Kierkegaard and Christian Faith

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Paul Martens, C. Stephen Evans
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , March
     255 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Having attended the Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture in the Fall of 2013 on which this book is based, reading these essays allowed me to revisit the papers presented there three years ago, as well as the opportunity to read ones from the sessions I could not attend. The volume, like the conference itself, asks the question, “Is Kierkegaard a Christian thinker for our time?” (viii).

While it would be easy to begin this sort of tome with an in-depth piece of scholarship, editors Paul Martens and C. Stephen Evans have chosen to initiate Kierkegaard and Christian Faith with Kathleen Norris’s equal parts autobiographical and poetic account of her love for the famous Dane. This move in itself shows the affection the editors have for Kierkegaard, who described himself as a religious poet, and whose emphasis on lived existence makes Norris’s inclusion of her personal story at the beginning all the more delightful.

What follows is an interdisciplinary smorgasbord of Kierkegaard scholarship from the fields of philosophy, biblical studies, literature, and theology. Chapters 2 and 3 consist of philosophical essays written by Merold Westphal and Evans, respectively. Westphal makes an argument for Kierkegaard as a “four-dimensional thinker” who can be read simultaneously “as an existentialist, as a hermeneutical phenomenologist, as a postmodern philosopher, and as a practitioner of ideological critique” (13), and who seeks in all of these roles to prepare “the way for Christ in the wilderness of philosophy” (23). Evans follows, contending that Kierkegaard is a type of Christian Platonist for whom the moral claim of God on the lives of human beings acts as a proof of God’s existence. While I’m inclined to be skeptical in light of Kierkegaard’s criticisms of Plato, Evans’s case is compelling.

In chapter 4, Richard Bauckham discusses the significance of James 1:17–27 in Kierkegaard’s Christian life as well as his exegesis of the text, an exegesis which Bauckham finds to be quite legitimate. In Chapter 5, we find Paul J. Griffiths using the examples of Zechariah and Mary to explain the correct posture one ought to take in response to words spoken by apostolic authority in conjunction with Kierkegaard’s discussion of Adolph Peter Adler. Griffiths ends his chapter “with the pregnant suggestion that a Marian-like posture is deeply and perpetually relevant to the claims of Catholic Christianity” (x). As Griffiths himself indicates, “There is much in Kierkegaard’s treatment of the Adler case that suggests…the possibility of a consistently Marian response to the claims of apostolicity, and that permits…the possibility of contemporary apostles” (70). This statement, combined with his suggestion that the pseudonym “Petrus Minor” might indicate a relationship between a little rock and a bigger one, is used by Griffiths to allude to a potentially “Catholic” Kierkegaard.

This latter claim thematically links Griffiths to Ralph Wood, whose essay likewise puts Kierkegaard into contact with Catholicism. However, couched between these two Catholic thinkers is Sylvia Walsh’s essay in chapter 6 entitled, “On Becoming a Person of Character.” Not only does Walsh argue for a very Lutheran Kierkegaard (contra Griffiths, and to some extent Wood), she also strongly rejects the notion of Kierkegaard as any sort of virtue ethicist in opposition to thinkers like Robert C. Roberts, insisting that Kierkegaard’s notion of character formation can only be understood in specifically Lutheran terms. Wood’s essay follows Walsh’s, and he uses Walker Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins to affirm Kierkegaard’s understanding of the demonic, while also disputing his notions of faith and the outward witness of the church.

Simon Podmore writes in chapter 8 about Kierkegaard as a negative theologian and the apophatic nature of love in the act of forgiveness. In chapter 9, Cyril O’Regan presents Kierkegaard as a kind of non-metaphysical postmodern Augustinian who, like Augustine, recognizes that a wound in the self is only healed by “the eternal that touches time” (143), although O’Regan is clear to distance himself from “the postmodern Augustinianism of Derrida and John Caputo” (155). O’Regan goes on to engage Hans Martensen and Meister Eckhart in a discussion of whether the language of postmodern Augustinianism has any affinity with mysticism—which he denies. On these latter points, O’Regan departs from Podmore, who allows for a more mystical and Derridean reading of Kierkegaard.

In chapter 10, Jennifer Herdt discusses Jonathan Malesic’s proposal that Christians ought to operate secretly in order to not be corrupted by the world. Herdt puts Kierkegaard in conversation with John Howard Yoder, seeing the former as a type of Radical Reformer while acknowledging the more robust ecclesiology of the latter. Addressing another Anabaptist thinker, Martens follows Herdt in chapter 11 by discussing the influence of Kierkegaard on Stanley Hauerwas. Martens argues that Hauerwas’s idea of salvation as participation in the practices of the church ought to be “haunted” by Kierkegaard’s understanding of inwardness, lest God himself become unnecessary in becoming Christian. This has been my own contention with Hauerwas’s view, so I was pleased to see it addressed here.

I found each of the essays in this book to be a creative contribution by their authors. While I have a particular affinity for the piece by Martens, all of them uniquely address different facets of Kierkegaard’s thought, and each highlights a different way that Kierkegaard remains a relevant Christian thinker in our time. Importantly, Kierkegaard is not simply presented as a thinker for only one kind of Christianity, like Lutheranism, but for Reformed, Evangelical, Catholic, and Anabaptist Christianity as well.

Martens and Evans have put together a strong volume. Those unfamiliar with Kierkegaard should find it a relatively easy read, while those who do know him will find it a joy to read and interact with the different scholars in this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Matthew Brake is a graduate student at George Mason University.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Martens is Associate Professor of Religion at Baylor University.

C. Stephen Evans is University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities, Baylor University and Professorial Fellow, Australian Catholic University.



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