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David W. Congdon @dwcongdon
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I believe it's time for me to start my reflections on NT Wright's Gifford Lectures. I'll comment on each lecture after finishing it to simulate live-tweeting. Buckle up, folks. Here we go. #NTWGifford
The opening lecture is titled "The Fallen Shrine: Lisbon 1755 and the Triumph of Epicureanism" and looks at the modern age and how this relates to the study of natural theology & the historical Jesus. It is almost exactly what I expected.
NTW wants to show how modernity is this great atheistic orgy in which God is removed from politics, economics, science, and even Jesus. To make it sound a bit more respectable, he labels everything in modernity "Epicureanism."
This isn't new for NTW. In PFG he says "the default mode of most modern westerners is some kind of Epicureanism" (213). This first lecture is just an extended way of making this point.
It was striking to me how the first lecture was basically what you might expect in a college survey course, or a public continuing education lecture. It was a massively oversimplified intellectual history that allows people to reduce all modernity to a simple label.
Kant, Hume, Locke, Hobbes, Bacon, Gibbon, Smith, Reimarus, Lessing, Hegel, Marx: all of them can be summarized in one or two lines as part of this massive conspiracy theory to liberate humanity from the God of the Bible.
This shtick probably works well when speaking to crowds of American evangelicals, but I can't imagine the audience at Aberdeen found it remotely insightful. It was no more nuanced than the history textbooks he derides. It was to modern philosophy what Cosmo is to human love.
What I did not expect was the way NTW connected his "historical Jesus" project to Lord Gifford's "natural theology" agenda. Now maybe I should have expected this. In PFG he criticizes Barth's rejection of natural theology 4 times and says we need a more "dialectical" view (200).
While NTW will be fleshing this out later, it seems in essence his thesis is that: the Gospels are history, and history is part of nature, therefore exegesis of the Gospels is natural theology. #NTWGifford
This is all of a piece with his larger so-called "third quest" for Jesus and his apologetics project to demonstrate the truth of Christianity. Basically, he's saying that if only people stopped assuming an Epicurean worldview, they'd see the historical truthfulness of the Bible.
It's not just Epicureanism that comes in for a ritual beating. He also charges modernity with Platonism, and then at around 49:00 he says Epicureanism + Platonism = Gnosticism. Now we're in classic NTW territory.
Essentially for NTW, all of these ancient "worldviews" can be boiled down to a single idea: the separation of God from the world. This is how he conflates Epicureanism and Deism: both to him remove God from the natural, historical order.
This is how Plato, Locke, Hume, and Barth all come to represent the same thing for NTW: in his mind they all make God wholly other from the world. And in his judgment, this is all tantamount to naturalism and atheism.
NTW's method of argumentation: When in doubt, charge your opponents with as many ancient philosophies and "heresies" as one can, reducing them all to a simple universal type.
That about sums up lecture 1. I'll pick this up again with lecture 2, once I've had enough alcohol to wash away my frustration. Lecture 2 also discusses Bultmann, so things are going to get even more fun. #NTWGifford
Against my better judgment, I'm going to dive back into the #NTWGifford Lectures and live-tweet lecture 2: "The Questioned Book: Critical Scholarship and the Gospels." This is his 150-year overview of the historical Jesus scholarship. Hold on tight. This will be a bumpy ride.
The overarching thesis, which he indicates at the start, is that scholarship on the Gospels was really a response to modern social and political realities and not to the texts. It is as if NTW has never heard that "correlation does not = causation." Logical fallacies be damned.
Right off the bat NTW indicates his Big Idea: historical-critical scholarship on the Gospels was designed to undermine appeals to revelation in the text, thus rendering the Gospels useless for natural theology. (If that consequence strikes anyone as an odd claim, it is.)
NTW makes some disparaging remarks about British culture in this lecture. 3 min in, he says that Brits only know 1 problem in theology: does God intervene in history or not? The British "didn't get" what was going on on the continent, he says. True enough.
But NTW illustrates this using the translation of Schweitzer's "Von Reimarus zu Wrede" as "The Quest of the Historical Jesus," arguing the former indicates a social-contextual analysis while the latter shows the British emphasis on "just the facts." (It's just a better title.)
NTW says "the North Sea was functioning as Lessing's broad ugly ditch," w/ the British looking for "contingent truths of history" & continental Europeans looking for "eternal truths of reason." He admits it's "an oversimplification" but "it makes the point." NTW's life motto.
NTW then says it is "British social snobbery" when they refuse to question German scholarship because doing so would be like "drinking out of the finger bowl." The Brits combined the "incompatible" Reimarus & Schweitzer to conclude the Gospels aren't reliable.
Apparently the British are both snobbish and obsequious. And apparently all British scholarship on the Gospels was worthless until NTW came in to save the day. We'll have occasion later to wonder who's really snobbish here. #NTWGifford
NTW adds that this led the British to be interested in Wrede's messianic secret and Bultmann's form criticism because "it was assumed the scholars were on the side of the 18th century Deists." And all this continues in "today's culture wars." We're only 7 minutes in.
A doozy: NTW says modern biblical criticism is:

Reformed quest for original meaning to renew the faith + Rationalist quest for original meaning to undermine the faith.

Reformers & Rationalists were anti-medieval church. Protestants were left w/ "ahistorical Platonic idealism."
"If that sounds confusing," NTW adds, "it was and is."

I think he said it better than I can.
He says all of this was "the confused noise of social and political agendas pursued by other means." Hmm, that phrase might come in handy later. #NTWGifford
NTW refers to "that well-known Swiss Marxist Karl Barth."

He probably thinks this is an insult, but I'd take that as high praise. Unfortunately, it's not true.
That was all prologue (kill me now). NTW turns now to the meat of lecture 2: "From Strauss to Käsemann: History, Eschatology and Myth."

The lack of a serial comma is an omen of the disaster to come.
Opening line: "David Friedrich Strauss is portrayed in Wikipedia..."


Ok, sure, his aim is to criticize the lack of nuance in Wikipedia, but that reveals NTW's standard: he just needs to be more nuanced than Wikipedia.
"Wikipedia is dumbing down a complex point into the either-or that its readers expect."

Another line that might come in handy later.
Around 12 min in NTW says the Wikipedia version of Strauss was repeated in the Westar Institute's Jesus Seminar. Even if I weren't a @WestarInstitute fellow, I would find this quite insulting. But this is nothing compared to the insults to come.
NTW argues that Strauss wasn't engaged in historical work at all but rather developing a mythic-Hegelian philosophical theology.

He adds that Strauss's Hegelian mythology gets confused with historical mythology in Bultmann. A preview of coming attractions.
NTW: "I don't think Strauss made the same muddles that Bultmann did."

You know someone really hates Bultmann when it leads him to defend Strauss!
Strauss & Bultmann, according to NTW, were "philosophical idealists" who "represented the Platonic turn within the larger Epicurean framework."
Next NTW turns to Schweitzer, whose thought he reduces to the idea that Jesus expected the coming end of the world. NTW thinks this erroneous idea was "conceived within...the Epicurean worldview with its radical disjunction of God and the world." All the nuance of a sledgehammer.
According to NTW, the problem with this "Epicurean worldview," as illustrated by Schweitzer, is that it rules out moving from this world to conclusions about God (i.e., natural theology).
NTW says the idea that Jesus & his followers expected the end of the world is a myth, in the dual sense of an "untrue tale" and "a story invented by a community to sustain its common life and purpose."

We'll come back to this definition when we discuss Bultmann.
By rejecting this myth, he says, "I therefore intend to kill a fatted sacred cow. Any prodigals hoping for a feast should come home right now."

How NTW sees himself:
If only Weiss and Schweitzer had read ancient Jewish texts, NTW claims. Then they would have seen how obviously wrong they were.

NTW's conclusion: they must have been driven by other factors.
NTW says that Schweitzer's rhetoric was "mere smokescreen." He "wallowed in a culture whose culture climaxed in the end of the world."

Where did Schweitzer get his apocalyptic idea about Jesus? According to NTW, from Wagner.

Warning: fallacious reasoning ahead.
NTW does a deep dive into Schweitzer's love of Wagner & his visit to the Ring cycle performances at the Bayreuth Festival. He correlates these visits with his writing to "prove" that Wagner was the basis for his apocalyptic ideas, not the Bible. #correlationdoesnotequalcausation
NTW says Schweitzer's consistent eschatology is akin to Nietzsche's "nihilistic philosophy," which has "strong Epicurean features." NTW seems to think it discredits Schweitzer to point out that he admired Nietzsche's thought. Maybe if one had more than a Wikipedia familiarity...
NTW says that Schweitzer called Jesus, Kant, and Nietzsche the "three great moralists." Actually, he says that Jesus, Socrates, and Nietzsche are the three moralists of humanity, and at another time that Socrates, Kant, and Nietzsche are the "three great masters of ethics."
To illustrate that the "end of the world" was "in the air," NTW points to HG Wells's "Time Machine" and Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (because of a single line of text). He admits this is "quite a stretch" but tries to make the connection anyway.
NTW can't hold back from charging Schweitzer & others with anti-Judaism, which he traces back (of course) to Epicureanism, which by this point means little more than "a separation of God from the world." The Epicurean worldview removed God from history, which is anti-Jewish.
The whole line of argument is convoluted. NTW wants to say BOTH that late 19th century theology was obsessed w/ apocalyptic and the end of the world AND that when the Great War came it shattered liberal optimism and progress.
Then this gem: "Schweitzer claimed to put Jesus in his 1st c. context...and I'm returning the compliment. By putting Schweitzer in his late 19th c. context I conclude that he believed what he did b/c...this is almost what he was bound to suppose." Historical reductionism much?
Around 31:00 NTW bizarrely suggests that when the Great War came in 1914, it was actually what these apocalyptic folks expected. That surely would have been news to them!

Anyone looking for consistency here will not find it.
A few seconds later: apparently when Karl Barth was writing his Romans commentary he was "reading St. Paul as well as Karl Marx" (um, what?), but "he was looking out on the world described by Schweitzer" that had come to an end.

NTW ties it all together by saying that Schweitzer "prepared the way" for Barth's Nein! to Emil Brunner and natural theology. NTW thus rejects both Barth and Schweitzer, who were Epicureans, in order to recover natural theology.
Here's the "logic" so far:

1. Modernity is Epicurean, separating God from the world.
2. Epicureanism + Platonism fosters apocalyptic, since the only way to reach God is by destroying the world.
3. The War confirmed this apocalyptic vision.
4. Barth said Nein to natural theology.
And now we come to what you've all been waiting for: NTW's attempted takedown of Rudolf Bultmann.
Right away NTW begins by claiming that Bultmann's "confused slogan" of "demythologization" combines 3 senses of myth:

1. Old stories we can't believe.
2. Stories cultures tell themselves to explain the human predicament.
3. Cosmic, apocalyptic myths that code another truth.
If you go looking in Bultmann's writings for this tripartite account of myth, you won't find it. Nor will you find it in any of the experts on Bultmann. Even Thiselton, who says Bultmann has 2 or 3 definitions of myth, doesn't refer to any of these. NTW is just making this up.
Thiselton and others have argued that Bultmann has a muddled account of myth, and even I admit in my big book that Bultmann's account is often unclear and takes shape over time. But if you look at all his writings, a consistent picture emerges.
The trick is to see that Bultmann has a dual-sided concept of myth that deals simultaneously with God and culture. Myth is objectifying God-talk within an ancient world-picture. This is the singular definition that gradually takes shape in Bultmann's writings.
It has nothing to do with "false stories" or even "stories that cultures tell themselves." Myth is a cultural objectification of God, which occurs unreflectively in its original context and then becomes reflective and intentional as these myths harden into dogma.
Bultmann emphatically believes that myth is more true than false. It becomes false when the existential truth of myth is taken as a kind of objective science. It is pseudo-objectivity that Bultmann is against, not myth as such.

I explain this here:…
Back to the lecture. NTW says that Bultmann translates apocalyptic myth into "existential experience" (nm that Bultmann opposes talk of "experience" as part of liberalism). In doing so RB = Strauss's idealism + Hume's skepticism + Schweitzer's conclusions about Jesus.
I mean, where to begin? Bultmann is an adamant opponent of idealism (that was a rallying cry of the early dialectical school), and the differences btw him and Strauss have been uncontroversial for decades. I suppose NTW hasn't read Backhaus's 1956 study?
And Humean skepticism?! You can plausibly charge Bultmann with Kantianism, but not Humeanism. And Bultmann was a quite the critic of Schweitzer's conclusions. They share a critique of the old life of Jesus studies & a recognition of ancient apocalyptic but not much else.
But I digress. NTW says that demythologizing contains a kernel of truth in that ancient authors did not take their imagery literally and so if the term means "decoding" the images, "this is basically learning how to read."
But this isn't demythologizing, only deliteralizing. Bultmann's program isn't a literary decoding exercise; it is a hermeneutical task of translation from one cultural context to another. If don't see that, we miss the whole point.
This is where things take a serious turn for the worse. NTW says that Bultmann came within a "few inches" of the truth but "his theopolitical stance, like a thick and prickly hedge between two adjacent pathways, would never let him switch tracks."

So politics is now the problem?
NTW rehearses the usual examples of how apocalyptic literature was a code for political realities. Fairly uncontroversial and something Bultmann doesn't dispute or really even discuss. This is just NTW's thing. But it's what comes next that is the problem.
(Although, parenthetically, NTW's whole argument is based on the notion that apocalyptic language can't be both about politics AND the actual end of the world. Which is silly. But I'll leave that alone for now.)
NTW says that Bultmann had a problem: "he didn't want to find" political messages in apocalyptic myth because "he held a Lutheran two-kingdoms theology" and was a "neo-Kantian idealist" who thought truth meant "Platonic abstraction."

Oh, there's more.
Because Bultmann is a liberal who rejects the bodily resurrection, NTW claims, he denies that there could be any signs of new creation in the world.

Correction: he denies there are any generally available signs (i.e., miracles). Divine action in the world is visible to faith.
Then NTW goes for the jugular: In the face of Nazism, he claims, Bultmann's only political statement was "an appeal for quietism," citing Bultmann's use of Paul's "as if not" (1 Cor 7).

It gets worse.
NTW adds: "If you are a friend and philosophical disciple of Heidegger, who joined the Nazi Party ... perhaps that was all you could say."
As Luke Skywalker would say: "Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong."
First of all, Bultmann was hardly a quietist. He denounced Nazism in lectures & essays in the 1930s-40s, calling Jewish defamation "demonic" and opposing ideology of Germanism as contrary to the Christian faith. He wove critiques of Nazism into his commentary on John.
He was the most vocal representative in the fight against the Aryan paragraph in 1933-34, writing a number of articles and criticizing his opponents for abandoning the gospel. He helped make Marburg University a haven for Jewish students.
He strongly criticized both Gogarten and Heidegger when they joined the Nazis. In the case of Heidegger he broke off contact for years. The two them had already started to part ways in the late 1920s, but that was a breaking point.
When Bultmann criticized "political theology" or removed to make political statements, it was not because of a belief in quietism but because he did not think the Christian gospel was a political worldview from which we could extract policy proposals.
But he strongly believed that Christians have a political responsibility, a responsibility that he demonstrated throughout his life. To slander him as a quietist who refused to speak out against Nazism is not only offensive but is contradicted by Bultmann's actions. Shame, NTW.
It sure is rich to hear someone complain about chronological snobbery and a failure to engage with history, all the while trading in purely fictitious, ahistorical, and snobbish claims about a past scholar.
NTW says that Bultmann's quietism is like Barth's position on natural theology (separation btw God and world), but that Barth was at least able to mount a stronger criticism of Nazism because he was in Switzerland and "because he was a Calvinist not a Lutheran."
NTW thinks that faith for Bultmann means that "one should awaken the latent eschatological possibility." This is the precise *opposite* of Bultmann's position. Bultmann denied any latent possibilities, arguing that faith is a gift from and act of God.
You can probably guess what's coming next. NTW: "One of Bultmann's principles in his theological DNA from Luther and Kant was the rejection of all things Jewish."

Wrong again. All NTW needs to do is read Konrad Hammann on Bultmann and Judaism, but that would require work.
For those keeping score, here is the list of smears against Bultmann:

- Epicureanism
- Platonism / Gnosticism
- Philosophical idealism
- Skepticism
- Lutheran quietism
- Liberalism
- Anti-Judaism
NTW even says that Bultmann's interest in mystery religions and Gnosticism was because he was trying to find the origins of Christianity in anything other than Judaism. Nevermind that Bultmann only turned to Gnosticism because of his *Jewish* student & friend, Hans Jonas.
One more smear: ahistorical. NTW says that Bultmann's historical criticism was just criticism. He apparently didn't have any interest in actual history.

Apparently, for NTW, one engages history only if one reaches his conclusions.
At minute 40:00 NTW says that, because of Bultmann's widespread influence in Gospels scholarship, one will find nothing of value there.

So in one fell swoop, purely by guilt by association, NTW has made virtually everything before him worthless.

What was that about snobbery?
With that, NTW leaves Bultmann behind and turns to three of his followers: Conzelmann, Käsemann, and Werner.

Again he dismisses them by saying they were merely responding to their present context, not to the historical data.
This part of the lecture really jumps the shark. He says that the culture of the day was expecting political revolution to usher in the new age, and when that didn't happen, they despaired of history. He uses Walter Benjamin as his prime example.
NTW says that "Käsemann and Conzelmann, *and with them an entire generation,* ... projected back onto the early Christians the radical disappointment that their generation in Germany felt at the dashing of their own mid-century hopes."
NTW adds: "No wonder Bultmann and many of his followers turned to Gnosticism. That's what some disappointed Jews did after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt."

So much of this lecture is logically fallacious amateur psychologizing.
Regarding Käsemann's "apocalyptic is the mother of theology" and "early catholicism," NTW says: "All of this makes no historical sense in the first century but it made a lot of sense in the second half of the 20th century."
Interestingly, Käsemann once said:

"The principal virtue of the historian ... is the cultivation of the listening faculty, which ... does not think that violence is the basic form of engagement."

NTW could learn something from Käsemann.
What was the fruit of all this Gnostic Epicurean pseudo-history? NTW says it was the denial of natural theology on the one hand and divine action in the world on the other.

Notice this connection: NTW thinks if you reject natural theology, you also reject real divine action.
Near the end of the lecture now, NTW returns to insult English biblical scholars who "chop off the incomprehensible philosophy and use what's left to answer the questions we were thinking of in the first place."
Apparently without a hint of irony, NTW launches into a mini-rant about how the English didn't understand Schweitzer and Bultmann, reducing them to the question whether God intervenes in history or not.
NTW concludes by saying we need to do what everyone before him failed to do, which is engage with history (it's hard to type this with a straight face).

Maybe then, he says, we can "look at something in the world and work up to God." 🤮
Incredibly, at the end of this lecture he again criticizes "chronological snobbery" and says our "modern worldview" makes the "ancient worldview" unavailable. He then adds: "This is a self-serving fiction."

Pretty much sums up this entire lecture: self-serving fiction.
In their own ways, both Feuerbach and Barth/Bultmann, NTW says, promoted a split between God & world. The casualties were natural theology but the study of history itself. "History as a disciple was pushed out of the way."
Lecture 3 will take up the subject of history. Stay tuned. Now for some Q&A.
First question, "How do you plan to avoid being trapped in your culture?"
NTW: "History is a public discipline. Just as when a scientist does an experiment hopefully a scientist on the other side of the world can replicate it or not, so with history ... you put it out into the public domain as a hypothesis."

IOW, history is a public objective science.
Clearly lecture 3 will be loads of fun. But seriously, how can people still think this way today? Have we learned nothing?
The rest of the Q&A is entirely uninteresting. Unfortunately, one guy used the mic to rant about how we need Christians in political power to stop radical Islam, if I understood him correctly. It was painful.

So that's it for lecture 2. More to come later, if I can stomach it.
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