Kierkegaard (of all people?) on Authority and Eloquence in Preaching
August 31, 2016
Søren Kierkegaard is surely one of the most influential and misunderstood influences on modern Western thought and especially contemporary theology. This is a bit surprising for someone who wrote in Danish and styled himself neither a philosopher nor a theologian but a "religious poet." That is a curious but fitting description. He was not particularly dogmatic and seldom systematic in his expositions the way many of his German and Danish contemporaries were, but he was a piercing observer and enormously witty and creative writer whose intricately complex corpus constitutes something like an elaborate apology for spiritual earnestness in late-European Christendom. About half of his massive body of work is written under various pseudonyms representing different and often conflicting perspectives; the other half largely consists of signed "discourses" intended to spiritually awaken and edify readers. Although he completed the requisite theological exams to be ordained in the Lutheran church and sometimes preached in Copenhagen's pulpits, he was never ordained and preferred to call his many published sermons "discourses" because he was "without authority." The authority he denied having, however, was not just the official authority to preach that comes with being ordained but also a species of moral authority. He elaborates, among many other places, in the introduction to his little book, For Self-Examination (1851). To preach, he explains, "is essentially . . . neither to describe faith in books nor as a speaker" but "to have faith and to 'witness' to the faith" that "should be recognizable in [the preacher's] life" (FSE, 18-19). To preach one must be a witness and to be a witness is to be a martyr. But a martyr, he continues, playing with the word, is far more than just being an eyewitness to some event or having a certain life-experience to tell about; a martyr is a person whose life is so decisively shaped by the reality to which he testifies that the person has died to every other way of being in and moving through the world (FSE, 25). Being a martyr in this sense, he insists, is necessary for anyone who would be an authoritative witness to the Incarnate. It is also why a preacher of Christ must have an earnest, life-defining faith in the one who is the resurrection and the life and our hope of glory--a point that has not always been as obvious to people as one would think it should be. We who dare to handle and preach God's word before others must, therefore, "live in the Christian thoughts and ideas" we study and profess, not as a place we sometimes visit or as an abstract region of mere thoughts and ideas, but as the concrete form of our "daily life," as he puts it (FSE, 10). If we do this--if, in John's words, we walk in the light as he is in the light (1 John 1:7) and, in James's words, we are daily doers of the word and not forgetful hearers of it (James 1:25)--then we will have "eloquence enough and precisely that [kind of authority] which is needed when [we] speak" (FSE, 10). What to make of those who preached Christ out of envy and rivalry (Phil 1:15-18) or Kierkegaard's denial of having this kind of authority is another story for another time (and the latter perhaps another place). That we are called to have and in some sense must have this kind of authority is surely right and God's people benefit in ways they know and appreciate and in ways that go far beyond what they may know and appreciate when we do. What we might call existential authority and eloquence is a critical component of the holistic apology for the faith that the preacher walking in the light of the gospel and living for the hope of glory in Jesus Christ presents to the people every time he stands to preach.