IX. The Chrstian's Book

Was l not in the right,
and am I not, in saying
that first and foremost everything
must be done to make it perfectly
definite what is required in the
New Testament for being a Christian?
To be alone with the Holy Scriptures!
I dare not! When I turn up a passage in it,
whatever comes to hand-it catches me instantly,
it questions me
(indeed it is as if it were God Himself that questioned me),
"Has! thou done what thou readest there?"

A point on which Kierkegaard and the Brethren show as much affinity as anywhere is their view and use of the Bible. An accurate and very useful study regarding S.K.'s position already has been made--this as the preface to the Minear-Morimoto Index, Kierkegaard and the Bible.3 Rather than attempting to duplicate this work of one who is recognized both as a Bible scholar and an authority on S.K., we will confine ourselves to the comparison with sectarianism. However, much of what Minear has to say is germane to our topic. He establishes the central role that Scripture played in S.K.'s life and thought, saying:

It is safe to assert that the Scriptures exerted a more continuous, a more creative, a more profound constraint upon his nimble thoughts, than did any other book or any comparable group of books.... In short, no area of S.K.'s life or work was exempt from the repeated impact of that Scripture through which God had chosen to speak to him.4

Indeed, Niels Thulstrup--who may well qualify as the foremost Kierkegaard authority of our time--has pushed this emphasis so far as to maintain that the orientation of S.K.'s thought toward the New Testament was so complete that his writings can be understood, analyzed, and criticized only against the biblical background--rather than according to the customary norms of philosophical or theological methodology.5

The truth of Thulstrup's assertion does not make itself evident upon the first reading of S.K. For one thing, he was not given to the citation of proof texts or to constant appeals to scriptural authority. For another, the pseudonymous literature vastly complicates the picture, for here the biblical bases of S.K.'s thought were deliberately suppressed; material written by non-Christian pseudonyms for the benefit of "non-Christian Christians" could hardly afford to show its true colors. Nevertheless, as a great deal of our previous discussion has indicated, even the pseudonymous ideas (such as den Enkelte, the leap of faith, subjectivity, etc.), when traced through to their denouement, become quite recognizable as New Testament concepts--which undoubtedly is where S.K. originally got them and what he had in mind all along. And by far the greater part of his religious works--all of the discourses and such--are expositions of scripture texts. To be sure, they do not represent critical, scientific exegesis, but they are expositions of scripture for all that. Indeed, a review of the topics we have lifted up in this study, done with the New Testament (and particularly the Gospels) in mind, would make the orientation of Kierkegaardian thought quite evident.

Further, Minear makes a rather surprising judgment regarding the quality of S.K.'s use of the Bible:

He was a particularly gifted interpreter of the Bible. In fact, we do not hesitate to predict that corning generations will increasingly reckon with him not so much as a philosopher, as a poet, as a theologian, or as a rebel agains Christendom, but as an expositor of Scripture.6 Neither Fundamentalists nor scientific historicists are likely to make much sense of Kierkegaard's methods of exposition. No longer, however, are these two schools of historiography the dominant ones. Everywhere one may detect signs of a spreading revolt, not only against Protestant bibliolatry but also against the idolatries implicit in rationalism and historicism. And wherever this revolt is found, there will also be found the hermeneutical influence of this Danish layman.7

Minear maintains that S.K. has an important contribution to make regarding biblical studies; we will maintain that this contribution is essentially that of sectarianism.

In the first place, S.K. was very insistent that the New Testament constitutes the norm and definition of Christianity. Not the creeds, catechisms, or symbols; not the tradition of the church; not the theological formulations of either the past or the present; not personal experience or one's own understanding of existence; not the demands of the age; but the New Testament is the norm and definition. In the Attack, the phrase S.K. used as a technical term to denote the ideal and goal for which he strove was "the Christianity of the New Testament." In the very first item of that Attack he suggested putting "the New Testament alongside Mynster's sermons";8 and his programmatic statement appealed to the same norm [see this quoted above]. Elsewhere he said, "Christianity (that is, the Christianity of the New Testament--and everything else is not Christianity, least of all by calling itself such).10 He spoke of his "unaltered conviction that the Christianity of the New Testament is Christianity, the other [i.e. the modern version] being a knavish trick."11 And, very bluntly: "The New Testament indeed settles what Christianity is, leaving it to eternity to pass judgment upon us. In fact the priest is bound by an oath upon the New Testament--so it is not possible to regard that as Christianity which men like best and prefer to call Christianity"12 [Cf. S.K. quoted above].

Indeed, S.K. held this thought so passionately that he could describe the nature and course of his own authorship as a case in which the "poet suddenly transformed himself, threw away the guitar, if I may speak thus, [and] brought out a book which is called The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ"13

It would not be inaccurate to epitomize S.K.'s entire career as an attempt to apply the New Testament norm to the Christianity of his day.

At first blush this might seem to be simply a restatement of the Reformation principle of the return to scripture. It is that, but it is more than that; it is--as all sectarianism is--a Reformation principle somewhat more radically interpreted and applied than the churchly tradition would do. Thus, on the pages that follow, as we discover how S.K. approached the Bible and what he understood it to be, it will become clear that his return to scripture was not simply that of Protestantism but even more specifically it was that of Protestant sectarianism.

At the outset it should be noted that S.K. consistently spoke of "the New Testament," not "the Bible." The distinction is significant. S.K., of course made use of both Testaments; witness, for example, his preoccupation with the figures of Abraham and Job. But there was a difference. The Old Testament provided material for contemplation and edification, but S.K. did not credit it with the binding and definitive authority that he did the New. He never derived commandments or norms from the Old, although he found them in abundance in the New. At one point early in his career S.K. gave voice to the distinction; his practice would indicate that he held this opinion throughout:

That's the difficulty of it, that one has both the Old and the New Testament; for the Old Testament has entirely different categories. For what would the New Testament say to a faith which thinks it should get things quite to its liking in the world, in the temporal, instead of letting this go and grasping the eternal? Hence the inconstancy of the clerical address, according as the Old or the New Testament is transparent in it.14

The Brethren position coincided with that of S.K. both as regards the normativeness of the New Testament and the fact that it is the New Testament that is normative. Indeed, Brethren adherence to the idea was conspicuous enough that the colonial historian Robert Proud was led to mention it:

[The Brethren] have a great esteem for the New Testament, valuing it higher than the other books; and when they are asked about the articles of their faith, they say they know of no others but what are contained in this book; and therefore can give none.15

With the Brethren, as with S.K., reference was customarily made to "the New Testament" rather than to "the Bible"--although also, as with S.K., the early Brethren did in no way reject or neglect the Old Testament as a help toward understanding the New. The anonymous Brethren tract Ein Geringer Schein became quite specific. In explaining (for the benefit of benighted Quakers who had challenged Brethren practice) why the command of baptism is binding while that of circumcision is not, the text about the law and the prophets being until John is quoted, and it is prescribed that, since the coming of Christ, only his commands have normative status.16 Later, in a rather lengthy passage, the point is strongly emphasized that "if anyone receives a spirit which inwardly persuades him of being the Spirit of God," and if this spirit "does not remind him of all that which Jesus of Nazareth taught to his disciples 1700 years before," it is manifestly a lying spirit. Indeed, by the single test of obedience to the New Testament teachings of Christ one can determine whether he truly believes and truly possesses the Spirit of God.17

A further principle has here become evident: it is not simply the New Testament that is normative, but within the New Testament, the teachings of Jesus become the ultimate authority for the Christian life. Mack Senior stated this unequivocally in one of the earliest Brethren documents, his letter to Count Charles August, dated 1711:

The sinner shall repent and believe in the Lord Jesus and should be baptized in water upon his confession of faith. He should then seek to carry out everything Jesus has commanded and publicly bequeathed in His Testament. If we are doing wrong herein, against the revealed word of the Holy Scriptures, be it in teaching, way of life, or conduct, we would gladly receive instruction. If, however, no one can prove this on the basis of Holy Scriptures, and yet persecute us despite this, we would gladly suffer and bear it for the sake of the teachings of Jesus Christ.18

No one has made a tally of the biblical references in early Brethren literature, but the impression certainly is that Brethren usage conformed to Brethren theory, i.e. there was a tendency to focus on the Gospels, on the teachings of Jesus, and even more pointedly, on the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, one present-day Brethren historian avows that the "clearest" characteristic of primitive Brethrenism is its emphasis on the Sermon;19 but whether "clearest" or not, it is plain that the Brethren reading of scripture was of this order.

A tally has been made of the scriptures exposited and cited by S.K., and even a cursory scanning of the Minear-Morimoto Index is most revealing. Clearly, S.K. valued and used the Gospels more than the Epistles;20 the Synoptics seem to get more attention than John; among the Synoptics it is quite evident that Matthew (the "teaching" Gospel) is strongly favored; and most unmistakable of all is the fact that the Sermon on the Mount attracted S.K.'s attention and comments more than any other comparable passage of scripture--with the possible exception of what S.K. once called his favorite passage, the first chapter of James.21

This coincidence between S.K. and the Brethren is, of course, more than just "coincidence"; it is the natural consequence of their emphasis on contemporaneousness and Nachfolge, on religion as life rather than doctrine. S.K., at least, was well aware that he read scripture from a somewhat different angle than did traditional churchly Protestantism; he commented on the fact a number of times:

Luther's doctrine is not merely a reversion to primitive Christianity but a modification of Christianity. He drags St. Paul one-sidedly to the fore and uses the Gospels less. He himself supplies the best refutation of his own biblical theory; he rejects the Epistle of St. James, and why? Because it does not belong to the Canon? No, he does not deny that; but on dogmatic grounds, and consequently his starting point is above the Bible.22
It is easy to see that Luther's preaching of Christianity distorts the Christian standpoint. He concerned himself one-sidedly with the Apostle Paul and then goes so far (and this often happens) as to use the Apostle retrospectively as the norm for testing the Gospels; if he does not find Paul's doctrine in the Gospels then he concludes, "Ergo this is no Gospel." Luther seems to have been completely blind to the fact that the true situation is that the Apostle has already degenerated by comparison with the Gospel. And this misguided attitude which Luther adopted then continued in Protestantism, which made of Luther the absolute criterion.23

Whether S.K. knew that the Pauline epistles were written before the Gospels is not clear; doubtlessly the Brethren did not know this. But nevertheless, the knowledge would not have changed the case, because the intent of S.K. and the Brethren was not primarily the scholarly one of getting back to the most primitive sources but the doctrinal one of re-establishing the historical Jesus both as the Savior who is the ground of faith and as the Pattern who is the ground of Nachfolge.

And a point which we have made time and again needs to be reiterated here. This appeal from Paul to Jesus sounds suspiciously like the Liberalism of the Old-Quest period; however, with both the Brethren and S.K., the context, motivation, and results of the move were entirely different. It is not with the sectaries as with the Liberals an attempt to escape, or even to de-emphasize, the deity of Christ, his unique role in atonement for and redemption from sin. Both S.K. and the Brethren understood what post-Liberal scholarship has demonstrated, that the Gospels are every bit as kerygmatically oriented as are the writings of Paul. The distinction is, then, that Liberalism wanted to flee the Pauline kerygma by having recourse to a merely historical Jesus of the Gospels (as though the Gospels knew anything of a merely historical Jesus); S.K. and sectarianism, on the other hand, wanted to keep the kerygma firmly grounded in the historical Jesus who was not only the source and object of the proclamation but the pattern of the Christian life as well.

In fact, even though S.K. spoke of the Apostle's "degeneration," his quarrel was not so much with Paul as with what the church has tended to make of Paul:

In particular, the purely natural historical truth of things is overlooked. Thus it is forgotten that the Apostle is a person engaged in existence, who with flashes of insight flings out a few words of comfort in order to keep a Christian community going. At first people transformed the Apostle's hastily-written letters into something fantastic, God knows what. Now they are distorted in a doctrinal sense. In reality they are impulsive. When everything is at stake, and when each day it is a question of winning new converts or of maintaining the faith of those who are already won, there is no time for fantastic speculations or doctrinal applications. People forget Paul the man over the shreds of manuscript which he dashed off and which are now treated in a most un-Pauline way.24

At this point, S.K.'s opinion of which scriptures are most important leads directly into his hermeneutical theory on how scripture is to be read. S.K.'s main thrust-in which the Brethren concurred completely-was that the Bible is not intended to be read objectively (impersonally) as a sourcebook either of dogma or of history but subjectively (personally) as God's guidance and instruction for den Enkelte. It is this aspect of his thought which S.K. presented so clearly and compactly in one discourse, "How to Derive True Benediction from Beholding Oneself in the Mirror of the Word,"25 and which Paul Minear so well discusses. We need indicate only the main outline of the view.

S.K. was passionately concerned to resist the tendency to "make God's Word something impersonal, objective, a doctrine--whereas instead it is as God's voice thou shouldst hear it."26 Or as he elsewhere so bitingly put it: "People treat the Scriptures so scientifically that they might quite as well be anonymous writings [rather than God's word to them]."27 The alternative, then, is this:

The divine authority of the Gospel speaks not to one man about another man, not to you, the reader, about me, or to me about you--no, when the Gospel speaks it speaks to the single individual. It does not speak about us men, you and me, but it speaks to us men, you and me.28

In his core discourse, S.K. brought this entire line of thought to its climax in a most impressive figure of speech, likening the scriptures to a love letter from God.29

He pursued the analogy at some length, noting a number of implications, such as how the lover will want to he alone with the letter rather than calling in others to help interpret it and how he will focus not simply upon the text of the communication but upon the one whom it communicates. However, one of S.K.'s points merits our particular attention. He assumed that in the letter the beloved had made a request or expressed a desire. In such case, S.K. pointed out, a true lover will not be inclined to ponder and puzzle and worry over the wording, uncertain as to whether he completely understands, afraid that he might do more than the beloved had in mind. Rather, the impulse of his love will he to strive for an immediate, uninhibited obedience that is much more afraid of showing reluctance than inaccuracy. As S.K. put it:

When thou readest God's Word, it is not the obscure passages which impose a duty upon thee [to investigate and consult until they be deciphered], but that which thou understandest; and with that thou must instantly comply.30

S.K.'s view has much in common with that of modern existentialist, kerygma theology (which is in large part derived from him), but there are also significant differences. The emphasis on the Word as a living communication directed to me, concerning my existence, to be appropriated by me--this is similar. However, modern theology understands that Word almost exclusively as a word about Christ (the kerygma) which I need only accept; lacking is the Kierkegaardian emphasis on the word of Christ which I am called upon to obey. The Brethren view, on the other hand, was so completely in agreement with S.K.'s that if the two were exchanged the deception would be difficult to detect. Mack Senior, for example, said: "A faithful child of God looks only to his heavenly Father, and believes and follows Him in His revealed Word, because he is certain of and believes that God and His spoken Word are completely one."31 And Michael Frantz observed that, for Christians, the word is "cherished as a seed from God planted in their hearts."32

The most impressive Brethren statement, however, we quote at length--precisely because the parallel with S.K. is so striking. The section of the anonymous Ein Geringer Schein which deals with scripture opens thus:

Holy Scripture is a letter from God which he, through the working of his eternal Spirit, has caused to be written to the human race.
That which stands written in the New Testament is directed particularly to all those who have hope of becoming inheritors of the good which in the New Testament is bequeathed to the children of the new-testamental covenant. Now whoever is such a one, he has grounds for seeing the New Testament as a letter from the eternal God written to him; and all other books, writings, letters, and opinions--and particularly his own ideas--draw him further and further away from God's letter. And as is the case among us, that a person's testament becomes fixed through the death of him who made it--so that we know that this is the whole of his last will and that afterwards nothing more can be added to it (Heb. 9:17)--thus Christ also, through his death, has fixed and sealed the New Testament.
Therefore it is urgently required of Christendom that all the words of Christ and his Spirit come to be so read, considered, and believed that they be carried with groanings in prayer to God; that they be received and appropriated in true contrition of heart; that the whole New Testament be written by the finger of God on the heart of the reader until his entire life becomes a living letter from God in which all men can read the commands of Christ (2 Cor. 3:3). It is not enough for a person to see the New Testament as a book where, indeed, the truth stands written, yet, nevertheless, one which does not greatly apply to us or does not commit us to the practice of the commands of Christ.33

Whoever wrote Em Geringer Schein might well be identified as Kierkegaard redivivus (or more accurately, predivivus).

If the Bible is primarily a personal communication in which God instructs den Enkelte, then the use to which den Enkelte must put scripture is as a test, or measure, of his own life. S.K. was insistent on this score and centered on the idea by using the mirror analogy from Jas. 1:22-25:

If thou dost assume an impersonal (objective) relationship to God's Word, there can be no question of beholding thyself in a mirror; for to look in a mirror surely implies a personality, an ego; a wall can be seen in a mirror but cannot see itself or behold itself in the mirror. No, in reading God's Word thou must continually say to thyself, "It is to me this is addressed, it is about me it speaks."34
It is only too easy to understand the requirements contained in God's Word--"give all thy goods to the poor," "when a man smites thee upon the right cheek, turn to him also the left," "when a man takes away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also, " "rejoice always," "count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations, " etc.... No poor wretch of the most limited intelligence can truly say that he is unable to understand the requirement--but flesh and blood are reluctant to understand and be obliged to do accordingly.35

The Brethren affirmed this view as strongly as did S.K. In this case it was Michael Frantz who anticipated Kierkegaard even to using the mirror analogy:

A mirror is thy word so beautiful
 Wherein I truly can see myself--
Whether I proceed according to Jesus--
 Which cannot be seen in the same way in things of the world.
Thy word, Lord Jesus, is a scales
 With which I truly weigh myself
As to whether I am disposed toward thee
 To do thy will in all things.36

And elsewhere he suggested that "in the mirror of what Christ has taught one sees whether he is a new man or old."37

A final observation is in place regarding the Brethren-Kierkegaardian approach to scripture. Both the Dunkers and the Dane were inclined to be quite uncritical (in a scholarly sense) in their reading of the Bible. For the Brethren--as simple, unlettered believers living in the eighteenth century--there was, of course, no alternative; the science of biblical criticism bad not yet developed. With S.K., however, it had to be deliberate; he lived late enough and knew enough that we would expect him to show much more critical sophistication than he does.

However, even though both S.K. and the Brethren accorded scripture the highest sort of authority, and even though both read it uncritically, yet their position was very far from being literalistic, legalistic bibliolatry. Indeed, the Brethren may well have had a somewhat freer and more "liberal" view of scripture than did most of their eighteenth century churchly compeers. For one thing, the very fact that both S.K. and the Brethren could and would grant a higher degree of authority to the New Testament than to the Old; and within the New Testament, to the Gospels; and within the Gospels, to the commands of Jesus--this is demonstration enough that they were not fettered to a "dead-level" concept of inspiration that sees every letter of the Bible as equally and infallibly God's word.

Also, their antipathy to impersonal, objective theologizing as much as outlaws fundamentalistic, or even scholarly, "proof-texting" (which is about as highly objectivizing a procedure as one could devise) [In this regard, see S.K.'s statement quoted above].

Then, too, by positing the reading of scripture as being personal communion with God and thus opening up a vital role for the guiding and enlightening work of the Spirit, both S.K. and the Brethren again far transcended a narrow literalism. For the Brethren, these implications became most apparent in Mack Junior's open letter on feetwashing, where he developed a total view that eventuated in statements such as:

Scripture must be understood and looked upon with a spiritual eye of love and calmness.... True wisdom and her lovers must be minded as James teaches and says, "But the wisdom from above is in the first place pure; and then peace-loving, considerate, and open to reason. " ... Therefore the Scriptures call for spiritual eyes, mind, and understanding. Otherwise, through literalistic interpretation, if a person without true illumination were to try to hold fast to the letter in one place, he would have to disregard and act contrary to it in another place, and thus we would have nothing but trouble and division. Therefore, dear brethren, let us watch and be careful. And above all preserve love, for then we will preserve light.... Then our good God, who is love purely and impartially, can and will add by degrees whatever may be lacking in this or that knowledge of the truth. [See the full text above].

Copyright (c) 1968