Two of the most influential academic theologians of the twentieth century share today, August 20, as their birthday: Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976). What an odd coincidence. I wonder if they ever celebrated it together.
Both men were prolific, and their theological projects were very different: Tillich was above all a theologian of culture, seeking to interpret the symbols with which people address the object of their ultimate concern; Bultmann earned his formidable reputation as a Bible scholar with a command of the history of religions and a facility with all available critical methods.
Both men were cross-disciplinary in ironic ways: Tillich was actually a kind of continental philosopher who believed himself to be a theologian (his Systematic Theology is in fact a systematic Christian ontology, in which Schelling’s concept of being is determinative for every part); while Bultmann was actually a systematic theologian with a definite, Heidegerrian account of saving faith to proclaim, though he thought he was a historical neutestamentlicher doing objectively descriptive work.
There is one meaningful place where their work overlaps: In the absence of Jesus and the presence of Christ. Both of them taught that the actual man Jesus Christ was an artifact of bygone history, with nothing to offer to faith. But they also taught, or I should say they primarily taught, that the whole point of Christianity was an existential encounter with the spiritual presence of Christ in the here and now.
Bultmann and Tillich taught this in different ways, but for essentially the same reasons. Tillich’s account is more striking. He wanted to avoid direct contact between faith and history, to protect saving faith from the dangers of history. One of his close co-workers, Langdon Gilkey, reported that Tillich frequently remarked to his classes: “I do not wish the telephone in my office to ring and to hear from some New Testament colleague: ‘Paulus, our research has now finally removed the object of your ultimate concern; we cannot find your Jesus anywhere.'” Tillich wanted a gospel that could survive the non-existence of the historical Jesus, or even the discovery of his still-dead bones. So he taught that the Christ, which he described as “the New Being,” appears to us principally not in Jesus himself, but in the biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ.
Even if Jesus were a fictional character in an imaginary story called the gospel of Mark, he could bring about salvation, according to Tillich. “Suppose,” said Tillich in 1966, “the bearer of the Spirit had another name than Jesus and did not come from Nazareth, and the New Testament picture of Jesus is essentially a creation of Mark…then Mark was the bearer of the Spirit through whom God has created the Church.”
Bultmann’s account is more complex, but it comes to the same thing. The Christ who saves is the Christ who is preached to you: “”Christ (insofar as he affects us) is the kerygma, because he is the Christ only as the Christ pro me, and as such he encounters me only in the kerygma.” In an insightful analysis of what Bultmann meant by this kind of statement, James Kay has helpfully distinguished among three referents of the term “Jesus Christ:” For Bultmann, the first meaning of “Jesus Christ” (JC1) is a mythic persona described in the New Testament using available gnostic-redeemer categories: a Son of God who descends to save, a Messiah, a God-Man, etc. But the second meaning of “Jesus Christ” (JC2) is the historical figure, a man whose career at a particular time and place the New Testament narrates.
Indeed, the New Testament wants to say that JC1 really is JC2, and there are all kinds of interesting demythologizings and remythologizings to do there. Bultmann’s thought here is very subtle and easily misunderstood, but pursuing it would be a digression. Essentially he thought the New Testament was right to express its faith using mythological categories like JC1, but that we moderns would be wrong perpetuate those outworn mythologies. The most important thing, though, is JC3, the contemporary proclamation of the message about salvation through Jesus. When you hear JC3, you have it all, as you are called out by the wholly other into a field of existential decision: saved.
Is there no necessary connection between JC3 and JC2? No, Bultmann said. There really was a JC2 back in the day, but to look behind the word of JC3 for something like a JC2 who still matters today would be to try to keep knowing Christ “according to the flesh” rather than “according to the Spirit.”
Another question, then: When JC2 died and was buried, did he rise from the dead? What rose from the dead and is present today, said Bultmann, is JC3. So he could say “Jesus Christ rose from the dead,” but he could say it in a way that would be utterly untroubled by the discovery of the bones of the still-dead JC2.
For evangelicals who glory in the fact that Christ is alive and present to us now, it is shocking to see Bultmann and Tillich take that truth and run off in a false direction with it. Their astonishing over-emphasis on a purely spiritual “Christ present to me now” is exposed as the blunder it is when you reflect on the relationship between the present Christ and the historical Christ. Anybody with a solid grasp of the real resurrection and ascension can affirm that the historical Jesus is the same person as the present Jesus. The cavalier dismissal of the historical Jesus (Never existed! Invented by Mark! Still in his grave! Irrelevant for saving faith!) cannot be countenanced.
It is tempting to call the Boys of August 20 a couple of liberals. As a term of abuse or as a warning label, that makes some sense. But as a historically descriptive term, “liberal” is not the right label. Both Bultmann and Tillich were intentionally setting themselves against the classic liberal theology of the late nineteenth century. Liberalism had worked out a different solution to this problem. The great liberals tried to take the historical Jesus (JC2) and stretch his influence all the way down to our time by celebrating the greatness of his personality and exploring the historical forces he had set loose in the world. Jesus is present now, they said in a thousand erudite ways, in roughly the same way other great men of the past are still present. A thinker like Adolf von Harnack could start his book on The Essence of Christianity by saying, “mankind cannot be too often reminded that there was once a man of the name of Socrates. That is true; but still more important is it to remind mankind again and again that a man of the name of Jesus Christ once stood in their midst.”
That groaning sound you hear is JC2 being stretched two millennia to become JC3, still with no real resurrection and ascension in between.
Thus classic liberalism, against which there were many justified reactions: the smart fundamentalism of men like James Orr and J. Gresham Machen, and the neo-orthodoxy of men like Bultmann and Tillich. They all knew classic liberalism was not the same thing as biblical Christianity, and they all sought to overcome it with something that was more in line with the message of Scripture. Tillich and Bultmann, with their neo-orthodox account of the presence of Christ, staked out a position that was better than the view of classic liberalism.
That’s the best thing I can say about their position, even on their birthday.