On Bultmann, Tillich, and Macquarrie

Consider the following assertion about Bultmann’s notion of “myth”:

…myths are anything but old legends or mere stories and fables. Myths, rather, are expressions of human being in the world [where] we all live within their terms, and they are changing all the time as culture and society changes.[1]

This is a very important starting point when discussing Bultmann, particularly in light of the fact that Bultmann, having been influenced by Martin Heidegger, defines “human being in the world, or human existence, as authentic and inauthentic.[2] In a sense, Bultmann’s concept of “demythologization” is Heideggerian, since, because it is so focused on taking the “myth” out of interpretation and compartmentalizing “kerygma,”[3] is intent on approaching interpretation as a existential kind of hermeneutics.

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”[4] 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[5] –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.[6] 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.[7]


[1] David Jasper, A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 102.

[2] Ibid., 103.

[3] Thiselton makes this distinction in The Two Horizons, where Thiselton argues that Bultmann’s notion of the “Christ myth” revolved around  the traditional elements of the “kerygma,” which, in turn, allowed the notion of “myth”  to arise. Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 222.

[4] 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.

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

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

[7] 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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