A theological orientation, rather than a systematized body of doctrine, that derives its inspiration from the efforts of Rudolf bultmann (1884–1976) to "demythologize" the Sacred Scriptures.
The epithet, existential, is based on the outlook postulated by Bultmann for any valid study of the word of god in the Bible, especially the New Testament kerygma. According to Bultmann, the propositions contained therein can be viewed as theologically significant only insofar as they speak of man's existence. The kerygma thus consists of an organic series of judgments concerning the "possibilities" that lie before man. These judgments have the effect of calling to man's attention his properly existential situation. They tell him that he stands before the God who cannot be "considered," i.e., whose being may not be objectivized and thus analyzed, but who is known only in the decision in which He is encountered as another Thou.
This regulative outlook involves peculiar views concerning both the text of the Scriptures and texture of human nature. According to Bultmann and his disciples, the former is a fabric of "myths" that must be put to the test of the existential analysis. Here it suffices to under-stand the mythical character of the Scriptures as expressing a view of the universe radically different from our modern scientific grasp of it. For Bultmann this opposite view included ideas about cosmogonies at variance with one another, as well as differing notions about the eruption into nature of forces foreign to its ordinary processes.
Bultmann's description of human nature as Dasein is a frank adoption of the terminology and thought structure of M. Heidegger in this regard (see existentialism,2). To be man is thus to be in such a way that through and in one's own being, being as such is "put to the test." To exist as man, therefore, means to have before oneself the possibility of decision; and when this possibility is realized, man exists authentically. For Bultmann, again, the "historicity" of Dasein is this very being of man in so far as—distinguished from all other being (Vorhandensein )—it can (but need not!) be.
If, then, the Gospels can be "demythologized" for modern man, they will be for him—as they are for men f every age—the doorway to faith, i.e., an existential understanding of oneself (Selbstverständnis ). Thus the existential theologian or exegete sees as his task: (1) to be in vital relation with reality; (2) to examine the sacred text in which this relation is expressed, directly or indirectly;(3) to reexpress this relation so as to make evident the problematic or "historical" character of human existence. Whether or not the events represented in the Bible have objective historical validity does not really matter, because their representation has a function altogether different from putting one into contact with something that happened at a given moment in the history of the world. Note that this is not a flat denial on the part of the existential theologian of the historical objectivity of Gospel events. His interest lies elsewhere, and it is dominated by the idea that in the life of Jesus the existential condition of man is laid bare. Faith in Christ consists in the constantly renewed realization that it is possible to accept the grace of God.
To sum up, then, Bultmann attempted to express his understanding of the meaning of the Gospel in terms borrowed from existential (Heideggerian) philosophy. This understanding is based on the idea that, in order validly to speak of God, one must also and of necessity speak of man. The sole content of the Gospel, therefore, is the constant confrontation of man by God in the former's condition of historicity, i.e., the possibility of authentic existence in faith.
The use of the existential analysis to prepare the way for a valid Biblical exegesis also raises the question of the relation between faith and philosophy. Bultmann himself maintained that real confrontation with reality depends on the Biblical word—another distinctively Protestant thesis. The question is then whether or not this is an altogether sound expression of the complete givenness of faith.
Bibliography: h. w. bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth, tr. r.h. fuller (London 1953). r. marlÉ, Bultmann et l'interprétation du Nouveau Testament (Paris 1956). i. n. walty, "Bulletin du théologie protestante," Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 42 (1958) 349–370. h. schlier, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 2:768–769. e. fuchs, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 1:1511–1512.
[m. b. schepers]