History and Eschatology

The Presence of Eternity (The 1955 Gifford Lectures)

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Rudolf Bultmann
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Rudolf Bultmann remains the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century. He weds rigorous source and form criticism to an unrelenting historicism while still articulating a robust, challenging, and relevant theology. Bultmann’s grand achievement is not that he convinced everyone. Rather, it is that his work still remains the measuring stick for the study of the New Testament and early Christianity.

Bultmann was no mere historian, technical critic, or New Testament theologian. Bultmann’s genius—and some think his Achilles heel—resides in his strategic use of existential philosophy as a means of interpreting the significance of Christianity. In History and Eschatology, first presented as the 1955 Gifford Lectures, Bultmann steps back to address larger philosophical questions about the relationship between history and the Christian future and then expands to consider how meaning exists within history.

Bultmann begins with a discussion of ancient cyclical understandings of history before exploring the fundamental eschatological shift in historical understanding. Bultmann credits the Judeo-Christian tradition with reconceptualizing history as linear with a clear end, culminating in the second coming of Christ. But, as Bultmann argues, this new understanding of history was not without its own problems. The early church’s profound disappointment in Christ’s failure to return forced a Christian reinterpretation of history—a teleological one—that flourished in the Renaissance and eventuated, surprisingly, in Marxism. According to Bultmann, this teleology neglects the individual’s participation in the Christ event.

In the end, Bultmann draws on Paul and John to challenge this purely teleological approach and ground a Christian understanding of history and eschatology in the historical event of Christ that is both timeless and immediately present. Only through this Christ event, both in the past and future, does life find eternal meaning.

About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) was professor of New Testament at the University of Marburg. A German Lutheran theologian and pinnacle figure of liberal Christianity, he is best known for his popularization of form criticism in New Testament studies, his "demythologization" project, and his influential contributions to Jesus research. He is also the author of Theology of the New Testament.


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