Friday, September 20, 2013

Holding Fast Onto Scripture - Learning from Kierkegaard PART 1/3

Those who enjoy learning more and more about our faith will soon encounter difficult issues. If your "thing" is biblical study (like me), you will start noticing the rough terrain of the Bible. Questions such as historical and scientific accuracies, tensions, paradoxes will appear. Is the Bible infallible? Is it inerrant? If yes, in what sense? What about the commonalities between the Bible and the pagan cultures, e.g. in the creation and flood story? What about inconsistencies in historical accounts in the Chronicles, Gospels, and even Acts? Is Christianity simply one of the many Greco-Roman cults that evolved via a Hegelian synthesis?

While one may simply choose to ignore those difficulties and adopt the so-called "theological reading" and at the same time holding onto an abstract notion of inerrancy, I believe that a responsible believer must confront his or her own unbelief. Just as the father of the demon-possessed boy who said to Jesus, "I believe! Help me with my unbelief!" (Mk 9:24), so we shall come to Scripture by presupposing its truthfulness, yet with a prayerful heart that admits the feebleness of our faith. In fact, I'd argue that those who avoid difficulties for the sake of "faith" show their unbelief - that the Word of God cannot vindicate itself.

Although we may learn from many champions of faith, I choose Kierkegaard (with the help of the Old Amsterdam and Princeton theologians) for a reason. First, Kierkegaard is often misrepresented in our conservative circle. He is often blamed for existentialism, blind fideism, and subjectivism. Often times, we conservatives are quick to criticize shortcomings of others and fail to learn from them. Such an attitude must cease lest we be sectarian. Second, many of us are obsessed with objectivity and ignore that Christianity is both personal (hence subjective) and corporate. How easy it is for us to fall on the extremes! Kierkegaard reminds us that subjectivity (to be differentiated from subjectivismper se is not a bad thing.

So how can "S.K." help us here? Is it possible to synthesize his insight with that of Kuyper, Bavinck, and Warfield? Let's find out!

SDG - Eko Ong

PART 1/3
One of the major tenets of the Reformation is Sola Scriptura, that is, Scripture is the only source of authority for faith and life. We trust Scripture as the infallible Word of God. But biblical criticisms gave rise to skepticism toward the infallibility of Scripture as liberal critics declared the Bible to be full of errors. Furthermore, Protestantism holds that infallibility does not extend to the canonization, which is defined as the process in which the Church –a fallible vessel– recognized the 66 books in our Bible as divinely inspired. So the Church might have failed to recognize some divinely inspired books and/or misrecognized some uninspired books as inspired. Although credible historical and theological arguments may be given in defense of canonization, ambiguity remains in various aspects such as the late formation of the Old Testament canon and the late acceptance of certain New Testament books. Then, how should we accept the authority of Scripture? John Calvin, having recognized the limit of reason, taught that while there is ample historical evidence, the authority of the Bible can only be personally accepted by faith through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. Yes, indeed we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Saving faith by the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel is sufficient and normatively necessary (e.g. John 6:44, Rm 10:17). Through the testimony of the Spirit, we may call God our Father (Rm 8:15, Gal 4:6) and we hear the voice of our Shepherd (John 10:27). Yet, does saving faith include personal acceptance of the infallibility (hence authority) of Scripture by faith? What is the relationship between the two categories of faith of a believer? To address such questions without ignoring the associated difficulties, let us look at the insight of Søren Kierkegaard, the enigmatic 19th century Danish Protestant philosopher.

Just like us, Kierkegaard lived in a complex era. Cartesian foundationalism was a prevalent epistemology. Here, true knowledge must possess a foundation of truth which must be demonstrated with certainty. To obtain such certainty, one shall become entirely “objective”. At the time, Christianity was a dry state religion. Later, the rise of biblical criticism undermined the epistemic foundation of Christianity. In such era, Kierkegaard attempted to articulate Christianity in a way that is relevant to lives and faithful to Scripture. He first defined that to exist as a human self is to undergo a process of becoming which requires one to be relational, both internally and externally. Such relations with itself and other selves facilitate synthesis as part of the ‘becoming’ process. As a consequence, a self is not autonomous. Our self-existence is ultimately grounded in the autonomous Self who possesses infinite qualitative difference compared to any human self, namely God. To become a true self, one shall attempt to realize the potentially in relation with itself, other selves, and the Self. From there, Kierkegaard identified three spheres of existence: aesthetical, ethical, and religious. The transition from aesthetical to ethical is facilitated by moral consciousness. A self that realizes the futility of pleasure-driven life without any ethical commitment transitions to the ethical sphere. The kernel of Kierkegaard’s works, however, lies within the transition from the ethical to religious sphere. What facilitates and characterizes such transition?

First, Kierkegaard rejected the pursuit of objectivity in foundationalism on the basis of his anthropology. A human self never attains absolute certainty. To have such certainty means to be complete and hence stop ‘becoming’ which contradicts the notion of human existence. Such certainty is only feasible in God. Although epistemic uncertainty is a part of human existence and the limit of reason, we find a way of resolving it in our daily decisions. This demonstrates that subjectivity plays a big role in our actions. That is, our actions are never purely objective. Rather than being defeated by skepticism due to the hopelessness of absolute certainty, Kierkegaard argued that we should embrace such subjectivity. One may argue that rather than pursuing absolute certainty, we simply strive for high degree of certainty in practice. But such degree of certainty itself is a measure which varies from person to person and hence subjective. Here, Kierkegaard defined subjectivity as that which is outside reason and includes emotion and passion. In relation to Christianity, subjectivity is essential in attaining true knowledge for a limited human self.  A purely foundationalistic approach to Christianity will eventually lead to skepticism. In other words, subjectivity allows oneself to “live the truth” without requiring absolute certainty.  

Second, Kierkegaard criticized foundationalism in its usage of historical evidence as the rational basis of faith. While Kierkegaard accepted the historical root of Christianity, he argued that historical evidence is neither sufficient nor necessary to produce faith in an individual. Historical evidence deals with contingent and temporal matters whereas the realm of reason or logic is characterized by necessity and eternity since a logical proposition is a perennial truth. What is contingent and temporal belongs to a different category from the necessary and eternal.

Third, Kierkegaard contrasted two religions. The immanent religion A, manifested within the ethical sphere, is a religion which searches for the truth inside oneself. Sound familiar? Such person strives for the “highest good” according to one’s conscience. While some God-consciousness may be present, religion A emphasizes immanence without relating to God himself. Moreover, the true pursuit of goodness should not be for the sake of reward other than the happiness caused by the goodness itself. If such principle abides, the person will eventually realize that he is “guilty” (recognition of his shortcoming and sinfulness) and the solution exists outside human powers. That is, one can achieve nothing apart from the Self. This facilitates one’s transition to the eminent religion B of Christianity–the true religion. Religion B must be based on a revealed truth from God. Such revealed truth, consistent with the infinite gap between human existence and God, must be paradoxical and hence supra-rational (not irrational). In other words, the revelation is a fresh and new knowledge which consequently creates a tension and results in a paradox. While a paradox can be made up, Kierkegaard maintained the uniqueness of Christianity as the “Absolute Paradox” is embodied in the incarnation of Christ since the eternal and necessary meets with the temporal and contingent within a single being, God who entered the human history and became flesh. Rather than simply a metaphysical paradox, incarnation is an ethical paradox as well. God, the necessary who has no need for us, chose to enter the realm of contingency and demonstrated the ultimate act of “selfless love” which surpasses, yet does not contradict reason. Such absolute paradox can only be appropriated by faith when a “mutual understanding” between reason and the paradox happens, that is, when reason admits its limitation and the paradox gives itself. Such faith originates neither from one’s inner-self nor from other human selves, but is a divine gift upon his encounter with God as he realizes that his reason reaches its limit and his moral quest fails. Kierkegaard characterized this faith as a subjective and qualitative leap, a change of category. It involves emotion, passion, tension between fear and blessedness, and total submission as the absolute paradox challenges the limitation of reason and evidence. Hence, just as evidence is neither sufficient nor necessary for faith, a lack of evidence is not the reason for the absence of faith. The Kierkegaardian notion of faith differs from blind fideism –with which Kierkegaard is often falsely associated– as the faith subjectively embraces a propositional truth and a historical reality of incarnation of Christ. Yet the interpretation of such historical reality must be subjectively appropriated since further evidential or rationalistic attempts on establishing its credibility, while edifying and educational, cannot be the basis of faith. It also differs from Pascal’s fideism where the “wager” appeals to risk and reason. In our view, Pascal’s wager tends to result in one’s ‘hedging his bets’. It is far from the biblical faith of total submission to Christ, which is well articulated by Kierkegaard.

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