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Was Kierkegaard an evangelical–Part 2

Was Kierkegaard an evangelical–Part 2 August 31, 2011

In Part 1 I raised the question whether Soren Kierkegaard should be regarded as a forerunner and ally of modern/contemporary evangelicalism.

This isn’t a new discussion, but I haven’t heard it lately among evangelicals.  With exceptions, of course, it seems like conservative evangelicals have developed a consensus that K. was not an evangelical or an ally of evangelicals but, as Francis Schaeffer claimed, a pernicious influence on modern/contemporary theology.  For Schaeffer and his crew, K.’s main theological influence was on neo-orthodoxy which is, of course, bad.

Let me offer an example of what I’m talking about that provides evidence that evangelicals need to rediscover the real K. and stop misrepresenting him.

Of course, John MacArthur doesn’t represent all evangelicals.  (Who does?)  But he is influential within especially Reformed evangelical circles.  His article (or is it as sermon?) “The War against Reason” may be found at Forgotten Word Ministries at www.forgottenword.org/johnmacarthur2.html.  I don’t see a publication date there.  According to a note at the end of the article, it is an excerpt from MacArthur’s book Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern (1994).  Someone named Robert Wise, apparently the director of Forgotten Word Ministries, posts a note at the end of the on line version of the article/chapter (whatever it is) saying “We do pray this article has blessed you in some way.  Our prayer is that you will use this message to better understand what is happening in our churches today.”

Hardly.

MacArthur’s article contains many paragraphs on K. under the heading “Adrift on a sea of subjectivity.”  Here’s a typical statement–almost a thesis statement of the article: “…in his reaction against the lifeless state church, Kierkegaard set up a false antithesis.  He decided that objectivity and truth were incompatible. … Kierkegaard devised an approach to religion that was pure passion, altogether subjective.  Faith, he suggested, means the rejection of reason and the exaltation of feeling and personal experience.”  MacArthur goes on to describe K. as a relativist who reveled in subjectivism and denied truth except “my truth” and “your truth.”  Although he quotes K. a few times, I have to wonder if he really read any whole book by K. or just picked a few quotes out of context.  Anyone who has really read K. KNOWS he did not believe in subjectivism (“ISM”) but in passionate inwardness which he called subjectivity.

Of course, there’s lots of room for debate over exactly what K. meant by truth as subjectivity, but no serious K. scholar thinks he was endorsing the old “my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth” (and both are equally valid because there’s really no such thing as truth anyway).  K. was reacting against the overly objectified “faith” of Hegel and his followers which set aside passion and inwardness in favor of a sterile, rationalistic religious philosophy.

MacArthur makes the common mistake of confusing “subjectivity” (especially K. style) with “subjectivism” (popular culture style).  He agrees with Schaeffer’s critique that K. “fell below the line of despair” and opened the door to modern denials of truth.  (Of course, Schaeffer also traced this modern denial of what he called “True truth” to Thomas Aquinas and I won’t even get into all that here.  But I have to mention the Christianity Today quote published soon after Schaeffer’s death in which Schaeffer, wearing Lederhosen and with his characteristic goatee, is standing at the gates of heaven talking with St. Peter.  St. Peter looks at his book and says ‘Francis Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer.  Oh, yes.  Saint Thomas would like a word with you.”  In my opinion, the cartoon would have carried more “punch” for evangelicals if it has St. Peter saying “Oh, yes.  Soren Kierkegaard would like a word with you.”)

I can say with confidence that MacArthur and Schaeffer were both wrong about K.  There is no hint in K’s writings that he denied the “True truth” of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ and the gospel.  He simply didn’t think this truth is amenable to rational or empirical proof and that trying to prove it undermines it because this particular truth, by its very nature, requires personal commitment.  It cannot be known apart from involvement.  And, by its very nature, this “involvement” means suffering.  Not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering of self-sacrifice and total self-giving to God.  Apart from repentance, faith, risk, involvement, commitment and suffering one cannot truly know God.  Even then, in this life, at least, “knowing God” is never a matter of mastering God; the God-human relationship is ALWAYS a crisis and never a matter of harmony.

How can anyone read K. and come away thinking he denied truth?  Why would he be so passionate if he didn’t think what he was writing was true?  But, of course, what MacArthur is assuming (contrary even to Calvin) is that rational apologetics MUST be valid and get one at least partway to Christian faith OR ELSE faith is a totally subjective, blind leap in the dark.  EVEN CALVIN underscored the absolute necessity of the “inner testimony of the Holy Spirit” for knowing the truth of scripture.  Apart from that, according to Calvin, the human mind is nothing but a factory of idols.  Why doesn’t MacArthur attack Calvin or Luther (who called reason the great seducer)?

In fact, contrary to the typical evangelical polemic against K., I think his whole work constitutes a kind of apologetic.  Certainly not the kind evangelicals like (whether evidentialism or presuppositionalism), but an indirect argument for the truth of Christianity from the human condition.   It’s ironic that Schaeffer and others would say K. fell below the “line of despair” because he would agree with them!  But not in the way they meant it.  For him, despair is the inevitable human condition apart from faith in God (meaning the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not the God of the philosophers).  But also, despair can be a step toward faith insofar as one recognizes it and looks beyond it to Jesus Christ.  K. was very Christocentric.  His version of Christianity was Jesus-centered and cross-centered.  Yes, sometimes he overstated his case as when he suggested that all we REALLY need to know about Jesus is that he was crucified.  But one MUST NOT take such statements out of context and one must recognize hyperbole when he or she encounters it.

In brief, then, I think K.’s bad reputation among evangelicals is a bad rap; it’s wholly undeserved.  That doesn’t mean we should embrace K.  He didn’t want to be embraced.  He wanted to make people of his day, including Christians, uncomfortable.  And it doesn’t mean agreeing with everything K. wrote.  But it’s simply dishonest to represent K. as a total subjectivist IN THE CONTEMPORARY sense of “subjective.”  Today most people understand “subjective” to mean truth is relative to the individual; there is no true Truth beyond what individuals (or perhaps cultures) believe.  Anyone who accuses K. of that is simply ignorant.

Have any evangelicals discovered the “real K.?”  Yes.  Unfortunately, they haven’t been listened to–at least not enough to alter the common evangelical disdain for K.

My colleague C. Stephen Evans is well-known as a K. scholar and has published several books about K. and numerous articles about him and his thought.  Way back in 1984 Steve wrote an article defending K. and his philosophy/theology.  The article was entitled “A Misunderstood Reformer” and was published in Christianity Today (September 21, 1984, pp. 26-29).  I wish everyone even slightly interested in K. could read it.  Unfortunately, I have not found it on line.  But any good Christian college, university or seminary library will have it and you can probably order it through your local library’s interlibrary loans service.

Steve writes “Strangely, almost the only group that does not admire and revere Kierkegaard is the one group with whom I believe he had the strongest degree of spiritual kinship: evangelical Christians.”  My point exactly.  And Steve goes on for two pages (triple columns!) explaining why evangelicals are wrong about K.  He says that the main reason evangelicals have such a low opinion of K. is simple: “We have not read his books.”  Steve also rightly says “Poor Kierkegaard has suffered more than any author I know of from a generation of evangelical ignorance.”  He notes exceptions–E. J. Carnell, Kenneth Hamilton, Vernard Eller and Vernon Grounds.  But overall and in general especially American evangelicals have been trained to think of K. as the fountainhead of existentialism which is, of course, very bad because it leads to atheism.

In his article Steve writes “I believe that the common interpretation of Kierkegaard as an irrationalist or subjectivist is wrong.”  Steve should know; he’s a world renowned expert on K. and a man of strong evangelical faith who has taught at Wheaton, Calvin and Bethel (among other evangelical schools) and was the curator of the Kierkegaard library at St. Olaf College.

I especially agree with Steve’s conclusion that “Kierkegaard, more than anyone I know, can help remind evangelicals that Christianity is a manner of being, a way of existing, not merely an affirmation of doctrine.  But he can remind us of this in a way that will not precipitate a slide back into the contempt for reason and the life of the mind that has sometimes infected evangelicalism and fundamentalism.”

So was K. an evangelical?  I wouldn’t want to saddle him with that label according to what it means to most people (especially journalists) today!  However, in his own way he was an evangelical in the best sense–a lover of Jesus Christ and the gospel and a person determined to suffer for the cause of Christ in the world.  He was a prophet to Christendom then and now.  I suspect much of the disdain for K. in evangelical circles comes from the fact that he regarded Christianity as a way of life more than a creed.  He never denied any cardinal tenet of orthodoxy, but, like the Pietists, he thought dead orthodoxy is a greater danger than heresy.

In my next installment (Part 3) I want to discuss K.’s evangelical beliefs–especially his belief in conversion.  I also want to discuss his synergism of salvation and his Pietism.  I won’t call him an Arminian, but his soteriology was quite compatible with Arminianism.

 


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