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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  • PSF

    Bravo! Wonderful set of posts. In my limited reading of K (Sickness Unto Death, Training in Christianity, Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling) I find a refreshing and challenging thinker. In short, K blew me away. So many books repeat things I already know, whereas K penetrates with insight and creativity. He gets at Christianity from an angle, “telling it slant” at Peterson puts it, and expands one’s mind. Difficult, yes. Worth it, absolutely!

  • Another great post! I’ve enjoyed revisiting K. in your online lessons. You mention “His absolute determination to find and live authentically according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. ” This was the appeal of K. for me when I read him in seminary. For me, he exemplified the “Christ against Culture” that Richard Niebuhr wrote about.

    Back in 1983, I toured Europe with a backpack and a Eurail pass. There were two places that were on my “must see” list. One was Assisi, where I visited the basillica and the tomb of St. Francis. The second was Copenhagen where I visited the grave of Kierkegaard. That appeal to authenticity of faith was my great attraction to both of those place.

  • Scott Gay

    If you find the classical foundationalist position of self-evidence, incorrigibility, and sense perception to be internally incoherent, then you “know” that there are criteria that are basic besides the one’s it uses. Luther seems to attack the underpinnings of rationality, and finds faith underlies rationality. Kierkegaard is a master semantically. He can show you broader ways to think of faith as well as shrink ways to think that are dependent(especially on evidence). He was an independent soul, which is a spoken priority of many today. Neither is inherently fideistic, although Pascal, Luther, Kierkegaard, and Barth are all called this by others. People are unreasonable for thinking them anti-reasonable. Or people have reasons for not liking their reasons.

  • Marc

    Dr. Olson,

    Good final segment. It’s good that we’ve been able to nuance K. in ways that make him unique, yet still evangelical. I like your treatments of K’s views of sin/forgiveness and reflective faith.

    And K was definitely a Christ against culture kind of guy!

    I think you’re spot on concerning K’s view of the Bible and predestination; those are the issues that make many Evangelicals turn away from him.

    But then again, as you’ve said before, Evangelicalism is diverse and within it many different views exist. The problem is that these issues are misunderstood and blown out of proportion. The unfounded and often insulting attacks that Open Theists, Arminians (as you’ve mentioned many a time on your blog), Pinnock, Billy Graham, K, and other Christ followers receive just astounds me. I guess there is still a lot of Fundamentalism in Evangelicalism today. Like you said, K does not go against any of the tenets of Orthodoxy, so why smear him?
    The same goes for Graham, Pinnock, Open Theists, and others; still orthodox. However, they’re somehow not good enough to be Evangelicals…

    My concerns were just that we shouldn’t simplify K and without qualification label him “evangelical.” I think you’ve done a great job at nuancing him, which we must, and still underscore his Christian/evangelical essence. Good job. I agree, we should revisit K, adopt him, read him, and heed his critiques of apathetic Christianity.

    What should we call him? A gadfly/prophet? Christian socio-religious critic? What do you think is the better label?

    • rogereolson

      If I had to choose one word it would be “prophet.” I would put him in the same category as Wendel Berry.

      • I re-investigated K. after having a student join my school six years ago by the name of Soren Kierkegaard. Initially prejudiced by Schaeffer’s comments, I’ve taken a good look at K. and find him to be compatriot with distinctly post-mod expressions regarded by the modern fundamentalist to be “liberal.” Thanks. What a fun read.

  • Hi Roger. You said about K: “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 must admit i am feeling torn by this logic. Is or is there not public “proof” of the spiritual wisdom of Christianity?
    I have often leaned towards a anabaptist, Christ against culture sort of model for faith. It makes sense to me in a highly consumeristic society to try to find alternative ways to interact with a “branded” world. So i read my Hauerwas etc and i try to live more on the edge of popular evangelicalism than in the center.
    But recently i have been reading Willard’s “Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge.” He argues that spiritual knowledge IS reliable and the “proofs” are there for anyone to see. He is taking a stab at secularists who want to privatize all religious experience as true for the one who thinks it is true–uber relativism. He also takes a swing at anyone who suggests that faith is just an irrational leap of faith. Willard goes so far with his belief in the reliability of spiritual knowledge that he suggests that a non-confessing person who lives out the gospel — ie: sermon on the mount, but does not know Christ (and also does not have access to the Christian faith), might even be saved.
    An intriguing contention–and i probably grossly over-simplified what Willard was getting at. I suspect he is taking a swing at the way folks uncritically or maybe even lazily say “faith is just a leap” and de-value intellectual engagement with the tradition. Then faith as a leap is leaping into personal feelings about God, without giving Christianity its due for being a great intellectual, moral and ethical tradition.
    And here i experience that same tug in two directions. Faith has something about it which is an inner truth, a subjective internalization of truth, that is what it is on an ultimate level but it also has a public aspect. So that sounds like a public “proof” to me. Is there a paradox here?

    • rogereolson

      Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” has been vulgarized in popular Christianity and culture. People use it to express subjectivism and even relativism who have never read anything K. wrote. What he meant is that authentic Christian faith cannot be arrived at at the end of a syllogism WITHOUT a “leap” to personal commitment (repentance, reliance on God, commitment to the way of Jesus Christ, etc.). In other words, there is no such thing as inherited faith or purely intellectual faith. Nothing K. wrote rules out a careful examination and defense of Christian truth claims SO LONG AS the truth of Christianity is not reduced to a philosophy (which he though typical Christian apologetics tends to do). As I wrote, K.’s whole corpus can be seen as a kind of indirect apologetic by the way it argues that the human condition is only really explained by Christianity. Reinhold Niebuhr picked up on that and expanded on it more systematically in The Nature and Destiny of Man. I can’t imagine what Willard is talking about IF he means “spiritual knowledge” can provide proof of Christianity’s truth. I’d have to read his book to have any sense of what he means. Remember, though, that Willard is a philosopher.

  • I have enjoyed this series a lot. It has taught me a lot about this complex person. You continue to show me how theological analysis can benefit my understanding of Christian faith. My regard for theological analysis had sunk low through reading certain Reformed theologians — thankfully not all — who specialize in straw-man attacks, needless headhunting, and constant accusations of heresy. As a result, the only things in which I saw value were exegetical analysis and biblical theology. You have turned that situation around. Thank you!


    • rogereolson

      You made my day–or week! 🙂

  • mountainguy

    Interesting. My personal experience is more of someone so suspicious of christendom that I finally end with K (individual) and anabaptism (comunity). As for evangelicals with K, I’ve rarely read about this relationship, probably because most of latinamerican evangelicals don’t even know who Kierkegaard was. I’ll still reading this series. Keep the good work!

  • Isai

    It is refreshing to see someone with a solid grasp of SK’s work. It does, however, make me a bit sad to see that the point of this series is to lay claim to SK as an evangelical. It smacks of academic imperialism. Perhaps the intentions are good, namely, that evangelicals should properly accept SK’s work as non-heretical, but by what method do we accomplish that? By using the academic formula of subsuming SK into a neat little category?

    Why can we not just leave SK where he is: as a martyr. He evidences that the long, hard lines drawn between theology and philosophy ought not to be there, and to categorize SK on one side or the other is to cut him in half. Maybe one day both Theology and Philosophy will realize that the problem lies not with SK such that finding the proper category for him is the solution, but rather that the problem lies with academic and religious territory lines where, in fact, the land of thought has none.

  • Gotta love some of what the K man said:

    “I begin with the principle that all men are bores. Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “Since my earliest childhood a barb of sorrow has lodged in my heart. As long as it stays I am ironic — if it is pulled out I shall die.”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “… yourself.”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “My standpoint is armed neutrality.”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good.”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “A strange thing happened to me in my dream. I was rapt into the Seventh Heaven. There sat all the gods assembled. As a special dispensation I was granted the favor to have one wish. “Do you wish for youth,” said Mercury, “or for beauty, or power, or a long life; or do you wish for the most beautiful woman, or any other of the many fine things we have in our treasure trove? Choose, but only one thing!” For a moment I was at a loss. Then I addressed the gods in this wise: “Most honorable contemporaries, I choose one thing — that I may always have the laughs on my side.” Not one god made answer, but all began to laugh. From this I concluded that my wish had been granted and thought that the gods knew how to express themselves with good taste: for it would surely have been inappropriate to answer gravely: your wish has been granted.”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “No, I won’t leave the world–I’ll enter a lunatic asylum and see if the profundity of insanity reveals to me the riddles of life. Idiot, why didn’t I do that long ago, why has it taken me so long to understand what it means when the Indians honour the insane, step aside for them? Yes, a lunatic asylum–don’t you think I may end up there?”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “I have just come from a party where I was the life and soul. Witticisms flows from my lips. Everyone laughed and admired me – but I left, yes, that dash should be as long as the radii of the earth’s orbit ———— and I wanted to shoot myself.”
    — Søren Kierkegaard, journal entry [cited by Alastair Hannay in Kierkegaard: a biography

    “How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager—I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?”
    — Søren Kierkegaard

    “To defend something is always to discredit it. Let a man have a warehouse full of gold, let him be willing to give away a ducat to every one of the poor – but let him also be stupid enough to begin this charitable undertaking of his with a defense in which he offers three good reasons in justification; and it will almost come to the point of people finding it doubtful whether indeed he is doing something good. But now for Christianity. Yes, the person who defends that has never believed in it.”
    — Søren Kierkegaard (The Sickness Unto Death)

    C. S. Lewis said something similar:

    “I envy you not having to think any more about Christian apologetics. My correspondents force the subject on me again and again. It is very wearing, and not v. good for one’s own faith. A Christian doctrine never seems less real to me than when I have just (even if successfully) been defending it. It is particularly tormenting when those who were converted by my books begin to relapse and raise new difficulties.”
    — C. S. Lewis to Mary Van Deusen, June 18, 1956, The Collected

    • rogereolson

      One thing people reading K. quotes should remember is that often he wrote using a fictional identity (e.g., Johannes Climacus). It’s difficult sometimes to tell whether a saying taken out of context is what K. believed or an ironical statement of a non-Christian looking at Christianity from the outside. My point is that one must read the whole surrounding context to be sure one knows what K. intended with some of his more shocking sayings. For example, in Postscript he says “God does not exist.” But one must read the context and discern what he meant there by “exist.” He says, for example, that God does not exist but is eternal. That’s a difficult saying to interpret without reading the whole Postscript.

      • Yishai

        Odd that this is the first time you mention the pseudonyms. I wonder what any one of them would have to say about calling all of them one evangelical.


  • I read this post back in September when you wrote it, but I must have missed the parenthetical in the second paragraph (regarding “a leading American fundamentalist” who met Lewis). I’m pretty sure it’s not apocryphal. In Walter Hooper’s definitive biography about Lewis, I believe he recounts Bob Jones Sr. or Jr. saying something very similar to the story you heard.

    Sorry I don’t have the biography in front of me. I’ll have to look up that reference again and find the page number.


    • rogereolson

      I also heard it was one of the Joneses.