As an -ism existentialism has reached the taken-for-granted stage. It is seldom defined or made explicit. It persists as an underlying mood and mind-direction, and is usually accepted uncritically as a basis for thought.

The usual existential themes—Angst, authenticity of existence, subjectivity of truth, the boundary situation, to name a few—are no longer usual subjects for discussion. Their impact upon today’s theological discourse is, however, much greater than is commonly recognized.

Certain terms signal the submerged influence of the existential mode of thinking upon theology. Among these are: “culture-conditioned,” “encounter,” “open-endedness,” “interpersonal,” “authentic,” and “meaningful.” These terms often cloak “new” approaches to theology, to ethics, and to Christian proclamation.

The motif of “culture-conditioned” underlies much of today’s biblical criticism. It provides a rationale, not only for the Bultmannian criticism, but also for the so-called critical-historical method, currently a sacred cow to the neo-liberal theologians. Let it be said at once that no literate evangelical rejects a proper attitude of analytical investigation, nor a careful regard for history in approaching the Scriptures. But the critical-historical method is something else.

As currently applied, this method is clearly anti-supernaturalistic, always giving preference to a possible naturalistic explanation for biblical phenomena. While pretending to be neutral in their handling of data, the advocates of this technique almost invariably bracket off events that do not lend themselves to a naturalistic interpretation as outside their province—and by implication, as something to be minimized.

When applied, for example, to the doctrine of the virgin birth, it leads to some such expression as this: “I may believe personally in the virgin birth of our Lord, but regard it as relatively unimportant.” Seldom is this form of expression put within the context of a meaningful Christology by the critical-historical thinker. It is high time for evangelicals to come to grips with the existential roots of this method, and to take seriously such a forthright assault on historic Christianity as Robert S. Alley makes in his Revolt Against the Faithful.

A generation ago Emil Brunner popularized the term “encounter” in The Divine-Human Encounter. His thesis is well known: Revelation consists, not of the communication of structured facts, but of a record of encounters between God and selected persons. From these occasions, the persons involved derived impressions that to them became convictions. The Bible is designed, not to convey facts, but to engender similar encounters in the experience of the readers.

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A contemporary form of the encounter-theory insists that the Bible is not the Word of God, but a witness to the Word. In this connection, Carl F. H. Henry aptly points out that if the Bible is itself the product of witnesses, what rationale can be given for a “witness to witnesses”?

Closely related to this evasion is the existential theme of “open-endedness” or tentativity. This mood rejects all theological systems, all “plans of salvation,” and any systematic expressions of applied redemption.

To this mode of thought, historic orthodoxy represented a mere shoring up of Reformation theology against Renaissance and post-Renaissance thought. Ignored are the formulations of Christian belief from Pentecost to (say) A.D. 451. These grew out of the Church’s wrestling with questions of the day as they affected the articulation of Christian faith and the defense of it against paganism.

The term “interpersonal” expresses a further entrenchment of the existential mode of thought. Bernard R. Ramm foresees the emergence of an actual “theology” based upon interpersonal or transactional principles. This will, he believes, emphasize the emergent nature of religious knowledge. The “rap session” will be the source of “truth.”

The word “truth” is put in quotes because the interpersonalist form of “theology” seeks to use Scripture, not to disclose propositional fact, but to discover meanings as persons talk about it. It is hypothesized that “rapping” in small groups will lead participants to discover new and more authentic self-images—and thus to see truth.

Closely related to this is the emphasis upon “authentic existence.” This cliche operates best at an altitude of low visibility. Since the time of Sören Kierkegaard, it has been tossed about with varying degrees of ambiguity. It suggests, in our existential context, a kind of heroic individualism, achieved by gallant inner wrestling, and expressed by a rejection of much that is usual and normative in human living.

Underlying the motif is the assumption that man has within himself the resources essential to self-realization. One’s inner psychological frame takes precedence over the acceptance of convictions about God, man’s lostness, human accountability, and redemption through Christ.

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The current existential use of the term “meaningful” provides a rationale for assaulting the usual norms for ethical conduct. Any form of interpersonal relationship, however deviant from biblical teaching and from the best deliverances of the enlightened conscience, can be hailed as right and good if it is “meaningful.” Fornication, homosexual life-styles—these are regarded as proper if they produce “meaningful” personal attachments—providing, of course, that no one gets hurt!

The existential frame of mind, when applied to Christian faith, is deadly. It drains of significance such great words as revelation, sin, redemption, and conversion. It makes the Cross of our Lord to be exemplary rather than propitiatory and expiatory.

As applied to the understanding of the Christian revelation it begins with unwarranted assumptions and ends with shoddy conclusions. It assumes a form of humanism that pretends to evaluate man highly but in the end leaves him at the mercy of the forces that demean and debase him.

Taken together, the catchwords mentioned above suggest a pattern of thought that mounts a massive assault upon biblical faith. They undermine the content of the biblical revelation, and they propose a substitute that is unrealistically and arrogantly humanistic.

The depth to which existential modes of thought have entrenched themselves, especially in Christian theology, is a major challenge to today’s evangelical. It suggests the need for a more hard-hitting form of theological discourse undertaken at several levels. Chief among these it seems to this writer is the analytical level, at which existential entrenchments are searched out, laid bare, and identified. These hidden and now gnarled roots need to be exposed to the clear and searching sunlight of biblical truth.

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