Is the Christ in which the church has put its faith the same person as the Jesus who really lived? Some theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have said “No.” They claim that the real “Jesus of History” differs greatly from the church’s “Christ of Faith.” Some make this pronouncement with glee. So much the worse for Jesus. Free of the Galilean, the theologian is at liberty to spin a religion out of his own spiritual consciousness. Others who doubt the authenticity of the church’s Christ of Faith embark on a quest for the historical Jesus. So much the worse for the church. She will have to bow to new scholarly findings if researchers discover a “new Jesus.”
Some of my readers have probably seen books on these new Jesuses. In our day, he is always said to be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls or gnostic writings. The endorsements on the dustjackets of these books always claim that the new findings will “undermine the foundations of the church.” Such a claim might well unsettle the stomach of an unwary book-browser. When you see books like this, don’t fear them. Pick them up and scan their contents. You will rarely find in these books a scholarly presentation of newly-discovered material. Instead, most are filled with crackpot interpretations of familiar texts which were discovered long ago.
Publishers of such books laud their authors for being “bold and innovative.” Actually, there is nothing particularly bold about these men. Their books are certain to succeed in our sensationalist culture. The truly bold scholars are those who write on such matters without making earth-shattering claims. They enter into a far more risky publishing venture.
The Mediator is the Message
The theologian who accepts a dichotomy between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith will always favor one over the other. The most famous example of opting for a Christ of Faith over the Jesus of History is found in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann’s Christ of Faith could be believed in even by those who doubted the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.
To some of us, this sounds like a good solution to our plight. Many of us are not confident in our ability to evaluate the historical evidence for Jesus. But Bultmann’s Christ is impervious to being disproved. If we find that Jesus never lived, so what? The Christ presented by the gospel writers is still a compelling figure-so compelling that we ought to follow him anyway. Besides, who wants to disband their home Bible study just because the Jesus Seminar cannot agree on what Jesus said or did?
The problem with such reasoning is that the New Testament does not speak of Christ in such terms. Bultmann’s Christ is safe because his message is more important than his person. The New Testament Christ is risky because everything depends upon his Person and work. As St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). No historical Jesus, no salvation. What really happened in history matters to us. The Mediator is the message.
The position of a writer like Bultmann is much more dangerous than that of other contemporary liberal theologians for two reasons. First, his writing is much clearer. More people can be led astray by him because more can understand him. Second, his claim that jettisoning the supernatural side of Christianity will not leave us without something to believe in is attractive to many. Most people would like to feel as if they were both up-to-date and spiritual. Bultmann says they succeed at both if they follow his advice. The problem is that this cannot be done. While Bultmann’s method is understandable, its ramifications are difficult for many to see, and they spell disaster.
In the space of just a few pages of his book Jesus Christ and Mythology, Bultmann charts a new method of Biblical interpretation. He calls us to question the old understanding of those passages of Scripture where God’s action was local or concrete (which Bultmann termed mythological) or where Jesus spoke of a literal end of the world and coming judgement (which Bultmann termed eschatological). He says:
We must ask whether the eschatological preaching and the mythological sayings as a whole contain a still deeper meaning which is concealed under the cover of mythology. If that is so, let us abandon the mythological conceptions precisely because we want to retain their deeper meaning. This method of interpretation of the New Testament which tries to recover the deeper meaning behind the mythological conceptions I call de-mythologizing. (1)
Bultmann is aware that asking people to give up even portions of scripture would be scandalous, so he claims that even these passages are not eliminated: “[My] aim is not to eliminate the mythological statements but to interpret them.” (2)
The Bible contains a vital message under the cover of mythology. At this point Bultmann’s program is still an abstract theory. We will need to see its application before we know what it will mean for theology.
Bultmann does not hesitate to offer a test case. He offers the example of those passages in Scripture which seem to teach a localized heaven. He says that these passages employ mythology because their writers were not capable of abstraction. An ancient author’s only way to express transcendence was to portray it spatially:
According to mythological thinking, God has his domicile in heaven. What is the meaning of this statement? The meaning is quite clear. In a crude manner it expresses the idea that God is beyond the world, that He is transcendent. (3)
Ancient man thought, but he thought crudely. This understanding of the ancient mind is common. I have seen a similar example in a recent article on ancient representations of cherubim (those six-winged creatures of Old Testament visions). The author says that
Although ancient man understood concepts like omnipotence and omniscience, he did not express them in philosophical terms. Instead, he did so concretely. Man’s earliest attempts to express abstract, metaphysical concepts took a physical form. (4)
While both the author of the article and Bultmann believed that ancient man had some grasp of transcendental concepts, both believed ancient man to be a thrall to concrete expression. Bultmann saw this as a drawback for modern man who had progressed beyond this point.
If Bultmann was right, then a sensitive modern interpreter is needed to understand what the ancients were trying to convey. In the case of heaven and hell, without a Bultmannian guide, moderns might even give up on the Bible, its timeless message having been lost in mythological language:
These mythological conceptions of heaven and hell are no longer acceptable for modern men since for scientific thinking to speak of “above” and “below” in the universe has lost all meaning, but the idea of the transcendence of God and evil is still significant. (5)
The problem with the ancients is that they weren’t scientific. If they had a telescope or a space shuttle, they would have known that their conceptions were flawed. After the heavens have been trespassed by astronauts, who can believe in a celestial cloudland?
Such thinking reminds me of the Russian cosmonaut who said upon his arrival in space that he did not see God. Even as a child I remember thinking how disappointed I would have been if he had. My feeling was not rooted in a deep-seated need to believe without evidence, but in an inkling of the grandeur of the divine. Has it not occurred to Bultmann that his own conceptions might be analogies?
Perhaps the word “transcendence” is mythological in the same sense as the words “above” and “below.” God’s relationship to the universe is unique. Theologians have chosen to give the abstract word “transcendence” a peculiar meaning when it is used theologically to speak of Gods relationship to the universe. Perhaps the ancients knew how to use the language of “above” and “below” in the same unique sense. Their use would have the added advantage of being recognized by most people as non-literal or analogical. Today’s reader might be fooled by the word “transcendent.”
I have a high opinion of the ancient mind. So do many who are familiar with it. One writer who was well-trained in the reading of ancient documents (he had been reading Homer in Greek since the age of 16) was C. S. Lewis. Professor Lewis faced claims like that of Bultmann in the Church of England of his day. Responding to the writing of one clergyman who said that we moderns had to overhaul our image of God, Lewis wrote:
The Bishop of Woolwhich will disturb most of us Christian laymen less than he anticipates. We have long abandoned belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven. We call that belief anthropomorphism, and it was officially condemned before our time. There is something about this in Gibbon. (6)
Edward Gibbon was the famous author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The condemnation of anthropomorphism of which Gibbon spoke took place in the early centuries of Christianity. Lewis argues that even in the ancient church, people could read the scriptures without being led astray by concrete imagery. I propose to show that even in Old Testament times men could do this. God himself taught them how in the Old Testament writings. God “demythologized” himself without the help of a twentieth century theologian.
Today You Will Be With Me in Paradigm
Our tendency to believe that we can look down on the religious expressions of ancient man from a higher summit of understanding is rooted in our modern theology. Were the ancients here with us, they would not bow to us as to superiors. They would lament our corrupted understanding and attribute it to the fall of man. For theological superiors they would have looked back to Adam and Eve before the fall, or perhaps ahead to the glorified state, where they would learn pure theology in the “heavenly school.” They would have rejected the idea that mankind is embarked on a progressive quest for God. They believed in a divine quest where God has sought to bring natural idolaters from all generations to a truer knowledge of himself.
I would like to offer a test case to show how God’s progressive revelation of himself in Scripture demonstrates the ability of the Bible to transcend the timebound categories of its ancient authors. I owe this example to Stephen Prickett, whose book Words and the Word offers an unusually broad base of observations showing the foibles of both conservatives and liberals when it comes to Biblical interpretation.
Prickett finds in the story of Elijah an example of God’s progressive revelation of himself. God had begun this revelation by showing himself a superior force to the pagan gods. The pagan prophets had laid out their sacrifice before Baal, but he did not show up, even after much shouting and self-mutilation on the part of his prophets. Then Elijah set forth his sacrifice. Elijah doused water on the sacrifice to ensure that what was to happen would be a display of great power. Before the prophets of Baal, “the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice….” (1 Kgs 18:38). Even before this demonstration, Elijah was aware that God had a history of revealing himself through the forces of nature. But God knew that if he had terminated his self-revelation at this point in the story, even his trusted servant Elijah might think him a nature-god-certainly the most powerful of nature-gods, perhaps the only nature god-but a mere nature-god just the same. To counter this, God revealed his transcendence by repeating his demonstration of his command over nature, and then dissociated himself from the phenomena he had caused. God finally revealed his presence in a “still, thin voice.” (7) Prickett explains it thus:
Elijah had come to Horeb with certain expectations precisely because of that sense of history that was already, in Israel, distinctively the mark of men of God. Before the assembled prophets of Baal he had already vindicated Yahweh in pyrotechnics-proving once again the power of the God who had traditionally manifested himself by fire. Now he had come to receive the divine revelation for which he believed he had been preparing himself. What followed was the more unexpected. Paradoxically, his notion of Yahweh was disconfirmed by a greater display of natural violence than any yet. But Yahweh is not a fire God. His presence, when at last it is revealed, is experienced as something mysteriously apart from the world of natural phenomena that had been in such spectacular convulsions. Elijah’s own categories are overthrown. (8)
Prickett’s talk of categories being overthrown shows that a Kuhnian scientific revolution was possible even to ancient man. Isn’t this method curiously like the one the de-mythologizer is supposed to follow? God recognizes that the conception of him held by an ancient (in this case Elijah) contained some truth. But Elijah’s conception of God’s majesty was still crude. So God revealed himself in a new way to alter the old conception to a superior and more refined conception of transcendence-all without the help of Rudolf Bultmann!
The Jesus of History Future
The overall clarity of Bultmann’s language obscures the difficulty of some of his concepts. When he claims that modern man ought to be able to retain some kind of Christian faith but without mythology, this is a complex claim. It involves the idea that Christianity contains myth, and the idea that myth is a bad thing, at least for modern man. Both of these ideas are further complicated by the fact that Bultmann offers no precise definition of myth. His examples are understandable enough by themselves, but how is a reader to know what is and isn’t mythical in a given passage? Without a definition, the reader is left to decide for himself. If it is difficult to believe, it must be myth.
In Bultmann’s theory the concrete side of a myth is the flawed attempt of an ancient mind to express a deep truth. This concrete side is rejected by Bultmann. It is untrue. To be sure, the word “myth” can be used in a pejorative sense to mean something untrue. To a theologian, this is the most prominent characteristic of a myth. It is a wrong account of the world. St. Paul himself uses the word in this manner (e.g. 1 Tim 4:7, 2 Tim 4:4, Titus 1:14). But for St. Paul, there is no underlying truth to a myth. There is no kernel of truth to be found in a myth. That is the biblical sense of the term.
If Bultmann is using the term myth in another sense, then it would be nice to know what that sense is. For a man like Bultmann, who claimed to be able to distinguish different kinds of narrative in the Bible, the obvious sense would be the word’s literary sense. But was he in a position to judge this? C. S. Lewis claimed Bible critics wrote nonsense about the Bible and myth because they had never read myths. Not lack of faith, but lack of good training led to this:
…whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading…If (a critic) tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he had read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour… (9)
Whatever the value of Bultmann’s judgments on a given text, his construction of an overall theory of demythologizing was flawed by his unfamiliarity with myth.
Professor Lewis had read and loved both Greek and Norse mythology his whole life. His book Till We Have Faces is a reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth. In Lewis’s writing we find an awareness of the complex nature of myth. In our century, we are long past the time when the Greek myths could lead people astray. We can appreciate the power of myth to integrate experience in a way that the early Christians were not free to. In a myth we see an expression of something that happens in nature enacted by great beings or gods. A myth draws together many experiences which were seen as separate.
Bultmann sees the mythical elements of a narrative as being of secondary importance to a message which the narrative was written to convey. Jesus had a message and his disciples valued that message so much that they invested his person with mythical qualities in order to draw attention to his message. Perhaps we moderns can value the message without the myth.
C. S. Lewis shows us another way to view Jesus. Not what he said, but his person and work was the message. His teaching was secondary to who he was and what he did. Better a silent Jesus who paid for our sins than a teaching Jesus who aborted his mission. Lewis is clear that Christianity is only viable if Christ is truly God. Christianity is worthless if Christ’s deity and atonement were myths-falsehoods.
But if we accept the truth of Christianity, and look at myth from another angle, as something other than falsehood, then Christianity can be said to be mythic. Something of true cosmic importance is enacted. All of our moral experiences are explained in one event. But that is not all. Nature is involved. There is some connection between the Resurrection and the coming of spring-a connection not lost on hymn-writers or greeting card manufacturers. But in the Resurrection, the normal relation of mythic event to nature is reversed. Usually, the myth serves to explain the general principle. But the Resurrection was clearly not intended as explanation of a more general Resurrection principle we see happening every spring. Spring is rather a foreshadowing of the Resurrection. Christianity is the true myth that makes everyday reality seem thin by comparison.
What kind of message are we really left with if we break the connection between who Jesus was and what he did? Some might say that Jesus did not have to rise from the dead for his teachings to be of value. He taught us to suffer under persecution in hope. But what is that hope? Perhaps that our values will live beyond us. Jesus died, but the church survived and flourished. But if Christ is not risen, how could that principle apply to our lives? If Christ is not risen, the success of the church was a grand mistake. The only principle we could draw is that if we were to suffer persecution and someone got confused enough, he or she might create a myth about us, and our values would be promoted by unearned fame. And that’s if we’re lucky! Some hope.
True hope looks to the future. Faith is trust that in Christ we have a good future. We have a good future because as the Jesus of History past, he overcame death and sin and wrath. As the Jesus of History future, we expect him to be as successful in overcoming our enemies. He has shown himself worthy of that trust. Instead of a dreary modern attempt to adjust Jesus to a so-called scientific view of the world, let us allow God to adjust us to a better view of things. A real Jesus came into the real world and gave it a real plot. We are living in a better crafted story than any storyteller, ancient or modern could have dreamed. We live in a world where accountants and astronauts are ransomed with the blood of God; where rockets travel through an outer space transcended by a real heaven; and where small-minded people, ancient, modern, or even postmodern, can experience a great paradigm shift when confronted with a word from God.
The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are not to be separated. The ancients were aware of this when they wrote that “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…begotten of his Father before all worlds…who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Our future depends on holding fast to these ancient words.
About the author: Rick Ritchie resides in Southern California and is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
1 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner’s 1958), p. 18.
2 Bultmann, p. 18.
3 Bultmann, p. 20.
4 Elie Borowski, “Cherubim: God’s Throne?” in Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 1995: vol. 21, number 4), p. 36.
5 Bultmann, p. 20.
6 C. S. Lewis, “Must our Image of God Go?” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1970), p. 118.
7 See 1 Kings chapter 19 for the story. Prickett says that difficult passages such as the “still thin voice” of 1 Kings 19:12 have suffered at the hands of rationalistic interpreters, even when those interpreters were conservative evangelicals. The King James translators rendered it better, but the English language has changed leaving us without a good translation of this passage.
8 Stephen Prickett, Words and the Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 11.
9 C. S. Lewis, Fern-Seed and Elephants, and other essays on Christianity, ed. Walter Hooper, Collins (Fontana), 1975, pp. 107-108; quoted by Prickett in Words and the Word, p. 81.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 1995 issue: “O Come Let Us Adore Him: The Person and Work of Christ” (Vol. 4 No. 6). Pages 33-36
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