Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? Part 1

Perhaps a better way of asking the question is–should contemporary evangelicals regard Kierkegaard (henceforth “K”) as a forerunner and historical ally?  Of course, I’m addressing this question not to the average evangelical in the pews (or in front of their television sets, reading the latest popular “Christian fiction” from the Christian bookstore) but to educated pastors, lay people and scholars.  In my experience, most books about evangelicalism neglect or ignore K.  Those that trace evangelicalism’s roots tend to focus on the Reformers (of course), the Puritans, the Pietists, Wesley and Edwards, the Princeton Reformed theologians, Finney, Moody, the Holiness and Pentecostal movements, Fundamentalism, etc.  I don’t recall ever having read about K. in such a book–especially not as part of that “great cloud of witnesses” evangelicals like to look back to–our heroes and spiritual ancestors.  But why not?

Recently I’ve been revisiting K.–reading recent biographies and books about his thought old and new.  (It’s for a writing project but also to refresh my own knowledge of K. and expand it.)  I spent many hours reading the massive Soren Kierkegaard: A Biography by Joakim Garff, translated from the Danish by Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton University Press, 2005).  It’s 813 pages not including the various appendices.  One of the most detailed biographies I’ve ever read and in places very boring.  And, I think, Garff had some axes to grind against K. when he wrote this.  It doesn’t put K. in a very flattering light.  However, even if half of what Garff says is true (and I’m sure much more than that is true, but perhaps a lot of it is somewhat distorted) K. was not a very likeable fellow.  He was extremely intense, isolated, somewhat bitter, resentful, elusive, prone to angry outbursts, obsessive-compulsive, etc.  Not a pretty picture.  Still, many great geniuses have terrible personality flaws and emotional problems.  Garff really plays up K.’s treatment of his fiance Regine Olsen with whom he broke up without any real explanation.  The reasons for it are still a matter of speculation even though K. himself gave many in his journals and to friends.  He also focuses much on K.’s battle with the journal The Corsair and says K. started it and didn’t handle it well.  He had a tendency to take even the slightest slights very personally and over react.

Nevertheless, in spite of these personal flaws and failures, what always shines through is K.’s insightfulness into the human condition and his commitment to finding true Christianity and living it out to the greatest extent possible–which accounts for many things his contemporaries and biographers regard as great failings on his part.  K. came to regard the salon society of his day (of which he had been a part) as effete and artificial.  He came to disdain it and most of “high society” of Denmark and Europe in general as false, pretentious and far from true Christianity.  The dominant religion he saw as completely accommodated to middle class and upper class values and to the rationalism of Hegel and the reduction of Christianity to ethics by Kant.  He abhorred Schleiermacher’s emphasis on feelings.  Everywhere he looked (especially post-1848) he saw nothing but inauthenticity–especially in religious life.

My own “history” with K. goes back to high school.  I had a friend who considered himself an”existentialist,” so I set out to find out what that meant.  The only book on the subject in our high school library was What Is Existentialism? by William Barrett.  My friend had read it, so what he meant by existentialism was whatever Barrett meant.  As I recall, I didn’t really understand the book, but I plowed through it anyway.  Somewhere in it, as I recall, was a discussion of K. as the real father of existentialism, so I went to the only Christian bookstore in town and bought the only book it had on K.–Hermann Diem’s Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Existence.  Not the best choice.  I tried to read it and maybe I got something out of it, but I doubt that I understood much.  I was only 17!  I recall asking my father, who was also my pastor, whether K. was a Christian (in our sense of “Christian” which meant “evangelical”–others not being really Christian, of course!).  He said no.  I don’t think he knew much about K., but I believed him and so shelved K. for a long time.

Much later, during my seminary days, I revisited K. because I came to know of his influence on my favorite theologian–Emil Brunner.  (Back in those wonderful days North American Baptist Seminary, like many evangelical seminaries, used Brunner’s Dogmatics as the basic textbook(s) for systematic theology.  They knew and taught us that Brunner was not exactly an evangelical in our North American sense, but that his pietism made him worthy of study even if we had to be wary of some of his views.  They weren’t afraid to expose us to non-evangelical theologies.)  Then I read Either/Or–again, not a particularly good choice if you’re looking for K.’s evangelicalism!  And I read Fear and Trembling and Sickness Unto Death and some other of K.’s books.  I remember being fascinated by him but finding him too opaque for my taste.  But I could tell he was passionate about discovering authentic Christian faith and he swam against the stream–something I was experiencing then.  He was also a contrarian and I’ve always been something of one.

Later, of course, during my doctoral studies and then teaching theology to undergraduates, I encountered K. a lot and read IN him (as opposed to reading whole books by him or studying him in any depth or detail).  I included him in my courses on Christian history and theology but never quite figured out where to place him in the story.  Clearly he was a Protestant.  Yes.  Definitely (in spite of some of his criticisms of Luther).  He was THE existentialist.  Certainly.  Whatever that means.  But he was always tainted in my thinking, like most evangelicals’, by the uses made of him by the likes of Bultmann and secular existentialists.   All that is to say, I felt a certain ambivalence toward him–as far as whether I could actually embrace him as a spiritual ancestor and hero.  He was always a little out of focus for me.

That came out clearly in Stan Grenz’s and my neglect of K. in 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age (IVP, 1992).  There we relegated him to the introduction to the section on neo-orthodoxy and only talked about him as an inspiration to the early Barth and to Brunner, Niebuhr and Bultmann.  I now think he deserved a chapter of his own–alongside Kant and Hegel if not Schleiermacher.

One issue always complicating discussion of K. is whether he was a philosopher or a theologian.  He claimed to be neither and heaped scorn and disdain on both professions (even though he held a doctoral degree in theology).  He was independently wealthy and didn’t work other than writing.  He considered himself a “writer” and clearly (although he never said so directly) a social prophet.  Today he might fall best into the category of social commentator, but his writings were filled with philosophical and theological concepts and issues.  I have come recently to think of him more as a theologian than a philosopher even though his own hero was Socrates.  K.’s main concerns were theological in nature and he had no use for dispassionate, uninvolved reasoning about religion.  For him true religion IS authentic Christianity and its source is revelation.

One thing I’ve learned from my recent studies is that K.’s father (with whom he had a tumultuous relationship–like mine with my father) was a member of a Pietist conventicle.  Actually, it was more than just a conventicle; it was a temple.  It couldn’t be called a “church” by law.  Only the Danish Lutheran Church could be called “church” in Denmark then.  But there was in Copenhagen a thriving Brethren Community (Gemeinde) in the early 1700s and K.’s father attended there weekly.  He also attended the state church, but it seems his real commitment was to the Pietists.  K.’s relationship with Pietism was always tense.  On the one hand he respected their passion and inwardness; on the other hand he disdained their sentimentality and emphasis on feelings.  There’s no evidence that K. continued his father’s habit of attending the Pietist gatherings, but their influence lived on in his own religious life and theology.  I think that influence has been downplayed by K. scholars; it needs to be explored more.

So, what am I coming to think about K. and evangelicalism?  Well, OF COURSE he was no “evangelical” in the contemporary North American sense AS THAT IS DEFINED by the popular media.  I’m certain he would have no use for television evangelists, the Religious Right, “Christian” bookstores full of holy hardware, etc.  But, when I talk about evangelicalism I rarely mean that!  By evangelical, as I have explained before, I mean a certain Christian and primarily Protestant form of life that stems from the Reformers (including the Anabaptists) and was shaped by the Pietists, Puritans and Revivalists of the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is a Christian form of life that emphasizes personal conversion and relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the Bible as God’s Word written, the cross as the center of Christian devotion, preaching and life and transformative action through missions and social change (but focusing primarily on individual transformation and social change only secondarily).

To be sure, K. would probably not even fit that profile comfortably.  In fact, he steadfastly resisted fitting ANY category comfortably.  One gets the sense that K. was extremely uncomfortable in his own skin and certainly in his own society.

So what evidence is there that could justify calling K. an evangelical in any sense (other than the strictly formal one of being a member of the Protestant state church)?  I think there’s a lot of it, even though I also recognize and acknowledge that it would be both anachr0nistic and unfitting to call him an evangelical without qualification.  Still, I am going to argue (in Part 2) that evangelicals ought to rediscover K. (in a similar way to how they have adopted C. S. Lewis who also should not be considered an “evangelical” in the usual sense as I have outlined it above) and add him to their list of heroes and forerunners.  There were certain aspects of his thought that “fit” the evangelical profile even if he would want to challenge any actual existing structures of evangelicalism as falling short of being TRULY evangelical as he understood that.

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  • Eluros Aabye

    Greetings,

    Thanks for the great post! Of all the great Christian thinkers, Kierkegaard has been– without question– the most profoundly impactful on my life. His pseudonymous works (you mention several– Fear and Trembling, Sickness Unto Death, Either/Or, et cetera) are excellent, but aren’t meant to be taken as direct theology, which makes them a bit difficult to work with. Are you as familiar with “Works of Love”, however? It’s part of his direct authorship, and undoubtedly the best theological work on Christianity I have ever read.

    I discovered him as a philosophy major in college, and have never stopped reading his works. I am currently about halfway through Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

    Thanks for making a few posts about such an underappreciated philosopher and theologian!

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I’m familiar with Works of Love, but my favorite K. book is Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. You’re right; K. is sadly overlooked by too many Christians. He should rank right up there with C. S. Lewis (especially for those willing and capable of reading his sometimes challenging prose!).

  • Scott Gay

    If a philosophical theology becomes a handmaiden in the cultural captivity of the faith, then faith has to be liberated from such shackles. I really believe that Montanism of the second century was such a response. And I believe that it has re-lived throughout church history, including today in charismatic restoration circles. You have to include Pascal’s “Not the God of the philosophers” pinned to the lining of his coat for so many years. And Luther’s understanding of faith as fiducia lead him to some utterances about not being scholastic. To me Kierkegaard and Barth are also reponses to their specific time in history’s enculturation of Christianity. They all are similar in the respect of wanting to maintain mystery and paradox. I hear this today in post conservative evangelical circles.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, we could use a contemporary Kierkegaard. One candidate is Lesslie Newbigin, although he, too, is now gone. He was also not the poet K. was. (K. always insisted he was primarily a poet.)

  • Marc

    Dr. Olson,
    I’ve been following your blog for a while, and have been commenting on Capital Punishment, favorite books, etc. I just wanted to write a bit about my thoughts on Kierkegaard as a theologian since I love reading him.

    Olson: “He considered himself a “writer” and clearly (although he never said so directly) a social prophet. Today he might fall best into the category of social commentator, but his writings were filled with philosophical and theological concepts and issues. I have come recently to think of him more as a theologian than a philosopher even though his own hero was Socrates. K.’s main concerns were theological in nature and he had no use for dispassionate, uninvolved reasoning about religion. For him true religion IS authentic Christianity and its source is revelation.”

    It’s true that K’s outbursts against the Church (kirkekampen) might make him appear like a theologian. But, in my opinion, his deepest longing, the reason for his disgust with society and the Church was that all their activities and philosophies neglected the search for the true self. Society did not heed Socrates’ words; “know thyself”. Like Socrates, Kierkegaard might most appropriately be labeled a “gadfly”. I think this is what he did the best, both against the Church and society at large. I mean, his bombardment of insults against journalists is stunning (see Garff p. 471-472).
    I think it might be faulty to label him primarily as a theologian, if we use that word with today’s Evangelical connotations. That he dealt with theology is certain. However, I don’t see his work being based on searching the Scriptures, reading various theological works (which you said he often disliked), or even build up lengthy, formative, and corrective theological positions. I’m not sure his incentive to write stemmed from a love of God per se. Of course, that does not mean he was not a theologian, but I do think it limits our labeling him as such, in an Evangelical sense.
    Rather, his incentive to work stemmed from him being “uncomfortable in his own skin” (which can mean a lot of things), as you say. I say it was was that, and also the he was uncomfortable in this world! There was something wrong with the world and also with the mentality of most people in the world. Worth remembering is that his issues with the Church and the Corsair, started via personal quarrels which then mounted into larger societal critiques. If he was a theologian he surely wasn’t the holiest one, which has been a main area of critical finger-pointing. His attacks on persons who opposed him are truly vicious at times, which I hope comes across in various translations. There is not much love, in form of exhortation or corrective words here. I’d be like if Paul just hammered his churches without also saying he loved them and gave them words of encouragement and guidance.

    Yes, true religion is authentic Christianity (resembling the ancient church), and its source is revelation, according to Kierkegaard. But, the source (revelation) does not necessarily uphold Scripture over experience, nor is the goal of this clearly stated to be to love God and one’s neighbor; but rather to discover oneself. That the love of God and neighbor (good ethical behavior) may need self-knowledge is a valid argument, and Kierkegaard hints at this. If Kierkegaard had made this clearer, namely that self-knowledge is a necessary step to the most important commandment in the Bible, then it would be much simpler to label him a theologian.

    Olson: “K.’s relationship with Pietism was always tense. On the one hand he respected their passion and inwardness; on the other hand he disdained their sentimentality and emphasis on feelings. There’s no evidence that K. continued his father’s habit of attending the Pietist gatherings, but their influence lived on in his own religious life and theology. I think that influence has been downplayed by K. scholars; it needs to be explored more.”

    Agreed.

    Olson: “So what evidence is there that could justify calling K. an evangelical in any sense (other than the strictly formal one of being a member of the Protestant state church)? I think there’s a lot of it, even though I also recognize and acknowledge that it would be both anachr0nistic and unfitting to call him an evangelical without qualification. Still, I am going to argue (in Part 2) that evangelicals ought to rediscover K. (in a similar way to how they have adopted C. S. Lewis who also should not be considered an “evangelical” in the usual sense as I have outlined it above) and add him to their list of heroes and forerunners. There were certain aspects of his thought that “fit” the evangelical profile even if he would want to challenge any actual existing structures of evangelicalism as falling short of being TRULY evangelical as he understood that.”

    I’m looking forward to part 2. I do think it is much easier to adopt C.S. Lewis than Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is much more complex, complicated, layered, and outright difficult. That being said, his words against an apathetic, unauthentic, unintelligible, hypocritical, and “blindly-following the leader” Christianity (read also “life in general”) are striking and profound. In many ways his response to Danish Lutheranism, his urgency to return to the ancient Church and the text resembles that of the Anabaptists. His disdain for shallow, un-biblical tradition likewise resembles the Anabaptists. Kierkegaard saw, I believe, a stagnant people, led by a stagnant Church which thought it had all the propositions and truths right. At the time of Kierkegaard, the Church had huge influence, and the attacks might not have been aimed solely at the Church, but at a mentality which was able to flourish in a tight Church-State relationship. I think it is the Church as a facilitator of a poor mentality which Kierkegaard attacks, a mentality which not only destroys/distorts the Gospel, but which destroys (in an existential sense) all of society.

    That we need to rediscover K is true. His writings are stunning, clever, vicious, and funny. Adding him as an evangelical forerunner I think is appropriate, because it would be risky to label him an evangelical theologian without qualifying that to an extent where the words loose their original meaning.

    He was a writer/philosopher/social commentator/gadfly/theologian. A forerunner. One echoing the “semper reformanda” of the Reformation; urging people to change themselves, which in turn would change the Church and society.

    • rogereolson

      In my first installment I should have mentioned that K. considered himself first and foremost a poet. He’s not remembered as such, however, because he didn’t actually write poetry–in any traditional sense. I think perhaps “prophet” is the best designation, but that’s a value judgment and so it’s not what he’s known for in scholarly circles. But I consider him one of Christian history’s great prophets alongside Pascal. (Of course there were others, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.)

  • August

    Dr. Olson,

    I agree that Kierkegaard should be included as a voice in Evangelical history. His thoughts in Fear and Trembling on the nature of revelation and the impossibility of adequately communicating one’s own faith experience to another person seem to agree with the basic spiritual and individual nature of faith in Evangelical Christianity. on a lager scale, K’s aversion to state-sponsored church and institutionalized Christianity in Denmark seem to me to be a product of his Pietist heritage, which by the way, Dr. Stephen Evans has a favorable introduction to K that does take into account both his relationship with his father and his Pietistic upbringing if you haven’t already read it.

    What I think is less clear in terms of Evangelical support is his understanding of sin/guilt and reception of forgiveness, which of course are of central concern to Evangelicalism. I thought that his treatment of sin and forgiveness in Sickness Unto Death relied too heavily on psychology and philosophy and largely ignored Scripture which was surprising to me considering how much he used Scripture in his other pseudonymous writings.

  • James

    James Houston makes numerous references to K. in his marvelous book The Disciple: Following the True Mentor. (This is an unfortunately bland title by Houston and the publisher which misleads the consumer and does not do justice to the stellar content which includes excellent info. on K. and Freud as sources for Evangelical Christian discipleship) Houston’s advice is to use k. in small doses. He can really help us re-capture some prophetic depth.
    However, if postmodern folks drink too deeply from his writings i would worry that their cynicism, suspicion and anti-establishment feelings are given too much fuel. Do we need to shore up the angry, anti-authoritarian cynics? Probably not. Looking forward to the follow up post.

    • rogereolson

      I agree. K. is not helpful in the hands of the already overly cynical. But he’s a great corrective to comfortable, establishment Christianity.

  • http://notdarkyet-commentary.blogspot.com/ Charles Kinnaird

    Very glad to see this discussion of K. I have flirted with K’s thought on and off through the years. Years ago I read his “Purity of Heart” which was included in the very rich “The Doubleday Devotional Classics,” edited by E. Glenn Hinson.

  • http://www.bedfordgaol.com Joe Keysor

    Just to share my own experience with him – I had no interest in Kierkegaard for years, but not long ago bought up a copy of Fear and Trembling on impulse. I found it opaque, obscure in many places, and also noted a few places that seemed to me to be totally contrary to biblical Christianity, but pressed on. I also found many very striking comments about faith that were very beneficial in leading me to examine my own faith from a new and very different perspective.

  • Joel Kime

    Thanks for the interesting overview. I’m eager to read the coming follow-up posts. In reaction to your opening comments about the lack of evangelical engagement with K, I’ve personally had a different experience. I completed my MDiv at Evangelical Seminary (Myerstown, PA) in 2010, and over the course of my studies K popped up all over the place. But perhaps in line with what you’re saying, we never had to read him. I came away from my MDiv with a high view of K, and a desire to get to know him better. So I’m wondering if you might suggest a K reading plan for those like myself?

    • rogereolson

      There’s a great anthology called simply A Kierkegaard Anthology edited by Robert Bretall and published by Princeton University Press in 1951. I’m not sure if it is still in print or not. I would start with my favorite of his books Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. That’s not a good beginning if you’re reading him chronologically, of course, but I consider it his devotional masterpiece. I think his post-1848 writings are the most profound and prophetic. But if you’re looking to get into his philosophy/theology deeply, of course, you must read Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. His Attack Upon Christendom (a collection of his very late writings against the state church) can’t be beat for biting sarcasm and wit. And it’s also prophetic.

      • Joel Kime

        Thanks so much!

  • http://www.plough.com/ebooks/provocations.html Kevin Collison

    I think anyone with an e-reader or just a computer ought to download the free e-book Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Soren Kierkegaard. The link is here: http://www.plough.com/ebooks/provocations.html It’s available in many formats.

    I can’t say whether or not it is a good translation, but unlike most free e-books it is a NEW translation and I can’t believe it’s available at no cost. Thankful to Plough Publishing and the Bruderhof communities for making it so.

    • http://divinesalve.blogspot.com David K. Miller

      Thanks for sharing the link to this free ebook. I’ve downloaded it and shared it with some friends.

  • Daniel

    Kierkegaard called himself a poet because what was meant as a philosopher or theologian in 19th century Denmark was Hegelian. Kierkegaard did NOT want to be a Hegelian philosopher or theologian in the manner of Heiberg or Martensen. If philosophy is done the way Socrates did it, then Kierkegaard is a philosopher as much as Socrates is.

    As for K as evangelical, if you define evangelical that way, then K is an evangelical. Pat Robertson is no Soren Kierkegaard.

  • John Miller

    I will have to check out K sometime. Do you see any connection between K and New Monasticism?

  • Timothy

    My first contact with K was through the Gospel According to Peanuts of all things. From memory K was highly regarded in that book.
    Also in various overviews on philosophy (e.g. Colin Brown) K seems welcomed. But I have no direct experience of him.
    He is often seen as a precursor to existentialism. Does this imply that he reflects the individualism that was a characteristic of the 19C?
    Also the way he seems to be a precursor to existentialism is in his apparent dissatisfaction with himself, more even than with the pietism or Hegelianism that surrounded him. This might be a theme that also emerges in the thought of Foucault.

    On a quite different tack, you mention Brunner. Now I follow the current fashion for Barth and thuis Brunner is seen as something of a lesser light. Could you speak about Brunner and his disctinctive contribution?

    • rogereolson

      Brunner was better known to English readers before Barth. Brunner’s early books were translated into English earlier. He also spent more time in England and was influenced by P. T. Forsyth, among other British evangelicals. Later, however, he was eclipsed by Barth as Barth’s works were translated into English. I am tempted to think that Brunner’s lack of popularity is that he isn’t all that difficult to understand. Barth is difficult to interpret which makes him fodder for numerous dissertations, articles and books. Still, overall, I think Brunner Dogmatics is superior to Barth’s Church Dogmatics in some ways. Maybe that’s because I’m a Pietist and Arminian and I find both strains in Brunner and not in Barth (as much).