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.”


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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  • joel morgan

    Thanks, Roger!

    What books would you recommend to read on Kierkegaard and by Kierkegaard?

    • rogereolson

      My colleague C. Stephen Evans has written a few books on K. By K.–Works of Love and Purity of Heart.

  • Thank you for this interesting series.

    By the way, do you know if the story I posted last year Flying like wild ducks is in fact genuinely by Kierkegaard?

    • rogereolson

      No, I don’t know if it’s from K. But it certainly reminds me of a story by the late Christian writer Joseph Bayly called “I Saw Gooley Fly.” I believe the story was in a book of that title.

  • Brooks

    Brilliant! I fell for Kierkegaard’s work at the urging of my fiancee who encountered him in her psychology studies. I went out and bought most of his books and found his thoughts to be relevant even today.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    I confess my absolute ignorance of K apart from what I’ve read here. But I’ve enjoyed your discussion, Roger.

    My suspicion is that in his reaction against the staleness of his day’s Christianity, his statements can be seen as over-reactions. MacArthur latches on to what he perceives as over-reactions. He seems to imply that Existentialism’s notable adherents drifted towards error because there was some error in inherent in Existentialism. That’s not a fair conclusion, but may fairly serve as a warning.

    I agree with K that objective truth and the belief in that objective truth is insufficient to live the kind of life God created us for.

  • Roger,

    I’m glad you are posting these reflections on Kierkegaard, the “misunderstood Reformer.” You are right to point out Schaeffer’s influence on evangelical misunderstandings of Kierkegaard. It’s amazing that, while he places much of the blame for the demise of Western civilization and the “weakening” of Christianity on Kierkegaard’s “relativism” (though he alternately blames “those Kierkegaardians” as well as Hegel–how he lumps those two together, I don’t know), there is no tangible evidence anywhere, in any of Schaeffer’s writings, that he actually read anything by Kierkegaard. No citations, only a couple mentions of book titles and a few passing references to the “leap of faith” and “subjectivity” (both misunderstood and out of context). So I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that not only has McArthur not read Kierekgaard, but that Schaeffer himself never did.

    On your previous post, I do think it’s problematic to call Kierkgaard “an evangelical” (in part b/c of the disputed nature of the term), but we can certainly, as you suggest, think of him as a Pietist philosopher/theologian/poet. Or, as Paul Minear suggested long ago, perhaps we might even start thinking of Kierkegaard as primarily a biblical interpreter! I’m excited to dig in to this new volume by Christopher Barnett, Kierkegaard, Pietism and Holiness:

  • Oh my! Have I followed Francis Schaeffer and John MacArthur off into the theological weeds? (Possibly I followed the former but not the latter.) If I did, it was because I was/am as ignorant of K. and his contribution to theology as many other evangelicals. No excuses from me for skipping the source materials!

    I am enjoying this series on K., but I am not yet seeing much about his attitude toward the Bible. That will be especially important in light of his ideas about subjectivity. Please shed some light on that.


  • Eric Dixon

    Thanks for the articles on SK, very informative. I would like to suggest though that because evangelicals history is relatively short, sometimes we try to claim people from history (such as Augustine) as being progressive to the point of modern evangelicalism. I am perfectly content with acknowledging the influence people like SK has had on evangelicalism without trying to claim him as “one of us.”

    • rogereolson

      Right. I’m certainly not interested in claiming him as “one of us.” I’m much more interested in getting evangelicals to be more like him. 🙂

  • Marc

    Dr. Olson,
    This is a very nice part 2. to the Kierkegaard question. I like the label “prophet”. It seems to me that it fits better than “theologian”. As I hinted in my comment in part 1, he was aiming at something larger than the Church. In his “prophetic” writings one encounters theology, a rich and Christ-centered one, as you mention. K was just so different from other theologians at the time, all it takes to be one is a degree. But K had much more than that; perhaps that is why I hesitate to label him primarily as a theologian.

    As you say; we must understand Hegel to understand K. K’s disgust with the Church emerged because faith had become a set of confessions, of rational propositions, and completely neglected any experiential aspect of faith. One’s faith did not change one’s existence. One’s “being” remained the same in Danish Lutheranism, which K saw as a complete opposite to Ancient Christianity as described in the Bible. What good is faith if it does not change you or move you?

    Olson: “…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.”

    K, according to me, was a pretty diligent student of the bible, especially the OT, and knew that knowing God means a much more intimate, and experiential knowledge.

    Once we realize that this is what K is out to communicate one is be able to dismiss him as a subjectivist. He certainly did not espouse the old “my truth” and “your truth”. To make such a claim, as you said, is ignorant.

    Olson; “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 like your description! It nuances K in a way I think is important.

    I just wanted to clarify a portion of my previous post in part 1. I do believe K’s writings stem form a love of God, generally. However, sometimes his personal attacks on opponents truly lack any sense of love. It is evident when he writes out of spite, anger, etc. and when he is fueled by his love for God and a godly life.

    K is a rough character, and although I like many of his writings, and his message in general, he has some non-loving ideas, such as his nascent anti-semitic sentiments (see Tudvad’s Stadier paa Antisemitisms Vej: Søren Kierkegaard og Jøderne). K’s always been defended by scholars because such sentiments were culturally acceptable and normal at the time, but to me that does not excuse K. Also, I don’t agree with his radical divine-human antagonism either. This antagonism does not make God out to be loving. I just don’t want K to be a one-sided, cookie-cutter evangelical theologian. Because he really wasn’t. He doesn’t really fit one description, as previously stated.

    All this being said, he still was a prophet, Christ follower, and all the other words that’s been used. Just a little rough around the edges – and more!

  • James

    Great stuff. I am loving your work on k. esp. as it relates to evangelicalism and “authentic” faith. That is, how can we get beyond the religious veneer or simple cultural Christianity that we are stewed in. I think K. could very well be a good antidote to our religious apathy and the alignment of Christianity in the west with so much of capitalism and upper middle class images of what “family” looks like. We need freedom from cultural Christianity and also a pathway and permission to move into a deeper existential place. I guess that is my way of saying we need to have a more critical assessment of the Christian sub-culture and then make more Christ-centered choices. That is a loaded sentence and probably needs to be unpacked for me to be clear about what i mean.
    But kudos to you roger, great stuff. I hope you can clarify a little more what you mean about the difference between subjective and subjectivism. Can fundamentalists read K. and get anything of worth. I doubt it. It is such a different form of rationality that i think they cannot get it.

    • rogereolson

      “Subjectivity” (as K. understood it and I agree) is passionate appropriate of truth inwardly. According to K., Christianity, by its very nature, can only be grasped in this way. Any purely objectivist appropriation of Christianity (i.e., the gospel) is not authentically Christian. “Subjectivism” is belief that truth is solely personal; it does not exist “out there” beyond the individual (or perhaps the culture).

      • James

        To me i really resonate with this idea and the experiential side of this concept. Also it sounds like holistic gospel. We engage our hearts AND our minds and i might add that this includes our bodies, as feminists like to remind us. But guarding ourselves from sliding into subjectivism i think is important. Our rampant individualism will make this a tempting move for those who are leaning into the categories of postmodern theory.

  • Scott Gay

    In Part 1 on Kierkegaard I asked others to look more closely at Pascal, Luther, and Barth on this subject. From Barth’s perspective, liberalism, as understood in the sense of Schleiermacher and Hegel leads to the captivity of theology by human ideology. They all, with K, seem to me to be kerygmatic as opposed to apologetic( as is Jesus, also)..
    In part 2, it is to our own harm that we overlook these types. Luther’s protest against Aristotle’s ethics, like Kierkegaard’s scorn for Hegel’s system, is against rationalizing and false simplification- they do harden. The Encyclopedia Britannica called Pascal’s Memorial “some lines of incoherent and strongly mystical devotion”. The Memorial is actually too close to experience and to the Semitic genius of the Bible to endure an articulated system.
    Moreover, are we realistic? We of all people should be able to show that positivism not only gives a false account of the practice of science, but, if taken seriously, undermines our highest achievements as human beings. Not recognizing the role that personal commitments play, is as detrimental to a scientist as it is to a baseball player. Ask a good coach like Augie Garrido, the Texas coach in Austin about commitment’s role. This is related to the tacit understanding of knowledge proposed by Polanyi.

  • charles

    Have you read the awful details about a prominent Calvinist who is promoted on the national airwaves? Read the shocking articles here:

    • rogereolson

      Wow. That is truly…uh,…words fail me.

  • Rick C.

    Excellent blogs on K., Dr. Olson!

    I just found an Aug 14, 2011 interview with C. Stephen Evans re: K. on KGO Radio (San Francisco) on the program “God Talk” hosted by Brent Walters.

    Program description from KGO:
    Søren Kierkegaard is identified as a Danish philosopher, a religious thinker, and the first significant existentialist. He lived after Hegel (1770-1831) but prior to Nietzsche (1844-1900) and was a contemporary of Marx (1818-1883), whom he never met. Kierkegaard was a harsh critic of the idealist intellectuals and philosophers of his day as well as of the State, especially its role in the church.

    Modern academics draw upon Kierkegaard’s body of work; however, his fame as a philosopher was not felt until the 1930s, when the existentialist movement initially emerged in the West. He wrote on theological, philosophical, and academic issues for over a decade before an early death at the age of forty-two. One of his goals was to offer proofs for Christian doctrine based on objective data rather than tradition or dogma. Part of our discussion includes the popular concept “leap to faith” that Kierkegaard introduced.

    Interview: C. Stephen Evans is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Baylor University. He is one of the country’s leading experts on Kierkegaard. He has won countless honors and awards, belongs to several professional associations, and is a past president of the Society for Christian Philosophers and the Søren Kierkegaard Society. Dr. Evans joins us to discuss this influential philosophical theologian and to take your calls.

    To download or listen, click this (run time, 52:34). I haven’t heard it yet.


  • Here are a few words about Kierkegaard from Francis Schaeffer in “The God Who is There” (he was more sympathetic than Macarthur):

    “Kierkegaard was a complex man, and his writings, especially his devotional writings, are often very helpful. For example, the Bible-believing Christians in Denmark still use these writings. We can also be totally sympathetic to his outcry about the deadness of much of the Church in his day. However, in his more philosophical writings he did become the father of modern thought.” This relates to Schaeffer’s understanding of Kierkegaard as saying that faith was ultimately irrational.

    Here are some words from K’s “Fear and Trembling” that lead me to think he was far from orthodox:

    “in the temporal world God and I cannot talk together, we have no common language” …”I do not burden God with my petty cares”… “God’s love is for me, both in a direct and inverse sense, incommensurable with the whole of reality”…”faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off” … “The conclusions of passion are the only reliable, i.e. the only convincing, ones” … “The knight of faith has only himself…the knight of faith is alone about everything” …”[Abraham] believed on the strength of the absurd… He believed the ridiculous” … ”

    I know K. can be hard to interpret, but it seems to me that, for K., faith was more of a puzzle than a means of real communication with God.

  • boaz

    He was a pietist Lutheran, and you can’t understand him unless you understand Lutheranism. Subjective faith and objective word and sacrament go together, you can’t have one without the other. Kierkegaard knew that, but the church in his day had fallen into the objective ditch and ignored entirely the subjective faith the objective Word was given to make and strengthen. He played devil’s advocate and used hyperbole to show the rationalist, comfortable religious leaders of his day how their life and doctrine led to a fake Christianity.

    He rarely strayed from Luther though, and where he did, like on issues of baptism, it’s unclear whether he was stating his personal views or arguing to shock and force reconsideration of unexamined, overly comfortable doctrines. In our own times, where faith is overly subjectivized already, and preaching and sacraments play a loose role, Kierkegaard can be dangerous, as faith becomes an impossible work of subjectivity that can lead to its own form of despair when untethered from the objective word.

  • You noted, “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.”

    You may be right. What I loved about Schaeffer is that he could look at the big picture and tell you where culture and art was flowing in regards to humanism and the Christian Worldview. It doesn’t surprise me that he miscalculated some along the way.

    I loved your article and have re blogged it.