VIII. Christ as Savior and Pattern (Continued)

B. Nachfolge/Efterfølgelse/Imitation

"Imitation," "the following of Christ,"
this precisely is the point
where the human race winces, here it is principally
that the difficulty lies,
here is where the question really is decided
whether one will accept Christianity or not.1
Christianity is not a doctrine.
It is a belief, and corresponding to it,
a well-defined way of existence,
an imitation.
For the proof of Christianity really consists in "following."3

Efterføgelse is the Danish and Kierkegaardian term that is the precise equivalent of Nachfolge, the German and Brethren term. These have no such precise equivalent in English. They are often translated "discipleship," but this can suggest merely the adherence to a master's teachings or an acceptance of his philosophy, whereas, as S.K. put it, "To be a follower means that thy life has as great a likeness to His as it is possible for a man's life to have."4 "Imitation" is perhaps the preferable translation--if one guards against the tinge of artificiality the word conveys and against the hint of works-righteousness that traditionally has accompanied imitatio Christi.

Nachfolge is certainly one of the major themes of all classic Protestant sectarianism and might well be claimed as the central theme of eighteenth century Brethrenism--being, of course, very closely related to the theme of obedience/fruit bearing. More Brethren authors could be quoted at greater length concerning Nachfolge than any other motif we have treated. But rather than amassing evidence we will cite only the one best presentation, this a poem by Sauer Junior. (Its structure is such as to merit its being printed as poetry even though the translation is not metrical.)

That which to our frivolous eyes
 Appears as something to be valued,
That is--as beautiful as it may be--
 Directly counter to Christ.
Christ was the friend of the poor;
 We Christians are their enemies.
He hated honor;
 We give it heed.
He did not love riches;
 We are bound to them.
He sought only to suffer;
 We seek to avoid it.
He was despised, laughed at;
 We would be esteemed.
He was as a little child;
 We would be quickly grown.
He was the people's laughingstock
 And stood not on the throne.
He hated lust and pleasure;
 We love both of them
He lived in anxiety and need;
 We relish the bread of pleasure.
He was blamed for his conduct;
 We would be approved
He would be loving;
 We love only ourselves.
He considered it reasonable that we should follow him;
We live in self-will.
"Deny yourself," he said;
None of us does that.
"Each one shall constrain himself";
We are opposed to constraint.
No one recognizes
Works of love in these times.
At present, only God and no one else
Would love and never compel.
We love what is high;
He loved what is lowly here.
He would teach us humility;
We will not listen.
He sought hardship;
It makes us wail and cry.
He noticed the forsaken;
We notice the elevated.
He approached the poor;
We climb high.
He is full of goodness and love;
We follow our inclinations.
He suffered many blows,
in this was no man like him.
He would have us poor in spirit;
We seek great gifts.
One should be in the Spirit alone
And not according to nature.
Through such opposition,
Where the devil's power is so great,
Jesus' life and teachings now
Become wholly despised.5

At least one striking difference between Brethren Nachfolge and that of early twentieth century Liberalism becomes evident here. With the Brethren there was no tendency to read Jesus as the attractive exemplar of the humane ideals and graces that culture-religion exalts. Quite the opposite; the Brethren found in Jesus the possibility of offense and precisely those attributes that the natural man naturally despises. Thus in Sauer's poem there is implied an idea which S.K. was to make specific, namely, that the following of Christ--far from displacing, or substituting for, faith in him as Savior and Redeemer--serves to make it abundantly clear that one must have a Savior. Without the help of the Savior, the call to discipleship is as infeasible in prospect as impossible in achievement.

Kierkegaard could be quoted at even greater length regarding Nachfolge than could the Brethren--simply because he wrote more. The emphasis was just as central with him as with them--although S.K. undoubtedly had more "central emphases" than did the Brethren. And for him, Nachfolge meant essentially the same thing it meant for the Brethren:

To follow Christ, then, means denying one's self, and hence it means walking the same way as Christ walked in the humble form of a servant--needy, forsaken, mocked, not loving worldliness and not loved by the worldly minded.6

This is what Nachfolge means, and this--S.K. was certain--is what is demanded of every Christian.7

But rather than simply multiplying the sort of quotations that did constitute several discourses and could be used to fill a volume, we present one very pertinent statement--pertinent because in it S.K. set his doctrine in its historical perspective, differentiating it clearly from earlier forms of "imitation":

However great [the Middle Ages'] errors may have been, its conception of Christianity has a decisive superiority over that of our time. The Middle Ages conceived of Christianity with a view to action, life, the transformation of personal existence. This is its valuable side. It is another matter that there were some singular actions they especially emphasized, that they could think that fasting for its own sake was Christianity, and so too going into a monastery, bestowing everything upon the poor, not to speak of what we can hardly refer to without smiling, such as flagellation, crawling on the knees, standing upon one leg, etc., as if this were the true imitation of Christ. This was error.... What was worse than the first error did not fail to make its appearance, that they got the idea of meritoriousness, thought that they acquired merit before God by their good works. And the situation became worse than this: they even thought that by good works one might acquire merit to such a degree that it accrued not only to his advantage, but that like a capitalist or bondsman one might let it accrue to the advantage of others. And it became worse, it became a regular business.... Then Luther came forward. But let us not forget that for all this Luther did not do away with the following of Christ, nor with voluntary imitation, as the effeminate coterie is so fain to make us believe.... The erroneous path from which Luther turned off was exaggeration with respect to works. And quite rightly, he was not at fault: a man is justified solely and only by faith.... But already the next generation slackened; it did not turn in horror from exaggeration in respect to works (of which Luther had had personal experience) into the path of faith. No, they transformed the Lutheran passion into a doctrine, and with this they diminished also the vital power of faith.... When the monastery is the misleading thing, faith must he introduced; when the 'professor' is the misleading thing, imitation must be introduced.... The "disciple" is the standard: imitation and Christ as the Pattern must be introduced.8

It is manifestly false to call S.K. a Catholic on the basis of his doctrine of Nachfolge to equate (or for that matter, even liken) his view with that of monastic imitation. Rather, the position for which S.K. here set the stage is a doctrine of Nachfolge which is thoroughly Protestant in character--indeed, without which Protestantism cannot even remain true to its own normative principles. And if the possibility of a truly Protestant Nachfolge was a real one for S.K., then it was equally real for the entire tradition of classic Protestant sectarianism. S.K. and the Brethren were at one in their demand for a Nachfolge in respect to Christ that would not threaten faith in respect to Christ. S.K.--because he was capable of doing so--went far beyond the Brethren in formulating the theological bases for such a position.

It comes as no surprise to discover that the technique S.K. used for relating Christ the Pattern to Christ the Savior was dialectic; he did so consciously:

I must take good care, or rather God will take good care for me, that I am not led astray by concentrating too one-sidedly on Christ as our pattern. The related term through which it becomes dialectical is Christ as gift, as He who bestows Himself upon us (to call to mind Luther's regular classification).9

In a sense, S.K. already had cleared the site for his dialectic. In traditional theology, faith is directed primarily toward the Christ of Faith, concerns primarily the divine nature; Nachfolge, on the other hand, (if considered at all) is directed primarily toward the historical Jesus, concerns primarily the human nature. In this situation, then, the relating of faith and Nachfolge faces the complication of the two being oriented toward two somewhat different objects. S.K. did not have this problem; his one object was the God-Man. As we have seen, S.K. consistently used "contemporaneousness" to denote den Enkelte's approach to the God-Man to the end of believing upon him through faith; "Nachfolge," on the other hand, denotes the approach to Him for purposes of imitation. Yet, in practice, both are identical approaches made to the one God-Man, i.e. imaginative efforts to see and hear Jesus Christ as he was during his life on earth. As S.K. set the terms, then, it is not necessary for either den Enkelte or the God-Man to change roles when their relationship alternates from that of "grace bestowed upon faith" to that of "instruction enjoined for Nachfolge."

The first movement of the dialectic, as S.K. explicated it, consists of such a stringent interpretation of the demand for Nachfolge that one is, in effect, "chased" to grace:

What is written in the Epistle to the Galatians 2, 19, "I through the law have died to the law, " corresponds exactly to the explanation I am accustomed to give of our relation to the "Model." First one must realize that the model is a crushing demand. But thereupon the model, Christ, transforms itself into grace and mercy, and tries to take hold of you in order to bear you up. But so it is that through the Model you have died to the model.10
By becoming contemporaneous with Christ your pattern, you discover that you never equal Him, not even in what you term your best moments.... Hence it follows that you learn to flee with profit to faith and grace.... Thus Christ as our example is He who most severely and endlessly judges--and at the same time is the One who has pity on you.11

Thus far S.K. has been in complete accord with much of so-called neo-orthodox ethics; but S.K. was not content to stop at this point, as Neo-Orthodoxy is inclined to do. Here is Nachfolge, but in a peculiarly truncated form: there is a demand for discipleship but never any hope of accomplishing it--indeed, it was never the Demander's intention that there should be accomplishment, his interest being simply to humiliate the individual into a realization of his need for grace. S.K. saw this implication and proceeded to correct it; the following is one of his most important statements:

Which is it? Is God's meaning, in Christianity, simply to humble man through the model (that is to say putting before us the ideal) and to console him with 'Grace,' but in such a way that through Christianity there is expressed the fact that between God and man there is no relationship, that man must express his thankfulness like a dog to man, so that adoration becomes more and more true, and more and more pleasing to God, as it becomes less and less possible for man to imagine that he could be like the model? ... Is that the meaning of Christianity? Or is it the very reverse, that God's will is to express that he desires to be in relation with man, and therefore desires the thanks and the adoration which is in spirit and in truth: imitation. The latter is certainly the meaning of Christianity. But the former is a cunning invention of us men (although it may have its better side) in order to escape from the real relation to God?12

S.K. would not be as quick to talk about an "impossible ideal" as is Reinhold Niebuhr, nor would he be as ready to insist that an impossible ideal is truly "relevant."

So S.K. did not stop with just half a dialectic, with a Nachfolge that only moves the individual into grace and leaves him fixed at that point. He inserted a countermovement from grace to Nachfolge which would have the effect of sustaining the alternation. Imitation, he saw, proceeds from grace as well as leads to it:

The true imitation is not produced by preaching on the theme: Thou shalt imitate Christ; but as a result of preaching about how much Christ has done for me. If a man grasps and feels that truly and profoundly then imitation will follow naturally.13

Also, this "post-faith" Nachfolge is itself enabled and empowered by grace; it is the Savior who makes it possible for den Enkelte to follow the Pattern:

It is not enough to say that Christ is the model and we only need imitate Him. In the first place, I need His assistance in order to be like Him; and in the second place, inasmuch as He is the Savior and the Redeemer of humanity, I assuredly cannot imitate Him.14

And the case is that Nachfolge protects faith no less than faith empowers Nachfolge. It is not that faith is the be all and end all, with Nachfolge as an optional supplement. In a brief but pregnant phrase S.K. said that "human honesty [is] evinced by imitation."15 A person's willingness to follow the Pattern is the proof and test of the reality of his faith in the Savior; Nachfolge, far from being the enemy of faith or a substitute for it, is precisely that which preserves faith's purity and prevents it from being misused by hypocrisy and carelessness.

Thus the God-Man's functions as Redeemer and Pattern are integrated in a most powerful dialectic, which dialectic was given very eloquent expression in the invocatory prayer with which S.K. opened his most important discourse on Nachfolge:

Help us all and every one, Thou who art both willing and able to help, Thou who art both the Pattern and the Redeemer, and again both the Redeemer and the Pattern, so that when the striver sinks under the Pattern, then the Redeemer raises him up again, but at the same instant Thou art the Pattern, to keep him continually striving. Thou, our Redeemer, by Thy blessed suffering and death, hast made satisfaction for all and for everything; no eternal blessedness can be or shall be earned by desert--it has been deserved. Yet Thou didst leave behind Thee the trace of Thy footsteps, Thou the holy pattern of the human race and of each individual in it, so that, saved by Thy redemption, they might every instant have confidence and boldness to will to strive to follow Thee.16

Copyright (c) 1968