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.
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.
 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.