How theologians can play with words

by Rev. Dr Peter Barnes

August 20, 2001

Charles Spurgeon once suggested: ‘Let it be proposed that when capital punishment is abolished, those who are found guilty of murder shall be compelled to listen to a selection of the dreariest parliamentary orators.’ Since then, other methods may have become equally appropriate. Guilty parties could have German theology inflicted upon them, or perhaps the works of John Shelby Spong or Barbara Thiering. Spong’s latest book, for example is Here I Stand. That Spong should compare himself to Martin Luther is pretentious, but it should only be surprising to those who were startled when [boxer] Anthony Mundine compared himself to Albert Einstein.

Theologians, like lawyers, can become very adept at playing with words. Heterodox theology is always beguiling. No one announces himself as a false prophet, and then begins to hold forth. They did not do that in Elijah’s day or Jeremiah’s day, and they do not do it today. Instead, error is always dressed up as truth, and theological error is usually dressed up as biblical truth.

The Episcopalian bishop, John Shelby Spong, tells us that, ‘Truth is so much deeper than literal truth.’ It is the kind of statement that is designed to trap the unwary. We are inclined to agree with it before we are clear as to what it means. We need to beware–theologians, like lawyers, can become very adept at playing with words.

One of the most acclaimed theologians of the twentieth century was Rudolf Bultmann, who died in 1976. He did not adopt the older liberal approach of trying to decide what parts of the Bible were unhistorical and then removing them. Rather, he sought to reinterpret the Scriptures, or demythologize them. He believed that God exists and that there was a man Jesus, but he did not believe much else. However, he did believe that God had revealed himself in an absolute way in the New Testament message or kerygma.

Spiritual truth but not literal truth?

This assertion meant that Bultmann would use traditional theological language, but ‘demythologize’ it. We have become used to people doing that with the creation and the Fall. Professing evangelicals will say that they believe the doctrine but not the literal history. Genesis 1 is supposed to be true ‘spiritually’ but not scientifically.

The same is said of the Fall in Genesis 3– it reveals a profound understanding of the sad human condition, but it is not hard history. Again, it is spiritual truth, but not literal truth. As is to be expected, Bultmann took a similar approach to these issues. He declared that faith in creation is ‘not a theory about the past’. In other words, Genesis 1 is not telling us how the world was created but how man is to understand himself now, as a creature of God. The same is true for the Fall. There was no historical Adam or Eve, nor any Eden, and certainly no serpent–but it is all true existentially.

Bultmann then applied this method to the rest of the Bible. Regarding the Atonement, he asked: ‘How can the guilt of one man be expiated by the death of another who is sinless- if indeed one may speak of a sinless man at all?’ To Bultmann, the idea of a sinless substitute dying in the place of sinners was meaningless as history and as straightforward theology, but it did express a truth about the human understanding of our existence. It means that we cannot authenticate ourselves.

Similarly, when Bultmann came to discuss the Resurrection, he made it abundantly clear that he did not believe that Christ actually rose from the dead. He thought that such a notion was meaningless: ‘An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable!’ In fact, to Bultmann ‘the historical problem is scarcely relevant to Christian belief in the resurrection’.

As the modern evangelical may regard Genesis 1—3 as spiritually edifying but historically inaccurate, Bultmann had a not altogether different approach to the rest of Scripture. To believe in the resurrection is to experience authentic life here and now.

In 1948 the World Council of Churches was formed, defining itself as a ‘fellowship of Churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour’. Many liberals objected to this confession–although the subsequent history of the WCC shows that they need not have worried–but Bultmann supported it.

This is at first bewildering, because Bultmann made it very obvious that he did not believe in much at all about Jesus. Indeed, he had become well-known for asserting: ‘I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.’

The Bible is mythical but ‘true’?

Bultmann, however, did assert–for no particular reason, except that faith is a leap in the dark–that God had revealed Himself absolutely in the man Jesus. Jesus was not God and Saviour in any evangelical sense, but in a demythologised sense was to be accepted as such. The Bible is mythical but ‘true’.

To believe in the incarnation is not to believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, but to hold to something that has next to nothing to do with history.

In Bultmann’s words: ‘What matters is that the incarnation should not be conceived of as a miracle that happened about 1950 years ago, but as an eschatological happening, which, beginning with Jesus, is always present in the words of men proclaiming it to be a human experience.’ He adds that, ‘the revelation has to be an event, which occurs whenever and wherever the word of grace is spoken to a man’.

This is faith standing, not upon a rock but in mid-air. At times Bultmann could sound evangelical enough. He declared: ‘To believe in the Word of God means to abandon all merely human security and thus to overcome the despair which arises from the attempt to find security, an attempt which is always vain.’

This might resemble a combination of Ecclesiastes and Hebrews 11, but it is, in fact, a denial of Biblical faith. To Bultmann, ‘There is no difference between security based on good works and security built on objectifying knowledge.’

Faith is based on historical facts!

While Bultmann tried to portray himself as a theologian in the line of Paul and Luther, there is a huge difference between them. Paul and Luther believed that the Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the Resurrection were acts embedded in the rock of history while Bultmann believed that they were mythological representations of an existential truth. As he put it: ‘I am interpreting theological affirmations as assertions about human life.’ Alas, Bultmann runs aground when it comes to history.

Some evangelicals like to sing, He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today; He walks with me and talks with me Along life’s narrow way. He lives, He lives, salvation to impart. You ask me how I know He lives. He lives within my heart.

Paul, however, based his apologetic for the resurrection of Christ on the fact that the Scriptures teach it and history testifies to it (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). This was too much for Bultmann who protested: ‘I call that line of argument fatal because it tries to adduce a proof for the kerygma.’ It may be fatal, but not for Paul’s theology. It spells the death knell for Bultmann’s flight from clear Biblical teaching that faith is based on historical facts.

‘True truth’

Having examined something of the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, one can understand why Francis Schaeffer came to believe that it was necessary to refer to ‘true truth’. Bultmann believed in the Fall, but not the historical Fall; he believed in salvation by faith, not works, but not faith in the death of the God-man for sinners; he believed in the Resurrection, but not the empty tomb. So much of the terminology is the same; only the substance is radically altered.

Malcolm Muggeridge once defined public relations as ‘organised lying’. Then again, he never studied theology in a modern seminary.

Published: 3 February 2006