VI. The Churh Well Lost

A. The Attack on Christendom

Thus far we have examined S.K.'s position regarding secular sociality, both the World Negative which his faith impelled him to reject and the World Positive which his faith equally impelled him to accept, to love, and to serve. We proceed now to examine his stance regarding religious sociality, i.e. those social groups designed with specific reference to the relationship between man and God, namely the church. We look first at the Church Negative; this is the form of the church which S.K. felt to be dominated by crowd-mentality and thus (to use Brunner's phrase) "a disastrous misdevelopment" and mortal threat to the true Christian concept of den Enkelte. This church S.K. called "the Establishment," and the term was always used by him in a negative sense.

Perhaps some knowledge of the Danish church situation would be helpful as we strive to understand S.K.'s attitude toward it. A very good source in this regard is Kenneth Scott Latourette's The Nineteenth Century in Europe, Vol. 2.1

Denmark was institutionally conservative in religion as in politics (not until 1848--in the midst of S.K.'s career--was the monarchy de-absolutized and put under the control of a constitution). The nation presented a picture of religious monolithism as tight and persistent as any in Europe. Latourette describes it thus:

The Protestantism [of Scandinavia] was overwhelmingly Lutheran. At the outset of the nineteenth century it was almost exclusively so.... The Lutheran churches were the state churches, established by law, controlled by the civil government, and supported by public taxation. They were also national churches, the churches of the people, what the Germans would call Volkskirchen (folk churches). All the population were baptized and a very large proportion were confirmed as Lutherans. Religious instruction was given in the state schools.... Baptism and confirmation were compulsory [in Denmark], as was a church ceremony for marriage. Theoretically Communion was also obligatory.2

Particularly under the influences of the Enlightenment the formal legalism of this churchly structure had produced a marked decline in spiritual vitality; but interestingly enough, at the time of Kierkegaard, the church was experiencing something of a resurgence and renewal. The revival, however, was not of the sort that met S.K.'s approval. The two leading figures were Bishop Jakob Peter Mynster (1775-1854) and N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783-1872). Bishop Mynster, the ranking ecclesiastic of the Church of Denmark, was an urbane and sophisticated Christian humanist (in the anti-Kierkegaardian sense of the term) whose efforts served to popularize "religion" although--to S.K.'s mind--at the expense of New Testament Christianity. Grundtvig's movement was perhaps less worldly and more deeply spiritual than that of Mynster, but it also had an aspect that was anathema to S.K. Grundtvig did not stress the need for an individual relationship to God but was interested in a sacramental church life that would be the focus for a rebirth of ancient Danish culture. His was a strongly enculturated (almost nationalized) concept of Christianity as a folk- or community-faith.

The presence of Mynster and Grundtvig--and S.K.'s focusing of his attack upon them--is significant in demonstrating that his basic concern was not so much with any current apathy in the church as with the fundamental wrongheadedness of its constitution.

S.K.'s critique of the church, of course, reached its culmination (although hardly its beginning) in the spectacular Attack of 1854-1855. And because this phase of S.K.'s career is so conspicuous and well known, there will be some tendency to equate S.K.'s "sectarianism" with his Attack. Certainly, something of that quality does show up strongly at this point, but it would be a misunderstanding to read either S.K.'s sectarianism or sectarianism in general as being in essence nothing more than a protest against the established church. Indeed, we find surprisingly little of such protest in Brethren literature--for the simple reason that even before becoming Brethren these people had so completely broken their ties with the state church that it no longer existed for them. Sectarianism is a self-sufficient religious type and does not have to be defined negatively in relation to an established church. This chapter of our study, then, represents one expression of S.K.'s sectarianism but by no means its core. Indeed, the basic character of the Kierkegaardian perspective could be established apart from any consideration of the Attack.

Likewise, it would be wrong to give the impression that S.K.'s critique of the church and thus his essential sectarianism were confined to the last year or so of his life. The Attack did become overt at that time, but the basic content of the criticism had been in S.K.'s thinking and writing for many years previous.

By its very nature--and designedly so--that final Attack was sensational in the extreme, and a very possible impression is that S.K. was seeking sensationalism for its own sake, that he was feeding his own ego as much as or more than he was serving God. Perhaps one value of our putting the Attack within the total context of S.K.'s sectarianism is to give an indication of how deep and honest his convictions were. In his own heart and mind S.K. was certain that to become den Enkelte is the one and only way to become a Christian. Of course, there is the crowd-world which wishes to block this development, which would entice, or if need be force, a man to accept its interpretation this of existence, its goals, its way of salvation. But this opposition comes as no particular surprise; the New Testament warned that the world was of this order. But to discover that the Christian church, the instrument designed and commissioned by Jesus Christ for the express purpose of helping a man to become den Enkeldt,--to discover that this church in actuality was a crowd-church in collusion with the crowd-world, seeking to entice, or if need be force, one to find his salvation by joining its crowd-institution--this struck S.K. as the most abominable sort of sacrilege:

Man is 'a social animal,' and what he believes in is the power of union. So man's thought is, 'Let us all unite'--if it were possible, all the kingdoms and countries of the earth, with this pyramid-shaped union always rising higher and higher supporting at its summit a super-king, whom one may suppose to be nearest to God, in fact so near to God that God cares about him and takes notice of him. In Christian terms the true state of affairs is exactly the reverse of this. Such a super-king would be farthest from God, just as the whole pyramid enterprise is utterly repugnant to God. What is despised and rejected by men, one poor rejected fellow, an outcast, this is what in Christian terms is chosen by God, is nearest to him. He hates the whole business of pyramids.3

Thus, the disappointment, the frustration, the shock, the horror, the rage that characterized S.K.'s Attack were real. Those not sympathetic with his position can hardly appreciate that fact--although to get S.K. into the sectarian perspective may help make his feelings more plausible. Granted that in the Attack S.K. used the weapons of satire and mockery with their accompaniments of exaggeration and hyperbole, nevertheless the intent behind the whole must be accepted as serious, dedicated, and utterly sincere.

A. The Attack upon Christendom

The triumphant Church and established Christendom are falsehood, are the greatest misfortune that can befall the Church; they are its destruction, and at the same time are a punishment, for such a calamity cannot come about undeserved.1
Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground, when thou standest in Christendom, where there are nothing but true Christians! Let God keep eternity for Himself, where taken all in all He hardly gets as many true Christians as there are at any one instant in Established Christendom where all are true Christians.2

Although dealing with S.K.'s Attack as a totality, the scope of this portion of our study is quite circumscribed. In an earlier chapter we gave some attention to the Attack in its historical aspects: how the concern developed in S.K., the strategy be followed, what he intended to accomplish, etc.; we will not reopen such matters here. Neither will we attempt to review all the criticisms S.K. directed against the Establishment; many of these were simply the obverse negatives of items we have treated and will treat independently (for example, the church fails to lift up Christ as Pattern, to teach non-conformity, etc.). Our present investigation will be confined to S.K.'s most basic contentions regarding the essential nature of the church. We will deal only with the ideological core of the Attack, with S.K.'s negative ecclesiological concern.

In this section there will appear no parallel quotations out of Brethren literature; it does not provide such. The explanation already has been suggested: by the time the Brethren began developing a literature the Establishment was for them a dead issue; there was nothing to be gained by continuing a dispute which they previously had settled once for all. Brethren writings do contain derogatory asides about the "churches" but nothing in the way of serious ecclesiological criticism. Nevertheless, given the entire sectarian context which we have been developing, it is obvious that when those who became Brethren made their break with the church it must have been for reasons very similar to those voiced by S.K. In other words, the parallel between S.K. and the Brethren holds even though we have not the materials for making it explicit.

One more prefatory comment is in place. In S.K.'s use of the term "the Establishment," a major referent is to the fact of the church's formal and constitutive relationship to the state. However, this was by no means the total, or even central, impress of what S.K. had in mind. A church is established primarily in reference to its "respectability," its "fashionableness," the fact that it is "built-in" as a normal and expected feature of the social order. Thus, the formal "disestablishment" of a state church would be a step in the right direction but, in and of itself, could not be taken as a total answer to S.K.'s concern. Indeed, just as negative as "the Establishment" is his term "Christendom," which assumes that the community, the nation, i.e. society itself, has in some sense become Christian. Obviously, the church's liaison with the state, its social respectability, and its presupposition of a "Christendom" are but three expressions of a common ideology. The three stand or fall together; S.K.'s interest was that they fall.

Ideally and essentially viewed, ... the question [is] whether a so-called Christendom, or rather a fallen Christendom, openly or more hiddenly, now by attack now by defense, has abolished Christianity.3

Is Christianity, i.e. the faith once delivered, ultimately compatible with Christendom, i.e. a Christianized society? That is the decisive question which S.K. put as early as 1848. The question implied his answer, although he soon stated it so as to leave no doubt:

That which should be reformed in our time is not church government and the like--but the concept Christendom.4

In another 1848 writing S.K. made his contention against Christendom as pointed as possible; and even if he did not use the term, his accusation had "crowd-mentality" written all over it:

Yet all these people [i.e., even those who do not live in Christian categories], even those who assert that no God exists, are all of them Christians, call themselves Christians, are recognized as Christians by the State, are buried as Christians by the Church, are certified as Christians for eternity.5

Thus, in the Attack proper (which our quotations would indicate had been in the making for at least six years), S.K. could word the statement which we quoted earlier but which is as significant as anything he ever said:

In the last resort, precisely to the concept 'Church' is to be traced the fundamental confusion both of Protestantism and of Catholicism--or is it to the concept 'Christendom'?6

S.K.'s question about "church" or "Christendom" was asked simply for effect, because it is clear that the two are at base identical. The very concept "church" assumes Christendom as its context, just as Christendom assumes a "church" as its religious expression. The basic assumption behind the entire church-Christendom idea is that the community, the geographically based social unit, is in some real sense Christian--and that without specific consideration as to how far and in what sense the individuals who make up that community are Christian. The "church," then, represents the natural expression of the community in its religious aspect, just as the state represents the expression of its civil aspect. It makes sense, too, that the church and the state should be closely allied, because both are complementary expressions of the same Christian community. Almost as much a matter-of-course as a person's citizenship (99 out of 100 people in the community are citizens thereof simply by virtue of being there), is his Christianity. Within Christendom it can be assumed that any person (simply by virtue of his being there) is a church member; and if a church member, then a Christian; and if a Christian, then "certified for eternity." And infant baptism stands as the logical symbol of this view. With the infant, of course, there is no question about his intentions, desires, or commitments, but as a part of the community he also should be included within its religious expression, and through the rite of baptism his incorporation is so symbolized.

Although the above has been stated in such a way as to make plain the contrast we want to draw and hence may be overstated in some respects, yet assumptions of this general order are necessarily involved in the "church-in-Christendom" view. But just as the churchly position must make these assumptions either consciously or subconsciously, the sectarian position is that which explicitly denies them. "Christendom," a natural community which is nevertheless by nature Christian, is an impossible concept. The church cannot simply be, by virtue of the natural religiousness of the community finding its expression, but must become, must be "gathered" as individuals who are Christian (not simply who are assumed to be so because they are part of the community) deliberately band themselves together.

According to the churchly view, the community is (as a natural, a priori, social entity); the community is Christian (by virtue of its having been so organized at some time long past); the community is the church (by virtue of the community's giving formal expression to its Christianity); and the individual is a Christian (by virtue of the fact that he is a part of the Christian community and participates in the formal expression of its Christianity).

According to the sectarian view, Christianity is of such an order that it can be a criterion only of den Enkelte, not of the community. Therefore, a community of Christians, not a Christian community (which is an impossibility), constitutes the sectarian church. Necessarily, then, the community must come to be; the community of Christians must be created as those who are Christian (by virtue of a personal transaction with God in Christ) gather to form a community. And thus adult baptism--which involves personal attestation to the Christian-making transaction with God and a conscious affiliation with the community--is the only appropriate symbol of the sectarian church which ever and always must come to be. The "church"man participates in the church, in the Christian community that is; the sectary creates the church, creates community by joining with those of like precious faith.

The church is the communion of the saints; so be it. But the churchly view takes this to mean: the church is the corporate body of those who are saints by virtue of their affiliation with this holy institution. The sectarian view takes it to mean: the church is the Gemeinschaft of saints who have been made such through a personal transaction with Christ and who have handed together on the basis of this common experience. Or, at the risk of oversimplification, yet to put the distinction just as succinctly as possible: In the churchly view, "the church" as an institution is prior, the cause, and "the Christian" posterior, the consequence. In the sectarian view, "the Christian" (den Enkelte) is prior and the Gemeinde is posterior. Thus a Protestant "church" is defined as being where the Word is truly preached and the sacraments rightly administered (the primary emphasis being on the doctrinal "rightness" of the institution). But a Protestant sect would have to be defined as being where those are gathered who truly hear the Word and rightly receive the sacraments (the primary emphasis being on the religious "rightness" of den Enkelte).

That S.K. had in mind some such distinction is made apparent in the following, very significant statement:

In the definition of the Church which we find in the Augsburg Confession, namely that it is that communion of the saints where the Word is rightly taught and the sacraments correctly administered, it is simply the two latter clauses about doctrine and the sacraments which have been correctly understood (i.e. incorrectly), while the former clause has been overlooked: the communion of the saints, in which description the emphasis lies on the existential; in this way the Church has been turned into a communion where doctrine is correct and the sacraments correctly administered, but where the lives of the individual members are a matter of indifference (or where the existential element is neglected): this is nothing but heathenism.7

Earlier S.K. had written:

... [People] have conceived of the truth of Christianity as a result, as what might be called a surplus, a dividend, for in the case of truth as the way [i.e. where Christianity is a mode of existence which must be reduplicated in den Enkelte] the emphasis falls precisely upon the fact that there is no surplus, no dividend, which accrues to the successor from the predecessor, that there is no result.8

This statement points us back to one we quoted earlier (although it comes out of the same passage in S.K.), this the one on page 139, above, in which he specifies that "the truth, in the sense in which Christ was the truth, is not a sum of sentences, but a life." Together, then, these suggest an analogy which we can use to epitomize the distinction between the churchly and the sectarian understanding of church.

"Church" men see the church as being a commissary; sectaries see it as being a caravan. The treasure, the truth, of a commissary is something it has, something it possesses, something then that, through proper transaction, it can dispense to the "customers." Conversely, the treasure or truth of a caravan is not anything it has but something it is in, when it is proceeding toward its proper destination in proper fashion.

The existence of a commissary hinges upon its being established, its being licensed, authorized, stocked--thus the churchly emphasis on its divine commission, on proper orders and ordination, on the possession of orthodox doctrine and efficacious sacraments. And, to put it bluntly, once a commissary receives legitimization it "has it made"; how many customers may come (whether any at all), how they receive the commodities, and how they use and are affected by them--ultimately these considerations have no bearing on whether the institution is a "true" commissary.

But the existence of a caravan involves qualifications of an entirely different order. There is no sense in which a caravan can be "established"; indeed, it is a caravan only so long as it is on the way; as soon as it stops, gets lost, or is dispersed it is no longer a caravan. Here too the existence and condition of the constituency (not now "customers" but "fellow hikers") is essential to the very concept: a caravan can travel (and thus be a "caravan") only as each and every person in it does his own traveling; the number of people who can be "carried" is strictly limited. And whereas with a commissary it is largely incidental whether or not the different customers make common cause or even know one another, with a caravan it is only the "togetherness" of the going that makes going possible at all; thus the centrality of Gemeinschaft in the sectarian understanding of the church.

S.K. also came at the matter from a different angle. The "church" presupposes Christendom; but the very concept "Christendom" necessarily implies that the character of "the world" has changed drastically since New Testament times, that the world which then stood in diametric opposition to Christianity is now allied with it. And if this has happened, it follows that the church itself has changed character just as drastically in adapting to the changed situation:

[One] error is the specious notion which has arisen in the course of the ages, that in a way we are all Christians. For if this is posited, the Church militant seems an impossibility. Wherever there seems to be, or people assume that there is, an established Christendom, there is an attempt to construct a triumphant Church, even if this word is not used; for the Church militant is in process of becoming, established Christendom simply is, does not become.... What Christ said about His kingdom not being of this world was not said with special reference to those times when He uttered this saying; it is an eternally valid utterance about the relation of Christ's kingdom to this world, and so it is valid for every age. As soon as Christ's kingdom comes to terms with the world, Christianity is abolished.... To be a Christian in [the] militant Church means to express what it is to be a Christian within an environment which is the opposite to Christian. To be a Christian in a triumphant, an established Christendom, means to express what it is to be a Christian within an environment which is synonymous, homogeneous with Christianity.... At the precise place where suffering would have come if I had been living in a militant Church, now comes reward; there, where scorn and derision would overtake me if I had been living in a militant Church, now honor and esteem beckon to me; there, where death would be unavoidable, I now celebrate the highest triumph.9

In this regard S.K. saw the alliance between church and state as a particularly vicious thing, saying, "If [the Establishment] wishes the help of Government, it betrays the fact that it is not the Christianity of the New Testament."10 And again:

Nothing, nothing, nothing, no error, no crime is so absolutely repugnant to God as everything which is official; and why? Because the official is impersonal and therefore the deepest insult which can be offered to a personality.11

A basic, thematic pattern is beginning to emerge here, a pattern which ties together a great deal of what S.K. had to say and which suggests sectarianism as clearly as anything in his thought. There are two fundamental worldviews that stand in complete opposition to each other. The one is the Christian view, and its basic categories are: (a) den Enkelte, (b) the personal, and (c) "becoming," i.e. that which is in process, which is militant. The other is the worldly view, and its corresponding categories are: (a) the crowd, (b) the impersonal, and (c) "extant," i.e. that which simply is, which is established. And clearly, the sort of church most concerned to press this distinction between itself and the world is the sect.

The state is by nature (and properly so) a worldly institution; the church is not of this world; therefore the two are hardly such as can be either combined or even closely allied:

The "Church" ought really to represent "becoming"; the "State," on the other hand, "establishment." That is why it is so dangerous when Church and State grow together and are identified.... "Becoming" is more spiritual than "existing"; the servants of the Church ought not therefore to be officials, probably not married, but those expediti12 who are fitted to serve "becoming."13

The reason S.K.'s Attack did not include a multitude of suggestions about what the Danish Church should do, how it should go about reforming itself, now seems apparent. It was not, as Diem suggests,14 that S.K., without intending any radial changes, simply was staging a demonstration which might encourage the church to examine itself and deepen its spiritual life. Rather, S.K.'s concern and criticism ran so deep that any sort of "program of reform" would not even have touched the issue. Not reformation but reformulation was what was required. S.K. hardly would have settled for less, so his only alternative was to attack the church on as deep a level as possible and then, for his own part, divorce himself from it.

This pattern was precisely that of Brethren sectarianism: The Brethren-to-be left the church out of the conviction that it was not a Christian church. Later, and only later, did they proceed to the work of reformulation, to the organizing of a different kind of church. Whether or not S.K. ever would have proceeded to a similar step is, of course, impossible to say; he died too soon. But that his Attack pointed toward reformulation and a different kind of church seems evident.

Copyright (c) 1968