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.

Words themselves confront the reader with the reality of God. (Congdon, 21)

But if the kerygma is prelinguistic, then words aren’t going to do the trick.  And so, theologians like Bultmann keep writing, and writing, but it’s not as if each restatement gets closer to the reality of God.  The words just go around in circles.  Words can’t do what words can’t do, which is to set the living God before us.

The criterion of their [words] truthfulness is to be found not in their systematic coherence or their consistent application of a method, but in the way the words themselves confront the reader with the reality of God. (Congdon, 21)

I’m quoting so much because I fear the reader won’t believe what Bultmann and his followers expect of words: to grasp the otherness of God.  It’s as if one tried to capture a wild animal with a typewriter.

About the most important things we must be silent

Ludwig Wittgenstein was the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century, at least in the Anglo-American world.  He is well-known for the last line of his Tractatus.

 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

A troubling consequence is that it renders so much of human life literally unspeakable.  Humans have found ways around the limits of language.  Myths, stories, and poetry, as well as other symbolic activities that don’t use words, such as music, art, and dance can convey more than words themselves.  But none of them come close to capturing the “reality of God.”  In fact, words can’t capture the reality of anything.  It’s not what words do.  Words refer to other words.  One might say that some of these other words come closer to reality, such as “This book is in my hand.”  But it’s still words.

What Bultmann offers

Bultmann tries so hard to grasp God with words because he has demythologized the Bible.  In his Afterword to Bultmann’s Jesus and the Word, Walter Schmithals writes

The gospel, according to Bultmann, is not the preaching of Jesus, but rather the preaching about Jesus as the crucified and risen one. Only as the proclaimed, not as the proclaimer, is the person of Jesus Christ the content of the kerygma. (Nachwort, p 155, original German edition)

Just about everything that Jesus says in the gospels is seen by Bultmann as the contribution of those who compiled the gospels, based loosely and often not at all on the words of Jesus.  The Bible itself is a historical document whose world no longer makes sense in ours.

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)

What remains is the kerygma, the truth of the claim that Christ was crucified and resurrected.  It is not enough to believe in the kerygma.  The kerygma calls for a decision: either I take it as demanding that I radically change my life, or I don’t.  If I make the first decision, I am a Christian; if I make the second, I am a Christian in name only.

How does accepting the kerygma change my life?  It grants me “freedom from the world.”

And what is the gospel? In a word: freedom from this world. The gospel has the power to grant freedom from the world. (Bultmann, This World, p 109)

The standards and judgments of this world no longer apply, except as they are implied by the Great Commandment (actually two commandments).

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27; see too Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:30-31)

The Great Commandment is considered by Bultmann to be accurate reportage of the words of Jesus.

Conclusion

Bultmann writes so much because he no longer believes in the Jesus of the gospels.  His aim is higher than following the teaching and example of Jesus.  His aim is to experience God. It can’t be done, and shouldn’t be tried.  It’s the wrong goal.  It’s what happens, or at least one thing that can happen, when one downplays the historical Jesus.  Not the reality of Jesus.  Not for a moment does Bultmann doubt that.  But the story of his life and works are no longer central.  Central is Christ’s death and resurrection.

This seems to be a common mistake among not just theologians but Christians of all sorts.  They make Christ’s death so central that his life and what it has to teach us becomes comparatively less important.  Bultmann attempts to go around Jesus and grasp God directly.  But the purpose of Jesus is to make this unnecessary.  The human God can be known, and God himself can be left in his mystery.  Isn’t that good enough?


 References

Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word.  https://www.religion-online.org/book/jesus-and-the-word/

Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings.  Fortress, 1984. (kindle edition)

Rudolf Bultmann, This World and Beyond.  Scribner’s, 1960.

David Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology.  Wipf and Stock, 2015.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1922.

9 thoughts on “Why do theologians write so much?”

  1. i agree, they write far too much. I find it interesting the the writer T.S.Eliot wrote quite a lot about the limitations of words:

    “Words move, music moves
    Only in time; but that which is only living
    Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
    Into the silence. ”

    “Words strain,
    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
    Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
    Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
    Always assail them.”

    Ideas like these permeate the Four Quartets. It’s a pity that more would-be writers do not heed these insights.

    1. Poetry is probably the best way to describe unspeakable experiences, but it doesn’t do well with horror. I learned this from Theodor Adorno, who said there can be no lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Literally true, probably not. But it makes the point. Fred

  2. Isn’t it the same with much of our experiences? I can try to describe
    the beautiful last moments of my husband but as Mike says and you say,words can’t make one actually experience my experience and if it’s about something tragic our own past will get mingled in with the words so noone will even experience the written words in the same way
    I liked the image of trying to catch a wild bird in a typewriter
    Since birds are often moving we’d have to kill them in order to describe them well but they would be dead

  3. You’d have to throw the typewriter at the animal and kill it. That would be its best (worst) use. Sometimes concepts are like that–they take a subtle, manifold experience and turn it into something concrete and dull.

  4. This may sound silly but God existed before human beings invented languages.It was, I expect, a gradual process. If God is very clever he can learn all those languages.But he existed and created pre-linguistically or if that is wrong, he existed before human language.
    So does he relate to us now without spoken language but through feelings,rituals , visions….?
    I think he does relate to us
    To be politically correct, do they relate to us without using words?

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