Home » Extras » Book Reviews » Perkins, Robert L. (editor). International Kierkegaard Commentary (Volume 21): For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself! Macon, GA.: Mercer University Press, 2002.


Perkins, Robert L. (editor). International Kierkegaard Commentary (Volume 21): For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself! Macon, GA.: Mercer University Press, 2002.


(International Journal of Systematic Theology)

Perkins, Robert L. (editor). International Kierkegaard Commentary (Volume 21): For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourself! Macon, GA.: Mercer University Press, 2002. Pp. xii+374. $45 US.

With the completion of Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the ‘Philosophical Fragments’ (1846) Kierkegaard intended to cease writing. Finding, however, that he could not deny himself, his “second series,” penned non-pseudonymously, began four years later with the appearance of For Self-Examination.

The “second series” highlights theological issues that Kierkegaard finds in Luther or Nineteenth Century Danish Lutheranism. In a country where the church is established a virulent, militant “Christendom” is inevitable. Galvanized by the extent to which the Peace of Westphalia (it rendered the religion of any political ruler the religion of the people) had diluted the gospel, perverted Lutheranism, profaned the church, and misled most concerning the gift, claim and suffering of genuine faith, Kierkegaard’s two works under discussion in the twelve essays of Vol. 21 of the IKC speak to Christians of any persuasion of the insidiousness of “Christendom.”

In the first article Lee Barrett explores the cruciality of “authorial voice” in Kierkegaard’s non-pseudonymous writings; e.g., poet, penitent, humorist, aspiring-yet-deficient Christian. He argues that an appreciation of the differences in authorial voices is not a post-Kierkegaard agenda of literary criticism read back into him; rather it is to see how Kierkegaard himself relates voice and meaning. Drawing on British philosopher J.L. Austin’s understanding of “performative force” in language, Barrett insists that the meaning of existentially significant textual communication does not inhere the text. In other words, the meaning of the text is controlled, at least in part, by the end which the author intends; i.e., by how the text performs or is meant to function. In illustrating his thesis Barrett contrasts FSE & JFY! with Works of Love. The latter aims at clarifying love, stimulating it, and magnifying its attractiveness. The former aims at awakening pained awareness of one’s failure in all of this, together with repentance and self-abandonment to the grace God proffers.   This contrast, however, is no contradiction. Liturgically, for instance, both are needed in the service of praise and penitence. Barrett’s point remains, however, that a text’s content is always related to its intent, and this in turn to the form of communication. He concludes, “…a neutral, omniscient authorial metaperspective is not available.”(p.35) Communication is always context-specific.

Craig Hinkson explores Lutheranism’s divagations as successive Luther images, amounting to a contradiction of Luther, appeared in Melanchthon’s humanism, Chemnitz’s orthodoxy, Arnold’s pietism, the Enlightenment’s Rationalism, and finally Goethe’s “Luther personality” giving rise to Germany’s culture and its spirit. First Luther’s thought was co-opted by the orthodox who re-introduced Aristotle as a buttress for theology. The pietists, rightly discerning the dimension of the “heart” in Luther and rightly resisting Melanchthon’s intellectualist veer in the doctrine of faith, pointed out that pure doctrine and pure faith were not the same. At the same time, pietism’s undervaluation of doctrine born of revelation inadvertently supported the rationalism lurking in Melanchthon. Orthodoxy found its zenith in an Enlightenment that claimed to be able to demonstrate doctrine philosophically. By now the operative image was Luther as the champion of autonomous reason (Luther himself had called this a “whore.”)   Hegel provided a philosophical legitimization of Kulturprotestantismus. Goethe insisted that Luther’s character was the only noteworthy feature of the Reformation.   Kierkegaard set his face against the conglomeration of Luther images, unambiguously announcing the purpose of his authorship: “I have wanted to prevent people in ‘Christendom’ from existentially taking in vain Luther and the significance of his life.”[1]   Derided as an eccentric, Kierkegaard found vindication only as Luther was discovered anew in the Twentieth Century.

Lee Barrett returns to argue compellingly that despite Kiergkegaard’s insistence in FSE and JFY! that Christians are characterized by what they do, Luther’s priority of grace-engendered faith is not denied. In fact it is the latter that grounds Kierkegaard’s understanding of the three uses of the law. With respect to the third use Kierkegaard magnifies gratitude for gratuitous salvation as the motive for wanting to follow “Christ the Prototype,” even though this following necessarily entails the world’s hostility and the believer’s consequent suffering. In view of a gratitude that fuels self-forgetfulness, believers are relieved of the “probabilities” inherent in those whose shrewd calculating creates a “self” they can never afford to forget. While gratitude is the Christian’s initial motive, the Christian’s more exalted motive is apprehension of love’s inherent loveliness (God’s). (Here this reviewer finds a parallel to Jonathan Edwards that could have been probed and would have proved fruitful.) At the end of the chapter Barrett teases the reader with the suggestion that the Christian as agent must cooperate with grace in some sense. The reader could wish that Barrett had explored in Kierkegaard the logic of non-synergistic cooperation, presupposed glaringly in “Ludvig-and-his-stroller,” and found lucidly in the Patristic notion of gratia operans/gratia cooperans.

In light of Bonhoeffer David Law examines FSE as a protest against “cheap grace.” “Justification by grace through faith” has been reduced to a formula that can be recited mantra-like as a means of avoiding the gospel. At fault, says Kierkegaard, are the following: meticulous biblical scholarship whose logic is at odds with the logic of scripture and that ends in obscuring the Word it purports to serve, an apologetic whose rationalism is the sphere in which doubt is addressed (supposedly) even as the self-same rationalism legitimates and magnifies doubt, a failure to understand that doubt concerning the truth disappears as truth is done, non-acknowledgement that “new death” (“dying to” self) is essential to “new birth,” and the confusing of “subjectivity” with selfism. Law faults Kierkegaard for failing to grasp the gospel’s redressing of social inequalities. The reader may ask whether all social inequities are ipso facto social iniquities, and ask again if Kierkegaard’s “oversight” is in fact his refusal to reduce the gospel to ideology.

Murray Rae challenges Barth’s assessment that in the dialectic of the gospel Kierkegaard ultimately weights condemnation more heavily than grace. Addressing Barth’s complaint that Kierkegaard’s imbalance issued in a legalism that deadens, saddens and sours, Rae corrects Barth’s misapprehension: Kierkegaard is not guilty of an imbalance wherein the announcement of forgiveness and reconciliation in Christ fails to uplift but leaves hearers despairing still of their unworthiness.   Rae brings together Kierkegaard’s illustration of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (they are alike carefree), the fact that the Prototype with his unconditional demand is also the Redeemer, and the latter’s unconditioned gift of reconciliation that eclipses our condemnation. The aforementioned atonement (incomprehensible apart from our utter condemnation) exalts disciples and renders their discipleship acts of trust in it. Such publicly enacted trust serves as witness. Whereas the Enlightenment, not understanding that reason is culturally conditioned, prefers “reasons” that explain condemnation, reconciliation and obedience, Kierkegaard insists that witnesses alone declare Truth to be accessible by S(s)pirit; which witnesses, he notes, doubt never afflicts. In the same vein Rae exonerates Kierkegaard in the face of Barth’s accusation that believers are left ransacking their hearts for the love wherewith they are to love others. Drawing on Works of Love as well as FSE and JFY!, especially “Ludvig-and-his-stroller,” Rae indicates neighbour-love to be the outworking of God’s transformative love in atonement-embracing sinners; i.e., love is Spirit-facilitated. Rae concludes his correction of Barth by showing that the Prototype’s unconditional demand is also unconditional promise: “You shall love” means both “you must love” and “you will unfailingly love,” for in Christ the law has been fulfilled.

Sylvia Walsh investigates not so much an issue raised chiefly in FSE and JFY! but rather the theme of self-denial everywhere in Kierkegaard. In the course of her examination she introduces English-speaking readers to a protracted dispute between two Swedish scholars, Torsten Bohlin and Valter Lindstroem, on whether Climacus’s understanding of dying to immediacy in the Postscript conforms to Kierkegaard’s subsequent interpretation of it. Is Kierkegaard ultimately sin-denying or life-denying? Walsh, thoroughly acquainted with the subtleties in Kierkegaard and his commentators, adroitly steers the reader through the dispute, then moves on to yet another commentator, Marie Thulstrup, and assesses the latter’s insistence that any shift in Kierkegaard’s understanding of “dying to” arises from a shift in his view of nature. Having identified and probed the many nuances in this disputed topic, Walsh concludes that Kierkegaard’s “dying to” entails not the negation but the transformation of the immediate, natural, pagan and human dimensions. Lest readers regard the conversation as arcane, she hauntingly ends her article with the reminder that “dying to,” according to Kierkegaard, means that the Christian will die twice over: when repudiating selfishness, and when incurring and accepting the hostility of a world whose “self-denial” and “love” are the abysmal inverse of Christianity’s.

Paul Martens expounds the role of the Holy Spirit in FSE and JFY!, maintaining that Kierkgaard here says more about the Holy Spirit than anywhere else. Only the Spirit saves “dying to” from corrupted self-assertion, collapses earthly hope into hopelessness thereby giving rise to “hope against hope” (Romans 4:18), and keeps arduous discipleship from being inherently enervating. Only the Spirit, according to the parables of the Royal Coachman in FSE and JFY! respectively, drives the Christian ahead on the Way and at the same time stills all attempts at self-making for the sake of a self divinely wrought. Martens indicates that for Kierkegaard too the Spirit alone leads people into the Church, exalts the Redeemer and vivifies the Word. In short, the Spirit alone ensures that all that is urged in the two books concerns an encounter with God.

Louise Carroll Keeley confronts the putative misogyny in Kierkegaard with a moving, lyrical exploration of the riches embedded in FSE‘s apparently patriarchal “And You, O Woman.” Arguing that the substance of Kierkegaard’s “silent woman” may be exemplified by men, Keeley searches the depths of silence, domesticity and joy. Silence is not the artificiality of deliberate wordlessness; it is rather attentive listening to the eternal Word amidst the world’s noise. Predated by the Word, silence injects into the present its “beneficent power,” and because pregnant with the Word silence orients one to the future by directing one’s action. Silence alone can render one aware that one is constituted by Another. And since what one hears in silence one subsequently does, so far from isolating one from others silence connects one to them. In the same manner Keeley indicates how Word-besotted silence renders a house a spiritual home, and how Word-fostered joy sheds temptation as joy overcomes the divided mind that temptation always exploits.

In an approach reminiscent of A.J. Heschel who, when faced with younger Jewish people complaining that they did not understand Torah told them that if they only did it they would understand it, John Whittaker explores Kierkegaard’s insistence that only as we do the truth do we believe it. In probing Kierkegaard here Whittaker distinguishes between objective religious truth and the means by which it is known. Objective religious truth can be known only “subjectively,” only in “inwardness,” only as one inhabits truth that is essentially transformative. Herein Kierkegaard insists that the authority of God’s Word is never inferred and never generated by something outside that Word. Aware of the nature of scriptural authority, believers renounce all attempts at explaining why God’s Word is believable. Ultimately, then, the authority of the bible is the capacity of Jesus Christ (the “Prototype”) to transform readers and conform them to him as they read the book that attests him.

Julia Watkin probes the nature of Kierkegaard’s analogy of scripture as “The Letter from the Lover.” In this regard she examines chiefly the matter of biblical criticism and the extent to which it might erode what Kierkegaard calls “one’s acceptance of Christianity.” Rightly she points out that if the “Prototype” and the “God-man” are necessary for faith, and if criticism could establish that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, then no one is “equally free” to “accept Christianity.” (CUP) Concerning the Incarnation Watkins’s work will precipitate protracted discussion for here she points out that Kierkegaard never indicates why the appearance of the God-man is necessary to the occasion of faith, and insists herself that any number of situations may serve as such an occasion. Thereby she supports the agnostic/atheist offspring of Kierkegaard who affirm the possibility of “truth is subjectivity” while denying what Kierkegaard deemed to lie behind it. Since Watkin maintains that the universe’s lover is “capable of writing all kinds of love letters (p.313),” she appears to leave the reader with too little help and perhaps Kierkegaard himself misrepresented when she concludes with, “yet, as with every communication, people need to be alert as to whether it really is a love letter that they are looking at (p.313).”

David Cain probes dialectic in Kierkegaard through Kierkegaard’s rejection of “cheap victory” amidst pseudo-Christian triumphalism: the star (of victory) is in the cross, not the cross in the star. Then Cain returns to an examination of the Law-Gospel arrangement, only this time in a way that recalls the logic of the Heidelberg Catechism: Bad News, Good News, Gratitude born of Good News as the sole, sufficient motivation of Christian discipleship. Gratitude, Cain insists, is “Christian motivation for staying ‘in the striving (p.323).'” Cain crowns his essay on Kierkegaard’s dialectic from the Journals and Papers (1:993): “…infinite humiliation and grace and then a striving born of gratitude — this is Christianity.”

Martin Andic concludes the volume and the four essays on Kierkegaard and scripture through a comparison of the “mirror” of the divine in both Kierkegaard and Socrates. His principal point is that Kierkegaard, in affirming the reading of scripture to be a divine way to self-knowledge, “contrasts the Christian view with the Socratic one too sharply” inasmuch as “Socrates, the pagan…did seek to know himself precisely before God (p. 355).” Andic proceeds to prosecute his thesis that for Socrates “We become like God by selfless righteousness that will never do wrong no matter what worldly good we must forfeit and regardless of what worldly evil we have to endure. Kierkegaard says that we become spirit and… acquire the love of God by doing God’s Word and suffering whatever comes. Both call for dying to self and worldliness, and for both it is humility and justice that unite us to God, the self-effacing service of truth that makes us living mirrors.” (p. 357) Here Andic’s article will surely provoke much discussion as to whether Socrates did or could seek to know himself before “God;” i.e., is Socrates’ “divine” the Holy One of Abrahamic faith who renders himself Incarnate? Is the formal similarity in Socrates and Kierkegaard a material identity? Do Socrates and Kierkegaard remain congruent if Christ-wrought grace and faith are deleted from the latter?

Its angle of vision chiefly theological rather than philosophical, this volume exhibits Kierkegaard’s oneness with key dimensions of Luther; it distances Kierkegaard from theological and ecclesiastical distortions in Lutheranism; it develops themes that Kierkegaard scholarship has overlooked heretofore; and it challenges readers to reread the Dane where contributors’ readings appear tendentious.


Victor Shepherd , Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto.

[1] On My Work as an Author, Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.) p.17.