The influence of Rudolf Bultmann on Evangelical preaching

Of course, there is a sense in which Bultmann ought to be influential on all preaching, as one of the truly great exegetes of the NT text. Any preacher faced with a text in John who doesn’t reach for Bultmann’s commentary is at best ignorant, and more likely a fool. But that wasn’t really my point…

It strikes me that the best of Evangelical preaching (i.e., that which seriously engages with the text), at least of the sermons that I hear and read, is too influenced by form criticism. Even when a book is preached through sequentially, there is little attention paid, typically, to the overall narrative or logical flow of the book; instead, it is treated as a series of isolated pericopae, to be dealt with and mined for meaning one-by-one, too often with almost no sense that their arrangement within the book is of any consequence to the meaning.

So, from now on my big question for Evangelical preachers is, ‘How Bultmannian are you?’ I predict this will go down a storm.


  1. Sean
    May 5, 2008

    Hi Steve
    Thanks for the distraction from Barth (I’m deep into CD I, 1 and 2 – I don’t know how you people do it!) Three cheers for your support of Bultmann on John – historically up a gum tree but theologically on the money. The point about form criticism is interesting, although preachers were doing isolated verses long before the 1920s. My own view is that much preaching I hear is Bultmannian in so far as it takes its starting point from anthropology and works on a problem-solution model. I sometimes tell me students that if they took the time to read B’s NT Theology, all they are really getting is a Billy Graham sermon in exegetical clothing!

  2. Steve H
    May 5, 2008

    Hi Sean,

    On Barth, it’s often easier if you read one part-volume at a time…

    What I find in B. on John (as often in Barth’s exegetical comments) is not quite theology so much as an insight into the richness of meaning a text might carry (on Jn 1, Barth runs with the thought that, when you 1:6, the ‘man sent from God called John’ must be deliberately ambiguous, and so finds an entire purpose for the gospel there; Bultmann on 1:38, Jesus’ first words in the gospel, ‘what do you want?’ as a penetrating, searching demand addressed to every reader who comes looking for Jesus in the gospel narrative.)
    You’re right, of course, preaching on isolated verses isn’t new, although it did tend to be verses, not pericopae, and they were generally set in some sort of context, if only canonical. (The point in the op struck me when preparing to preach on Josh. 8:30-35 yesterday; I didn’t look at any Puritan sermons, oddly enough, but Matthew Henry at least spotted the narrative dislocation of the passage and tried to make sense of it; interestingly Calvin doesn’t, but the C19th CTS editor spots the problem and adds a footnote to discuss it.)
    ‘Problem-solution’ models–yes, although I guess there is a distinction to be drawn between using this as a mode of sermon construction, and a full-blown Bultmannian theology?


  3. Scott E. Graybill
    May 6, 2008

    Dear Sir,

    One of my former professors at Princeton Seminary often said that Bultmann had a lot to offer for preaching. James F. Kay has one out of print book from Eerdmans (America) Christus Praesens: A Reconsideration of R. Bultmann’s Christology and a recently released text from Chalice Press Preaching and Theology which has a bit on Bultmann. Bultmann as an existentialist Lutheran still understood the task of preaching as proclamation. The good old days when liberals were still Christians.


  4. michael jensen
    May 7, 2008

    Well, hey, I’m a bit of a fan too.

    But: ‘at best ignorant, and more likely a fool’?

    – that’s a little intemperate to say the least.

  5. Steve H
    May 7, 2008

    Hi Michael,

    On reflection, the ‘sound’ of it is wrong, but: someone who doesn’t use Bultmann (or Calvin, or Henry, or, on Jn, Beasley-Murray) either really doesn’t know about the genuinely useful commentaries for preachers, which is ‘ignorant’, or knows about them, but refuses to use Bultmann because he is ‘liberal’ or refuses to use Calvin and Henry because they are ‘out of date’, which strikes me as foolish…

    Scott–welcome, and thanks for commenting.


  6. michael jensen
    May 8, 2008

    Well: a bit of personal testimony then. I submitted a paper to a peer review journal recently which was offered a ‘Bultmannian’ reading of John 4. This, was, I thought, a legitimate approach to take: it was Bultmann’s take on theology that I wanted to mine. But the Biblical studies reader of the paper rejected it as it stood because ‘Bultmann is 50 years out of date in Johannine studies!’.

    Now, the paper may have been not so good; but the reasoning is curious, don’t you think? And shows again the gulf between disciplines…

  7. Steve H
    May 22, 2008

    Sorry to be so long in replying, Michael–some family matters intervened.
    It seems to me that there is greater value placed in Biblical Studies on comprehensiveness: you can agree with Bultmann, but you had better have read–and referenced–everything written since before you do. We theologians gave up the attempt to be comprehensive some decades ago, except in our doctoral theses…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

get facebook like button