Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Jesus and Legalism: Bultmann on the Sermon on the Mount

I've always wanted to write a series on the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps Jesus' most famous teaching moment. The stark, uncompromising demands he makes, his inversion of the law and the religion of his day, has always challenged me. If we hear his words as somehow being the words of God, as being the foundation of our religious tradition, we are too often inclined to hear in them only what we expect to hear, what we've been taught in church and in Sunday School. They - radically unconventional in their day - become the new convention. They - a sweeping oratory against legalism - become the new law.

But if we hear these words as we might have heard them when they were first uttered, as the words of an unconventional teacher, part rabbi, part prophet, but not really either; as the words of a man who cannot really be pinned down: Is he a lunatic? Is he a genius? Is he a sage? Is he a fraud?, then we might hear just how strange they are. Just how challenging they are. Just how much their radical character demands of us, if we are truly listening.

If we give ourselves permission, just for a moment, to forget all we've ever thought we've known about Jesus and see him with fresh eyes, unshaped by two thousand years of Christological baggage, we might arrive at exactly what it is that Jesus was trying to teach the crowds that gathered around him that day.

But I've never had the intellectual ammunition or moral courage to do that. I've never been able to see the Sermon on the Mount through first century eyes. I've never been able to allow myself to hear the words of Jesus with the same critical ears I use when listening to anyone else preach or teach. And so, up until now, I've never written anything worth reading on the Sermon on the Mount. I've written on the person of Jesus. I've written on how Jesus has been seen through time, how our Christologies have developed. I've even written on how my own view of Jesus as the Christ has shifted oer time, how my own Christology has changed. I've exegeted more than a few parables, finding in them subtle nuances previously undetected (and quite possibly not there!). But I've never had anything meaningful to say about Jesus' most challenging teachings.

Still nursing my broken and now surgically repaired wrist, I've been unable of late to punch into the sporting goods time clock, a blessing and a curse. Being unable to work for my hourly wage, we're a little short financially right now. However, I'm long on time. There are so many books that I've been meaning to read, and as I nurse myself back to health (or, rather, as Sami nurses me back to health) I've finally got the time to read them.

So, with my new surplus of time, I picked up Rudolf Bultmann's treatise on the teachings of the "historical Jesus," Jesus and the Word. Much to the disappointment, I'm sure, of my college German professor, who used to impress upon me the value of reading the great German theologians and philosophers in their native German (Herr Baker. Du muss Kant auf Deutsch lesen!) I'm reading Bultmann in the 1934 English translation by Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero. My German will, I'm sorry, never be that good. I'm too quintessentially American.

Anyway, Bultmann's project here is to bring his readers into an encounter with Jesus' teachings in their historical context, or at least to describe his own encounter. No comment is made about the person of Jesus, as Bultmann believes such knowledge is forever lost to history. As he puts it,

I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.

Further, he is unsure of the value of discussing Jesus' personality.

However good the reasons for being interested in the personalities of significant historical figures, Plato or Jesus, Dante or Luther, Napoleon or Goethe, it still remains true that this interest does not touch that which such men had at heart; for their interest was not in their personality but in their work.

Bultmann's concern, then, is neither with the Christology of the church, which he regards as legendary, nor with the study of the life and personality of Jesus, which he regards as both impossible and undesirable, distracting us from the real substance. No, Bultmann is exclusively concerned with Jesus' teaching.

Bultmann has long been presented to me as an almost exclusively negative writer. That is, he primarily negates traditional church teachings about Jesus rather than affirming something of value. Having not read any Bultmann before this week I cannot say whether or not that is true of the bulk of his writing. But I can say that in this volume on the teachings of Jesus, what is most interesting is not Bultmann's rejection and negation of traditional doctrine, but rather what he affirms about the teachings of the man who stands before and behind the religion which grew up around him.

He sees Jesus as both a rabbi and a prophet, but neither in a conventional sense. Like the rabbi, he shares a reverence for the word of God and a knowledge of the laws of God. But, according to Bultmann, he often inverts those laws, viewing them rather than as a system of commands instead as an invitation to radical obedience to the call of God. He shares the prophet's interest in reforming religion through an inversion of traditional practices, a call to a renewal which escapes rote religious repetition and ritual, and which incorporates and encompasses one's entire being. But he does not share the prophet's social concerns, he "does not speak of the state and civil rights."

The polemic of the prophets against the worship of false gods in Israel was combined with the struggle against political and social wrongs. Their teaching demanded justice and righteousness for the common people, and their demand was asserted by the command of God. The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount show that Jesus sets the requirement of law and justice over against the command of God.

So while Jesus shares characteristics and concerns in common with both prophets and rabbis, he is neither a rabbi nor a prophet, nor truly some combination of the two. Rather, according to Bultmann, Jesus is best seen, through the lens of his teachings, as someone who calls others through crisis to the point of a radical decision. As such, it makes no sense to speak of the "ethic of Jesus," because Jesus calls us not to some universal ethic or ideal, but rather to a decision to be made over and over again,in each situation: to follow the will of God, or to rebel.

The Sermon on the Mount is often used to discuss Jesus' relationship to the law. And, rightly so. Like a good rabbi, this, his seminal teaching, offers an apparent commentary on the law. He looks at pieces of the law of Moses and offers fresh interpretations of them, radicalizing the law. These teachings follow a certain pattern:

You've heard it said

followed by a command from the law, then followed by,

but I say to you

followed by what is often seen as a kind of new law, a radicalizing of the previously given command.

You've heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5: 21-22, NRSV)

Here we see an expansion of the law. Not only is murder forbidden, but anger, which leads to murder, is forbidden. Unkind words, a form of metaphorical murder, are forbidden. As Bultmann says of it,

He who indeed refrains from murder but does not master anger has not understood that he must decide completely [to follow, or obey, the will of God].

There are other such apparent expansions of the law which Bultmann considers:

Matt. 6: 27-28, in which Jesus expands the command against adultery to include lust,

Matt. 5:31-32 and Luke 16:18, in which Jesus expands the concept of marriage beyond the possibility of divorce,

Matt. 5: 33 and 37, in which Jesus expands the prohibition against giving false witness to a demand for radical honesty,

Matt. 5: 38-41, in which Jesus expands the proportional limitation which the law places on retaliation to a call for non-violence, and

Matt. 5: 43-48, in which Jesus expands the command to love to include even love for one's enemy.

Of these he says

In all these passages the decisive requirement is the same: the good which is to be done is to be done completely. He who does it partially, with reservations, just enough to fulfill the outward regulation, has not done it at all.

How does this, according to Bultmann, work out in each of the individual passages? We have already seen his treatment of the expansion of murder to include even anger and insults. Of the rest, he says:

He who avoids adultery, but keeps lust in his heart, has not understood the prohibition of adultery, which requires of him purity. He who refrains simply from perjury has not seen that absolute truthfulness is demanded. He who divorces his wife has not understood that marriage requires of him a complete decision, but thinks of it as a relative action which can be annulled. He who takes revenge for injustice does not realize that by so doing he himself upholds injustice; to reject injustice completely means not to retaliate. He who is kind only to friends does not know what love means; for complete love includes love of enemies.

This much is a fairly conventional, but still insightful interpretation of this teachings of Jesus. But to stop here runs the risk of doing what has so often been done in the name of Jesus, but which, according to Bultmann, is the antithesis of Jesus' own teachings: that is, to set up these teachings as a new law, and to see Jesus as a new lawgiver.

According to Bultmann this is, in fact, the opposite of what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is not replacing old commands with new ones, or even supplementing the old commands with new, permanently binding interpretations. Rather, Jesus is inviting the hearer to a radical obedience of the will of God which does not depend on any law, any fixed regulation.

Law claims a man so far as his conduct can be found by formulated precepts. Beyond these it leaves free play to man's self-will. Jesus' belief is on the contrary that the human will has no freedom before God, but is radically claimed by Him. Under the law, the question "How well does my conduct conform to the commandment?" becomes a question of content, of the What of the action. Obedience must be determinable, and therefore law must concern itself with the What of action, not the How. Hence formal obedience to the law as such is no radical obedience, though of course true obedience can exist in fulfillment of the law.

Jesus has wholly separated obedience from legalism; hence he does not set up a better law in opposition to a less good law; he opposes the view that the fulfillment of the law is fulfilling the will of God. For God demands the whole man, not merely specific acts from the man.

Jesus then sees the act as expressing the
whole man, that is, he sees his action from the view-point of decision: Either-Or. Every half-way is an abomination. It would obviously be a complete misunderstanding to take these "But I tell you" passages as formal legal precepts of an external authority, which can be fulfilled by outward behavior. Whoever appealing to a word of Jesus refuses to dissolve an unendurable marriage, or whoever offers the other cheek to one who strikes him, because Jesus said so, would not understand Jesus. For he would have missed exactly the obedience which Jesus desires; he would imagine that he could achieve and present an act of obedience when obedience is not really present as a determining factor in his life. All these sayings are meant to make clear by extreme example that it is not a question of satisfying an outward authority but of being completely obedient. It is also wholly impossible to regard Jesus' teachings as universally valid ethical precepts by which a man can once for all order his life. Unless the decision which is demanded in these sayings arises out of a present situation, it is not truly the decision of obedience, but an achievement which the man accomplishes; he stands outside of his action, is not wholly identified with it.

Jesus, then, is not establishing a new law, or issuing some comprehensive ethic which will apply in every situation. He is instead issuing a radically situational ethic: in all situations, in every thought and action, one must obey God. One must in every way conform to the will of God.

This is a dangerous ethic because, though it demands that humans surrender their freedom, it still leaves the decision making process entirely in the hands of us imperfect people, who often "hear" the voice of God speaking to us, even if it isn't God we hear at all. This crisis theology ethic of radical obedience, as reflected in Bultmann's reading of Jesus, is built in part of Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical, one of the most dangerous theological concepts I've ever encountered.

If we had perfect access to the will of God, then calling us to such radically situational obedience would be obviously beneficial. As Bultmann represents Jesus' teaching, we humans already know what we are to do. God speaks to us in every concrete situation, teaching us right from wrong, showing us how to obey. It is simply up to us to choose obedience in each moment.

And perhaps this is both an accurate representation of Jesus' teachings and our situation. Still, there are so many competing influences disguising themselves as the voice of God; and so often it is impossible for us, mired as we are in our own situation, chained as we are to our own perspective, to distinguish between our own wills and the will of God.

That, of course, does not mean that Bultmann or his view of the teachings of Jesus is wrong. It just means that, if we take this call to radical obedience seriously we must be constantly checking against ourselves, to make sure that we do not use the calling of God as a licence to disguise our own voices as the voice of God, and then pompously set our own wills up as a kind of idol in the place of God.


Liam said...

Great post, Chris. I think that many people look to religion for the hard and fast. They are legalists or literalists or fundamentalists and they want the bible or their pastor or their pope to, once for all, set out a series of rules that will enable them to put aside the tiring and frightening process of decision-making in specific situations. I think Jesus continually worked against this, putting forward absolutes such as love or, as you say in the post, obedience that require a constant assessing of the situation and a constant decision to turn one's self towards God. Not easy, in fact, it's impossible. But as Jesus said to the apostles who were astonished at his metaphor of a camel and a needle, with God all things are possible.

Take care of that hand.

crystal said...

Chris, if I understand what you've written correctly, then trying to align one's actions with God's will would be our aim. Ignatius (The Spiritual Exercises) would be all for this :-) and he had rules for the "discernment of spirits" to help people figure out the will of God. Not asy to do at any time and probably impossible all of the time ... doesn't hurt to have a spiritual director's help.

Sandalstraps said...


You have understood both what I'm saying and how Bultmann represented the teachings of Jesus. As this post is principally an interpretation of Bultmann's interpretation of Jesus' teachings, there is less my voice in it and more Bultmann's. In that spirit, let me say that Bultmann would tell you that Jesus made no allowances for either spiritual directors or spiritual disciplines, and probably would have rejected them. (Please don't take this as my objection to the Ignatian project - any method of trying to allign one's life with the will of God has mu upmost respect.)

Bultmann writes, concerning ascetic spiritual disciplines:

Jesus... in no sense desires ascetism, and this is highly characteristic of his whole attitude and shows how he regards the position of man [please forgive the lack of gender inclusive language, as Bultmann predates it] before God. The demand for ascetism really rests on the assumption that man through his behavior can attain a certain ideal or saitly quality which remains with him as a possession. The emphasis shifts accordingly from the behavior, the action, to that which is acheived thereby. Action loses its absolute character as the moment of decision, when subordinated to the view-point of the end, the ideal. This ideal may be the Greek ideal of the harmonious, independent man, complete in himself like a work of art;then ascetism becomes a technique of spiritual discipline, of character development,somewhat as in the Stoic philosophy. This may be called ascetism of self-improvement. Or the ideal may be determined by the assumptions of religious dualism, that the material world, the body, the senses, are evil, and that man must raisehimself out of this lower nature to the divine nature. Since Deity neither eats nor drinks, neither sleeps nor begets, man must as far as possible renounce all these things in order to attain divine holiness. In a heightened emotional life, in visions and ecstacies, as they are introduced or furthered by such abstinence, the ascetic believes he already finds traces of this divine nature in himself. This kind of ascetism may be called the ascetism of sanctification.

Jesus is far removed from both kinds of ascetism.

I think that Bultmann has here quite possibly missed the point of spiritual disciplines, which may be best seen as exercises in the subordination of the will. But, even if I could get him to ceonceed that point, he would still probably say that, at least according to his readings of the teachins of Jesus, we need to excercisessave for concrete behaviors in the situations which present themselves to us to subordinate our wills. That each decision, regardless of whether it comes in the market or the monastary, is a chance to choose for or against the will of God.

Sandalstraps said...


Yor comment led me to a couple of places:

1. It is interesting to me that while we often experience Jesus' removal of the formal commands/demands of the law as a kind of freedom, Bultmann sees it is as the removal of all possible freedom.

For instance, Jesus (like a couple of rabbis before him, interestingly) reduces the entire Priestly law to two principles:

i. Love of God, and

ii. Love of neighbor.

This, of course, does not prescribe for us how we should love; or, more accurately, how our love should translate into behavior. And this is important because, according to Bultmann love is behavior. That is, we love someone not by feeling a certain way about them (which cannot be controlled and so cannot be commanded; feelings are not here seen as an act of will, and it is the act of will that Bultmann sees Jesus as being primarily concerned with) but by behaving a certian way in relation to them.

But the command to love does not spell out the demands of love. As an individual I experience this as a kind of liberation. I am no longer bound to someone else's concepts of how love behaves. I no longer have to govern my behavior in accordance with formal regulations which spell out for me how love behaves. I am instead free to interpret the demands of love for myself.

But, for Bultmann this position instead removes all freedom. Under the law my behavior was governed by formal commands. But, where the law was silent I was free to do as I wished - there were no demands upon me save for to follow the letter of the law. As such, in the parable of the Good Samaratan, the priest was free not to help the fallen man. In fact, under the law, he was required not to help the fallen man, as, if the man died, he would become ritually unclean for havin touched the dead.

But, to obey the law here is to not obey the will of God, as the demands of the law in this case are opposed to what God obviously wills: to help the fallen man. As such, the one who chooses radical obedience over and against the demands of the law is no longer free not to act in any situation. Instead, in each situation they must do exactly as God would have them do. There is no longer the freedom to weigh some claims (following the law) against other claims (helping the man lying in the ditch); nor is there freedom to consider some areas of behavior (that to which the law does not directly speak) as bein beyond the claim that God makes on us. Every single act is made subordinate to the will of God.

2. Like you, I also conflated "love" with "obedience." I saw either - or, more often, love by itself, with no thought to the concept of radical obedience - as being, as you put it, and "absolute" put forward by Jesus as a replacement of the law. Bultmann warns against this:

[I was going to type out an extended quote here, but having looked at the book again, the quote I had in mind is an entire sub-section of a chapter; the chapter titled The Teaching of Jesus: The Will of God, the subsection titled The Commandment of Love. As I have no desire to reproduce 10 pages of text here, I think I'd better paraphrase!]

Jesus, according to Bultmann, does not advance love for its own sake. Rather, as in all other things, for Jesus love is subordinate to radical obedience. One loves because love is in the will of God, and not for any other reason. As such love is not here presented as an absolute value, but rather as one of the ways in which one may be radically obedient to God.

Love then is not to be conflated with obedience. The two do not stand next to each other, nor can they be used interchangably. Rather, according to Bultmann, love is, like all other things, subordinate to radical obedience. It answers the question How am I to obey? rather than the question What is the Good? or some other such question concerning values or ideals.

As such, he argues rather emphatically against seeing the "commandment of love" as being "the essential Christian requirement," as it is so often seen. I have always seen it as such, and so that argument - that love is subordinate to obedience - is a tough one for me, as I cannot imagine a situation in which the two might come into conflict. Though, perhaps Bultmann cannot eiter. Perhaps he is simply saying here that love is a manifestation of obedience, and that obedience should be our motive to love.

Liam said...

Hmmm... What tradition does Bultmann come from? I don't really know much about different flavors of theology, but that rigorous (and, if it cannot be equated with love) focus on obedience and lack of freedom sounds what I would think of as Calvinism.

I've been reading a wonderful book by a post-Vatican II Dominican named Aelred Squire, and for him, the choice to follow God's will is the true freedom, because moving away from God is moving to error and spiritual slavery (he doesn't say so in so many words, but I think that was his point). Of course, that doesn't mean following the will of the pope or a law or any one interpretation of scripture, but that difficult task of following whatever really is God's will.

He also talks about asceticism, not as evidence of dualism, but as a discipline that shows the inportance of the body as part of the whole person.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

crystal said...

love is behavior

love is best shown through deeds, not words (Iggy)

the exercises don't promote ascetism (I think) but the wish to align your desires with God's - no wearing of hair shirts :-)

... interesting post!

Sandalstraps said...


Bultmann is no Calvinist (more on that in a minute)! I think that he was at least nominally a German Protestant, though he was not a conventional theologian working within the bounds of a received dogma. He was principally concerned with the historical Jesus, and so could be seen as a precursor to the Jesus Seminar. He sees all forms of Christianity, from a very, very early point, deviating dramtically from the concerns and teachings of Jesus. In fact he argues that Jesus never saw himself as the Messiah, and so all Christologies deviate from the self-understanding of Jesus. As such he stands rather strongly outside all theological traditions.

As for how Jesus' placing of radical obedience in opposition to the law eliminates freedom, he is by no means making a kind of Calvinist claim of predestination or determinism. Remember, for him the individual stands always in the moment of crisis, always in the moment of decision; Either-Or, for or against the will of God.

In Calvinism in particular or with determinism in general, it makes no sense to speak of decision, as human freedom, the freedom to will one thing or another, is illusory. The decision has already been made, determined by some mechanism, be it the irresistable grace of God or simply the physical machinations of the universe.

The lack of freedom that Bultmann sees in Jesus' teachings is not this kind of a lack of freedom. It is not the inability to choose one thing over another. Rather it is the inability to engage in extra-moral behavior.

What I mean by that is this: In a system governed by the law, your moral obligations are given to you by the law. The law makes both positive and negative claims, providing you with obligations both to engage in particular behaviors and to refrain from other behaviors. But if you are contemplating a behavior which is neither prescribed nor forbidden by the law, you have total freedom. There is no obligation to behave in a particular way in that situation. It is an extra-moral situation, which allows for extra-moral behavior.

But if, instead, right and wrong is determined by the will of God; and if you stand always in the position of having to choose to either accept or reject the will of God and the demands of radical obedience; then there are no extra-moral situations, and there is no extra-moral behavior. There are then no situations in which the individual is free to follow their own will without rejecting the will of God. There is no freedom to act outside the bounds of God's concern.

That is how one's freedom is limited: not that one is determined to act in a particular way, but that one is never free to act without moral and spiritual consequences. One is never free to go their own way without choosing to rebell against the will of God.

Troy said...

My. Good post, good comments. Though I am again over my head:

For me, of course, the first question regards Bultmann's bracketing of the historical context. His approach, what Bultmann himself finds in the SOM, is deeply existential. Fair enough. But are the gospels that divided from history and their Jewish-world context? And what can we tell about the formation of the SOM? Is it Q material, redacted into a single sermon by Matthew's author to highlight purity concerns? This is the same gospel which tells me Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden light. When I read the SOM, I feel anything but that. I see Jesus (on the Mountain, as Sinai) delivering a new law which supercedes the old law in its rigor. What it also does, however, is highlight the inability of any individual to act holy enough for God. In that sense, it's not a new law book. It's Paul's theology put in Torah terms: you think you can keep the law, forget it. Your thought life alone condemns you before it. My priest recently said it was 'boot camp' for the disciples. Jesus welcomes them into his own ethical perspective.

What do we make of 5:17-20? Are the laws we're not supposed to break the entire 613 laws of the Tanahk? The laws Jesus is now presenting? The latter, I think. But as a divorced (and remarried) person, let me say that while Matthew's gospel, and especially the SOM, are problematic in light of Paul's insistence on grace, or against other grace-laden passages in Matthew and in the synoptics, this question, for me, must first be analyzed in light of larger gospel questions and especially in view of Matthew's entire composition. And here I have to stop, because I'm not ready to address the SOM on my own terms beyond what I've said.

I haven't read Bultmann, though he shows up in other gospel literature constantly. I understand him in basic terms, his mythological readings of the gospels do qualify him as a predecessor of the JS, another scholar on what NTW calls the Wredebahn. Beyond that, I know nothing.

Jesus' distillation of the law is of course actually orthodox, as you note. Since mercy is placed over the cultus before Jesus time, his idea is of course not new. That he asks for an even greater love-committment is clear. This may have been the simplest way to present God's will to humankind: nurture the conscience with love, act accordingly through a life of service. The Son of Man is the example.

I do believe that to know one is loved is also liberation. In some ways, it is an answer to Bultmann which goes beyond Bultmann. It's something I hardly sense, God's love, but I continue looking.

Glad you're feeling better. My own injury, sadly, is stalled. I did get my inflatable danskin exercise ball for my physical therapy. Whoo hoo. Not as manly as free weights and jiu-jitsu, but probably good for my ego as well as my aging back.


Troy said...

You know, as I go back and read your last comment, I find myself agreeing with B. Radical obedience removes all freedom. Yet it is a signpost as we move towards the nature of God, and loving action are its steps.


Sandalstraps said...


Your first comment makes me think that you would love reading Jesus and the Word. I imagine that you would, much like me, read it in dialogue with its late author. That is one of the greatest joys that I get from reading. If you read intently enough you can converse with the ghosts of our late, great, theologians.

I expect that you would especially like Bultmann's introduction concerning method, which anticipates many of your concerns and questions. In it he even acknowledges the impossibility of his quest. One can never discover the "historical Jesus," due to both the nature of the sources concerning Jesus and the nature of historical inquiry. One can never stand apart from history and study it objectivly, as one is always both a part and a product of history.

That said, he acquits himself and his project very well.

To read him will do you more good than to read me trying to explain him, so if you get a chance, look for the book. I bought it for $2 at a used bookstore in my neighborhood, and read it in only a couple of afternoons. It isn't long, and though it is challenging, it isn't a difficult read.

I'll try to respond more specifically to the concerns you mentioned at some point in the near future, when it isn't time for Adam's bath!