Reading Kierkegaard I

Fear and Trembling

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Paul Martens
Cascade Companions
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Wipf & Stock Publishers
    , January
     130 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There are few, if any, thinkers in the Christian tradition who are as complicated and difficult to pin down as Søren Kierkegaard. He was a prolific writer, publishing about half of his works under various pseudonyms, with each pseudonymous author having his own philosophical or theological perspective. Sorting these out is no easy task, and many contemporary commentators on Kierkegaard simply ignore the various pseudonymous authors and attribute everything to Kierkegaard himself. In his little book, Reading Kierkegaard I: Fear and Trembling, Paul Martens does not make this mistake. Martens offers a succinct introduction to Fear and Trembling (FT) and rightly attributes authorship to Kierkegaard’s pseudonym, Johannes de Silentio. The three purposes for the text are: 1) to explain the text of FT on its own terms thus making it more accessible; 2) to situate FT in the broader Kierkegaardian body of work so as to illuminate the more difficult sections of it; and 3) “to attend to the theological themes that permeate and drive the text” (XI). He succeeds well in each goal and gives us a scholarly, yet readable guide to understanding FT—providing an entrée into a rather dense text in the Kierkegaardian corpus.

Martens arranges his book in parallel to the discreet sections of FT, making for easy use. The reader can use Martens’s text at each section, perhaps reading a section of FT, then reading the corresponding section of Martens, and then returning to FT for a better reading in light of Martens’s helpful insights. Martens includes footnotes as well as a glossary at the end of the book to help the reader with Kierkegaard’s particular use of certain terms and references. Also included in the end matter is an appendix listing publications of both Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms through 1846. Rounding out the end matter are Suggested Readings, Bibliography, and Index. The book is quite well written and well edited.

The content of this book is well done, as well. One of the temptations a commentator faces when working with Kierkegaard is to attempt to explain everything in the text. Kierkegaard’s writings overlap with concepts and terms that would make it easy to get bogged down explaining how every important term is understood in the various works, including Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers. Martens does a wonderful job of focusing on FT so that his reader is not necessarily confused and overburdened with incessant references to the many texts in which a term or concept is found. Martens gives enough context for FT by referring to other works when appropriate, but he maintains his focus on FT itself.

He also balances his treatment of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as background for de Silentio’s text so that the reader has a better understanding of de Silentio as he addresses aspects of Hegel’s thought. Martens acknowledges that he is not attempting to present Hegel on Hegel’s terms but, rather, that Martens is presenting Hegel as de Silentio understands Hegel (33n.2, 76). As Martens is dealing with de Silentio, this is a legitimate move to allow the reader of Martens’s text to understand de Silentio on de Silentio’s terms, without judging his ability to read Hegel. Martens gives just enough context for the reader to understand de Silentio’s intent without confusing the issue with the numerous theological and philosophical issues of his thought.

As noted above, Martens treats de Silentio on his own terms and recognizes him as the author of FT, keeping in line with Kierkegaard’s wishes as noted in Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Treating the entire Kierkegaardian corpus as the work of one author, a mistake committed by many readers of Kierkegaard, would be tantamount to collapsing all of the interlocutors of Plato’s Dialogues into one character. Martens does an excellent job of maintaining de Silentio’s independence while, at the same time, recognizing that there is a relationship between de Silentio and Kierkegaard thus situating de Silentio within the larger context of Kierkegaard’s works. At the end of Martens’ book, the careful reader of de Silentio and Martens will have a much richer understanding of FT.

Martens accomplishes his third task by illuminating de Silentio’s thought, but also with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. It is here that Martens primarily pushes the reader to delve into de Silentio’s theological thought while also making connections to contemporary Christianity.

There are a couple of issues that could, perhaps, make the work stronger—one more serious than the other. The first has to do with the very helpful glossary Martens includes at the end of the book. Martens uses asterisks throughout the text to indicate terms, concepts, and people that have an entry in the glossary, a helpful tool to assist the reader with de Silentio’s specific uses of terms and references in his text. While the glossary is helpful, there are some omissions that could aid the reader even further, including: the ethical, hero or tragic hero, and knight of faith and knight of infinite resignation. The second way in which the work could be stronger is for there to be more of it! This little book—seventy-nine pages of text, plus preliminary and ending material—packs in a lot and will be quite helpful to anyone using it to help with FT. In reality, Martens provides a good balance of depth and brevity, giving the reader enough to better understand FT while not being cumbersome.

The Kierkegaardian scholar will find Reading Kierkegaard I a helpful refresher for the primary themes of FT, and the beginner will find a path into Kierkegaard that will be a solid, focused introduction to one of the most complex thinkers in Christian history. Martens’s book should be read by any new reader of Kierkegaard’s FT.

About the Reviewer(s): 

D. Gregory Sapp is professor of religious studies at Stetson University in DeLand, FL.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Martens held a postdoctoral research fellowship at The University of Notre Dame and currently teaches Christian Ethics at Baylor University. He has co-edited several works by John Howard Yoder, including Nonviolence: A Brief History and Revolutionary Christianity: The 1966 South American Lectures (Cascade Books, 2012).


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