Why do theologians write so much?

Why do theologians write so much?  I’m going to take the case of Rudolf Bultmann because the problem is particularly acute with him, but it applies to most, including Karl Barth.  Barth’s Church Dogmatics alone is over six million words.  Together they are the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century.

They write so much because they are writing about what cannot be spoken, or written.  The kerygma (κήρυγμα), which means message or proclamation, refers in general to the gospels, and in Bultmann’s work to the decision to follow the message of Advent, that Christ is risen and we must choose to believe and act accordingly.

Trouble is, the kerygma is prelinguistic.

As counterintuitive as it may initially appear, the logical conclusion is that the kerygma is essentially prelinguistic. (Congdon, p 74) 

This doesn’t make words irrelevant, but it sets their limit.  If “the purpose of theology is to bring to speech the actual event in which one encounters the living God,” then Bultmann’s project is impossible.

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Bultmann forgets about Christ

Bultmann forgets about Christ.  Rudolf Bultmann is probably the twentieth-century’s leading Protestant theologian, though some would give that title to Karl Barth.  It hardly matters.  The point is that Bultmann has been remarkably influential.

Perhaps his greatest influence has been on how to think about the kerygma (κήρυγμα),  the message of the gospels.  Bultmann is not subtle. 

We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modem medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.  (New Testament and Myth, loc 107)

Miracle healings, walking on water, lots of bread and fish, heaven as up there—all that is part of the myth. How to distinguish the myth from the message without adopting Thomas Jefferson’s Deism, in which God becomes a distant watchmaker, someone who created the world, and has since stepped away? *  How can kerygma still live?

Kerygma: the experience and the message

What remains is faith, and faith begins in wonder.  Not in miracles, but in the experience of the sublime, “the beginning of terror that we are still just able to bear.” (Rilke)  Kerygma is not just, or even primarily, about the message of the gospels.  It is an encounter with God.  Not with Christ, for Christ is a historical reality (Ladd, p 96). Kerygma is a pre-verbal encounter with the wholly other (Congdon, pp 23-24, 74).  It can happen in an encounter with beauty, or in the experience of being alive after a close encounter with death.  Boundary or limit experiences they are often called. 

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What do Niebuhr, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich have in common? More than you might imagine.

What do Niebuhr, Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich have in common?  More than you might imagine.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich are the most well-known Protestant theologians of the twentieth-century.  All downplay the mythical worlds of heaven and hell.  The eschaton is now; we have already been saved by Christ’s intervention in history; he need not come again.  What we have to do is live up to what we have been given gratis.  Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Barth hold this view most strongly, Niebuhr less so, and I’m ignoring important differences among them.

Bultmann and Barth come to this view because there is nothing left but faith.  If we regard the Bible as historically bound, while at the same time conveying an essential truth, then that truth must be known by faith alone.  The Bible provides symbols, such as the cross, to help us discover and express that faith. 

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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. 

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