M.G. Piety

Kierkegaard and the Ante-Nicene Fathers on the Knowledge that Comes from Faith

In Resources for Kierkegaard Scholarship on November 13, 2011 at 10:44 pm

I actually started this blog at the suggestion of Baylor University Press. Baylor published my book Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (2010) and they suggested that a blog might help to promote the book. I fear I haven’t written much here, however, on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, so I figured now was perhaps the time to say something about it. I don’t want simply to rehash what I’ve already said in the book, so I thought that instead, I’d give you a preview of the talk I’m scheduled to give at the American Academy of Religion conference in San Francisco next weekend. I’m going to speak, as the title of this post indicates, on Kierkegaard and the Ante-Nicene fathers on Christian epistemology.

I’m a philosopher by training, not a theologian, so I knew very little about the Ante-Nicene fathers before I picked up Hans Urs  von Balthasar’s English translation of Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies. I picked it up, actually, just for a little light reading. I’d become interested in early church history as a result of reading Bart Ehrman’s excellent Misquoting Jesus. Erhman’s written so many popular books on the early Christian church that you might be tempted to think he’s not really a serious scholar. Let me disabuse you of that notion. I had to make a trip over to the Advanced Judaic Studies Library recently in connection with the preparation of my upcoming talk and the librarian there, Joseph Gulka, put me on to Ehrman’s excellent The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament.

I got quite a few excellent books on the Ante-Nicene Fathers from Penn’s library, and let me tell you, the similarities between Kierkegaard’s views on the nature of Christian knowledge and the views of figures such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria is really striking. I’m surprised I hadn’t read about these similarities earlier. I fear too many Kierkegaard scholars are either philosophers who know nothing at all about theology, or theologians whose backgrounds are exclusively in later periods. I won’t go into all the similarities here but will point out only one I intend to emphasize in my talk.

I explain in Ways of Knowing that Kierkegaard believes it’s possible to know the truth, or to recognize Christ as the truth. God, he observes, did not take on human form “to ridicule human beings. His intention cannot thus be to go through the world in such a way that not a single person ever came to know [vide] it. He does indeed want something of himself to be understood [forstaae].”[1]

The claim that knowledge of God is possible through an encounter with Christ may seem heretical to those who view Christianity as a religion based on faith. This passage from Crumbs is strikingly similar, however, to Irenaeus’ claim in Against the Heresies that “the Lord did not say that the Father and the Son could not be known at all [μη γινωσκεσθαι], for in that case his coming would have been pointless” (45) (Forgive the absence of diacritical marks. I’m not a classicist, so I haven’t yet figured out how to do them on the computer).

Irenaeus is specifically concerned here to reject the claim of the gnostic Valentinus that the message of the incarnation was God’s inaccessibility to human knowledge. “What the Lord really taught,” asserts Irenaeus, “is this: no one can know God unless God teaches him; in other words, without God, God cannot be known [ανευ Θεου μη γινωσκεσθαι τον Θεον]. What is more,” continues Irenaeus, “it is the Father’s will that God be known [αυτο δε το γινωσκεσθαι αυτον θλημα ειναι του Πατρος]” (45).

Interesting, eh? It should be interesting, anyway, to anyone who has read my book. But enough on my book. I’d like to take this opportunity to promote someone else’s book. I found a particularly interesting book as I was doing the research for this paper. It’s called Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism (Oxford, 2006). I was so entranced with it that I went right to abebooks.com to see if I could get a copy. Unfortunately, the cheapest copy was $75. I then did a google search in the hope that I might find one for less than $75 and discovered that Amazon had a Kindle edition for $8.80! I LOVE Kindle! If you’re interested in Kierkegaard’s epistemology, then I recommend you check it out!


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, tran. M.G. Piety (Oxford, 2009), p. 126.

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  1. As an undergraduate, I became interested at one point about what sort of relation—if any—Kierkegaard’s view on faith had with the early Greek fathers. The lack of information on the topic quickly frustrated me; the most I had discovered was that Kierkegaard’s reading of patristic sources had largely taken place late in his life, as the Danish theological education of the time did not emphasize them.

    Does you propose an actual influence of patristic sources on Kierkegaard, or a convergence? As someone who just came back from a detour in seminary, this is fascinating to me.

    • I’m not actually in a position yet to say whether Kierkegaard was directly influenced by patristic sources. There are a couple of references to both Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria in Kierkegaard’s journals, but I think they are from later in his life. That in itself does not mean, however, that he didn’t read the church fathers until that time. The Danish theological education of the time need not have emphasized them in order for Kierkegaard to have had exposure to them. I’d need to do some research concerning precisely where and to what extent Kierkegaard might have been exposed to them in his formal studies. That’s not the only way he could have received exposure though. I’d have to check what records we have of the books he owned (and we do not, unfortunately, have records of all those books, so even if there were no church fathers among those records, that doesn’t mean Kierkegaard did not at one time own works by them or works in which they were mentioned). I’d also need to know whether Atheneum, the library of which Kierkegaard was a member, owned such works or whether his father did. Kierkegaard’s father had a strong interest in theology, so it’s entirely possible Kierkegaard was exposed to patristic writings while he was still living at home. Even more probably is that he was indirectly exposed to them through other authors.

      The extensive work I have done, however, on Kierkegaard’s epistemology, along with the reading I have done recently of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria has made is clear that there is a really striking similarity between between their epistemological views–really striking. The simplest explanation, and hence the one that ought to be preferred by scholars, is that there was thus influence, either directly or indirectly. I’m eager to do more work on this topic though, so keep checking the blog for updates!

  2. Hello, Dr. Piety. My name is Nathan Jacobs. We met at the AAR this past November. I attended your paper, asked a question, and approached you afterward. I trust that you remember me, since I noticed that you mention me in another post when recalling the events of the conference.

    I thought I would pass along a link to my own paper on Greek Patristic epistemology and the problem of post-Kantian epistemology. My findings and yours overlap quite a bit, from what I can tell. You can hear the talk at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ByBEbhgkio

    • Of course I remember you! I’m sorry I haven’t gotten you a copy of the paper I read at the AAR yet. I know I promised to send it. I still need to clean it up though. I had hoped to get to it earlier. This is supposed to be my term off. I’m having to teach a class online though because one of my classes was cancelled last fall due to low enrollment. The online class is taking more time than I realized it would, so I’m behind on everything! Thanks for the link to your paper. I can’t wait to watch it! Do you know about the Ashgate book Kierkegaard and the Patristic and Medieval Traditions? It looks great. It’s God awful expensive, but I found a copy on abebooks.com that was at least a little cheaper than regular retail. Thanks again for the link to your paper!

      • Hi again, Piety. Sorry for the delayed reply. Ironically, I too am teaching an online class this semester. This is my first experience with it as well, and I am experiencing that unusual time suck you mentioned. I get the impression that online classes are intended to “virtually run themselves” (a phrase I heard from an administrator once). But that seems to be true only if you’re not concerned with your students learning something. If you’re one of those professors who harbors a peculiar interest in education, then it consumes hours upon hours, since you can’t simply reply to a question, but must write a reply to every question from every student.

        I have not looked at the Ashgate book, but I will. I’m not surprised to hear the coupling of “Ashgate” and “God awful expensive”; I would be surprised to hear the coupling of “Ashgate” and “affordable.” I’ll likely get it through the library, but it does sound potentially fruitful.

        Do send along your paper when you finish polishing it. Do you have my email address? If not, you can find it at my website: http://nathanajacobs.com/. I hope you’re doing well, and all the best with your online class.

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