Rudolf Bultmann’s Mythological Christology

Central Arguments: David Brondos and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen

In considering David Brondos first in Salvation and the Cross, Brondos evaluates Rudolf Bultmann’s interpretation of the New Testament and, then, Bultmann’s view of Christology as that of “participation.” Brondos takes this idea as a way to understand how Bultmann’s Christology is based on “the salvific significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection primarily in terms of believer participating in this event.”[1] However, Brondos highlights what he considers as the most common objection to Bultmann’s Christology, which is Bultmann’s treatment of history. Brondos suggests that this treatment grounds Christian faith “no longer in historical events, but only in the meaning that we give to what was and is proclaimed regarding Christ and the cross.”[2] This is precisely what Bultmann’s “demythologization” is all about: it is essentially about myth or history from the present lived experience –for Bultmann, as Brondos ascertains, “salvation appears not to consist of a future life or world which we now await, but only something to be experienced in the present as we live authentically in openness to the future.”[3]

Now, directly in line with the argument Brondos makes, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s Christology: A Global Introduction describes Bultmann’s mythological Christology as viewing Jesus through the lens of mythology. The approach of “demythologization” that Bultmann employs, as Kärkkäinen rightly clarifies, “does not mean stripping away the mythical expression of the gospel in the spirit of liberalism,” as a way, perhaps, to examine a more “pure” perspective of the life and times of Jesus.[4] So, as Kärkkäinen further clarifies, demythologizing is a matter of experience, in order to reinterpret the myths in the Gospel. For Kärkkäinen, what this means, then, is that the purpose of demythologization is to reinterpret a myth existentially, so that “the message of the New Testament can be made intelligible to a modern person.”[5]


Critical Analysis

After reflecting on Brondos and Kärkkäinen’s description of Bultmann’s mythological Christology and reading the selection from Bultmann, I believe that a very helpful way to understand Bultmann’s demythologization is along the two rather analogous approaches of Paul Tillich and John Macquarrie. The Tillich and Macquarrie approaches reflect –as does Bultmann with his demythologization –the sense that the authentication of human existence comes through careful consideration of both temporal and spatial limitations as well as the power of personal experience to shape “being.”

For Tillich, whose theology is just as influenced by Heidegger as Bultmann’s is, human existence comes into being as a result of “being thrown”[6] into existence. From this, Tillich asserts, in brief, that humanity is encased in an existential predicament, where it must seek authentic existence through conceiving and grasping the concept of God and God’s “Being.” Now, Macquarrie is operating from much the same Heideggerian-influenced perspective, suggesting that the fulfillment of human selfhood is contingent on “Being.” Macquarrie goes a bit further and more explicitly than Tillich –though I think Tillich would agree by way of his notion of New Being[7] –and asserts that the historical symbol of Jesus has “ontological import” of personal existential ramifications, which “gives to our minds the fullest disclosure of the mystery of Being that we can receive.[8] What becomes essential about Macquarrie and Tillich’s sense of human existence in reference to God’s existence is that humanity must be concerned with the present, the here and now. In other words, humanity cannot authenticate its existence by historicizing Jesus, but, instead, through applying ontological-existential meaning what Christ is and what Christ does –the theory and praxis, respectively –to fully understand what human existence is and what God’s Being is. Here is where Bultmann’s argument lies: the sense that humanity must tease out meaning through the reinterpretation and demythologization of Scripture, in order to apply that meaning experientially to our current, contemporary lived situation. What this means, furthermore, is that humanity’s encounter with Scripture must be delineated along two lines: the historical event and the personal event. The latter is the most important, as I am sure Bultmann would agree, since the personal event –the individualized experience –opens the possibility for the greatest amount of meaning to be uncovered through the immanence of the event.[9]


[1] David A. Brondos, Salvation and the Cross (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 153.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] This is a Heideggerian term that is used in a variety of ways: “thrown-ness,” “being-thrown-towards-death,” “thrown-ness into the there,” and “being thrown through abandonment.” “Thrown-ness into existence” is one of these ways. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Translated John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1962), 321.

[7] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Volume 2: Existence and The Christ (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 119.

[8] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966),  272

[9] I am thinking, here, of Gilles Deleuze’s noton of the “immanent event” as an event that humans bring their lived experiences into and become changed by that event after the encounter.

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