Kierkegaard on the poor…

This, from the book Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard.

Disclaimer: Reading a single syllable of Kierkegaard is certain to set your little boat adrift, either to the right side of the river in ecumenism, or down the middle in neo-orthodoxy, or to the left toward liberalism. As with Liberation Theology, thar be dragons aplenty. Enter ye, who must surely meet their fate:

Christ was not making a historical observation when he declared: The gospel is preached to the poor. The accent is on the gospel, that the gospel is for the poor. Here the word “poor” does not simply mean poverty but all who suffer, are unfortunate, wretched, wronged, oppressed, crippled, lame, leprous, demonic. The gospel is preached to them, that is, the gospel is for them. The gospel is good news for them. What good news? Not: money, health, status, and so on — no, this is not Christianity.

No, for the poor the gospel is the good news because to be unfortunate in this world (in such a way that one is abandoned by human sympathy, and the worldly zest for life even cruelly tries to make one’s misfortune into guilt) is a sign of God’s nearness. So it was originally; this is the gospel in the New Testament. It is preached for the poor, and it is preached by the poor who, if they in other respects were not suffering, would eventually suffer by proclaiming the gospel; since suffering is inseparable from following Christ, from telling the truth.

But soon there came a change. When preaching the gospel became a livelihood, even a lush livelihood, then the gospel became good news for the rich and for the mighty. For how else was the preacher to acquire and secure rank and dignity unless Christianity secured the best for all? Christianity thus ceased to be glad tidings for those who suffer, a message of hope that transfigures suffering into joy, but a guarantee for the enjoyment of life intensified and secured by by the hope of eternity.

The gospel no longer benefits the poor essentially. In fact, Christianity has now even become a downright injustice to those who suffer (although we are not always conscious of this, and certainly unwilling to admit to it). Today the gospel is preached to the rich, the powerful, who have discovered it to be advantageous. We are right back again to the very state original Christianity wanted to oppose. The rich and powerful not only get to keep everything, but their success becomes the mark of their piety, the sign of their relationship to God. And this prompts the old atrocity again — namely, the idea that the unfortunate, the poor are to blame for their condition; that it is because they are not pious enough, are not true Christians, that they are poor, whereas the rich have not only pleasure but piety as well. This is supposed to be Christianity. Compare it with the New Testament, and you will see that this is as far from that as possible.

40 thoughts on “Kierkegaard on the poor…

  1. I like what little bit of Kierkegaard I have read very much. My first K. reading assignment came in an “Intro to Biblical Counseling” class at one of the SBC seminaries. Surprising?

    I have noticed in my own life how complicated disciplieship to Jesus becomes when I start mixing money with ministry. Money has such a pull on my heart! God’s will becomes so much more clear when its accompanied with a check… (sarcasm) It’s a shame (and a sin) but true. We must all be wary of our hearts and the incentives present for turning to the right or to the left. May we all grow in grace and singularity of focus on faithfulness to Christ, not personal incentives.

  2. Oh, Monsieur Cole, you provide only part of the story with regard to Kierkegaard. Consider this quote from “Attack Upon Christendom”:

    “Protestantism, Christianly considered, is quite simply an untruth, a piece of dishonesty, which falsifies the teaching, the world-view, the life-view of Christianity….”

    Or, consider this quote, which makes one wonder about the invention of the ecumenical church or the fiction of the invisible church, so much in use these days:

    “For in the last resort, precisely to the concept ‘Church’ is to be traced the fundamental confusion both of Protestantism and Catholicism.”

    There is more, as you may be aware, that sets Kierkegaard against modern Protestantism and Catholicism. He identifies much that goes under the name of Christianity as a mere farce when compared to the New Testament standard. In these ways, he even sounds like a Separatist Free Churchman who considers the bridge-building efforts of Evangelical Ecumenism to be nothing more than a surrender to the papist or state-church mentality.

    Or, consider this quote, where he scathingly denounces those churches that consider everybody possible to be a Christian (you know, the infant-baptizing churches):

    “If the human race had risen in rebellion against God and cast Christianity off from it or away from it, it would not have been nearly so dangerous as this knavishness of doing away with Christianity by a false way of spreading it, making Christians of everybody and giving this activity the appearance of zeal for the spreading of the doctrine, scoffing at God by offering Him thanks for bestowing His blessing upon the progress Christianity was thus making.”

    One wonders what Kierkegaard would have to say with regard to the postmodern idea of the emergent church. Unfortunately, for the Ecumenists, he would probably be too close to the New Testament idea of the church.

    In Christ,

  3. He had Bishop Mynster and you have Paige. He had “The Instant” and you have your blog. See similarities?

  4. Jesus, let us all come to you as beggars and children, that we may be made whole and wise!
    (Besides, if you mix money with ministry, it can your hair look crazy!)

  5. Bro. Malcolm,

    The beauty of logic is that one needn’t be correct on every point to be correct on one point. In fact, one might be incorrect on every other point but this one, and this one would stand. That should give us all comfort as we stand to preach and teach God’s word. It seems to me that your quotes notwithstanding, the substance of the one our brother Ben has used is a quite nice one.

  6. Dr. Yarnell,

    In reading both Ben’s post and particularly your response I was reminded of a quote from D. A. Carson in his book, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church:

    “God’s gracious ‘common grace’ assures us that even systems that are deeply structurally flawed will preserve some insight in them somewhere; our sin ensures that even a system closely aligned with Scripture will be in some measure distorted.”


  7. Dr. Yarnell: Does what ELSE Kierkegaard might have said make what Rev. Cole quoted untrue? I’ve said enough stupid stuff in my life to cast doubt on anything I ever might say, if that’s the case.

    If not, then your quotation of those other things seems to be aimed at casting doubt on what Rev. Cole quoted, or else veiled criticism of Rev. Cole, himself.

    I may be wrong, but this post seems to be about what Kierkegaard SAID, not about the man himself.

  8. Great quotes, Ben.

    Yesterday, I was reflecting on the way my church gives to the needy. Jesus said to give to those who ask of you, yet we are not content simply to give. Instead, we want to be sure that we are making a good “investment” of “our” money. So, we have the needy–already demoralized by having to ask the local church for help–fill out a form specifying just how poor they are and how many other times we have helped them in the past. The intention is to make “wise” use of our money, but really, we see the funds in our possession as “ours” and the people who have needs as potential thieves. We should see ourselves as responsible for stewardship of the people who come to us for help, but we are more concerned with the stewardship of the cash in our bank account. Its a troubling reality. I’m not sure what to do about it.

    Thanks for the challenging excerpts. I enjoy Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling as well.

    Grace and peace,


  9. I agree in principle with the assertions made here, however there is a powerful tension within me regarding this issue.

    Here’s my dilemma. I have heard this argument before, though not so eloquently stated, and there are two roads which my mind always runs down at the same time:

    1) taking the meaning of “the poor” literally, as Kierkegaard says, not just poverty, “but all who suffer, are unfortunate, wretched, wronged, oppressed, crippled, lame, leprous, demonic.”

    2) taking the meaning more figuratively, as in not just outward poverty, but also the inward poverty of spirit, soul, mind and heart. Those who are spiritually, mentally, emotionally oppressed, crippled, lame, leprous, demonized.

    The former leads me to a segment of society within any given country, while the latter encompasses the whole of society in all cultures and peoples everywhere. The former focuses mainly on felt or perceived needs, while the latter on the core human needs of every person.

    Where I struggle in what Kierkegaard says is that I find most people, as he does, only take one of these roads and thus come to a determined conclusion that excludes a group of people I deem as “the poor.” They then focus their efforts too narrowly, in my opinion, on only one segment of society while ignoring the poverty of those whose poverty is well hidden behind big houses, tall gates and positions of power.

    Along with this duality runs a conclusion I came to while doing ethnographic research on an influential people group in India. In some cultures the gospel spreads the fastest and has the most impact on society when ignited within a middle or higher class. The completely unreached pg we researched is a rising class. Yet despite the fact many are millionaires several times over, they all see themselves as the rock-solid, firmly (and happily) planted middle class. They were traditionally the merchants, money lenders and financial backers of temples, and they still take pride today in being the most monetarily influential. They are now extending their considerable social influence into government, running for and winning prominent offices in local and national government.

    Even though Christianity has been in India for centuries, and even though many of those in the pg attended Christian schools and occasionally include Jesus in their mandirs (personal temples/shrines), daily pujas (worship) and prayers, they remain firm in the conviction that Christianity is a religion for the poor, and only the poor. Since they do not see themselves as poor nor as ever "becoming" poor (for that would be impossible in the Hindu worldview), they have no need of Christianity.

    One thing to remember about India, while the term “untouchable” (and caste for that matter) may have been banished from the national lexicon, the mindset is still firmly entrenched in the Hindu culture and worldview. They do not use the word any more, but they still have that mindset; they still see the poor as having been born to that low station in life and unable to change it, either by personal, governmental or societal effort. Nor could this pg be lowered to that station; it is impossible within the Hindu culture/worldview for a one in a “community” (new term for caste) to become so low as to be among the untouchable poor.

    Again, Christianity has been in India for centuries, primarily focused on the poor. After all this time followers of Christ only number 3% of the population (1/6th of the world’s). I and my team were asked to research this group because they are truly influential. Where they go, India will more than likely follow. This is also the largest contributing group to charitable organizations and often expressed to us a real concern for the truly downtrodden and oppressed of society; while also expressing outrage at those within those same ranks who take advantage of, and further oppress, the rest.We as a team felt this group was the key to seeing a church planting movement wash over India and even to a great extent “solving” India’s poverty. It would rush down through the lower classes/communities all the way to the poor, as well as run up through the high caste communities.

    The pivotal issue, however, will be opening the eyes of this pg to the latter poverty; the inward poverty of spirit, soul, mind and heart. I believe it can be done, however it will be very difficult as there are serious cultural barriers to such an idea.

    Is it possible that to focus on one of these types of poverty – literal and figurative – at the exclusion of the other is to, once again, miss the point of the New Testament gospel? Or am I out in the weeds?

  10. Bob,

    Actually, my intent is not to focus upon Rev. Cole or upon Kierkegaard, but upon what Scripture has to say about the church. Ben’s essay is just a great way to segue to an issue that really concerns Southern Baptists in this day: What is the church? To where should we be building bridges? And since Brother Ben has such an interest in Kierkegaard, I figured it might help him to read Kierkegaard in totality.

  11. I think , having read both Ben and Dr. Yarnell quotes here we should follow an admonishment given to me by an elder many years ago:

    “When you read Soren Kierkegaard keep both eyes open and a copy of the Scripture close at hand.”——Dr. Dudley T. Pomeroy, 1976——

    I might add, if I may, one should also know a little of “Ole” Soren’s personal history when pondering the content of his writings.


  12. Malcolm:

    I assure you. I do not require your assistance to read a scholar’s work in its entirety for critical evaluation.

    Of course, if you would publish something substantive for the academy or the churches besides those nice little pamphets you disseminate to a dozen or so, we might get to evaluate your words instead of Kierkegaards. Until, however, you have something to offer the churches besides a degree from Oxford hanging on your wall and a handful of white papers, I suggest you stop worrying about the degree to which others have made positive contributions to the study of Christian theology.

    Thanks and God bless!!!


  13. Lu,

    I appreciate your points. Having grown up in a white, upper middle class context, I understand the concept of inward poverty fairly well. I would offer this observation, though, about the New Testament’s use of the term “poor.” Very rarely do the Gospel writers use poverty in a figurative sense. A friend of mine from school did an in-depth study of the poor in the Gospels and here’s a summary of her conclusions.

    In Greco-Roman society, anyone who had to work for a living was regarded as poor but there were some important distinctions. There were those who owned land, shops, and the tools of their trade to enable them to scrape out a living, and there were those who had nothing whatsoever. I think a strong argument can be made that the latter are the group that the NT refers to as “the poor.” They are the weak and helpless (see Luke 4:18; Matt. 11:4-5; Mark 12:42-43; Luke 16:20-22).

    In Jewish society, being poor meant something more than having to live from hand to mouth. As long as one was able to put something nourishing in the mouth and in the mouths of one’s family, one would not have been regarded as poor. For example, the woman in Jesus’ parable who lost her coin would not be considered poor, even though she is economically deprived (Luke 15:8-10). She lives in a one-room windowless peasant house (the lamp lights the whole house!). But she is able to invite her friends in to celebrate her finding of her lost coin. She can maintain her status relative to others in her community.

    Most would consider Jesus and his disciples to be poor, but when Jesus is anointed lavishly, with precious ointment by an anonymous woman, the disciples suggest that it should have been given to the poor. Jesus responds that the poor are with them always and they can do good to them whenever they wish. This statement clearly indicates that both Jesus and the disciples identify the poor as someone other than members of their group. If Jesus and his disciples do not comprise the poor, then who does?

    I would argue that the poor were those who could not maintain their status or subsistence because of disastrous circumstances that had befallen them such as disease, widowhood, or crushing debt that resulted in the confiscation of all one’s means for living. The poor were the absolutely destitute who had no means and no means of supporting themselves. They were the homeless, the naked, and the starving like Lazarus who were forced to beg or perhaps the widow with only two lepta for all her living (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4). It was a revolving class. For those who were able to eke out a living, life was precarious, since they were one small catastrophe away from falling into the category of the destitute. The poor were the expendables.

    This in no way takes away from your argument that focusing on the materially impoverished may lead to the exclusion of the spiritually impoverished. I can see the merit of your argument as a missional application of the NT message for the poor. But, I don’t think the Gospels can provide the kind of direct support you are looking for, since their words about “the poor” are targeting specifically the expendable people of society.

    Sorry for another long comment, Ben.

    Grace and peace,


  14. While Kierkegaard did sound like a baptist preacher sometimes, in the way that Malcolm suggests he did (especially in K’s “attack” period), he never quite went the way of separatism. He left that job to N. F. S. Grundtvig, who was the leader of the free church movement in Denmark (although Grundtvig had some oddly Catholic tendencies with regard to the interpretation of Scripture–but that’s another matter). The reason the melancholy Dane could never bring himself to join the separatist movement–although he empathized with it–is because he viewed authentic (or “essential”) Christianity as a way of life (“subjectivity”) which, in at it’s core, was not essentially tied to eccelsiology, in any particular form, but to Christology; or better, to Christ himself. In this latter sense, Kierkegaard’s words actually have much in common with the best intuitions of emerging forms of Christianity. It’s all about authentic discipleship–following the way of the master. And I guess that brings us full circle to the content of Ben’s post…

  15. Great Dicusssion. I wish my SBC seminary education would have required me to read more works like these rather than the array secondary sources that demonize such men. I am sad that the approach taken today at many seminaries is to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to fill the tub with as many male fundamentalist scholars as possible. I am thankful for people like Ben who refuse to be thrown out of the tub!

  16. Discipleship, Kyle? I was under the impression that that is why the Baptists and the Free Churches so emphasized the church.

    As for Kierkegaard’s non-separating separatism, you have caught me in the same dilemma in which I caught Brother Ben.

    Ben, I will ignore that comment and wish you a good evening.

  17. Bro. Yarnell,

    If you are asking about the innuendo that some believe reading S.K. is dangerous, then yes, I would agree with Ben’s innuendo. I have personally heard that sort of thing often.

  18. Ben,

    One thing you should have probably figured out when I took the time to share with you in my study to read critically was that my calling of God is to the churches. You know full well that I can write for the academy or for the media or for popular dissemination. I refuse, however, to ignore the weightiness of God’s call upon my life. I would rather write for the churches. Sales mean nothing to me. Encouraging people to become disciples who surrender themselves entirely to Jesus Christ means everything.

    In Christ,

  19. Malcolm:

    First, if that is what “ignoring” means, I must confess my ignorance of the word’s definition.

    Second, I recall with great fondess the many hours spent in your office reading Oliver O’Donovan with Dr. Scott Swain. The fact that we had to steal away to your office to huddle as meager souls sneaking choice morsels of doctrine in a lean and barren land only serves to make my point: Southern Baptist seminaries have a dreadful tendency toward sophomoric studies of systematic theology. And if I recall correctly, you were as invigorated by the study as I.


    I dare you not to read my book when it comes out. Just ignore it in Yarnell fashion.

    That is all.


  20. Well, Ben, I have to say, that response made no sense to me whatsoever. Maybe it is just my ignorance.

  21. Malcolm:

    Did I stutter? Speak in tongues?

    You said:

    “…when I took the time to share with you in my study…”

    I said:

    “…the fact that we had to steal away to your office to huddle as meager souls sneaking choice morsels of doctrine in a lean and barren land only serves to make my point…”

    What’s hard to understand about that?

    We studied together. Oliver O’Donovan, it was. In your office. With Scott Swain.

    And there was much rejoicing…


  22. Wow, Ben. Your blog has turned into quite a place for discussion of late.

    Did you steal this idea from me since I posted that I would soon post something from Kierkegaard? Be original, shall we?

    Nevermind. My post will be much more shallow than yours, I’m afraid.

  23. Malcolm:

    Let me reiterate then so that you may understand:

    You said @ 8:02 above:

    “Ben, I will ignore that comment and wish you a good evening.”

    Twenty four minutes later, something was still gnawing at you. You posted another comment @ 8:26 above:

    “One thing you should have probably figured out when I took the time to share with you in my study to read critically was that my calling of God is to the churches…..etc.”

    I responded:

    “If that is what “ignoring” means, I must confess my ignorance of the word’s definition.”

    I said this because you first said you would “ignore.” Then twenty two minutes later, you come back and respond again. That doesn’t seem like “ignoring” to me. Then again, maybe it’s just my ignorance.

    Nevertheless, I shall not post another comment regarding your ignorance or mine.

    If such endless and silly back-and-forth of

    He said.
    You said.
    I said.
    Who said?

    is what you’re looking for, I can recommend at least two blogs written by other SBTC pastors for starters.

    Speaking of which…

    Good to see you, Bart. Where’s your little buddy?


  24. Oh, I was thinking of my 8:26 comment where I mentioned “ignore” in a different syntactical setting. Why? Because the context of your 8:33 comment regarded mainly my 8:26 comment rather than my 8:02 comment.

    Here we have a genuine miscommunication, rather than ignorance.

    As for “silly”, I can think of other applications, but I refuse to get personal.

  25. <i>We are what is called a “Christian” nation- but in such a sense that not a single one of us is in the character of the Christianity of the New Testament, any more than I am, who again and again have repeated, and do now repeat, <b>that I am only a poet.</b></i> –Kierkegaard

    I indeed am thankful for my SBC seminary education, in progress, that requires me to read primary sources. Does anyone know what Shakespeare had to say about the poor?

  26. Ben,
    Just back last night from visiting the kids at Preteen Camp. Thanks for asking. My son Jim was with me. Thanks for asking about him, too.

    And, as to the book, I’m quite sure I’ll read it. Just as you clearly have read most of what Dr. Yarnell has written of late. My point was simply that you have not published any scholarly monographs either, and furthermore your promised tome is not exactly something to compete with Jaroslav Pelikan.

    Personally, I think this fact says absolutely nothing about your intelligence, character, worthiness to engage in online discussion, etc. Were you not making snide comments toward Dr. Yarnell for not having done something that you aren’t doing either, we would not be having this discussion.

  27. Malcolm,

    No quibble there. The free church certainly emphasized discipleship; the piety it spawned inspired and influenced Kierkegaard. His point was that it isn’t necessary to change your physical circumstances in order to follow Jesus. You don’t have to leave the established church for the free church in order to be a genuine disciple. In fact, to suggest that you must is to shift the focus away from subjectivity and God’s requirements on you as an individual, whereever you are.

    Now, we could quibble with K’s conclusions on this, but we can’t use him, ultimately, as a proponent of free church ecclesiology. But we most certainly can use him as an advocate for rigorous discipleship and robust Christianity, in whatever denominational form.

  28. Bart:

    First, blogs are not little tea parties where we engage in small talk about children and the weather and whatnot. At least mine isn’t. Do as you wish with your own.

    Second, You always rush to the defense of people who you are convinced have been offended. You counterattack on someone’s behalf quite regularly. Of course, I do this too. I just wasn’t aware that you and I shared that particularly vice until today.

    Third, I’m afraid I haven’t read what Yarnell has written. In fact, his first book isn’t due out until November, at which time I’m sure I’ll give it a glance, though it is not pertinent to my academic pursuits at this point.

    Fourth, surely you — of all people — understand the need to complete one’s doctorate before trying to publish anything of serious scholarly merit. Speaking of which, it’s been a few months now since you got yours. When can we expect the first monograph to roll off convention press? Or have you decided to take up blogging as the outlet for your well-earned academic stripes?


  29. Ben,

    As to point #2, I know that I am guilty as charged, although I am not ready to concede it as a vice.

    As to point #3, writing results in more than just books. You have read much from the pen (keyboard?) of Yarnell this year. Some of it even in files named “Barber.pdf” apparently.

    As to point #4, I’m just thrilled that you would accord me “well-earned academic stripes”—I was beginning to worry that you considered me intellectually inbred. One of my great frustrations is the fact that I have not given more time to academic pursuits of late. I have what I consider to be an excellent query letter to send to University of Arkansas press. It is in a MS Word file. If I enabled “Track Changes” and sent it to you, could you perform a little wordsmithing on it? :-)

  30. Bart:

    1. Concede what you will. I think you’re a sinner.

    2. Writing does result in more than just books. Stupidity results in blogs.

    3. Oh, I’ve thought for some time you were inbred, just not academically. You run with a rahter mongrel lot, you know.

    4. I’d be happy to wordsmith it for you. I really would like to see your ideas published in a forum other than blogs. Have you thought about Davidson Press? Wipf and Stock?


  31. Hey, if this is Tombstone, which of us are the Clantons and which the Earps?
    “… and (Ft. Worth) is coming with me!!” in the immortal words of Kurt Russell/Wyatt Earp.

  32. I’m sticking with U of A Press. This choice will not necessitate that I translate my manuscript from Arkansan to English.

  33. (Said with tongue in cheek and a smile)

    Tsk, tsk, gentlemen. Does anyone find it amusing that in a post about good news for the poor we are bickering about intellectual prowess, academic publications, and our respective verbal parsing abilities?

    Despite recent debates about seminary professors’ salaries, perhaps this interaction is a good reminder that we are among the “rich and powerful” that Kierkegaard excoriates. I daresay no poor person I know has the time, money, or care to peruse blogs and banter about theology.

    But, then again, Kierkegaard wasn’t exactly hurting for money either, was he?

    Grace and peace and laughter to all,


  34. As Kierkegaard stresses time and time again, our own spiritual life is quite difficult enough to occupy one for a whole lifetime…

    as for the discussion –

    Understanding the essential part suffering plays in the religious life, as thought of by Kierkegaard, demonstrates why the gospel is for the poor. The rich who are happy as being the “district judge, a family man, captain of the popinjay shooting club” (AND a Christian) is hardly going to be the man who devotes himself totally to the task of relating himself absolutely to his “eternal salvation”. Of course if he is unhappy, unfulfilled and restless in his life, then he is perhaps capable of a religious life, but he is one of the impoverished too.

    Christianity is the hardest thing in the world.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s