God, Revelation and Authority, vol. 1, chapter 3, pp. 44-69. The prior post in this series may be found here.
This essay (“Revelation and Myth”) concerns the position taken by some scholars (mostly notably Bultmann) that the Scripture is “myth”, a special symbolic language used to express transcendent realities human speech (because human speech is defective for communicating such realities):
Many modern theologians set aside any emphasis on intelligible divine revelation (that is, the view that God communicates to mankind the literal truth about his nature and purposes); they affirm, instead, that God uses myth as a literary genre to convey revelation in the Bible and perhaps elsewhere as well. To them the biblical accounts of creation and redemption are written mythological representations of transcendent realities or relationships that defy formulation in conceptual thought patterns.
Could the God of the Bible have used myth as a literary device? Surely we must allow the sovereign God of Scripture complete freedom among the various possible means of expression. But whether God has in fact used myth as a revelatory means is quite another question. The answer turns in part on whether revelation is objectively meaningful and true, and if so, whether God would and could have employed myth as a communications technique.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1, “Revelation and Myth”, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 44.
Henry first notes that careless language on this point quickly runs into absurdities: for instance, all language is symbolic, so what is left for pure “myth”. Henry thus moves to focus the issue on two alternatives:
The precise definition of myth is therefore crucial if we are to answer the indicated questions intelligently. Decisive for the evaluation of myth are how one relates myth to objective truth and to external history, and what religious significance one attaches to rational truth and historical events. The basic issues reduce really to two alternatives: either man himself projects upon the world and its history a supernatural reality and activity that disallows objectively valid cognitive statements on the basis of divine disclosure, or a transcendent divine reality through intelligible revelation establishes the fact that God is actually at work in the sphere of nature and human affairs. (45)
The Scripture itself has a definite answer on this point: God does not speak in myth:
Two considerations are sure: first, the biblical witnesses repeatedly indicate that the revelation they communicate was divinely addressed to them by the living God not in cryptic mystery form but in intelligible statements that convey publicly identifiable meaning; second, they speak of myth only in a disapproving way. The New Testament refuses to lower discussion of myth to a level where the prophetic-apostolic representations correspond to pagan representations of the divine. As Giovanni Miegge emphasizes, “the supposed neutrality of those who offer only a formal definition of myth itself conceals a presupposition, and … this involves bringing Christian faith down to a level of pagan forms of worship, treating the one as commensurable with the other. This is exactly what the New Testament itself refuses to do” (Gospel and Myth in the Thought of Rudolf Bultmann, p. 101). (45-46)
Henry considers the biblical witness, what the ancients thought of “myth” and sound scholars think of the claim. Lest anyone think this is a matter of mere arcane academic squabbling, Henry notes that the integrity of the entire religion is at issue:
The use of myth in the framework of untruth or unfactuality in contrast to the truths of the Christian revelation “is in complete harmony with the classical connotation of the term which from the time of Pindar onwards always bears the sense of what is fictitious, as opposed to the term logos, which indicated what was true and historical.… The Christ of the Bible is The Logos, not a mythos” (“Myth,” pp. 368, 371). Logos, says Stählin, is “the absolutely valid and incarnate Word of God on which everything rests, the faith of the individual, the structure of the Church. If the Logos is replaced by myth, all is lost; the Word is betrayed” (“Muthos,” 4:786). Stählin insists that “the firm rejection of myth is one of the decisions characteristic of the NT. Myth is a pagan category” (4:793).
If the category of myth is a form of expression for events occurring outside the limits of earthly history, then to apply the term to the Word made flesh inverts not simply the traditional sense of the term, but all linguistic usage as well, and all customary linguistic associations and implications.(49-50)
Myth is not God making revelation to man, rather, “myth is the product of man’s religious imagination” (50).
Having set out the seriousness of the issue and the incompatibility of the “myth” thesis with Scripture and the Christian religion, Henry spends 15 pages earnestly and carefully addressing the arguments of those who claim that myth is a proper category to understand Scripture. His analysis is dense, accurate, insightful and comprehensive (he covers an astounding array of ideas in such a short scope)
He sets out the essence of the pro-myth case as follows:
But myth is now held to be the literary framework through which man describes what cannot be expressed in rational or historical categories.1 The operative assumptions are that (1) transcendent reality is not conceptually or historically revealed or knowable; (2) myth is the only form in which the reality and nature of the invisible spiritual world can be expressed; (3) myth properly understood demands not elimination but interpretation of its function; and (4) believing acceptance of the myth involves an inner encounter that leads not to secret information or valid knowledge but to vital awareness of divine presence.
1 American public school children are now taught this positive view of myth, and of biblical religion as illustrative of myth, often without being given the historical view of Judeo-Christian revelation as a credible alternative. (Cf. the curriculum used in Pennsylvania schools for high school students, “Student’s Guide to Religious Literature of the West” by John R. Whitney and Susan W. Home, which arbitrarily adds: “In this course, we use myth not in a negative way, but in a way in which literary scholars and theologians generally use it.”) (51)
As Henry spins through the details of this thinking, he notes the insufferable knots which result. The men doing this are somehow trying to retain the transcendent truth of Christianity without the difficulties of a historical text. But, as Henry notes, they were trying to hide something:
It was the dubious distinction of twentieth-century neo-Protestant theologians that they not only turned the whole biblical drama of creation and redemption into myth, but also and moreover represented this transformation as necessary to one’s comprehension of the Christian faith, rather than acknowledging such manipulation to be a compromise with unbelief. (57)
Moreover, such “myths” cannot really help us in our quest to know God:
Insofar as divine revelation is declared to employ myth as a mode of communication, such myth might indeed convey a fascinating galaxy of impressions, but the one thing that myth cannot communicate is literal truth about God or about anything else. If a literary genre communicates some literal truth, it is not myth; if it is myth, it can at best, as Gordon H. Clark somewhere suggests, communicate myth about myth, but whatever it communicates cannot be valid information. (66)
Henry then ends with the affirmation that Christianity is decidedly not a myth, indeed it is the deliverance from myth:
Novel and diverse indeed as are the convictions mankind has entertained throughout human history, the Christian perspective differs fundamentally in its insistence upon intelligible divine revelation as its governing principle. The special merit of Christianity lies in its deliverance of fallen man from mythical notions of God and its provision of precise knowledge concerning religious reality. Christianity∙ adduces not simply mythical statements but factual and literal truth about God. In freeing religious experience from only symbolic imagery and representations, Christianity manifests its superiority by providing valid propositional information: God is sovereign, personal Spirit: he is causally related to the universe as the Creator of man and the world: he reveals his will intelligibly to chosen prophets and apostles: despite man’s moral revolt he shows his love in the offer of redemption: he is supremely revealed in Jesus Christ in once-for-all incarnation: he has coped decisively with the problem of human sin in the death and resurrection and ascension of the incarnate Logos.(68-69)