According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Monday, May 20, 2013

Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? Parts 1-3

Was Kierkegaard an evangelical? Part 1
by Roger Olson
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Was Kierkegaard an evangelical–Part 2
by Roger Olson
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  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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Kierkegaard as evangelical–Part 3 (final)
by Roger Olson
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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