Rudolf Bultmann on God’s Word in Scripture

Rudolf Bultmann on how God speaks through the Bible

The question of how God speaks to us through the Bible has no sense unless we ask at the same time what God says to us through the Bible. [166]

[…] God’s voice sounds from beyond the world. If we wish to hear it, we must be prepared to let it challenge everything in us and everything in the world: our instincts and desires, our ideals and enterprises, all everyday and ordinary things, but also everything extraordinary and noble. If we wish to hear God, we must give up everything to which we are attached, everything that binds us. If we wish to come before God, we must be prepared to look into nothingness, into death. For God does not grant life except after first having demanded death. His word is the word of creation, creating out of nothingness; before him all that we ourselves are and have must be wiped out. The everlasting life, which God wishes to grant through his word, he grants to the dead and in doing so wakes them. Are we prepared to realize that without this word we are dead? That through this word we shall be “born again,” that we shall be “newly created”? Do we want to expose ourselves to this word that is sharper than a two-edged sword? [167]

[…] How does God speak to us through the Bible? As the sovereign Lord, who demands death and brings life, who claims our whole existence for his will, who sets us free to love. Are we ready to hear? [170]

from Existence & Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, (Living Age Books, 1960).

6 thoughts on “Rudolf Bultmann on God’s Word in Scripture

  1. does he offer concrete suggestions as to how we go about “we must give up everything to which we are attached, everything that binds us” ?

    • Sorry, but no. In this passage, which comes from a shorter essay of his, Bultmann doesn’t want to leave readers with a concrete “to-do” list. To his mind, such instruction would only undermine God’s radical call to discipleship, for it risks setting artificial (human) limits on the Lord’s open-ended claim to sovereignty over the Christian’s life. What Bultmann counsels instead is something more like a virtue of readiness or preparedness to continually test one’s understanding of the Word (and its scope) in case one misuses it to deflect scrutiny away from other aspects of one’s life.

      Bultmann gets here by suggesting that greater concern should be paid to “what God says” than to “how God speaks” or how we discern divine speech. Content trumps method. And what God has to say, the content of his Word, is a specification of who he is, namely, our Creator, Lord, Judge, Savior, and Sanctifier. Given God’s occupation of these offices, his Word is owed a deference that no other source of obligation in our lives can match or supersede. So when Bultmann says everything, he means it. Compared to God’s Word, everything else holds only penultimate significance.

      Of course none of us give up everything perfectly. We are all idolaters with mixed allegiances. The good news, remember, is that God’s Word still justifies precisely the ungodly, those that continually fail to give up all that they should. That we hear God’s Word anyway is a function of its might and mercy, not because we have managed to give up the right things for God.

      • thanks, I think he is asking us to to the impossible, now maybe he is doing a sort of zen kierkegaard move to have us try as we might only to come up short and fall into the hands of the almighty but it reminds me of all too many sermons telling us what we should do without any real clue as to how we might.

        • It might ease your reservations some to know that one ingredient flavoring his remarks is the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel. Law condemns; gospel justifies. Bultmann isn’t under the illusion that it’s possible for sinners to observe the law perfectly. But he also knows rightly that the solution to the sinner’s problem is not to relax the law’s obligations on that account. Rather, the solution comes in the form of gospel. God unilaterally provides the perfect obedience he commands (in Christ), and he reckons it to us just as unconditionally as he commanded it in the first place.

            • I don’t take his remarks, or the Law/Gospel distinction, as an application of this concept, but you’re welcome to make the case if you’d like. It isn’t entirely clear to me what you think he is asking you to do. Bultmann is more interested in the actions he sees God taking, namely, speaking a word that “commands death and brings life.” It’s God’s Word that does all of its own heavy lifting when it comes to getting its message out, not anything we’re supposed to do or not do.

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