CHAPTER I: The Central Nerve

The central nerve of my work as an author
really lies in the fact that I was essentially religious
when I wrote Either/Or.1

Count it not presumption that this study sets itself to do for Søren Kierkegaard what Adolf Deissrnann did for the Apostle Paul. In the following excerpt from Deissmann's classic work, read "Kierkegaard" for "Paul" and the words retain both their accuracy and relevancy:

[Scholarly research] has been most strongly influenced by interest in Paul, the theologian, and in the 'theology' of Paul.... But with this doctrinaire direction the study of Paul has gone further and further astray. It has placed one factor which is certainly not absent from Paul, but is in no way the historically characteristic, theological reflection, in the foreground, and has only too often undervalued the really characteristic traits of the man, the prophetic power of his religious experience, and the energy of his practical religious life.... Paul at his best belongs not to Theology, but to Religion.... The tent-maker of Tarsus ought not to be classed along with Origen, Thomas Aquinas and Schliermacher: his place is rather with the herdsman of Tekoa, and with Tersteegen, the ribbon-weaver of Mulsheim.... Paul is essentially first and foremost a hero of religion. The theological element in him is secondary. Naivete in him is stronger than reflection; mysticism stronger than dogmatism; Christ means more to him than Christology, God more than the doctrine of God. He is far more a man of prayer, a witness, a confessor and a prophet, than a learned exegete and close thinking scholastic. To show that this is so, is, I consider, the object of this sketch.2 And, concerning Kierkegaard, the object of this "sketch" is not far different.

Actually, although he nowhere stated the distinction quite as Deissmann did, S.K. wrote an entire book, plus a number of briefer essays,3 in the interest of subsuming his authorship under the religious category:

The contents of this little book affirm, then, what I truly am as an author, that I am and was a religious author, that the whole of my work as an author is related to Christianity, to the problem ‘of becoming a Christian.’ ... I would beg of every one who has the cause of Christianity at heart-and I beg the more urgently the more seriously he takes it to heart that he make himself acquainted with this little book, not curiously, but devoutly, as one would read a religious work.... [The reader] will totally misunderstand me, [if] he does not understand the religious totality in my whole work as an author.... What I write here is for orientation. It is a public attestation; not a defense or an apology.... It goes without saying that I cannot explain my work as an author wholly, i.e, with the purely personal inwardness in which I possess the explanation of it. And this in part is because I cannot make public my God relationship.4 Clearly, S.K. was meaning to say that his writings cannot properly be understood, that he desired that they not be read, as the work of a philosopher, a psychologist, a social critic, an aesthete, or whatever. The criteria of these disciplines are not appropriate to his orientation.

Also, it is evident that he would have included theologian among the things he was not. "Theological" simply will not do as a synonym for "religious" in S.K.'s context. An authorship which centered on "becoming a Christian" (as against "defining the Christian faith"), which was to be read "devoutly," and which integrally involved the author's personal God-relationship--this is not "theology" in the usual sense of the term. Rather, S.K.'s opinion of theology was expressed in such statements as:

To me the theological world is like the road along the coast on a Sunday afternoon during the races-they storm past one another, shouting and yelling, laugh and make fools of each other, drive their horses to death, upset each other, and are run over, and when at last they arrive, covered with dust and out of breath-they look at each other-and go home.5

From a Christian point of view a dogmatic system is an article of luxury; in fair weather, when one can guarantee that at least an average of the population are Christians, there might be time for such a thing-but when was that ever the case? And in stormy weather the systematic is deprecated as an evil; at such times everything theological must be edifying. 6 As we shall discover, S.K.'s concern was over the intellectualistic bias he found in theologizing; he was convinced that Christianity must be life-centered and so resisted passionately any tendencies that might make it thought centered [see below].

However, Point of View notwithstanding, it must be confessed that Kierkegaard scholarship generally has proceeded to treat S.K. precisely contrary to his wishes and his own self-understanding, reading him as a philosopher, theologian, or whatever.

Recently, however, prominent scholars are showing interest in correcting the situation. For example, Perry LeFevre maintains that S.K. should be seen essentially "as a religious man struggling for his own soul" and "sympathetically understood in the context of his own pilgrim's progress." 8 Paul Holmer makes an extended plea "for a kind of understanding that fits the [Kierkegaardian] literature," 9 and is extremely critical of a fellow scholar for expounding S.K. as though he were a theologian.10 And Niels Thulstrup becomes quite vocal against those thinkers and schools that attempt to analyze S.K.'s ideas from perspectives that are "totally incommensurable with them."11 This growing trend has the effect of taking S.K. out of the mainstream of Christian philosophic-theological development but does not, to this point, suggest where he should be put. Does S.K. represent a "sport" in Christian thought, or is there a totally religious yet nontheological (antiintellectual) tradition to which he should be related? There have been forthcoming some scattered hints that may point toward an answer.

Niels Thulstrup (a Danish pastor and highly competent Kierkegaard scholar), as the alternative to his criticism noted above, proposes that "with respect to content there is in fact only one yardstick of values for Kierkegaard, namely, the authority he himself appealed to and quoted: the Bible, and in the Bible particularly the New Testament"12

William Barrett (a philosophy professor specializing in existentialism) anchors the line of traditional Christian philosophy-theology in what he calls "Hellenism" and the Kierkegaard-existential line in "Hebraism." He sees the latter as predominant in New Testament Christianity, as being represented to some degree in Tertullian and even more so in Augustine. However, he specifies that Augustine only opened the door but did not go inside, in that he also retained a strong orientation toward the "rationalist" strain. Barrett denies that Thomas Aquinas and the other medieval philosophers showed any significant relation to existential thought. At this point he abandons the tracing of the historical development and moves directly to the nineteenth century and Kierkegaard.13

L. Harold DeWolf (a professor of theology who is not particularly sympathetic to existential irrationalism) notes the presence of this strain in such contemporary theologians as Barth, Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr and ascribes the influence to S.K. Then, in tracing the antecedents of S.K.'s irrationalism, he starts with the New Testament, mentions Tatian, stresses Tertullian, points to aspects of irrationalism within Luther and Calvin--and thus to S.K.14

Three philosophy professors--William Earl; James M. Edie, and John Wild--more recently have collaborated on a work, Christianity and Existentialism. Although the book is a symposium, the men coordinated their ideas and thus present an integrated viewpoint. The basic frame of reference is as follows:

What seems certain is that if we now observe the history of Christianity from the viewpoint of Kierkegaard's conception of faith as action rather than knowledge, we find that it is not something new but that it has been one of the two constants in Christian life from the beginning. There has always been a strain of what can be called Christian 'irrationalism' (which is not always to be understood as an 'anti-rationalism') opposed to the strain of Christian 'rationalism' in the Christian experience of the world. There have always been 'philosophers of the absurd' to challenge the Church theologians in their conception of faith as knowledge and theology as science.15

The authors do not proceed to trace this strain of Christian "irrationalism" consistently in any detail, but by putting scattered references together it comes to this: The line is rooted in the Bible. It achieved its clearest expression in Tertullian and the Punic fathers in contrast to the other church fathers whose faith was becoming strongly Hellenized.16

Augustine stands in the train of these Punic fathers but also shows strong aspects of Christian rationalism as well. Thomism belongs wholly in the rationalist line, "but with Scotus, then Ockham and the Franciscan spiritualist movement, we find a gradual change of climate." This change "prepared for Luther's revolt and the new sense it gave, temporarily, to the Pauline 'primacy of faith.'" But very soon Protestantism itself became "official Churches with their own orthodox and scientific theologies." Thus, "movements of protest appear in the form of the pietist movement in Germany, the puritan revolt in England, Pascal and the Jansenist heresy in France."17

It is not our intent to endorse or defend any of the above analyses, particularly in their details, but to show that within the Kierkegaard scholarship of our day there is developing at least some agreement about the antecedents of S.K.'s "irrationalism" (antiintellectualism). There is also becoming apparent a second tendency, this one seemingly not related to the first and not focusing particularly on S.K.'s irrational aspect. The suggestion, first made by Emil Brunner and now gaining considerable support, is that S.K. was molded by and should be understood within the context of continental Pietism [see below]. We shall relate these two developments to each other in due course. Thus far our examination has been of tendencies which but recently have showed themselves within Kierkegaard studies. Now, however, let us put S.K. to one side for the moment and consider a completely independent and long-established school of thought within church historiography. The basic idea perhaps has never been given a more succinct and colorful statement than in the words of Leonhard Ragaz:

[There is] one great antinomy, which runs right through the whole history of Christianity, and is indeed even older than Christianity itself. I would like to describe this contrast as that which exists between the quiescent and the progressive form of religion. In other words, it might be described as the difference between an aesthetic-ritualistic piety and an ethical-prophetic piety. Both streams may have taken their rise in the depths of the same mountain range, but they emerge from the mountains at different places, their waters are differently coloured, and they have a different taste. They arise ... in the New Testament, but not at the same point; the one springs out of the thought of Paul and of John, the other out of the Synoptic Gospels.19

Our intention here, again, is not to commit ourselves to any of the particulars of the above analysis but only to the conception of two streams of differing color and taste. Although a great deal of 'scholarship has recognized, or at least hinted at the presence of, these two streams, there never has been any consensus on how to describe or even name them. In the interests of keeping the subject as open as possible, we will use a very broad terminology, calling one the Established Tradition and the other the Radical Protest.

This bipartite analysis of Christian history seems first to have been proposed during the Reformation itself, by the leftwing spiritualist historian Sebastian Franck. His Chronica, Zeitbuch, und Geschichtbibel (1536), included a Ketzerchronik, i.e. a chronicle of the so-called heretics of Christian history (up to and including the Anabaptists of his own day), intended to demonstrate that there was at least as much if not more true Christianity represented in this stream as in the Established Tradition. Franck's idea was picked up, developed, and introduced into modern historiography through the work of the Radical Pietist historian Gotifried Arnold.20 The stated theme of his Unparteiische Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historic was that "those who make heretics are the heretics proper, and those who are called heretics are the real God-fearing people."21

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the treatment of this Established-Radical typology reached a climax. The crowning achievement was Troeltsch's grand design of "church" and "sect,"22 although as the voluminous footnotes to his great book make clear, there were at the time a host of scholars engaged in this line of research--men such as Ragaz, Keller, Hegler, Ritschl, Göbel, and Weber.23 It is significant that although these scholars were agreed that there are two streams, they were not at all in accord as to their meaning and value. Opinion ranged from that of Ludwig Keller, who was zealous to maintain that the Radical Protest represented true Christianity and the Established Tradition a monstrous perversion, through Troeltsch himself, who endeavored to give an objective assessment of both, to Albrecht Ritschl, who was certain that the Radical strain was of the devil.

From more recent times have come two major treatments that deserve notice. Monsignor Ronald Knox, in his long and detailed study of the Radical line, is inevitably of Ritschl's opinion, although obviously he does not follow him in denouncing the Protestant Radicals by use of the Ritschlian gambit that brands them as Catholics.24

But what may well be the most incisive analysis yet to appear is Emil Brunner's The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation.25 Brunner gives but little attention to the historical tracing of the streams, hut he discloses the basic ideology of the two with greater profundity than has been evident heretofore. During the Troeltschian period the focus had been preeminently sociological dealing with the outward aspects of church and sect in their relation to culture. Brunner includes this interest but goes on to show that the antinomy vitally affects almost every aspect of doctrine and experience. Indeed, as regards the understanding of "faith" in the two streams, he speaks to what is essentially the same distinction that the Kierkegaard scholars have made between "theology" and "religion," "rationalism" and "irrationalism."

At this point it will be instructive to note how Troeltsch, Knox, and Brunner, respectively, trace out the Radical line. First, Troeltsch and what he calls the "sects" (as against the "churches"): He specifically identifies primitive, New Testament Christianity as of the sect type.26 He mentions Montanism in connection with this line,27 but does not feel that the "church" development had progressed far enough to make the distinction clear until the time of the Donatist controversy or even the Gregorian reform.28 He recognizes that Augustine played a somewhat ambiguous role, displaying characteristics of both streams.29 The line then runs: Waldensians, Franciscans, Wyclif and the Lollards, the Hussites. Coming to the Reformation, he notes the ambiguity in Luther (not by that token in Lutheranism) and points out how many analysts, dating as far back as Luther's Anabaptist contemporaries, had resolved this by identifying the beginnings of Luther's reform with the Radical line and his later work with the Established.30 During the Protestant period, then, the line runs, roughly: Anabaptists, General Baptists, Pietism (which he somewhere calls "the second great expression of Protestant sectarianism"), Moravianism, Methodism.

Ronald Knox traces the line which he calls "enthusiasm" from the schismatics whom Paul disciplined in the church at Corinth, through Montanism (of which he says, "For us, Montanism means Tertullian"31 ), Donatism, Albigensianism, Catharism, Waldensianism, Anabaptism, Quakerism, Jansenism, Quietism, Moravianism, Methodism. His evaluation of the whole and the pans is negative. Brunner's approach is somewhat different. He posits the New Testament Ekklesia as a norm, labels the growth of the "church" idea (the Established line) as "a disastrous misdevelopment,"32 and then traces what he calls "delaying factors in the development of the Ekklesia into the Church, and attempts to restore the Ekklesia."33 This line runs: Montanism, Novatianism, Donatism. Brunner recognizes the ambiguity of Augustine and even compares it with that of Luther. 34 The line continues: Cluniac and Cistercian monastic reforms, Franciscanism, Waldensianism, the Anabaptist movement, and the modern Free Churches. Luther's problem in trying to represent both streams at once is described explicitly.35

This review makes possible some general observations: There are many and reputable church historians who identify the parallel development of an Established Tradition and a Radical Protest running through Christian history. There is general agreement in identifying the course of the streams, even among those who differ greatly in defining and evaluating them. Also, rather clearly, the scholars who have been searching for the existential antecedents of Kierkegaard's thought have hit upon one element (i.e. antiintellectualism) belonging to the Radical Protest described in church historiography. An obvious question follows: Does the totality of S.K.'s thought and witness fit the Radical-sectarian pattern in the way that his antiintellectualism seems to do? If this is a possibility, the logical point of contact and comparison, in view of the fact that S.K. was a Protestant, would be with the Protestant phase of the Radical line, or what we shall call Classic Protestant Sectarianism.

The purpose of the present study is to test this possibility by endeavoring:

  1. To grant S.K.'s premise that he was a totally religious author and conscientiously to interpret him according to his own instructions in Point of View.
  2. To understand that this move effectually takes him out of the churchly, Philosophic-theological perspective where he customarily has been considered and puts him into "a stream of a different color and taste"--a change of viewpoint which has fundamental implications regarding the understanding of S.K. And
  3. to demonstrate that S.K.'s religious witness on around a view of radical discipleship that was essentially one with that of Classic Protestant Sectarianism.

At the outset, then, to approach Kierkegaard from a religious orientation implies certain principles of interpretation:

  1. As the work of a totally religious author, his writings--when taken as a whole, as an integrated and connected authorship--display a certain structure or pattern. His individual works cannot be fully understood apart from the context of this overall organization, S.K. explained what he had in mind:
    The movement described by the authorship is this: from the poet (from aesthetics), from philosophy (from speculation), to the indication of the most central definition of what Christianity is--FROM the pseudonymous "Either/Or," THROUGH "The Concluding Postscript" with my name as editor, TO the "Discourses at Communion on Fridays," two of which were delivered in the Church of Our Lady. This movement was accomplished or described uno tenore, in one breath, if I may use this expression, so that the authorship, integrally regarded, is religious from first to last--a thing which everyone can see if he is willing to see, and therefore ought to see.'36
    In a Christian sense simplicity is not the point of departure from which one goes on to become interesting, witty, profound, poet, philosopher, etc. No, the very contrary. Here is where one begins (with the interesting, etc.) and becomes simpler and simpler, attaining simplicity.... But since the aim of the movement is to attain simplicity, the communication must, sooner or later, end in direct communication.37

    "Progressive revelation" is the key to Kierkegaard. To a lesser extent his authorship is a tracing of the revelation that came to him. To a much greater extent it is S.K. progressively disclosing his thought to the reader; his journals make it obvious that throughout the pseudonymous works (up to and including Postscript) the "edifying author" was himself far in advance of the ideas he wrote in his hooks, that he was deliberately holding back some vital aspects of his thought. The disclosure, then, is progressive not so much in that the course of the authorship is marked by the introduction of new and explicitly religious themes as by the fact that early themes, first presented in aesthetic or philosophic guise, are gradually revealed in their truly religious depth, grounding, and "simplicity:' It is amazing how many of S.K.'s major motifs appear in one form or another in his very earliest works; and yet with none of these do we have the full picture until the concept has been followed through to its religious fulfillment in the later writings.

    As S.K. insisted so strongly, the end (both finis and telos) of the entire development was the religious: "[What] requires no explanation at all is the last section, the purely religious work which of course establishes the point of view."38

    It follows, then, that S.K.'s later works should be made normative for understanding his earlier ones. This is not to say that a statement of late date always must take precedence over all earlier statements; it does not mean that Attack upon "Christendom" is necessarily S.K.'s final word. It does mean that the early, pseudonymous writings are to be read in the light of the later, religious work; that one gets a better picture of Kierkegaard and his message by standing at the close of the authorship looking backward rather than at the beginning looking forward.
  2. From this follows the rather important consideration that to expound his books in chronological order is not the best way to expound S.K.39 They had to be written in the order they were, partly because S.K.'s own education was involved, partly because he was attempting a grand experiment in maieutic pedagogy. That experiment was not a complete success, as S.K. himself came to see. His laborious and repeated efforts to "explain" the authorship (as represented by the documents collected in Point of View) were an attempt to obviate the misunderstanding which even then he saw arising. But considering the fact that we have the entire authorship accessible to us, plus S.K.'5 own explanations and warnings, it does seem rather unwise to lead people to the essential Kierkegaard by wending the tortuous length of the chronological labyrinth.
  3. Closely related to the foregoing is the caution that S.K.'s pseudonyms be given the weight and significance he intended for them. He was himself particularly concerned on this score:

    So in the pseudonymous works there is not a single word which is mine, I have no opinion about these works except as a third person, no knowledge of their meaning except as a reader, not the remotest private relation to them.... My wish, my prayer, is that, if it might occur to anyone to quote a particular saying from the books, he would do me the favor to cite the name of the respective pseudonymous author.40

    S.K. regularly followed his own precept; in the journals and elsewhere he ascribed references from the pseudonymous works to the pseudonyms themselves.

    He was clear about the purpose of the pseudonyms and their relation to his nonpseudonymous works:
    But from the point of view of my whole activity as an author, integrally conceived, the aesthetic work is a deception, and herein is to be found the deeper significance of the use of pseudonyms.... What then does it mean, "to deceive"? It means that one does not begin directly with the matter one wants to communicate, but begins by accepting the other man's illusion as good money. ... Let us talk about aesthetics. The deception consists in the fact that one talks thus merely to get to the religious theme. But, on our assumption, the other man is under the illusion that the aesthetic is Christianity; for, he thinks, I am a Christian, and yet he is in aesthetic categories.41
    It does not follow that S.K. personally would have rejected out of hand everything the pseudonyms said; their ideas are not so much false as they are partial and incomplete; missing is the religious source and background, the only setting in which they become an expression of S.K.'s full intention.

    Regarding our use of the pseudonyms, then, two principles would seem to be in order:
    1. We should honor S.K.'s request that the pseudonymous works be cited under the names of their respective authors. This certainly can do no harm, and it will alert the reader to at least the possibility that, had S.K. been speaking under his own name, he might have put the thought within a different context or expressed it somewhat differently.
    2. When expounding Kierkegaard by using pseudonymous materials, we would do well to keep one eye, as it were, on the direct, religious works as a norm against which to supplement and correct the pseudonymous statements themselves. Often, of course, no modification will be called for; in some cases it definitely will.
  4. Much more than most authors, particularly in his journals, S.K. went back to discuss and comment upon his own earlier writings. Such helps, of course, should be used for all the assistance they can provide.
  5. The very nature of S.K.'s religious orientation required that his writings be unsystematic; this lack of system--which every analyst is quick to observe--was not just a personal idiosyncrasy of the author hut one of his principles of conscience. Thus every attempt to expound S.K.'s thought by forcing it into a systematic mold is bound seriously to distort it. As Louis Dupre so cogently remarked:
    [S.K.'s theology] certainly is not a system, and systemization risks losing the specific character of his thought.... Kierkegaard would have thought it the supreme irony of his life that sooner or later his attack on the system would itself be reduced to a system. And yet, even the best known commentaries have not completely avoided this pitfall.42
  6. It is unfortunate, too, that biographical considerations concerning Kierkegaard the man tend to steal the center of interest from the message he wanted to communicate. It is true, of course, that S.K.'s life forms an intriguing story in its own right. It is true, also, that the life and the authorship are more closely entwined than is the case with most writers. Some knowledge of the biography is important for an understanding of the works. Nevertheless, harm is done when this biographical interest is allowed to dominate the scene or to make of S.K. more of a "bleeder in public" than he ever was. Dupre, again, put the matter well:
    Kierkegaard's psychology did not create his religious philosophy, but was only the occasion, or, better, the necessary condition, for its discovery. Rather than serving as an explanation of his work, Kierkegaard's psychological Constitution should be explained in the light of his writings.... Kierkegaard himself realized full well the peculiarity and unwholesomeness of his personality; he also knew how to distinguish it from religion."43
    We should be reminded that S.K.'s first readers, who read his books as he intended, did not even know the identity of the author of many of the works, let alone have footnotes pointing out that such and such a passage refers to such and such a heartbreak; and the journals actually were a private diary. Not to discount the help that the biographical viewpoint can afford, it is yet the case that S.K. was a thinker with a message and not simply an exhibitionist exposing his own psyche. At least once in a while he should be allowed to speak his piece without having to drag his own vita ante acta around after him.
  7. A final principle of interpretation would apply to the study of any writer, but the wide scope of S.K.'s subject matter makes it particularly crucial in his case. Because S.K. offers so much, almost anyone can find in him what he wants. Philosophy has found the wherewithal for several types of existentialism; theology for the array of dialectical theologies; psychology for logotherapy and other "existential" schools. Literature, art, and education have found material for their purposes; and there is no knowing who will yet find what. All this is legitimate, of course, but there is also the dangerous tendency for each variety of scholar to treat S.K. as though he were essentially of the scholar's particular orientation. Distortion is the only possible result.

Yet, indeed, the present case is nowise different. In the pages that follow S.K. will be portrayed as a Protestant sectary--and that by a student who is himself a church historian, minister, and teacher in the Church of the Brethren, as typical a sect as came out of the tradition. However, I am aware of my bias and so intend to protect myself by following the principles above, as well as the usual canons of research. But biased or not, the view herein presented needs to he considered along with those already in circulation.

Copyright (c) 1968