In his new book, “Jesus: The Only Way?” the Rev. John Snyder criticizes universalism and defends the Christian teaching that salvation is through Jesus Christ alone.
The American pastor of Crossroads International Church in Basel, Switzerland, Mr. Snyder’s book is based on his research for his doctorate in theology at the University of Basel.
The following is excerpted from “The Repentance of Rudolf Bultmann,” an appendix to the book, in which Mr. Snyder describes the funeral — 30 years ago on Aug. 4, 1976, in Marburg, Germany — of a leading liberal theologian:
What the name Charles Darwin is to the field of biological science, the name of Rudolf Bultmann is to the world of New Testament study. Virtually every student of theology worldwide is introduced to the writings of German scholar Rudolf K. Bultmann (1844-1976) and his students.
He is considered by many the grand master of New Testament skepticism. In Germany, he was hailed by many intellectuals as “the greatest event since Luther.”
Bultmann is credited with launching the world-famous program of interpreting the “Jesus myths” for modern society by “demythologizing” the primary documents of the Christian faith. He stood like a colossus over academic biblical studies for much of the 20th century.
With variations, Bultmann’s program was enthusiastically carried forward by his students, who imagined themselves to be forging ahead with ever-increasing clarity on the ways legends and myths about Jesus entered Christian tradition. His ideas form the underpinning of many who make pronouncements in the media asserting whether a particular story or saying of Jesus is authentic or not.
The movement of radical criticism has taken several different directions since his era, but his is the inspiration behind many of today’s most vocal critics of the Bible. Building upon the literary principles of Bultmann, they assume that the vast majority of the recorded sayings and deeds of Jesus, although well-intentioned stories, are in the final analysis merely elaborate inventions of the early church.
So extreme were Bultmann’s methods and treatment of biblical texts that he was criticized even by his old schoolmate, Karl Jaspers. But did this giant of doubt have a change of mind and repudiate his entire teaching career before he died in 1976?
Stories have been circulating in and around Germany to the effect that in his closing days, Bultmann “converted,” turned entirely against his life’s work and even sent a final message to some of his closest students apologizing for all that he had ever taught about the New Testament.
The reports first came to my attention in the spring of 2004 while living in Basel, Switzerland. A theology student and friend of mine, Dietrich Wichmann, heard the account of the change of mind from one of Bultmann’s former students and teaching assistants (now an octogenarian), who was passing through Basel. We were immediately intrigued and began to pursue the matter.
The original information we received was apparently a somewhat corrupted version of an account that could be tracked back to a hospital in Tubingen. There, Professor Ernst Kasemann, one of Bultmann’s principal students, had been receiving care for a heart condition just prior to his death in February 1998. A nurse working closely with Professor Kasemann heard unequivocal statements from a visiting German clergyman that Bultmann had “converted” or “repented” some time before he died. A second and apparently independent report (also traceable to Tubingen) claimed that he had made a private apology to a few of his students following his change.
The trail of evidence for these two versions of the story ended with the nurse and unnamed clergyman. But the more we continued our probe along other lines into Bultmann’s alleged “repentance,” the more evidence came to light, all seemingly pointing in the same direction.
What appear to have been his most eloquent statements about Jesus, the New Testament and his personal faith come from the remarkable events that occurred at his funeral.
On Wednesday, Aug. 4, 1976, at the Matthauskirche in Marburg, only a few instrumental pieces, his favorite hymn, a motet by Bach and readings of Scripture were heard. Dr. Christian Zippert was presiding. Bultmann, who spent his entire career arguing vigorously (some would say pugnaciously) that the New Testament could not possibly be understood correctly without a great deal of academic exploration (particularly his own), ordered that the texts be read without comment.
Contrary to the very heart of his earlier theology, there was to be no demythologizing, no preaching and no interpretation. This one fact stood out as extraordinary in the minds of virtually all those interviewed. One theologian present at the funeral admitted to being puzzled by this omission since, in his words, “Bultmann’s theology demanded it.”
As for the Scriptures and their arrangement, they create the distinct impression of a sermon outline:
2 Corinthians 4:6-11
2 Corinthians 5:1-7
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
That Bultmann would allow these readings (particularly those on resurrection) to stand on their own is astonishing in light of how he treated such texts at the height of his career.
If the unexpounded Scripture readings were a disturbance to the hearers, how much more was the music. Bultmann requested what in the end had become his favorite hymn, Georg Neumark’s “Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten” (“If Thou but Suffer God to Guide Thee”).
The musically literate congregation was given weighty commentary from Bultmann’s most beloved motet, “Jesu, meine Freude (“Jesus, My Joy”), clearly suggesting a type of faith testimony. This motet stands out as a choral sermon on death and resurrection, powerfully interpreting the Apostle Paul’s theology in Romans 8. It highlights the insignificance of death, the coming resurrection of the physical body and the believer’s everlasting communion with Jesus his Lord.
The entire event appeared carefully conceived, constructed and executed, and his aim must have been achieved. According to Pastor Zippert, the congregation left the church that day utterly “stunned.”
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