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There is no analogy for God, or “Godness” without God’s graciousness to stoop down to us in our stuttering tongues and depraved hearts, and therein meet us with the possibility to know Him in a corresponding way in and through the analogy and bond of Christ’s faith for us. So, Christ’s faith in His vicarious humanity is the whence by which an analogy for knowledge of God obtains. This is the case because God is God, and we are not. It isn’t just that we are sinners, it is that we are creatures who by definition are finite. As such, even prior to the Fall (cf. Gen. 3), we were “handicapped” in regard to reaching the elevated heights of God’s own inner life and reality (in se). Without God’s grace, which is first exemplified in His first canonizing Word, ‘In the Beginning God created,’ there is no first order basis for the creature to reach out or up to their Creator; there is no whence for God inherent to the creature, there is only the need and constant dependence upon God’s first and last word of Grace. As Christians we have come to spiritually recognize this as the basis by which we live and move in a world contingent upon God’s Grace; we have come to recognize by the Holy Spirit that God’s Grace is Jesus Christ, and that in Christ we can come to analogize God—but only because God first analogized Himself for us in His election to not be God without us, but with us in the mediatorial humanity assumed by the eternal Logos who we know preciously as, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

It is in this logic of grace that someone like Søren Kierkegaard would repudiate attempts, classical or modern, to offer proofs for God and His Self-existence. For SK, as we have just been opining ourselves, the bases for knowledge of God is not an analytical or systematic bases, but instead one where we as liminal creatures are confronted with our deep need for a personal God and Savior. For SK, though, it is not ‘our need’ that becomes the ‘foundation’ for our approach to God, instead it is God’s approach towards us in Jesus Christ, in Grace, wherein knowledge of God inheres. This has multitudinous applications, but without getting into those in mass, let’s hear some from Andrew Torrance and his commentary on SK in this direction.

Kierkegaard observes:

this is how people behave with respect to God – people forget that God exists and they consider whether it is the best thing, the most satisfactory thing, to have a God.

Christian thought is constantly faced with the danger and temptation of reducing God to a mere human concept and a relationship with God to a human worldview. This perpetuates a perception that human beings possess a certain authority over both ‘God’ and the Christian faith. Accordingly, Christians become preoccupied with such activities as demonstrating the truth of Christianity, for example, by engaging in rationalistic attempts to prove the existence of ‘God’. Or, alternatively, the devote themselves to speculating over the doctrine of ‘God’ in a way that makes little or no difference to their becoming followers of Jesus Christ. Under these circumstances, ‘God’ all too easily becomes a postulate to keep systematic theologians in business rather than the Lord who personally calls individuals to active lives of discipleship. Reflecting on this dynamic, Lee Barrett writes, in a passage that takes us to the very heart of Kierkegaard’s theological vision:

Even if God is said to transcend the categories of space and time, God is still treated as something whose mode of being can be an object for speculation and metaphysical description. According to such a practice, God would have to exhibit recognizable differentiating features and possess attributes that could be compared with the attributes of other beings. But for Kierkegaard, ‘God’ is not the name of any item locatable within the domain of finite beings, or of an entity recognizable by way of contrast to finite beings … Diverging from a certain kind of academic approach to theology, Kierkegaard resisted the tendency to specify the meaning of ‘God’ by compiling an inventory of identifying characteristics, no matter how lofty such characteristics might sound. Kierkegaard does not define God in terms of such daunting metaphysical properties as omnipotence, omniscience, and so forth. Rather, Kierkegaard seeks to give ‘God’ meaning by exhibiting the concept’s role in the life of devotion to God.

For Kierkegaard, as I have sought to show, the Christian faith is not primarily grounded in the human imagination or understanding but in God’s personal and dynamic engagement with the world in and through Jesus Christ. It is grounded in the living God who encounters persons in history and draws them to participate in a life of devotion to God. In its truest form, therefore, the Christian faith exists as a living witness and active expression of God’s relationship to us in and through Jesus Christ. It is out of a passionate devotion to the personal reality of God that an individual takes up the task of becoming a Christian.[1]

For the ‘school’ theologian what has been written is hard to hear, but maybe they should. Regardless, as Torrance (and Barrett) have annunciated for us, for SK, what is of premium importance for the Christian, in regard to their knowledge of and relationship with God, is driven by ‘personalist’ loci.

I originally framed this post through a lens that the quote itself does not exactly correspond to; at least not directly. But I think analogy is an important piece to this; at least insofar as that implicates a discussion on the whence of God for us. If we were to think constructively, as I am attempting to do, we might see a discussion on analogy as important to SK’s theology, and then Christian theology in general, in the sense that it serves as a focus, a modal focus, that allows us to understand how it might be that God alone in His gracious movement, ought to serve as the One who controls how we come to a knowledge of Him; how it is that we become Christians at all.

If the analogy for knowledge of God, and thus the entrée point for becoming a Christian, is always already one that is grounded in the movement of God’s Grace for us; if that movement eventuates in His condescension to be with and for us in Christ, and in that movement the Christ in His humanity provides the ‘faith’ through which a genuine knowledge of God can be gotten; then theologies that attempt to find a knowledge of God, or ‘Godness,’ outwith God’s Self-delimited parameter for that to happen, indeed in the assumed flesh of the Son of Man, will not ultimately provide for a sound basis towards a genuine knowledge of the living God. Further, if the Christian’s basis for knowledge of God, and thus the whence of becoming a Christian, is necessarily based upon encounter with this living God for us in the illumined face of Jesus Christ, then there can be no refraction of this movement; a refraction wherein we come to God based on an analogy that is outside of this gifted parameter in God’s Grace.

If what I am getting at isn’t clear enough: What I am, once again!, arguing, is that an analogy of being that presumes upon the meta-idea of an abstract humanity, one that is not enclosed by the humanity of Christ, one that presumes on a logico-deductive schemata that comes prior to this encounter, will only lead this sort of school theologian to be engaging with an impersonal and self-projected conception of the living God. Remember, the Christian, by definition, is one who calls Jesus Christ, Lord; but only by the Spirit. It is this Gift that keeps on giving; giving as the Bread of Life that sustains us moment by moment. To construct a foreign ground, another foundation other than Christ (cf. I Cor 3.11), even after someone has ostensibly come to encounter with Christ, would be similar to being the Israelite who was redeemed out of Egypt, baptized in the Red Sea, and then began to worship Yahweh through a Golden Calf of their own making. Becoming a Christian never flutters this way or that, it always finds its wind through the breath it first encountered through the living voice of God in the face of Jesus Christ. As such, knowledge of God is always already contingent upon this voice; that doesn’t change after-the-fact. The fact remains that God is God, and our knowledge of Him is fully dependent upon Him meeting us every moment of everyday in the givenness of His own voice.

If we reject the proposal I’m driving at in this post, then we place ourselves in a position to manipulate God’s voice into a tertium quid that is no-God; and an übermensch of our own projection (cf. Rom. 1.18ff). What often trips folks up at this point is the Tradition. The Trad is school theology, of the sort that SK, Barth, Torrance et al. did not fully abandon, instead they all engaged with it as if a worthy fish-monger engages with his catch; as if the Trad itself is only a proximate iteration full of bones, and juicy flesh, but full of bones needing to either be removed, or purposed in reformulated ways—under the pressure that is provided for by the Christian who is in a constant and fresh relationship with the living voice of God in Jesus Christ.

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 189-90.

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It does no good to pretend like we aren’t still sinners as Christians; we can’t hide from something that is in our hearts simul justus et peccator. Monkery sought to recluse itself into an inner-chamber of cloistery intended to reduce worldly temptation and provide a safer place for devotio Christi; but this represented an abject failure. The Christian’s problem, along with the rest of the world, is that our hearts are desperately wicked above all else, who can know them?; but God. The answer isn’t reclusion; the answer is reckoning and facing our sins through the power of the resurrection. We still have monks among us; often we call them Fundamentalists. Fundamentalists can be found on the progressive left or the religious right; no matter. Fundamentalists-Right attempt to withdraw into a rationalist and rigid moralism, while Fundamentalists-Left attempt to withdraw into a libertine and anti-moralism (which ends up being just another sort of moralism). Søren Kierkegaard, via one of his commentators, Andrew Torrance, had thoughts on the effectiveness (and whimpyness) of the monk’s procedure. Torrance writes of Kierkegaard’s view:

A further problem with monasticism, for Kierkegaard, was that it invited Christians to deal with their anxiety over sin by trying to escape the secular world, by binding themselves to a uniform Christian environment in which it is much easier to copy Christ’s ascetic life and avoid worldly temptation. The problem with this approach is that it avoids what he saw as the highest Christian calling: to imitate Christ by remaining in the world, as a witness. For him, the Christian is not called to hide herself away like a hermit, avoiding the world’s opposition and persecution, but to stand out as a Christian before God and the world – ‘in the middle of actuality before the eyes of all’ – and suffer the consequences that follow. Nonetheless, he was happy to acknowledge that the Christian should try to avoid temptation (Fristelse), so long as it did not entail hiding away from the spiritual trials that he felt were so essential to the Christian life. The Christian is called to ‘go straight toward’ spiritual trial, ‘trusting in God and [Christ]’. This means voluntarily choosing to enter into situations where temptation will be a real factor: situations in which overcoming temptation will itself be a spiritual trial that needs to be faced: ‘one of the most painful forms of spiritual trial’. In these situations, the Christian must turn to Christ to find the strength and courage to endure temptation and be delivered from evil. If, however, he anxiously looks to other means, such as the safety of a monastery, there will be an extent to which he is avoiding Christ. He will be attempting to deal with his sin-anxiety through a worldly retreat from temptation. Under these circumstances,

Even if he prays, calling upon [Christ’s] name fervently, [Christ] is still no savior to him. He fights on his own as well as he can, uses all of his rational powers uprightly, if I can put it like that, to avoid temptation and thus really does avoid temptation and perhaps brings it all gratefully to [Christ]. But he doesn’t have the faith that [Christ] will help him triumph over temptation.

For Kierkegaard, it is the Christian’s loving relationship with God that animates her in her faithful struggle to follow Christ. It is in fellowship with God that the Christian comes to will ‘as God wills’ and thereby develops the passion to follow Christ in the face of tribulation.[1]

Bearing witness in the midst of the struggle with temptation and sin—even and mostly in our many failures—is, for Kierkegaard (and I’d contest, for Scripture’s teaching), the height of what it means to walk participatorially in imatatio Christi. I’d like to place one caveat here: I would contend that to ‘imitate Christ’ is not an effort that we have the capacity or energy within ourselves to accomplish; which is what the small quote from SK, that Andrew shares, I think helps to reinforce. The point is that in our struggle with sin we are confronted with the One who has not only never sinned, but never sinned for us; and beyond that put sin, in and from His ultimacy, to a living death. In other words, we can imitate Christ only insofar as Christ has provided that reality for us in and from His vicarious humanity for us (pro nobis).

Further, and back to the original remarks to open this post: to attempt a withdraw into some sort of monastic space—whether that be in our church communities, social media cliques, actual monasteries, or what have you—can only and ever result in a vicious circle of self-reliance and delusion. Delusion in the sense that we think we have sequestered ourselves off from the ‘world’ and its temptations, when in fact the reality is that the world is in our hearts. Like I asserted earlier, this sort of moral sequestering happens on all ‘sides’ and everywhere. There is no retreat but Christ; and in Christ we have the [resurrection] energy to not only stand, but fall and rise back up in Christ—over and again. It is in this holy cycle of mortificatio/vivificatio, of failure and success canonized for us in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the living God in the risen Christ is borne witness to mostly.  

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 144-45.

I remember as a young evangelical lad sitting in my Sunday school chair and the teacher telling us that the Bible is God’s Love Letter to us; and that it should be read as such. That impacted me; it stayed with me; it hasn’t really left me. This is the stuff of a warm-hearted piety that I still think represents the best of an evangelical ethos; and it is one that I want to get across to my own kids. Clearly
this sort of mood can become problematic as well; the focus can quickly go to seed in a radical and modern turn-to-the-subject sort of way. But this needn’t be the case. What can help keep this ‘love letter’ approach to Scripture from going to seed is to understand that the anchor of Scripture’s reality is the triune Life of God in Christ. If we can approach this with that perspective, the perspective we find in I John 4.19, ‘God first loved us that we might love Him,’ then we have a fighting chance of reading Holy Scripture in an intimate fashion; as if we are hearing our Bridegroom’s voice whisper sweet-somethings into our ear.

Just as is the case with any idea (typically) there is a lineage; in other words, this idea of ‘love letter’ isn’t original to my Sunday school teacher (even if he wasn’t aware of the genealogy), someone as significant (relative to the cultivation of ideas) as Søren Kierkegaard had this idea of Scripture present in his own frame of reference. To help us appreciate this further let us hear from one of Kierkegaard’s contemporary interpreters, Andrew Torrance (in full):

To become a Christian, a person needs to know what is expected of the Christian in this world. For Kierkegaard, this requires a person to turn to the word of God as it is revealed in Scripture, particularly in the New Testament. A person must come to know both God and God’s will fro Scripture, and he must strive to conform to Scripture’s message, as it addresses him in his life before God. By so doing, she will find herself being discipled in the process of becoming a Christian.

Accordingly, Kierkegaard immersed himself in Scripture – as a thinker devoted to proclaiming what Christianity is and what Christianity requires of us. This gave him enormous clarity on some issues, but also left him with a radical uncertainty on others, prompting him to turn prayerfully to God for guidance. While Kierkegaard did not devote extensive time to considering the more complex questions of exegesis and hermeneutics, he does offer some clear guidance as to how the Christian should approach and relater herself to Scripture. For him, as we shall now see, Scripture is to be read as a letter from a beloved. This letter is, in many respects, easy to understand, providing clear ethical guidance. Yet it is also highly challenging, prompting the reader, on the one hand, to stand in awe of the holiness of the beloved, and, on the other, to turn to the beloved for guidance in the face of uncertainty

Reading a Letter from a Beloved

In the wake of Hegel, Christian scholarship in Denmark had welcomed and, indeed, embraced a detached and critical reading of the Bible. Against this, Kierkegaard insisted that Scripture should be read’ in the same way’ that one would read a letter from a beloved. He prescribed that the Christian should give herself time to be ‘alone with God’s Word’ and should occupy herself with her relation to God. She must ‘not concern [her]self objectively with the letter from the beloved’. That is, she must not primarily concern herself with speculative analysis of the biblical texts (the letter), but with hearing the personal message that God (the beloved) speaks to her through Scripture.

As David Cain rightly notes, ‘how one reads is decisive in determining what one reads’. And, for Kierkegaard, what the Christian is supposed to be reading is the word of God, something that historical-scientific scholarship is not in a position to discover. The ‘historical-critical method’, as Murray Rae notes, ‘harbours prejudicial assumptions which are critically determinative of the results it achieves’. For Kierkegaard, these prejudicial assumptions critically determine that a person does not read the Bible as God’s word. To read God’s Word, a person must view Scripture as the object of faith (Troens Gjenstand) and must read it with the eyes of faith (Troens Øie). By so doing, she can come to read Scripture as an ‘individual who has received this letter by God or from God’. That is, she can come to read Scripture earnestly, as a love letter through which God speaks to her.

To read Scripture in this way, Kierkegaard proposes, a person must read it ‘without a commentary’; indeed, he describes this as the ‘Principal Rule’. Like so many of Kierkegaard’s vehement statements, this comment needs to be taken cum grano salis, keeping in mind his particular concern. Richard Bauckham puts it well when he notes: ‘Kierkegaard’s attitude to biblical scholarship is a necessary over-reaction, necessary as a corrective but an overreaction all the same’. Kierkegaard’s concern here is that commentaries were encouraging an objective reading of the Bible that focused on the intellectual question ‘What precisely is the meaning and context of this biblical passage?’ in such a way as to disregard the personal and existential question ‘What is God saying to and asking of me through and by means of the scriptural passage?’

Kierkegaard observes that, under the pressure of scholarly doubt, orthodox Christians were continually studying God’s message without appropriating this message to their daily lives. For him, this pointed to the fact that ‘they seem completely to forget that God still exists [er til]’. That is, orthodox Christians had become so caught up with examining the letter that they had forgotten about the one who sent the letter. In particular, they were acting as though there was no God addressing them through the words of Scripture, calling them to faith and action. The scholarship that so-called orthodoxy was pursuing, Kierkegaard observes, ‘makes God’s Word into something impersonal, objective, a doctrine – instead of its being the voice of God that you shall hear’. As such, he describes ‘Christian scholarship’ as ‘the human race’s enormous invention in order to protect itself against the N.T., in order to ensure that a person could continue to be a Christian without the N.T. getting altogether too close to him’. By keeping themselves removed from Scripture, scholars were undermining the possibility of their being affected, challenged or provoked by its message. Such detachment stops readers from allowing God’s word to speak into their lives, to inspire repentance and discipleship.

To know the true meaning of Scripture, for Kierkegaard, a person must be given to relate to Scripture faithfully. This requires a person to devote herself passionately to Scripture in response to the love of God. By so doing, a person will come to engage with Scripture with a new mind: she will come to relate to Scripture by way of ‘a … shifting from one genus to another, a leap, whereby I break the chain of reasoning and define a qualitative newness’. In this respect, Kierkegaard’s hermeneutic very much finds itself in alignment with the Anselmian principle of faith seeking understanding, although it is perhaps better associated with a love seeking understanding. Accordingly, the task of Christian scholarship should always be to facilitate and complement a faithful reception of Scripture.

At this point, it should be made clear that Kierkegaard does not altogether neglect the fact that scholarship is needed to assist a faithful reading of Scripture. The Bible needs to be translated and, at times, carefully interpreted – as is evident in Kierkegaard’s own careful engagement with Scripture. However, drawing on the metaphor of Scripture as a love letter that needs to be translated, Kierkegaard notes that once a person ‘is finished with the translation’ ‘he reads his beloved’s letter’. Indeed, he goes so far as to describe the ‘scholarly preliminaries’ as a ‘necessary evil’ that are required as a means of bringing a person to the point where he can read ‘the letter from his beloved’. The problem with the scholarly preliminaries is that they stall the process of Christian becoming by taking time – time that could be spent hearing and actively responding to the message. As such, for Kierkegaard, when the Christian spends time on the scholarly preliminaries, he should feel an urgency to get through this process quickly so that he can get on to responding to Scripture. The Christian should feel the kind of urgency that a lover would feel if he were to receive a love letter from a beloved that was in need of translation. As soon as he has heard the message, the Christian should be off at once to fulfil his beloved’s wish.

One more point that the Christian needs to bear in mind when reading Scripture as a letter from a beloved is that Scripture is not merely a letter that has been left behind 2,000 years ago. Kierkegaard describes it as an ‘unfortunate confusion’ when, on a scholarly reading of the New Testament, people are given to ‘think that God is far away, that it is 1800 years since [Christ] died’. Scripture is to be read as a letter from the living God who continues to speak to its faithful readers. Accordingly, the Christian can read Scripture with the knowledge that God is with her in her faithful reading, and is there to help guide her in her reading. Scripture should not merely be read as a record of God’s love but as a living testimony to the loving God who continues to present alongside us.[1]

To say Kierkegaard resonates with my own experience would be a severe understatement. A little later in life I was hit with an existential crisis that lasted for more than a decade (I’ve detailed that in other posts); it was in this crisis, as a Christian, that Holy Scripture became my balm. I think this is an important piece to reading Kierkegaard. To come to Scripture expecting to hear God’s voice speaking to us, speaking to us as the Lover no less, requires a sense of desperation and deep need. This is what cultivated within me, personally, my desperate need to hear from my Lord; and is why I have been voraciously reading Scripture through and through for the last twenty-three years—in earnest! I am sure that many others can resonate with this experience.

I mean, does this resonate with you? Kierkegaard was reacting to overly-rationalized approaches to Scripture in his own context (as Torrance points out), but don’t we have these in our own evangelicalism? Currently, it seems, we either have too much of quiet time focus on me-and-my-Jesus/me-and-my-Bible approach, or the other extreme of analyzing Scripture as if it belongs in a petri-dish of pre-critical/critical/post-critical labyrinths of hermeneutical glaze. Surely there is some sort of balance to be had between these polars. But more importantly, and to the point of Torrance’s Kierkegaard, I maintain, along with Kierkegaard, that if we aren’t reading Scripture as a love letter, if we aren’t reading Scripture intent on hearing our Lord’s voice (i.e. the sheep know their Shepherd’s voice); then we are most definitely reading Scripture all wrong! Beyond all the noise in Christendom there is a still small voice whispering God’s blessings into our hearts; we need to be still and know that He is LORD; we need to be quiet and know that God is in His Holy Temple—speaking to us who He is for us, and letting us know over and over again, seventy times seven even, that He loves us and He will never forsake us; even if we forsake Him.

 

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 118-21.

The Apostle Paul, before he was the Apostle Paul, and on his way to becoming the Apostle Paul had an encounter with the living Savior, the God-man, Jesus Christ. Luke recounts this happening in Acts of the Apostles when he writes:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.[1]

Paul came to Christ through encounter with Christ; when he was confronted with the resurrected and living reality of reality Hisself. What was Paul to do in this moment? He could have still rejected the encounter, and attempted to explain it away. But the reality was so compelling and the consequences so real that his choice was, in a sense, made for him, by the One who encountered him; seemingly out of nowhere.

This brings up the issue of how God’s Self-revelation works. For Søren Kierkegaard he held that the kind of encounter the Apostle Paul had, post-ascension, is just as powerful, if not more so, as it would have been for those who actually were physically alive and walked with Jesus during his public ministry and time on earth. The reality being, that either way, what is required is that someone have eyes of faith and ears of hearing to actually appreciate who Christ is. In other words, a pure empiricism, positivism, rationalism, and/or physicalism will never suffice in providing the kind of visio required to see that Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here is how Andrew Torrance (in his published PhD dissertation) distills Kierkegaard’s understanding:

When an immediate contemporary of Jesus would have first met him, she would have noticed nothing more than a mere human being. In his physical appearance, in the lowly form of a servant, Jesus only served to communicate a ‘teaching’: information that a person could directly apprehend for herself. Such teaching, however, as we saw in Chapter 1, can only relatively inform a person’s immanent understanding. The life of faith, by contrast, requires a person to become totally transformed through a relationship with the eternal-historical teacher, the God in time, the one who is the truth for humanity. For this reason, the object of faith is ‘not the teaching but the teacher’. Or, as Anti-Climacus puts it, ‘The helper is the help’. The Christian is primarily called to follow a person, not a standard or a principle. So, by merely observing Jesus Christ and contemplating his message, there is no direct communication of the essential truth of Christianity. For the truth to be revealed, Jesus’ appearance must serve as an occasion for God to give a person the condition for understanding the truth. God must encounter a person and draw that person into a relationship with the eternal truth that God is in himself. In Climacus’ account, it is only through the eternal-historical events of God’s self-mediation that a person is delivered into a life of faith. As such, the only purpose that the direct teaching serves is to provide an occasion, ‘an historical point of departure’, by which a person can relate consciously to the eternal truth and develop ‘the passion of faith’. This occasion, he argues, is no more accessible to the physical contemporary of the god in human form than it is to the one who comes later. Climacus writes:

Just as the historical becomes the occasion for the contemporary to become a disciple [Discipel] – by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself (for otherwise we speak socratically) – so the report of the contemporaries becomes the occasion for everyone coming later to become a disciple – by receiving the condition, please note, from the god himself.

So, for Climacus, the person who becomes aware of the servant god through a physical encounter holds no advantage for faith over the person who comes across him via a second-hand account….[2]

Don’t miss what’s going on here. According to A. Torrance, Kierkegaard is arguing that, for one thing, the person and work/teaching of Jesus Christ comes as a piece; with the person (eternal Logos) taking precedence, in an ontological way, over the ‘teaching’. But note, the historical teaching became and currently becomes the ‘occasion’ or point of departure wherein the encounter with the ‘Person’ takes place (think of something like Moses and the burning bush). In other words, what’s important for our purposes, is to realize that faith is not a thing, but when encounter with Christ takes place, faith comes built into that encounter, because it is a personal encounter with a real and living Person; with Jesus Christ. The encounter itself becomes the nexus from within which the bond of connection between Christ and the “encounteree” inheres. In other words, faith is contingent upon the choice of Godself to be for us in encounter with us, in the hypostatic union and mediating reality of God to human/human to God that inheres in Christ. As we meet Jesus, all that is required for that meeting to be eternally fruitful is already in place because of the character and works (for us) of the One initiating the encounter; i.e. Jesus Christ.

[1] Acts 9:1-9, NRSV.

[2] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 78-9.

I am currently reading a book on the life and theology of Strasbourg Protestant Reformer, Martin Bucer; but as is typical I also have multiple other books going at the same time. The book I will be referring to in this post is one I am working through slowly, it is a book authored by Andrew Torrance on Kierkegaard’s theology entitled: The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian despairAccount of Human Transformation in Relationship with God. A. Torrance, in the section we will look at, is describing Kierkegaard’s doctrine of sin as ‘despair.’ As I picked Torrance’s book up and began to read this I was compelled to immediately sit down and write this post; so here we go.

As we will see, through Torrance’s explication, Kierkegaard sees despair as something that happens to people as God removes himself from their lives, and in a sense, leaves them to themselves. It is natural, as Augustine and the Bible so presciently note, that if humans were created for relationship with God, if they were created to find their purpose and end in Deus incarnatus, God incarnate, Jesus Christ, and then are uncoupled from that, for humans to despair. This becomes the entry point for how we ought to understand the human condition of sin, according to Kierkegaard, according to Torrance. Torrance writes:

Notably, however, although Anti-Climacus [pseudonym for Kierkegaard] describes despair as a sickness, he also affirms that it is not ‘something that happens to man … like a disease to which he succumbs’. Rather, ‘despairing lies in man himself’. It arises by way of the individual’s own volition, which God allows the human when he ‘releases it from his hand’. It arises when the individual willingly embraces a self that is not the true self but the sinful self.

Sin is: before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to wil to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself. Thus sin is intensified weakness or intensified defiance: sin is the intensification of despair.

Here, Anti-Climacus presents sin as the state of the self who, ‘before God’, is in despair. In sin, a person consents to a life that is not the life for which he was created – a life of loving fellowship with God. Despair is the state of the individual who ‘before God’ chooses himself in sin. According to Anti-Climacus, there are two ways in which a person conscious before God, uses God-given volition to choose sin: ‘in despair not to will to be oneself’, and ‘in despair to will to be oneself’.

First, sin is ‘in despair not to will to be oneself’. In this case, the sinner chooses to continue in sin because she does not have the inner strength or passion to embrace what she knows to be her true selfhood before God. This either takes the form of ‘despair over the earthly’/’despair in weakness’, in which a person is distracted from devotion to God by commitment to worldly affairs, such as the question of what the immediate future might hold. Or, it takes the form of ‘despair of the eternal over oneself’/’despair over weakness’. In this case, the person recognises that it is a weakness to despair over the earthly, but then proceeds to despair over this weakness, bringing about a sense of self-hatred, which closely resembles guilt. That is, instead of faithfully humbling himself before God and seeking forgiveness, he dwells legalistically on sin and despairs that nothing can be done for him, thereby becoming further entrenched in despair and further intensifying his sin. In so doing, a person resists his actual selfhood and true selfhood before God. With this despair in mind, Kierkegaard writes,

This is … the eternal consolation in the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins: you shall believe it. For when the anguished conscience starts having burdensome thoughts, and it seems to one that in eternity it is impossible to forget: then it says, you shall not forget, you shall stop thinking of your sin; not only are you permitted to stop, not only do you dare ask God for permission to dare forget – no, you shall not forget, for you shall believe that your sin is forgiven.

Second, sin is ‘in despair to will to be oneself’. In this case, the individual chooses to cling to his own autonomy in active defiance of his true freedom before God. In this instance, ‘the self in despair wants to be master of itself or to create itself, to make his self into the self he wants to be’. With this despair, the individual is too proud to see his need for repentance and reconciliation, in unbelief seeing himself as his own god who sets the standard for what it means to be a self. Hence, the individual has no desire to die to himself or to the world, and feels no need to be forgiven for the life that he has made for himself. As a result, the individual embraces himself as a self that is dead to the true God.[1]

The first form of despair, I think, could loosely define many Christians out there; the latter form of despair sounds simply like unbelieving humanity in the main. It is interesting, and not surprising, because we are reading sin through Kierkegaard, how prominent the psychological factor is; i.e. the personalist element of Kierkegaard’s understanding of sin. I think all too often because of the forensic models of sin that evangelical and Reformed Christians have been stunted by, we lose sight of how existential, sin actually is; how relationally oriented it is.

As I read Kierkegaard’s account, mediated through Torrance, it resonates deeply with my own lived experience of sin. I have had seasons where I have desperately despaired of my sin before God; burdened down with such a sense of guilt-riddeness that it damaged my vision of and fellowship with God in Jesus Christ. I have despaired of sin so deeply, and particular sins so trenchantly, that it almost took my sanity. It wasn’t until I was able, by the Holy Spirit, through laborious wrestling with God in Scripture, and with Scripture’s reality, Jesus, that I was finally able to stand in who I am in the elected humanity of God in Jesus Christ; I was finally able to stand in the liberty by which Christ had made me free and not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.

As we read the second account of despair in Kierkegaard, I am sure we can all recognize that type of despair, at points in our old-self, but most prominently in the world at large; in the people we bump into daily at work, the mall, on the freeways, in the classroom and elsewhere. It is the despairing soul who has looked up into the heavens, presumed itself to be its own terminus, and lived a life out of that destruction. It is this soul we have been called to ambassador the reality of the evangel to. God help us!

[1] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 30-1.

I have been thinking lately about what it means to really be a Christian? Can it simply be reduced to the life of the mind—which so much of online stuff revolves around—or is there something more? Of course the immediate answer by most Christians will be: “of course it is more!” But in reality, given our fast paced busy lives, is it really? And what about us academically inclined (or sorensome would say intellectually inclined); we of most Christians have the constant temptation of falling into a trap where Christianity and Christian spirituality become a matter of nous or the mind. Those geared more intellectualistically can easily fall prey to dualist or even neo-Gnostic styled Christianity, where the material/concrete world becomes of no real significance to our Christianity (i.e. a docetic or disembodied Christianity); except for maybe the space we need to develop our “Christian ideas,” or theological constructs—we need the material world in order to hypothesize about things like God’s love, feeding the poor, and being anti-war (or whatever our inclination might be).

I would like to suggest that if we live into a disembodied or dualist type of Christianity that in fact it most likely is related to our concept of God. In other words (and I think this problem particularly plagues the West all the way down), if we think that God is this impassible/immutable untouched being in his inner life way up there hiding behind decrees, then it would be easy to mimic that conception of God in our lives, and Christian spirituality. It would be easy to think that the way we live our lives as Christians is the way we think God lives his life as God; i.e. untouched by the world outside of our immediate experiences and spheres of comfortability, and then develop theologies from that mindset. I actually believe this can explain a lot about Christianity, particularly in North American evangelical Christianity; what I like to call the “Conference Christianity.”[1]

So I just started reading Andrew Torrance’s (thank you Nick Stewart at T&T Clark for sending me the review copy) recently published PhD dissertation entitled The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God. I am literally just starting it, and on page 4 Andrew writes something in description of Kierkegaard’s approach to things, and his aims towards theological development, that I think helps forward what I am trying to say about ‘what it means to be a Christian;’ with particular focus upon how a conception of God can implicate (for the good or bad) what that means. Torrance writes:

For Kierkegaard, the existence of God makes all the difference for the Christian life. It is a living God who inspires passionate commitment, humility and ‘fear and trembling.’ Furthermore, God does so in a way that human conceptions of God cannot. When Christian conceptions or propositions become the object of the Christian faith (for example, in the form of Christian doctrine), ‘Christianity’ becomes a plaything for intellectual pursuits, cultural sensibilities and political agendas. This is not, of course, to deny that Christian concepts and propositions serve a purpose. Their primary purpose, however, is to serve as a witness to God: to provide us with teaching that helps us talk about, understand and know both who God is and who we are before God. But, for Kierkegaard, they are not to take centre stage.[2]

The irony is not lost on me; here I am trying to talk about a way to maybe better think about Christian spirituality, but am doing so from a pretty academic angle. But that’s not ultimately the problem (i.e. academics), it is an errant doctrine of God. As Torrance points out, at least for Kierkegaard, if our propositions about who God is become the ‘objects’ or dominate force in the way that we approach God, then our spirituality can suffer because it depends upon our concept of God instead of  God’s own concept of himself as he’s revealed that to us in Jesus Christ. Or the dialogue between God and us becomes contingent upon us rather than God, and this can have serious consequences; i.e. namely that our Christian walks become ends in themselves dictated to be what they are by a concept of God held captive by our own propositions about God instead of his personal disclosure of who he actually is for us in Christ.

Anyway, I thought this was an interesting line of thought. There obviously is a jab embedded in my post towards a classical theistic understanding of God; an understanding that has God relating to his creation and creatures through mechanistic and impersonal decrees, rather than in personal and dialogical ways based purely upon his personal Self-revelation. I do think though that there are dangers with a classical theistic understanding of God that indeed can be deleterious for a genuinely Christian spirituality and its cultivation. And so I wrote this post to register that, and think on the fly as I do that.

[1] I am thinking about all of the conferences that have overtaken evangelical Christianity; conferences that make us feel like we are doing something, or learning something important for the Kingdom (and maybe we are); and yet it simply stays at the conference until the next conference happens. If we are able to string enough conferences out each year, they might make us feel like we are doing something important for the Kingdom; but the reality is, is that we are mostly just fooling ourselves. Conference Christianity makes us feel something, but usually it has little to do with actually living out the Christian life in concrete ways in our daily and mundane lives. I don’t know, just thinking out loud.

[2] Andrew B. Torrance, The Freedom To Become A Christian: A Kierkegaardian Account of Human Transformation in Relationship with God (London/Oxford/New York/New Dehli/Sydney: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 4.

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Hello my name is Bobby Grow, and I author this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist. Feel free to peruse the posts, and comment at your leisure. I look forward to the exchange we might have here, and hope you are provoked to love Jesus even more as a result. Pax Christi!

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A Little Thomas Torrance

“God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.” -T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 94.

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