Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship 10e
CHAPTER X e
If a man is to be a Christian, it is doubtless requisite for him to believe something definite; but it is just as certainly requisite for him to be quite definite that "he" believes. In the same degree that thou dost direct attention exclusively to the definite things a man must believe, in that same degree dost thou get away from faith.
Neither S.K. nor the eighteenth century Brethren spoke at any length concerning their opinions of creeds; yet at this point occurs the most impressive instance of correspondence to be found in our entire study.
It is well established that the Brethren absolutely refused to subscribe to any creed or to formulate anything like a formal confession of faith. The historian Morgan Edwards attested to this fact [see above], and another contemporary historian, Robert Proud, said "When [the Brethren] are asked about the articles of their faith, they say they know of no others but what are contained in this book [i.e. the New Testament]; and therefore can give none."
Brethren writings from the eighteenth century include no specific discussion of the matter, although from hints, from later teachings, and from a knowledge of the ideological context, it is easy to reconstruct what the original position must have been. It was not the content of the classical creeds that bothered the Brethren; their faith was orthodox (or better, sufficiently orthodox that the creedal content offered no difficulty). And in any case, heterodox inclinations would not have prevented them from formulating confessions of their own. Rather, their objections concerned the implications that follow from the very form and character of creeds per se.
In the first place, affirmation of a creed tends to become a substitute for true inwardness, tends to distort faith from existential venture into mere intellectual cognition, tends to undercut the importance of obedience and fruitbearing. As stated in an Annual Meeting minute of 1789:
[We] do not spare any labor and toil to convince [the children of the members] by our teaching and life, not after the manner which is almost too common nowadays, where the young are made to learn something by heart, and then to rehearse it in a light, thoughtless manner, and then are permitted to go on in life as thoughtless as before-but [we desire] that they may give themselves up to God in an earnest life.Most of what S.K. had to say about creeds relates at this point:
The objective faith, what does that mean? It means a sum of doctrinal propositions. But suppose Christianity were nothing of the kind; suppose on the contrary it were inwardness.And a few pages later he stated: "To know a confession of faith by rote is paganism, because Christianity is inwardness." 6 It is interesting to note, too, that in all of his voluminous writings S.K. made very few references to any of the creeds, confessions, or symbols, and seems deliberately to have avoided the use of creedal language and terminology.
In the second place, the Brethren also opposed creeds as being a threat to the primacy of scripture as the sole rule of faith and practice. They saw the creeds as later, purely human inventions, the work of a tradition which threatens to impinge upon the biblical revelation. Thus Mack Senior, although not discussing creeds as such, could say:
How wretched it is to appeal to testimonies of men and to look to men who are considered holy and wise, so that one is led to think or say: "Truly, if they taught in this way and believed according to the Scriptures, we shall believe it also."S.K. said almost the same thing:
Yet, from a Christian standpoint, this talk about our fathers' faith is a misunderstanding, at all times a misunderstanding: for this can never be described as something decisive. For the Christian, the only thing that matters is the New Testament, with which every generation has to begin. And the confusing factor, which has produced 'Christendom' and led Christianity back to Judaism, is that in the course of time each generation, instead of beginning with the New Testament, has begun with 'our fathers' faith,' with holding fast to our fathers' faith. Always this knavery of bringing in history and the category of the human race instead of ideality and the single person, which is the Christian category.A third, and very deep, objection of the Brethren was the fact that creeds and creedal definitions represent the attempt to stop theological and exegetical development at a given stage, to crystallize the faith into a fixed and unchanging system fastened into place with precise and formal statements. This, in Brethren eyes, was to betray the living character of revelation, to deny the teaching work of the Holy Spirit, to presume a finality of human understanding that is not and cannot be the case. The pages that follow will document the belief both of the Brethren and of S.K. in this regard.
But the accidental element that makes our Kierkegaard Brethren comparison so intriguing at this point is the fact that S.K. was aware of Brethren non-creedalism and approved it. Although it is highly improbable that S.K. would have so much as heard about the little Dunker sect on the Pennsylvania frontier, the improbable did happen. S.K. did not hear much, but on the strength of a very slight notice he gained a deep insight into the essential nature of Brethrenism. And what he did see, he highly approved.
The story is this. In 1851, S.K. read Benjamin Franklin's Leben und Schriften, a German translation of Franklin's works done by one Binzer. A whole series of S.K.'s journal entries are comments upon that book. But in Franklin's Autobiography, S.K. came across this passage:
These embarrassments that the Quakers suffered from having established and published it as one of their principles, that no kind of war was lawful, and which, being once published, they could not, afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of, reminds me of what I think a more prudent conduct in another sect among us, that of the Dunkers. I was acquainted with one of its founders, Michael Welfare, soon after it appeared. He complained to me that they were viciously calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charged with abominable principles and practices, to which they were utter strangers. I told him this had always been the case with new sects, and that to put a stop to such abuse, I imagined it might be well to publish the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline. He said it had been proposed among them, but not agreed to, for this reason:Upon reading this passage, S.K. wrote the following entry in his journal:
"When we were first drawn together as a society," says he, "it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some things, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us further light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of this progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from."
This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong; like a man traveling in foggy weather, those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, though in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them. 9
Franklin (in his Leben und Schriften v. Binzer, 2nd vol.) mentions a sect, the Dunkers, who would not compose a written creed--so as not to hinder themselves in free development. Franklin finds this very excellent, since otherwise sectaries distinguish themselves simply by matching their opponents. Now, "the latest" can be true enough; but nevertheless, these sectaries are by this token also again expediti.This is inexplicably the case-however they may have succeeded on that score in forming a sect. This statement is so compact as to be almost cryptic, but actually, S.K. saw much deeper into Brethrenism than did the reporter upon whom he depended for his information. In the first place, we already have seen that to be Christian expediti marks a very high ideal in S.K.'s thought, the same thing, really, as being a "caravan" church. His remark about sectaries simply matching their opponents is a report of Franklin's opinion and not necessarily an expression of his own. The next clause-"Now, 'the latest' can be true enough"-is where S.K. rejected and went beyond Franklin's interpretation. He had read enough of Franklin to identify him correctly as a free-thinking child of the Enlightenment who, although he might welcome Christian morality and ethics, would pride himself on his rational and "scientific" modernity and thus have little use for anything relating to dogma, tradition, and orthodoxy. Thus the aspect of non-creedalism that appealed to Franklin, S.K. saw, was the freedom to adopt current modes of thought to keep one's religion in pace with the world. But of course this decidedly was not the orientation of either S.K. or the Brethren; and S.K. was able to recognize a kindred spirit--in spite of Franklin's non-sectarian exegesis.
Thus S.K.'s phrase must be taken to mean, "Now I suppose it is possible--although not very probable--that Franklin's implicit assumption about modern thinking being the truest could, at least occasionally, hit the mark. The possibility dare not be ruled out, although certainly the principle itself is a very unreliable one. But nevertheless, these Dunkers are not the modish friends of fashion, as Franklin would have it; they are expediti, freeing themselves from creeds not in order to follow the world but to follow in obedience the teachings of their Lord and Master and the leading of the Holy Spirit." What little S.K. did know of Brethren sectarianism, he seems to have seen as reflecting his own faith.[notes]