Posts tagged with: kierkegaard

I ran across the following quote from Søren Kierkegaard recently (HT: the evangelical outpost):

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.

On the surface, Kierkegaard’s critique of so-called “Christian scholarship” is quite powerful. The depiction amounts to a view of rationalizing Christianity that uses the wiles of reason, which Martin Luther in some of his more polemical moments said was “the Devil’s greatest whore,” to escape the implications of the gospel.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer likely had Kierkegaard’s complaint, or something very much like it, explicitly in mind when he wrote in Discipleship that “we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks.” He goes on to say, “If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment’.” The point is that “all along the line we are trying to evade the obligation of single-minded, literal obedience.”

Herman Bavinck, on the other hand, writes,

There are also many words put down in Scripture which God spoke to a definite person in peculiar circumstances, but which are not directed to us, and therefore need not be followed by us. Thus He commanded Abraham to offer his son, Phinehas to kill the adulterous man and woman, Saul to bring Agag, and, so as not to mention more, thus Jesus commanded the rich young man to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. Human society would be in a sad state if Christians had to follow this example literally and had to apply this in their surroundings. Yet a few have indeed tried this and have displayed by this their wrong interpretation of Scripture.

At this point he might have in mind the sort of radical pacifism practiced by certain kinds of Anabaptist groups, highlighted most recently in the case of the Amish and their reaction to the recent schoolhouse shootings. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession in its original form denounced the Anabaptists as anarchists, in part because they denied the power of retributive justice to the civil government: “And on this matter we denounce the Anabaptists, other anarchists, and in general all those who want to reject the authorities and civil officers and to subvert justice by introducing common ownership of goods and corrupting the moral order that God has established among human beings.”

Part of the difficulty comes in properly understanding what is a particular command or duty in an individual circumstance and what is a general and universally binding divine law. In agreement with Kierkegaard and Bonhoeffer, I don’t think we should simply be able to move facilely and simply from the explicit and clear teaching of Scripture to something completely opposite. The interpretation of difficult passages in light of the whole of Scripture’s testimony, which may ultimately result in a doctrine like just war, should be as genuinely and equally principled as the Amish interpretation of commands to peace and non-violence.

I conclude with a final note I gleaned from my reading of Timothy Wengert’s study of the the debate between Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola over contrition and repentance, Law and Gospel:

As important as it may be to notice the commentaries on an exegete’s writing desk, it is equally crucial to pay attention to the controversies raging outside the study door. In the days before it became stylish to pretend that exegesis was pure science or simple description of a long-dead world, the interpreter of Scripture, especially evangelical theologians like Melanchthon and Agricola, thought their task incomplete until they brought the word of God to bear on the issues that confronted them on every side.

With regard to the relevance of God’s Word to our times, I am in complete agreement. And as Bonhoeffer also said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”

I ran across some of these tidbits over recent months that I thought worth passing along, and it’s a fitting time to do so at noon, typically the lunch hour. The first two are taken from an article by Martin J. Heinecken, “Kierkegaard as Christian,” Journal of Religion 37, no. 1 (Jan. 1957): 20–30. Heinecken was a professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

He writes of Kierkegaard’s critical project against the state church of Denmark:

To be sure, he insisted that the true Christian must sooner or later in a hostile world suffer for the sake of the Lord. This is precisely what he found wrong with the Christianity of his day when everyone was a Christian as a matter of course, viz., that it required no suffering. Something was topsy-turvy when it required more inconvenience not to be a Christian than to be one (28).

A bit earlier Heinecken passed on a colorful anecdote that describes the nature of Christian suffering:

This suffering of the Christian is therefore by no means to be equated with the chance misfortunes of life that fall upon the just and the unjust. I shall not soon forget the Australian divine who gorged himself on good, old, solid, Australian beef, garnished with a few thick slices of mutton, plus all the assorted vegetables in season, and then finished this off with some concoction, euphemistically called “trifle,” which, as nearly as I could figure out, consisted of a considerable base of rich pastry topped with thick, syrupy fruit of various kinds—apples, peaches, pears, dates, nuts, etc.—and then was smothered in a thick covering of pure cream, not whipped into a froth like our insipid “Dairy Maid” concoctions, but the solid stuff, straight from the cow with all the air and water taken out and nothing left but the cream. This concoction is served on top of the meal in a sort of soup tureen and is eaten, not with a dainty little dessert spoon, but is literally “shoveled in” with the aid of two utensils, the soup spoon on the left hand and the fork serving as a sort of hay loader on the right. So this German-Australian divine, after a long communion service, after which he heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Nun is die ganze Herde wieder einmal gefüttert und getränkt” (“Now the whole herd has been once again fed and watered”), sat down and devoured the above-described little meal—just a token really of what a real man would do, for, after all, a parson is only half a man. There he sits now after the meal, all bloated with gas, and more and more he is convulsed in the most excruciating agony, more acute even than that of childbirth; he says, “Dies is mein Kreuz, dass der Herr mir aufgelegt had, das ich willig tragen muss” (“This is the cross the Lord has laid upon me which I must bear patiently”). This most certainly is not the suffering Kierkegaard had in mind (27).

And in connection with that striking portrait, here’s Kierkegaard’s description of his philosophical project, as appears through the person of Johannes Climacus in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

When a man has filled his mouth so full of food that for this reason he cannot eat and it must end with his dying of hunger, does communicating food to him consist in stuffing his mouth even more or, instead, in taking away a little so that he can eat? Similarly, when a man is very knowledgeable but his knowledge is meaningless or virtually meaningless to him, does sensible communication consist in giving him more to know, even if he loudly proclaims that this is what he needs, or does it consist, instead, in taking something away from him? When a communicator takes a portion of the copious knowledge that the very knowledgeable man knows and communicates it to him in a form that makes it strange to him, the communicated is, as it were, taking away his knowledge, at least until the knower manages to assimilate the knowledge by overcoming the resistance of the form.

I’ll pass along my provisional conclusion regarding the philosophy of Kierkegaard. Heinecken notes the observation of an anonymous German divine on Kierkegaard: “He is all right when you need a laxative, but not when you need good solid, nourishing food” (24).

But taking Kierkegaard’s own image of having a mouth full of food a bit further, his anti-Hegelian program could also be characterized as a sort of emetic philosophy: perfect for the expulsion of dangerous elements, and necessary perhaps in particular contexts as preparation for healthy intake. But it should not be confused with either milk or solid food itself (see 1 Cor. 3:2).

As is so often the case with reactive intellectual movements, Kierkegaard’s philosophy in his Philosophical Fragments is not immune to overcompensation. So while we might appreciate Kierkegaard’s motive and the extent of his success in undermining the Hegelian philosophical program, we should also exercise a measure of caution with respect to the agreeability of his philosophy with Christian theology.