Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography

Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography. By Konrad Hammann. Trans. Philip E. Devenish. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013.


Bultmann is inevitable. He was the theological progenitor of many and the bête-noire of still more. Knowledge of his writings is indispensable for understanding twentieth-century exegesis, whether of the synoptic gospels, John, or Paul. His seminar students included everyone from Ernst Käsemann to Hannah Arendt. He was the sometime friend and constant interlocutor of Heidegger and of Barth. Although a confessional Lutheran may bemoan this fact, he is one of the previous century’s most important theologians. This well-done translation of the 2009 second German edition of Konrad Hammann’s biography deepens and enriches the grasp of Bultmann’s theology gained from his writings alone.

The reader’s interest is not borne along by sudden twists and turns. Bultmann grew up in a parsonage in the evangelical Lutheran church of Oldenburg in northern Germany, was educated at the Oldenburg gymnasium (contemporaneously with Karl Jaspers), and then at Tübingen, Berlin, and Marburg, before becoming a tutor at Marburg. He received calls to teach New Testament at Breslau in 1916 and Giessen in 1920 before returning to Marburg as a professor in 1921 and remaining to the end of his life. Hammann avoids the amateur Freudian speculation so ruinous and so common to biographies, while giving us a very good sense of Bultmann the human being. He was a man who demanded a very great deal of his students because he demanded still more of himself, but also one who wrote whimsical postcards to his nieces with pen-and-ink drawings of the Swiss Alps or of Uncle Rudolf on the train to visit them. He played a Bach chorale on the piano each morning before breakfast and made music at home with anyone willing; one of his three daughters, Heike, became a professional cellist.

That private man must be brought alongside the scholar and theologian in order to understand the theology. Bultmann’s love of Lutheran chorales was for him the musical accompaniment to the theological proposal of demythologization. In his work he was clearing away the cosmological dross of antiquity to put forth a clear word from God; like a Gerhardt hymn his theology preached. In the midst of his decades-long defense of demythologization Bultmann received a rare letter of support and encouragement from a pastor who said the professor’s writings on Jesus had helped him in his Sunday preaching. Bultmann wrote back: “That’s all I ever wanted!”

Bultmann was the student and heir of the liberal German exegesis of the late nineteenth century that found little of religious value in Jesus of Nazareth. His statements and deeds were in so many cases uncertain that their reduction to God’s fatherhood and man’s brotherhood with his fellow man were the most that could be said with any certitude. Bultmann did not so much overturn this verdict as attempt to move beyond it in order to say something constructive and urgent. The Christ preached by John and Paul, the church’s first theologians in Bultmann’s view, does have something to say to every generation because that Christ’s claim is personal, total, and individual, a demand comprehensible even to modern man. So Bultmann’s Paul and John do what Bultmann himself does: clear away history in order to arrive at theology. This divorce was for Bultmann effected by the first-century writers, so the virulent reaction to his own work in the twentieth century seemed unreflective and hasty. Paul mentioned the historical Jesus very little while proclaiming a cosmic Christ who called each person to intense reflection and decision. Did Bultmann’s opponents not think that he had also studied the New Testament? To his mind it did with the OT and the historical Jesus precisely what he was doing with the NT itself.

Despite Hammann’s sympathies with this project, a good biographer undoes Bultmann’s essential contention, as Hammann can recognize Bultmann in his portraits of John and Paul. Hammann’s intricate tracing of Bultmann’s dissatisfaction with the liberal history-of-religions exegesis on which he cut his teeth provides ample testimony to Bultmann’s disillusionment with the quest for the historical Jesus and subsequent search for something theologically valuable to say. Bultmann was by no coincidence a contemporary of Barth and Gogarten, part of a generation come of age in the rubble of liberal theology and the scientific positivism of prewar Europe. He wrote after von Ranke’s certainty of presenting things “as they were” had been exploded. His theology was immersed in his times. One cannot divorce anyone’s history from his theology, least of all then Jesus’, as if passus sub Pontio Pilato were a footnote rather than the creedal summary of his life.

Bultmann’s Jesus has the same indeterminacy of meaning that the titulus does in the gospels. Is it Pilate’s mockery of the conquered Jews? Is it his taunt of this executed Jew, Jesus? It is as if Bultmann must remain stuck in the enigma of Jesus’ dubious “kingship,” until Paul and John arrive to interpret Jesus as the Christ who encounters man in his authenticity. Paul and John’s theologies are for Bultmann what the resurrection is in the gospels: a remedy for the certain death of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. It is this presumption of indeterminacy that was Bultmann’s great theological lacuna, more than any active plan to cut up the Bible à la Jefferson. He inherited a shredded Bible from the previous generation and tried to say something meaningful in light of it.

Whether or not one cheers on Bultmann’s project, he was a tremendously thorough and honest scholar and a kindly and good friend, so in love with learning that for many years he hosted students for six or seven hours each Tuesday night to read the Greek classics in the original. This solid and erudite biography is a deserved tribute to Bultmann’s very full life and work and worthy of any pastor or scholar’s time and study.

Adam Koontz

Lititz, PA