Living Tradition
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No. 82 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program July 1999


by John F. McCarthy

Part III   -  Xavier Léon-Dufour and John McKenzie

        1. Bultmann's historical presuppositions.  Catholic historical-critics are wont to distinguish the form-critical method of Bultmann from his philosophical and theological presuppositions, saying that they accept in large part his form-critical method but they reject his presuppositions, such as his Heideggerian existentialism and his exaggerated Lutheran notion of the "total fall of man." But Catholic historical-critics, in taking this approach, often do not clearly recognize that, on the one hand, the method of form-criticism has presuppositions of its own that generate and control the method and, on the other hand, that the results of Bultmann's historical-critical research are one of the principal presuppositions of his theology. Bultmann did not begin to expound his existentialist interpretation of the Christian proclamation until he had already himself proclaimed in his History of the Synoptic Tradition that the whole supernatural fabric of the Gospels is the result of the sheer religious fantasy of the early Christian community. In making this proclamation, Bultmann had a phalanx of other rationalist thinkers behind him and around him: the long succession of preceding rationalist interpreters of the Gospels and his fellow rationalist colleagues, such as Martin Dibelius, Karl Schmidt, M. Albertz, and D. Bertram. After Bultmann had eliminated in his own mind the entire supernatural object of Christian faith, he began to search for reasons why the modern person should any longer believe in the Gospel message and why the modern preacher should preach the Gospel message, and he came up with his existentialist interpretation of the kerygma. Now, this enormous presupposition of Bultmann's demythologizing, namely, the proclaimed results of his New Testament historical-critical research, has never been substantially rebutted by Catholic exegetes, in the sense that they have never systematically taken up and refuted his imposing analysis of the "Synoptic tradition," with the result that these conclusions have come more and more to be accepted by Catholic exegetes, in the absence of available arguments on the contrary, and this has tended to leave a vacuum also in the opposition of Catholic theologians to his call for demythologizing. In the following discussion a thing to be noted is the extent to which the negative results of form-critical analysis of the text of the Gospels have affected the interpretation that Catholic historical-critics are inclined to give to the inspired word.

(as translated and edited by John McHugh)

        2. Introduction.  In 1963 Xavier Léon-Dufour published his highly influential work on the historical truth of the Gospels, Les évangiles et l'histoire de Jésus,1  in which he does not deal ex professo with demythologizing as such, but he skirts the issue constantly as he develops his exegetical theme in keeping with the purpose of his book, which is "to give a fair hearing to the new set of questions [raised by Bultmann and others] without at the same time adopting the presuppositions which have prejudiced the results of an inquiry that was intended to be scientific (sans pour autant adopter les préjugés qui ont compromis les résultats d'une enquête qui se voulait scientifique)."2  Léon-Dufour's book was translated into English by John McHugh and published under the title of The Gospels and the Jesus of History, in an abridgment that is about half the length of the original French text.3  McHugh made efforts to keep all of the original thoughts and to render them faithfully into English, but the wording of the condensed version is not, of course, exactly the same. However, McHugh does note in his "Translator's Preface" that the final text was submitted to Father Léon-Dufour for his approval. In the following discussion it is the text of the English translation that will be cited, and the references will, therefore, be to Léon-Dufour (McHugh), meaning Léon-Dufour as translated by McHugh. The following quotations are arranged to show that Léon-Dufour (McHugh) presents one series of statements that reflect the traditional interpretation of the Fathers of the Church, and a second series of statements that sets this traditional meaning in a new and problematic context. The emphasis given in the quotations is intended to show the contrast and is entirely mine.

        3. Exposition.  The aim of Léon-Dufour (McHugh)'s book is "to find out, by using the critical methods of historical scholarship, the full and objective truth (as far as it can be known) about the life of Jesus of Nazareth."4  However: "The aim [of this book] has been to rediscover, as far as possible, the 'objective truth' about Jesus of Nazareth; and the objective truth about him is that he confronts all mankind with a question demanding an answer. And the answer cannot be given except by faith."5

        4. Remarks.  In making these second affirmations Léon-Dufour (McHugh) plays into Bultmann's hands. Léon-Dufour (McHugh)'s form-critical research, like that of Bultmann, results only in human historical facts about the life of Jesus and to a question to be answered, not by the knowledge of any objective historical fact about Jesus, but only by the subjective response of the Christian believer. Now, Bultmann has expounded this answer to Léon-Dufour (McHugh)'s question in his extensive theological works, making full use of the method of demythologizing and of the existentialism of Martin Heidegger. Bultmann admits that "the historical Jesus" is profitable for "salvation," but only in the purely existentialist sense of providing the occasion for the believer to take hold of his own subjective being as an act of "self-authenticity" or self-realized "historicity." Jesus is thus thought to form some kind of "historical model" for the modern believer's own act of faith. Léon-Dufour (McHugh) does not intend to be a Bultmannian in that sense, but, since Bultmann's explanation is already "in possession" in that area, by not presenting any effective refutation of Bultmann's notion of the "event of Christ," or any solid distinction showing how his view differs from that of Bultmann, he virtually surrenders the field. Like the Gospel of Mark in the form-critical version, Léon-Dufour (McHugh)'s theological exposition ends with the question posed by the empty tomb, leaving it to the reader and the Church to supply the answer. Where is the reader to find this answer? If he turns to the existentialism accommodated by Léon-Dufour (McHugh), he will find that for existentialists there is no real answer, but only an ever-repeated question.

        5. Exposition.  Léon-Dufour (McHugh) points out that "Theology (the study of God) becomes mere anthropology (the study of man) when it despises the objective fact which is the transcendent element in existential knowledge. And it is only because the faith of the early Church was based on an objective fact that we can say Christianity is more than mythology. ... The kerygma which is accepted by faith derives from Jesus, and the full meaning of his life can be known only through the 'pattern of apostolic preaching.'"6  However: "Towards the end of the eighteenth century many writers began to attack the historical value of the four gospels.... These books were all written with one purpose: to get back with real certainty to the unadorned facts, and to reconstruct what actually happened in the past. What other authors did in their day, we have to do again for our own generation."7  And further on: "Moreover, we must not see the past simply as events which once took place, for in those events there is a message. The contemporaries of Jesus did not grasp the full meaning of those events, but the believer who lives in the present (the 'today') of the Church can do so, for he sees the past, historical, objective event as a demand addressed to himself."8  And finally: "History provides the facts, and a question; faith provides the interpretation of those facts, and the answer to the question."9

        6. Remarks.  In making these affirmations Léon-Dufour (McHugh) plays into Bultmann's hands. On the level of historical science, there is no valid distinction between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith," since they are one single object of historical observation and there is nothing "adorned" about it. Bultmann minimizes the historical aspect of Christian faith for the reason that he falsely presupposes a radical separation between faith and reason. But Christian faith is more than a mere loving trust in God to the exclusion of the objective truth of dogma and historical fact. That for the early Christians the real historical fact of the Resurrection of Jesus was an object of their faith is clear from the obvious reading of 1 Cor 15:13-14: "But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen again. And if Christ be not risen again, then vain is our preaching, and vain also is your faith." To interpret this, as Bultmann has done, to mean that it doesn't matter to Christian faith whether or not there is really a resurrection from the dead or whether or not Christ really rose from the tomb, but rather that Christian faith can disbelieve the real objective historical factualness of the Resurrection and still be Christian faith is a total violation of the rules of literary interpretation.

        7. Exposition.  "Christians who read the gospel story in the light of their faith penetrate into the minds of the four evangelists and find no difficulty in believing that in the person of Jesus they have the key to the history of the world."10  However: "The spirit of total commitment to God which has been described as a spirit of detachment and childlike simplicity is called, in technical theological language, faith. The word 'faith,' when it occurs in the gospels, does not mean primarily an acceptance of some proposition as true, or even obedience to divine revelation (though either of these meanings may be implied); the primary meaning of the word in the gospels is a total entrusting of oneself to God, as a child trusts his father."11  Again: "The only faithful interpretation of the gospels, therefore, is that which reveals Jesus as a living person, speaking not only to his own generation, but to all future ages. Our inquiry has shown that the factual events of his life - even though they include the answer which becomes evident only in the light of the Holy Spirit - are, first and foremost, a question addressed to mankind; 'And you - who do you say that I am?'"12

        8. Remarks.  Here again Léon-Dufour (McHugh) plays into Bultmann's hands. For the faithful to accept Jesus as a Person means first to let the objective truth of his historical words and deeds fill their minds with light so as to develop into a knowledge of his historical personality as it is manifested in his miraculous conception, his humble and miraculous life on earth, his providential death with its salvific consequences, and his glorious Resurrection in the same physical Body, really and physically present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. To accept Him means also to receive Him into their hearts by corresponding in love to the objective meaning of his divine Person and thus allowing the Three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity to dwell in them. Of course, accepting Jesus is more important than merely knowing objective facts, but the issue here is the denial, in the form-critical conclusions that Léon-Dufour (McHugh) defends, of objective facts stated in the Gospels. So the primary meaning of faith in this context does mean acceptance of the objective truths recounted in the Gospels and set down in propositions by the Church. The objective truth of Christ has a subjective phase of realization within the hearts of the faithful, without which the salvation brought by Christ is of no avail, but faith is fundamentally an affirmation of the objective truth.

        9. Exposition.  "More than anyone else, Jesus of Nazareth has been the subject of charges and counter-charges: when Christians are accused of falsifying history by idealizing his life, they may legitimately reply that history is falsified if his life is reduced to merely human proportions not because of the evidence but because of philosophical objections to anything which reason cannot explain as a natural phenomenon."13  However: "All four gospels claim to record history, but they do not conceal the theological purpose which underlies the historical record, and some modern readers will no doubt wonder whether it is possible to write history with a theological purpose without thereby falsifying the narrative."14

        10. Remarks.  Léon-Dufour (McHugh) is playing into Bultmann's hands. Here he makes the big mistake of not distinguishing between the finis operis (purpose of the thing itself) and the finis operantis (purpose of the maker of the thing). The purpose of an historical work as a thing in itself is primarily to present a record of historical events in some chronological sequence, and secondarily to provide some interpretation of those events. The fact that the narrator of history has some further purpose in mind which leads him to select or emphasize certain facts does not affect the historical truth of his account as long as he honestly recounts those facts. Thus, no reader of the New Testament should doubt that it is possible to write a true historical narrative while having a theological purpose in mind.

        11. Exposition.  "(T)he gospels do contain a wealth of trustworthy historical information."15  However: "(The early Christians) did turn their attention to the past, but not in order to study it as an 'objective fact'; rather, they sought to find in it guidance about the way in which they themselves ought to respond to the teaching of their Master. In modern language, we should say that they had an existentialist, rather than a positivist, attitude to history."16

        12. Remarks.  This is Bultmannian double-talk. The "trustworthy information" of the Gospels is here said to lack objective factualness but, nevertheless, to be "trustworthy" in that the existentialist believer trusts in it as an occasion for his ever-repeated decision to become his own authentic self.

        13. Exposition.  "(T)he various forms of literature found in the gospel arose quite naturally from what we may label the "theological" and "historical" preoccupations of the Church."17  However: "There are in the gospels certain short phrases which we can be absolutely sure were spoken by our Lord. ... It must be admitted, however, that these phrases are not numerous, and are rarely of importance."18 

        14. Remarks.  Bultmann had already misused historical method back in 1921 to conclude that only a few short expressions in the Gospels can with any confidence be traced back to the lips of Jesus. It is a pity that Catholic historical-critics have not been able to recognize the fallacies inscribed into Bultmann's form-critical method. We are absolutely certain, on the basis of faith and also on the basis of historical research, that the divine Word of God became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, worked many nature-miracles during his life on earth, rose from the dead, and ascended bodily into Heaven. The "historical and theological preoccupations" apparent in the Gospel accounts pertain to the level of historical explanation and do not thereby exclude factuality on the level of chronology. If the Gospel genre presents the mystery of man's union with God, it does so first by narrating the objectively true and historical words and deeds of the God-Man Jesus Christ. This objective truth has also its subjective phase in the first question with which the Person of Jesus confronts all men, namely, whether or not they will accept the objective truth of the Gospel.

        15. Exposition.  "The continuity of the disciples' faith before and after the Resurrection, and the identity of the Risen Christ with Jesus of Nazareth can be denied only on a priori grounds, because of philosophical or theological presuppositions, not because there is historical evidence to the contrary."19  However: "This is the fundamental fact about the Resurrection: that the Risen Christ founded a Church. This was the cardinal belief of the early Christians, that the Church they knew and loved was founded by the Risen Christ: 'if Christ has not risen, then our preaching is worthless, and our faith is worthless' (1 Cor 15:14). This conviction they held by faith, but there were two observable facts to justify that faith: the tomb of Jesus had been found empty, and the timid apostles had been transformed in character. The empty tomb poses a question; the transformation of the apostles gives a clue to the answer. That is all history can provide - a question, and a hint or indication of where to look for the answer. Historical study cannot 'prove' the fact of the Resurrection, because the essence of the doctrine is that Jesus is enthroned at the right hand of the Father; and there can be no apodictic proof of contingent fact which belongs to another world."20

        16. Remarks.  In reducing the issue to these terms, Léon-Dufour (McHugh) plays into Bultmann's hands. Long before Léon-Dufour (McHugh) wrote this, it was Bultmann who announced to the modern believer that history provides the facts and a question, while faith provides the interpretation of the facts and the answer to that question. Léon-Dufour (McHugh) may disagree with Bultmann's answer to the question, but the fact remains that he makes no strong effort to formulate and express the scientific reasons for disagreeing with or refuting the false interpretation that Bultmann has made. Nor does he give his readers the means of doing so. Bultmann's theological conclusions follow with stunning logic from the historical conclusions of the form-criticism of the Gospels largely created by him. It is a formidable task to oppose Bultmann's reasoning on a technical level; Léon-Dufour (McHugh) does not undertake it. His endeavor is rather "to demonstrate that a thoroughgoing application of the principles of historical criticism does not weaken but rather strengthens the conviction that the gospels are historically reliable." Bultmann had already "demonstrated" this on a pseudoscientific level, except for certain subjective additions that the post-Bultmannians would later contribute. Léon-Dufour (McHugh) should have made it his task to show that true history provides an answer to the questions that it raises - an answer taking the form of historical science. By failing to recognize the historical challenge presented by the Gospels, Léon-Dufour (McHugh) misses the terms of the fundamental questions that he seeks to answer.

        17. Exposition.  "The whole life of Jesus is a proclamation of the mystery of man's union with God in him at the end of time." However (in context): "Mark's Gospel ends with the finding of the empty tomb. ... The women "had a promise from the angel that Jesus would meet his disciples in Galilee, and here Mark ends, on a note of interrogation, leaving the reader in suspense, wondering when Jesus will appear. The whole life of Jesus is a proclamation of the mystery of man's union with God in him at the end of time."21

        18. Remarks.  The folding up of the whole significance of the life of Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, into the proclamation of the mystery of man's union with God is Bultmannian. Certainly, on the level of the anagogical sense, the Gospels proclaim the final union of the elect with God, and in some places on the level of the literal sense as well, but the literal sense first and foremost records the historical facts regarding the life of Jesus. The nature-miracles, the prophecies, the sublime teachings of Jesus are real and objective historical facts which are just as biographical as anything in the life of Caesar Augustus or Napoleon Bonaparte. The fundamental fact about the Resurrection is that Jesus of Nazareth rose physically from the dead, leaving an empty tomb behind. There were many witnesses to the appearances of the Risen Christ. Historical study "proves" the fact of the Resurrection by the testimony of reliable witnesses. Part of this proof consists in a systematic refutation of the fallacies excogitated by Bultmann and others as a pretext for rejecting the historical reliability of these witnesses.

        19. Exposition.  "[Matthew] has captured the lessons of the past; the object of his work is to be a 'remembrance' of the union that God brought about - and still brings about with men. Matthew is the historian of God's fulfilment of his promises."22  However: "It is quite clear that Matthew did not attempt to write a biography of Jesus of Nazareth as an impartial non-Christian observer might have written it. ... By the way in which he groups events and teachings, by the hieratic style of his narratives and by his adaptation of traditions to serve a catechetical purpose, he shows the meaning of Jesus' life on earth. But if this is the type of writing in the first gospel, one may legitimately ask what its historical value is." On the other hand, "not only does Matthew retain untouched a certain number of bald historical data in his setting of events, but it is often possible to work out the broad lines of what happened, and this for two reasons. First, Matthew betrays a certain naivety in the way he groups and interprets the material he used as sources, and it is often possible for the scholar to detect what actually happened before Easter Day; secondly, a comparison with the parallel passages in Mark and Luke enables the scholar to get a firmer grasp of the life-story of Jesus as an event in the past."23

        20. Remarks.  No rationalist has ever written impartially about the life of Jesus. The fact that Christians love Jesus does not mean that they cannot recount his history with great objectivity. Form-critics of the Gospels argue in a circle: they splinter the text into small units according to what they assume to have been the finis operantis of the composers of these units and then they show the finis operantis from the ways in which they imagine the text to have been sewn together. It is a noteworthy historical fact that Catholic historical-critics have never produced a serious critique of the mountain of errors contained in Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition, wherein he initiated many of the techniques upon which Léon-Dufour (McHugh) relies for his form-critical work. In this way Léon-Dufour (McHugh) plays into Bultmann's hands. The best way to detect what happened before Easter Day is not to listen to the conclusions of historical-critics, but rather to read about it directly in the Four Gospels themselves.

        21. Exposition.  "This was the purpose of Mark's Gospel - to reveal to the pagan world the Good News that Jesus was the Son of God. ... Mark intended to give a faithful account of what happened before Easter Day."24  For Mark "the 'gospel' is not a book to be appreciated or criticized, but an event to be broadcast to the world. And the event is the arrival among men of the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. More accurately, the event is the ultimate triumph of God through the earthly life of Jesus."25  Hence, "the Gospel of Mark is the Good News of the victory of Jesus over the forces of evil."26  However: "Mark does not attempt to write the biography of a man, even of a God-Man."27  Mark's account of the life of Jesus is always subordinated to doctrinal interests and catechetical themes. "It is impossible, therefore, to use St. Mark's Gospel for a reconstruction of the life of Jesus without taking into account all the re-arrangement which has taken place for doctrinal or catechetical reasons."28

        22. Remarks.  Mark's intention, as the finis operis of his account, was to write down the real historical events that took place during the public life of Jesus. His intention, as the finis operantis of his account, was to reveal to all men the Good News that Jesus the God-Man had come to save them from their sins and to open to them the gates of Heaven.

        23. Exposition.  "[Luke] composed a book about the teaching of the Church concerning the life of Jesus." However: He did not consider it necessary to check the truth of what his eyewitnesses had said. "His sole concern was to demonstrate that the current teaching of the Church was in complete accord with apostolic tradition."29  And so "his work must be examined very critically before it may be used as a source for the life of Jesus. This critical assessment of Luke's writing is all the more necessary since Luke was not just writing a straightforward biography of Jesus, but expounding a theological theme."30

        24. Remarks.  The idea that apostolic tradition was not interested in preserving the facts about the life of Jesus is based on the false accusations of rationalists and anti-clericals. St. Luke indicates great concern for checking the truth and the historical justification of what he wrote, and he was aided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The pity is that Catholic historical-critics have never examined very critically the false conclusions of Bultmann and of the other rationalists from whom they have derived many of their methodological beliefs.

        25. Exposition.  "For John, real facts had historical value, but they also showed him that God had intervened in history, and had thereby brought things to life by conferring on them a spiritual and symbolic value which could not be grasped by reason alone."31  There are many gaps in the narrative, but the biographical details given do indicate "that the author intended not just to set out the essential points of the Easter kerygma, but to give a factual account of the earthly life and teaching of Jesus."32  However: "The work does not pretend to be an impartial record of events drawn up by a neutral and detached observer, but is meant to be a book of history relating the life-story of Jesus of Nazareth.33  ... John was not so much recounting what had happened in the past as broadcasting live a message to which he was himself listening; by transmitting this message to the men of his own time, he hoped to make them, like himself, true contemporaries of the Lord.34  ... John the Evangelist ... took the historical events themselves (which the historian can and must discover) and interpreted them. Historical research cannot exhaust the meaning of these events which it discovers, for the person whom the historian meets is Christ the Lord, whom the faith of John confesses in Jesus of Nazareth."35

        26. Remarks.  Léon-Dufour (McHugh) thinks that existentialists and form-critics are neutral and detached observers, but they are not. St. John the Evangelist, as a serious historian with the intention of writing real history, first and foremost recounted what had really happened in the past, much of it with himself as a witness, and, since he was writing under the influence of divine inspiration, he also inscribed a deep spiritual sense into the same words. St. John was indeed listening to the Holy Spirit as he wrote his Gospel, in a way that existentialists and form-critics studiously fail to understand, but he was certainly not listening to a message in the sense of a call merely to choose, by an ever-repeated decision, his own self-authenticity, divorced from any objective supernatural grace of Christ. Thus, the fact that St. John was filled with love for his Lord did not weaken or dilute his intention to recount the facts as they really took place.

        27. Exposition.  "The present book will endeavour to demonstrate that a thoroughgoing application of the principles of historical criticism does not weaken, but rather strengthens the conviction that the gospels are historically reliable."36  However: "These, then, are the broad lines of Jesus' life. He began his ministry alongside the Baptist, beside the Jordan, and then preached in Galilee about the coming of the kingdom. His preaching provoked hostility among the Jews and from Herod, and the ordinary folk failed to grasp his spiritual message. He therefore ceased to preach in public, and after a period on the borders of Galilee (during which he concentrated on the formation of his closest disciples) went to Jerusalem, where he stayed three months. Finally, after spending some time in Transjordan, he returned to Jerusalem a few days before the Passover. ... With this framework of the Lord's life before us, we may now turn to the central question in our inquiry: what should men think of Jesus Christ? ... From the last few pages it is clear that only the broadest chronological pattern of Jesus' life can be known. ... But even though (the historian) cannot descend into details, and even though many questions remain unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable), it is certainly possible to make a valid synthesis of the teaching of Jesus, and to give a true account of his earthly life. We shall thereby see the originality of the Christian faith in all its splendour."37 

        28. Conclusion.  The results of Xavier Léon-Dufour (McHugh)'s scholarly aim of finding out "the full and objective truth" concerning the little that he feels can be historically known of the life of Jesus of Nazareth do not substantially differ from the results of Rudolf Bultmann's pseudo-historical research. According to these results: Only the "broad lines" of Jesus' life can be known with any historical probability and these lines do not rise above the limits of the merely human. As far as ascertainable historical events are concerned, there is no Incarnation, Virginal Conception, bodily Resurrection, or Ascension of Jesus into Heaven. Gone are the miracles, the real prophecies of future events, and the supernatural features attributed to the objective events themselves by the Gospel writers. While Léon-Dufour (McHugh)'s understanding of the results of this historical-critical research is undoubtedly very different from how Bultmann had earlier understood them, it leaves the work of scientifically processing Bultmann's work still to be done. With such a small historical base on which to stand, it is not surprising that he offers no solid grounds to oppose the demythologizing of Rudolf Bultmann.


        29. Exposition.  John McKenzie dedicates to the problem of demythologizing the final chapter of his book on the interpretation of the New Testament.38  His analysis begins with the general observation that "no one will deny that (Bultmann's approach) is a Christian interpretation of the gospel," even though almost every (Catholic) theologian has said that it evacuates the content of the New Testament. The reduction by Bultmann of the proclamation to "the decisive eschatological event" goes almost as far as Harnack's compression of the gospel into the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. And Bultmann has never quite gotten around to telling us who really is responsible for Christianity. Bultmann seems to detach Jesus and the gospel from their situation in history and place them on the level of abstract timeless essences. Yet this is clearly not his intention.39  In his own way, Bultmann is a supernaturalist; the saving event is not the product of the course of nature or of pure historical forces. For Bultmann, in Christ man encounters God. McKenzie sees no need to enumerate all that Bultmann's approach leaves out. "His article is the most controversial theological statement of our generation, not because he gives the right answers, but because he asks the right questions."40

        30. Remarks.  This writer, for one, categorically denies that Bultmann's rationalist and Heidegerrian approach to the New Testament is a Christian interpretation of the Gospel. And, in truth, Bultmann does not place Jesus and the Gospel on the level of abstract, timeless essences; he reduces Jesus to the level of a mere man who got himself crucified, and he reduces the Gospel to the level of religious fantasy. For Bultmann, in Christ man encounters only the demythologized God, that is, for him a non-existing God.

        31. Exposition.  According to McKenzie the lasting impact of Bultmann's thesis stems from the fact that he has recalled to our minds that the New Testament proclamation is a personal encounter which demands a personal response. "The existentialist terms of encounter, engagement, and commitment are suitable to modern man; they are theological statements of what the New Testament demands." They correctly state the fact that the Christian must decide to be a Christian. The New Testament is "the record of a community which began as a group of disciples gathered around an itinerant rabbi." The utterances of this community are more and more deeply transformed as the group realizes that it must grow to dimensions which will embrace anyone who in faith seeks baptism. The awareness in this community of who Jesus is and of its identity with Him "reveals its resources and its strength as well as the revolutionary movement which it must sustain." It responds to history and to culture. "The mysterious reality which is revealed in Jesus Christ cannot be encased in one single safe and immutable formula. Each generation and each man must experience it for himself"; he must respond personally, thus proclaiming the gospel to himself.41  The primitive Church was not afraid to translate the gospel into another language and another culture, even though she knew that it could not be translated without change. It cannot be theologically argued that the Church is no longer able to change today as she did in the first century, granted that the development of thinking in the Church over the centuries has been carried forward for the most part by all the members of the Church and not particularly by her appointed officers. "Demythologizing" is an inaccurate term for this activity of development which the Church in the sense just stated has been carrying on from her beginning.42  To put it simply, the timid do not issue challenges. Bultmann has drawn our attention to the fact that Christianity today is not issuing a sufficient challenge to the modern man. St. Paul once made a bold effort to speak to the Athenians in their own language. "lt is altogether evident that Paul was a venturesome soul who could not be recommended for a jurisdictional office in the modern Church."43 

        32. Remarks.  Catholic teaching and spirituality have traditionally presented in great depth the ways in which faith demands a personal response of the believer. Bultmann's existentialist encounter is no response at all to the invitation of God in the Gospels, nor is it in any way suitable for modern man. The New Testament is the record of the life and teaching of Jesus and of the Church begun by Him as the God-Man and the Savior. The "revolutionary movement" begun by Jesus was a revolution against Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes claiming to be interpreters of Sacred Scripture and doctors of the Law. Since the Gospel cannot reasonably be changed today, as Bultmann and McKenzie would have liked it to do, "demythologizing" is a totally inappropriate term for the reasonable development of thinking within the Church.

        33. Exposition.  McKenzie holds that the gospel can never be "modernized," if by that is meant that it could ever be out of date, but it does need to be presented in terms of a diversified theology, which means in the language of the particular culture and the particular period of history.44  The task of this generation is not to abandon Thomism and put existentialism in its place, for existentialism as a system of thought may be no more durable than Thomism. There is nothing to be gained by replacing one false absolute with another. "The New Testament shows clearly that a monolithic immutable theology is foreign to the genius of the Church."45  The post-Christian agnostic thinks that Christianity is an antiquated system, "and it is unfortunate that one can count on some Christian spokesman to strengthen his opinion at almost regular intervals." There is a widespread fear that the private individual cannot be trusted, in spite of the fact that the greatest spokesmen of the Church have with few exceptions spoken as private individuals in the sense that they were not members of the hierarchy.46

        34. Remarks.  Among the tasks of this generation are those of reclaiming Thomism and of replacing the historical-criticism of the Sacred Scriptures with the science of historical theology. If John McKenzie is here in any way representing the insights of the private individual in the Church, there is every reason to conclude that the advice of the private individual should not be listened to.

        35. Exposition.  John McKenzie believes that Bultmann's "compression of the gospel to 'the decisive eschatological event' was too radically simple," but that "he has erred in the right direction." Bultmann consciously echoes the words of Paul, who compressed his own gospel into the one phrase, "Jesus Christ and him crucified." There is more implied in Paul's phrase than in Bultmann's, but "Bultmann has pointed out the central elements of the proclamation, and he is absolutely right in thinking that this is the element which will challenge modern man to a decision," for this is "the supreme paradox, the supreme affirmation and denial," the reason for our questioning the meaning of our existence, the base of everything in Christianity that is novel and unconventional. Without this centrality the Church becomes a form of Pharisaism.47  Modern man "will not accept the Church as an anchor of spiritual security, as a source of infallible doctrine, as a mutual benevolent society, as the defender of a rigid moral code. The Pharisees were all these things. ... It is rather terrible, on reflection, to make safety of doctrine the end of the Church. Her end is salvation - and safety is derived from the same Latin word as salvation. Her end is achieved in safety of persons, not of doctrine."48

        36. Remarks.  McKenzie thinks that Bultmann's reduction of the objective redemption of man effected by Jesus to the status of religious fantasy was an error in the right direction. This opinion shows no understanding of the threat that Bultmann has raised to Christian faith. Bultmann has challenged contemporary believers to a decision, and the right choice is to reject entirely and utterly the notion of demythologizing. Well-formed contemporary people accept the Church as an anchor of security and as the defender of true morality, and they are inclined to pray that the hierarchy of the Church will have the courage to act as defenders of the faith.

        37. Conclusion.  John McKenzie makes demythologizing the grand finale of his book on the interpretation of the New Testament. His points may be summarized as follows:

        a) "In his own way Bultmann is a supernaturalist, his existentialist terms "are excellent theological statements of what the New Testament demands."

        b) What Bultmann calls "demythologizing" is actually the same kind of development that the Church underwent in the first century and which it must undergo today in order to be able to issue a sufficient challenge to modern men.

        c) "The mysterious reality which is revealed in Jesus Christ cannot be encased in one single safe and immutable formula"; on the contrary, "a monolithic immutable theology is foreign to the genius of the Church."

        d) Even if Bultmann's "decisive eschatological event' is too radically simple, nevertheless, "he has erred in the right direction."

        e) The supreme paradox that will effectively challenge modern man to the decision called for by the gospel has been correctly formulated by Bultmann.

        f) The Church can no longer be regarded as a haven of spirituality or a source of infallible doctrine.

        This response of John McKenzie to the "demythologizing of the Gospels" proclaimed by Rudolf Bultmann may be an impassioned appeal for the "ongoing theological revolution" within the Church, but it reveals no insight into the real menace that Bultmann's demythologizing presents to the Catholic understanding of life or into what might be an effective remedy for that menace.

1. X. Léon-Dufour, Les évangiles et l'histoire de Jésus (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1963 [henceforth referred to as EHJ] ).

2. Léon-Dufour, EHJ, 8.

3. Xavier Léon-Dufour, The Gospels and the Jesus of History (translated and edited in abridged form by John McHugh, London: Collins 1968 [henceforth referred to as Léon-Dufour (McHugh)]).

4. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 14.

5. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 274-275.

6. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 275.

7. Léon-Doufour (McHugh), 7.

8. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 88.

9. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 275.

10. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 267.

11. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 242.

12. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 276.

13. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 19.

14. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 23.

15. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 14.

16. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 187.

17. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), ibid.

18. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 207.

19. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 274.

20. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 258.

21. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 263.

22. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 263.

23. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 124-125.

24. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 134.

25. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 136.

26. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 137.

27. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 136.

28. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 138.

29. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 141.

30. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 147.

31. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 106.

32. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 81.

33. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), ibid.

34. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 85.

35. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 107. "Once the genre littéraire of the fourth gospel is recognized, one can see why those who limit their aim to knowing the historical Jesus find it of little use for their purpose. John wanted to be both a witness of Jesus of Nazareth (by telling what he remembered of him) and a witness of Christ the Lord (by trying to make us share his faith in Christ). John's gospel is therefore a challenge thrown down against the positivist idea of history, and positivist historians are only logical in refusing to accept that such a book can be historical. But John had a different idea in mind: he never considered a bald fact without looking at it in the light of the Spirit, to see its significance" (Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 105-106).

36. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 14.

37. Léon-Dufour (McHugh), 222-224.

38. John L. McKenzie, The Power and the Wisdom (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1965 [henceforth referred to as JMPW]).

39. McKenzie, JMPW, 271.

40. McKenzie, JMPW, 272.

41. McKenzie, JMPW, 280-281.

42. McKenzie, JMPW, 282.

43. McKenzie, JMPW, 283.

44. McKenzie, JMPW, 283.

45. McKenzie, JMPW, 285.

46. McKenzie, JMPW, 284.

47. McKenzie, JMPW, 285.

48. McKenzie, JMPW, 286.

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