore, is a form of knowledge deriving from God’s redemptive action in Jesus Christ by which the believer knows God as Creator, Judge and Redeemer, and therefore knows him or herself and the world in which they live. Presumably, this knowledge of faith is that developed by the theologian as they serve the church.

Rudolf Bultmann on the Task of Theology in 1933

On May 2nd, 1933, Rudolf Bultmann began his lecture series unusually, with a comment about the rapidly developing German political situation.

Ladies and gentlemen! I have made a point never to speak about current politics in my lectures, and I think I also shall not do so in the future. However, it would seem to me unnatural were I to ignore today the political situation in which we begin this new semester (in Existence & Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, 158).

He is quick to note that what he aims to say is not political per se, but to inquire ‘what our responsibility is as theologians in face of these possibilities’ (158).

Bultmann begins by describing the relation of faith and politics as an implication of faith in God as Creator and Judge of the world, and its Redeemer in Jesus Christ. Faith in God as Creator is not a philosophical theory or the foundation of one’s worldview so much as the confrontation in which God encounters us as Lord in the concrete experience and situation of our everyday existence. This faith is realised in our experience and action in the moment, not as a general response of, say, ‘cultivating our humanity,’ but in our obedience to our Lord as this man or this woman in this place, time, and situation. Bultmann’s understanding of the situation includes our existence within the scope of the ‘ordinances of creation’ which includes such things as family, work and possessions, the relations of the sexes and those of different age, education, nationality, and state. Faith in God, then, stands in a positive relation with nationality since God has placed us in our nation and state, and encounters us in and through these earthly realities (159).

It suffices to understand—in the words of F.K. Schumann—that ‘nationality means being subject to an original claim; that to stand in a nation or to be a member of a nation means to share a common destiny, to subject oneself to the claim of the past, to let one’s own existence be determined by others, to be responsible for a common future, to receive oneself from others and thus also to be able to sacrifice oneself in return’ (159-160).

Although God encounters us in and through creaturely realities, he is not immanent within them, nor to be identified with them: he is the Creator and as such stands outside and beyond the creation. That is, God is not merely Creator but also Judge, and thus our relation to the ordinances is not merely positive but also critical. Bultmann cites 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 to argue that human sinfulness corrupts our relation to the ordinances of creation, making the creature self-serving:

Everything . . . can become sin at man’s hands; i.e., it can become a means for pursuing his own interests and disposing of his existence. Therefore, all of the ordinances in which we find ourselves are ambiguous. They are God’s ordinances, but only insofar as they call us to service in our concrete tasks. In their mere givenness, they are ordinances of sin (160).

The ordinances may be placed at the service of God or of sin, though their original purpose was the service of God who by them intended to bind us one to another in relations of justice. But we and all our history are also ambiguous, shaped inevitably by our history of sin, infected with a “sinful self-understanding in which man wills to pursue his own interests and to dispose of his existence” (162).

With these thoughts now in mind, Bultmann turns again to the question of nationalism:

No state and no nation is so unambiguous an entity, is so free from sin, that the will of God can be read off unambiguously from its bare existence. No nation is so pure and clean that one may explain every stirring of the national will as a direct demand of God. As nature and all our personal relations with one another have become uncanny as a result of sin, so also has nationality. From it emerge deeds of beauty and nobility; but there also breaks out of it the demonry of sin (162).

Thus, it is the role of Christian faith, “precisely in this time of crisis,” to ask again, “what is the true and normative meaning of the nation” (162). It demonstrates its “essentially positive character precisely in its critical stance” (162). The criticism offered by the church is grounded not merely in its knowledge of sin but also of grace. It knows God not merely as Creator and Judge, but also as Redeemer. This knowledge provides the believer with a criterion by which to measure the noisy demands of the day, “by asking whether and to what extent they serve the command of love” (163). In the “present struggle” this criterion must be applied concretely rather than as an abstraction, and be applied to oneself as well as to others. That is, we must be concerned with “the concrete neighbor to whom we are now bound in the present by all the commonplace ties of life” (163). Further, only those may truly serve the nation who view each neighbour in light of this criterion; that is, those who have been freed to love by receiving the love of God in Christ.

Bultmann concludes his address with a powerful and straight-forward exhortation to act responsibly in light of the critical power of this Christian faith.

Will we preserve the power of our critical perspective and not succumb to the temptations, so that we may work together for Germany’s future with clean hands and believe in this future honorably? Must I point out that in this critical hour the demonry of sin also lies in wait? (164)

The slogan—We want to abolish lies!—from a recent student demonstration provides a means for making his call concrete. He deplores the widespread use of denunciation and defamation to label and castigate opponents as an example of ‘lies’ used, supposedly, in their abolition.

‘We want to abolish lies!’—and so I must say in all honesty that the defamation of the Jews that took place in the very demonstration that gave rise to this beautiful sentiment was not sustained by the spirit of love. Keep the struggle for the German nation pure, and take care that noble intentions to serve truth and country are not marred by demonic distortions!

But there is yet this final word. If we have correctly understood the meaning and the demand of the Christian faith, then it is quite clear that, in face of the voices of the present, this Christian faith itself is being called in question. In other words, it is clear that we have to decide whether Christian faith is to be valid for us or not. . . . And we should as scrupulously guard ourselves against falsifications of the faith by national religiosity as against a falsification of national piety by Christian trimmings. The issue is either/or!

Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (4)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:25-31,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

We saw in our previous discussion Barth’s contention that “Biblical knowledge of God is always based on encounters of man with God” (23). In this encounter—the divine encounter of grace—the human subject is confronted with the reality of God and called to a human act and decision in response and correspondence to the divine act and decision. God reveals himself as Lord, and the human is directed to God and called to obedience: this is the knowledge of God.

Knowledge of God is obedience to God. Observe that we do not say that knowledge of God may also be obedience, or that of necessity it has obedience attached to it, or that it is followed by obedience. No; knowledge of God as knowledge of faith is in itself and of essential necessity obedience. It is an act of human decision corresponding to the act of divine decision; corresponding to the act of the divine being as the living Lord; corresponding to the act of grace in which faith is grounded and continually grounded again in God (26).

The outcome of the encounter is not pre-determined but may issue in disobedience as well as obedience. That is does, in fact, issue in obedience remains the work of divine grace by which the person is directed by God to God (27). Although distinct from God on account of their sinfulness, yet they are also united to God precisely in this act of divine grace and condescension.

Barth supports his position by means of a short excursus exploring Calvin’s insistence that “we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety” (Calvin, Institutes, I.ii.1; 1:39). Barth’s reflection seeks to demonstrate that Calvin did not teach a natural knowledge of God but that such knowledge is possible only as we give ourselves obediently to God. Nevertheless, by the Holy Spirit such knowledge is efficacious (CD II/1:27-29). While insisting on the divine precedence that grounds the knowledge of God, Barth also insists on the two-sided nature of this knowledge:

For Calvin the fulfilment of the real knowledge of God is a cycle. God gives himself to be known in His will directed towards us. God is known by us as we are submissive to this His will. It is obvious that this cycle corresponds exactly to what is called knowledge of God in the Old and New Testaments. The encounters between God and man in the sphere of that secondary objectivity of God mean singly and in the aggregate that taking place of a history (Calvin: a negotium [= ‘dealings’]) between God and man. This history begins with a voluntary decision of God and continues in a corresponding voluntary decision of man. This history develops systematically and completely. The will of God offers itself as good will towards men and is met by faith. Man with his will yields and becomes submissive to the will of God. Faith becomes the determination of his existence and therefore obedience. And in this way the knowledge of God takes place. According to the Bible there is no knowledge of God outside this cycle. Knowledge of God means knowledge of the way or ways of God, which as such are good, true, holy and just. How can they be known except as God gives them to be known, i.e., gives Himself to be known as the One who goes these ways? Everything depends on this divine precedence. But again, how can they be known except as man for his part travels ways which in his sphere correspond to the ways of God—ways of wisdom, of life, of peace, which are indeed no longer his own ways, no longer the ways of the heathen and godless? Thus everything depends too on this human proceeding and going with God (28-29). 

Where God in His benevolentia [goodness] gives Himself to be known by man, and where man stands before Him as the one who knows this benevolentia as such and is therefore determined by it and obedient to it, there and there alone is there a fulfilment of the real knowledge of God (29).

Barth’s account of the human knowledge of God, therefore, depends on God making himself an object of human consideration, giving himself to be known by them. In this benevolent self-giving God remains ever the Lord, addressing the person as their Lord and calling them to faith, trust, and obedience. In this construal, revelation is personal and relational, the act of God in a history of dealings with humanity and with each person, and in which their decision and corresponding act is necessary. Faith is not mere belief but a decisive reorientation and determination of a person’s life such that their life now moves along a path in correspondence to the paths along which God, too, goes. Faith means that now this person ‘goes’ with God. That they do so does not make them superior to others for it is not their work but God’s.

This account of the knowledge of God has its critics for it bypasses rational explication. This is the vulnerability of the knowledge of God understood as faith: it has no rational or apologetic foundation but is grounded solely in the event of revelation and the corresponding act of faith.

It is quite impossible to defend and maintain [this position] unless we represent its reality and possibility from withing outwards, and do not try to establish its reality and possibility from outside. ‘From outside’ means from the point of view of a human position where truth, dignity and competence are so ascribed to human seeing, understanding and judging as to be judge over the reality and possibility of what happens here. … Already we have had to understand the knowledge of God bound to the Word of God as an event utterly undetermined by man but utterly determined by God as its object (31).