A renegade philosopher who spent most of his life at odds with the church, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) insisted that every person must find his own way to God.
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?
Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.
I open the New Testament and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me.” Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).
In vain does the Bible command with authority. In vain does it admonish and implore. We do not hear it – that is, we hear its voice only through the interference of Christian scholarship, the experts who have been properly trained. Just as a foreigner protests his rights in a foreign language and passionately dares to say bold words when facing state authorities – but see, the interpreter who is to translate it to the authorities does not dare do so but substitutes something else – just so the Bible sounds forth through Christian scholarship.
We declare that Christian scholarship exists specifically to help us understand the New Testament, in order that we may better hear its voice. No insane man, no prisoner of the state, was ever so confined. As far as they are concerned, no one denies that they are locked up, but the precautions regarding the New Testament are even greater. We lock it up but argue that we are doing the opposite, that we are busily engaged in helping it gain clarity and control. But then, of course, no insane person, no prisoner of the state, would ever be as dangerous to us as the New Testament would be if it were set free.
It is true that we Protestants go to great efforts so that every person can have the Bible – even in their own tongue. Ah, but what efforts we take to impress upon everyone that it can be understood only through Christian scholarship! This is our current situation. What I have tried to show here is easily stated:
I have wanted to make people aware and to admit that I find the New Testament very easy to understand, but thus far I have found it tremendously difficult to act literally upon what it so plainly says. I perhaps could take another direction and invent a new kind of scholarship, bringing forth yet one more commentary, but I am much more satisfied with what I have done – made a confession about myself.
This article is an excerpt from Provocations.