On Passing Through the School of Kierkegaard – with Karl Barth and Mark Tietjen

I must confess that I know very little about Soren Kierkegaard, at least first-hand. So when I saw that IVP Academic had published a short work to introduce him to the a general Christian readership, I knew that I should tolle lege - “take up and read” (to crib from Augustine).*

Mark A. Tietjen, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016).

This book was an interesting and informative read, especially since Tietjen emphasizes Kierkegaard’s work to convince Christians to take their Christianity more seriously. I’ll have something more to say about that in a later post. For now I’d like to put what I’ve learned about Kierkegaard from Tietjen in conversation with – you guessed it – Karl Barth.

Barth read Kierkegaard early in his career. Then late in his career Barth was given the Sonning Prize for contributions to European culture by the University of Copenhagen. Barth took his acceptance speech as an opportunity to reflect on his engagement with Kierkegaard.**

Like my comment above, Barth notes that “what attracted us particularly to [Kierkegaard], what we rejoiced in, and what we learned, was the criticism, so unrelenting in its incisiveness, with which he attacked so much: . . . all the attempts to make the scriptural message innocuous, all the excessively pretentious and at the same time excessively cheap Christianism and churchiness of prevalent theology from which we ourselves were not yet quite free” (98).

But, for Barth, one cannot remain indefinitely in this critical mode. Consequently, his final judgment on Kierkegaard is: “I consider him to be a teacher whose school every theologian must enter once. Woe to him who misses it – provided only he does not remain in or return to it” (100–101).

Why do I bring this up? Because one of Tietjen’s comments about Kierkegaard jumped out at me as decidedly contrary to Barth’s theological approach and, therefore, as including a potential explanation for why Barth thought it best to pass through Kierkegaard’s school.

Tietjen discusses the various ways of “giving offense” that are essential-to or not-essential-to true Christianity. Again, I don’t have sufficient independent knowledge to make a judgment about his reading of Kierkegaard and must take his word for it. And the picture he paints of Kierkegaard is consistent with what we would see from Protestant scholastic theology – there is a preponderance of concern with “the person of Christ” or the incarnation as that offense which is central to true Christianity, and a relegating of moral / ethical issues to secondary, non-essential status.

(How this is consistent with Kierkegaard’s emphasis that Christianity must be lived rather than believed in a merely cognitive sense, which Tietjen well highlights, must remain a question for another day.)

What jumped out at me especially here was the illustration that Tietjen used: Martin Luther King Jr.

Nonessential offense is thus a broad category that occurs any time one challenges the moral assumptions of an individual, group or society, as when Martin Luther King Jr. fought the racial injustice of his day. Even though King was a Christian and even though he would describe his fight as rooted in his Christian faith, what offended those who disagreed with his message did not concern the specific doctrine of Christ. (124–25)

It’s temping here to tag James Cone into the ring and let him take a run at this from his “black Jesus” perspective (i.e., that the incarnation means that God identifies and dwells with the poor and oppressed, and therefore with the black community in North America). But I’ll stick with Barth, because one of Barth’s great dogmatic achievements was to bridge the traditional gap between Christ’s person and work. Jesus Christ is God’s active saving history, and any consideration of Christ’s “person” abstracted from this history is a deep theological mistake. Furthermore, this saving history is one that proclaims deliverance to the captives (see Lk 4). Consequently, MLK Jr.’s message simply was the gospel (as far as it went; I tend to think that the gospel is more radical still) in a concretely embodied form, and Kierkegaard’s perspective here ultimately serves to undermine that gospel by relegating it to secondary or nonessential status.

None of this is meant to suggest that Tietjen’s book is not worth reading—it most certainly is! I learned a great deal about Kierkegaard from it. It is well-written and accessible to the interested person in the pew. Tietjen has provided a good service in producing this volume so that most of us might more easily attend the school of Kierkegaard. We just have to remember to pass through that school.


David Congdon, the editor for this project and my own personal 2 Cor 12.7, has been pressing me about it behind the scenes much as some folks pressed in the comments section below. And I want to share the following passage from Tietjen that sheds further light on his argument: "To call this category of offense nonessential is neither to criticize it nor to suggest it is not part of the Christian witness. . . . For the most part nonessential offense concerns morality, whereas essential offense concerns a particular theological doctrine. Thus nonessential offense not in the service of essential offense can end up being little more than moralism if it does not serve the gospel" (125). I think this is helpful for getting clearer on what MT / SK is saying, and it seems to map in some ways onto a good Lutheran Law / Gospel distinction (look a little further on the same page for where MT makes that connection). Of course, since I'm Reformed..., etc. And understanding this in terms of a theology / ethics distinction seems warranted by the section headings that MT uses (124-25). But what I'm being pressed to see is that essential offense has to do with things that are exclusively Christian (e.g., doctrine of the incarnation), and nonessential offense has to do with things that are not exclusively Christian (e.g., not being racist).

The thing that still sits uneasily here, and (again) perhaps it has to do with a Reformed / Lutheran difference in approach, is that things which we might call nonessential because non-exclusive in this way might also be essential in other ways. I'm thinking here of Calvin's / Melanchthon's use of adiaphora, and it is hard for me to hear "nonessential" without that connotation. From this perspective, something that is nonessential in SK's terms might not be adiaphora, and something essential in SK's terms (e.g, traditional two nature's christology?) might well be adiaphora. And this is what throws me about MT's use of MLK Jr. as an illustration here since, for my money, there is nothing adiaphoric about MLK Jr.'s witness to the gospel's "No!" to racial injustice.

* My thanks to IVP Academic for providing me with a review copy.

**“A Thank-You and a Bow—Kierkegaard’s Reveille” in Karl Barth, Fragments Grave and Gay (Wipf & Stock, 2011).



It's a fascinating post. I might push back a little on this point -- (informed by my own, quite limited engagement with S.K.)

This bit:
'And the picture he paints of Kierkegaard is consistent with what we would see from Protestant scholastic theology – there is a preponderance of concern with “the person of Christ” or the incarnation as that offense which is central to true Christianity, and a relegating of moral / ethical issues to secondary, non-essential status.'

It seems to me that S.K. has a high regard for ethics, informed perhaps especially by his reading of Kant. But maybe (in his own Lutheran way), he sees the ethical imperative as a dynamic that pushes one toward the despair that leads to faith, as one finds it impossible to achieve the ideal of the moral law? So in that sense maybe, yes, S.K. is okay with ethics being "secondary" and "non-essential" in the sense that they, in and of themselves, can't impart saving faith. That has to come directly from the encounter with Christ.

But maybe your issue is more that you're looking for a position in which a more radical socio-political imperative is more integrated with the proposal as a central, perhaps even the driving component? So in your reading, not even MLK goes quite far enough in that liberationist direction? Does any of my rambling make sense?
If you do not mind, I would offer a few suggestions, although they are broader than the concerns of this post. Philosophical Fragments would be the book that focuses on the offense the person of Christ brings. It is an excellent intellectual tease. His Concept of Anxiety and Sickness Unto Death are well worth reading for their re-thinking of the notion of original sin, which would affect your question about the ethical. His most urgent appeal to Christians to be Christians is his final work, Attack Upon Christendom. In my opinion, for it is worth, Purity of Heart and Works of Love ought to be at the top of the list of classics in devotional literature. I had a philosophy professor who had a way of helping his students learn from both Kierekegard and Hegel.
Scott, it seems to me that you are merely elaborating on my parenthesis: "(How this is consistent with Kierkegaard’s emphasis that Christianity must be lived rather than believed in a merely cognitive sense, which Tietjen well highlights, must remain a question for another day.)"

Carpe diem! The time is now. ;-)
Matt Miller said…
There is a misunderstanding with K that because of his focus on the inward that he is critical of outward expressions in and of themselves. His point is simply that the individual must wrestle with this own relationship to God and not depend on outward/cultural benchmarks to slip out of this grueling task. That doesn't exclude Christian action from Christian being. It excludes Christian action or any worldly signifier from personal identifying. Thus K could say that MLK' JR's actions were Christian. But he couldn't say that MLK Jr. was a Christian because he did them.

Joshua Hurd said…
For what it's worth, I am submitting my PhD on Kierkegaard's theology of divine revelation at the end of the month (prayers most appreciated!). I have just a few comments/suggestions to throw into the mix. First, I would like to say that Mark Tietjen is a very capable and reliable interpreter of Kierkegaard's works. I also recommend Tietjen's first book, Kierkegaard, Communication, and Virtue. I haven't read his most recent book, but I do have a copy of it. Of course, I can't comment on a book I haven't read. That being said, I highly doubt that Tietjen is saying something to the effect that "ethics were of minor significance to Kierkegaard's thought" or that ethics were somehow disconnected from his Christology. I'm not sure whether or not you were implying that or not, so you can correct me if I am wrong.

Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms discuss "ethics" and "the ethical" in many different ways. (And a gentle reminder, Kierkegaard's views are not necessarily the same views as his pseudonyms. That was one of the biggest mistakes by early interpreters of his writings.) As C. Stephan Evans and Robert C. Roberts have noted, "In all of Kierkegaard's enormous literary output, perhaps no concept is used in more different ways than the concept of 'the ethical.'"

As far as Barth's criticisms are concerned, see first Philip Ziegler's article, "Barth's Criticism of Kierkegaard - A Striking out at Phantoms." I would just say that most Kierkegaard scholars wouldn't find Barth's criticism to be very accurate or fair. Perhaps, they are even less fair than many of the caricatures of Barth's own theology. I say all this as someone who is highly appreciative of Barth's theology. I see them more as friends than as foes.

Lastly, I would highly recommend Murray Rae's book, Kierkegaard and Theology. It focuses on Kierkegaard's theology, providing a unique combination of being both highly accessible (no small task when it comes to Kierkegaard) and theologically substantive.
Thanks both Matt and Joshua! Since I know little of Kierkegaard myself, I'm very happy to have my vision expanded by your comments.
Joshua Hurd said…
I am not familiar with Calvin's/Melanchthon's use of adiaphora, so I can't comment on that point. But the discussion of non-essential offense is part of Kierkegaard's sustained polemic against Hegel and the Danish Hegelians. It is not offense at Christ (as the God-man), but it is the offense that takes place when the single individual collides with the established order (e.g. the trial of Socrates). In other words, it is the offense that takes place when an individual challenges/questions the legitimacy of the powers that be.

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