Kierkegaard on reading Scripture

kierkegaard 2I wasn’t going to post on Kierkegaard today, but I came across this provocative statement in his Journal and thought it worth sharing. On face value, I suspect that many of us would disagree with what Kierkegaard is proposing here. Indeed, his own expository practice and adoration of Scripture might in itself challenge these thoughts. However, might he not be pressing on something that is important to hear in these days marked by both bibliolatry and bible neglect?

Fundamentally a reformation which did away with the Bible would now be just as valid as Luther’s doing away with the Pope. All that about the Bible has developed a religion of learning and law, a mere distraction. A little of that knowledge has gradually percolated to the simplest classes so that no one any longer reads the Bible humanly. As a result it does immeasurable harm; where life is concerned its existence is a fortification of excuses and escapes; for there is always something one has to look into first of all, and it always seems as though one had first of all to have the doctrine in perfect form before one could begin to live that is to say, one never begins.

The Bible Societies, those vapid caricatures of missions, societies which like all companies only work with money and are just as mundanely interested in spreading the Bible as other companies in their enterprises: the Bible Societies have done immeasurable harm. Christendom has long been in need of a hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible. That is something quite as necessary as preaching against Christianity’.

– Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard (ed. Alexander Dru; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 150.

The immediate context of the excerpt sheds little light on what Kierkegaard is here calling for. Some pages earlier, however, he defends the necessity for a more sustained reflection on the truths to which Scripture bears witness: ‘It has constantly been maintained that reflection inevitably destroys Christianity and is its natural enemy. I hope, now, that with God’s help it will be shown that a godfearing reflection can once again tie the knot at which a superficial reflection has been tugging for so long. The divine authority of the Bible and all that belongs to it has been done away with; it looks as though one had only to wait for the last stage of reflection in order to have done with the whole thing. But behold, reflection performs the opposite service by once more bringing the springs of Christianity into play, and in such a way that it can stand up against reflection’. This seems to be Kierkegaard’s main concern here. He is not wanting to change ‘real Christianity’ so much as call upon Christendom to repent of its failure to posit Christian faith as that which is immediate, personal, and simple, even in its paradox. He challenges believers to abandon the false dichotomy between ‘reflection and simplicity armed with reflection’. This alone, he insists, is true sense. He writes: ‘The problem is not to understand Christianity but to understand that it cannot be understood. That is the holiness of faith, and reflection is sanctified by being thus used …’.

His provocative statement regarding Scripture is, in other words, motivated, it seems, by his deep concern that believers are failing to hear, and heed, the word of God which has become domesticated to their ears. ‘It is high time’, he writes, ‘that Christianity was taken away again from men in order to teach them to appreciate it a little’.

15 thoughts on “Kierkegaard on reading Scripture

  1. This seems bizarre. Could it be possible that he was writing sarcastically? I’ll have to look further at the context.

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  2. I got several impressions while reading that.
    1. If you read the Bible, then read it right (read it with your heart in it, not just merely as a scholarly enterprise). Otherwise, it’s better not to read it at all.

    p->q
    ~q

    ~p

    2. (19th-century European) Church is like a business industry. Like Jesus did when he overturned the money changer’s table, a hero ought to stop the Church from peddling the Bible for profit.

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  3. It would seem that Soren is telling us that the abundance of rationalization by people who read the Bible with a critical and doubtful attitude. Unless you read Scripture in your heart, it will be of no benefit to you whatsoever. And because this world has so calloused people the Bible should be treasured and kept from those who have no interest in truly understanding it.

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  4. The immediate context of the excerpt sheds little light on what Kierkegaard is here calling for. Some pages earlier, however, he defends the necessity for a more sustained reflection on the truths to which Scripture bears witness, ‘It has constantly been maintained that reflection inevitably destroys Christianity and is its natural enemy. I hope, now, that with God’s help it will be shown that a godfearing reflection can once again tie the knot at which a superficial reflection has been tugging for so long. The divine authority of the Bible and all that belongs to it has been done away with; it looks as though one had only to wait for the last stage of reflection in order to have done with the whole thing. But behold, reflection performs the opposite service by once more bringing the springs of Christianity into play, and in such a way that it can stand up against reflection’. Again, this seems to be his main concern here. He is not wanting to change ‘real Christianity’ so much as call upon Christendom to repent of its failure to posit Christian faith as that which is immediate, personal and simple, even in its paradox. He challenges believers to abandon the false dichotomy between ‘reflection and simplicity armed with reflection’. This alone, he posits, is true sense. He writes: ‘The problem is not to understand Christianity but to understand that it cannot be understood. That is the holiness of faith, and reflection is sanctified by being thus used…’.

    His provocative statement regarding Scripture is motivated by his deep concern that believers are failing to hear, and heed, the word of God which has become so familiar and common to their ears that it is foreign and completely strange. ‘It is high time’, he writes, ‘that Christianity was taken away again from men in order to teach them to appreciate it a little’.

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  5. Jason,

    I know I’ve read this before, but I can’t find it in my copy of his journals. Could you post what year he wrote it in his journals? Also, does your version have the other codes after the entry (i.e. 41 III A 185)?

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