Søren Kierkegaard

The Attack upon "Christendom"

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) wrote a series of essays in the last two years of his life that have been published as his Attack upon "Christendom." What is "Christendom"? It is the embodiment of the notion that the objectives of God are to be realized by an alliance between church and state that

  1. requires all subjects of the state to be Christians, and that
  2. has laws designed to force all the citizens of the state behave like Christians.

Kierkegaard saw the church-state alliance as bankrupt. It could only succeed in creating a highly distorted form of Christianity that put committed believers in the same category as those who were simply Christians "by birth." Kierkegaard contrasted the Danish state church of his day with the Christianity that he saw in the New Testament itself. Here are some samples from his Attack:

Kierkegaard is often regarded as a philosopher--even the founder of modern existentialism. This is not a description that he would have accepted, and it annoyed him that some were applying his work outside of the realm of Christian theology. It is better to view Kierkegaard as a brilliant theologian with a deep conviction that the Christian life must exceed the very highest level of secular, human decency--and to exceed it by a margin that could only be described as a leap into a "religious" stage. That is, the Christian must become a "knight of faith." Kierkegaard saw this transformation to be work of God, but required a conscious effort of preparation by the would-be disciple as he progressed through the stage of becoming aware of sin.

This brought Kierkegaard completely out of the rationalist sphere of Kant and other philosophers. Because most of Kierkegaard's readers had not made that transition, they could not grasp many of his ideas--to them he would be an "existentialist." Therefore he was regarded as one who had been given the mission of "making Christianity difficult"--a description that he gladly accepted for himself.

Was Kierkegaard a house church theologian? Dr. Vernard Eller clearly places him in that tradition (see Bibliography, below). Kierkegaard's writings on the radical nature of true discipleship have been widely cited by house church theologians.


Regarding Establishment Christianity

The human race in the course of time has taken the liberty of softening and softening Christianity until at last we have contrived to make it exactly the opposite of what it is in the New Testament...

From The Fatherland, 3/31/1855. Lowrie, 39.

Regarding the Wealth of the Clergy

Thanks be to you, ye silk and velvet priests, who in ever more numerous troops offered your services when it appeared that profit was on the side of Christianity; thanks be to you for your Christian zeal and fervor in behalf of these millions, of kingdoms and lands, of a whole world of Christians, many thanks, it was Christian zeal and fervor! For if things were to remain as they were--if only a few poor, persecuted, hated men were Christians--where was the silk and velvet to come from, and honor and prestige, and worldly enjoyment more refined than that of any other voluptuary, refined by the appearance of holiness which almost laid claim to worship! Disgusting! Even the most abandoned scum of humanity have, after all, this advantage--that their crimes are not extolled and honored, almost worshipped and adored, as Christian virtues.

From The Fatherland, 3/30/1855. Lowrie, 35.

Regarding Clerical Vestments

The portraitlike description of the priest is this: ... he walks in long robes, which Christ, however, does not exactly recommend when both in Mark and Luke He says (Mk. 12:38; Lk. 20:46) "Beware of those who go about in long robes."

From The Fatherland, 3/21/1855. Lowrie, 27.

Regarding Apostasy

In Lk. 18:8, Jesus asks the rhetorical question, "Yet when the Son of Man returns, will there be faith on earth?" This is Kierkegaard's answer to the Lord's question:

The apostasy from Christianity will not come about openly by everybody renouncing Christianity; no, but slyly, cunningly, knavishly, by everybody assuming the name of being Christian, thinking that in this way all were most securely secured against...Christianity, the Christianity of the New Testament, which people are afraid of, and therefore industrial priests have invented under the name of Christianity a sweetmeat which has a delicious taste, for which men hand out money with delight.

From The Fatherland, 4/27/1855. Lowrie, 46-47.

Regarding Baptism

It is a young man....

As for religion, his religion is ... that he has none at all. To think of God never occurs to him.... This same young man who feels no need of religion ... marries, then has a child, he is ... presumptive father. And then what happens? Well, our young man is, as they say, in hot water about this child; in the capacity of ... presumptive father he is compelled to have a religion.... So they notify the priest, the midwife arrives with the baby, a young lady holds the infant's bonnet coquettishly, several young men who also have no religion render the presumptive father the service of having, as godfathers, the Evangelical Christian religion, and assume obligation for the Christian upbringing of the child, while a silken priest with a graceful gesture sprinkles water three times on the dear little baby and dries his hands gracefully with the towel--

And this they dare to present to God under the name of Christian baptism....

From Kierkegaard's journals, "The Sort of Person they Call a Christian." Lowrie, 205.

The Living Room vs. the Sanctuary

Kierkegaard's concept of church was formulated well before his Attack. He wrote this passage under one of his many writing pseudonyms:

The speaker who does not know how the task looks in daily life and in the living-room might just as well keep still, for Sunday glimpses into eternity lead to nothing but wind.... And it is

From Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments by Johannes Climacus (pseud.), trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton Un. Press, 1941), 415-416, cited in Eller, 308.

On the Professional Clergy

Kierkegaard regarded preaching as the sharing of a life impressed by Christ, not the expounding of doctrines:

...Christ did not appoint professors, but followers. If Christianity ... is not reduplicated in the life of the person expounding it, then he does not expound Christianity, for Christianity is a message about living and can only be expounded by being realized in men's lives.

From Kierkegaard's Diary, ed. Peter P. Rohde, trans. Gerda M. Anderson (New York: Philosophical Library, 1960), 141 (1848), cited by Eller, 308.)

Bibliography

Søren Kierkegaard, Attack upon "Christendom" (Walter Lowrie, tr. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944.) J. L. González, A History of Christian Thought, Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), 3:364-374. Vernard Eller, Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship: A New Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968).