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Rudolf Bultmann

Rudolf Bultmann was born in 1884. At an early stage of his career, he decided to embrace the dialectical theology of Karl Barth. Along with Martin Dibelius (1883-1947), Bultmann was a pioneer of the school of`form criticism', as applied to the study of the Gospels. His system of`demythologizing' the New Testament has aroused both worldwide support and fierce debate among theologians.

Bultmann wanted to distinguish between historical reality and non-historical `truth as received by faith'. Jesus’ life and crucifixion could be accepted as being historical. However, the various miracles and ultimate resurrection had to be interpreted as myth. The `how?' and `why?' of Jesus' life and death were not important. Although the historical details of Jesus’ life were interesting, they are not the basis of faith. As a protestant theologian, Bultmann returns to the reformation doctrine of salvation by faith alone. To believe by anything else, like an appeal to historicial truth, could be regarded as a work.

Bultmann saw the key salvation event as Jesus’ death. He did not see in the death of Jesus a sacrifice or atonement, but the liberating judgment of God on all human selfishness. To believe in the cross means surrendering to its security and to live from then on by the grace of God and his forgiveness. This means dying to oneself and to the world and so appropriating the cross of Christ for oneself. This is personal resurrection.

Perhaps Bultmann is most famous for his article on `Demythologization' which appeared in 1941. He maintains that the story of salvation as presented in the New Testament is myth. It is through myth that the `other-worldly-divine' is expressed in `this-worldly-human' terms. The process of ‘demythologization’ required a striping away of the husk of myth to reveal the kernal of kerygma (teaching). Today it must be reinterpreted to make it meaningful for people today. Bultmann, influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), chose to reinterpret it existentially. Unlike other species, human beings are aware of their own existence, responsibilities and threats. We all experience making decisions. Likewise we all experience trouble, anxiety and, ultimately, death. People can lose themselves or save themselves. The gospel must be expounded in terms of these `existentials' in such a way that we learn from Christ to understand our situation in new terms.

Bultmann remained professor of New Testament studies at Marburg from 1921 until 1951. His theology found popular support in the 1950s. He died in 1976.

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