Søren Kierkegaard on the “tragic misuse of biblical scholarship,” how it can drive God’s Word infinitely further from us than if we had never read it

Kierkegaard has just finished a section where he’s argued for the necessity of being alone with God’s Word in order to truly read God’s Word, and yet how so very few are willing to do so.

But, asserting defiantly that one certainly does dare to be alone with God’s Word, which nevertheless is not true, one can also defend oneself against God’s Word in a quite different way. Take Holy Scripture, lock your door–but then take ten dictionaries, twenty-five commentaries, then you can read it, just as calmly and coolly as you read a newspaper advertising. If, as you sit there reading a passage, you happen, curiously enough, to get the idea: Have I done this? Do I act according to this (of course, you can hit upon such ideas only in distraction, in an absentminded moment when you are not concentrating with your usual seriousness), then the danger is still not very great. Look, perhaps there are several variations, and perhaps a new manuscript has just been found–good Lord!–and the prospect of new variations, and perhaps there are five interpreters with one opinion and seven with another and two with a  strange opinion and three who are wavering or have no opinion, and “I myself am not absolutely sure about the meaning of this passage, or to, speak my mind, I agree with the three wavering interpreters who have no opinion” etc. Such a person does not get into the awkward position I am in: either to have to comply with the Word immediately or at least to be obliged to make a humbling confession. No, he is calm and says, “There is no problem as far as I am concerned; I certainly intend to comply–as soon as the discrepancies are ironed out and the interpreters agree fairly well.” Aha! That certainly will not be for a long time yet. The man succeeded, however, in obscuring the fact that the error is in him, that it is he who has no desire to deny flesh and blood and to comply with God’s Word. What a tragic misuse of scholarship, that it is made so easy for people to deceive themselves!

If there were not so many illusions and self-deceptions, certainly everyone would admit as I do: I hardly dare to be alone with God’s Word.

Alone with God’s Word–this must be, just as the lover wanted to be alone with the letter, for otherwise it would not be reading the letter from the beloved–and otherwise it is not reading God’s Word or seeing oneself in the mirror. That is indeed what we should do and the first thing we should do if we are to look at ourselves with blessing in the mirror of the Word–we should not look at the mirror but see ourselves in the mirror. If you are a scholar, remember that if you do not read God’s Word in another way, it will turn out that after a lifetime of reading God’s Word many hours every day, you nevertheless have never read–God’s Word. Then make the distinction (in addition to the scholarly reading), so that you will also really begin to read God’s Word or at least will confess to yourself that you, despite daily scholarly reading of it, are not reading God’s Word, that you do not want anything to do with it at all. If you are not a scholar, there is less occasion to be mistaken; so straightaway to the task, no delay in observing the mirror, but straightaway to looking at yourself in the mirror…

But nevertheless it is not human to give the matter a totally different turn: that I cunningly shove in, one layer after another, interpretation and scholarly research, and more scholarly research (much in the way a boy puts a napkin or more under his pants when he is going to get a licking), that I shove all this between the Word and myself and then give this interpreting and scholarliness the name of earnestness and zeal for the truth, and then allow this preoccupation to swell to such prolixity that I never come to receive the impression of God’s Word, never come to look at myself in the mirror. It seems as if all this research and pondering and scrutinizing would draw God’s Word very close to me; the truth is that this the very way, this is the most cunning way, to remove God’s Word as far as possible from me, infinitely further than it is from one who never saw God’s Word, infinitely further than it is from one who became so anxious and afraid of God’s Word that he cast it as far away as possible.

Søren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination, 132-3, 5

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About cteldridge

A beggar trying to tell other beggars were the Bread is.
This entry was posted in Biblical interpretation, Christian life, Theological education. Bookmark the permalink.

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