Rudolf Bultmann and Demythologizing

Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing method was a mission in de-objectifying God. Much like Kant, Bultmann believed that God is not an object that can be known or experienced in time and space. Humans do not understand God like other objects, and so this led Bultmann to view the Bible’s depictions of God as mythical. Thus, any talk about God is simply giving human and worldly objectivity to that which is beyond.[1] He states, “The real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express human understandings of themselves in the world in which they live.”[2] 

According to Bultmann, these myths should not be taken literally; not only because they are from a pre-scientific age, but also because they objectify God. He explains that biblical cosmology, biblical spirituality, biblical cosmic catastrophe, biblical eschatology are the presupposed mythical views of the world of the Bible, and this leads him to question, “Can Christian preaching expect modern people to accept the mythical view of the world as true?”[3] For Bultmann, it was a resounding “no”, and so he thought that biblical myths should be relocated from worldly objectivity to existential subjectivity. He states, “The question of God and the question of myself are identical.”[4] In other words, the biblical statements about God should be interpreted into existential statements about humans. Bultmann wanted to help readers get to the underlying existential meaning which for him meant interpreting the mythological “husk” into existential ideas so that the “kernel” of the Christian message could be recovered and understood by the modern mind.[5]

Ultimately, Bultmann’s demythologizing strips the divine dramatis personas (character) of his speaking part in the theo-drama. Thus, Bultmann de-dramatizes the grand ole drama of redemption. In response, we should reclaim the biblical understanding of mythos and the remythologizing of the biblical narrative. The term myth has been argued as “notoriously difficult to define”[6] because it has often ranged between “foolish delusion” and “a vehicle of higher truth.” Bultmann lands somewhere in this range along fictional and legend lines. A more accurate term in this discussion is mythos which in its broadest sense means “all those forms of discourse that may be employed in the course of a story or drama to render and agent or patient, a unified action or a unified passion.”[7] In the biblical sense, mythos provides reality from a divine and human perspective in full  dramatic plot “rendered by many voices speaking in diverse (literary) registers.”[8]

Mythos rightly applied to the biblical witness is considered God’s true self-presentation through human writing and the proper speech by Christians about God. Thus, “remythologizing acknowledges the supreme authority of mythos, the overarching theo-dramatic plot of Scripture that depicts the whole and complete self-communicative action of the triune God as well as its diverse forms of discourse that not only report the action but also carry it forward.”[9] Remythologizing is theo-dramatic focusing on the Triune God’s actions and doings in the world as creator, redeemer and helper. It gives precedence to the speech acts and projections of the divine actor and playwright over the subjective existential interpretations and projections of the human actors.[10]

Where demythologizing led to unorthodox theological expressions and beliefs, remythologizing can lead to a robust orthodoxy and proclamation of the theo-drama of redemption.

[1] Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner, 1958), 19. [2] “Rudolf Bultmann on Demythologization and Biblical Interpretation” in Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2017), 124. [3] “Rudolf” in The Christian, 124. [4] Bultmann, Jesus, 53. [5] “Rudolf” in The Christian, 125. [6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine Series (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), EPUB edition, Introduction, “A Perennial Problem: Myth, Mythos, and Metaphysics.” [7] Vanhoozer, Remythologizing, EPUB edition, Introduction, “A Perennial Problem: Myth, Mythos, and Metaphysics.” [8] Vanhoozer, Remythologizing, EPUB edition, Introduction, “A Perennial Problem: Myth, Mythos, and Metaphysics.” [9] Vanhoozer, Remythologizing, EPUB edition, Introduction, “An Alternative Approach: Remythologizing.” [10] Vanhoozer, Remythologizing, EPUB edition, Introduction, “An Alternative Approach: Remythologizing.”

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