First of all I would like to thank Valérie
Nicolet Anderson for providing us with such an explorative and innovative paper.
The three papers of this session relate modern philosophy to the reading of
Romans in different ways. The specific contribution of this paper is that it
establishes a dialogue between the biblical text and a theologian of the
1800’s. Valérie Nicolet Anderson does not aim at revealing something
unexpected or hidden in Romans. She uses the work of the Scandinavian
Protestant, Søren Kierkegaard, to solve some major puzzles of Romans 7:7-12 by
means of clarification. The paper is situated not only in the exegetical field,
but also in the systematic. Or rather the two fields are being related to each
other. In view of scriptural criticism this is ideal and very helpful for this
group working with Romans through history and cultures.
Valérie Nicolet Anderson’s paper is
easily described in terms of the three dimensions in the model of scriptural
criticism. Since the point of that model is that these three dimensions are
always present when biblical texts are interpreted, this is not a surprise. By
relating to the hermeneutical, contextual and analytical dimensions of this
paper I hope both to be able to highlight its advantages and to give my view on
what could be discussed in the future work on this topic. I appreciate Valérie
Nicolet Anderson’s open-ended presentation, which already puts us on the track
of discussing the problems raised by it as problems of mutual concern.
Let me start with the hermeneutical dimension. Biblical critics have a tendency to provoke
systematic theologians with quick references to theological concepts, major
figures or traditions followed by a judgment with huge, but unwarranted,
consequences. One example of this is Peter Stuhlmacher’s interpretation of
Romans 3:21-26, where he rejects the important theological distinction between a
forensic and an effective view of justification as “an unbiblical
abstraction”. What are we supposed to
do? Give up the distinction? Reject those who used it? No! I am grateful to Valérie
Nicolet Anderson for not choosing that path, but giving us a richer description
of the anthropology of Søren Kierkegaard by means of a reading of primarily a
section in The Sickness Unto Death.
What is this anthropology? As Valérie
Nicolet Anderson points out Kierkegaard – or actually the pseudonym
– sees humans as being caught in a predicament, which he describes as
either not wanting to be oneself or wanting to be oneself. Both alternatives are
wrong seen in relation to God. Humans lack the belief that they are intimately
related to God. We have eternal life, but we cannot believe it. The two
strategies – or kinds of despair as Kierkegaard names them – fail.
They are sinful, since they lead us not to receive the gift of eternal life.
To Kierkegaard it is obvious that awareness of God does not help in this
respect. It is still difficult for humans to believe that they are grounded in
God and have eternal life.
However, it is better to be in despair than not even to reflect on the human
Furthermore, Valérie Nicolet Anderson
uses Kierkegaard’s theory of indirect speech for clarifying the use of the
first person singular in Rom. 7. This is theory is not presented in The
Sickness Unto Death, but taken
from Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments.
The human predicament cannot be directly communicated, according to Kierkegaard.
I find this approach helpful both concerning the
anthropology and the theory of communication. The text of Romans 7 has an
obvious existential ring. An existentialist theologian helps us clarify our
intuitive reaction. Still, I am curious. The reason for choosing Kierkegaard
presented in the paper is that he read Romans. However, most theologians do. I
think Valérie Nicolet Anderson has further reasons for her choice and I
would like to hear more about them.
Let me push this a little further. If
Kierkegaard gives us a helpful view of ourselves and our position in this world
(i.e. our context) and if there are some obvious links with the text of Romans
(in this case, existential) Kierkegaard need not have read Romans for us to be
justified to read him and Romans. The existential connection is sufficient for
Anderson’s offering a legitimate
interpretation of Romans.
However, as a systematic theologian, I also want
to raise some critical questions concerning the hermeneutical dimension.
Although the choice of Kierkegaard can be justified, it should not be done
without criticism. We need not only critical biblical exegesis, but also
critical systematic theology.
We know that existentialism is strongly
individualistic. The individual is seen as standing alone before God. Is this
good or bad? That depends largely on the context. In Alastair Hannay’s
introduction to the edition of The
Sickness Unto Death I have used, there is an analysis of the relationship
between Kierkegaard’s individualism and the breakdown of the traditional
social structures of his time. This makes me wonder whether, for example, the
social aspects of the law of the people of God may not also be something to be
taken into further consideration. Or perhaps the existential dilemma needs to be
limited in some other way in the direction of saying that at times the individual is standing alone before God?
Perhaps we need also to keep a critical eye on
the use of death as symbol.
Death is a serious thing, which Christianity risks diminishing. As Kierkegaard
puts it, lethal diseases do not lead to death – but they do! Where does
this take us? Paul and Romans depend indeed on this thematic use of death too.
Perhaps we need not only be critical of Kierkegaard, but also of Paul?
Now I turn to the contextual dimension of this paper. Since the analysis stays close
to the selected texts, it may be best described as the contexts of Paul and
Kierkegaard. However, neither their oeuvre in a more general sense, nor their
historical milieus are taken into account. Rather, they are both seen from an
existential perspective, communicating the struggle with some facts of religious
life. This means that existentialism is not only characteristic of the
hermeneutical dimension in this paper, but also of its contextual dimension.
It is intriguing to find a voice emphasizing the
universal human predicament when so many voices are raised for taking our
differences into account. I think both perspectives are needed. A solution will
not be found, but the dialogue is important. I also think it is justified not to
enter into this dialogue within this paper, but to stick to the task of
exploring an existentialist – and in that sense universal –
understanding of Romans 7.
This is done in a very open and tentative way in
this paper, which I appreciate. The relationship between the texts is primarily
described as one echoing the other. The parallels are suggested rather than
established. Although Valérie Nicolet Anderson says she wants to read
both texts in view of each other, she mainly clarifies Paul’s thoughts in a
terminology foreign to, but still congruent with, his. I would like to encourage
her to keep the tension between Paul and Kierkegaard. After all, their way of
putting forth the human predicament is not identical. I will return to this in a
moment, when discussing the analytical dimension.
Furthermore, Valérie Nicolet Anderson
also says that she wants to help us understand Paul better in order to engage in
the Reformed tradition. This implies that our own
context is brought into the process along with that of Paul and Kierkegaard. I
would welcome some kind of presentation of how the existential connection is
made to us. Why is it helpful for us to read Romans by means of the theology of
dimension has already been mentioned several times as a presupposition for
the discussion of the other dimensions. This is as it should be, since the
dimensions are all dimensions of the same interpretive process. What I find
praiseworthy in Valérie Nicole Anderson’s paper comes clearly to the
fore concerning the identity of the first person singular in Romans 7. Valérie
Nicolet Anderson does careful exegetical work in order to clarify that “I”
is used as a prosopopoiia in the sense
that Stowers has presented. If I have understood it right, this means that Paul
has indirectly wanted to make the reader think both of the origin of humankind
in Genesis and the covenant of Sinai and thus by means of her own relationship
to these traditions the reader is drawn into what Paul has to say.
Valérie Nicolet Anderson takes seriously
the fact that biblical arguments alone can never solve the problem of the
identity of the voice in Romans 7. They point in many different directions. The
analytical dimension is necessary, but not sufficient. A hermeneutical dimension
is needed as well. In this paper both Kierkegaard’s anthropology and his
theory of indirect communication are used. The proposed rhetorical figure of prosopopoiia
is related to a philosophical foundation. Paul is speaking of something which
has to be personally communicated, although the speaker and the one spoken to do
not know each other. He uses the historical repertoire and draws the listener
into his way of reasoning by writing in the first person singular.
However, Valérie Nicolet Anderson is
aware of a major problem in paralleling these specific texts at an analytical
level. Although she wants to establish the relationship genetically, she knows
that in fact Kierkegaard does not mention Romans in The
Sickness Unto Death. Rather, the title is a quotation from John 11:4 and the
story of the awakening of Lazarus. Lazarus is ill, but his sickness will not
lead to death. Similarly we may think that we have caught lethal diseases, but
we are generally mistaken, according to Kierkegaard. It is only sin, which
causes death and from this we have been saved by grace.
It is difficult to establish a genetic
relationship between these texts. However, there are other possibilities. The
connection need not be made analytically, but can be made contextually. They are
both elaborating a universal predicament. It can also be established
hermeneutically by means of the existential anthropology. Paul and Kierkegaard
are writing about the same thing. As I understand this paper, this is actually
what is being done.
This brings me back to the tension between these
texts, which could be further reflected upon. When putting forth the common
thematic ground, Valérie Nicolet Anderson uses the terminology “before
God”. Paul and Kierkegaard both write about humans as standing “before
God”. Paul does this in terms of the law. The puzzling thing is that the law
does not help. What about Kierkegaard? He does not write in terms of the law.
However, he believes becoming aware of God and getting into despair is actually
a good thing, a presupposition for accepting grace. Thus, there is a similarity.
Both Paul and Kierkegaard hold that it is good to be “before God”, although
it does not deliver us from sin or despair.
There is also an important difference. Despair
does not arise primarily before the law, but rather before the gospel, to use
the common Protestant hermeneutical key. Humans lack faith, i.e. belief that
they are transparently grounded in God and have eternal life. What causes
offence is not that God wants us to live holy lives, but that God wants to give
us everything for free.
I think it would be worth while to explore this difference and not stop by
seeing the parallel or hearing the echo. What can we make of the dissonance?
Valérie Nicolet Anderson has shown that
there are legitimate fruitful ways of interpreting Romans with the help of some
theological insights of Kierkegaard. Her paper raises some very important
issues. How do we justify connections made between biblical texts and systematic
theology? How can we remain critical also of the theological dimensions we want
to use? It is indeed a temptation to let theologians solve exegetical problems
or exegetes solve theological problems. We need criticism on both sides.
Furthermore: How do we bring our own context into play doing justice both to
what we have in common and what makes us different? A last question I raised was
how to deal with dissonance that appears when biblical and theological texts
Stuhlmacher, Peter. Paul’s
Letter to the Romans: A Commentary.
Tranl. Scott J. Hafemann (Louiseville, Ky: Westminster John Knox 1994) 63f.
I have been using another edition and translation than Valérie
Nicolet Anderson, namely Kierkegaard, Søren. The
Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Edification
and Awakening. Transl. Alastair Hanney (London: Penguin Books 1989).
 Since Kierkegaard uses pseudonyms to clarify positions in radical ways, this could add a dimension to the analysis in this paper. However, I do not think it makes a major difference, although it would bring out some nuances and perhaps could lead to that other positions were examined as well in the future.
Kierkegaard. Sickness (1989) 114, where
faith is defined. “Faith is: that the self in being itself and in wanting
to be itself is grounded transparently in God.” Cf. 1 of the Introduction.
See, for exmple, Kierkegaard. Sickness
(1989) 117f.: “…this
human being who hasn’t the least illusion of being on an intimate footing
with this or that person, this human being is before God, can talk with God
any time he wants, certain of being heard; in short this human being has an
invitation to live on the most intimate footing with God! Furthermore, for
this very person too, God comes to the world, lets himself be born, suffers,
dies; and this suffering God, he well-nigh begs and implores this human
being to accept the help offered to him!”
Kierkegaard. Sickness (1989) 52: “Just
as a physician might say there isn’t a single human being who enjoys
perfect health, so someone with proper knowledge of man might say there is
not a single human being who does not despair at least a little (…) It is
not discouraging; on the contrary it is uplifting, since it views every man
with regard to the highest demand that can be made of him: to be spirit.”
 This has been emphasiized by feminist theologians and others. See, for example, Jantzen, Grace M. Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 1999) especially chapter 6. “In order to begin: death and natality in the western imaginary” 128-155 and chapter 7. “They shall flourish as a garden” 156-170.
This is formulated in terms of Wirkungsgeschichte,
however this is how I interpret it.
 Cf. note 6 above.
 The problem concerning the law seems closer to another stage in Kierkegaard’s thinking. If I am not mistaken, The Sickness Unto Death depicts the religious stage, while ethical problems reflect primarily what he calls the ethical stage. Perhaps that distinction would be helpful.