The Difference the Incarnation Makes


Stephen Backhouse, "The Difference the Incarnation Makes: The changing nature of faith and offence in the pseudonyms of Søren Kierkegaard," Participatio Supplemental Volume 5: "Søren Kierkegaard as a Christian, Incarnational Theologian" (2019): 190-223


Backhouse, Stephen. "The Difference the Incarnation Makes: The changing nature of faith and offence in the pseudonyms of Søren Kierkegaard.Participatio Supplemental Volume 5: "Søren Kierkegaard as a Christian, Incarnational Theologian" (2019): 190-223


Incarnational theologians are right to pay close attention to Kierkegaard when attempting to articulate authentic faith. However, not every book in the Kierkegaardian canon speaks with the same voice. Faith develops throughout Kierkegaard’s works in relation to the changing nature of what constitutes an offence, an idea that itself changes from pseudonym to pseudonym. The changes are linked to the self-professed Christianity of the purported author of the text. As the pseudonymous characters become more Christian they notably begin to have a sharper focus on Jesus Christ, the essential nature of the offence, and thus faith occasioned by the Incarnation. This essay provides a close reading of three of Kierkegaard’s most important pseudonyms: the non-Christian Johannes de Silentio, the almost-Christian Johannes Climacus and the super-Christian Anti-Climacus. For Johannes de Silentio, having a faith existence means existing as an individual above the universal. Civic morality, the code of ethics that applies to all and is understood by all, is purposefully suspended by God for each individual that relates to him. Thus, Johannes de Silentio sees the offence as that which goes against the laws of society, and as a result of faith. Johannes Climacus reverses the relationship, introducing a greater offence that itself causes the lesser offences found in civil life. This essential offence stands as the gateway to faith, it is not a result of faith. Climacus sees the essential offence as the Absolute Paradox’s assault on human reason: the intellectual problem of the God-Man overshadows any lesser problem. Climacus is not overly concerned with the actual life of the God-Man, and he takes pains not to clothe the story of the Incarnation in any Christian trappings. Climacus, following Socrates, identifies “sin” with ignorance. Only if reason cedes the throne to the Paradox at this time can there be a happy relationship, a situation that Climacus identifies as “faith” and its opposite as “offence.” By contrast, Anti-Climacus hardly ever alludes to the offence against reason. He sees the offence as a matter of obedience to Jesus Christ, not assent to a paradox (Climacus) or an affront to civic morality (de Silentio). In stark contrast to de Silentio and Climacus, in the works ascribed to Anti-Climacus specific details pertaining to the person of Jesus Christ come to the fore. Anti-Climacus describes Christ as the “sign of contradiction” that gives rise to the two forms of “essential offence.” These two forms are the ethical aversion faced when this lowly man claims to be God, and when God claims to be this lowly man. Only the one who is contemporaneous with the Incarnation will face the possibility of offence. Only by facing the offence can authentic faith result.

Søren Kierkegaard as a Christian, Incarnational Theologian