I can relate, he was demonized or belittled in a few classes I took too. It is an odd thing because, in many ways, Bultmann has much in common with contemporary Evangelicals. Perhaps I’ll say more about that in another post.
Today my intentions are more modest. My educated guess is that many Evangelicals have never read much of Bultmann. I know that I didn’t until I was a PhD candidate at Durham and John Barclay learned me good. I was studying theological German and I was determined to read and understand Bultmann’s program for “demythologization”. I had only a vague notion about what this meant in my younger years. In my simplistic caricature of him, I thought that it meant that Bultmann was out to cut away all of the supernatural elements from the Gospels. While this might have been an apt description of Thomas Jefferson, this notion is only a shade of what makes Bultmann’s program so influential.
What is under-appreciated about Bultmann is that his program for demythologization cut in two directions: one theological and the other historiographical. Bultmann "the theologian" wanted to make the gospel intelligible for the modern mind. Consider the following summary of Bultmann’s theological agenda. He argued that the themes and message of the New Testament were conveyed in the
"language of mythology, and the origin of the various themes can be easily traced in the contemporary mythology of Jewish Apocalyptic and in the redemption myths of Gnosticism. To this extent the kerygma [early Christian preaching] is incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete." (Rudolf Bultmann, “The New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate [ed. Hans Werner Bartsch; New York: Harper and Row, 1953], 2-3)The modern mind, he argued, cannot be expected to see the world the way that the ancients did. This motivated Bultmann to translate the “essential” elements (to use the terminology of Strauss) in the New Testament for the modern mind. Therefore the “mythical framework” of this preaching must be “stripped”.
“We are therefore bound to ask whether, when we preach the Gospel to-day, we expect our converts to accept not only the Gospel message, but also the mythical view of the world in which it is set. If not, does the New Testament embody a truth which is quite independent of its mythical settings? If it does, theology must undertake the task of stripping the Kerygma from its mythical framework, of “demythologizing” it. (Bultmann, “Mythology,” 3)
For Bultmann, the "mythical frameworks" of the Gospels obscured the essential Christian message from modern acceptance. The pre-Copernicus model of the universe was a wall that stood between modern minds and Christian preaching. He was convinced that the Christian message was worth hearing and worth hearing even if one could not accept a pre-modern worldview. You might say that Bultmann was a missionary to the children of the Enlightenment. He attempted to translate the gospel (as he understood it) for a society that simply couldn’t bring themselves to believe in talking donkeys and tax-paying fish.
Whatever your understanding of the genre of these episodes, do Christians really expect that the belief in these elements is necessary for understanding the gospel? Most don't. Most are quite happy to allow the essence of Christianity to be conversant with modern thought. Bultmann was trying to bring the essence of the gospel into conversation with a modern worldview.
Now we come to the second part of his program. Bultmann was convinced that the language of mythology also obscured the authentic Jesus from historical inquiry. So in addition to attempting to strip away mythology from Christian preaching, Bultmann also attempted to strip away Christian preaching from the authentic Jesus. The former he did in service to modern theology, the latter he did in service to modern history.
It is clear from his Jesus and the Word that he all but disassociated his historical interests in Jesus from his theological interests in Christian preaching. As such, we see Bultmann turn the aims of Strauss and Jefferson on their heads. It was the message of the ancient NT preachers upon which a religion could and should be built. Their “ancient naiveté” was not to be bracketed out as nonessential, but it required translation. Finding the authentic Jesus behind the Gospels was an important historical endeavor, but was not required for theology.
You can think of it like this: Jesus’ preaching was wrapped in Gnostic-myth language by the Early Church. That mythological language carried a transcendent or universal truth with life-changing power for the Church. Furthermore, it was so important that it was worth translating so that even modern minds could understand it. So two points: (1) Jesus’ preaching planted the seeds of the message; but those seeds were notoriously difficult to recover. While an interesting historical endeavor, (2) theologians (and regular folk) would find the essence of the Christian message sufficient without the help of professional historians. ...you can hear an echo from Martin Kahler here.
At the end of the day, Bultmann was dead wrong in a few ways. I see very few Gnostic categories in the preaching of the New Testament (some, but very few). I also see a much greater continuity between Jesus and Paul than did Bultmann. But these don’t even represent the most problematic part of his program; for that see my The Historiographical Jesus, pp.35-38.
Even so, Bultmann is worth understanding. Alongside Barth, he is the most influential theologian of the twentieth century. So, yes, he was great ...not as great as Willie Mays, but great. We need much more than a few sound-bites about the so-called “No Quest” years if we are to understand him and (more importantly) ourselves. And we would do well to make peace with both Bultmanns.
...more on this topic here.
...more on this topic here.