Coming to grips with Kierkegaard’s apologetic: the tyranny of faith in faith and the comfort of faith in facts

17 Sep
Kierkegaard: right on trust and loyalty?

Kierkegaard: the arguments against Christianity arise out of insubordination, reluctance to obey, mutiny against all authority.

Just the other morning (when I wrote this) my just-turned-two-year old got up early, presumably to hang out with me.  He didn’t talk much (never does) – seemed clear to me that he just wanted to be with me. To be in my presence. Before leaving for work I returned him to his mother in bed, gave him and her a kiss, and said goodbye. He just seemed to be taking it all in.

God designed life to be based on love, trust and character.  Insofar as our modern scientific ideas, methods and “successes” necessarily take us away from these things we are only poorer.

There is a lot of food for thought in the writings of a man like the 19th c. Danish – and Lutheran – philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. I particularly have been struck by this passage every time I read it:

“It is claimed that arguments against Christianity arise out of doubt. This is a total misunderstanding. The arguments against Christianity arise out of insubordination, reluctance to obey, mutiny against all authority. Therefore, until now the battle against objections has been shadow-boxing, because it has been intellectual combat with doubt instead of being ethical combat against mutiny” (JP 778, 1:359, quoted in Boa and Bowman, Faith Has its Reasons, p. 367)

While I think the Great Dane was definitely on to something here, I would question whether or not doubt and insubordination can be so finely distinguished. The early 20th century Lutheran theologian Francis Peiper was always pointing out the sinfulness of doubt, and warning us not to excuse it. Further, Jesus notes that anyone who puts His teaching into practice – note not those who don’t – will find out whether it comes from God.

Again, with this qualified praise, I note that there is much that is not so good. For example:

“Away with all this world history and reasons and proofs for the truth of Christianity: there is only one proof – that of faith. If I actually have a firm conviction (and this, to be sure, is a qualification of intense inwardness oriented to spirit), then to me my firm conviction is higher than reasons: it is actually the conviction which sustains the reasons, not the reasons which sustain the convictions” (JP 3608, 3:663, in Boa and Bowman, 387).

I do think that Kierkegaard’s concern to defend faith’s tenacity is good, but that this goes too far.  While he is in effect encouraging faith in faith, the ultimate “reasons” for faith – given to us in human words – are simply the Spirit’s revelation to us today that God is the friend of sinners in the historical person of Jesus Christ – even you and me.  This, I submit, is what forms the people of conviction Kierkegaard wants – and these are people who continually live from that which comes into them from outside of them.  Eager to counter the thoughts of Enlightenment deists and the like, Kierkegaard was concerned to make clear that Christian faith was not about living a respectable moral life – or even simply asserting as true certain propositions about God and what He had done in history (like the resurrection of Jesus Christ for example) – and then thinking that just because one believes these things (in some sense), one is necessarily “OK with God”.  He, rightly, wanted to emphasize that faith was trusting a Person.  But Kierkegaard overcompensates here, and falls off the other side of the horse.*

As far as I am concerned, Boa and Bowman, in their textbook on apologetics, Faith Has its Reasons, reveal how matters become yet worse:

Pure fideism: Evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch (1928-2010) grounds faith “on evidence that faith itself provides”.

Pure fideism: Evangelical theologian Donald Bloesch (1928-2010) grounds faith “on evidence that faith itself provides”.**

[Kierkegaard says that] “Faith’s conflict with the world is not a battle of thought with doubt, thought with thought… Faith, the man of faith’s conflict with the world, is a battle of character” (JP 1129, 2:14; cf. 1154, 2:25). [He] quotes with approval Pascal’s statement, ‘The reason it is so difficult to believe is that it is so difficult to obey” (JP 3103, 3:418).

Quoting other fideists, Boa and Bowman go on to say:

Bloesch agrees, stating that ‘the basic problem in evangelism is not just lack of knowledge of the gospel – it is a lack of the will to believe.’ Karl Barth also views faith as essentially a response of obedience to the truth. Faith is ‘knowledge of the truth solely in virtue of the fact that the truth is spoken to us to which we respond in pure obedience.” (p. 367)

In this, I submit that what was fought for in the Reformation – the possibility for all those with frightened consciences to know that they are at peace with God – leaves the building. Trust makes love grow, and along with this, trust does indeed become insurmountable loyalty. What theologians like Bloesch, and Barth [and Bonhoeffer] – and it seems Kiekegaard as well – do not understand is that while the Scriptures can talk about faith in terms of obedience, the fundamental ground of faith – something we never get past – is simple child-like trust.  In spite of the sin that persists, little ones cling to their parents when they are with them, when they tell them they love them, and when they forgive them time and again, covering their sins.  So it is to be with us and the Lord.  With seventy-times seven forgiveness, His mercies are new every morning, and we – in spite of the evil we know, fight, and desire to put down forever – may rest in peace in His presence.

“Faith is obedience…..” Again, in some contexts, this kind of talk is acceptable, for Scripture itself speaks this way.  But in other contexts, the first Reformers recognized that such words can be doubt-inducing and faith-destroying.  Eager to counter a nominal Christianity which is moralistically and therapeutically deistic (again, back then “respectability” was often the term of choice to deride such false forms of Christianity) and hastily feigns adherence to creeds, here we see overcompensation again, and a basic failure to rightly distinguish God’s Law and Gospel.

God’s work in history – the benefits which come to us today as He speaks hearty words of Spirit and life – is for each one of us!  His blood is “given and shed” for us. The benefits of the baptism He underwent at the cross become ours as we are baptized – through water and the word! – into His death. His words “your sins are forgiven”, “peace be with you” are applied to us personally through those He has ordained – both informally and formally – to meet us in our time of need, broken in our sin.

Kierkegaard, just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong: “Faith is not a form of knowledge”. “The conclusion of belief is not so much a conclusion as a resolution.”  It is achieved “not by knowledge but by will.”… “certainty and passion do not go together.”  “faith… has in every moment the infinite dialectic of uncertainty present with it.” – quoted in Harold DeWorf, The Religious Revolt Against Reason, pp. 81-82

Kierkegaard, just wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong: “Faith is not a form of knowledge”. “The conclusion of belief is not so much a conclusion as a resolution.” “[It is achieved] not by knowledge but by will.”… “certainty and passion do not go together.” “faith… has in every moment the infinite dialectic of uncertainty present with it.” – quoted in Harold DeWorf, The Religious Revolt Against Reason, pp. 81-82, 1949

Again, these facts – these truths – are found in the transforming words of the Holy Spirit testifying to Christ and with Christ: “my words are Spirit and life”…. “man [lives by] every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”… “the word of the Lord stands forever”. If these are not glorious “timeless truths” for us – since God has in fact and does in fact reveal them to us in time – they are certainly truths we know – or should know! – to be permanent and dependable.

Notably, all of the things that we have been talking about above go hand in hand with concerns about apologetics. Here again, Kiekegaard’s words challenge:

“If one were to describe the whole orthodox apologetical effort in one single sentence, but also with categorical precision, one might say that it has the intent to make Christianity plausible. To this one might add that, if this were to succeed, then would this effort have the ironical fate that precisely on the day of its triumph it would have lost everything and entirely quashed Christianity” (Boa and Bowman, 349, emphasis Kierkegaard’s).

Again, he is on to something. I also have been pointing out that is we are going to use arguments based on probability, we need to be very explicit about how these are not the main things we want to talk about (see here).  We want to deal with certainties – not in the sense of Rene Descartes – but in the sense of what Martin Luther highlighted.

I can only wonder though, whether or not Soren Kierkegaard would have embraced strong and certain words like the following from Lutheran pastor John Bombaro:

With his resurrection and ascension Jesus is hailed as the world’s rightful King and vindicated in all he said and did.

"I do not think Kierkegaard would be happy, or would agree, with that which has developed from his thinking... what he wrote gradually led to the absolute separation of the rational and logical from faith." -- Francis Schaeffer, in Boa and Bowman, 450.

“I do not think Kierkegaard would be happy, or would agree, with that which has developed from his thinking… what he wrote gradually led to the absolute separation of the rational and logical from faith.” — Francis Schaeffer, in Boa and Bowman, 450.

He inherits the earthly kingdom from his Father. Jesus rules and reigns, and he does so through the kingdom of God now being manifested on earth through love, mercy, peace and grace. Now the King busies himself with applying the spoils of his great victory over God’s true enemies of sin, guilt, death, and the evil one. He urgently applies his accomplished redemption through very personal, very specific means with haste. There is urgency in the mission of the King: for whereas in former times of ignorance “God overlooked” our treason until sin could be dealt with, “now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has pointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). The day of grace and forebearance of Christ’s rule will have an end and all those who abide in treason against the Son will themselves bear the judgment of the Last Day when it will be too late.” (John Bombaro, “The Scandal of Christian Particularity”, in Making the Case for Christianity: Responding to Modern Objections, ed. By Maas and Francisco, p. 134)

All our modern epistemological angst aside, according to the Apostle Paul, this work of God through Christ in history is what God calls assurance, or perhaps better, proof.*** This “apologetic”**** from the Lord’s apostle himself (and I don’t even think any liberal Bible scholar has suggested Paul did not say these words) does not deal with making any historical case for Christ based on probabilities. It seems quite clear to me that this is the kind of “apologetic” we should often be eager to present and let linger.

I can only wonder how many modern Lutheran apologists are willing to suggest the same.  Again, see my three part series taking a critical look at modern Lutheran apologetics, through the person of John Warwick Montgomery (see the introduction and part I, part II and part III)*****




*Undoubtedly, knowledge is found in commitment by the knowing subject as he seeks to know. That said, the knowledge found in commitment begins with God’s commitment towards us – and our passive reception of His gifts!  Here, we would want to emphasize that as persons takes good words to heart and reflect on their content, God’s Spirit grants both repentance and faith, transforming them and revealing to them that these words are true for them personally.  The content of the creeds is for you.

**On the other hand, he does quote approvingly P.T. Forsyth, in a quote that seems a bit more reasonable and careful: “We have not two certitudes about these supreme matters produced by authority and experience, but one, produced by authority in experience; not a certitude produced by authority and then corroborated by experience, but one produced by an authority active only in experience, and especially the corporate experience of a Church.” (quote in Boa and Bowman, p. 388).  This reminds me of one of the interesting assertions of the early 18th c. idealist (the first idealist perhaps – Kant’s version of this coming later on is quite different), Bishop George Berkeley (who UC-Berkeley is named after today).  While clearly radical in suggesting that there was not material world which formed the perceptions/ideas in our minds, he did say “of these ideas that we perceive their essence is to be perceived” which rightly takes into account and assumes God’s design of the world and His purposes in the world (as opposed to materialisitc views of the world that do not presume this ; surprisingly Berkeley, who never did say “to exist is to be perceived” was not seen as a rationalist but a kind of empiricist [though a radical one] – see more here).  In any case, here is where Lutherans are keen to emphasize the objectivity of justification (the good kind of “objective justification” – see here), in order to make sure that the comfort found in the fact that “God justifies the wicked” (Rom. 4:5-8) is not denied.  For in the terrors of conscience, we do indeed know ourselves – rightly so! – to be those who violate God’s Law in wickedness.

***In his 1949 work The Religious Revolt Against Reason, Harold DeWorf wrote explaining the “charges against reason” (by Kiekegaard and other fideists): “When a finite human being, subject to all the errors and self-deceits which are the common lot of man, supposes that he can by his own powers arrive at conclusions about God and his own destiny, and that he can by such means know these conclusions with certainty, he must have forgotten what manner of being he is.” (p. 78) Of course prior to the Fall, man, being in fellowship with God, readily received all that the Lord had to give. As John Bombaro points out (see last post), God now comes to us in the incarnation and this has huge implications:

“God has made himself known and knowable through specificity…. [this] pursues us from the tyranny of having to pursue and find this God. He has made himself known and made himself known in spades in deeply meaningful ways…. Particularity and the specificity and indeed the exclusivity of the means – this is good news for humanity because otherwise we would be lost in the morass of religion which we find everywhere as people scramble trying to reach the transcendent one…. But the Transcendent One has come to us….supremely in Jesus of Nazareth. Particularity in Christianity is actually the glory of the Gospel because it has freed us, liberated us, from the madness of trying to find God on our own….” (see here, around 21 and 23 minutes respectively)

If we look at passages like Acts 17:31 in this way, we can then see that Paul’s announcement that Christ’s resurrection from the dead is “proof” can be pure Gospel not only in the sense that the Lord will save us and deliver us from our enemies by judging them, but also by doing what Bombaro says:  liberating us from the madness of trying to find God on our own.

****As I noted earlier:

“The 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard is usually classified as belonging to the “fideist” school of Christian apologetics, Basically, Kierkegaard says that there is something very suspect about a question like “What is the proper object of faith?”.  He says that to answer such a question is like a lover attempting to reply to the query, “Could you love another woman?”

This is another powerful point, and I think is fatal to some, but not all, forms of evidential apologetics.

*****Paul is not so much giving a defense of the Christian faith as much as he is trying to actively share the Gospel in thought-forms that would resonate with his Greek audience. It makes sense to see this speech as connected with apologetics though, which deals with matters of evidence (I John 1), reasoning (I Peter 3:15-16), persuasion, proof (Acts – to both Jews and Gentiles) etc…. – whether one talks about defense or “offense”.



Posted by on September 17, 2014 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “Coming to grips with Kierkegaard’s apologetic: the tyranny of faith in faith and the comfort of faith in facts

  1. Brett

    September 17, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Hi Nathan,

    This is kind of a side, tangential question, but you seem to be pretty well read with guys like Kierkegaard and Kant, etc. If someone wanted to start reading them, could you make any recommendations on where to start with either of their works?

    Thank You

    • infanttheology

      September 17, 2014 at 4:43 pm


      Truth be told, I myself have not read much of either man. A few works, and generally shorter. I do know people who have read many of them though, and had good conversations with them. They say it is always a good idea to read primary works, but I think in the case of these men, some introductory materials are good.

      Kierkegaard: (before popular blogger Rod Dreher was talking about how Dante saved his life, he was talking about how Kierkegaard did. Of this book he said: “This little book explaining Kierkegaard’s philosophy absolutely changed my life, and very much for the better. No therapist could possibly have helped me more than the Dane did.”

      Kant is tough – his metaphysics are a topic of considerable debate among scholars. Here is one man who I think has a fascinating take on Kant:

      If you like podcasting, I would check out Philosophy Bites, the Philosopher’s Zone, and In Our Time (Radio 4, BBC) – they have had great shows on both men where some of the top scholars are interviewed.



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