Study Guide

An Existentialist Theology

by John Macquarrie

An Existentialist Theology Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Well-known theological and philosophical scholar John Macquarrie attempts the daunting task of assessing the effectiveness and relevance of twentieth century existential thought in elucidating the New Testament for the modern world. He accepts Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927; Being and Time, 1962) as a representative statement of existential beliefs, with emphasis on human existence as a phenomenological fact without explanation or justification. Under this view, humans are free to accept their freedom of choice and their responsibility for those choices and live authentically, with attendant anxiety (existential angst) but with conscience prompting them to live as a microcosm of how the world should be, given no outside controls. Likewise, people are free to deny choice and live inauthentically by escaping to the world and avoiding thought and the overriding consciousness of death (nothingness), which paradoxically gives life its meaning and creates the urgency for authentic, complete, self-aware living.

Macquarrie effectively explains how this belief system underlies and informs Rudolf Bultmann’s Theologie des Neuen Testaments (1948-1953; Theology of the New Testament, 1951-1955) and insightfully elucidates the similarities between existential beliefs and New Testament teachings particularly as reflected in the writings of Saint Paul. Those significant similarities include the individual and experiential emphases in both, as the individual must confront life and experiences and choose either authentic life (existential) or Christian life (New Testament) or else choose thoughtlessness and the world and retreat into mindless worldly activity (existential) or worldly pleasures and sins (New Testament). Macquarrie also persuasively notes the specificity and lack of generalization characteristic of both existentialism and the New Testament, as opposed to the abstract generalization of ancient Greek philosophy and most Western philosophy since that time. He sees further similarity in Jesus’ opposition to mindless traditions and group rituals and existentialism’s emphasis on unique, isolated individual decisions and actions free of precedent or imitation. Macquarrie notes further illuminative similarities: Existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre write with an individual emphasis in their novels, plays, and other writings, and this emphasis is like that of the New Testament on individually focused historical narrative, poetry, and myth. Existential angst over...

(The entire section is 1027 words.)

An Existentialist Theology Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Gordon, Hiam, ed. Dictionary of Existentialism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Useful background treatment of the key concepts of existentialism, with essays on alienation, anguish, anxiety, conscience, choice, existence, freedom, guilt, irony, and many others.

Hardwick, Charley D. Events of Grace: Naturalism, Existentialism, and Theology. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An insightful extension of Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing, arguing for a Christian theology based on philosophical naturalism to render an accurate existentialist account of Christian faith.

Jenkins, David. The Scope and Limits of John Macquarrie’s Existential Theology. Stockholm: Almquist and Wiksell International, 1987. Valuable study of the fallacies as well as the strengths of Macquarrie’s writings on existentialism and theology, delineating the flimsy grounds for some of Macquarrie’s arguments.

McBride, William L., ed. Sartre and Existentialism: The Development and Meaning of Twentieth-Century Existentialism. New York: Garland, 1997. A diverse collection of essays concerning virtually all aspects of existentialism, by well-known philosophers such as Paul Tillich and by noted academics, with negative as well as positive views of this philosophy.

Macquarrie, John. Existentialism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972. A comprehensive treatment of existentialism that, although published seventeen years after An Existentialist Theology, should probably be read first, to grasp the basic concepts Macquarrie applies in the earlier, more difficult, work.