Recently, May 5th, it was 200 years ago that the famous Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was born. Kierkegaard is still widely read and his birthday has been celebrated, also in the blogosphere. For example at Jason Goroncy’s blog Per Crucem ad Lucem, with a guest post of Andrew Torrance. Kierkegaard is well-known for his fiery attacks on the church of his days, especially in its official forms. For Kierkegaard the embodiment of all the wrongs in the church of his days was Hans Lassen Martensen (1808-1884). Martensen was lecturer and later professor in theology in Copenhagen. But in 1854 he became bishop in Zealand, as successor of Jacob Peter Mynster (1775-1854), who had just died that same year. In fact, the eulogy of Martensen upon Mynster became the immediate cause of the quarrel between Kierkegaard and Martensen.
Martensen called Mynster a witness of truth. Interestingly enough, Kierkegaard’s father had been befriended with Mynster. But Kierkegaard was nevertheless very critical on the theology of Mynster and Martensen. In Kierkegaard’s opinion both Mynster and Martensen were deeply influenced by the contemporary idealistic philosophies of Hegel and Schelling. He detested their tendency to mysticism and speculative theology. Kierkegaard opted for a personal (some may call it ‘existential), critical and ethical way of life. The christian faith is to be lived out in concrete and responsible commitments. Only then you can properly speak about being a witness of truth. The Danish Church lacked, in his opinion, the faith to be such a witness. And hence his fiery criticitisms of Mynster and Martensen. Kierkegaard died shortly after the launch of his attacks on the speech of Martensen, in 1855.
What to think about these opponents of Kierkegaard? Recently, I bought and read (parts of) Martensen’s Christian Dogmatics. He wrote this work in 1849 in Danish (Den christelige Dogmatik). The English translation (1866) of the book is based upon his own German translation. Not only Kierkegaard was critical, in general the reception of Martensen has been pretty dismissive. He has been said to be very speculative, a mediation theologian (Vermittlungstheologie) and not to be an original thinker. The reading of this book, however, surprised me in a positive sense. Let me give three illustrations of that.
1. Although Martensen certainly seems to be indebted to the philosophies of his days, he is critical in his adherence as well. He is arguing not only with Hegel or Schelling, but also with Schleiermacher. He is critical on the tendency in their systems of thought to a form of pantheism. Martensen argues that the christian faith in a personal God, is not compatible with any form of pantheism. So, he develops a way of understanding our knowledge of God, by falling back on the (classical) notion of ‘con-science’. That however, does not imply an uncritical appeal to revelation as source of inviolable knowledge. The content of revelation is open to human (dialectial) reasoning and argumentation. In short, Martensen tries to find a middle course between the subjectivism and objectivism of his days.
2. In his Christian Dogmatics Martensen frequently touches at the old discussions between lutherans and calvinists. For instance, as he deals with sacramental theology, his sympathy is with the lutheran camp. Throughout the book, he appears to be especially critical on the calvinistic version of predestination. But that’s not all that has to be said. Surprisingly for a Lutheran, he insists on the continuance of the eternal Logos alongside the incarnate Logos, which seems to imply an acceptance of the so-called doctrine of the ‘extra-calvinisticum’. He seems to have been a ‘mediation theologian’ (Vermittlungstheologe) in more than one respect. In this light, we begin to understand why his thoughts were so deeply despised by Kierkegaard, whose thought was characterized by paradoxes.
3. The contrast between Kierkegaard and Martensen strikes the eye particularly in Martensen’s articulation of the motivation for the Incarnation. Martensen is, to use a phrase coined by Marilyn McCord Adams, an ‘Incarnation anyway’ theologian. He holds – as many theologians in the 19th century in Schleiermacher’s trail do – that Christ would have become incarnate, even if the Fall wouldn’t have happened. What arguments does Martensen bring forward for this supralapsarian Christology? In § 130 he stipulates that the world-redeeming Mediator must have a necessary and eternal relation of perfect fellowship both with the Father and with the human race. In the next paragraph he concludes that:
“… sin alone cannot have been the ground of His revelation, for there was no metaphysical necessity for sin entering the world, and Christ could not be our Redeemer, if it had been eternally involvoed in His idea that He should be our Mediator. Are we to suppose that that which is most glorious in the world could only be reached through the medium of sin? That there would have been no place in the human race for the glory of the Only Begotten One, but for sin?”
Unlike Schleiermacher, Martensen denies the necessity of the entrance of sin in our world. But like Schleiermacher, he emphasises that Christ would have become man, irrespective of the Fall. If humanity is destined to bear the image of God, to be filled with God, must we not – he asks – assume that this fullness of God must be exemplified in perfection: the true and complete God-man? It is, I suppose, not the best argument for a supralasarian Christology, but it certainly is intriguing and worth pondering.