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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.

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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.

Søren Kierkegaard famously opined at an early age in his diary on August 1st, 1835 upon his course in life as a budding theologian (although not particularly in those terms). He offers an existential look into what I think a good theologian should be motivated by; i.e. to know the reality of God and what that implicates for self. Kierkegaard wrote:

What I really need is to get clear about what I am to do. . . . What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I should; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die. Of what use would it be to me to discover a so-called objective truth, to work through the philosophical systems so that I could, if asked, make critical judgments about them, could point out the fallacies in each system; of what use would it be to me to be able to develop a theory of the state, getting details from various sources and combining them into a whole, and constructing a world I did not live in but merely held up for others to see; of what use would it be to me to be able to formulate the meaning of Christianity, to be able to explain many specific points—if it had no deeper meaning for me and for my life?. . . [Truth] must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all. This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water. This is what is lacking, and this is why I am like a man who has collected furniture, rented an apartment, but as yet has not found the beloved to share life’s ups and downs with him. But in order to find that idea—or, to put it more correctly—to find myself, it does no good to plunge still farther into the world. That was just what I did before. . . . I have vainly sought an anchor in the boundless sea of pleasure as well as in the depths of knowledge. I have felt the almost irresistible power with which on pleasure reaches a hand to the next; I have felt the counterfeit enthusiasm it is capable of producing. I have also felt the boredom, the shattering, which follows on its heels. I have tasted the fruits of the tree of knowledge and time and again have delighted in their savouriness. . . . Thus I am again standing at the point where I must begin again in another way. I shall now calmly attempt to look at myself and begin to initiate inner action; for only thus will I be able, like a child calling itself “I” in its first consciously undertaken act, be able to call myself “I” in a profounder sense. But that takes stamina, and it is not possible to harvest immediately what one has sown. . . . I will hurry along the path I have found and shout to everyone I meet: Do not look back as Lot’s wife did, but remember that we are struggling up a hill.[1]

There is an existential honestly about what Kierkegaard writes; and he’s right I don’t want to engage in vain meanderings simply to say that I can. Theology is a lived reality coram Deo (before God); theology penetrates deeply into the warp and woof of our very existence as sentient and breathing human beings. Jesus Christ, the theanthropos, entered into this in the incarnation and lived what it meant to truly be human before God for us. I think Kierkegaard was wanting to press into this reality by probing his own inner thoughts. There is a humility about this, really. It is easy to get caught up in the accolades of praise from others, and then use that praise to seek more; even when doing theology (what Martin Luther would call ‘theology of glory’ and what Jesus warns against all throughout the Gospel of John). I want to be the type of theologian that Kierkegaard wanted to be; to be driven by nothing else than love of God and others in the most authentic ways possible. So I will continue to look to Jesus and ask him to help me in my unbelief.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard cited by Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016), 74-5.

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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