Sunday, January 26, 2014

Rudolf Bultmann and the Gospels: Past and Future

The Third International Symposium of the Leuven Centre for the Study of the Gospels took place from December 11th to 12th 2013. This time the topic was: “Rudolf Bultmann and the Gospels: Past and Future“, a topic chosen also in honor of Professor Gilbert Van Belle on the occasion of his becoming professor emeritus. His valedictory lecture in the late afternoon of the 12th December at the University Hall concluded the conference with the title “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”: Bultmann’s Interpretation of the “’Signs’” in the Fourth Gospel” (available in print in Dutch and English).
Every lecture was given in German, with the exception of Ernst Baasland´s who presented in English and Gilbert Van Belle, who presented his farewell lecture in Dutch.

The seven papers presented at this conference, which took place in the Romero Room of the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, centered on the question of Rudolf Bultmann´s program of Entmythologisierung (Lindemann, Landmesser), especially in regard to miracle stories in the gospels (Lindemann, Labahn). His own inner development came into focus as well as critical perspectives on achievements of Bultmann’s methodology and perspective on history (Baasland, Schröter, Landmesser), especially with regard to the Gospel of John (Körtner, Van Belle). In general, topics and discussions focused on a few keywords, such as “Eschatologie” (eschatology), “Geschichtlichkeit” (historicity), and “Geschichte” (history).

The first presentation was given by Andreas Lindemann, a retired professor of Kirchliche Hochschule Bethel, and consisted of an overview of the development of Bultmann’s understanding of mythos and its consequences in his work for studying the gospels. According to Bultmann the New Testament contains a mythical worldview which is no longer valid in our modern world and therefore he developed his model of Entmythologisierung in order to avoid the unreasonable demand on a modern audience. It is only after 1941 that a deeper examination of the synoptic Gospels takes place in Bultmann’s work, but according to Lindemann, these gospels still display a “semantische Leerstelle” in his program of de-mythologization, as Lindemann showed by an analysis of Bultmann’s preaching on the miracle story Lk 5:1-11.
Ulrich Körtner, a former New Testament scholar, now employed in Systematic Theology in Vienna, focused in his presentation on the Gospel of John and Bultmann’s eschatological interpretation. He spoke of the developments of different aspects in his works, using an early essay written in 1928, the Commentary on John (KEK), and Bultmann’s Theologie des Neuen Testaments. Bultmann appreciates the Gospel of John as having the “Vergeschichtlichung” (historization) of eschatology thoughtfully brought to its end. According to Körtner, Bultmann’s early essay in 1928 displays already a mature existential interpretation, but only in a later stage did he develop his important aspect of “crisis”, which means both judgment court and individual decision at the encounter of an audience with God’s Word. If the human being makes a decision to believe, the so-called “Entweltlichung“ (independence from worldly aspects) takes place. Körtner closed with a few exegetical objections, amongst others Bultmann’s assumption of an ecclesiastical redactor, which allowed Bultmann far too easily to eliminate, on a literary-critical level, passages he did not deem suitable for his understanding of eschatology in John´s Gospel.

The first day of the conference was concluded by the paper of Michael Labahn. He made links with many aspects mentioned by his previous speakers and criticized Bultmann’s method of Entmythologisierung by using insights of modern narrative-critical research: The mysterious, mythological dimensions of texts can also be understood in a positive way as story-telling that cloaks God´s being. Therefore, Bultmann reduced the meaning of biblical stories by focusing one-sidedly on their historicity instead of taking the context into account in a search for deeper meaning.

Ernst Baasland, a retired professor from Oslo, started the new day (December 12th) with remarks on recent developments in scholarship regarding the inner development of Rudolf Bultmann between his work about the Gospels Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition in 1921 and his Jesus book in 1926. A very interesting insight was added to his paper, due to the fact that Baasland met Bultmann in 1972 and 1973 face-to-face. His paper unfolded four hypotheses, amongst others the hypothesis that the different stages of Bultmann’s development (i.e., the liberal, late-liberal, dialectical, and existential phases) have to be taken into account. He emphasized as well that there are innate consistencies in his thinking, such as his focus on „Wesenstheologie“ (theology of being) and the importance of existential reference from the very beginning.
Jens Schröter, professor in Berlin presented a critical review on Bultmann’s view of Early Christian history from a modern perspective. He reflected critically upon Bultmann’s historical-hermeneutical principle (“geschichtshermenetische Grundlagen”), since he developed his view of an early Christian concept of history in dependency on influential historians such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Droysen and R.G. Collingwood. Historical insight is, according to Bultmann, a creative process of acquirement, which consist in large part of the imagination. One can also speak of a historical-hermeneutical discourse taking place for real and meaningful understanding, as, according to Bultmann, Paul and John have done in their theologies. Schröter criticized Bultmann in illustrating that Paul and John share more similarities in their view of the history of the Jewish people than Bultmann would admit. He concluded that mythological language is not an eggshell, which can be taken off, without losing already something of its original message.
Christof Landmesser, professor in Tübingen, concluded the part in the Romero Room with a paper on how Bultmann developed his thoughts about the relationship between history and eschatology with different intermediate steps, beginning with ground work in 1913 and 1925, his Gifford Lectures in 1955 until his book Geschichte und Eschatologie in 1958. Already early on, Bultmann was of the opinion that the biblical text raises an existential claim for truth. By believing in this claim, the human being is freed from his culpable history, freed for a truly historical life and freedom. According to Landmesser, Bultmann had failed in showing his idea of separation of history from eschatology with the biblical texts themselves, ignoring many texts like the gospel of Matthew and its topic of justice.

The conference was attended by about 25 people, among whom a few PhD students and professors from three different continents, including Africa and North America. At the valedictory lecture of Professor Gilbert Van Belle, the University Hall was packed with colleagues, friends, students and family members.

Ines Luthe

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