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Is Bultmann a Heideggerian theologian?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 February 2017

David W. Congdon*
InterVarsity Press, 430 Plaza Drive, Westmont, Illinois 60559–


Ever since the 1920s, Rudolf Bultmann has been charged with confining theology to philosophy, owing to his naïve adoption of Martin Heidegger's existentialist ontology. Bultmann's personal friendship with Heidegger is well-known, and the presence of Heideggerian concepts throughout his work is impossible to miss. But there is a great deal of confusion over the details of this relationship, and scholars differ widely over what conclusions we ought to draw regarding the nature of Bultmann's work. This article reassesses the Bultmann–Heidegger relationship from three angles. First, I show that the essential elements of Bultmann's theology were already in place before he met or learnt from Heidegger. Second, I argue that Bultmann circumscribes Heidegger's philosophy within a theology of revelation. Third, I demonstrate that his theological programme is, in principle, open to other conceptualities. Since nothing material rests on the appropriation of Heidegger, one cannot accurately call Bultmann a Heideggerian theologian.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1 The question of the obsolete and objectionable nature of Heidegger's philosophy has been reopened with the intense debate surrounding the recent publication of the so-called ‘black notebooks’. See Heidegger, Martin, Überlegungen II–XV (Schwarze Hefte 1931–1941), ed. Trawny, Peter, Gesamtausgabe IV.94–6 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2014)Google Scholar.

2 Kuhlmann, Gerhardt, ‘Zum theologischen Problem der Existenz: Fragen an Rudolf Bultmann’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche nf 10 (1929), pp. 2857 Google Scholar. For Bultmann's response, see Bultmann, Rudolf, ‘Die Geschichtlichkeit des Daseins und der Glaube: Antwort an Gerhardt Kuhlmann’, in Lindemann, Andreas (ed.), Neues Testament und christliche Existenz: Theologische Aufsätze (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), pp. 5983 Google Scholar.

3 Barth, Karl, ‘Das erste Gebot als theologisches Axiom [1933]’, in Barth, Karl, Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten 1930–1933, ed. Beintker, Michael, Hüttenhoff, Michael and Zocher, Peter, Gesamtausgabe 3 (Zürich: TVZ, 2013), p. 231 Google Scholar.

4 Ibid., p. 237.

5 See Barth, Karl, ‘Theologische und philosophische Ethik’ in Barth, Karl, Vorträge und kleinere Arbeiten 1925–1930, ed. Schmidt, Hermann, Gesamtausgabe 3 (Zürich: TVZ, 1994), pp. 542–65Google Scholar.

6 Hammann, Konrad, Rudolf Bultmann: Eine Biographie (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), p. 226 Google Scholar.

7 Moltmann, Jürgen, Theologie der Hoffnung: Untersuchungen zur Begründung und zu den Konsequenzen einer christlichen Eschatologie (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1964), p. 53 Google Scholar.

8 Voegelin, Eric, ‘History and Gnosis [1965]’, in Published Essays, 1953–1965, ed. Sandoz, Ellis (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), p. 160 Google Scholar.

9 Pate, C. Marvin, From Plato to Jesus: What Does Philosophy Have to Do with Theology? (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2010), p. 162 Google Scholar.

10 Barth, Karl, Die kirchliche Dogmatik [hereafter KD], 4 vols (Zollikon-Zürich: Evangelischer Verlag AG, 1932–70), I/1, p. viii Google Scholar.

11 See Macquarrie, John, An Existentialist Theology: A Comparison of Heidegger and Bultmann (London: SCM Press, 1955)Google Scholar; Macquarrie, John, The Scope of Demythologizing: Bultmann and his Critics (New York: Harper & Row, 1961)Google Scholar.

12 Jones, Gareth, ‘Phenomenology and Theology: A Note on Bultmann and Heidegger’, Modern Theology 5/2 (1989), p. 161 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Ogden, Schubert M., Christ without Myth: A Study Based on the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (New York: Harper, 1961), pp. 45–6Google Scholar.

14 Jones, ‘Phenomenology and Theology’, p. 166. Jones develops this argument at length in Jones, Gareth, Bultmann: Towards a Critical Theology (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

15 Thiselton, Anthony C., The Two Horizons: New Testament Hermeneutics and Philosophical Description with Special Reference to Heidegger, Bultmann, Gadamer, and Wittgenstein (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), p. 232 Google Scholar.

16 Ibid., p. 233.

17 Chalamet, Christophe, Dialectical Theologians: Wilhelm Herrmann, Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann (Zürich: TVZ, 2005), pp. 164–5Google Scholar.

18 There are signs of progress. In her 2008 dissertation, Courtney Wilder ‘argue[s] that despite Bultmann's reputation as an adopter rather than an interpreter of Heidegger, a close reading of his work during the period when he was most influenced by Heidegger demonstrates that Bultmann's account of the human person is in fact a marked departure from Heidegger's approach’. See Courtney S. Wilder, ‘Existentialism and Exegesis: Being and the Bible in Bultmann and Tillich’ (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2008), pp. 2–3. For a more recent, detailed analysis of the relation between Heidegger and Bultmann, see Großmann, Andreas, ‘Was sich nicht von selbst versteht: Heidegger, Bultmann und die Frage einer hermeneutischen Theologie’, in Dalferth, Ingolf U., Bühler, Pierre, and Hunziker, Andreas (eds), Hermeneutische Theologie – heute? (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), pp. 5581 Google Scholar.

19 Watson, Francis, ‘Bultmann and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture’, in Longenecker, Bruce W. and Parsons, Mikeal C. (eds), Beyond Bultmann: Reckoning a New Testament Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014), p. 258 Google Scholar.

20 James D. G. Dunn, ‘The Development of Doctrine’, in Longenecker and Parsons (eds), Beyond Bultmann, pp. 175–6.

21 Kelley, Shawn, Racializing Jesus: Race, Ideology, and the Formation of Modern Biblical Scholarship (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 141 Google Scholar, 159.

22 We can be grateful for the translation of Konrad Hammann's magisterial biography of Bultmann, which contains an illuminating section on Heidegger. See Hammann, Konrad, Rudolf Bultmann: A Biography, trans. Devenish, Philip E. (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), pp. 201–16Google Scholar.

23 Bultmann, Rudolf, Das verkündigte Wort: Predigten, Andachten, Ansprachen 1906–1941, ed. Grässer, Erich and Evang, Martin (Tübingen: Mohr, 1984), pp. 135–47Google Scholar.

24 Ibid., p. 139.

25 See Bultmann, Rudolf, ‘Ethische und mystische Religion im Urchristentum’, in Anfänge der dialektischen Theologie, 2 vols, ed. Moltmann, Jürgen (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1962–3)Google Scholar, vol. 2, pp. 29–47.

26 Jaspert, Bernd, ‘Rudolf Bultmanns Wende von der liberalen zur dialektischen Theologie’, in Jaspert, Bernd (ed.), Rudolf Bultmanns Werk und Wirkung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984), pp. 2543 Google Scholar. For Chalamet's rejection of Jaspert's notion of a ‘turn’ in Bultmann, see Chalamet, Dialectical Theologians, p. 147.

27 Sachgemässe Exegese: Die Protokolle aus Rudolf Bultmanns Neutestamentlichen Seminaren 1921–1951, ed. Bernd Jaspert (Marburg: N. G. Elwert, 1996), pp. 26–8.

28 Heidegger, Martin, ‘Phänomenologie und Theologie’, in Wegmarken, 2nd edn, ed. von Herrmann, Friedrich-Wilhelm, Gesamtausgabe I.9 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1978), pp. 4577 Google Scholar.

29 Jüngel, Eberhard, ‘Glauben und Verstehen: Zum Theologiebegriff Rudolf Bultmanns’, in Wertlose Wahrheit: Zur Identität und Relevanz des christlichen Glaubens – Theologische Erörterungen III (Munich: Chr. Kaiser, 1990), p. 34 Google Scholar.

30 Heidegger, Martin, Phänomenologie des religiösen Lebens, Gesamtausgabe II.60 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1995), p. 133 Google Scholar.

31 Johnson, Roger A., The Origins of Demythologizing: Philosophy and Historiography in the Theology of Rudolf Bultmann (Leiden: Brill, 1974), p. 175 Google Scholar, n. 1.

32 Bultmann, Rudolf, Theologische Enzyklopädie, ed. Jüngel, Eberhard and Müller, Klaus W. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1984), p. 10 Google Scholar.

33 Ibid., pp. 28–9.

34 Ibid., p. 29.

35 Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Wahrheit und Gewißheit [1929]’, in Theologische Enzyklopädie, ed. Jüngel and Müller, p. 200.

36 Bultmann, Theologische Enzyklopädie, p. 50.

37 Ibid., p. 89. Cf. Heidegger, Martin, Sein und Zeit, ed. von Herrmann, Friedrich-Wilhelm, Gesamtausgabe I.2 (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 1977), pp. 408 Google Scholar, 506.

38 Bultmann, Theologische Enzyklopädie, p. 89.

39 Bultmann, Rudolf, ‘Das Problem der “natürlichen Theologie” [1933]’, in Glauben und Verstehen: Gesammelte Aufsätze [hereafter GuV], 4 vols (Tübingen: Mohr, 1933–65)Google Scholar, vol. 1, p. 298.

40 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 296.

41 Ibid.

42 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Berlin: 1932–1933, ed. Rasmussen, Larry L., trans. Best, Isabel and Higgins, David, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 12 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 221 Google Scholar.

43 Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration 2.20, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000). The quoted passage is attributed to Luther's Commentary on Psalm 90, though it is compiled from various sources.

44 KD 4/1, p. 535.

45 Bultmann, ‘Die Geschichtlichkeit des Daseins und der Glaube’, p. 66.

46 Ibid., p. 65.

47 Bultmann, ‘Das Problem der “natürlichen Theologie”’, in GuV, vol. 1, p. 311.

48 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 297. It is this strict differentiation between pre-understanding and point of contact that Barth was unable to grasp, almost certainly due to the fact that Brunner did not make this distinction.

49 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 296.

50 Ibid., vol. 1, pp. 297–8.

51 Ibid., vol. 1, p. 298.

52 Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Christus des Gesetzes Ende’, in GuV, vol. 2, pp. 35, 41.

53 Bultmann, ‘Das Problem der “natürlichen Theologie”’, in GuV, vol. 1, p. 311.

54 In his programmatic essay on demythologising, Bultmann says: ‘When people occasionally object that I interpret the New Testament with the categories of the Heideggerian philosophy of existence, I fear they are blind to the actual problem. They should be alarmed instead that philosophy already sees by itself what the New Testament says.’ Bultmann, Rudolf, Neues Testament und Mythologie: Das Problem der Entmythologisierung der neutestamentlichen Verkündigung, ed. Jüngel, Eberhard (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1985), pp. 41–2Google Scholar. It is important to understand what Bultmann thinks philosophy actually ‘sees’. In the previous sentences he explains that he has in mind the fact that ‘human beings exist historically in care for themselves’, that they exist ‘in the moment of decision between past and future’, that authenticity is gained ‘in the surrender of all securities and in the wholehearted freedom for the future’ (ibid., p. 41). All of this, however, resides at the level of the ontological and refers to the general characteristics of human existence. Philosophy does not see the sinful condition in which human beings find themselves, nor does it see God's gracious act of justification that alone grants genuine authenticity.

55 Jüngel, ‘Glauben und Verstehen’, p. 27, n. 44. Barthian critics may still find reason to object at this point, on the grounds that only a theological anthropology can be truly ‘fundamental’ or ‘general’. Here I think we need to ask just what a theological anthropology is expected to accomplish. We have to keep in mind the fact that a ‘fundamental anthropology’ in Bultmann's sense is a phenomenology of the human person, a description of the empirical existence of human beings in general. Does a theological anthropology, even in the strong Barthian sense of a covenant ontology, actually purport to describe the phenomena of human existence? Or does it rather describe the true nature of the human person whose being is ‘hidden with Christ’ (Col 3.3)? It seems to me that the latter is Barth's explicit intention and achievement. But if that is the case, then a theological anthropology is an ontic anthropology, not an ontological anthropology. A Barthian theological anthropology therefore does not compete with a Heideggerian fundamental anthropology.

56 Martin Heidegger to Rudolf Bultmann, 18 Dec. 1928, in Bultmann, Rudolf and Heidegger, Martin, Briefwechsel 1925–1975, ed. Grossmann, Andreas and Landmesser, Christof (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), p. 87 Google Scholar: ‘My question in the lecture [“Phenomenology and Theology”] concerning theology as a science is not only too restrictive, but unsustainable. The positivity of theology . . . is something other than the sciences. In a completely different way than philosophy, theology stands outside the sciences.’

57 Johnson, Origins of Demythologizing, p. 170, n. 1.

58 Martin Heidegger to Rudolf Bultmann, 16 Dec. 1932, in Bultmann and Heidegger, Briefwechsel 1925–1975, pp. 189–90. Judith Wolfe writes that ‘Bultmann's own relationship to Heidegger, as reconstructable from the letters and memoirs of both men, had a warm but intellectually ambivalent quality’. Wolfe, Judith E., Heidegger's Eschatology: Theological Horizons in Martin Heidegger's Early Work (Oxford: OUP, 2013), p. 104 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 Bultmann and Heidegger, Briefwechsel 1925–1975, p. 190.

60 Where the boundary between theology and philosophy is concerned, ‘the limits of Bultmann's theology almost always lie in those theological givens and not primarily in Heidegger's ontology’. See Schnübbe, Otto, Die Existenzbegriff in der Theologie Rudolf Bultmanns: Ein Beitrag zur Interpretation der theologischen Systematic Bultmanns (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1959), p. 140 Google Scholar.

61 In a 1927 review of Ernst Lohmeyer's Vom Begriff der religiösen Gemeinschaft, Bultmann states: ‘Because theology speaks as a science in concepts, it is always dependent upon the daily, traditional formation of concepts in its time, and thus dependent on the tradition of a prior philosophy. . . . In this way theology is always dependent on philosophy, which means: philosophy carries out its old service to theology as ancilla theologiae. But as soon as theology thinks it can gain information about its object from philosophy, it brings the content of its statements into a dependence on philosophy; the relation is reversed, and theology is the ancilla philosophiae’. See Bultmann, Rudolf, Theologie als Kritik: Ausgewählte Rezensionen und Forschungsberichte, ed. Dreher, Matthias and Müller, Klaus W. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), pp. 199200 Google Scholar. The following year, Bultmann made this same point in conversation with Karl Barth. See Rudolf Bultmann to Karl Barth, 8 June 1928, in Barth, Karl and Bultmann, Rudolf, Briefwechsel 1911–1966, ed. Jaspert, Bernd, 2nd edn, Gesamtausgabe 5 (Zürich: TVZ, 1994), p. 82 Google Scholar: ‘It is true that dogmatics should have nothing to do with a philosophy insofar as it is systematic; but it is also true that it must learn from a philosophy that is a critical (ontological) inquiry. For only then does theology remain free and make use of philosophy as the ancilla theologiae [servant of theology]; otherwise it becomes the maid (Magd) and philosophy the mistress (Herrin)’. The earlier passage helps make sense of the latter. When Bultmann appeals to the ‘ontological inquiry’ of philosophy, he means nothing more than that philosophy provides linguistic concepts that theology then takes up in its task of faithfully reflecting on its object, namely, God.

62 Gollwitzer, Helmut, Die Existenz Gottes im Bekenntnis des Glaubens (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1963), p. 13 Google Scholar.

63 Bultmann, Neues Testament und Mythologie, p. 41. This statement is often read in isolation as a blanket endorsement of Heidegger's philosophy, but the larger context suggests otherwise. The question Bultmann poses in this section is ‘whether the Christian understanding of being is realizable without Christ’ (ibid., p. 39). He says ‘it could appear . . . that in the New Testament an understanding of being is only discovered for the first time . . . that is basically the natural human understanding of being’ (ibid., p. 40). He then refers to the work of several philosophers, including Heidegger. We have already seen that he elsewhere rejects philosophy's claim to understand either the problem or the solution to human existence, and he reinforces that position here. Immediately following the paragraph on Heidegger, Bultmann examines the work of Wilhelm Kamlah, a former student of his and Heidegger's, who argues that what Christianity calls faith is simply ‘a basic structure of our natural being’ (ibid., p. 42). He rejects this – and, by extension, any uncritical adoption of Heidegger's philosophy – on the grounds that ‘there is therefore no need of revelation’ (ibid., p. 43). Bultmann's position, by contrast, is that revelation is the only possible starting-point for Christian theology.

64 Bultmann, Rudolf, Die christliche Hoffnung und das Problem der Entmythologisierung (Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1954), p. 26 Google Scholar.

65 Bultmann, Rudolf, Theologie des Neuen Testaments, 2nd edn (Tübingen: JCB Mohr, 1954), p. 163 Google Scholar.

66 Bultmann, Die christliche Hoffnung, 26–9.

67 For an excellent recent account of this, see Sheridan, Mark, Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015)Google Scholar.

68 Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill, The Works of Saint Augustine 1/5 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1991), p. 96, n. 82. Emphasis mine.

69 Bultmann, Rudolf, ‘Theologie als Wissenschaft’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 81/4 (1984), pp. 460–1Google Scholar.

70 Ibid., p. 466.

71 Ibid., p. 460.

72 Walton, John H., The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), p. 7 Google Scholar.

73 Ibid., pp. 8–9.

74 Ibid., p. 42.

75 Stendahl, Krister, ‘Biblical Theology, Contemporary’, in Buttrick, George A. (ed.), The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1962), vol. 1, pp. 418–32Google Scholar.

76 Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Ist voraussetzungslose Exegese möglich? [1957]’, in GuV, vol. 3, p. 143.

77 Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Wissenschaft und Existenz [1955]’, in GuV, vol. 3, p. 110.

78 Ott, Heinrich, Geschichte und Heilsgeschichte in der Theologie Rudolf Bultmanns (Tübingen: Mohr, 1955), pp. 68 Google Scholar, 63. Original emphasis removed.

79 Bultmann, ‘Ist voraussetzungslose Exegese möglich?’, in GuV, vol. 3, p. 145.

80 I am grateful to Andrew Esqueda, Scott Jackson, Travis McMaken, Andrew Torrance and Jim West for their comments on an earlier version of this article. Any errors are my own.