David Congdon’s “The Mission of Demythologizing”

9781451487923hFortress sent a copy and I’ve completed my review.  The publisher suggests

Rudolf Bultmann’s controversial program of demythologizing has been the subject of constant debate since it was first announced in 1941. It is widely held that this program indicates Bultmann’s departure from the dialectical theology he once shared with Karl Barth. In the 1950s, Barth thus referred to their relationship as that of a whale and an elephant: incapable of meaningful communication. This study proposes a contrary reading of demythologizing as the hermeneutical fulfillment of dialectical theology on the basis of a reinterpretation of Barth’s theological project.

That nicely summarizes this volume’s goal.  The immediate question potential readers will ask, then, is ‘did Congdon manage what he aimed to do?’  The aim of what follows is to answer that question.

In 1953 Barth wrote a telling little volume titled Rudolf Bultmann: Ein Versuch, ihn zu Verstehen (2nd ed). Barth failed. And he did so because Barth’s chief flaw was arrogance and an inability to think along with others. Mind you, Barth could think. And he could analyze. But he couldn’t read sympathetically. He couldn’t enter into the mind of others and follow their thoughts with them and thus Barth really couldn’t understand anyone else. Especially those who disagreed with him.

This is why Barth could never understand either Brunner or Bultmann. And why he could never love them. And why he was always combative and dialectical. Barth HAD to be right and he couldn’t conceive of anyone disagreeing with that basic premise.

But Barth was so influential and so important a thinker that his views of both Brunner and Bultmann were adopted by his followers and students and because they numbered in their thousands and found academic homes in Universities across Europe and America, the screeching voice of Barth echoed around the world and, therefore, without even really knowing why, Brunner and Bultmann were denounced by persons who had, like Barth, never thought their thoughts with them.

By the time Brunner died, his name was already slowly sinking from public view. When Barth died, societies rose in his place to continue his legacy. And lastly, when Bultmann died, Barth and Brunner were being eclipsed by new fads in theological thinking.

Then something incredible happened: Gareth Jones wrote a study on the thought of Bultmann and kicked off what can only be called a renaissance in appreciation for the old Marburg Professor. The year was 1991 and the title of that remarkable volume was Bultmann: Towards a Critical Theology (American edition, 1990 for the UK). That kicked the block from underneath the wheels and Bultmann studies began to rise from the ashes of historical indifference.

Fast forward to 2015 and David Congdon’s very large doctoral dissertation on Bultmann and demythologizing finds a home at Fortress Press and comes to public awareness in the volume currently being considered. Each word of the title is a carefully chosen window on the volume’s intent. The Mission- that is, the goal or aim, of demythologizing- that is, of restating the truth of Christian faith in a way sensible to its audience in whatever time and place it resides. Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology- that is, Bultmann’s aims as a member of a theological movement which he took in new directions which Barth could neither understand nor appreciate.

Congdon’s volume is 863 pages long (though it could have been shorter had the font been smaller and the sentence spacing less generous) and, as one might easily suppose because of it, amazingly thorough. In eight chapters Congdon describes and discusses

  1. The Problem: They Mythical Picture of Bultmann
  2. Reinterpreting the Myth: A Periodization of the Barth-Bultmann Relationship
  3. The Missionary Essence of Dialectical Theology
  4. The Mission of Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology
  5. The Truth of Myth and the Necessity of Demythologizing
  6. Toward a Dialectical Intercultural Hermeneutic
  7. The Problem of Myth and the Program of Deconstantinizing
  8. Eschatological Existence and Existentialist Translation

And then in a concluding chapter (which readers ought to read first, and not last), titled The Future of Demythologizing, Congdon wraps things up.

Congdon’s work is extremely thorough.  He clearly is well acquainted with the historical period of the early and middle 20th centuries in Europe.  He knows German right well (although he does follow the crowd in at least one instance where he shouldn’t have), and he – unlike Barth – understands Bultmann.

But, with all due respect to Karl Barth, understanding Bultmann is not at all difficult.  You simply need remember that he was a pious Lutheran who stood at the door with the poor box in his hand and received monies for the destitute at the Marburg Church every Sunday he was in town.  He was never ordained, but instead was a lifelong lay teacher of Scripture in the University graced and enriched by his presence and a man who loathed what Liberal Christianity had done to the faith at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century and so spent his life showing to all who had eyes to see that the core of the Gospel is not tied to the historical happenstances of its appearance and those historical happenstances could be done away with by moderns whilst the truth of the Gospel could, and should be retained.

In point of fact, his program of  Entmythologisierung des Neuen Testaments, whilst usually translated ‘De-mythologizing’ should by rights be translated ‘Re-mythologizing’.

Which brings me to my first criticism of Congdon’s work (and there’s just one)-  he writes

In continuity with more recent scholarship, I have not maintained the earlier tradition of differentiating between geschichtlich and historisch by using the terms “historic” and “historical”  (p. xv).

This is, in my view, a mistake.  To the theologians of the early 20th century (like von Rad and Bultmann and Brunner and the majority of the practitioners of the historical-critical arts) the distinction between geschichtlich and historisch is absolutely critical.  In our own context they reflect the difference between minimalists and maximalists.  To use the same word to describe both approaches would be completely misleading.  Similarly, to abandon the very crucial difference between the concepts explicated by geschichtlich and historisch will only hinder proper understanding not only of Bultmann’s program but of the entire era.

It is absolutely essential that words written in a particular historical Sitz im Leben are allowed to carry the same weight in different historical periods elsewise the subtle and careful arguments of the past will be lost to us.

Moving forward from those slight concerns, the book at hand is a genuine masterpiece of Bultmannian goodness.  As indicated in the chapter listing above, Condgon moves carefully through the proper materials and gives readers a better introduction to the work and theology of Bultmann than has ever been done since Gareth Jones got the ‘ball rolling’ in 1990.  Few have comprehended Bultmann better and only one has done a superior job of letting insiders and outsiders alike into the inner workings of Bultmann’s mind.

My usual inclination is to tell people to read books BY Bultmann before they read books ABOUT Bultmann.  But in this case, this book should be read by those interested in discovering Bultmann before they read anything by him.  Doing so will ensure that those readers of the Marburg-ers still incredibly important works will correctly interpret them in their time and place.