The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity

Article by   November 2006

Cards on the table: Stephen N. Williams is a fellow Welshman whom I have known for over thirty-five years. I am still pondering a question he asked me on a visit he made to my home in 1977 when I was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi, and both of us fellow-exiles from our native country. He was then a doctoral student at Yale, and was reflecting on some Barthian dynamic or other. His question? What place silence has in a Protestant theology! His father, Professor Nantlais Williams was a respected professor of philosophical theology at the Presbyterian College in Aberystwyth which, in his latter years, was amalgamated into the University of Wales. I took an introductory course on philosophical theology under him in 1975 in which, I now vividly recall, he gave me my first taste of Friedrich Nietzsche. His son's book, however, is of another order of being and constitutes the best "introduction" to Nietzsche currently available.

I use the word "introduction" with some reserve. If the well-known Nietzsche scholar, Reginald Hollingdale, could admit that he had not read everything Nietzsche wrote nor had he understood everything he had read (p. 14-15), what hope is there for the rest of us, Williams included? Pitched as the book is at those with an "an academic interest in intellectual history" (p.14), it assumes some degree of acquaintance with both philosophical and historical currents, ancient and modern. An apologetic analysis of one of Christianity's most formidable critics at the level evidenced in this book is no small task, but where the darkness descends (as it inevitably does with Nietzsche), Williams' lyrical prose and meticulous scholarship ensures a sense of comprehensive analysis if not always acuity. This book, then, is not for the fainthearted!

How exactly does one write an analysis of the man who wrote (in the conclusion to The Anti-christ), "I call Christianity the one great curse... I call it the one great immortal blemish of mankind"? Or, more poignantly and self-referentially, could write, "I am, in Greek, and not only in Greek, the Anti-Christ" (in Ecce Homo)? Or, in the equally famous Thus Spake Zarathustra - what Wiliams refers to as "the scripture of the Antichrist" (p. 148) - "... do not believe those who speak to you of supernatural hopes! They are poisoners"? Certainly, as Heidegger remarked, everyone who thinks today does so in light of Nietzsche's light and shadow; there is no escaping his influence on post-modernity.

The temptation to go for the jugular is surely immense: demonize the man and be done with him. For Williams, this would be to fail to take him seriously. Alternatively, Williams could have engaged in a psycho-analytical piece of historiography, especially given the significance of Freud in this period (Williams notes Freud's comment to the effect that Nietzsche knew himself better than any man who had ever lived, p. 21). Williams, for example, makes little of homo-erotic elements in Nietzsche and only makes a passing comment to "Zarathustra's secret" in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra as homosexuality (p.154). This would surely, in other biographer's, have given fruitful source of speculation, particularly since Nietzsche himself observed, in Twilight of the Idols, that sexual interest (particularly in French literature) "was a potent driving force in modern culture" (p.23). Williams does reflect significantly on the Dionysian instinct as Nietzsche saw it (59-70, 78-79, 121, 154 etc.), hinting (perhaps more than hinting) a Christian connection via C. S. Lewis' Prince Caspian figure, Bacchus (the Lydian name for Dionysius) - a figure which Lewis seems content to allow a place for so long as Aslan is present. The erotic has a place in the created - re-created order, then (p. 68, 204)?

From the start, Williams invites comparison with Byron's Manfred, and to a lesser extent, Blake, and Dostoyevsky. Quotations from Manfred appears at the head of each chapter, reminding us of George Bernard Shaw's psychological comparison of Byron with Nietzsche in his Man and Superman; but the comparison is deftly underplayed. The focus is Nietzsche, not Byron and Williams resists the psycho-analytical biography that otherwise might have ensued (cf. Bouwsema on Calvin).

Alternatively again, another laudable method of approach might be "to show that his critique of Christianity collapses on account of faulty intellectual presuppositions" but, as Williams comments, "argumentation along these lines will not take us to the heart of Nietzsche's anti-Christianity, even if they insistently expose its logical foundations" (p.100). William's painstaking, step-by-step approach eschews easy-dismissal of Nietzsche's overblown polemic (as a psycho-analytical or, for that matter, a simplistic presuppositionalist approach might offer), giving us instead what is a more sympathetic analysis -- yes, sympathetic! For, despite the sustained denial of Nietzsche, there is an empathy for Nietzsche's Byronic wraiths that so obviously haunted him that easier dismissals and more simplistic analyses might otherwise convey! And this, may well be its Achilles heel: expand.

What Williams does provide us with is an analytical biography, an examination of his progressive thought rather than a strictly chronological biography. The first chapter examines Nietzsche's birth into a Lutheran parsonage near Leipzig, the death of his father when Nietzsche was only five years old, the influence of David Friedrich Strauss' Life of Jesus Critically Examined on a young mine as well as the diverse influences of Kierkegaard, Marx and Engels, the immense significance of Greek culture and the study of the classics. For Germans, "ideals are more important than realities" and Nietzsche's induction at the school of Pforta to all things Greek (citing the early Hegel's remark that "He who has never known the works of the ancients has lived without knowing what beauty is"). Nietzsche will read Schiller's characters in The Robbers and view them as Übermenschen, the term he will later employ in ZarathustraI for a new race of humanity with all of its overtones in German consciousness of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century Germany. The seeds were sown in Greece. If it is true that the twin sources of Western society are Christianity and classical culture, and if it is also true (as George Grant advocates) that American identity evolved through rejection of the latter (see, Robert Song, Christianity and Liberal Society [1997], 90-91), then this makes for interesting reading. Nietzsche concluded that power not justice is original. Greece had come to power through violence. "Power, or might is right." Thus springs Nietzsche's unmitigated contempt for Christian support of the weak, and thus, too, springs the evil that was The Third Reich.

But Williams traces, too, the connection with Schopenhauer. Nietzsche was 25 and embarking on a career as a professor in classical philology in Basel when he encountered "the philosopher." It was to prove, for Nietzsche as well as the composer Richard Wagner, a "permanently molding influence" (p. 43-44). What Kant had called "the thing in itself" which cannot be known, Schopenhauer identified as "will." Significantly, for both Nietzsche and Wagner, Schopenhauer enlarged on the significance of aesthetic contemplation as a mirror of "will" and thus heightened the role of art and the artist. If modern society had lost touch with classical Greece, it had also lost the sense of the truly aesthetic. The rarity of profound aesthetic moments is then a grim affair, its very elitism exacerbating the divide between modern society and the truly beautiful. Reading Schopenhauer is depressing at best! He once quipped, "If we knocked on the graves and asked the dead whether they would like to rise again, they would shake their heads." (p.47).

This leads to Williams' second chapter and a discussion of Wagner. It could have been a more useful treatment than it is. Nietzsche's early admiration for Wagner, and his later disavowal of the composer (Wagner's Parsifal with its redemptive motifs deeply disappointed, even offended Nietzsche) are examined. Sadly, Williams shows little interest in the details of Wagnerian opera. The Ring des Nibelungen gets hardly a mention - Götterdammerung - "Twilight of the Gods" as well as Siegfried's role as a promising but ultimately failing Ubermensch figure would warrant greater analysis than is given here. What is interesting, though equally disappointing, is the interaction with Colin Scruton's An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (1998). Scruton is "one of ablest and most articulate defenders of high culture in our generation" (thus Williams, p. 72), who has made a moral case for high culture in contrast to Nietzsche for whom culture represented the achievements of a necessary aristocratic class. Leaving aside for a moment, Nietzsche and Scruton's analysis, Williams evokes Barth's love of Mozart as depicting a Christian ideal where light always breaks forth from shadow, the cheerful from the tragedy as though some underlying belief in providence undergirded the artistic process refusing the triumph of aesthetically discordant. To be honest, this kind of analysis has always seemed trite to me. If we applied this to the Psalms for example, what would we make of its artistry in depicting sorrow and irresolution as, for example, in Psalm 88? Williams makes some valiant attempts here and elsewhere, to ground the aesthetic - a theology of the arts if you will - in the good, the beautiful and true under the kingship of Christ (p. 80-81). What Nietzsche lacked was a robust understanding of Christianity's theology of creation - in its protological, fallen and eschatological expressions (pp. 80, 107, 127).

Williams traces the Nietzschian descent. There are highlights - nuggets amidst dense material to be sure - Nietzsche's critique of rationalism (pp.104-107) and the "free spirit" (pp. 109-120), to German philosophical death rites "bringing sacraments to a dying god" (p. 118). Williams notes Nietzsche's association of Plato, "Europe's greatest misfortune," to Christianity adding that if such associations are denied, the sting of Nietzsche's antagonism to Christianity would not be removed (p.123). Christianity crushes and shatters man completely, and this negative side is handled in chapter 4. Once again, Williams notes Nietzsche's overblown rhetoric and his lack of a Christian doctrine of creation (and re-creation). Chapter 5 is an extensive analysis f Zarathustra, which Williams responds to in the next chapter, taking as his cue Karl Barth's analysis in Church Dogmatics (Nietzsche had taught Barth's father in a Basel high school): "Nietzsche was basically and properly self-consciousness and nothing more ... When he was not engaged in polemics but spoke positively, Nietzsche never spoke except about himself" (Church Dogmatics III/2:232-42; Williams, 181). Superman verses Jesus! But for all that, Williams (following Santayana) finds Nietzsche (and with him, German philosophy in general) self-indulgent and adolescent: "What we regard in ourselves as deep intensity is usually a shallow film on the crest of waves of self-absorption. We are like people we cannot tell the difference between the brazen glare of an artificial and tacky electric light and the rich pallor of a natural evening sky" (p.185). Thus, C. S. Lewis' "tragic greatness" (The Great Divorce) seems a particularly apt descriptive. Nor is Barth's contrast of Jesus' "co-humanity" with Nietzsche's "loneliness" adequate, for (as Wolfe put it), Christ "was yet as lonely as any man that ever lived" ("God's Lonely Man" in The Hills Beyond).

Nietzsche, "the moral philosopher of our day" (according to Alasdair MacIntyre), rightly underscored the moral dilemma of the nineteenth century, based as it was on an understanding of human nature it had putatively discarded. To examine Nietzschian ethics is, in many ways, to examine the modern European. Thus, Williams traces (in chapter 7) the line from the "slave morality" of the Jews to the inversion of values that characterizes such an ethic and hoists Nietzsche as essentially anti-Semitic. Thus we arrive at "necessary" war to achieve Übermensch, the Aryan race of Hitler "to all appearances the anti-Semitic exemplar of Napoleonic master morality" (p. 225). Which eventually brings Williams to Bonhoeffer: Übermenschen versus "man for others" (Chapter 8).

The book concludes with a Postscript: On Truth. Asking Pilate's "noble" question (thus Nietzsche), What is Truth? It is here that we see Williams the linguistic-apologetic philosopher, arguing the modern conundrum of the adequacy (or inadequacy) of human language in the knowledge of God. This is as good a piece as any on this topic, fundamental as it is for post-modern times. From Nietzsche to Derrida, addresses the "problem of religious exclusivism" that is a necessary corollary of arguing the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not (and we should take note of it) an argument about the inerrancy of Scripture, but a more general argument of how human language convey truth. Perhaps, this is, at the end of the day, an insufficient case.

The Shadow of the Antichrist is not a work for faint-hearted, then! Those looking for an evangelical response to Nietzsche along strictly biblical counter-claims will be disappointed. Williams' method is more subtle, more analytical. He never resorts for the jugular. Some will find it, therefore, too lenient, too considerate of the merits of Nietzsche's outrageous claims. But how else could justice be done to one of the most important figures of our recent times. Millions of lives were lost in wars fought on the premises espoused in some of Nietzsche's writings. Our post-modern times reflect an engagement with Modernism's arch-critic. Williams has given us a most significant book worthy of serious scrutiny. There will be quarrels with various sub-texts of the work, no doubt, but it will undoubtedly now become a standard of interpretation to be reckoned with. For those wanting an answer to the question, How did we get here? This would be a good place to find an answer.

Stephen Wiliams / Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006

Review by Derek Thomas, Editorial Director of reformation21


1709 What Every Christian.jpg
reformation21 is the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting reformation21 and the mission of the Alliance. Please donate here.

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2016   |   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login