Is Christ offensive?

Crucifixion by Jan Brueghel the Elder

Yes, but we cannot stop there.

Kierkegaard was fond of our Lord’s pronouncement in Mt 11.6 and Lk 7.23 that blessed is the one who is not offended [μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ] at him. Fred Denbeaux (d. 1995), Presbyterian minister and longtime professor at Wellesley, has a nice summation of Kierkegaard on this point:

What is the offense of faith? It can take many forms. We would welcome a God of light, but he comes to us crucified. We would welcome a God with whom we could be happy, and instead we are confronted with him whom we have slain. We are offended because we can never come before God neutrally but always in guilt. We are offended because the Christ who comes does not come in the form that we expect. We would be happier if he came as a god of war, so that we could join our sword to his in the battle against unrighteousness (always conveniently with the enemy and never with ourselves.) But the Christ does not come with a sword, and he asks us to put our sword away; so we are offended.

Therefore, Christ is always the occasion of either offense or faith. He is the one either before whom we stumble and fall on our knees or else from whom we turn in defensive pride. He is our Saviour, but we shall never know him as such if we become offended, because it is from ourselves that he saves us.

(Ten Makers of Modern Protestant Thought, ed. George L. Hunt, NY: Association Press, p. 55)

Amen. There is more to Kierkegaard than this, as every Kierkegaard scholar is more than anxious to remind us! But this prominent theme is why Kierkegaard is such a necessary stage through which every theology student should pass. I hesitate to say, “stage,” as if we should ever forget this offense — we should not. Yet, Christ is the light that overcomes darkness (Jn 1.5).

Creation is offended at Christ in its rebellion against God — in its desire to secure some other foundation than the love of God in his promises. Yet, this eternal love and these promises of blessing are the true foundation, the original foundation — the light. Thus, faith in Christ is not merely repentance at the offense and a casting aside of the former self; faith in Christ is an embrace of the true creation that was pronounced “good,” including the self made new in him.

This transition from nein to ja is what Barth belabors at numerous points in his Church Dogmatics, as in the doctrine of justification (especially § 61.2, CD IV.1). It requires extensive belaboring because the nein remains a truth of mankind in his opposition to God and God’s opposition to this “impossibility.” Thus, a facile ja that negates the law or wrath has nothing to do with God’s righteousness. The opposition to God is an “impossibility,” in Barth’s terminology, because it is not a possibility of creation. It comes from elsewhere. If there were ever an inscrutable mystery, it is the “non-existence” of evil.

I understand the perplexity at Barth’s designation of evil as das Nichtige, which is nevertheless not das Nichts [nothingness is not nothing]. Evil “exists” in some shadow, false reality, not the reality of God’s creation. While perplexing, this allows Barth to affirm creation with a seriousness that exults in joy, not remaining in a quandary of dialectical tension. Of course, this is framed according to his christology, not some immanent principle discernible within creation. As I see it, Barth fulfills Kierkegaard’s aim at bypassing the dialectical impasse of Idealism — not through faith as such, but through Christ.

This accounts for the pronounced optimism in Barth and his dislike for tragedy. Christ offends, indeed, but there is more. We were created for him.

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7 comments

  1. Also note the immediate context of “blessed is he who is not offended” – the dead are raised, the lame walk, and good news is preached to the poor. As you said, Christ both attracts and offends.

  2. We think so much that we were created for ourselves – very difficult to be humble. Some “complain” that God is narcissistic having to need us creatures to love Him and exalt Him. It is not His need, but our need to lessen ourselves.

  3. I have heard of reading Kierkegaard as a “stage” in theological and spiritual development as well. From James Houston. However, you say, as he does that we must move on. Can you elaborate?

    Seems their might be some tension here betweent a “facile ja” and the “facile nein?”

    Do some spiritualists/Christians get stuck in one or the other? Spinning their theological or spiritual wheels so to speak. Either reveling in the the tragedy of humanity as flawed, broken, human…i am thinking of those influenced by Luther or maybe Niebuhr and become stuck in Lent or Lament mode. Then the optimism of those who are primarily rooted in glorifying God, celebration, Easter…those who deny tragedy, avoid the darkness.

    As you say this can create “a quandary of dialectical tension.” Practially how do we hold onto Kierkegaard as a stage but then lead to Christ. As a pastor i think of many who would prefer to avoid Lent, Good Friday, and any sort of tension. 🙂 If their are “stages”, then a remedial class for the Kierkegaard stage is needed!!

    • Yes, exactly. Admittedly, we all get stuck in one mode or the other, depending upon life circumstances and influences. The greatness of Barth is, among other things, his ability to account for both, as much as possible. He clearly emphasizes the yes of Easter, as we should, but only as the upward movement that follows the descending humiliation. Barth manages to take the “sentence” of judgment/condemnation with the same seriousness as the Reformers, while exulting with the East in the victory and exaltation of the Son. These should not be played off against each other, which is far too common today (especially among those that love to bash the West’s focus on substitution and satisfaction motifs, which can indeed be one-sided among second-rate theologians or preachers).

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