Thomas Torrance’s Warning Against the Existentialist Jesus of Rudolf Bultmann and David Congdon

I’ve been referring quite frequently to Rudolf Bultmann lately because of David Congdon’s big book on Bultmann; which I’ve been reading. I’ve finished about two thirds of the book (500 pp.), and I think I’ve seen enough. It is easy to see how seductive reading large amounts of someone like Bultmann can be; indeed, I found myself getting sucked in at moments myself. But ultimately the existentialist Jesus that Congdon presents through Bultmann is nothing more than a Gnostic Jesus who is generated more by the imagination than by the antecedent reality of the eternal God, the eternal Logos. What takes over in this frame is not Jesus the Lord, but my encounter with an idea named Jesus; and my existential state becomes determinative for the type of response this “encounter” might engender. Jesus, in the Bultmannian frame, has no ontological grounding; instead the Jesus of Bultmann comes to only have an existential grounding, an ontic grounding that cannot ultimately surpass my personal experience with him. In other words, there is nothing transcendent about Bultmann’s/Congdon’s Jesus; only if transcendence means that this “encounter” with the so called kerygmatic Christ results in theopolitical action wherein the eschatological is existentially realized in the concrete existence of my lived life among other flatlanders.

Thomas Torrance, who I consider my primary teacher these days, offers critique of the Bultmannian sort of Jesus; and so I want to share some of that for you. It is no surprise that Congdon would discount Torrance’s understanding of Bultmann and the existentialist Jesus produced thereby. Yet, if Congdon wants to discount TFT’s critique maybe he shouldn’t exemplify the very components of the critique in his own lived life and positions (Congdon, that is). TFT writes:

In both liberalism and existentialism the historical Jesus is expendable

That is the denouement that comes over the idealist and liberal conception of Jesus, in which the eternal ideas mediated by Jesus finally set the historical Jesus himself aside. That is called Liberalism, but today there is a whole school of New Testament scholars who are opposed to that liberal approach to Jesus, and they lay stress not on the ideas that he taught, but on the eschatological event which broke into the world in the historical Jesus. What is this eschatological event? The school of New Testament scholars here would call the eschatological event the act of the divine mediated in and through the historical Jesus, but they deny that the divine event is itself also an historical event. In other words, they have substituted the concept of event for that of idea, and in the same way as the idea passes through the historical Jesus and discards him, so this eschatological event passes through the historical Jesus and discards him. Just as the eternal ideas or truths mediated by Jesus had only a temporal and non-essential relation to history, so this eschatological event has only a temporal and non-essential relation to history. Again, just as the eternal truth  mediated by Jesus, once it was disclosed to our knowledge, appears self evident to us as a truth of our own reason, so the eschatological event, once it is disclosed through our decision, ministers to, or is servant to, our self understanding. What is the difference between this view and the liberal one? The liberal view worked with an idealist philosophy [emphasis on ideas], and this works with an existentialist philosophy [emphasis on courageous existence and decision, personal action and involvement in events]; the liberal view was more concerned with static ideas, and this one more with dynamic events and decisions, but in both the result is the same: the truth of reason or self understanding is the net result, while the historical Jesus is relegated as of no ultimate importance.

All that happened here is that the philosophical idiom has changed, the language has changed to suit the times, but we have the same radical divorce of the eternal from the temporal, the act of God from history – with the result that the historical person of Christ as God and man is no longer central or important. This is simply a new and more subtle form of liberalism. Once again the great dilemmas is: either in Jesus Christ we are confronted by the eternal God in history, so that the person of the historical Christ as man and God is of utmost importance; or Jesus is only the historical medium of a confrontation between me and the act of God which summons me to decision, but in which I reach a self understanding which enables me to live my life bravely. Here christology passes away into some kind of existentialist anthropology.[1]

This is an accurate assessment of the existentialist Jesus that David Congdon presents us with in Rudolf Bultmann’s thought. The historical Jesus is still only an accident of history in this frame, a purveyor of eternal ideas, but nothing more; albeit eternal ideas that have actually been sublimated by the immanent conditions of the 21st century. Worse, this Jesus, while said to encounter us, is given shape not by some real eschatological reality, but the one imagined by an immanenist frame that looks more like the enculturated self-imaginer, and the socio-cultural conditions this imaginer is located in, rather than the eschatological life of God who is characterized by an alien holiness.

You might wonder why I’m picking on Congdon so much. It’s because he is an influential personage among millennial and younger thinkers in regard to who God in Jesus Christ is imagined to be. He is helping a generation slip away from the orthodox Jesus confessed and known by the church catholic through the centuries; and is offering us a latter day Jesus who is more like an ATM machine dispensing values that look more like the cultural moment than the heavenly revolution they purport to be. He is helping young people (and older who aren’t wise enough to see past this) apostatize with intellectual rigor, and leaving them in the dust of their own images.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 261-62.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “Thomas Torrance’s Warning Against the Existentialist Jesus of Rudolf Bultmann and David Congdon

  1. Thanks Bobby. So well put!

    …’Not Jesus the Lord, but my my encounter with an idea named Jesus’.

    Yes the Gnostic Jesus is being imported en masse into our churches, through sharing, feelings, notions, experiences, visions for the church, pseudo-doctrines of the Holy Spirit and thin songs. (So To sing the creeds and solid theological hymns provides a rich crucial contrast).

    I did not realise this man Congdon was a big player. Thanks again.

    Like

  2. Hi Trevor,

    Thanks. I would say that Congdon is a big player at the ideational and academic level. His impact will be a trickle down effect. Although, he has captivated many young and lively minds as a result of his online presence; particularly these days on Twitter. Unfortunately many of these young minds first were exposed to Congdon because of my association with Congdon through blogging years ago.

    But, yes, neo-Gnosticism, in various forms, popular and academic, is alive and well these days.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Thomas Torrance’s Warning Against the Existentialist Jesus of Rudolf Bultmann and David Congdon — The Evangelical Calvinist | James' Ramblings

Comments are closed.