VI. B. The Character of Den Enkelte

E. Faith and Works

Christianity's requirement is: Thy life
shall as strenuously as possible
give expression to works--
and then one thing more is required:
that thou humble thyself and admit,
"But none the less I am saved by grace."

Anyone who promotes as emphatic a doctrine of works (which is precisely what "obedience" amounts to) as did S.K. and the Brethren inevitably opens himself to the risk and the accusation of works-righteousness. Protestant sectarianism continually had to face the charge. Fortunately, as it turned out, the Brethren were pushed hard on this score and thus were forced to clarify and define their own position, something they likely would not have done except under the spur of controversy.

In S.K.'s case, he was enough of a thinker to see the problem on his own and so address himself to it. It may well be that he gave more attention to this matter than has any other Protestant theologian. So impressive was his achievement that a Roman Catholic scholar has named as one of S.K.'s foremost contributions the solid integration of a doctrine of works into Reformation sola fide theology; Louis Dupre recognizes and expounds S.K.'s understanding of works as being a uniquely Protestant doctrine, explicitly refusing to claim it as a Catholic tendency.2

The Brethren, of course, hardly were capable of matching S.K.'s accomplishment, but they did reach after the same sort of solution. And if a central emphasis on works is a sectarian characteristic, the attempt to relate it to grace is a mark of Protestant sectarianism. With both S.K. and the Brethren, the fact that their emphasis on fruitful obedience was coupled with an equal emphasis on inwardness was itself some protection against a legalistic works-righteousness; at least their works would have to involve more than empty and merely outward acts. Yet it was necessary that they go further and explicitly posit salvation upon grace through faith, but doing it in such a way as not to blunt the demand for works of obedience. We shall see how this was accomplished.

It was inevitable--and appropriate--that baptism became for the Brethren the crux over which the issue should be joined. For one thing, baptism is the first work of the Christian life, first, that is, in chronological sequence, if not in preeminence. Second, it is apparent that baptism has some sort of connection with salvation, and thus if any work runs the risk of becoming a "saving work," it is certainly this one. And third, except as a "saving work" baptism would seem the most useless work of all. It fits precisely Alexander Mack's description of the command to "pick up a straw." Unlike works of charity or even those of self-discipline, baptism would seem to be of no use to either God or man-unless one did claim it as a grounds of salvation.

On the face of the matter, then, the purest Protestants would be the "spiritualists" who had altogether rejected such outward sacramental works; and they did indeed claim such status for themselves, accusing the churches as well as the sects of following works-righteousness. And it should be recalled that the Brethren came into being precisely out of such a spiritualist milieu and precisely through the readoption of baptism and other such works. In their very origin and from their very colleagues, then, the Brethren had to answer the charge that they were deserting the true faith in favor of works-righteousness.

We already have seen that Mack Senior, in stressing the necessity of obedience, had come very near suggesting that one is saved by his obedience. Even before making such statements, however, he had responded to the Radical Pietist charge and made it abundantly clear that he did not believe in works-righteousness but in salvation by faith alone. Both his assertions regarding obedience and regarding sola fide must be kept in the picture, because together they form the dialectic of grace and works.

Mack's reply to the Radicals' accusation that Brethren baptism was a saving work was in this way: First, salvation is trough faith (it would be more accurate to say "only through faith" rather than "through faith alone"). "We do indeed believe and profess that eternal life is not promised because of baptism, but only through faith in Christ (John 3:15, 18)?" But by its very nature, true faith cannot exist alone, its natural and necessary concomitant is the desire to obey. "Why should a believer not wish to do the will of him in whom he believes? If it is the will of Christ that a believer should be baptized, then it is also the will of the believer." Strictly speaking, it is not the outward obedience that is the essential corollary of faith but the desire to obey. "If he thus wills and believes as Christ wills, he is saved, even if it were impossible for him to receive baptism."3

Obedience, then, is the proof, or test, of the sincerity and thus the reality of one's faith. "Salvation is not dependent upon the water, but only upon the faith, which must be proved by love and obedience."4 This is not to suggest that the proof operates infallibly in both directions; Mack was far from suggesting that the mere fact that one submits to an external work proves that he possesses true inward faith. "That would in-deed be a good baptism, if all those whom we baptize in water were truly reborn. [But] it cannot be proved that [even] all those baptized by Christ and the apostles turned out well."5 The proof operates only in the other direction, i.e. anyone who deliberately disdains to submit to the explicit commands of God cannot be in a state of true and saving faith: "We do not seek to earn salvation with these simple works, but by faith in Christ alone. If it is to be a saving faith, it must produce works of obedience. Where that faith is not present which produces obedience, . . . then no salvation is promised for a single work done without faith."6 The fact of the matter is that the sectary Mack, for all his insistence and scrupulosity about outward works of obedience, was in a better position to defend his sola fide Protestantism than were the Reformers who retained a doctrine of baptismal regeneration and who, by virtue of its being infant baptism, would have had difficulty interpreting their baptism as being a work of voluntary obedience on the part of the believer.

Mack's was the fullest discussion of this matter among the eighteenth century Brethren, but there are enough hints among later writers to make it plain that this basic understanding was retained by the church.7 And although the discussion tended to limit itself to baptism, clearly the same explanation could be applied to "works" in general.

S.K.'s solution of the faith-works dichotomy was not essentially different from that of the Brethren but went much further, simply because S.K. was more skillful in handling dialectic. S.K. not only alternated his emphasis between the two poles but showed how each pole, by its very character, impels a movement toward its counterpart. Here is true Kierkegaardian dialectic in its most dynamic form, not the logical, mechanical progression from thesis to antithesis to synthesis, etc., but the motion of a particle suspended in a magnetic field, pulled both ways, pushed both ways, forced to recognize the attraction of both poles and yet unable to give itself to either pole, every movement simply establishing the conditions for a countermovement.

Such a relationship between faith and works is basic to S.K.'s entire discussion; as his norm he specified that "for every increase in the degree of grace the law must also be made more severe in inwardness--otherwise worldliness breaks in and takes 'grace' in vain?"8 Precisely here is found one of S.K.'s fundamental criticisms of Martin Luther and the Reformation, a point to which he continually returned.9 Certainly the medieval doctrine and practice of meritorious works-righteousness marked a perversion of the Christian faith; certainly it was proper that Luther endeavor to correct this situation with a radically new emphasis on grace; certainly Luther had no intention of eliminating the role of works. But the nature of churchly Protestantism's corrective was such that the dialectic got as badly out of balance in the "grace" direction as it had been in the "works" direction.

S.K. complained that Luther either did not or could not think dialectically; and a comparison of the two authors makes evident the nature of S.K.'s dissatisfaction. Luther tended to define and explicate "faith" and then turn to define "works" in contradistinction (rather than in relation) to "faith." A legitimate role was assigned to each, although they were compartmentalized to the point that one encountered something of a disjuncture in moving from one to the other. Thus, to illustrate S.K.'s contention at the risk of oversimplifying Luther, the Reformer's presentation almost amounted to a panegyric on faith always followed by a footnote to the effect that works dare not be neglected. And in later editions (speaking figuratively) it was next to inevitable that the footnotes would tend to drop out.

S.K.'s dialectical approach, on the other hand, strove to establish the continuity between true faith and true works. The gospel is not served by soft-pedaling works in order to enhance grace; "for every increase in the degree of grace the law must also be made more severe." Indeed, when they are properly related, emphasis on one will work to the immediate enhancement of the other; neither can be overemphasized as long as they are tied together in close dialectical conjunction. And it was just this tie that S.K. sought to provide.

In the first place, works must never be stressed in such a way as to detract from the cruciality of grace:

But in spite of the fact that it is wise to stress the need for discipleship, even though--instructed by the error of the Middle Ages--in a new and different sense, yet above all the matter must not be so viewed that Christ appears merely as our example and not as our Savior, as though the spiritually mature, at any rate, did not need the atonement. No, no, no--and for this reason: the more mature one is, so much the more will one discover that one needs the divine atonement and grace. No, atonement and grace is and remains the decisive thing."10

In short, churchly Protestantism needs correction but not by any method that would endanger its basic insight. However, S.K. saw (and this is the heart of his contribution) that there is a truly Christian conception of works which directly and emphatically feeds into a conception of grace rather than detracting from it.

The best presentation of this idea came in a journal entry which might well qualify as the one most basic and succinct statement of S.K.'s faith and witness. If only this one page survived out of all S.K.'s writings, theoretically at least, the entire content of his religious thought could be constructed. Almost every one of the Kierkegaardian motifs to be treated in this present study are either mentioned, implied, or made plausible by this passage. We quote only a part:

How does a man become a Christian? Very simple. Take any Christian principle of action--dare to follow it. The action which you would make actual also will be characterized by its unconditionedness, for this is the mark of all true Christianity. At the same instant, in this action you will collide with the outer world in which to a certain degree your life essentially consists. The collision will now become such that ... you need Christianity in order to hold out in this collision--unless you want to rely on the good that you do, although in this tension you likewise will discover that, quite contrary to your own idealism, you are still a wretched weakling so that you need grace unconditionally. Without occasion, without this occasion which isolates him almost to desperation and always in inverse proportion [i.e. the harder he works, the more he despairs], a man never comes to faith. This is also what Christ said and is the only proof possible for Christian truth: 'If anyone will do what I say, he shall learn what I say about myself [John 7:17].'... Dare once for truth's sake unconditionally to lay yourself open before everything; thus you shall indeed learn the truth of the Teacher, learn how He alone can save you from despairing or from going under.11

Only the man who earnestly has striven after works and consequently realized his own inability--only he is in position truly to appreciate and receive grace. But the total effect of this procedure is not as negative as it might appear; quite the contrary:

So it is with the unconditional requirement [of works]; if I must lift it, I am crushed. But this is not the intention of the Gospel, its intention is that I, through humiliation, shall be lifted up in faith and worship--and then I am as light as a bird.... Thou canst not worship God by good works, still less by crimes, and just as little by sinking into a soft slumber and doing nothing. No, in order to worship aright and rightly to have joy in worshipping, a man must so comport himself: he strives with might and main, spares himself neither day nor night, strives to produce as many as possible of what upright men, humanly speaking, might call 'good works.' Then when he takes them and, deeply humbled before God, beholds them transformed to wretchedness and vileness, that is to worship God--and that is exaltation.12

This is the conception of works that feeds into grace; S.K. also understood the more usual conception of works that proceed from grace. There is no conflict between the two ideas; the dialectical movement continually must go both ways. For one thing, faith desires to express itself in works of obedience and service--not, indeed, to earn anything but as a simple expression of gratitude. S.K. used the analogy of a lover's desire to do something for his beloved.13 Also, he saw that the conviction that all things come of grace, that God does everything, is no real detriment to works. He spoke of the seamstress who discovered that it was God and not herself who did spin and sew. But far from killing her initiative, she knew that God could sew only as she sewed; she redoubled her efforts for the joy of witnessing and experiencing that it is God who sews every stitch.14 And finally, S.K. saw that when works are motivated by grace they possess a much more powerful dynamic than when they are required by law, even if for the sake of one's salvation:

[As a child] it bored me much to copy father's letters, but he only had to say to me: all right then, I will do them myself. I was immediately willing. Oh, if he had scolded, alas, there would simply have been a row; but this was moving. In the same way many a self-denial may come difficult to a man and embitter him if it is imposed by law, but the Saviour's look and his words: Everything is given to thee, it is nothing but grace, only look upon me and my suffering which won this grace: yes, that is moving!15

Copyright (c) 1968