“Once upon a time . . .” These words signal the beginning of a fairy tale, a story of make believe, not an account of sober history. Unlike beginning with the words “once upon a time,” the Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God….” This statement, at the front end of the entire Bible, introduces the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Old Testament, and it sets the stage for God’s activity in linear history. From the opening chapters of Genesis to the end of the book of Revelation, the entire dynamic of redemption takes place within the broader setting of real space and time, of concrete history.
The historical character of Judeo-Christianity is what markedly distinguishes it from all forms of mythology. A myth finds its value in its moral or spiritual application, while its historical reality remains insignificant. Fairy tales can help our mood swings, but they do little to give us confidence in ultimate reality. The twentieth century witnessed a crisis in the historical dimension of biblical Christianity. German theologians made a crucial distinction between ordinary history and what they called “salvation history,” or sometimes “redemptive history.” This distinction was based in the first instance on the obvious character of sacred Scripture, namely, that it is not only a record of the ordinary events of men and nations. It is not a mere chronicle of human activity but includes within it the revelation of God’s activity in the midst of history. Because the Bible differs from ordinary history and was called “salvation history,” it was a short step from there to ripping the biblical revelation out of its historical context altogether. No one was more important in the snatching of the Gospels out of history than the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann devised a new theology that he called “a theology of timelessness.” This theology of timelessness is not interested in the past or in the future as categories of reality. What counts according to Bultmann is the hic et nunc, the “here and now,” or the present moment. Salvation doesn’t take place on the horizontal plane of history, but it takes place vertically in the present moment or what others called “the existential moment.”
We might ask the question: How long does a moment last? There is a parallel between Descartes’ concept of the “point” and the existentialist’s concept of the “moment.” When Descartes searched for a middle position between the physical and the mental, the extended and the non-extended, he described a mathematical point as the transition between the two realms. The point serves as a hybrid between the physical and the non-physical in the sense that a point takes up space, but has no definite dimensions. In similar fashion, the function of the existential moment in salvation for people like Bultmann is this, that the moment is in time but has no definite duration. On the one hand, it participates in time; on the other hand, it transcends time and is what some have called “supratemporal,” that is, beyond time. When salvation is understood in these terms, the whole notion of linear history becomes basically insignificant and unimportant. The old quest for the historical Jesus can then be abandoned as being a fool’s errand. Again, for Bultmann’s existential Gospel, salvation comes directly and immediately from above. It comes from the vertical plane, in a moment of existential crisis.
Bultmann went on to make a distinction between history and mythology, arguing that the Bible is a mixture of both. In order for the Bible to be relevant to modern people, it must first be stripped of its mythological husk in order to penetrate the salvific core. That is, it must be submitted to the task of “demythologizing.”
Not everybody in twentieth-century biblical scholarship embraced the thought of Bultmann with respect to redemption and history. Some of his critics accused him of being a neo-gnostic for lifting salvation out of the plane of the knowable.
Herman Ridderbos, the Dutch New Testament scholar, agreed that biblical history is redemptive history, but it is at the same time redemptive history. Though the content of Scripture is deeply concerned with redemption, that redemption is inseparably tied to the reality of the historical context in which it takes place. One need not be a philosopher or a theological scholar to understand the difference between the words, “once upon a time,” and the words, “in the year that king Uzziah died,” or, “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” The biblical concept of redemption in history sees God moving in space and time, preparing His people for the consummation of His plan of salvation. Christ comes to the earth not at an accidental point in history but “in the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4).