“Faith” In Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Part I

This is the first of a short series of posts regarding Soren Kierkegaard’s well known work titled, “Fear and Trembling.” All together, these posts will form a critique of Kierkegaard’s concept and understanding of faith. The goal is to prompt reflection on the nature of faith and what it means to have faith “in” something. Of course, it will be laden with some of my own opinion. Enjoy!

 

Although Soren Kierkegaard would probably be considered both a philosopher and a theologian, when he speaks directly to biblical interpretation as he does in Fear and Trembling, he sets aside the role of philosopher and enters the arena of biblical hermeneutics. Some might be tempted to point out that Kierkegaard writes under the pseudonym Johannes, and Fear and Trembling cannot even be taken as Kierkegaard’s views but only Johannes‘ views. This is very true. So perhaps it is not Kierkegaard that sets aside his philosophy and takes up the role of Biblical exegete, but rather Johannes who is admittedly neither philosopher or exegete that takes up the task of biblical interpretation. In this paper Johannes’ definition and understanding of faith will be examined and critiqued. It is the position of this paper that although Johannes argues he is not a biblical exegete, he practices methods of biblical interpretation and therefore must be held to some standard as a Biblical exegete. Along with that and more importantly, it is the thesis of this paper is that Johannes’ definition of faith promotes an intellectually irresponsible notion of faith. By intellectually irresponsible I mean that this text presents faith as if it does not need to be grounded in any amount of reasonability, and by reasonability I mean, the witness or experience of those we have found to be trustworthy authorities. I will begin by addressing Johannes’ belief that he is not a Biblical exegete which can be found in the very beginning of the chapter titled “Attunement”.

It is true that Johannes from the very onset of his work proclaims himself no philosopher or exegete and in doing so tries to free himself from the constraints that are sometimes placed on such kinds of thinkers. “This man was no learned exegete, he knew no Hebrew; had he known Hebrew then perhaps it might have been easy for him to understand the story of Abraham.”

Earlier in his Preface, Johannes remarks that neither is he a philosopher, “The present author is no philosopher, he has not understood the System, nor does he know if there really is one, or if it has been completed.”

What Johannes wishes to do here is free himself from being held accountable as an exegete. This is all well and good except for that Johannes is insistent on playing the part of an exegete while claiming not to be one. Johannes remarks similarly that he does not feel the need to go beyond faith, as if this is what exegetes and philosophers often do. Despite Johannes’ statements it is necessary to consider what Kierkegaard does through Johannes as biblical exegesis. This is necessary only insofar as biblical exegesis is attempting to read a biblical passage and through understanding that passage gain insight into the text and the Christian life. This is clearly what Johannes is doing. By turning to the story of Abraham and Isaac when contemplating true faith, Johannes is doing at best exegesis and at worst isogesis. So as I proceed with my critique of Johannes’ definition of faith, I intend to treat Johannes as performing exegesis. I do not intend to do this harshly, but rather to acknowledge that so long as one in interpreting Scripture they are at least playing the part of an exegete and may be critiqued to see if their exegesis is accurate by the text they are exegeting.

Faith, and how to understand it is central to Kierkegaard’s work Fear and Trembling. In his work Johannes’ definition of faith is largely, if not entirely, built upon the story of Abraham and Isaac. Most Christians are familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The problem arises when Abraham obeys G-d and goes up to the place designated specifically to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, as G-d has commanded. In at least preliminary work on this passage, Johannes’ exegesis is perfectly accurate. He begins by trying to shake off the ease and comfort we have come to discuss this passage. “One speaks of Abraham’s honor, but how? By making it common place: ‘his greatness was that he loved G-d so much that he was willing to offer him the best he had.’ That is very true but ‘best’ is a very vague expression.”

Johannes points out very well that far too often this story is simply hurried over and explained away in a manner that saves one from having to actually encounter the text. So admirably determined not to fall into this trap Johannes sets out to explain the kind of faith that would compel Abraham to attempt the murder of his own son. In this manner the question “What is faith?” shall dominate the remainder of this paper. I will begin by examining the definition of faith that Johannes arrives at after his exegesis of  the Abraham and Isaac story.

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