Lesson 5: Is Kierkegaard a Fideist?

A great deal has been written since the death of Kierkegaard in 1855 on the question of the historical Jesus. The relation between Christianity and history interested Kierkegaard - and his pseudonym Johannes Climacus - because Hegel held that something called Philosophical History could establish the truth of Christianity. The life of Christ took place in time, the miracles he performed, his resurrection. Aren't these, accordingly, historical events and can't they therefore be adequately handled by the historical method? They certainly are the objects of the Christian's faith - that Christ was born in Bethlehem, that he taught and healed and worked miracles, that he suffered, died and was buried, and that on the third day he rose again. Not all of these figure as items in the Creed but they are what believers believe. Could their truth be established by an application of the historical method? If so, isn't Hegel stating something fairly obvious?

A first distinction Climacus makes is between the eyewitness and the follower. What he is getting at is that all sorts of people heard Jesus, saw what he did, but not all of them believed. Believer and non-believer might agree on what they had seen, but the believer professes that Jesus is the Messiah and the non-believer does not. Has the believer seen something the mere eye-witness has not? Both would seem to have the great advantage over us that there are contemporary with these events. "'It is easy for the contemporary learner to acquire detailed historical information. But let us not forget that in regard to the birth of the god he will be in the very same situation as the follower at second hand, and if we insist upon absolutely exact historical knowledge, only one human being would be completely informed, namely, the woman by whom he let himself be born. Consequently, it is easy for the contemporary learner to become a historical eyewitness, but the trouble is that knowing a historical fact - indeed, knowing all the historical facts with the trustworthiness of an eyewitness - by no means makes the eyewitness a follower . . . '"

What Climacus's discussion seems to require is a distinction between two senses of history. As the above passage makes clear, there is nothing to prevent or object to in the quest for the most accurate historical knowledge of what actually happened in the first century of our era. This inquiry would make use of and profit by the various techniques of historical research that have been developed. But what would its most successful possible outcome amount to? Presumably the most accurate and exhaustive account of Our Lord's life.

But this account, given the way it is arrived at - and presuming the objectivity and reliability of those methods - would be one on which believers and non-believers could agree. That is indeed what happened. Climacus' point is that historical account could not just as such produce faith, that is, cause one to be a believer, any more than being an eyewitness of Christ's acts and words automatically make one a follower or believer. Some accepted him as the Son of God, others did not.

There is a second sense of history that is involved in the believer's professing that for us men and for our salvation the son of God became man. That happened. It happened at Christmas. It happened in Bethlehem. It happened as Luke tells us about it in his Gospel. The believer believes these as historical events.

Now history in this second sense includes and goes beyond history in the first sense. It is not a matter of further historical research in the first sense that establishes that the baby born in Bethlehem is the Messiah. Faith goes beyond merely being an eyewitness, it requires eyes to see and ears to hear, but these are not just the natural senses everyone has. Faith is the substance of things hoped for. It is accepting as true what is not seen or understood in the usual senses of those terms.

A Notable Asymmetry

There is a tendency in Climacus to suggest that just as historical knowledge in the ordinary sense does not entail faith, so faith does not entail historical knowledge in the ordinary sense. This tendency is expressed by his suggestion that faith requires next to no historical details in order to come into play. If one were told simply that God appeared as man and little else, that would be enough. Surely this is wrong. Historical knowledge of the usual sort is part and parcel of what the believer believes. It is not the whole thing, but without it, faith would have nothing on which to bear.

Pius X in his condemnation of Modernism specifically mentioned as anathema the suggestion that Christian faith was not grounded in the historical. Already of course the suggestion was that the serious employment of the historical method would undercut and disprove the historical facts which undoubtedly are included in what believers believe. In reacting to this threat, many believers said things not unlike what Climacus comes close to saying. Namely, that religious faith is independent of historical claims - in the ordinary sense of historical - and thus the disproving of those historical claims would not affect religious belief.

The most egregious form of this dissociation is still heard among "defenders of the faith" whose defense is its destruction. If the tomb of Christ were found and his bones were found there this would not, it is said, affect our faith in the resurrection. Christ's rising from the dead is thus taken to be compatible with the historical truth that he did not rise from the dead. Resurrection then receives a completely ethereal meaning and the robust realism of Christian belief is eroded.

If, per impossible, the bones of Christ were found in a grave in Jerusalem, that would disprove and falsify out faith in the resurrection. Either he rose from the dead or he did not. If he did not, our faith, as St. Paul said, is in vain and we are the most miserable of men.

What the believer has to contend with are unfounded claims that purport to undermine Christian faith. Of course the believer does not think that anything that could be discovered could undermine his faith. Further, he is confident that the application of the historical method can only support and establish the historical (in the usual sense) component of his faith.

But to return to the target of Climacus. Any suggestion that history -- even Philosophical History -- can establish the central truths of Christianity is wrongheaded. Hegel's suggestion is that Philosophical History will make our acceptance of Christianity a matter of knowledge in the usual sense, its truth having been established in the usual sense. Faith in the usual sense would thus, as Climacus saw, be rendered pointless.

Faith and Paradox

One of the reasons that Climacus gives short shrift to philosophical efforts to make the claims of Christianity into ordinary knowledge claims that can be established or disestablished in the ordinary way, is his definition of faith. At the enter of Christian belief is the God-Man. Climacus' suggestion is that such a phrase embodies a paradox. The Incarnation entails that the eternal has become temporal, the divine has become human. But the eternal and temporal are contraries -- a thing is either eternal or temporal. The human and the divine is such that either a person is human or divine. For the believer to hold that Christ is human and divine, that the eternal word has become temporal, is thus a paradox. The question is: what is a paradox?

The suggestion is that it is a contradiction, such that to assert it would be to utter an absurdity. What is believed is an absurdity. One of the great problems of interpreting Kierkegaard, and his pseudonyms, is to understand how literally he means this.

In his Journals Kierkegaard wrote that he was a corrective and not a norm. His effort is not to lay out the contents of Christianity for readers who had no idea what it was. Au contraire. He presupposes that his readers have all the information they need about Christianity. The problem is that they say and do things which are incompatible with what they know. He has decided against a direct refutation, a flat out historical discussion, for example. Rather, he will present the confusion in such a way, in such an exaggerated way, that his reader will get the point more easily. The demands of rhetoric, or at least its practice, permit excesses that are taken to be justified insofar as they provide the needed shock treatment.

That is the benign interpretation of Kierkegaard's tendency to speak of the content of Christianity as consisting of contradictory claims. Far from considering that alleged fact to be a hindrance, it is welcomed as calling attention to what an extraordinary thing Christian faith is. Credo quia absurdum.

As that quote from Tertullian suggests, even this is susceptible of a benign interpretation. After all, it was St. Paul would said that Christianity was a scandal to the Jews and folly for the Greeks. Folly. Foolishness. Christianity is judged by non-believers as foolishness. By the world's standards it is nonsense, by heaven's it is the highest wisdom.

So Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms are not without their authoritative counterparts.


Nonetheless, the word that seems to fit the viewpoint adopted by Johannes Climacus is fideism, and fideism is a heterodox understanding of faith. For the fideist, believing is not a reasonable act; what is believed is neither established by what is known nor could it be disestablished by what is known. Faith is simply a different realm from reason and there is no overlap between them. That is a position the Catholic must reject.

Alas, it is not easy to pin down Climacus and even more difficult to pin down Kierkegaard himself on the matter. In the Journals he seems to be making the Pauline point. To the unbeliever, the content of faith may seem nonsense, but "from the other side", that is, for the believer, it is not. If fideism is at least a tendency in Kierkegaard, it is possible to find such passages which make the unequivocal attribution of fideism to him problematic.

One paradox of the Kierkegaardian authorship is that his apparent obscurantism goes hand in hand with an enormous learning. And we must be careful in getting the point of the denials he makes.

Item. The longevity of Christianity does not establish its truth.

Item. Biblical studies cannot establish the truth of the Bible. These denials may seem to dismiss as undesirable Church history and biblical studies, but of course that is not their purport. But Kierkegaard was alive as were few others to the intellectual pride which can grip the scholar and lead him to think that he is establishing the truth of Christianity, that finally the whole thing will be put on a secure and scientific footing.

Of course what we have become familiar with is the debunking attitude of those who engage in such studies. Here, Kierkegaardian irony and derision are quite in order.

Suggested Reading

Fragments, chapter 3 and Interlude.

Suggested Writing

Why is one tempted to charge Kierkegaard with being a fideist?


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top