Baker Academic

Friday, July 7, 2017

Bultmannian Backlash

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book (an intro-level treatment) on Jesus. This is a short assessment of Eta Linnemann's reaction to Bultmann.

It would difficult to overstate the influence that Bultmann had on students of the Gospels, Christian origins, and the historical Jesus. Scholars endeavored to stratify the layers of the Gospels to discover what was original to Jesus, what was part of the earliest Christian preaching, or what was invented much later. The project was called “Form Criticism” and promised to apply a more scientific system of classification for the traditions of Jesus and the Gospels. For generations, historical-critical scholars were either motivated by Form Criticism or set against it in reaction to its success.

In some ways, Bultmann was a victim of his own success. Two related consequences of his project were: (1) Form Criticism became preoccupied with the social settings of the Church. Almost every word attributed to Jesus was thought to reveal something about a hypothetical community. Moreover, these communities were thought to be highly creative; they invented a mythology of Jesus based on their own religious experiences and social concerns. Rather than reconstructing a historical figure, these scholars began to reconstruct the imaginations of hypothetical communities. (2) Rather than making the “essence” of Jesus more attractive to modern folk, Bultmann became a villain to many Christians. His theories were so compelling that many people of faith had a visceral reaction to him. Some among the hyper-conservative rejected historical study altogether. This was the case with one of his own students: Eta Linnemann.

Eta Linnemann’s early work on the parables and passion of Jesus was much in line with her mentor’s project. She set out to explain the social settings that gave rise to the stories. The sayings of Jesus (for the most part) were composed by and for the early Christians. Supernatural accounts within the Gospels were wholesale invention. Linnemann did well in academia. Her books were widely read and she took a Professorship at Philipps University in Marburg. Indeed, she felt that her research was a service to God. But Linnemann had a crisis of conscience. After years of historical training and form-critical research, she concluded that no meaningful truth could come from her professional life. Worse, her research had created an obstacle to Christian preaching. She published the following reflection in 1985:

Today I know that I owe those initial insights to the beginning effects of God's grace. At first, however, what I realized led me into profound disillusionment. I reacted by drifting toward addictions which might dull my misery. I became enslaved to watching television and fell into an increasing state of alcohol dependence. My bitter personal experience finally convinced me of the truth of the Bible's assertion: “Whoever finds his life will lose it” (Matt. 10:39). At that point God led me to vibrant Christians who knew Jesus personally as their Lord and Savior. I heard their testimonies as they reported what God had done in their lives. Finally God himself spoke to my heart by means of a Christian brother's words. By God's grace and love I entrusted my life to Jesus.[1]

By her own words, Linnemann had “turned Evangelical.” By entrusting her life to Jesus, she was pulled from depression, idleness, and alcoholism. By any measure, her conversion transformed her with highly positive results. She, however, adopted an adversarial relationship with her past including her previous relationship with Jesus.

Linnemann spiritual encounter with Jesus, as she saw it, forced her to recant and repent from her former profession. She declared her historical study to be sinful and derided her former publications, “I regard everything that I taught and wrote before I entrusted my life to Jesus as refuse.”[2] She threw her books and articles away and invited her readers to do the same. Her new existential relationship with Jesus convinced her to throw away her previous portrait.

In my judgment, Linnemann’s experience echoes many students and seminarians who encounter historical Jesus research. It is common for these students to either embrace historical study (as Linnemann did in her early life) or choose an almost anti-intellectual path whereby faith and history compete (as she did in her later life). But it must be said that Linnemann’s particular reaction to her former life would not have been possible without a keen intellectual capacity to critique her own method. Her post-conversion publications take a bitter and hostile tone against university culture and historical-critical study more generally.

While her tone and rhetoric are extreme, Linnemann made an astute and necessary observation. The historian can only ever disguise her/his ideology with a veneer of objectivity. She argued that historical-critical study is not a method; it is an ideology rife with prejudice. Certainly she offers us a partial explanation for why historians continue to project their own biases and ideals onto Jesus.

While it would be misleading to label her as “postmodern”, Linnemann teaches us one of the most important lessons of the postmodern critique: scientific study tends to break down what it observes. The modern tendency is to parse, reduce, classify, and utilize. But what happens when the modern, critical eye turns inward? What happens when the intellectual mind begins to parse, reduce, classify, and utilize itself? The inevitable result is that we begin to critique the criticism.

[1] Eta Linnemann, Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology: Reflections of a Bultmannian Turned Evangelical (Trans. Robert W. Yarbrough; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990), 18.
[2] Linnemann, Historical Criticism, 20.


  1. From Dr. G:

    But scientific objectivity is not just 1) criticism. If it was, then indeed it would criticize and consume itself. Fortunately however 2) objectivity contains an element of positive acceptance: it accepts that likely, the physical material world is real, and important. And then science bases its actions on discovering, observationally, experimentally, what works in that world.

    Using this partially accepting attitude, objectivity, science, and technology, have achieved fantastic wonders. Like the very computer or telephone that you are reading this on.

    Did accepting the value of this in part abandon the full critical projext? Possibly it did. But as we are more and more successful in the material sphere, this acceptance gives every sign of short and long term success. Whereas religion, with its many failed promises of physical miracles and so forth, does not.

    Neither religion nor science offer absolute certainty. Neither stands up to absolute criticism. But of the two, for more and more of us, the scientific project shows the most signs of fulfilling ancient hopes and promises.

    And even the Bible told us to observe nature; and honor many "signs."

    1. If you are saying that Linnemann was wrong to abandon historical criticism, I agree.


    2. From Dr. G:

      Yes,that sounds about right.

      By the way, on his blog, Hurtado is politely taking on Crossley's 2008 objections to him.

  2. Thank you for this little tidbit. Yes, historical criticism often can fall in the trap of treating the Bible like an insect under a microscope or a frog in a science class dissection. The common denominator in those metaphors is that the creature in question is *dead.*