Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity

The standard Christian view of sin and salvation is not a pretty one.  Salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God. Salvation doesn’t mean being saved from yourself or the devil.  Salvation is being saved from God’s wrath, which condemns to hell all who have broken his law.

All of us have sinned against God and deserve judgment.  But Jesus never sinned.  He lived the Law of God perfectly.  Jesus is perfectly righteous.  “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)  Through his crucifixion, Jesus bore our sins in His body and suffered in our place.  

Escaping the judgment of God means having faith in Jesus Christ.  It has nothing to do with doing good works.  “Through grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)  You are saved by grace through faith. 

When you have faith in Christ, then Christ’s righteousness is given to you, and you give your sins to Jesus.  “It’s like a trade.  He gets your sin.  You get His righteousness.”  (https://carm.org/what-is-salvation)  It sounds more like blackmail to me.  Be righteous because God will send you to hell forever if you aren’t. 

What several recent theologians say

I’ve recently posted on three of the most important Protestant religious thinkers of the twentieth-century: Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in this post Karl Barth.  All were founding members of the Confessing Church, established in opposition to Hitler’s state church.  What strikes me is that not one of the three comes close to the standard Christian view, the old time religion.  I can hardly review their thinking in a thirteen hundred words, but perhaps I can outline how they differ from the standard Christian view.  More than you might imagine.    

Rudolf Bultmann

Bultmann still uses the word salvation, but his is really an existential view of religion, and he prefers the term authentic.  Belief is all about my experience now.  Religion isn’t about a faith community’s experience, or shared doctrine and belief.  And salvation isn’t about our final destination.  It’s about how we live our lives every day, recognizing that the salvific event is neither past nor future, but now.  This is how a world of faith can do the work once done by a world of myth. 

Bultmann speaks often of salvation, since he does not want to lose the important connotations of that word, but he finds the term “authenticity” helpful as a way of communicating the meaning of the kerygma, the message of the Gospels.  Salvation is not about a person’s destination after death but about how he lives his life here and now. One can either live authentically, which means in obedience to the kerygma, or inauthetically, in disobedience. 

Another way to make the same point is that Advent is already here.  The future we await has already happened, and a man’s task is to live up to what he has been given, a world and life made meaningful and good.  From Bultmann there is hardly a word about heaven, hell, and all the rest.  These ideas, like other myths and legends, became irrelevant once we entered the age of Enlightenment.  Or so Bultmann believes.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer died young, a martyr at the hands of the Nazis.  In Letters from Prison, written toward the end of his too short life, he turned toward the Old Testament and asked,

Hasn’t the individualistic question about personal salvation almost completely left us all? Does the question about saving one’s soul appear in the Old Testament at all? Aren’t righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and isn’t it true that Rom. 3.24ff. is not an individualistic doctrine of salvation, but the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous? It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. (Letters, 286)

No one ever taught me this in Sunday school.  It still sounds like heresy to me.  And yet I wonder if Bultmann and Bonhoeffer aren’t right at least in the following sense.  The old time religion is about making a deal with God: I’ll be good, and you won’t send me to hell.  It wasn’t always expressed so crudely, but often it was.  Doesn’t it make more sense to think about salvation in terms of reconciliation between God and man, and man with man? 

Reconciliation isn’t the same as salvation, but it strikes me as a nobler goal.  Indeed, why should salvation be an individual goal at all?  It’s selfish, all about me.  Not eternal life, but peace in this life now, because we know that this life has meaning, as expressed in the kerygma, the message of the Gospels absent the myths that once made sense, but now have to be reframed in the language of faith alone.  The soul we should care most for is not our own.  The souls of those who suffer pain, domination, displacement, and poverty of material and spiritual goods are our first concern, for all these damage the soul as well as the body. 

Karl Barth

For Barth we are already saved by Christ’s sacrifice, which won for us freedom from sin and damnation.  We are saved the moment we are born.  We were saved before time began in the unity of God and Christ.  For Barth, salvation by faith means first of all the faithfulness of God (Bloesch, p 17).  God takes on the work of salvation.  All we have to do is listen.  A consequence of this perspective is that the eschaton, Christ’s reappearance at the end of history, is redundant.  He has already been here and done his work. 

Since everyone is saved, what must be explained is badness in people and world.  This is, by the way, my question.  Barth tends to ignore it.  When he answers, it is along the lines of people closing themselves to what they know.  I think Barth’s is a fine break with the sin and damnation view of salvation.   But writing in the midst and aftermath of  the Holocaust (Church Dogmatics was published in stages between 1932-1967), Barth’s view of humanity is too kind.  We may be born saved, but it is not just ignorance that closes the minds and hearts of many.  Some possess an evil will, generally the result of immersion in a wicked culture.     

Barth’s view of the triumph of grace remained within a Biblical framework, “but his vision of an eschatological future without hell and his denial of the devil” owe more to the Enlightenment (Bloesch, p 20).  Church Dogmatics, Barth’s masterwork, is rightly named.  He holds to the teachings of the Bible, while recognizing they cannot be justified, demonstrated, or proven.  It is a matter of faith.  In some ways this is the most honest position, but it’s slightly scary, leaving Christianity to the faith of those who believe.  But I suppose it has always been that way. 


The three greatest Protestant theologians of the twentieth-century all say that salvation is now.  All downplay, or simply eliminate, the mythical worlds of heaven and hell.  Salvation is by faith, and available to all. 

For me the similarities are more striking than the differences, probably because I am not an expert, and fine distinctions escape me.  I know that Bultmann and Barth, once allies came to disagree.

For Barth it is all a matter of faith.  For Bultmann, faith becomes more important as myths lose their power.  For Bonhoeffer too, though perhaps he was the most worldly of the three.  In any case, this is all a long way from what I learned in Sunday school, and all in all I’m pleased. 


Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. Helmut Gollwitzer.  Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Donald Bloesch, Jesus is Victor!  Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Salvation.  Wipf & Stock, 2001.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, enlarged edition.  Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1971. 

2 thoughts on “Bultmann and Barth: Not your Sunday school Christianity”

  1. All three of them were products of the Enlightenment’s enthronement of reason above revelation. They failed to adequately explain the problem of evil that WW II presented. As my New Testament History & Criticism professor would say, “when sober, Bultmann, say few good things.” Otherwise, one can critique their Enlightenment influenced arguments and see how they collapse. It is very sad how the home of the Protestant Reformation also produced Bultman and Barth with Germany’s anti-Christian spirituality seminaries which so dreadfully influenced the rest of western Christendom like a plague.

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