When I was a small boy I started to attend the closest church to my home because I felt drawn to the place. It just so happened to have been a Baptist church. I had friends who attended other houses of worship but none of them seemed very appealing to my 14 year old mind. The Pentecostals were nice enough but all the yelling and screaming during their services was offputting. The Methodists were all old. And so it was that I landed in the Baptist church which, like Goldilocks, I found just right. No screaming and yelling and enough people my age that I felt like I fit in (inasmuch as any 14 year old boy can fell like he fits in anywhere).
It was, I think it needless to say, a very conservative place with a very conservative (read: fundamentalist) Pastor. The Bible wasn’t just THE book, it was THE book of literal historical narration. If there had been cameras around in the ancient world they would have recorded exactly what the Bible reported. That was what we were all taught; it was what we all believed.
So imagine my surprise when, upon arriving in Seminary (at Southeastern, before the days of darkness descended and the place became itself a fundamentalist stronghold manned by a fundamentalist President who saw to it that the faculty was replaced by fundamentalists as well) I discovered that there was another way to read, to see, the Bible: as theology, not historiography.
Enter my esteemed teachers, Max Rogers and Don Cook and Richard Spencer and John Durham and Sam Balentine and Elmo Scoggin and all the rest – scholars who opened up the panorama of the Bible by insisting that we read such dyed in the wool heretics as von Rad and Eichrodt and Bultmann and Schweizer and Stuhlmacher and a whole galaxy of German theological heavyweights.
The scales, as they say, fell off my eyes and I could see, as never before, the Bible for what it was, for what it is.
Encountering Bultmann and von Rad in particular, however, precipitated a crisis of faith. What was I to do with all that I had been taught as a teen in the Church which I loved and which loved me and which would never mislead me or try to fool me? The questions the critical study of the Bible raised were ominous and terrifying. How could I maintain faith?
The answer to that question was found in further reading, and greater understanding, of the works of the two men who affected me most, Rudolf Karl Bultmann and Gerhard von Rad (to whose memories I dedicated my ThM Thesis on The Use of Isaiah in the Gospel of John). At the feet of these two I grew in faith and in learning and came to understand that the Bible’s purpose is deeper and broader and wider and wiser than as a mere historical documentary. It tells the tale of God’s interaction with humanity, in theological terms with the intention of being understood theologically.
Had it not been God’s providential hand leading me to von Rad and Bultmann, I have no idea what would have become of my understanding of God, Scripture, truth, and Church.
It seems fitting, to me at least, to offer this public appreciation for the work of von Rad and Bultmann on the birth anniversary of the latter. People who demonize Bultmann (and von Rad) simply have no idea what they’re talking about when they talk about him. They’re sadly uninformed and ignorant, because God spoke through, and speaks through them. No higher compliment can be paid to a theologian or biblical scholar than that. Indeed, God speaks still through those two far more than he does most theologians and scholars today.
Happy birthday R.K.B. Thanks, again.