Study Note

I’ve begun what will hopefully be an in-depth study of late 19th century/early-to-mid 20th century Protestantism of the more liberal stripe – this includes (and I realize this is not a super precise grouping) Tillich, Bultmann, Schleiermacher, Barth, Bonhoeffer, etc.

I just read ‘Kerygma and Myth’, by Bultmann -some first read/initial thoughts: Bultmann puts a lot of weight on the mythical world-picture assumed by te New Testament and insists we must demythologize it. In our modern age, we can no longer believe in the miraculous world of the NT. He sees terms such as ‘ascending into heaven’ and other dogmatic statements in our modern scientific age, and it’s here that I have a few questions.

Why, however, is this the case? How is the supernaturalism of the NT invalidated by modern science? Plantinga has forcefully shown that the idea that modern science does away with any supernaturalism is pretty much hopeless – I see no reason to reject supernaturalism because of our modern age even if it means that we cannot accept, say, every aspect of ancient Hebrew cosmology. It seems to be an all-or-nothing kind of deal for Bultmann, but I see no reason why it has to be so. Simply because the picture of the world is no longer accepted is no reason to throw out the supernatural element therein. The message of the New Testament and the supernaturalism it contains is not dependent on any particular world-picture even if a certain world-picture is used to express said supernaturalism.


24 thoughts on “Study Note

  1. guymax December 6, 2013 / 7:58 am

    Hmm. I’d say that it is only by mythologizing the NT that we can see that it is not about the supernatural but the supramundane.


  2. guymax December 6, 2013 / 2:13 pm

    If we read the NT literally it can appear supernatural. Terms such as ‘ascending into Heaven’ appear rather ludicrous, and even lead some to suppose that Jesus boarded an alien spaceship. As myth, however, we can read such terms as referring beyond the metaphors and similes to psychology and states of being. Then we can suppose that these words signify much the same as they would in Buddhism. In Buddhism there is no talk of the supernatural, only of the supramundane. This is not the claim that natural laws can be broken, a law is a law, but that the world is not the wysiwyg phenomenon that we usually think it is,.

    The price of this mythologizing would be that the teachings of Jesus and Buddha then line up, such that idea such as Heaven and the Holy Grail are in a sense naturalised. I’m aware that many Christians would prefer to retain the supernatural interpretation of the NT, but was just noting that if we are uncomfortable with it there is an alternative.

    It is Bultmann who sees the supernatural in the NT, It is in the eye of the beholder. It is not necessary to read it in this way, and to many Christians it would be to entirely miss the point. .



    • whitefrozen December 6, 2013 / 4:25 pm

      Why is such a statement as ‘ascending into heaven’ ludicrous?


      • guymax December 6, 2013 / 6:08 pm

        Because when read literally it would indicate a miracle, a violation of the laws of nature. It seems that Bultmann gives this kind of statement a supernatural interpretation.

        In a way I would agree with him about de-mythologising the NT, but from where I’m standing it’s him who is mythologising it by reading it as a supernatural text.

        I hope I don’t seem argumentative. I’m just trying to meet the objection that the NT cannot survive scientific scrutiny.


        • whitefrozen December 6, 2013 / 7:22 pm

          Why suppose that a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature – or rather, why suppose (as Bultmann did) that nature is a closed system such that divine intervention is deemed a violation of natural laws?


  3. guymax December 7, 2013 / 7:02 am

    Well yes. Why suppose Divine intervention? Why suppose anything? I was pointing out a weakness in Bultmann’s position based on his own suppositions, not arguing for or against Divine intervention. I was saying we don’t have to invoke the supernatural when we interpret the NT, but sure, we we can if we want. Then Bultmann’s objection stands.


    • whitefrozen December 7, 2013 / 7:37 am

      I disagree that if we invoke the supernatural then Bultmanns objection stands, however. So far as I can tell his objections are based on some fairly outmoded concepts of science.


  4. guymax December 7, 2013 / 8:24 am

    Hmm. I’d say that any concept of science must reject the supernatural. We would have to understand Nature fully to know what is and what is not supernatural, of course, (something scientists regularly forget) but in principle it can be rejected. Whatever you and I think about this, the fact is that scientists are bound to reject the NT if they give it a supernatural interpretation. This is why I think it is important to dissuade them from doing so.


    • whitefrozen December 7, 2013 / 8:32 am

      The large number of scientists who do not reject the supernatural makes your claim a dubious one – and to pick only one example, Alvin Plantinga has effectively demolished the idea that there is conflict between science and belief in the supernatural.

      But i’m always interested in learning more. Why must science reject the supernatural – or rather, what precisely do you mean by that phrase?


  5. guymax December 7, 2013 / 9:25 am

    Maybe you’re right. But most scientists (and me) would see the idea of natural laws as inconsistent with the idea that they can be broken or overridden. So I would say that science must reject the supernatural. At the same time, it should be careful to remember that it does not understand these laws yet, and what appears to break them may actually be just a reflection of our ignorance of them.

    My point is only that a rejection of the supernatural would not mean a rejection of religion, only the rejection of a supernatural interpretation. Whether we should reject the supernatural would be a different and probably more difficult question. As you mention, it may be possible to argue that Nature’s laws do not form a closed system.


    • whitefrozen December 7, 2013 / 9:31 am

      Given the probabilistic rather than deterministic nature of natural laws (quantum mechanics et al) it seems a bit outdated to think of natural laws as immutable and non-violable. Even on the classical Newtonian picture of nature, divine intervention (say) isn’t a violation of the laws of nature – perhaps if one adds determinism to the mix one can arrive at a picture of nature in which divine intervention is a violation of some kind, but that’s far from being a scientific idea, obviously. ‘…there is nothing in current or classical science inconsistent with special divine action in the world.’ – Alvin Plantinga


  6. guymax December 7, 2013 / 10:08 am

    I would see probabilistic laws as inviolable since ‘probabilistic’ would not mean outside the laws of causation. If events were outside the laws then they would not be probabilistic, they would be random. Up to now no experiment has ever revealed a violation of the laws, and QM for all its probabilistic data is renowned for its predictive powers. It could never be outdated to think of natural laws as inviolable, since if they are not inviolable then they are not laws.

    I think most people would define ‘Divine intervention’ as a violation of the laws because they would see the universe as causally closed. At any rate, if God cannot break the laws then all this means is that He cannot perform supernatural acts, which would not be a popular idea with many theists. .

    To me a God that acts implies a supernatural phenomenon. Hence the opposition to this idea in the sciences (and much of religion). A God who can act but who must stick to the rules could never be more than an ad hoc conjecture, since there would be no way to distinguish his actions from the functioning of Nature.

    I think what tends to be forgotten is that a lot of people would not read the NT as endorsing what a lot of other people would call theism.


    • whitefrozen December 7, 2013 / 10:25 am

      God’s action is indeed supernatural – but as was noted before, there is simply nothing in current science that is inconsistent with divine action. The notion of the universe being causally closed, such that if God were to act it would be a violation of the laws of nature, is a metaphysical add-on that is not supported by any scientific data – and so far as I can tell that is your position, but perhaps I am wrong.

      As an aside, I think the entire debate is a bit of a moot point, since if God created the laws of nature, He is not subject to them. As another aside, randomness is not outside the realm of causation.


  7. guymax December 7, 2013 / 2:53 pm

    I don’t think we’re going to agree about any of this.

    Whether God’s actions are supernatural will depend on how we define God. The term can be used to imply either position. It’s no use stating which it is unless you’re just giving your opinion. .

    We’re discussing a metaphysical question, so there can be no metaphysical add-ons. .

    Good point about randomness though. I should have said chaotic, but maybe even that implies causation.

    I don’t think we’re going to sort this out so I’m happy to leave it there if that’s okay with you. Thanks for an interesting chat.


    • whitefrozen December 7, 2013 / 4:53 pm

      I’m not worried about agreeing so much as understanding.


  8. guymax December 8, 2013 / 7:23 am

    Oh fine then. I wasn’t stomping off and I’m happy to continue. I just felt we were heading for an unresolvable argument. It’s a tricky discussion because we’re coming from very different directions.

    Not sure where we are now though. You seem to be okay with the supernatural, but I would agree with Bultmann that we should not be okay with it, and that it is an unscientific idea. For me this would mean giving the NT a non-supernatural interpretation, as many people do, rather than abandoning it as unbelievable. Bultmann seems to be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He gives the NT a supernatural interpretation and assumes it is necessary to do this, thus setting up a straw man. Or so it seems to me.


    • whitefrozen December 8, 2013 / 8:37 am

      Right. My position is that it is not unscientific, as argued quite forcefully by (say) Alvin Plantinga, who devotes an entire chapter of his most recent to the objections of Bultmann as well as others (Langdon Gilkey and the Divine Action Project, for example). It is, however, a lot, and I’m too lazy to transcribe all that 🙂


  9. guymax December 8, 2013 / 9:17 am

    Yep. This is where we are not going to agree. I’d say that if the laws of nature are violable then they aren’t laws, and in this case we would not need to invoke the supernatural to explain instances where they do not hold.

    Also, I would say that the supernatural is unscientific in that it would be the abandonment of the principle of least hypothesis and the demand for testability to presume that as well as nature there is the supernatural.

    This is why I prefer ‘supramundane’. It acknowledges that there is more to Nature than we see with our physical senses, but does not require the supernatural or any violation of Her laws. ,


    • whitefrozen December 8, 2013 / 9:26 am

      Then we are at an understanding – which is far more important than agreeing. Though I will invoke Plantinga once more, if you haven’t read his work on the subject – he has a host of essays and videos on the subject that bring a lot to the table on this issue.

      As a parting shot, however, I simply think that viewing divine action as a violation of the laws of nature to be a bit of an odd view, given that (at least on classical Christian theism, which is what I hold) God created the laws. Miracles may have been a problem for, say, Hume, but he had all kinds of problems in his thinking.

      Though your comment about as well as nature there is the supernatural seems to be to be obvious – of course there is the supernatural. We can only approach the natural through the supernatural – though why that should be subject to the testability of science I’m not sure of.


  10. guymax December 8, 2013 / 11:15 am

    Ho ho. It seems we don’t even agree on classical Christian theism. And I would say of course there is no supernatural, and that I’m with Lao Tsu on this one. But yes. we don’t have to agree.


    • whitefrozen December 8, 2013 / 1:28 pm

      I quite enjoy Lao Tzu – I was lucky enough to find a lovely edition of the Tao Te Ching for about 2 bucks at a library. Delightful reading.


  11. guymax December 8, 2013 / 3:11 pm

    Great! He tells us that laws are as they are ‘Tao being what it is’. This would be the view I endorse. For me all this talk about God confuses the issues, but it is very difficult to avoid because most people align their views in relation to him.


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