I will be traveling to Denmark this summer and in preparation for the trip I like to learn about the people, culture, and arts. I also like to read prominent theological, philosophical, and literary figures that are native to Denmark. Of particular interest to me is the ecclesiastical history of the country, especially whether there was ever a Reformed presence. So, in the midst of desiring to educate myself I have chosen to read Søren Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard did a great deal of writing in his forty-two years of life, publishing many books and essays, some of which were published under pseudonyms. As with any writer, Kierkegaard has advocates and critics but it seems that he has an enduring legacy. He is often quoted or cited, even by Reformed pastors and theologians. The book I chose to read is entitled, Practice in Christianity (the final published work under the pseudonym, “Anti-Climacus,” though he employed many pseudonyms). I chose this book for no other reason than I found the title intriguing. I read a few short reviews and thought this would be a good start. As a Kierkegaard novice, I sought direction from scholars as to how to read him. Scholars, however, are very much divided on this. For example, one review I read claims Kierkegaard shows ambivalence toward Christianity. Perhaps that is an unfair critique as I have not found that to be the case at all, at least not in Practice in Christianity.
This post, the first in a series, will include page numbers in the citation and progress chapter by chapter. The book I am using, in case you would like to follow along,
Kierkegaard, Søren. 1991 Practice in Christianity. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. – Matthew 11:28 (ESV)
The opening chapter centers on Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:28. Kierkegaard begins by meticulously expounding, word by word, what he thinks this verse to mean. He is amazed by the love of the one who is willing to help all those who know they cannot help themselves. He is clearly mesmerized by Christ’s sacrifice, love and grace. Indeed, these are wonderful things to be in awe and I find it excellent that the book begins with this quote.
To offer a brief context to Matthew’s Gospel and the eleventh chapter, the book contains many passages that speak of Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. This has lead scholars to maintain that the gospel is written to both Jews and Gentiles, likely from Antioch in Syria. I have seen this gospel divided into various outlines, but one that I am most familiar with provides the following division: ethics, discipleship and mission, kingdom parables, the church, and eschatology. The eleventh chapter, which Kierkegaard uses as the foundation of his book, has to do with the nature of the kingdom of God.
Related to the nature of the kingdom is Jesus’ authority. Jesus has the authority to invite people to himself, but what is uncanny is the language used to do this. Jesus, as the incarnate wisdom of God, is not calling the strong but the weary and burdened. That distinction between the strong and the weak is precisely Kierkegaard’s thesis for his work.
Let’s consider the following excerpts for further thought:
[H]e who sacrificed himself, sacrifices himself here also, he is himself the one who seeks those who have need of help, he is himself the one who goes around and, calling, almost pleading, says: Come here. He, the only one who is able to help with the one thing needful, who is able to rescue from the only, in the truest sense, life-threatening illness, he does not wait for anyone to come to him; he comes on his own initiative, uncalled – for he is indeed the one who calls to them; he offers help – and such help! – p.12
I am very favorable to what Kierkegaard is expressing here, namely, Christ’s ever-pursuing love. Christ is the only one who can save from the truest life-threatening illness, thus he conquers sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). Christ does not wait to be invited into one’s life in order for his grace to be dispensed; he enters at his own initiative.
However willing a person is, he still does not wish to help everyone – he will not abandon himself in that way. But he, the only one who in truth can help and in truth can help all, consequently the only one who in truth can invite all, he makes no condition whatsoever. – p.12-13
There are at least two takeaways, as I see it, from what Kierkegaard here proposes. First, even the most chivalrous person has certain boundaries. As much as one may be willing to help those in desperate need, even the most noble of humanitarian efforts fall short of the ultimate cost – one willingly and intentionally dying for others. Granted, some people may give of themselves knowing that the possibility of death is great, but they do not give with the intentionality that nothing less than dying will suffice. Jesus, however, was set apart precisely to die. That was his mission and nothing less than that was an option.
Second, not only is Jesus the only one who with complete abandon to his Father’s will went forth to die, he is also the only one who can provide the ultimate redemption from the ultimate judgment. That redemption in Christ does not require any additive. It is complete and perfect on its own.
The apostle Paul captures this so well in Romans:
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. – Romans 5:6-11 (ESV)
So, we see here the depth of Christ’s sacrifice to secure our reconciliation. Though Kierkegaard does not explicitly cite Romans 5:6-11 at this point, I can see how this text likely influenced him greatly.
Do not despair over every relapse, which the God of patience has the patience to forgive and under which a sinner certainly should have the patience to humble himself. – p.19
Kierkegaard focuses on patience as he closes his first chapter. His reference to “the God of patience” has biblical warrant.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. – 2 Peter 3:9 (ESV)
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him – 2 Peter 3:15 (ESV)
What is more interesting, however, is Kierkegaard appears to be saying that God, because he is patient, forgives every relapse. Is he suggesting that God forgives after every sin at the moment it happens? Or perhaps he is saying that God forgives every habitual (besetting) sin. Or is it that Jesus secures forgiveness once and for all? It seems to me that the statement is a bit vague to understand precisely what Kierkegaard is saying.
In summary of this first chapter, I find Kierkegaard to be quite pastoral in his approach. Overall, I find his grasp of theology to be good. Though I did find a few areas where he could have been more precise, he fundamental goal of commending Christ was achieved.