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

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.

New English translation of German Book on Kierkegaard’s Epistemology!

Richard Popkin begins his essay “Kierkegaard and Skepticism,” by quoting Hume. “To be a philosophical skeptic,” asserts Hume at the end of his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, “is, in a man of letters, the first and foremost essential step towards being a sound, believing Christian.”

Popkin begins his essay with this quotation because Kierkegaard is known as something of a skeptic. Skepticism, as a philosophical position, is defensible, however, only against the backdrop of a particular, and relatively compelling, epistemological theory. That is, skepticism is essentially an account of the limits of knowledge, so any skeptic worth his salt has to have a fairly sophisticated account of the nature of knowledge and it limits. One would thus expect that there would be a fairly large body of scholarship on Kierkegaard’s epistemology. Strangely, there are only three books on Kierkegaard’s epistemology: Anton Hügli’s Die Erkenntnis der Subjektivitåt und die Objektivität des Erkennens (knowledge of subjectivity and the objectivity of knowing) (Basel, Switzerland: Editio Academica, 1973), Martin Slotty’s dissertation from 1915, Die Erkenntnislehre S. A. Kierkegaards (the epistemology of S. A. Kierkegaard), and my Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2010).

Unfortunately, two of these three works are not only in German, they’re out of print, and that has meant they’ve been more or less ignored by Anglo-American Kierkegaard scholarship, to its detriment. Fortunately, Ways of Knowing makes much of the substance of these works available for the first time to scholars who do not have a sufficient mastery of German to read the originals. Better still, Gegensatz Press is going to publish an English translation of Slotty’s work. This is wonderful news for Kierkegaard scholars, because Slotty’s is by far the more accessible of the two German works. It enjoys the distinction of being the very first work, so far as I know, in any language on Kierkegaard’s epistemology and as such it is something of a general introduction. It should be required reading for every Kierkegaard scholar, especially those who do not want to go on to tackle the larger and more substantive work by Hügli. I don’t know whether Gegensatz takes preorders. My advice is to write them and inquire.