Bultmann introduces his subject by summarizing the changing philosophical interpretations of history and the order of the universe. He begins by charting the shift from an Old Testament understanding of humanity’s utter dependence on the divine through a change in the early and medieval church which embraced the existence of an ordered universe supported by God. Gradually through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the rise of Romanticism, modernity completely stripped away dependence on the divine, which ultimately led to a belief that in historical terms humanity is not an active agent, but merely a ‘process without true existence’. As a result, humankind came to be viewed as merely subject to external happenings and existence to be nihilistic.
Bultmann’s purpose is to address ‘whether our personal existence still has real meaning when our deeds do not, so to speak, belong to us’. Is there salvation for humanity from its nihilistic plight within the course of history? The Judeo-Christian understanding of history begins with a distinct heritage in the tradition of the Old Testament, which is different from other ancient styles. The Hebrew Scriptures record history not purely as chronology or narrative, but as a record of ‘the guidance or education of the people of God’. Moreover, this was a break from a tradition based on the solar year accepted by other ancient people, including the Hellenists, of history being cyclical. Instead, for the Jews and later for Christians history is didactic and apocalyptic. God’s education of the chosen people worked toward bringing an end to the present eon in order to introduce a new one. As a result, history does not run a linear course, but is subject to the intervention of the divine and results in eschatological expectation. The great challenge to this interpretation, however, is that the expected end has yet to arrive.
The apostle Paul introduces an additional shift which is both anthropomorphic and individualist. For Paul the eschatological is no longer dependent upon the end of the present world and the coming of a new one, but rather in death of the old self and the fulfilment of the new self in Christ. For Bultmann, this is what separates Paul from his contemporary Jewish thinkers: ‘the pious Jew does not know that man has continually to become the one he is to be; he thinks—of course, implicitly—that he is the one he is to become’. This frames the Christian life in an active historicity ‘between the “no longer” and the “not yet”’ and creates an expectation of eschatology as immediate and ongoing, a concept further expounded by John. Both Paul and John experience their time in history as a ‘time-between’ that which has been and that which will be. This, however, left a profound challenge for those who followed: how much time can elapse before promise becomes disappointment. One way of dealing with this disappointment, according to Bultmann, was an increased sacramentalism in the early Hellenistic churches. Another response was a heightened interest in history and a teleological approach. Yet the earliest Christian historians did not limit the span of their history from the crucifixion to their own day, but from the very beginning of the world. They sought to incorporate a unity within history. This unity persisted through the Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, although divine providence began to give way to a more secularized view of the ‘Cunning of Reason’ and an ‘absolute Mind’.
Although the framework and unity given to history by Christian tradition has persisted, gradually through Hegel and Marx Christian teleology and eschatology were ‘completely secularized in the outlook of historical materialism’ and given over to a belief in progress. Yet this too presumed an overall goodness in humanity and in the working out of a teleological history. Gradually the critiques of Western civilization by Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, although distinctly different and by no means uniform, challenged any sense of a positive teleological perfectionism in the interpretation of history and gave rise to Scepticism and Relativism. Alternatively, the rise of Romanticism equally challenged a teleological interpretation of history by glorifying the past—not seeing it as arcane, but rather en par to the experience of the present. However, in all these schools of thought the question has gradually shifted from how history is to be interpreted to what actually is the true subject of history. Is it the individual, human consciousness, political structures, religious belief or something else? Moreover, is it deterministic or individualistic? Bultmann argues that this depends on the hermeneutical approach, which itself is reliant on the interest of the historian and the importance imparted to events and dates. As such, knowledge of the end or goal of history cannot be known in its wholeness, but meaning of individual phenomena within their immediate historical contexts can. Yet Bultmann states that humanity cannot live in stasis, but rather is directed toward the future; directed by hope, anticipation and expectation.
Ultimately the purpose of history is humanity’s attempt at self-understanding. It is the assessment of the now, in relation to the past, which is imperative for taking future action and making decisions. For the Christian the eschatological event is Jesus Christ which, by quoting Erich Franck, Bultmann argues to be a historical event that although ‘happened “once” in the past, it is, at the same time, an eternal event’. This reality means for the Christian that ‘the meaning in history lies always in the present, and when the present is conceived as the eschatological present by Christian faith the meaning in history is realised’. Thus every moment has the potential of being an eschatological moment demanding the Christian to be ever awake and perpetually in action.