Rudolf Bultmann (1884—1976) was one of the most influential scholars and theologians of the 20th century. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor, and he became professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg (Germany). Bultmann is best known for the concept of “demythologizing” the New Testament and his pioneering contributions to form criticism.
Bultmann taught that the New Testament was a product of the 1st-century worldview, which readily accepted stories of divine intervention that he called “myth.” Bultmann’s reasoning went like this: in modern times, we know that God does not intervene in miraculous ways, so, to get at the true meaning of the text, the New Testament must be “demythologized”—that is, the miraculous elements must be stripped away to get at what is most important. For Bultmann, the importance is that, in Christ, God has done some good for humanity, but it is not so important to nail down exactly what He did or any details about the life of the “historical Jesus.”
For Bultmann, faith is a present existential experience, not something based on past events. Scripture records the experiences of people in the past. In Bultmann’s view, the fact that the experiences happened is the most important thing, not the historical or doctrinal content of those experiences. So, Bultmann taught, Christians today need to have further existential experiences because “faith” is an act of the will, not an acceptance of ancient facts.
Bultmann is one more scholar in a long line of (primarily German) academics who sought to present Christianity in a way that would make it more acceptable to the “modern” mind. In his tweaking of Christianity, he rejected the idea of supernatural intervention and questioned the historical background against which the events of Scripture played out. In this way, Bultmann drained the gospel of any real power or meaning.
Like most false teachers, Rudolf Bultmann mixed truth with his error. He was right, for example, in teaching that faith must be a present reality and not simply a mental acceptance of a list of historical facts; however, he was wrong when he taught that the historical facts do not matter. Faith’s object is a God who has revealed Himself in Scripture and has acted in history. If the resurrection is merely a myth, our faith is worthless: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17–19).