David Scaer: “All Theology is Christology”

In yesterday’s review of David Scaer’s memoirs, I deliberately omitted a significant event from Dr. Scaer’s career. One of Scaer’s colleagues at the seminary accused Dr. Scaer of heresy, objecting that the public statement by Doctor Scaer that “all theology is Christology” denied the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The faculty of the seminary met, considered Scaer’s statement and the charge against him, allowed him to explain the meaning of statement, and cleared Scaer of any heretical statements or beliefs.

An unfortunate legacy of the “battle for the Bible”—in which professors, students, and congregations left the Missouri Synod in protest over the synod’s defense of Biblical inerrancy—was that some professors and students acted as if they had a continuing responsibility to oversee one another, to maintain the purity of the teaching in the synod’s schools, and to drive out any individual who was guilty of teaching false doctrine. Christians should prefer truth to error, of course. When one Christian is in error, his or her fellow Christians should gently correct that Christian, using the Word of God as the standard by which all teachings are judged. A Christian who stubbornly refuses correction and holds to false teachings that contradict the Bible should not be allowed to teach others. But the pursuit and defense of truth must always be done with love for God and love for our neighbors. When the apparatus for correcting error is used as a weapon for personal attacks, the entire Church suffers.

David Scaer earned his doctorate in theology; his colleague had an honorary doctorate from a school in Brazil. David Scaer was a full professor at the seminary and served as academic dean; his colleague was adjunct faculty whose professional career offered the appearance of expertise in Christian stewardship. The walk-out of 1974 left many positions to be filled in the seminary faculties, and not all those called to teach were qualified for their roles. Scaer deals with the event evenhandedly in his memoirs. Students on campus at the time were aware that this colleague envied Scaer’s standing with the students. Because this colleague was unequipped to debate Dr. Scaer in theology (and because this colleague was totally lacking in humor and could not comprehend Scaer’s use of humor) he chose instead to file charges of heresy against Scaer. Under the circumstances, the charges had to be treated seriously.

“All theology is Christology.” Scaer did not intend to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, that the one God is three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Instead, Scaer was teaching that the Father and the Holy Spirit are known in this world only through Christ. Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Anyone who insists that God can be known as Father without acknowledgement of Jesus as the Son of God and the world’s Savior is contradicting the Bible. Likewise, the Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus as God’s Son and humanity’s Savior. Anyone who claims to be led by the Spirit of God but denies Jesus Christ is being led by another spirit and not by the Holy Spirit.

All theology is Christology. People in this world know the Father and the Spirit only through their knowledge of Jesus Christ and through their faith in Him. No teaching about God the Father and God the Holy Spirit can be understood apart from knowledge of God through Christ. Without Jesus, people in this world have no accurate or reliable information about God.

The effort of Dr. Scaer’s colleague to label Scaer a heretic was one symptom of the malaise that existed on the seminary campus in those years. I mentioned yesterday the student joke about hidden microphones in the salt and pepper shakers of the cafeteria. That bit of humor addressed a grim reality. Students took notes in class, not to learn from their professors, but to report to others what the professors were saying. Casual conversations in dormitory lounges were reported to the Dean of Students. Church issues that extended beyond denominational lines became battle grounds on campus, as labels such as “Pietism,” “Church Growth,” and “Contemporary Worship” could darken the reputation of anyone involved with the school. Seminary President Robert Preus was not personally to blame for the poisonous climate; if anything, he deliberately brought in teachers of varying points of view. Sometimes those teachers became Preus’ most strident opposition. Some of the Church’s most promising thinkers and theologians may have fallen through the cracks at the seminary precisely because of these kinds of confrontations.

Reading Dr. Scaer’s memoirs has brought back many memories, and for that I am not thankful. But I do appreciate Scaer’s instruction, his emphasis on clear thinking and academic excellence in pursuit of serving the Truth and the Church that belongs to Jesus Christ. Spiritual battles are not all cut and dried, with a clear right side and a clear wrong side. They are generally more complicated than that. But when Christ is held at the center, his Light still prevails, and the darkness cannot overcome it. J.

Book review: Surviving the Storms: Memoirs of David P. Scaer

David Scaer is a pastor, professor, and theologian in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Attending Concordia Seminary (St. Louis) in the late 1950s, and then made a professor at Concordia Theological Seminary (then, Springfield, Illinois; now, Fort Wayne, Indiana) in 1966, Scaer has witnessed and has taken part in the theological battles that split the Missouri Synod and that established its contemporary identity. His memoirs bear witness to those turbulent years. Based on his own memory and on documents from those times—some of which confirm his memory and others which provide details he had forgotten—Scaer tells his story and also gives witness to the movement of various powers in the structure of a Synod—divine powers, human powers, and social-historical powers.

(Lutherans are Christians who agree with Martin Luther (1483-1546) in his insistence that sinners are saved from sin and evil by God’s grace alone through faith alone, and that authority over the Church and its doctrine are exercised by God through Scripture alone. Being Bible-based and Christ-centered, Lutherans accept two Sacraments in the Church (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion). For the most part, Lutherans maintain the historic worship practices of the Church. Outside of Europe, Lutherans tend to strongly support the separation of Church and State and tend to maintain their organizations in a congregational structure.)

(In North America, Lutheran congregations tended to gather in groups called synods. Some were geographically designated (Buffalo Synod, Iowa Synod, etc.) while others were named for their European origins (Norwegian Synod, Slovak Synod, etc.) Many synods have combined their resources and merged into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) while others—including the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod—have retained their historic designations. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod was one of the few Protestant church bodies in North America that responded to modernist ideas by maintaining its traditional teachings; in most cases, the modernists gained control of the denominational power structure, and the traditionalist, Bible-believing members left to start new church bodies.)

In the 1950s, Scaer was part of a small group of students who saw that their professors at the seminary were accepting the Noe-orthodox ideas of Karl Barth and were interpreting the Bible according to the historical-critical method advocated by Rudolf Bultmann and other European thinkers. Although this was a time when most college and graduate students bowed to authority and did not challenge their professors, these students became aware of the difference between traditional Lutheran teachings and the modernist teachings of these professors. They called attention to the difference, warning both seminary leaders and denominational leaders of what they were hearing, but those leaders were not quick to respond to these warnings.

Brothers J.A.O. Preus and Robert Preus (sons of the twentieth governor of the state of Minnesota and both trained Lutheran theologians) were aware of the problem and eventually responded to it. J.A.O. Preus was president of Concordia Theological Seminary from 1962 to 1969; in 1969 he was elected President of the Missouri Synod, an office he held until 1981. Robert Preus was President of Concordia Theological Seminary from 1974 until 1989.

A great deal has been written about the theological battles in the Missouri Synod. Those battles culminated in a “walk-out” at Concordia Seminary in 1974; professors, students, and congregations that supported the “walk-out” eventually joined the ELCA when it was formed in 1988. Some commentators have claimed that the synodical split was caused more by personalities than by theology, focusing particular attention on the Preus brothers. Others have insisted that key Christian teachings were at state in the dispute. Scaer’s memoirs illustrate the latter position, confirming and amplifying the accounts that address doctrinal challenges and correcting the impressions left by other writers.

Less literature covers the continuing battles within the Missouri Synod after the split was finalized. Concordia Theological Seminary was moved to a new campus in 1976, as the synod struggled to place qualified professors at both seminaries following the 1974 walk-out. Ralph Bohlmann followed J.A.O. Preus as president of the synod in 1981 and actively campaigned to undermine Robert Preus’ position in the synod and his work at the seminary. (Seminary students in the late 1980s joked that salt shakers in the school campus had microphones that were heard in Preus’ office on campus and that the pepper shakers had microphones that were heard in Bohlmann’s synodical office.) Preus was handed his retirement from the presidency by the seminary’s board of directors in 1989; he and his supporters fought to reinstate him in that position until Preus died in 1995.

“Surviving the Storms” contains Scaer’s memoirs. The book was not written to portray the experiences or feelings of any of his peers, mentors, or proteges. At times, Scaer may come across as petty and petulant, detailing the privileges that were denied to him, including automatic pay raises that were granted to most faculty members but excluded from his contract. However, his illustrations reveal the kind of warfare that was been waged behind the doors of the synod during his years of professional service. This book is lacking much of the clever wit and humor for which Scaer is known in the classroom and in public speaking. It also contains little of his theological incisiveness (which is, on the other hand, available in his other published writings). People without a connection to the history of Lutheranism in the late twentieth century might not gain much from reading this book. Those of us who were there, though, can learn much from this additional perspective of the things happening within the Church structure at that time. J.

Is it me or is it him?

Everyone who thinks about God and talks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks and talks about what is good and what is true and what is beautiful is a philosopher. Everyone who looks at the created world and strives to understand some part of creation is a scientist.

But some theologians and philosophers and scientists are amateurs, while others are professionals.

In the sports world, the distinction between amateurs and professionals is whether they are paid. Amateurs may accept no money for their performances, but professionals are paid to perform. The distinction in other fields is not so clear. Some very amateur theologians and philosophers and scientists are paid well for what they write, while some very professional people in the same fields go unpaid.

One difference between amateurs and professionals is their awareness of what others in the field have written and said. They have read and thought about the writings considered important in that field. The professional does not need to agree with all that the leaders in the field have written. A biologist does not have to agree with Charles Darwin. (Most don’t.) A psychologist does not have to agree with Sigmund Freud. (Most don’t.) But, as professionals, they are aware of what these past masters have proclaimed, and they are able to relate the thoughts of the past masters to their own work.

A second difference between amateurs and professionals is their careful use of words. They are not sloppy in defining terms; they generally use the same words with the same meanings as those who have been professionals in that field in the past. If it is necessary to coin a new word, or to give a new meaning to a standard word, professionals carefully define their terms so readers will not be confused by the new or changed term.

A third mark of professionals is clarity in communication. They do not ramble and wander about their field, but they explain their ideas in a way most adults can understand. The most brilliant mind is useless if its owner cannot speak and write clearly. When a speaker leaves audience members saying, “That is one smart person. I didn’t understand what was being said, but it sure sounded smart,” the speaker has failed as a professional. Audience members who heard a professional speaker say, “I never thought of that before,” or, “I really learned something today,” or, “That’s the first time I ever understood that idea.”

More distinctions could be found, such as sufficient confidence in one’s own ideas to be willing to hear and discuss contrary ideas, and the ability to debate without resorting to insults and condescending language. But those three are enough to lead into my title of, “Is it him or is it me?” If I am reading a famous book written by an acknowledged master in the field, and I am not understanding what I read, does the fault lie with me or with the writer?

I usually begin by assuming that, if I do not understand, the failure is mine. The writer would not be widely regarded as a professional if no one else understands what he or she was saying. On the other hand, I remember a professor in college saying of Immanuel Kant that Kant took great leaps in logic that lesser mortals were not always able to follow. At the time, I took the philosophy professor’s description at face value. But increasingly I wonder if the professor was warning us that Kant was not exactly professional, that his leaps of logic may be, in fact, holes in his system of thought.

This month I’ve been reading Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, and I have found the reading discouraging. It seems that Gregory wanders and rambles, repeats himself, and does not communicate clearly. Therefore, I ask myself, “Is it him or is it me?” Or—a third possibility—is this just a bad translation? I have flipped ahead in the book and found shorter essays that may be more focused and professional. The first half of the book consists of a rebuttal to an Arian theologian named Eunomias. Maybe Gregory’s writing will be clearer when he deals directly with theological matters.

In fact, Gregory himself has given me that hope. Last night I read, “But I must hasten on, for I see that my treatise has already extended beyond bounds, and I fear that I may be thought garrulous and inordinate in my talk, if I prolong my answer to excess, although I have intentionally passed by many parts of my adversary’s treatise, that my argument might not be spun out to many myriads of words. For to the more studious even the want of conciseness gives an occasion for disparagement; but as for those whose mind looks not to what is of use, but to the fancy of those who are idle and not in earnest, their wish and prayer is to get over as much of the journey as they can in a few steps.”

In other words, this time it’s him. J.

Theodicy

A fascinating conversation took place yesterday on the blog “See, there’s this thing called biology…” by InsanityBytes. (You can read it here.) In summary, IB wrote a splendid essay about the perspective of God, knowing all things, allowing his people to make bad choices and to suffer the consequences of those choices. She described God’s steadfast love, his patience with sinners in a sinful world, and his willingness to remain with us even when we are doing wrong over and over again. In response, a commenter raised the image of two horrific sins and, essentially, asked how a good and all-powerful God can watch such things happen and not intervene to prevent them.

This conversation is a version of a classic theological debate: If God is almighty, good, and loving, then why does he permit evil? Some people conclude that God is not almighty and cannot stop evil from happening, while others conclude that God is not good or loving. Still others use the existence of evil as proof that God does not even exist. One reasonable answer offered by believers is that the existence of evil is actually proof of the existence of God. If some things are right and other things are wrong, then there must be a source of ethics and morality. That source cannot be individual opinion or an agreement by the majority of people, because individual opinions and majority opinions can still be wrong. The Source of ethics and morality must be intelligent and personal, because ethics and morality do not exist apart from intelligence and personality.

Of course some believers pay no attention to reason when they speak about God, and also some unbelievers pay no attention to reason when they speak about God. Each side sometimes uses rhetoric and emotion to defend its position while refusing to consider the evidence for the opposite position. When one side attempts to use reason, the other side often ignores those reasonable statements, determined only to win the argument. Perhaps a Socratic conversation would do more to illustrate what I am describing. In the following dialogue, J is a reasonable Christian defending the propositions that God exists and that he is almighty, good and loving. K is a reasonable unbeliever who doubts the existence of God because of the existence of evil.

J: So you do not believe in God? Tell me about this God you reject, this God in whom you do not believe.

K: I cannot believe in a God who watches as terrible things happen and who does nothing to stop them from happening. I reject a God who has the power to do anything he wants, because that God permits suffering and tragedy and offers no hope to the victims. I refuse to honor a God who watches evil happen every day and never lifts a finger to stop it.

J: I see. I respect you for rejecting such a God. In fact, I don’t believe in that God either.

K: I thought you were a Christian.

J: I am a Christian. I worship and trust in a God who is holy, a God who hates evil, a God who provides for his people…

K: But your God still allows bad things to happen. Either he is not as powerful as you believe, or he is not as good as you believe.

J: How can you know whether or not God limits the power of evil? Who can count the number of times that God has restrained evil, saying, “This far you can go, and no farther”? Not only has God given his Law to the world, he has also threatened judgment on all who do evil.

K: You cannot prove to me that God has limited or prevented evil even once.

J: And you cannot prove to me that God is not constantly limiting evil and preventing greater wickedness than he has allowed. Therefore, we have to set aside the statement that God is doing nothing about evil, since it can be neither proven nor disproven.

K: Still, the fact that evil happens at all casts doubt on the existence of God.

J: Tell me what you would do about evil if you were an almighty God.

K: I would keep it from happening. It’s as simple as that.

J: Would you prevent every sin? Would you stop not only horrific crimes but also petty lies, dishonesty, and general rudeness as well?

K: If I were almighty, I would stop every kind of evil. If I could make a perfect world, then I would make sure it remains perfect.

J: And how would you stop people from doing bad things? When a person first tried to do something that was bad, would you snatch that person out of the world? Or would you impose your will on that person so that he or she was unable to do the bad thing that he or she had planned?

K: Well, snatching the bad people before they do bad things is tempting…

J: In that case, the world would be empty of people, because all of us do bad things every day. You and I would no longer be here to have this conversation.

K: And now you are going to say that making people unable to do bad things is unloving, right?

J: Yes, imposing your will on another intelligent being is unloving. How could anyone be good if no one had any knowledge of evil? When God gives rules, he also gives the ability to break those rules. Otherwise, the rules would have no purpose.

K: I believe it was Leibnitz who said that this is the best of all possible worlds, because if God took away our freedom to do wrong, the world would be less good than it is now. But I can conceive of many ways the world could be better than it is. That must make me wiser than your God.

J: Not necessarily. But we assumed a God who is not only almighty and good, but also loving. If you have ever loved anyone, you know that love makes you vulnerable. When you love, you do not try to control the one you love. Because you love, you give freedom to the one you love. That one can love you back, and can show his or her love in many different ways, or that one can choose not to show you love.

K: So love makes me weak? Perhaps we should become Buddhists and not allow ourselves to love anything or anyone.

J: Love does not make you, or God, weak. But it does make you, and God, vulnerable. Whenever you grant freedom to the one you love, you risk disappointment. But the disappointment of loving and not being loved in return is less than the sorrow of having no one able to love you at all.

K: So in love God permits people to do any bad thing they choose to do?

J: We have already discussed the possibility that God limits evil in the world.

K: Well, if I were an almighty God, I would at least limit evil far more often than your God limits evil.

J: Again, what would you do to the evildoer? Would you just pluck him or her out of the world?

K: If the evil was bad enough, yes I would. At the very least, I would take away all the murderers, those who torture others, the rapists…

J: How will you decide, then, which rules you will enforce and which bad deeds you will allow?

K: Any action that harms another living being will not be tolerated. The bad deeds that have no victims could be allowed.

J: Does that include careless mistakes that harm another living being, or only premeditated evil? And what of the neglect to do good? If one person starves and thousands are guilty of not giving that person food, will you remove all the thousands?

K: Once again you are painting me into the corner where the world is empty because every person has done something that harmed another living being in some way.

J: If we include careless mistakes and neglect to do good, everyone in the world is indeed guilty. But even seemingly petty bad deeds, such as shoplifting a piece of candy or telling a small lie, could be considered harmful to other living beings.

K: Maybe the best thing, then, would be to change the world so that no person can harm another living being. Whenever one person does something that is wrong, that person suffers, but no one else suffers for that bad deed.

J: That is an interesting thought. Consider a world where no one can hurt anyone else. Consider the perfect justice of everyone suffering exactly as he or she deserves, receiving the penalty for his or her bad deeds.

K: That world sounds better than this world.

J: Of course if one person could never hurt another person, then no one could ever help another person.

K: I don’t see how that follows.

J: If my deliberate cruelty, or my carelessness, or my failure to do good things could hurt no one but me, and no one else could be the victim of what I did, then no one would have any problems that he or she did not deserve.

K: Of course.

J: So no one would starve unless he or she deserved to starve, and no one would suffer unless he or she deserved to suffer.

K: Still true.

J: Then how can I do anything to help the hungry if they deserve to be hungry? How can I act to reduce suffering if all those who suffer deserve their suffering?

K: But we would still be able to help the people who deserve our help.

J: But that would be no one. Every single person would be getting exactly what he or she deserves—no more and no less.

K: Justice does tend to work that way.

J: Instead of creating a world of perfect justice, the almighty God created a world where people can hurt each other, but where people can also help each other and do good things for each other. People can be evil, but people also can be good.

K:  But God is not good if he allows people to hurt each other and does nothing to stop them. I know you said maybe he sometimes stops evil, but far too often he does not stop it from happening. Bad people get away with bad deeds all the time.

J: God has promised a Judgment Day when everyone will receive what he or she deserves. God has an eternal prison for those who break his rules and do not care about the harm they have done.

K: That Day has not happened yet, and believing that it will happen has not stopped people from doing bad things today. And your God just sits on his hands and watches, waiting for that Day while people suffer every single day without deserving to suffer.

J: You do agree, though, that it is better to live in a world where people can do good things even if that does make it possible for people to suffer?

K: I suppose so. I don’t see how that gets your God off the hook, though.

J: Suppose that, instead of sitting on his hands, God decides to come down and get involved in this world of suffering. Suppose that he even decides to find out how it feels to suffer.

K: I don’t see how that would make any difference.

J: That’s because you are not thinking about the way that people can help each other in this world. Because God became a victim of evil, he is able to rescue the victims of evil. Because he suffered, he is able to help those who are suffering.

K: I don’t see any evidence that such a thing has happened.

J: Surely at some point you have heard about Jesus giving his life on the cross.

K: I thought that was done to forgive sins. I don’t see any rescue happening on that cross. It helps the criminals but not the victims of the crimes.

J: Jesus suffered and died to take the penalty for every sin, every bad deed, even every careless deed and every sinful inaction. Being God, he was able to pay once for all the bad deeds of history. Now, because Jesus took that penalty, no one deserves to suffer. Every person has been rescued from receiving what he or she deserves, and instead every person can receive the rewards that Jesus earned by obeying all the rules.

K: If that is supposed to bring an end to suffering, why are people still suffering?

J: We have not yet reached the Day when the final results of what Jesus accomplished are revealed. From that Day on, this world will be perfect, and no one will suffer. But now God is patiently waiting for that Day.

K: And why is he waiting?

J: He is waiting for more people to find out what Jesus did for them and take the benefits of his sacrifice. He is waiting for more believers to enter his kingdom and be set free from all suffering. In a sense, he is waiting for you.

K: Waiting for me to do what?

J: Waiting for you to acknowledge his victory over evil and to trust his promises. Waiting for you to stop resisting his kindness and to start celebrating your place in his victory.

K: And God lets other people suffer while he waits for me?

J: It’s a bit more complicated than that. He calls on his people in this world to resist evil, to stop doing bad things and to oppose those who do bad deeds. The actions of his people to make the world better are part of God’s victory over evil. Sharing the good news of his promises is also part of his victory.

K: Well, God is going to have to wait a little longer. I still cannot accept the evil he allows to happen in this world.

J: I hope you are right that it will be only “a little longer.” God has not only tolerated the bad deeds of other people. He has tolerated every bad deed you have ever done as well. Jesus paid to redeem you, and God wants to include you in his victory. He knows that you hate evil, and he hates evil too. But he is willing to tolerate the existence of evil, defeated as it is, for a little longer so he can increase the joy of his eternal victory celebration with more redeemed sinners gathered into the fold.

 

Soren Kierkegaard

He was a theologian, a philosopher, a poet, and a public figure. He tried to use his personal experiences as metaphors for the life of Christian faith. He sought to reform Christianity in his homeland, but he ended up confusing both believers and unbelievers. He is called the father of existentialism, although he probably would recognize no relationship between his writings and the existentialists of later generations.

Soren Kierkegaard was born in Denmark in May 1813. By virtue of his birth in Denmark and his baptism, he was officially a Christian citizen of a Christian land. The state church in Denmark was Lutheran, but its schools of theology and philosophy were heavily influenced by the great thinkers of the time, particularly Hegel. Many common Christians reacted against the state church with a movement called Pietism, which stressed an inner, emotional relationship with God. Kierkegaard’s family was drawn toward Pietism and it is reflected in his writings; but Kierkegaard opposed both the philosophic Christianity of the state church and the sometimes shallow and prosaic thinking of the Pietists.

Kierkegaard wrote his Master’s thesis on The Concept of Irony, with regard especially to the person of Socrates. Much of the rest of his writing, both published and private, reflected his interest in irony. Kierkegaard wrote many of his greatest works under pseudonyms, which was not unusual in the nineteenth century—Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain and Charles Dodgson as Lewis Carroll. But Kierkegaard employed a series of pseudonyms, each using a different approach toward communication and toward understanding truth. In this way, he experimented with various ways of dealing with the conflicts within the Christian teachings of his time, without necessarily committing himself to any one approach. If Kierkegaard were alive today, he likely would have six or seven WordPress accounts, each under a different name, each publishing different messages, and probably debating one another in the comments of each blog.

Under his own name, Soren Kierkegaard published “Edifying Discourses” throughout his writing career. These were devotional essays, not in the sense of one or two page reflections on Christian topics, but more as lengthy (twenty pages or more) approaches to faith and Christian living. He wrote in the style of his time, not with short declarative statements, but with complex sentences that enabled him to relate a number of intertwined thoughts and themes. Although his writings are not easy to understand, they are worth the effort to read, for much of what Kierkegaard wrote nearly two hundred years ago applies to faith and Christian life today.

At the same time of his “Edifying Discourses,” Kierkegaard wrote a series of works that were semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical, somewhat philosophical, and somewhat theological. These include Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Reflections, and Stages on Life’s Way. Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regina Olsen, to whom he was engaged for some weeks, apparently inspired much of his thinking about total commitment to God, renunciation of the world, the meaning of Christian faith, and the power of love—human love and God’s love. Fear and Trembling also marks the first of three great pre-Freudian psychological works, also including the Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness unto Death. In these three books, Kierkegaard explored the meaning of faith in the life of a sinful man, the need for God’s grace to bring, not only forgiveness of sins, but reconciliation to God and discovery of the true self.

Kierkegaard’s towering great works are the Philosophical Fragments and the ironically titled Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, which is several times as long as the work to which it is a postscript. The Fragments was Kierkegaard’s clearest statement of the meaning of Christianity to that time, although it is often overlooked in favor of the Postscript. In these works, Kierkegaard stated that “truth is subjectivity.” This does not mean that truth is relative, or that it is different for each individual. It means that truth is not significantly true if it does not matter to the believer. For example, if you are not Japanese and have no dealings with the government of Japan, the truth that Tokyo is the capital of Japan is probably not significant to you. You know it is true, but you do not treat it as a Truth. Kierkegaard spoke against those writers who contemplated the truths of Christianity without treating them as significant truths, but merely used them as starting points to wander into deep thoughts far removed from Christian Truth.

Kierkegaard did not believe that it is necessary to prove the existence of God. He found every such truth to be evidence of a lack of faith rather than evidence of Christian faith. In so doing, Kierkegaard compared Christian faith to a leap into the unknown, trusting the promises of God without requiring proof as a prelude to faith.

At this point in his career, Kierkegaard became a public figure in Denmark much as the Kardashians are public figures today. People did not understand what he wrote, and they did not try to understand. Instead, the newspapers mocked his posture, his wardrobe, and other aspects of his personal life. Instead of defending himself, Kierkegaard used the experience of public ridicule to expose the problem of what George Orwell would later call “groupthink.” Kierkegaard insisted upon the importance of the individual against the demands of society. This led him to emphasize the Pietistic notion that individual faith matters more than church membership. As a result, Kierkegaard’s later writings constitute attacks on what today would be labeled “organized religion,” although these attacks were interspersed with continued devotional discourses which contain some of the most beautiful and meaningful expressions of faith and Christian living that he ever produced.

Kierkegaard is considered difficult to read today. He used the writing style of his time, and often parodied that style in his effort to undercut the prevalence of Hegelian thinking among the professional writers of his time. At the same time, no reader can understand Kierkegaard without first comprehending the Biblical themes that inspired him, as well as the writings of Martin Luther and of the Lutheran theologians who followed Luther. Kierkegaard’s writings cannot be meaningfully reduced to a sentence-a-day calendar. Many of the quotes of Kierkegaard that appear in later writings are taken out of context, ignoring the approach of the pseudonym under which he was writing, or missing the surrounding context which supplied meaning to the individual statement of a single sentence.

For those interested in starting to learn how Kierkegaard wrote, I recommend two of his shorter works. The first is Fear and Trembling, written during the time that Kierkegaard was obsessed with the Christian significance of his broken engagement. Using the account of Abraham, who was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord, Kierkegaard discussed the significance of doing what would otherwise seem wrong because the Lord commanded it. The second is The Sickness unto Death. Here Kierkegaard discusses the meaning of sin, of redemption, and of faith, all in context of his earlier writings (including the Concept of Anxiety and the Philosophical Fragments), but in a way that successfully stands alone. Read with the presupposition of the truth of Christian teachings, and with confidence in the truth of the books of the Bible, these works express a genuine and deep Christian faith and a thorough understanding of what it means to exist as a Christian in a largely-unbelieving world.

The twentieth-century existential writers considered themselves heirs of Kierkegaard, although he would have disagreed with most of what they wrote. Drawing on the themes of the importance of the individual, and the need for a subjective relationship with the Truth, those writers overlooked the Christian and Lutheran voice in Kierkegaard’s works and largely miss the real meaning of what he was communicating. In one sense, Kierkegaard would feel vindicated by this reaction; he frequently reveled in the knowledge that he was widely misunderstood. On the other hand, Kierkegaard appreciates the “single individual whom I can call my reader,” one who patiently follows Kierkegaard on his winding paths of communication and finds the treasures of Christ’s Gospel hidden in various places along those paths. I hope that, for this title of his reader, I am qualified. J.