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On Avoiding Kierkegaard’s Indictment of Christian Scholarship

Joel Busby, one of my co-bloggers, just sent me this quote from Søren Kierkegaard:

“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in this world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read: ‘If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.’ Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).”

-From Kierkegaard’s Journals

Joel sent the quote with an exhortation: “Make it not so, my friend.”

Make it not so

.

I know what Kierkegaard is getting at. His indictment is leveled against that pernicious temptation all Bible interpreters face at some point: the temptation to blunt the blade of the Spirit’s verbal sword, to dull the sting of Scripture’s most confrontational demands. The temptation is to use sophisticated hermeneutical skills to explain away the bracing demands of the Gospel when they cut with a serrated edge into our daily grind and into our value system.

I remember the final day of a course I took with Kavin Rowe at Duke. We had just finished an entire semester of working through the Greek of Luke’s Gospel. Week after week we slogged through an ancient narrative whose main protagonist—Jesus of Nazareth—seemed intent on turning our world upside down. Week after week the divine concern for the poor, for justice, and for sacrificial loyalty were thrust into our Western faces. The Christ whose life pierced the soul of his mother pierced ours during every class session. Kavin lectured very little, assigning the role of classroom discussion to us grad students in a seminar-style of pedagogy.

Then the day came for him to deliver a final word, to wrap up our 12-week session of intense discussion in one of the highest institutions of the land, to bring some closure, to seal the disturbing wounds. We sort of wanted him to use his impressive hermeneutical powers to assuage our pricked souls, to bring some relief by the scholarly explanation about the vast differences between our culture and Luke’s, our contemporary context and the sociopolitical realm of the Hellenized Near East.

In fact, someone actually asked him outright something like, “How can we live as privileged Westerners in the light of this text?”

Kierkegaard would have been proud of the response.

The rising Lukan scholar provided no relief whatsoever. There was no closure. There was no soothing synopsis ringing convincingly with the explanatory power of erudite study. He just redirected us back to the open text, that brutalizing and beautiful Gospel of an Christ who suffers, dies, and beckons his impoverished followers to do the same.

That moment was an example of New Testament scholarship at its best. The text was not explained away. To be honest, Kavin did not offer much explanation about anything, and he certainly did not pretend that he himself had mastered the text theologically, professionally, or personally. He did not “defend” us “against the Bible,” to borrow from Kierkegaard’s satire above. Kavin placed us in the “dreadful” situation of having to engage the text and its implicit desire to, as Erich Auerbach would put it, exert a conceptual tyranny over our ways of thinking and over our means getting on in this world.

Sometimes New Testament scholarship is dangerous in a bad way. But sometimes, it is dangerous in a good way. And that is “priceless scholarship.”

4 thoughts on “On Avoiding Kierkegaard’s Indictment of Christian Scholarship”

  1. Andy,

    All I can say is, “I was there with you that day!!!” Yes, and Kavin even challenged me in one of my essays with the same question.

    With regards to New Testament scholarship though, I think that Kierkegaard was writing in a day in which the academy’s job was to promote the ideology of a church-state seeking to justify its existence and enterprise.

    If there has been anything good that has come from Post World War II New Testament Scholarship, Christian Theology, critical studies of church history and the rise in Spiritual Formation studies is that the academy now offers a check-and-balance for the church, which is now pretty much divorced from the interests of the state (of course, unlike you, I’ve never lived in the UK, so you may bring a different perspective).

    Thus, we can have Richard Hays, Kavin Rowe, Douglas Campbell, Stanley Hauerwas and others challenge the next generation of scholars and clergy to think about faith in a context that does not serve the best interests of church and state, but the best interests of the Kingdom of God.

    Once that happens, like Kierkegaard indicates, living this out in a democratic, capitalistic society becomes a challenge. It begs the necessity of a community that meets together to strengthen one another and hold one another accountable.

    Yes, it is a fearful thing to be alone with the New Testament and the living God who inspired it.

    And, thank you, again for your writing…it’s a blessing!

    1. Tim! I was hoping you would catch this post, knowing you would appreciate it having been right there at my side! And your comments are spot on, enriching my limited material in the post. Thanks for writing!

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