The Kingdom and the Cross: Examing Critiques of Bultmann's New Testament Reading
Over forty years after his death, Rudolf Bultmann continues to draw sharp critiques from New Testament scholars, betraying the continuing influence of his work. Jonathan Pennington argues against Bultmann’s assertion that St. Paul’s interest in the “resurrected” Jesus was “divorced from the person of Jesus”. He instead argues that what “the historical Jesus and what he said and did were of utmost importance to Christians from the beginning” (Pennington 234). In lectures, N. T. Wright, the giant of contemporary New Testament studies, frequently blames Bultmann for the issues he sees in New Testament scholarship. He cites Bultmann’s demythologizing project as an attempt to avoid the message of the Kingdom of God by separating the wisdom of the Gospels from their narratives (Wright, “Imagining the Kingdom”). He also writes, contra Bultmann: “Unless the church's life and mission is rooted in the historical accomplishment of Jesus, all Christian life would be either arrogance or folly, or both (Wright 120). So what was this project of Bultmann which has elicited such criticism?
Bultmann’s primary assertion was that the New Testament is shrouded in myth which modern persons can no longer affirm. He zeroed in on the cosmology of the New Testament: the world is divided into the world above and the world below with the Earth the battleground between the two. Yet science has shown humanity the true cosmology of the world. We can no longer accept the cosmology of the New Testament (Bultmann 1-3). It belongs to the mythology of the text which must be stripped away for modern people to find the truth contained in the text (9). Jesus, in the text, belongs to the unique place in which myth and history meet. He is the mythological pre-existent Son of God presented as a historical human being (34). What is important is not what historical facts have to say about Him, but the significance Jesus has for each individual (35). The significance of the Cross is not its historicity or its mythological value, but how each individual undergoes his or her own crucifixion and overcomes a “natural dread of suffering and the perfection of our detachment from the world” (36-37). The task of Christian preaching is to present the crucified and risen Jesus to modern persons so that, in the proclamation, we might understand ourselves and our true place in the world (41). The Gospel message is that of the Cross, not as a historical event, but as the means by which we will truly know ourselves in this world.
Yet New Testament scholars such as Wright point out that the twin themes of Kingdom and Cross cannot be separated in exegeting the Gospels without distorting their primary message (Wright 158). The significance of the Cross comes from the Jesus of the historical narratives bringing in God’s Kingdom (177). For Wright, Bultmann’s separation of the Cross from the historical narratives of the Gospels and the proclamation of the Kingdom has emptied the Cross of its meaning. By trimming down the Gospel story to the Cross, Bultmann has also lost the Cross itself. “We should be in no doubt that, for the Gospel writers themselves, there was never a kingdom message without a cross, and Jesus’ crucifixion never carried a meaning divorced from the launching of God’s kingdom” (Wright 211).
Retracing the full Gospel narrative and highlighting the intersections of the Cross and Kingdom themes is beyond the length of a blog post. It has required book-length treatments from various scholars, most notably, N. T. Wright. However, the point these scholars make is a clear and simple one. The cross is presented in each of the four Gospels as a historical event and as the culmination of a longer narrative of the life of Jesus. To separate the cross from the narrative it is presented in is to change the meaning of the cross itself. While Bultmann’s attempt to contextualize the Christian message for his time is an admirable one, by detaching the message from the way the four Evangelists handed it to us, he fundamentally altered the message itself.
Bultmann, Rudolf. Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate. Edited by Hans Werner Bartsch. London, UK: S.P.C.K., 1972.
Pennington, Jonathan T. Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.
Wright, N. T. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016.
Wright, N. T. “Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity.” NTWrightPage. Accessed July 25, 2019. http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/imagining- the-kingdom/.