Rudolf Bultmann, a liberal, twentieth century critical scholar of theology, had this interesting take on Jesus’ relationship to ethics. George E. Ladd provides this summary and translation of Bultmann’s thoughts in Theology of the New Testament:
Bultmann views Jesus’ ethics as setting forth the conditions for entering the coming Kingdom. These conditions are not, however, rules and regulations to be obeyed in order that one may merit entrance into the coming Kingdom. The content of Jesus’s ethics is a simple demand. Because the Kingdom is at hand, because God is near, one thing is demanded: decision in the final eschatological hour. In this way, Bultmann translates Jesus’ ethics into the existential demand for decision. Jesus was not a teacher of ethics, either personal or social. He did not teach absolute principles or lay down rules of conduct. He demanded one thing: decision.
Bultmann basically asserts that Jesus did not teach moralism; he called for surrender and commitment. What is interesting about his analysis is that Bultmann, while personally professing to be a Christian, accepted very few of the tenets of orthodox Christianity. For example, he did not believe in the scriptures as the Word of God and rejected the reality of a bodily resurrection. Bultmann was a critical scholar who dedicated much of his career to “demythologizing” the claims of the Gospels. He rejected the supernatural works and personhood of Jesus, labeling them “mythologies.”
As overly skeptical as many consider Bultmann to be, it is interesting that he “gets” Jesus’s call, in some ways, better than most people in the church today. In his efforts to strip away the superfluities and concisely synopsize the call of Christ, he essentially says that Jesus called for faith over moral performance. (However, it is important to note that his concept of faith in Christ is different in many ways than that which orthodox Christianity has espoused.)
Bultmann’s quote challenges us to take a fresh look at the Gospels and the basic call that Christ issues. A fair reading shows Christ is not the ethical teacher, to which secular culture and academia try to reduce him. Christ is a Savior proclaiming the Gospel and calling for full surrender.
Our student ministries need this reminder. We need to question whether we are “ethical teachers” or proclaimers of the Gospel, hoping and praying for fully surrendered students.