Bultmann versus Wright on the Resurection

I ran across a wonderful blog on theology, Rain and Rhinoceros, by Ry Siggelkow, an M.A. student in theology at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota. One of his most interesting recent posts is comparing the differing views of Rudolf Bultmann and N.T. Wright on whether historical critical methods have any bearing on the historical truth of the resurrection.

Bultmann thought that the resurrection was an eschatological event beyond the realm of historical study:

One of the most important and controversial responses to the challenge of modern biblical criticism was Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing project. Bultmann’s work takes for granted that modern biblical scholarship and modern science have effectively dismantled the biblical worldview. For modern man, according to Bultmann, belief in a three-level universe, demons, angels, the miraculous, and resurrected bodies, is akin to belief in a flat earth, leprechauns, and unicorns. Contrary to popular belief, this did not in fact lead Bultmann to reject the reality of the resurrection of Jesus. For Bultmann the resurrection cannot be considered an historical event as such precisely because of its eschatological character. Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus marks the end of history, it is the eschatological event par excellence.

By claiming that the resurrection is not an event of past history, Bultmann actually attempts to protect the eschatological character of the event. In his view, it was simply self-evident that historical criticism could not establish the historicity of such an event -and therefore, it was not an historical event in any ordinary sense of the word. Bultmann asserts, “All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection.” By maintaining that the resurrection is purely an eschatological event, Bultmann attempts to secure or section off the core of the Christian faith from historical critical research.

N.T. Wright, on the other hand, thinks that the tools of the historical critical method offer evidence of the historical truth of the resurrection:

N.T. Wright argues that there is a great deal of evidence for the historicity of the biblical witnesses in general and the accounts of the resurrection of Jesus in particular. In fact, much of his massive work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, is devoted to making such a case. Although he stops short of claiming that one can actually prove the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of historical critical research, he is highly optimistic about the capabilities of historical criticism to provide us with rational ground on which to base our faith. On the one hand, Wright’s project opposes the deeply pessimistic position held by Bultmann and his followers, which regarded historical criticism as an empty tool in accounting for the resurrection event. After all, because the resurrection of Jesus is the eschatological event par excellence it cannot be held under the historical critical microscope. On the other hand, Wright’s view of the limits of historical criticism appears to be much closer to Bultmann’s than what initially meets the eye. After making the case for the authenticity of the gospel accounts, Wright plainly asserts, “These [resurrection] stories too, of course, provide evidence not directly for what happened but for what several different people thought had happened.” Thus for Wright, as for Bultmann, the historical critical method can only get you so far.

In the end, Ry finds common ground between these two thinkers, but finds himself siding more with the Bultmann view:

For Bultmann the resurrection is not an event of past history, but an eschatological event; it is therefore an event that lies outside the scope of historical criticism. For Wright, the resurrection is an event of past history, but he also concludes that we cannot prove that it happened on the basis of historical research. Nonetheless, Wright does devote over 800 pages to making a case for the historical reliability and authenticity of the gospel accounts. In Wright’s view, there is compelling textual evidence that the New Testament authors did not just imagine the resurrection event. In general, Bultmann seems less confident in the historical reliability of the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, taking it simply for granted that resurrections do not happen. As we have argued, this does not lead Bultmann to reject the resurrection; instead it becomes the catalyst for his affirmation that the resurrection is the non-mythological eschatological reality that confronts hearers even today.

Much to my surprise (and delight) after reading Bultmann again (after many years) I find myself quite sympathetic to his project. Although not uncritical of elements of his work, I think there are good theological reasons for speaking of the resurrection as an eschatological event not subject to the whims of historical scholarship. It seems to me that Bultmann’s insistence that the resurrection can only be understood eschatologically, and therefore, only by the eyes of faith, does not necessarily lift the resurrection out of the space and time universe. Can we say, contrary to Bultmann, that the resurrection is the most historical and human event precisely because of its eschatological character?All of creation finally finds its rest, its telos, in participation in the resurrected life of the triune God.

Read it all here. In my view, this is not the case of an either/or, but rather a case of both. The danger of the Bultmann approach is that if we put Christian claims like the resurrection in a category that cannot be explored by modernism and its tools, we put our faith in a ghetto. It seems to me that the Christian faith, at least in its orthodox forms, makes a claim that the resurrection was an event in space and time, and therefore susceptible to at least some examination by the tools of the historical critical method. But it is also clear that the eschatological character nature of the resurrection makes any such effort limited at best.

In any event, this is a very thoughtful blog.


Anonymous said…
Wow, thanks for the kind words Chuc! I am glad you found it helpful.

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