On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, thus initiating the Protestant Reformation. As we all know, Luther’s reforms were successful—Protestant churches today rightfully revere his memory. But, I submit, Luther would have been just as successful in God’s eyes had he been promptly burned at the stake and his reforms suppressed, as happened to other reformers. Had Luther been unsuccessful in an external sense, we might still learn every bit as much from his life and writings.

On December 18, 1854, a follower of Luther again attempted to reform the church, in this case by publishing a series of articles in newspapers and magazines. Like Luther, he risked persecution and punishment for being so bold as to criticize the established church. He had two great differences from Luther, however. First, the church this man criticized was not the Roman Catholic church, it was a Lutheran church. Second, the proposed revival and reform was stillborn; little was achieved in an external sense. But I think this Lutheran was a success in God’s eyes, and that we have much to learn from the “failed” reformer—perhaps as much as from Luther himself.

The following quote, from a newspaper article published by this man on March 26, 1855, gives a clear view of his estimate of the “official” Christianity of his land:

“The religious situation in our country is: Christianity (that is, the Christianity of the New Testament—and everything else is not Christianity, least of all by calling itself such), Christianity does not exist—as almost anyone must be able to see as well as I.

“We have, if you will, a complete crew of bishops, deans, and priests; learned men, eminently learned, talented, gifted, humanly well-meaning; they all declaim—doing it well, very well, eminently well, or tolerably well, or badly—but not one of them is in the character of the Christianity of the New Testament. But if such is the case, the existence of this Christian crew is so far from being, Christianly considered, advantageous to Christianity that it is far rather a peril because it is so infinitely likely to give rise to a false impression and the false inference that when we have such a complete crew we must of course have Christianity, too. A geographer, for example, when he has assured himself of the existence of this crew, would think that he was thoroughly justified in putting into his geography the statement that the Christian religion prevails in the land.

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“We have what one might call a complete inventory of churches, bells, organs, benches, alms-boxes, foot-warmers, tables, hearses, etc. But when Christianity does not exist, the existence of this inventory, so far from being, Christianly considered, an advantage, is far rather a peril, because it is so infinitely likely to give rise to a false impression and the false inference that when we have such a complete Christian inventory we must of course have Christianity, too. A statistician, for example, when he had assured himself of the existence of this Christian inventory, would think that he was thoroughly justified in putting into his statistics the statement that the Christian religion is the prevailing one in the land.

“We are what is called a ‘Christian’ nation—but in such a sense that not a single one of us is in the character of the Christianity of the New Testament.”

The name of the would-be reformer was Sören Kierkegaard. He devoted his life to the task he described as “the reintroduction of Christianity into Christendom.” Kierkegaard considered himself a missionary whose task was to present the gospel. However, as he so clearly saw, his task was complicated by the fact that God sent him, not to a pagan country, but to a “Christian nation,” to a people gripped by the illusion that “we are all Christians.” The illusion of Christendom is the illusion that being a Christian is simply to be a nice person, to conform to the established social norms. Against this comfortable illusion, fostered by an established state church, Kierkegaard thundered that to be a Christian one must consciously, as an individual before God, strive to be a follower of Christ—the Christ who served the poor and the lowly and was willing to suffer at the hands of the rich and powerful.

Who was Sören Kierkegaard? He was born in Copenhagen in 1813 to a wealthy family. His father was a stern, conservative Lutheran who also liked to visit the local Moravian church, where young Sören no doubt absorbed some of the same earnest evangelical piety that John and Charles Wesley did earlier when, as missionaries to Georgia, they had encountered Moravians. Sören attended the university and sowed a few wild oats as a student, but was reconciled to his father and his faith before his father died. Preparing for a career as a pastor, he took a degree in theology and fell deeply in love with a young girl, Regine Olsen, whom he courted avidly. The two were engaged, but very soon thereafter Sören realized he had made a mistake.

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The reasons for this are complicated and no one knows them exactly. One element was Sören’s own psychological temperament. He suffered greatly from what he termed his melancholy, what we would today call severe depression. This depression seems to have been bound up in some way with Sören’s relation to his father, whose outward piety somehow disguised what was to Sören an awful family secret. Sören felt that no one could understand him without knowing this secret, yet he felt that to tell anyone would be a violation of the memory of his dead and much-loved father.

Sören also believed that God had called him to the single life; he was called to be willing to sacrifice the thing he loved most, as Abraham had been called by God to be willing to sacrifice Isaac. The conviction slowly grew in him that a special Providence had marked him out to do something unique. He obeyed what he saw as God’s will and broke the engagement, though he loved Regine and grieved for her the rest of his life.

Instead of getting married and taking a pastorate, Kierkegaard began to write—a torrent of books, totaling 20 volumes in the latest Danish edition. Almost all were written in a brief period of about eight years. All were directed to the end of reintroducing Christianity into Christendom. The books were little read in his own time and were almost totally unknown outside Denmark. Kierkegaard’s authorship was culminated at the age of 42 with scathing newspaper and magazine articles, which are collected and printed in English under the title Attack on Christendom. In the middle of the firestorm raised by this attack, he collapsed on the street, was taken to a hospital, and shortly died. At his death he was penniless; he had exhausted his family fortune and would have faced destitution if he had lived longer.

And what were the external results of all this? The question is not one in which the melancholy Dane would have been interested since he saw so clearly that the only result that counts is whether or not he as an individual had striven, with all his heart, to will one thing God’s will. Nevertheless, the external results are interesting. In his own lifetime, there was a slight stir that may have had an impact on the growth of the Scandinavian “free churches.” But as his writings slowly became known and translated into other languages, Sören Kierkegaard burst on the consciousness of the twentieth century like a time bomb with a long-delayed fuse. Today he is a world-famous author whose writings have inspired poets, playwrights, and novelists, and he is often called “the father of existentialism” (a title I am sure he would repudiate, however).

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Strangely, almost the only group that does not admire and revere Kierkegaard is the one group with whom I believe he had the strongest degree of spiritual kinship: evangelical Christians. More than once I have been asked by evangelicals whether or not Kierkegaard was a Christian. More than once I have seen shocked faces when I expressed my opinion that Kierkegaard is a great resource for Christian philosophers, theologians, and psychologists. Why should this be so?

The answer is complicated, and is probably best left to the historian. But at least one section of the complicated answer is that some well-known evangelical pastors and authors have chosen Kierkegaard as a central villain in their account of how the twentieth century lost its faith and its moorings. Francis Schaeffer, for example, describes Kierkegaard as the individual who first fell below the “line of despair.” (Schaeffer does admit that Kierkegaard’s devotional writings can be helpful.)

But another reason for the evangelical neglect of Kierkegaard is simple: We have not read his books. To students who ask me whether or not Schaeffer’s criticisms of Kierkegaard are valid, I have a standard reply: “See for yourself.” Read Kierkegaard. Especially, read his theological and devotional writings, which are the centerpiece of his authorship. Read his Works of Love, Training in Christianity, and Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.

Poor Kierkegaard has suffered more than any author I know of from a generation of evangelical ignorance. But that ignorance is at least somewhat understandable. When Kierkegaard was being discovered earlier in this century, evangelicals were being evicted from the seminaries and universities. The people who initially interpreted Kierkegaard were sometimes profoundly unsympathetic to orthodox Christianity. Where they could, they minimized his faith; where they could not, they distorted its meanings. Tragically, evangelicals accepted the interpretation of Sören Kierkegaard presented by his and their common enemy, and failed to understand his message.

There are exceptions. Edward Carnell, Kenneth Hamilton, Vernard Eller, and Vernon Grounds are pioneering evangelicals who appreciated his work. But by and large, their appreciation of Kierkegaard has been eclipsed by the denunciations of others.

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None of this means, of course, that Kierkegaard is right on every issue. His view of the relation of faith to reason has been challenged by many as too “fideistic” (although the same charge is hurled by rationalists at Luther and Calvin). Kierkegaard did share with Pascal an appreciation of the role of passion in the Christian life, and he did strongly emphasize the limits of rational evidence in bringing someone to Christian faith. I believe that the common interpretation of Kierkegaard as an irrationalist or subjectivist is wrong. Many misinterpretations arose because Kierkegaard sometimes wrote under pseudonyms, “characters” or “personae” he invented, all with a life of their own. These pseudonyms, some of whom are non-Christian, say things that Kierkegaard himself did not agree with, just as characters in a novel often say things the novelist does not endorse. But even if I am wrong in my interpretation, and Kierkegaard’s view of faith and reason is defective, there are still many areas where evangelicals can learn from him. Must an author be infallible to be read with profit, or appreciated as a Christian brother?

There are two equally important reasons why evangelicals should read Kierkegaard. Reason number one is that he can help us to say what we have to say to the world today. He can give us the insight we need to confront both non-Christians and pseudo-Christians. Reason number two is that Kierkegaard has a prophetic message for us. He has something to say to us that we need to hear if we are not to become the fitting targets of his attack on Christendom.

Let me expand on each of these points. First, how can Kierkegaard help evangelicals articulate our message? Kierkegaard wrote at a critical period, the period when modernist, liberal theology was first coming into existence. As he saw it, the crucial issues that liberal theology put to us were the issues of the person of Jesus and the authority of Jesus, the apostles, and, ultimately, the Scriptures. Liberal theology was beginning to view special revelation as simply a record of humankind’s evolving religious sensitivity. In this schema, the Scriptures have no inherent authority except insofar as we recognize that authority. The ultimate authority is human experience and human reason. Kierkegaard saw clearly that the philosophical presupposition that underlay this was that human beings are basically good; we have an inherent relationship to God, and a capacity to know God on our own. Kierkegaard pointed out clearly that this presupposition is essentially identical with pagan thought. It was Plato who taught that the soul possesses a natural affinity for the divine, which merely has to be recollected.

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This pagan assumption is the very opposite of Christianity, which begins with the assumption that human beings are sinners—that we lack the truth and the capacity to know the truth and must be given that truth and that capacity in a revelation from God. In his Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard argues convincingly that the only way God could reveal himself to us without destroying our freedom and our personhood was to come to us as a human being. If we loved the omnipotent wonder worker but not the one who humbled himself to be a servant, we would not truly love God, or know God as he is.

The challenge Kierkegaard presented to liberal theology was essentially a demand for honesty. There is a clear difference between paganism and Christianity. That a person might prefer paganism to Christianity is one thing. It is understandable and even natural, in a sense, given our sinfulness. But to confuse paganism with Christianity, to call what is essentially paganism Christianity, is outrageous. The argument Kierkegaard developed here is as relevant against modernist theologies today as it was in his own time. The central issues are still the issues of authority and the person of Christ. And to see that the philosophical presuppositions of modern theology are essentially pagan is to gain a powerful critical tool.

I would not want, however, for evangelicals to see Kierkegaard as merely providing us with a weapon with which to club the modernist theologian—for he has critical words we need to hear, and need to hear badly. Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom is an attack that sometimes cuts close to home.

We might at first be inclined to think that Kierkegaard’s attack on “Christendom” is inapplicable to evangelicals today. After all, the object of his attack was an established state church, where it was assumed that baptism automatically made one a Christian. And we evangelicals stress more than anyone the necessity of a personal decision to become a Christian.

Most evangelicals would vehemently oppose the imposition of an established religion.

But we would be very wrong in thinking Kierkegaard’s criticisms of Christendom have no application to us. At the deepest level, Kierkegaard’s attack on Christendom is an attack on a Christianity that has been confused with and absorbed by a human culture. Being a Christian had become confused with being a good Dane. A state church makes this mistake easy, but it is easy enough to make without a state church.

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We, too, confuse Christianity with culture. We take away its transcendent, prophetic power in at least two ways. First, by confusing Christianity with Americanism. Civil religion is in some ways a more menacing danger here than would be a state church, primarily because the confusion of Christian commitment and nationalistic and cultural values can be so easily overlooked. We are easily captured by political leaders who know how to use the term “God” cleverly, and then attach that religious devotion to nationalistic causes. We are hoodwinked by politicians who know how to sound pious, who know how to confirm our good opinion of ourselves by insinuating we are God’s chosen people as a political nation. Before we campaign too loudly for prayer in public schools, we ought to ponder carefully the effects of lowest-common-denominator religion—we ought to beware because we may come to believe this is really a Christian country.

Second, we not only confuse Christianity with our American culture, we also confuse it with our evangelical subculture. Evangelicalism can, and to a degree has, become a culture of its own, with its own cultural taboos and in-group jargon. To what extent have we consciously or unconsciously equated being a Christian with being a part of that particular subculture?

Even our theology can mislead us here. Insofar as our theological positions are used to demarcate a culture, then they have ceased to be authentic theology. When theology is used primarily to decide who belongs to our group and who does not, rather than to energize our corporate lives as followers of Jesus, then theology begets the error of Christendom, for, at bottom, Christendom is just taking your faith for granted. How easy it is to take your faith for granted when you know you are on the right side of all the intellectual issues! “Of course I’m a Christian. I’m an evangelical; I can sign the standard evangelical statement of faith!” It is easy to forget that true godliness does not consist of words but of power.

Kierkegaard, more than anyone I know, can help remind evangelicals that Christianity is a manner of being, a way of existing, not merely an affirmation of doctrine. But he can remind us of this in a way that will not precipitate a slide back into the contempt for reason and the life of the mind that has sometimes infected evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

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Kierkegaard is a rare person, an intellectual’s intellectual, one of the rarest geniuses of human history. He employed that genius to help people, intellectuals and nonintellectuals, regain a sense of what human life is all about, of what it means to exist as a Christian.

In conclusion, I quote a prayer of Kierkegaard’s, a prayer that is the invocation of his book Works of Love. That book is his greatest theological work, and it is important because it reminds us that his fundamental thought is not merely negative and polemical, as this article might imply, but rather that he gives us deep and new insights into that love which is the centerpiece of Christian existence:

How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgotten, O God of love, source of all love in heaven and on earth, You who spared nothing but gave all in love, You who are love, so that one who loves is what he is only by being in You! How could love properly be discussed if You were forgotten, You who made manifest what love is, You, our Saviour and Redeemer, who gave Yourself to save all! How could love be rightly discussed if You were forgotten, O Spirit of Love, You who take nothing for Your own but remind us of that sacrifice of love, remind the believer to love as he is loved, and his neighbour as himself? 0 Eternal Love, You who are everywhere present and never without witness wherever You are called upon, be not without witness in what is said here about love or about the works of love. There are only a few acts which human language specifically and narrowly calls works of love, but heaven is such that no act can be pleasing there unless it is an act of love—sincere in self-renunciation, impelled by love itself, and for this very reason claiming no compensation.

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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