Does Kierkegaard Have Something to Say to Today’s Church?

I don’t know what you think of Søren Kierkegaard.  He has his good points and bad points, I suppose.  On the positive side, he conveys in his writing a strong sense of the critical importance of encountering and responding to Christ as an individual.  On the other side, he goes too far, I suppose, in bashing reason as playing a legitimate role in leading someone to faith.  From my point of view, though, Kierkegaard, when he is good, is really good!

In his essay, “On the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle” (written in 1847), Kierkegaard counters Adolf Peter Adler, a Hegelian philosopher.  Adler had been deposed from his position through claiming to have had a personal “revelation”.  However, he later changed his story and claimed that his work was that of genius, not revelation.  Kierkegaard’s view was that a “genius” and a conduit of “revelation” are qualitatively different things.  Adler was confusing the two.

On a higher level, Kierkegaard made two statements in his essay that really stand out to me for their truth and their relevance to today.

Here’s the first:

“If the sphere of paradox-religion is abolished, or explained away in aesthetics, an Apostle becomes neither more no less than a genius, and then – good night, Christianity!”

For Kierkegaard, the figure of the Apostle stands for authoritative revelation from God, which is in opposition to the mere genius, who only speaks for himself.  The real strength of the Christian revelation is the powerful confrontation that is made in the Incarnation of God in Christ.  The paradoxical nature of omnipresent God “confining” himself into a human body is something that no one in their so-called “right mind” would make up – it challenges our capacity to believe, too greatly.  No, it is a paradoxical revelation that the Church is called to preach.  Kierkegaard’s point, and a daring point at that, is that Christianity stands or falls on the ability to keep the lines drawn clearly between revelation and aesthetic concerns.  When the emphasis is on the aesthetic rather than revelation, different questions come to mind.  With revelation, the questions are: what is true?  Do you believe?  With the aesthetic, you encounter questions like: isn’t this profound?  isn’t he a good speaker?  isn’t this a gorgeous sanctuary?  Aesthetics is not an illegitimate concern, but it must keep its place.  When Christianity becomes a contest for the ability to sell someone on something through rhetoric, charisma, etc. at the expense of the declaration of truth, then you’ve got a problem, and, in Kierkegaard’s words, it’s “good night, Christianity!”

Here is a second quote from Kierkegaard, applying the same theme as above to the Apostle Paul:

“St. Paul has not to recommend himself and his doctrine with the help of beautiful similes; on the contrary, he should say to the individual: ‘Whether the comparison is beautiful or whether it is worn and threadbare is all one, you must realize that what I say was entrusted to me by a revelation, so that it is God Himself or the Lord Jesus Christ who speaks, and you must not presumptuously set about criticizing the form.  I cannot and dare not compel you to obey, but through your relation to God in your conscience I make you eternally responsible to God, eternally responsible for your relation to this doctrine, by having proclaimed it as revealed to me, and consequently proclaimed it with divine authority.’”

Both of these quotes strike to the heart of what may be needed greatly today in the churches of the land.  These are not concrete proposals; they are merely impressions I am formulating in my thought process:

  1. A refocusing on the Christian gospel as “revelation from God” in its essence, rather than a message whose success is dependent on being conveyed through the right medium
  2. Less of a dependence on “genius” (tactics, marketing, strategy, etc.) for the bearing of spiritual fruit; more of a dependence on truth-telling in a spirit of grace
  3. A move away from recruiting spiritual “geniuses” (pastors, leaders, etc.) as critical to church growth toward encouraging the emergence of leaders from within an existing community.

So, what do you think?  Is Kierkegaard on to something?

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5 thoughts on “Does Kierkegaard Have Something to Say to Today’s Church?

  1. Hi there,

    The link to Wikipedia entry on Kierkegaard is a bit redundant. If someone has to read the Wikipedia to find out who Kierkegaard was, he obviously doesn’t know what to think of him. 🙂

    I haven’t read “On the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle”, but judging from the quotes, I think genius refers to the best of “the natural man” (i.e., the flesh). It’s not just aesthetics about form, but also the content, as Apostle Paul wrote, “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:4)

    Kierkegaard wrote that he himself had no authority, perhaps because he argued against Hegel by employing dialectics, not revelation. He conveyed truth, but within human wisdom.

    1. I appreciate the comment. I will consider repenting of an undue reliance on Wikipedia! I certainly don’t want to lead anyone astray – and I agree with you that aesthetics is not just about form – Kierkegaard relates it in this essay to all that is done within immanence, apart from anything transcendent. So yes, thoughts concerning the natural man are apropos. However, in the space of a few paragraphs, I was trying to convey where Kierkegaard’s ideas were directing me. And it does strike me that, while I may not agree with all Kierkegaard has to say on the matter, the primacy of authority and the dangers of an undue reliance on “profundity” (to quote Kierkegaard) in communication of the gospel are two central lessons for Christians. They are concepts to which Kierkegaard repeatedly turns in this essay.

      1. Well, first of all, I would say that true authority is sensed (how’s that for objective guidance?). Matt. 7:28-29 says, “And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these words, the multitudes were astonished at his teaching: for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” It seems that the multitudes sensed that there was no higher source to which Jesus needed to appeal for support for what he was declaring. Kierkegaard suggested that the Apostle has authority which is derived and not inherent within him. I agree. I would think that the criterion for discerning divine authority would be the degree to which a teacher is in line with the message of Jesus. Style has nothing to do with it. I know this is by no means a cut-and-dried method, but I would also say that the discernment of authority is something performed by the church collectively, more than individuals. Authority is acknowledged and recognized over time, and is, we must admit, subject to being lost. Profundity, on the other hand, is validated within the confines of the self – one does not need to appeal to an external standard in order to validate it. Human authority does not validate itself; it is subject to the authority sourced in God. In discerning between authority and profundity, I would say that content would be the dominant basis of the former; style, the dominant basis of the latter.

      2. But they questioned Jesus, “By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?” (Matthew 21:23) So it seems that they sensed he had authority, but not the source of it.

        It’s unclear to me why the collective and the historical (I assume that’s what you mean by “recognized over time”) would be better able to discern authority than the individuals in the present. Kierkegaard would have a field day with this, I think. 🙂

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