Kierkegaard as evangelical–Part 3 (final)

Kierkegaard as evangelical–Part 3 (final) September 2, 2011

As we have seen here (in my posts and the comments), one can make K. into almost anything.  He wrote much and sometimes seemed to contradict himself.  His goal was not so much to produce a system (in fact that was no goal at all!) but to make people think–to shake them out of complacency both about their own lives and about Christianity.

My own reading of K. has led me to believe he was what I consider an evangelical–a person of passionate faith in Jesus Christ–even if not a typical one by contemporary North American standards.  (This reminds me of the old story, possibly apocryphal, that a leading American fundamentalist traveled to England to have a conversation with C. S. Lewis.  Upon returning he said that he concluded Lewis was a Christian even though he smoked a pipe and drank sherry.)

What made K. an evangelical?  His absolute determination to find and live authentically according to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Now, for those who define “evangelical” in terms of doctrinal orthodoxy, K. never (to the best of my knowledge) denied any tenet of orthodox Christianity.  He did try to show that they are beyond comprehension and are paradoxes–as a sign of God’s transcendence and humans’ sinfulness.  He perhaps over reacted to the dead orthodoxy and rationalistic religious philosophies (especially Hegel’s) of his day.  But that doesn’t make him non-evangelical in my opinion.

One of the books that has helped me understand K. as an evangelical is Kierkegaard as Theologian: The Dialectic of Christian Existence by Louis Dupre (1963).  Admittedly it’s an older book, but that doesn’t disqualify it from having something valuable to say about someone who lived a century earlier.  It is also written by a Catholic scholar and published by a Catholic publisher (Sheed & Ward).  So what?  I’m not into judging a book by its author (necessarily or categorically) or its publisher.

Dupre’s treatment of K. is very sympathetic while at the same time critical.  He treats K. as a theologian more than as a philosopher while admitting that K. didn’t fit the typical profile of a theologian (viz., producer of tomes of systematic theology or even monographs on doctrines).  Most of his criticisms come at the end of the book and are what you would expect from a Catholic–K. was too Protestant.  (Dupre does an excellent job of debunking the occasional claims that K. was a closet Catholic and would have joined the RCC if he had lived longer.)

One thing Dupre tackles is the old canard that K. was a complete irrationalist.  He demonstrates from K.’s own statements that he did not disdain every use of reason in theology.  Dupre admits (of course) that for K. coming to faith in Jesus Christ cannot be a smooth process of reasoning as if authentic faith would arrive at the end of a syllogism.  And the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob cannot be proven to exist by philosophy.  Yes, true faith requires a “leap” by which he meant a choice.  So what? Luther said the same in various ways.  What K. added to Luther was the corrective that the choice of faith cannot be made FOR another (e.g., a child).  (K. ended up arguing that infant baptism is a mistake.)

But K. was not an irrationalist about Christianity.  True, like Tertullian, he sometimes referred to what Christians believe (e.g., the incarnation) as absurd, but he MEANT by secular standards of rationality.  He obvious did not think that believing Christianly requires a sacrifice of the intellect UNLESS “intellect” MEANS Hegelian-type dialectical reasoning (arriving at a smooth synthesis through sublation of the tension between opposites).

Dupre does an excellent job of showing, from K. himself, that K. actually valued reflection in faith.  Reflection won’t get you TO faith, but once faith is found, reflection has value.  On faith and reason Dupre says rightly “His [K.’s] entire work should be regarded as an effort, by means of a more profound meditation on the experience of modern man, to rediscover the commensurability of faith with reflective thought.” (142)

What about the charge that K. was against the church?  That he reveled in individualism and rejected the communal dimension of Christianity?  Again, Dupre debunks this.  For example, K. wrote that “The individual is first related to God and only secondarily to the community: the first relation is the highest, although he must not despise the second.” (192)  His objection was to the common notion that faith can somehow be handed down within the church (e.g., Bushnell’s “Christian nurture”).  What is this other than another way of saying that “God has no grandchildren”–an old evangelical axiom?

K. wrote much about the church and most of it was negative.  That was not because he disdained church but because the only church he knew (in his context) was the Danish Lutheran (state) Church.  When he outlined his vision for church he said it should be a “small group of outlaws” (Dupre’s paraphrase of K. on this point) banded together for resistance to the world.  (H. Richard Niebuhr uses K. as an example of his “Christ and culture in tension” model of Christ and culture.  If Dupre is right, as I think he is, K. was rather a Christ against culture Christian.)  But the point is that K. did NOT reject church in favor of a totally atomistic understanding of Christianity.  What he rejected was Christendom–the church as synthesized with society such that belonging to the society made one a Christian and vice versa.

K.’s pietism appears not in a mystical approach to faith as union with God but in his strong emphasis on the personal relationship with God.  But for him, this personal relationship with God is NOT one of smooth acceptance because of one’s goodness or worthiness.  Rather, it begins AND REMAINS a consciousness of sin before God.  K. wrote: “If you are not conscious of your sinfulness to the extent that, in the most terrible anxiety of conscience, you dare not act otherwise than to cleave to Christ, you will never be a Christian.  Only the torture of the consciousness of sin could account for a man’s subjecting himself to this radical cure.  To become a Christian is, among all, all, the most terrible operation.  No more than a man who feels slightly indisposed would ever get the idea of subjecting himself to the most painful operation, would it ever enter one’s head to concern himself with Christianity, if sin did not infinitely torture him.” (90)  Yet, that was not the final word; K. always went on (eventually) to pronounce grace and forgiveness for those who are tortured by their sinfulness and cleave to Christ with faith: “‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’ (Luke 7, 49), that is the cry of encouragement of the Christians to one another; with this cry Christianity spreads all over the world, by these words it is recognized as a race apart, a separate nation.” (95)

I suspect that one reason especially Reformed evangelicals are uncomfortable with K. and wish to turn people away from him is that he was no Calvinist.  He didn’t even agree with Luther about the bondage of the will.  I wouldn’t call him an Arminian, but that’s only because he was Lutheran.  (There’s something odd and unfitting about calling a Lutheran an Arminian as Arminianism is part of the Reformed tradition–historically and sociologically speaking.)  Dupre spends pages proving that K. believed grace can never be compelled and that true, saving faith is always a free choice enabled by grace.  But here is a quote from K. on the subject: “From every point of view the concept of predestination may be considered as an abortion, for having unquestionably arisen in order to relate freedom and God’s omnipotence, it solves teh riddle by denying one of the concepts and consequently explains nothing.” (107-108)  K. called Luther’s and Calvin’s ideas of grace “fatalistic” but WITHOUT embracing Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism.  As Dupre notes, for K. “All the initiative [in salvation] rests with God.” (109)  Without naming it as such, K. clearly believed in prevenient grace as the ground a power of conversion, but he also believed the human person plays a role in his or her conversion.  But that role is only to assent to grace; it has nothing to do with merit.

What about the Bible?  One reason some evangelicals have rejected K. is that he supposedly elevated individual experience over Scripture.  That’s simply false.  It’s a misinterpretation of K.’s attitude toward the Bible.  For him the Bible IS authoritative FOR THE CHRISTIAN, but faith is not founded on the Bible but the Bible’s authority is founded on faith.  K’s view is nothing other than Calvin’s view of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.  A person without faith will never recognize the Bible as God’s Word and a person with faith always will.  But “proof” is not possible in spiritual matters.

I think K. was thinking along the same lines I have mentioned as Scot McKnight’s and mine (and, of course, many others’).  I do not believe in God and Jesus Christ because I FIRST (in order of priority) believe in the Bible as if the Bible had some intrinsic authority over and above God and Jesus Christ.  I accept the Bible as God’s Word because (as Luther said) it is the “cradle that carries Christ.”  In and through the Bible’s words I am encountered by Jesus and brought into relationship with him, but the Bible’s inspiration and authority are not self-evidence or based on historical proofs.  They are based on my and the church’s relationship with God revealed in Jesus Christ and the gospel.  K.’s view (and mine and McKnights and Luther’s!) relativizes the Bible IN COMPARISON with Jesus Christ; Christianity is Christ and faith in him (what K. called “cleaving to Christ”) and is a matter of passionate inwardness (subjectivity) and not of objective reasoning including some kind of presuppositionalist apologetics.  But K. never denied the inspiration of Scripture or its authority for Christian doctrine.  What he did, however, was make the typical Pietist move of subordinating doctrine to Jesus Christ and having a personal relationship with him.  The essence of faith is not belief in the Bible or doctrine but (in Dupre’s words paraphrasing K.) “a Person to Whom I entrust myself without reserve.” (137)

In conclusion, when I read K., I hear loud echoes of the evangelical faith of my childhood and youth and early education among the German Pietist Baptists.  All the evangelical critiques of K. sound to me like rationalism and dogmatism (what Brunner called “theologismus”–faith in doctrines and theology).  Yes, K. was a kind of fideist; so what?  One can certainly argue against that, but one cannot argue that fideism is foreign to evangelical faith.  Luther was a fideist as was Calvin!  (Anyone who doubts that about Calvin needs to go back and read (or re-read) the first chapters of the Institutes where Calvin absolutely dismisses every form of natural theology and calls the mind of the unconverted person a “factory of idols” and bases everything on the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.  Somehow or other, “mainstream” evangelicals have become enamored with rational apologetics  often to the detriment of true faith.  The “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet contained the illustration of a train with the engine being “facts” and “faith” the coal car and “feelings” the caboose!

Why am I passionate about this matter of K.’s reputation?  Because I think it illustrates a deep problem in modern evangelicalism’s DNA.  Too many evangelicals simply accept the word of their favorite Christian speaker or writer, be it Francis Schaeffer or John MacArthur, and don’t exercise the least bit of skepticism when they bash someone like K.  And they do.  As I have pointed out here before, a pathos of modern evangelicalism is that it rewards those in its ranks who are the first to point out heresy where nobody has yet recognized it which then results in continuous heresy hunting even among themselves!  Finger pointing and half-baked (or completely raw) accusations of heresy are the norm among conservative evangelicals.  Their treatment of K. is a good example.  We need to speak out against this habit of the evangelical mind and my little contribution is to assert that K. was NOT what Schaeffer and MacArthur said (along with many other evangelicals) and even where they were right about K., those characteristics have always been part of the evangelical movement and do not make one non-evangelical.

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