Hans Martensen with Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years as bishop of the diocese of Zealand


De omnibus dubitandum est.

Everything must be doubted.

Hans Martensen popularized this Latin expression in his lectures on philosophy, and it carried over into the debates of the day within Hegelian circles. According to Jon Stewart, Martensen developed a genealogy of modern philosophy that began with Descartes’ radical doubt (see p. 238ff.). De omnibus dubitandum est. This inauguration of modern philosophy received its final maturation and systematization in Hegel’s philosophy. So, Hegel agreed in substance with this principle of skepticism as the foundation for modern knowing. But…

That doesn’t strike me as really what Hegel was doing, however indebted he was to Descartes’ subjectivism, leading toward the internalizing of metaphysical realities. (Thus, for Hegel, dogmas are symbols, not realities.) Anyway, back to Stewart’s fascinating study. Stewart disagrees with Martensen’s reading of Hegel on this point, and he is probably right. But it is Martensen’s interpretation of Hegel that has been the dominant reading of Kierkegaard’s work, Johannes Climacus Or, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est. Yet, if Stewart is right, then that reading of this text, now published with Philosophical Fragments, is wrong.

Kierkegaard’s character, Johannes Climacus, is an eager young man, attending university lectures on philosophy, hearing about the modern principle of De omnibus dubitandum est. He then applies it throughout his life — doubting everything. The work is a satire. Climacus’ project of radical doubt is reduced to absurdity. Most interpreters have assumed that Kierkegaard is satirizing Hegel, but Stewart makes a strong case that it is Martensen in fact that Kierkegaard is satirizing. Kierkegaard was attacking the Hegelianism of Martensen and not Hegel himself, which is demonstrated by the striking similarities between Martensen’s lectures and Kierkegaard’s satire.

But, and here is the really interesting bit, Martensen rejects the principle of De omnibus dubitandum est, in the clearest of terms, in his systematic theology, Christian Dogmatics. I will provide the excerpt below. Martensen is arguing that the Christian principle of Credo ut intelligam is fundamentally at odds with De omnibus dubitandum est. He is developing some of his earlier thoughts in the volume, which I have previously provided: “Theology begins with certainty.” And for those who have read T. F. Torrance, you will detect some close similarities.

Earlier in his study, Stewart discusses how Martensen was “never a full-fledged devotee of Hegelianism” and that he repudiates ever being a Hegelian in his autobiography (Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, p. 63). Stewart then provides a brief analysis of how Martensen departed from Hegel, such as belief in a personal God. Yet, in Stewart’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus, Martensen is portrayed as a rather thorough Hegelian, in agreement with Hegel’s skeptical starting point, albeit not a wholly accurate representation of Hegel. So, that is where I am left confused. If Martensen’s lectures are so Hegelian, then why is his Christian Dogmatics so critical of Hegel at key points, which (once again) Stewart himself recognizes earlier in his study.

The solution may simply be that Martensen changed his evaluation of Hegel throughout his career. Indeed, Stewart states that “the issue of how Hegelian he was after the entire course of his intellectual development remains open” (ibid.). It does seem clear that Martensen admired Hegel for his repudiation of Schleiermacher’s attack on speculative reason, and this criticism of Schleiermacher remains in Martensen’s dogmatics. Yet, even while Martensen is anxious to maintain the objectivity and integrity of the Christian faith, he repeatedly repudiates the pantheism he detects in Hegel and the wider trends in the theology of his day.

In opposition to this pantheism and metaphysical anti-realism, Martensen proposes a speculative personalism, which I can only characterize as a combination of Hegel and Emil Brunner! Seriously. To my mind, that is awesome! And that is why I am enjoying Martensen so much, even when I hesitate on certain details.

The excerpt from Martensen is below, where he distinguishes between doubt as a metaphysical a priori and doubt as a dialectical tool. He repudiates the former and affirms the latter, which is (as stated above) similar to Torrance, who basically got it from Barth.


For human knowledge, all independence is conditioned by dependence; all self-activity, all intellectus activus, is conditioned on susceptibility, on intellectus passivus. The false gnosis which will not believe in order to know, denies not only the creatureship of man, but also his sinfulness and need of redemption. For it is only through regeneration that the human mind, darkened by sin, can be lifted up to that stage of life and existence, at which it can have a correct view of divine and human things. But regeneration expresses itself in faith. The assertion of Christians, that faith is the mother of knowledge, is substantially confirmed by the analogy of all other spheres of human knowledge; for all human knowledge has its root in an immediate perception of the object. And, as it is useless for one who lacks hearing to talk about music; as it is useless for one who has no sense for colours to develop a theory of colour, the same holds true respecting the cognition of sacred things. “The Strasburg minster,” says Steftens, “and the Cologne cathedral, tower up high into the air, and yet, like Herculaneum and Pompeii, they have been to whole generations buried, and men have not seen them, because they lacked the faculty.” And so, we may add, there are whole generations who have not seen, and do not see, the Christian Church in history, although it is like a city on a hill. They have no eye for it because they have no faith.


By its “credo ut intelligam” Christian dogmatics is distinguished from that form of knowledge which starts with the proposition, “de omnibus dubitantum est,” so far, namely, as this proposition means that thought must cut itself loose from all presuppositions and start oft’ on a voyage of discovery, in order to find truth, be the truth what it may. In Christian knowledge the motive power is not doubt, but faith. Yet we may allow the existence of a sceptical element in Christian theology, if we use the expression to denote the critical and dialectic impulse contained in faith. Since faith finds itself in a world of sinfulness, of falsehood, and error; and since the church has the world not only out of itself, but in itself, faith must have a tendency to criticise, to try the spirits whether they are of God, to test whether the church and Christianity coincide, to test itself in order to assure itself of its own genuineness. And, since faith is also a cognition (§ 8), it must have a dialectical impulse to make clear to itself the antitheses involved in its own trains of thought. Christian faith is very different from artless credulity; and what has been said in recommendation of childlike and simple faith must be understood cum grano salis; for true simplicity of faith requires one to try the spirits and to try one’s self. Accordingly, Luther had doubts respecting ecclesiastical traditions and respecting the genuineness of his own monastic Christianity; and the different periods of the history of the church show that church teachers who were distinguished alike for the simplicity and the heroic strength of their faith, felt an impulse to make their faith clear to themselves by means of the sharpest dialectics. From the earliest ages of the Church this critical tendency has manifested itself in the sharp line of separation drawn between the proper doctrines of Christianity and heretical elements. This procedure necessarily, in every case, gave occasion to a dialectic examination of the particular points in question; for to draw a distinction between orthodoxy and heresy must surely be impossible, unless we test each individual doctrine by our view of the essence of Christianity; and test our view of the essence of Christianity by its harmonious conformity with the entire chain of Christian conceptions. In this sense, taking it as critical and dialectic, we may concede the presence of an element of scepticism in dogmatic theology; to a certain extent we must doubt, not merely in order to know aright, but also to believe aright. But if we break loose from the foundation of faith, if we become regardless of the vital interest we have in Christianity, if we cast aside its fundamental idea instead of seeking to correct our view of it, and to understand it more completely, and set up our scepticism as an independent source of truth, we shall fall, as the history of Protestantism plainly illustrates, into Rationalism with its all-dissolving criticism and empty dialectics.

Observations. — It frequently occurs that thorough-going doubt relative to the foundations of Christianity becomes the means of leading the soul to a living conviction of its truth; important, however, as may be the influence of such doubt, not only in a religious and moral, but even in a scientific respect, it has nothing whatever to do with dogmatic theology as such. One who entertains doubt as to the very basis of Christianity cannot feel an interest in dogmatic theology; for his sole enquiry is δος μοι που στω [give me the place to stand]; a demand which must be substantially satisfied ere strictly dogmatic investigations can begin.

§ 32.

The proposition — credo ut intelligam — to which we have just given prominence in opposition to every form of autonomic Rationalism, is not to be taken either in the scholastic sense or in that of the theology now commonly designated the “Theology of Feeling.” The scholastic divines fell very soon into a mechanical view thereof; for they drew the substance of their faith without any sort of critical examination from the creeds prevailing in the church, and started with preliminary principles which totally lacked an inner reality answering to their outward form. The mystics, and more recently Schleiermacher, struck into a path directly opposite to that pursued by the scholastics :—they viewed faith as an inner vital principle, and constituted religious feeling the guide and pioneer of religious knowledge. In consequence, however, of the mystics misapprehending the nature of revelation, and Schleiermacher’s defining dogmatic theology as a description of religious states and experiences, both of them fell into a new error, relatively to the “credo ut intelligam.” Dogmatic theology became in their hands a mere doctrine concerning the nature of a religious man, or of piety, instead of being a doctrine of the nature of God and His revelation; it treated rather of man’s need of Christianity and his experience of its workings in his soul, than of Christianity itself, in its eternal truth and its claim to be accepted as such by men. Thus defined, it relates simply to the subjective ordo salutis; whilst the facts of revelation, the pillars and foundations of the truth, are left to be accepted and moulded, agreeably to the particular ideas and needs of individual believers. If the full significance of faith as an inner vital principle is to be recognized, it must be considered not merely as the experience of the practical workings of Christianity, but also as the intellectual organ, or the contemplative eye, for the domain of revelation. This latter aspect is recognized by speculative mystics and theosophists (like Joseph Böhme), who teach that faith itself involves a vision. And although they, in their turn, fell into an error, the error of attaching too slight importance to the historical, attention was called in a profound manner to the objective religious relation of faith. Taking for granted therefore the relation to an objective historical revelation, we define dogmatic theology, not primarily as the science of ” the believer” (the proper and only place for treating fully of the ” Christian Believer,” his character, life, and the roots thereof, is Christian Ethics); but as the science or doctrine of faith (fides quce creditur), not primarily as a system of pious emotions, but as the science of the truths of the Christian Faith; not primarily as a description of the states of pious souls, but as a development of the believing view of revelation. We are aware, indeed,—and many illustrations of the fact might be adduced from the history of speculation, both in former and modem times,—that the demand for such an objective mode of consideration has frequently led to revelation being treated in a purely theoretical spirit by men totally destitute of religious experience; has given rise to an intellectualism which paid no regard to the practical aspects of Christianity: but this is by no means necessarily involved in the idea of a knowledge which, besides being the knowledge of religion, is itself religious. Whilst we cannot regard feeling as a principle of knowledge :—for the proper and only principle of knowledge is the idea, the thought of the divine wisdom ;—we must maintain it to be a condition. The idea, which is the true principle of knowledge in matters of faith, can never arise save in a man that is actually religious; and our intellectual eye grows dim the moment it ceases to draw nourishment from the heart; it becomes like the lamp of the foolish virgins which went out for lack of oil. On this ground the profoundest thinkers of the middle ages justly demanded that Scholasticism should be united with mysticism, that the intellectus should not be without affectus.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 59-62]


Image: Hans Martensen with the Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years of service as bishop of the diocese of Zealand, Denmark.

“Christianity is certainly not melancholy, it is, on the contrary, glad tidings — for the melancholy; to the frivolous it is certainly not glad tidings, for it wishes first of all to make them serious.”

Søren Kierkegaard, The Soul of Kierkegaard: Selections from His Journals, p. 129


Kierkegaard poses this question. For him, it appeared that Protestantism needs Catholicism as its presupposition. The latter provided the law and guilt and penance necessary for sola fide to be a powerful witness to God’s grace. Without this Catholic backdrop, Protestantism lapses into a bourgeois sentimentality and liberal optimism. As a result, Luther’s stand against Rome makes little sense, except as an expression of the individual’s “free spirit” and other profound misunderstandings common in later Protestant triumphalism. In other words, the principles of the Reformation are secularized. Here is how Kierkegaard explains the matter:

Are not Catholicism and Protestantism related to each other like — it may seem extraordinary but is really so physically — like a building which cannot stand, to a buttress which cannot stand alone, whereas the whole is even very firm and secure, so long as they keep together, the building and the buttress which supports it. In other words: surely Protestantism, Lutheranism is really a corrective; and the result of having made Protestantism into the regulative has been to produce great confusion.

As long as Luther lived it could not be seen clearly, for he was continuously in the tense atmosphere of battle, and straining every nerve as polemicist, as well as in the smoke and steam of the battle, and as long as the fight continues there is something which corresponds to steam and smoke and which prevents one having either the time, the peace, or the clarity to see whether the point can be carried and the transposition made. Luther fought, it is always said, polemically against Catholicism: but it cannot be achieved in this way; it becomes clear how it ought to be done, but there is no time to stop, we must go on to the next point; we are fighting: but it cannot be achieved in this way, etc., and that is as far as it gets.

Then comes peace. Now we shall see whether Protestantism can stand by itself. Whether or not cannot perhaps be seen distinctly in a country where Catholicism exists side by side with Protestantism, for although they do not fight and each look to their own affairs there will be a reciprocal relationship at many points. In order to be able to see clearly whether and to what extent Protestantism can stand alone it is desirable to have a country where there is no Catholicism. There one would see whether Protestantism would not — presuming that it degenerated — lead to a form of corruption to which Catholicism — presuming it degenerated — did not lead, and whether that does not show that Protestantism is not fit to stand alone.

Let us try and realize this more clearly. It was after a heavy yoke had been upon men’s shoulders for a long, long time, after they had been frightened with death, judgement, and hell for generation to generation, with fasting and scourging, it was then that the bow broke. Out of a monastery cell broke the man Luther. Now let us be careful not to separate what belongs together, the background and the foreground, not to get a landscape without background, not to get something quite meaningless.

Now what Luther dared to do was, under the circumstances, the truth; for the opposite had been falsely exaggerated.

Luther then, broke out of the monastery. But that was not really the best opportunity of seeing with sweet reasonableness how much truth there was in the opposite, when it was not exaggerated. Luther knew he was hardly safe, and it was therefore rather a question of making use of the advantage he had won, by having broken out, in order to wound the opposite as deeply as possible.

Now take the order of things, just as they were when Luther broke out: they were in error: take away the assumption necessary for Luther, and Lutheranism is perfectly meaningless. Try and imagine that what Luther in extreme tension attacked as being the extreme, that it had become a sort of Result, in such a way that the extreme tension was omitted: and Lutheranism is absolute nonsense. Imagine a country, cut off from Catholic influence, to which this Lutheran Result had been brought — there the generation now living has never heard a single word about the aspect of the question which is expressed by the monastery, asceticism, etc., and which the Middle Ages exaggerated; on the contrary, it is brought up from childhood, softened from childhood with the Lutheran notion of calming an anxious conscience — thought it is important to note that there is not a soul who has made his conscience anxious, however distantly. What then is Lutheranism? Is there any sense in calming the anxious conscience, when the assumption: “anxious conscience” simply does not exist? Does not Lutheranism become meaningless, and what is worse, does it not become refinement, which will denote the difference between degenerated Protestantism and the corruption of degenerated Catholicism.

And that is exactly what I wanted to show, together with the fact that it indicates that Protestantism is not fit to stand alone.

After Kierkegaard further elaborates the “shallow worldliness” and “refinement” in mainline Protestantism, he closes with the following:

Luther set up the highest spiritual principle: pure inwardness. It may become so dangerous that we can sink to the lowest of lowest paganism (however, the highest and the lowest are like one another) where sensual debauchery is celebrated as divine worship; and so in Protestantism a point may be reached at which worldliness is honoured and highly valued as — piety. And this — as I maintain — cannot happen in Catholicism.

By why can it not happen in Catholicism? Because Catholicism has the universal premise that we men are pretty well rascals. And why can it happen in Protestantism? Because the Protestant principle is related to a particular premise: a man who sits in the anguish of death, in fear and trembling and much tribulation — and of those there are not many in any one generation.

[The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, ed. W. H. Auden, Indiana University Press, 1952, pp. 213-216, 219.]

Of course, Kierkegaard is assuming a basically Lutheran understanding of the law as primarily negative (condemnation), which is then overcome by the grace of God in the gospel (justification). As he sees it, the grace principle has eliminated the law principle in Protestant (Lutheran) countries, thereby both secularizing and paganizing the former. The Reformed (Calvinists) would ostensibly have a different understanding of law, as primarily an expression of grace, but it appears that Kierkegaard’s diagnosis would remain the same. De jure, grace fulfills the law; de facto, grace negates the law. When the law is forgotten, grace — as the awesome and wonderful and liberating power of God’s love — is also forgotten. Grace becomes an immanent property of culture and human identity, and when that happens it is game over for Protestantism.


The wide-ranging poet, playwright, and essayist, W. H. Auden, was also an avid reader and interpreter of Kierkegaard in the 1940’s and early 50’s. This was a time when existential voices were resounding throughout the academy and church, in the wake of another catastrophic war. Auden’s attraction to Kierkegaard also makes sense in the context of Auden’s struggle with sexuality and loneliness (see Wesley Hill’s article), for Kierkegaard is the premier theologian for those who feel homeless in this world. That does not convey the sense of all of Kierkegaard’s vast corpus, but with book titles like Sickness Unto Death, The Concept of Anxiety, and Fear and Trembling — I think the characterization is justified. Auden would soon move his theology in a more anglo-catholic direction, presumably for the sake of finding a doctrine of creation that is not eviscerated by sin and idolatry.

Yet Kierkegaard is enduringly valuable, to wake and stir the sleepy Christian. I think the gospel brings an aesthetic and ethic in the creaturely realm, on this side of the eschaton, but the creation as such knows nothing of it, not apart from the light that illumines all our darkness. Those who are contented with the darkness, so long as it provides the modicum of security and pleasure necessary for a sense of well-being, will repudiate the light — or, more often, politely ignore it. Some of this is very well-captured by Auden in this brief description of Kierkegaard’s apologetic strategy:

To show the non-believer that he is in despair because he cannot believe in his gods and then show him that Christ cannot be a man-made God because in every respect he is offensive to the natural man is for Kierkegaard the only true kind of Christian apologetics. The false kind of apologetics of which he accuses his contemporary Christians is the attempt to soft-pedal the distinction between Christianity and the Natural Religions, either by trying to show that what Christians believe is really just what everybody believes, or by suggesting that Christianity pays in a worldly sense, that it makes men healthy, wealthy, and wise, keeps society stable, and the young in order, etc. Apart from its falsehood, Kierkegaard says, this method will not work because those who are satisfied with this world will not be interested and those who are not satisfied are looking for a faith whose values are not those of this world.

[The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, Indiana University Press, 1952, p. 20. In the new edition from New York Review Books, it is p. xxvii].

That last sentence is especially good and well worth memorizing.


Image: “Kierkegaard In the Street” by Luplau Janssen

Is Christ offensive?

August 26, 2013

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.