Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Kierkegaard: a critic of Luther

[Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish Lutheran and one of Denmark's most revered philosophers, and began his theological career quite sympathetic to Luther . But that opinion underwent a significant change. By the end of his life, as Walter Lowrie wrote, Kierkegaard had "nothing but denunciations" for Luther. The following quotations track this change in Kierkegaard's thinking, and are adopted from Alice von Hildebrand, "Kierkegaard: A Critic of Luther," Latin Mass magazine (Spring, 2004), pp. 10-14).

-- [S. Kierkegaard] --

  • In 1854, Kierkegaard observed:
    "There is a curious connection between Protestantism and the modern political point of view: it is a struggle for the same thing, the sovereignty of the people."
  • To Kierkegaard, the tone of certainty in Luther's writing was misleading:
    "When one reads Luther one gets the impression rightly enough of a sure and certain
    mind, of one who speaks with a decision that is 'authoritative.' And yet, it seems to me there is something disturbing about his certainty, which is in fact uncertainty. It is common knowledge that a particular state of mind often tries to conceal itself beneath its opposite. One encourages oneself with strong words, and the words become even stronger because one is hesitant. That is not deception, but a pious wish. One does not wish to express the uncertainty of fear, one does not wish or dare even to name it, and one forces out the very opposite mood in the hope that it will help. Thus Luther makes paramount use of that wish is used with such moderation in the New Testament: the sin against the Holy Ghost." -- [Martin Luther] --
  • Again, Kierkegaard criticizes Luther:
    As for the rest, the closer I examine Luther the more convinced do I become that he was muddle headed. It is a comfortable kind of reforming which consists in throwing away burdens and making life easier.... True reforming always means to make life more difficult, to lay on burdens; and the true reformer is therefore always put to death as though he were the enemy of mankind. Luther's 'hear me, thou Pope' ... sound[s] to me always disgustingly worldly. Is that the sacred earnestness of a reformer ... who knows that true reformation consists in becoming more inward? Such an expression is just like a journalist's slogan. That unholy political attitude, that desire to overthrow the pope is what is so confusing about Luther."
  • Directly challenging Luther, Kierkegaard writes:
    "Luther, your responsibility is great indeed, for the closer I look the more clearly do I see that you overthrew the pope and set the public on the throne.... You altered the New Testament concept of 'the martyr,' and taught men to win by numbers."
  • Kierkegaard held that Luther's bungled attempt to reform the Church inevitably led to mediocrity:
    "[Luther's] later life accredited mediocrity. It should be noted that in a certain sense it takes a hero to accredit mediocrity and in Protestantism we are blessed with this beyond measure."
  • Elsewhere, he added:
    "[Luther] really became a politician, to whom victory is more important than 'how' one is victorious."
  • Remarking on Luther's departure from his monastery and marriage to an ex-nun, Catherine von Bera, Kierkegaard writes:
    "The Middle Ages fell into error and believed that is was a sacred shame for a priest to marry. Then came Luther ... and got married. Now it is regarded as a shame when a priest does not marry. One cannot well be a parson when one is not married. The congregation will not have entire confidence in him when he is not married. Verily the world has gone ahead spiritually. In the Middle Ages they had most confidence in an unmarried man, they conceived that they had a guarantee in his unmarried state. This is the syllogism of the spirit. Now they have most confidence in the married man: they conceive that in the fact that he is married they have a guarantee that he will not seduce one's wife and daughter.... [T]his is the syllogism of the flesh."
  • Of Luther's marriage, Kierkegaard had this to say:
    "Luther really could not have been wht we call 'in love' with Catherine von Bora. I can imagine him saying to her: 'My dear girl, the purpose of my marriage -- as I told you -- is to defy Satan, the Pope, and the whole world. This being the case, you can understand that I could just as well marry your kitchen maid."
  • Kierkegaard became increasingly convinced that Luther had systematically watered down Christianity:
    "[I]t can come to the point in Protestantism when worldliness is honored and venerated as godliness. And that, I maintain, cannot happen in Catholicism.... No wonder Luther very quickly got such great support. The secular mentality understood immediately the break.... [T]hey grinned in their beards ... at Luther ... that chosen instrument of God who had helped men so splendidly make a fool of God."
  • Again, he says:
    "When Catholicism degenerates, what form of corruption will show itself? The answer is easy: mock holiness. When Protestantism degenerates, what form of corruption will show itself? The answer is not difficult: shallow worldliness. But in Protestantism this will show itself with a refinement which cannot occur in Catholicism."
  • The softening of the Christian message was bound to lead people to re-interpret the commandments:
    "Most people really believe that the Christian commandment (e.g. to love one's neighbor as oneself) is intentionally a little too severe, like advancing the clock a half an hour to make sure of not being late in the morning."
  • As he advanced in age, Kierkegaard increasingly regarded Luther as a tragic figure. Luther had dubbed the Epistle of St. James "an epistle of straw" because it declared that "man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (James 2:24). This did not agree with Luther's notion of justification "by faith alone," so he rejected the entire Epistle as non-canonical. [1] Kierkegaard concludes that Luther made himself "a point of departure superior to the Bible":
    "The longer I study Luther, the more clear does it become that Luther also ... confuses what it means to be the patient with what it means to be the doctor; he had the patient's passion for expressing and describing his suffering, and what he feels would be its alleviation. But he had not the doctor's breadth of view. And in order to reform Christianity the first requirement is surely to have a view of the whole of Christianity."
  • Remarking on the shift from the theocentric perspective of St. Paul's call to the "obedience of faith" to the anthropocentric perspective of Luther's declaration of forgiveness and grace focused upon man's salvation, Kierkegaard writes:
    "Luther is the very opposite of the apostle [St. Paul]. The apostle expresses Christianity in God's interest.... Luther expresses Christianity in man's interest."
  • The sacrament of confession was abolished in Lutheranism, according to Kierkegaard, because it was feared:
    "The congregation was afraid of going to confession; the confessional box made it all too real. The priests were afraid of hearing confession; it became much too serious a matter."
  • Luther's overemphasis on faith alone led him to reduce love to faith, as Kierkegaard incisively observes:
    "The end of Luther's sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, where he concludes that faith is greater than love, is sophistry. Luther always wants to explain love as love of one's neighbor, as though it were not also a duty to love God.... Luther put faith in the place of love of God, and then called love, love of one's neighbor."


    1. See Luther's Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament, I, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), p. 394, n. 43.