Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology by David W. Congdon

bultmannRudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Series: Cascade Companions) by David W. Congdon is a concise introduction to the person and work of Rudolf Bultmann. It summarizes the loci of Bultmann's theological program in less than 2o0 pages, making it a valuable resource on Bultmann by a scholar who is sympathetic with Bultmann's work. Rudolf Bultmann was published six months after Congdon's big book on Bultmann, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann's Dialectical Theology, which I previously reviewed here: Barth vs Bultmann: The Myth of the Whale and the ElephantCongdon's Rudolf Bultmann complements The Mission of Demythologizing by repeating many of its themes and supplementing it with material not covered in it, making this book accessible to readers otherwise intimidated by a 1,000 page tome.

bultmann-congdonRudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology contains an introduction and ten chapters highlighting one aspect of Bultmann's theology respectively: 1) Eschatology, 2) Dialectic, 3) Nonobjectifiability, 4) Self-Understanding, 5) Kerygma, 6) History, 7) Myth, 8) Hermeneutics, 9) Freedom, and 10) Advent. Each chapter ends with a set of questions, making it a great book for group discussion, and the book concludes with a list of recommended books on Bultmann, such as the one I am currently reading: Karl Barth - Rudolf Bultmann Letters, 1922-1966.

The strength of Congdon's books, such as Rudolf Bultmann, is his ability to "demythologize" Bultmann and "translate" his work to evangelicals who are openly hostile to Bultmann, by presenting Bultmann and his work in a way that Bultmann would have approved. I've read a substantial amount of Bultmann, but my reading of him has been marred from a hyper-critical posture that I inherited from the nearly universal hostility towards Bultmann by evangelical scholarship, such as George Eldon Ladd's Rudolf Bultmann to Karl Barth's Letters: 1961-1968 (including Barth's pejorative phrases such as "Bultmannitis"), and recently by N.T. Wright (as I've discussed in a recent post).

Congdon (and Bultmann too) were fully aware of the unfair criticism towards Bultmann, and he discusses it in this quotation from the preface of Rudolf Bultmann:

Bultmann wrote: "It is incredible how many people pass judgment on my work without ever having read a word of it. . . . I have sometimes asked the grounds for a writer's verdict, and which of my writings he has read. The answer has regularly been, without exception, that he has not read any of my writings; but he has learnt from a Sunday paper or a parish magazine that I am a heretic."

If reading the present work induces anyone to pass judgment upon Bultmann without actually reading him, this work has failed. If a reader is to take only one thing away from this book, I hope it will be a sense that Bultmann's theology is complex and significant enough to demand a thorough engagement. Many people will, of course, still find Bultmann's theology problematic, no matter how well it is explained.

Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015. xvii. Print. Cascade Companions.

Only after I had read Congdon's books on Bultmann, was I able to re-evaluate Bultmann in a more positive light. However, in full disclosure, I'm still not a Bultmanniac like Congdon mentions in the last sentence of the quote, but I am less critical than I once was and in many ways I am now appreciative of Bultmann due to Congdon's publications and correspondence and have a renewed zeal to read and learn about Bultmann. I still disagree with Bultmann, but for different reasons than I once did that I may expound another time. I believe any reader will walk away with a similar change in perspective on Bultmann from this book.

Rudolf Bultmann's Eschatology

David Congdon's chapter on Bultmann's Eschatology is what made me want to read this book, and I will review briefly as a taste of this book's overall experience. Congdon described Bultmann's position as one of "realized eschatology" in contradistinction to the "imminent, future eschatology" of his most respected opponents as well as the "inaugurated eschatology" (already/not-yet) of modern conservative opponents as exemplified in the quotation:

Following the rediscovery of eschatology, scholars split into two camps: those who advocated a present, realized eschatology (Bultmann, Dodd), and those who retained in some form the imminent, future eschatology of the early church (Käsemann, Pannenberg, Moltmann). Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, conservative scholars found an easy way out of this debate with a classic "both-and" approach, which goes by the name "inaugurated eschatology." Associated originally with Werner Kümmel, the position was popularized by George Eldon Ladd and today by N.T. Wright.

Ibid. 10.

Congdon is displeased that 'inaugurated eschatology' maintains a hegemony over Bultmann's 'realized eschatology' in his laments such as "today the phrase 'already but not yet' is a theological truism" (p.10) that has "near-universal acceptance" (p.10) and that "we are now conditioned to ignore statements about the disciples not tasting death before they see the kingdom of God (Mark 9:1; Matt 16:28; Luke 9:27)" (p.10-1). Bultmann opposes all partial or completely futuristic hopes of the coming of the Kingdom of God, and believes that the kingdom has already been realized here and now, and any conclusion about a futuristic kingdom is in the realm of speculation. There is no futuristic kingdom of God that is not already revealed, and there is no compromise between a realized kingdom and a future kingdom as espoused by those who affirm an "already/not-yet" and other 'both-and' solutions. Bultmann believes a sober realism approach to the New Testament should be adopted that recognizes that the futuristic Kingdom of God has never arrived, so a 'realized eschatology' must be adopted as a result of it.

Why then is the "already/not-yet" universally accepted? Congdon answers:

The reason is obvious: We are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the people whose views we hold to be authoritative, perhaps even infallible, might have held ideas that were simply wrong or at least profoundly alien to our own way of thinking.

Ibid, 11.

Congdon is correct that myth or errant/human speak may be used as a vehicle for revelation (this idea is discussed later in the book). I know of many people who will not allow the bible to speak in any non-inerrant means, especially by those who advocate for biblical inerrancy today. I also agree that the New Testament presents a serious dilemma regarding the predictions regarding the return of Jesus within the lifetime of the apostles as Congdon states, and that is not indisputably resolved by the "already/not-yet" advocates. However, the difficulties these verses pose do not mean I am forced with an either/or between biblical inerrancy or completely realized eschatology, but this is likely due to my amateur knowledge of Bultmann's theology. I believe even Bultmann had a futuristic component to his eschatology in his affirmation of resurrection. What benefited me the most from this section is that Congdon is correct that the "already/not-yet" should not be asserted as an incontestable truth, otherwise it becomes another tenet of fundamentalism, and that we must not dismiss problems because they are uncomfortable.

If I understand Congdon correctly, by the phrase "realized eschatology" Bultmann means that we may no longer expect a future return of Christ, and that eschatology must be reoriented around our current lives lived, not a future life that is yet to come. This is rationalized by identifying the New Testament apocalypticism as a radically different understanding of the world that is contrary to how modern man understands the world today. Modern man is no longer, according to Bultmann, able to operate with the same cosmology of the biblical world. Notice Congdon's use of phrase "profoundly alien" in this last quote, which is repeatedly restated in many phrases such as "truly strange and other the biblical world is" (p.11) and the "alien character of the bible" (p.12) to describe Bultmann's belief that the world of the bible and the New Testament is radically different than our modern understanding of the cosmos, and the radically otherness of the ancient world alienates us from it, making most of the ancient world non-translatable to the modern world. The primarily differences between modern people today to the New Testament is the New Testament's description of the cosmology as a three-tiered universe and its use of apocalypticism to falsely predicted the return of Jesus within the lifetime of the apostles (and other reasons too).  This is evident in the second "question for reflection" at the end of the chapter:

2. What does it mean to believe in the "return" or "second coming" of Christ? Can Christianity withstand the loss of belief in Christ's literal return? If so, how might we interpret the creed's confession that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead?

5. Can belief in the authority of scripture coexist with the claim that the biblical authors were wrong about certain points, some of which were held in high importance (e.g., the imminent return)?

Ibid. 13.

Overall, I'm learning to appreciate Bultmann more, however I retain the criticisms expressed by Bultmann's opponents that Congdon lists such as Barth, Pannenberg, Moltmann and others. Having a "realized eschatology" has tremendous value for the here-and-now, and benefits us by demonstrating the great danger of gnostic escapism that is rampant in Evangelicalism today. I also appreciate Bultmann's ability to identify real problems in the biblical text on significant issues, and that we have to be cognizant of our biases such as the blind acceptance of the "already/not-yet".


I highly recommend Congdon's Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology for anyone who wishes to learn about Bultmann from a scholar who appreciates Bultmann. I may remain to be one of those students of Congdon and Bultmann who ultimately remains unconvinced, but yet highly benefited by this scholarly work and believe anyone who reads this excellent book will be benefited as well.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received these book free from Wipf and Stock Publishers in exchange for a review on this blog. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Image sources: 1) Photo of David W. Congdon's book cover. 

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