“Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world – in fact, there is hardly anyone who does (which I doubt – mine). The only honest way of reciting the creeds is to strip the mythological framework away from the truth they enshrine” (Bultmann)
Bultmann shook the Theological world with his essay “New Testament and Mythology.” In it he observed that the New Testament gives us a mythical view of the world. This is seen most obviously in its conception of cosmology. According to Bultmann, this mythological view of the world was the general view of reality at the time the bible was written. It can be found in the Jewish apocalyptic and Gnostic redemption myths. There is, in other words, nothing unique in the Bible’s cosmology. The bible merely reflects a first –century perspective. As such, its ideas on these matters are obsolete for us today. In fact, according to him, Copernicus has made this so for any aware, alert, thinking person of our time, or, for that matter, of any time since Copernicus. For the vast majority of persons living today, it is not possible to hold to the ancient idea of a flat earth with four corners. The same is true of the idea that illnesses are caused by demon possession. Modern medicine has shown us that illnesses are caused by bacteria and viruses, not by demon possession. In view of our new understanding of natural causation, the miracles of the New Testament are no longer regarded as miraculous. They are myths, he insisted. However, (and for me this is something strange, learning this from a professor of New Testament and a self-proclaimed theologian) he still suggested that, since these so called myths are still part of the kerygma (preaching or proclamation), re-interpretation of them is necessary. Since the Bible is considered as a collection of historical documents, to understand it and Jesus’ real message, there is a need to weed out the myths to find the truth.
Bultmann’s argument can be summarized this way:
1. Myths are by nature more than objective truths; they are transcendent truths of faith.
2. But what is not objective cannot be a part of a verifiable space-time world.
3. Therefore, miracles (myths) are not part of the space-time world.
These conjectures do not only eliminate the need to believe in miracles, but they also make it impossible to evaluate them in any sense. But does this argument hold up?
Bultmann’s primary passion is to communicate the kerygma, or the Christian message, to the 20th century world. In order to carry out this task, he engages, negatively, in a demythologization of the biblical sources, while, positively, he sets forth an existential analysis of the gospel proclamation. Oden helpfully elucidates the relationship between these two aspects of Bultmann’s task:
“Demythologization is distinguished from existential analysis in that the former deals with special problem of trying to perceive the New Testament proclamation in the context of the mythical world picture of the 1st century, and to indicate how this world picture is not necessary to the particular understanding of existence expressed therein. Existential analysis of the New Testament proclamation, however, involves the positive task of taking these 1st century conceptualities, language, and meanings and translating them into terms that are familiar and understandable to modern man and that correspond to the actual situation of human existence.”
Existential interpretation is also applied to biblical materials because there is a claim of their historicity and the bible can be used as a guide to a real self-understanding. Since this is so, the bible is to be interpreted historically. But mythical contents hinder interpreters to existentially interpret biblical documents. Thus, a new way of decoding must be utilized to detach myths from the kerygma. To use Bultmann’s term, they must be demythologized.
Besides the theological reason for demythologization, there is an apologetic reason. Modern man thinks scientifically, in strictly causal categories. Spirits, demons miracles, virgin birth, resurrection and so on prevent people today from taking the kerygma seriously. Apparently, they are rejected and considered as stumbling blocks. What demythologization does, then, is “eliminate a false stumbling block and bring into sharp focus the real stumbling block, the word of the cross.” Apologetically, then, no less than theologically, demythologization is imperative if 20th century culture is to be confronted with the kerygma in all its authentic offensiveness and redemptive power. Bultmann insists that this hermeneutical task does not necessitate rejection of Christianity. On the contrary, it rejects only a prescientific cosmology.
Once the mythological materials in Scripture have been demythologized, what remains? A revelation that is meaningful to the modern mind, a revelation of a new possibility in human existence. Bultmann stated, “Revelation means that opening up of what is hidden which is absolutely necessary and decisive for man if he is to achieve salvation or authenticity; revelation here is the disclosure of God, an occurrence that puts man in a new situation.” Revelation, then, offers a new self-understanding and with it the challenging hopes of a new possibility.
But, then again, even truths or revelations that will be deduced from the Bible, the interpreter still has the freedom to say yes or no and accept or reject them. And, still part of the hermeneutical task is the idea that existentiell encounter entails existentiell decision on the part of the interpreter. So whatever revelation one will come to grasp, it can’t be passed on as something that is definitive, because there is an underlying assumption that revelation will always be understood anew.