D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

Practice In Christianity

  • Practice in Christianity
  • Indøvelse i Christendom
  • Anti-Climacus, ed. S. Kierkegaard
  • 1850
  • KW20, SKS12, SV12

In this work Kierkegaard uses the pseudonym Anti-Climacus. In 1846, after he published his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, he had decided to make an end of writing, and revealed all of his pseudonyms in a written declaration appended to the work. Although he returns to the use of pseudonyms here, different purposes are being served. Here the pseudonym is not meant to deceive or to qualify the work esthetically. On the contrary, this work evokes an idealized Christianity, and Kierkegaard did not wish to convey that he was himself such an ideal Christian. He retained his own name as editor on the title page, so as to claim responsibility for the work. Anti-Climacus is also the author of The Sickness Unto Death. He might be considered the author of Kierkegaard's greatest religious works, just as Johannes Climacus is the author of the great pseudonymous (esthetic) works. H. Hong remarks, "The prefix (Anti-) does not mean 'against.' An old form of 'ante' (before), as in anticipate, the prefix denotes a relation of rank, as in 'before me' in the First Commandment". In his journals Kierkegaard said, "Climacus is lower, denies he is a Christian. Anti-Climacus is higher, a Christian on an extraordinarily high level". Kierkegaard used Anti-Climacus to write from the vantage point of a perfect Christian because he himself could not claim to be one. It should also be added that Kierkegaard decided to remove this pseudonym at the last moment, by hurrying to the printer, but was too late.

Kierkegaard considered this to be his "most perfect and truest" work, and thought it to be, with The Sickness Unto Death, most important. Frithiof Brandt says, "In The Sickness Unto Death the subject is the Christian before God. In Practice in Christianity it is the Christian before Christ". The express purpose of Practice In Christianity is to provide a means whereby Christianity may be reintroduced into Christendom, since the latter had departed so far from the Christianity of the New Testament. In this sense this work is both polemical and homiletical. Kierkegaard examines the inherent offense of Christianity and its nature, as well as how the established church seeks to remove that offense to accommodate itself to the world. He bluntly proposes that Christendom be revitalized with nascent, that is, offensive Christianity. It is not difficult to see that he would be attacking the church openly in a few years. This work also harks back to the Philosophical Fragments and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript in its derision of demonstrating a "proof" of, say, the existence of God or of the resurrection of Christ. And like those works, it also returns to the (false) idea that a contemporary of Christ would find it easier to believe him than a person at second remove. Kierkegaard says that the former person actually has a more difficult task because he does not, like we, have all of Christian history spread out before him. The contemporary of Christ would be subscribing to a minority viewpoint, whereas a modern day Christian is in the majority. This work emphasizes offensive Christianity, a theme earlier dealt with in Works of Love.

Jakob Mynster (1775-1854), who was Bishop Primate of the Church of Denmark, as well as a friend of Kierkegaard's father, Michael, called Practice in Christianity "a profane game with the holy". He and Kierkegaard never reconciled. It was an uneasy relationship that Kierkegaard had with the Bishop, since he was both very fond of him, possessing a familial affection for him, even while he knew that Mynster typified complacent and established "Official Christianity".

Kierkegaard addressed the essential interrelation of paradox and faith in Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Since essential truth is far beyond our comprehension to the extent that we cannot approach it objectively, it appears to us in the form of a paradox. A paradox is a tension of sorts between at least two focal points. In terms of religious paradox, we may refer to the Christian doctrine of Jesus as fully divine and fully human. No one can comprehend how such a thing could be. However, it is not a flat contradiction. A logical contradiction posits two mutually exclusive premises, such as "James is a man and is not a man", where the word "man" means the same thing on both sides of the statement. This point is frequently misunderstood. Kierkegaard would not have us believe, or come into relation with, the impossible or the contradictory, but rather the paradoxical, the absurd, the incomprehensible. Furthermore, any attempt to remove the paradoxical is either an attempt to objectify what we cannot know objectively, because we are in the process of becoming, or, to dismiss the role of faith as silliness. This would imply that we can understand things to such a degree so as to be able to dismiss something absolutely. This assumes that we dwell outside of the system (or the universe), as if from an objective standpoint. To us, who are in the process of becoming, some truths are perceived as impenetrable paradoxes. Thinking and being are too remote from each other for us to see them as anything else.

Part two is entitled "Blessed Is He Who Is Not Offended At Me". In a summary of what he is about to present in the chapter, Kierkegaard addresses the role of offense in engaging the will.

Just as the concept "faith" is an altogether distinctively Christian term, so in turn is "offense" an altogether distinctively Christian term relating to faith. The possibility of offense is the crossroad, or it is like standing at the crossroad. From the possibility of offense, one turns either to offense or to faith, but one never comes to faith except from the possibility of offense.... Offense...relates to the God-man and has two forms. It is either in relation to the loftiness that one is offended, that an individual human being claims to be God, acts or speaks in a manner that manifests God...or the offense is in relation to lowliness, that the one who is God is this lowly human being, suffering as a lowly human being.... The God-man is the paradox, absolutely the paradox. Therefore, it is altogether certain that the understanding must come to a standstill on it (p. 81f.).

Kierkegaard emphasizes offense as the sine qua non of the faith-decision, as the reaction to the essential paradox of the Christian faith. Just as the paradoxical is the unavoidable manifestation of subjective religious truth to our cognition, so is offense the emotional reaction to the paradox, which can manifest itself as esthetic or ethical repulsion. Kierkegaard goes on to outline three broad types of offenses. Section A is entitled "The possibility of offense that is not related to Christ as Christ (the God-man) but to him simply as an individual human being who comes into collision with an established order". This kind of offense, Kierkegaard says, can be the result of any single individual's activity in the face of the established order. For Christ it was a variety of offenses, such as healing on the Sabbath, alleged transgressions of purificatory laws, etc.

The established order, however, at that time insisted and always insists on being objective, higher than each and every individual, than subjectivity. The moment when an individual is unwilling to subordinate himself to this established order or indeed even questions its being true, yes, charges it with being untruth, whereas he declares that he himself is in the truth and of the truth, declares that the truth lies specifically in inwardness—then there is the collision (p. 86).

Section B is entitled "The possibility of essential offense in relation to loftiness, that an individual human being speaks or acts as if he were God, declares himself to be God, therefore in relation to the qualification 'God' in the composition God-man". There are passages in the Gospels where Christ strongly implies either his deity or his absolute relation to the deity of God. There are other passages where Christ acts as if he is deity, for example when he allows a man to worship him, or when he claims to forgive the offense of one man against another. He claims to be the true shepherd, the true bread, living water, etc. The offense taken by the Jewish religious leaders is a standard motif in the Gospels.

Alas, for Christ himself understood as no human being can understand how difficult it is to become a believer. He is suffering here also; he wants to save all, but in order to be saved they must go through the possibility of offense—ah, it is as if he, the Savior who wants to save all, came to stand almost alone because everyone is offended at him! The mystery of sufferings, as no human being can comprehend it or them: to be oneself the sign of offense in order to be the object of faith! (p. 99).

Section C is entitled "The possibility of essential offense in relation to lowliness, that the one who passes himself off as God proves to be the lowly, poor, suffering, and finally powerless human being". One might not be offended that Christ claimed to be God, but offended that the incarnate Christ acted meekly. People said "Is this not the carpenter's son?" (Mt. 13.55ff). They took offense. This type of offense seems to be the same as offense B seen from the opposite viewpoint. Kierkegaard thinks that this offense provoked Peter to deny Christ.

That a human being falls into the power of his enemies and does nothing, that is human. But that the one whose almighty hand had done signs and wonders, that he now stands there powerless and paralyzed—precisely this is what brings Peter to deny him (p. 104).

At the conclusion to part two, Kierkegaard adds a section entitled, "The Categories of Offense, That Is, of Essential Offense". There he provides seven factors which seek to analyze the necessity and nature of offense. These factors all center around indirect communication. The God-man cannot communicate directly; he remains incognito. For those who can understand what he does and who he is, he and his works are a sign. They are self-interpretative. Section 1 is entitled "The God-Man Is A Sign". This sign is primarily one of contradiction.

A sign is not what it is in its immediacy, because in its immediacy no sign is, inasmuch as "sign" is a term based on reflection. A sign of contradiction is that which draws attention to itself and, once attention is directed to it, shows itself to contain a contradiction (p. 125).

A sign is something which points to something else. It may be congruently related to its object or entirely arbitrary. For example, the letters that you are reading now are, in their present form, arbitrary. The letter "P" does not, for example, immediately convey the phonetic equivalent we have attributed to it. In the Odyssey, the scar on Odysseus' ankle was a sign to his nurse Eurykleia that the man she was bathing was Odysseus. But this was only a sign to someone who knew him. A congruous sign, on the other hand, has its own immediacy. When Odysseus was able to shoot his arrow through the ax handles, it was a sign that pointed to an intrinsic talent that he possessed. In the Gospel of John, Jesus' miracles are referred to as signs. They indicate something of his character, as well as point to his power over nature. But he is not a mere wonder worker. It is his person that matters. When Jesus rebuked the crowds for seeking signs, he evidently referred to mere wonders. In other words, they wanted the dazzlement of the signs, without applying the requisite interpretation. Kierkegaard goes further than this. He says that even miracles and direct statements would not have been direct communication, but for the element of faith.

Yet neither the miracle nor the single direct statement is absolutely direct communication; for in that case the contradiction is eo ipso cancelled. As far as the miracle, which is the object of faith, is concerned, this is certainly easy to see; as for the second, that the single direct statement is nevertheless not direct communication, this will be shown later (p. 126).

The contradiction (paradox) is essential, again, since the message that God wants to communicate is contrary to and beyond human understanding. Section 2 is entitled "The Form of a Servant is Unrecognizability (The Incognito)". In the prior section Kierkegaard says that the ineffable is communicated indirectly through a sign. Here he says that the signified—Christ, the one whom the sign points to—is unrecognizable because "the modern age has abolished Christ". Kierkegaard's purpose for writing this book is because Christendom was not the Christianity of the New Testament. He wanted to reintroduce Christianity into Christendom. This means that the recognizable false Christ of the Church would have to be replaced by the true Christ of unrecognizability. The main way that we have bastardized Christ is by saying that he communicates directly, that he is directly known to us. The reason for indirectness and unrecognizability is grounded in the ineffable being of God. He is beyond all human imagination, as is the incarnation, the person of the God-man. As a result, the one who approaches Christ must do so subjectively and in faith. Indirectness prevents any casual acquaintance with God, and keeps the believer from making God into his own image.

Section 3 is entitled "The Impossibility of Direct Communication". Kierkegaard emphasizes that the very nature of the incarnation is indirectness. God did not, after all, appear in a cloud, but rather in the attire of a man. Kierkegaard maintains that even the apparent direct sayings of Christ, such as "I and the Father are one", are indirect to an extent since the speaker is the God-man, the mediator, a human who has come from God, in the veil of flesh.

Section 4 is entitled "In Christ the Secret of Sufferings is the Impossibility of Direct Communication". Kierkegaard emphasizes that the sufferings of Christ were primarily of inwardness.

But everything called purely human compassion is related to direct recognizability. Yet if he does not become the object of faith, he is not true God; and if he is not true God, then he does not save people either. Therefore, by the step he takes out of love he at the same time plunges that person, mankind, into the most horrible decision. Indeed, it is as if one heard a cry from human compassion: Oh, why are you doing this! And yet he does it out of love; he does it to save people (p. 137f.).

Section 5 is entitled "The Possibility of Offense is to Deny Direct Communication". Kierkegaard reiterates the theme of offense, that it is a necessary aspect of indirectness. He says that communication "begins with a revulsion". People can wary of indirectness. Judas apparently did so, and tried to force Jesus' hand in the garden. He apparently wanted Jesus to start his kingdom on the spot and put the Romans down.

Section 6 is entitled "To Deny Direct Communication is to Require Faith". Once again, the purpose of the offense at the paradox of the God-man is a crossroad—either to remain in offense or to exercise faith in the God-man. Kierkegaard criticizes the Hegelian notion that faith and knowledge are synonymous, that faith is the immediate. Faith, Kierkegaard asserts, is the mediate. It is the bridge that spans the chasm between offense and inwardness. If it were a case of a lack of knowledge, knowledge, that is, Hegelian faith, would be a direct response. But since deity is beyond our reckoning, as is the incarnation of the God-man, knowledge is insufficient. Faith is a volitive act that transcends knowledge. It is inwardness.

Section 7 is entitled "The Object of Faith is the God-Man Precisely Because the God-Man is the Possibility of Offense".

For if there were no possibility of offense, there would be direct recognizability, and then the God-man would be an idol; then direct recognizability is paganism (p. 143).

An idol is something static. It can be seen and believed directly. The ineffable incarnated God cannot be known directly. Therefore he must be approached in faith, which is a motion of the inward man. Treating the ineffable God directly is paganism.

In part three, one of the verses that Kierkegaard refers to is from the Gospel of John: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself" (12.32). There has long been recognized an ambivalence in this verse. On the one hand, the text refers to the glorified Christ, soon to be lifted up from the earth at the ascension. On the other hand, and perhaps primarily, it refers to the crucifixion. The crucifixion is an offense because Christ is punished as a common criminal when he is innocent. It is offensive because it does not seem to follow that salvation comes from punishment. For Kierkegaard, it is the Christ, as the God-man, who calls us to follow him from the cross, that is, to a life of suffering. Christ did not only call men when he preached during his period of favor, earlier in his ministry. He calls to men from the cross, to the cross. This means that the Christian, though he may not suffer physically for the doctrine, he will suffer inwardly, as Kierkegaard believed himself to be doing. This calls for imitation, which is also a theme in Judge For Yourself! Kierkegaard's whole point is to offend the complacent so-called Christians of his day, to convince them that Christ accused them rom the cross, all to incite a sense of offense in them. This offense, again, leads either to further offense or to faith.

There stands Christianity with its requirements for self-denial: Deny yourself—and then suffer because you deny yourself. That was Christianity. But how entirely different it is now (p. 213).

Practice in Christianity was reprinted in 1855. On May 16, 1855 Kierkegaard published an article in The Fatherland entitled "With regard to the new edition of Practice in Christianity".

My earlier thought was: if the establishment can be defended at all, this is the only way, namely, by pronouncing a judgment upon it poetically (therefore by a pseudonym), thus drawing upon "grace" raised to the second power, in the sense that Christianity would not be forgiveness merely for what is past, but by grace would be a sort of dispensation from following Christ in the proper sense and from the effort properly connected with being a Christian. In that way truth would enter into the establishment after all.... Therefore take away the pseudonymity, take away the thrice-repeated Preface and the Moral; Then Practice In Christianity is, Christianly, an attack upon the establishment....