|Why Existential Theology Is Bankrupt
It is true to say that an existentialist perspective has permeated the human disciplines.1 Whether this fact is acclaimed or lamented will depend upon the outlook of the onlooker. It is my opinion that the dominance of existentialism as an evaluative starting point — especially as applied to the discipline of theology — is tragic, and I hope to suggestively demonstrate that existential theology leaves men as they exist in the world totally bankrupt and without hope. This bankruptcy emerges in the following points.
Existential Theology Elevates Philosophical Presuppositions and, in So Doing, Makes the Bible Subject to Philosophical Criteria.
Existentialism began as a philosophical motif with Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). His conclusions concerning Christ, faith and life did not result from his serious exegesis of biblical texts. Instead, the primacy fell upon his personal, subjective experience, which he then brought to the Scriptures.
The material content of Kierkegaard's view of the various attitudes of life . . . is mainly derived from ideas and attitudes of life which Kierkegaard himself had experienced and derived from his immediate environment . . . The origin of these ideas is inwardly bound up with the person of Kierkegaard.2
The point to be seen here is that a man's ideas, experiences and formulations became determinative. There was no authority of Scripture to shape the man's thoughts.
When later theologians committed their reflections to writing, they acknowledged that these formulations were largely determined by an existential orientation. So Bultmann says:
The concept of "existence" must be the methodological starting-point of theology . . . my work grew out of my dependence on Heidegger's existential analysis of man in my effort to explicate existence in faith in a theological or conceptual way.3
In the preface to his commentary on Romans, Karl Barth states his indebtedness to Kierkegaard.4
Existentialism must therefore be viewed as a conceptual analysis by men acting in autonomy. It "has arisen as a direct consequence of . . . the fate of man in the modern world."5 Existentialism appeared as a result of autonomous self-evaluation. This evaluation is then brought to the various disciplines and imposed as the presuppositional framework in which research is carried out.
When applied to the discipline of theology, the exegesis of Scripture and content of faith ultimately arise out of an existential foundation "derived from the tradition of secular thought."6
We must say that in existential theology the Bible is not viewed as a special, original, constitutive, authoritative starting point of truth. It is not viewed as standing above the disciplines so that it first shapes our reflections, but it rather becomes subordinated and subject to philosophical (existential) presuppositions.
Subjecting the Bible to Existential Presuppositions Results in the Conclusion that the New Testament World View Is "Mythical."
The evangelical position has always been that the Bible is a God-inspired, special-redemptive revelation which accurately relates and truthfully conveys events in the long history of redemption. But existential theology sees the "history" as couched in a "mythical" world view attached to the first century outlook. This outlook must now be regarded as "obsolete" and "incredible" by our age. D.F. Strauss, laying the foundation for Bultmann almost 100 years earlier, thus states that "the fundamental ideas and opinions in these early writings fail to be commensurate with a more advanced civilization."7 For him and for those who later elaborated upon his ideas, the orthodox position is "a presupposition which is inadmissible from our point of view."8
Historical Relativism. The written documents comprising the New Testament, say the existentialist theologians, "must be seen in the perspective of the current mythical presentations of that time."9 Thus each generation, they say, must discover the kerygma (message) and strip away the mythical form which clouds that message.10 Since "modern man no longer thinks in terms of myths, the kerygma must be "interpreted in a way that corresponds to our present time and space" — namely, the existential framework.11 Just as the New Testament authors "presented the gospel in terms of the accepted ideas of their time" (that is, a mythical world view), so "we ought to be able to present the biblical message in terms of a modern world view" (that is, existentialism).12
However, it must be asked whether the assumption that the New Testament writers spoke only to their age is correct. This must be challenged by several considerations.
1. This position fails to do justice to the covenant-community nature of the documents themselves. Both the Old and New Testaments came into being in connection with the historic-redemptive process of the covenant peoples — Israel and the church. The old community had a specific corpus of documents which came into existence in the development of her history. Thus the early documents of Moses were not scrapped as time elapsed. Rather, they were always the touchstone of Israelite duty and the basis for their solidarity as a community. The Old Testament documents were relevant to the community as long as the "old covenant" was in effect. With the inauguration of the "new covenant," a new community was initiated, and a new corpus of documents arose which were (and are) relevant to the church "until He comes." The New Testament documents, therefore, are not directed to that era primarily, but to the new covenant community for all ages until the consummation. The history of redemption shows that the documents themselves are normative for the community while the covenant is in force. The existential theologians, however, have driven a wedge between the documents ("the form") and the message ("the kerygma") within the form. This they must do by disregarding redemptive history.
2. To say that the documents are restricted to their age negates the prophetic character of the documents. Redemptive history reveals that the writers often speak to others in the future. The whole Old Testament economy is viewed as speaking to those in the Messianic age: ". . . to whom it was revealed, that not to themselves, but to us they did minister the things which are now reported" (1 Peter 1:10-12). Likewise, the new covenant revelation speaks beyond its first century milieu. It contemplates the entire span of the gospel age: "This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness to all nations; and then the end shall come" (Matt. 24:14). So while the New Testament was inscripturated within a specific cultural environment, this does not cancel the fact that it speaks clearly (not mythically) to every succeeding age.
3. Existential theology, in assigning certain New Testament teachings to the realm of "myth," fails to deal honestly with theological constants revealed in the covenant documents. These truths transcend any one generation. In fact, they shape our whole conception of reality. They are organically related, one upon the other, as the purpose of God in Christ became manifest in history and inscripturated in the covenant documents. It is not the contemporary, mythical world view which is presupposed and presented in the New Testament, but the foundation of Old Testament cosmology (cf. Matt. 19:4-6; Acts 4:24; 14:15; 17:24-27). Bultmann thinks that to view the earth as the scene of action for "supernatural powers, of God and his angels, of Satan and his demons," is "mythical."13 But there is nothing peculiar to the first century in this view, for it also permeates the Old Testament revelation. And looking forward, the interaction of these supernatural powers characterizes the entire church age and cannot be restricted to an "incredible" first century conception.
Doctrinal Rejectionism. Coming to the Bible with existential presuppositions and, with these, concluding that the New Testament world view is "mythical," existential theologians then have a rationale by which they may relegate certain doctrines to the arena of "mythical images."14 The existential theologian feels that such teachings must be recast "to eliminate what in his view is a false scandal and to reach a factual interpretation which suits our present age."15 But such elimination is in reality rejection of biblical teaching.
Among the teachings to be "eliminated" is the concept that "God himself ... comes as judge of the living and the dead and raises some to life and others to perdition."16 We focus on "last things" here because this topic is so determinative of what men believe in other theological loci. If there is indeed to be a day in history when all men will appear before the Son of God — a day when the cursed "go away into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" and the "righteous into life eternal" (Matt. 25:14-46) — then the existential theologians (and those who follow their teachings) are in trouble. You do not find modern theologians emphasizing a minute ("every deed"), ethical ("good or bad"), judicial ("cursed, blessed") and final ("everlasting") reckoning of mankind.17 Instead, a blissful, universal salvation for all men is posited.18
Such turning away from New Testament teaching — under the banner of "demythologizing" and in the name of removing "false scandal" — avoids the essential nature of the covenant documents. In the old dispensation the Israelites were not at liberty to pick and choose among the commandments, to veer to the left or right, or to add or subtract (cf. Rev. 22:18,19). The covenant documents were "authoritative treaty words,"19 not raw "data to be analyzed by sinful men as David Kelsey suggests.20 Thus existential theology is guilty of taking the Scriptures for less than what they are — the constitutive words from God to the covenant community.21 Before these documents of the covenant Suzerain the covenant servants are to be subject, receptive, and thereby analogical in their thinking and living. They live by these documents (Matt. 4:4). What is right in their own autonomous thinking is rejected. They desire to think God's thoughts after Him.
Without doubt there is a general spirit of "angst" among the men of our age. Existentialism has flourished in this atmosphere. Because absolutes have been swept away, "a more irrational world than the one in which we presently live could hardly be conceived."22 Such circumstances have brought upon men "a catastrophic disorientation and blindness for the normative fundamentals of life."23 It is no wonder, then, that "the majority of patients" in contact with the discipline of psychoanalysis "are bewildered about their destiny and confused about who they are and where they are going"24
In this sort of societal context, men need the gospel — not a message mutilated by existential presuppositions, not a message stripped of its "mythical" New Testament form, but the message of hope in Christ Jesus, who sealed the new covenant with His blood and inspired His apostles and prophets as they penned the normative new covenant documents (Eph. 2:20).
Three Potential Dangers
John Macquarrie notes three potential dangers whenever a contemporary philosophical motif (like existentialism) is made the interpretative criteria of the biblical message:
1. Distortion can result when elements congenial to the philosophy are overemphasized.
2. Ideas foreign to Christianity may slip in under the guise of Christian terminology.
3. The Christian faith may be outrightly accommodated to the prevailing philosophical fashion of the age.25
Although Macquarrie would not agree, I believe that all three dangers have materialized in the absorption of theology by existentialism. Paul did not adjust the gospel to the philosophical motifs of Athens. On the contrary, he challenged the Athenians with the special-redemptive motifs of creation, fall and redemption (Acts 17:18-34). Paul did not discover Christianity in the "heathen" practices at Lystra. He confronted the people of Lystra with the cosmology revealed in the old covenant documents — which was not a "mythical" first century world view (Acts 14:11-18). It is a tragic observation, but the history of the church shows that often the gospel must be dephilosophized. In existential theology the gospel has been absorbed by philosophical presuppositions. It is thus rendered a bankrupt theology, for the gospel is stripped of its simplicity, and the "angst" of souls will go on uncured.
Anthropologically, existential theology is bankrupt. It has made man's dilemma ontological — that is, relating to his "being a man." His existence is threatened by "being in the world." However, the biblical presentation reveals that man's needs arise out of his ethical existence — that is, being a sinner. He is in this state alienated from God, from creation, from his neighbor, and often from his own self-image. This alienation is not present because he is a man in the world, but because he is a sinner before God. He faces the future under the dark cloud of "the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God . . . when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ" (Rom. 2:5, 16). Existential theology has no "good news" for the real needs of the sinner, for it has missed the actual status of men now and has eliminated the judgment day of the future.
Existential theology is spiritually bankrupt. It leaves men building on sand. Bultmann can give us no more assurance than this: "All the results of science are relative, and no world-view of yesterday or today or tomorrow is definitive . . . Faith is security where no security can be seen."26 In a very practical setting, a chaplain in Vietnam confessed:
This concept of the ministry, I believe, can only be portrayed descriptively. For I, along with some others, can no longer articulate theological propositions about a prime mover. In the face of expectations that are in some way related to a divine plan for the world or for individuals, we stand mute. We must admit, I think, that we live without any workable philosophy of life, in the formal and technical sense of that phrase. If anything . . . we are probably existentialist, albeit Christian. Our feelings and reactions to life situations exist without a central organizing tendency or theoretical concept which ties them all into a neat package.27
How this ministerial confession differs from the boldness, hope, assurance and conviction found in apostolic preaching! Being based on faulty presuppositions, existential theology must always leave men groping in their existence and not growing in the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Even though existential theology is bankrupt, sinners each day all over the world are being called to Jesus, "in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3).
Beware lest any man ruin you through philosophy and empty deceit, after the tradition of men, after the elements of the world, and not after Christ (Col. 2:8).
* Who is John Zens?—This article was originally presented as a lecture-discussion to students at Vanderbilt University in March, 1976, in connection with a Free University of Nashville course, "Existence with Purpose," and as part of the evangelical outreach of Nashville Reformed Baptist Church, where Mr. Zens (B.A. Covenant College; M. Div., Westminster Seminary) is pastor. Click here to return to the top of page.
1 Albert William Levi, "Existentialism and the Alienation of Man," Phenomenology and Existentialism (Baltimore: 1967), p.264. "We must recognize it as the essential evaluative concept for personal orientation and social criticism in the modern world."
2 Zuidema, Kierkegaard, trans. David Freeman (Philadelphia: 1960), pp.26, 50.
3 Rudolph Bultmann, Existence and Faith (London: 1961), p.92.
4 Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: 1957), pp.4,10,11.
5 Levi, op. cit., p.264.
6 John Macquarrie, An Existentialist Theology (New York: 1965), pp. 8,10.
7 D.F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (London: 1646), Vol.1, p.1.
8 Ibid.. , p.73.
9 Gotthold Hasenhutti, "What Does Bultmann Mean by 'Demythologizing'?" Concilium, Apr., 1966, p.28.
10 Ibid., p.29.
11 Ibid., pp.29,31.
12 Avery Dulles, S.J., "Official Church Teaching and Historical Relativity," Spirit, Faith and Church (Philadelphia: 1970), p.59.
13 Hasenhuttl, op. cit., p.30.
15 Ibid., p.32.
17 Leon Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment (London: 1960), pp.51, 54.
18 Carl E. Braaten, "The Episcopal and Petrine Office as Expressions of Unity," Spirit, Faith and Church, p.97; Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The Church and the Eschatological Kingdom," ibid., pp.111, 112, 114.
19 Meredith Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: 1972), p.75.
20 David Kelsey, "Appeals to Scripture in Theology," The Journal of Religion, Jan., 1968, p.17
21 Kline, op. cit., pp.87, 88.
22 Albert Ellis & Robert A. Harper, A Guide to Rational Living in an Irrational World (Englewood cliffs: 1961), p.183.
23 P.E.S. Smith, "The Evangelizing Church Amidst Growing Secularism," International Reformed Bulletin, Oct., 1968, p.34.
24 Edith Weigert, "Sympathy, Empathy and Freedom in Therapy," Modern Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: 1962), p.156.
25 Macquarrie, op. cit., p.4.
26 Rudolph Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: 1958), pp.37, 40.
27 Carl A. Avel, "A Chaplain's Ministry in Viet Nam," Navy Chaplain's Bulletin, Summer, 1970. Commander Avel was Director of the Orientation Course in Vietnam, 1967-1968.