Genesis 22: 9-10 (ESV).:
When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the alter, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.
Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard took a great interest in the story of Abraham and Isaac. The publisher of his book on the subject, Fear and Trembling, describes it as "a great work of religious anxiety." [1 Religious anxiety! It is no wonder Kierkegaard is not exactly popular reading material for Christians looking for inspiration.
Yet there is something fascinating about the way Kierkegaard openly and honestly wrestles with some of the thorniest issues regarding faith. One of the early statements he makes in this book is as follows:
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?
This is Kierkegaard's way of saying that there is indeed an eternal consciousness in the human spirit, that there is something lying beneath everything, and that life is not filled with despair. In struggling mightily with the story of Abraham, however, he creates a philosophy about faith that, while not entirely consistent with evangelical theology, is nevertheless challenging to Christians.
Kierkegaard wrote a great many books. To understand what he has to say about faith, we must understand that, in general, he believed there were three spheres of existence: the aesthetical, the ethical and the religious. The first or "aesthetical" sphere is a very nice way of describing hedonism, or the pursuit of pleasure and the flight from pain. We all know people like this, who never seem to give a thought to the meaning of their lives, who are only interested in amusing themselves in the easiest and most comfortable way.
The second, or "ethical," sphere, however, is very different. This means that an individual has made a commitment to an ethical code. Kierkegaard believes that to be ethical you must make a commitment to self-perfection as well as a commitment to other human beings. We probably know people like this as well, people who are idealistic and trying very hard to do good things. God bless them. We know, however, that there are many difficulties that arise when people equate "goodness" or "idealism" with relationship with God. They are not all the same thing; we are not saved by works. While Kierkegaard surely understands the doctrine of justification by faith, he does not discuss it in Fear and Trembling. It is clear only that he is fascinated, even obsessed with the absolute obedience of Abraham to God.
This leads us to what Kierkegaard describes as the third or "religious" sphere of existence and it is in this sphere that he discusses faith and believes Abraham's obedience provides us with a stirring example. He states:
"Faith is therefore no aesthetic emotion, but something far higher, exactly because it presupposes resignation; it is not the immediate inclination of the heart but the paradox of existence."
The "resignation" to God's will is a key concept for Kierkegaard:
"Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith, so that anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith; for only in infinite resignation does my eternal validity become transparent to me, and only then can there be talk of grasping existence on the strength of faith."
We must pause at this point-Kierkegaard seems to have a very exalted notion of the definition of faith, but it is also very personal and seemingly dependent on human will. There is more to faith than that; for example, there is joy at the heart of the gospel, not just resignation.
But here is our challenge: shall we dismiss Kierkegaard as seeming not to understand the grace of God, or shall we search our souls and ask how far we are willing to go to obey the laws and commands of God? Paul, in effect, poses this challenge in Philippians 2:12: "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." It is not completely clear how Kierkegaard understands this scripture, particularly the idea of God working within us.
We certainly know that he has a lot to say about faith. We know that he has an unusual understanding of the meaning of faith when he states: "Faith is the highest passion in a human being. Many in a generation may not come that far, but none comes farther." Our friend, in trying to exalt the idea of faith, seems inadvertently to be diminishing it, for the supernatural mystery of faith is much more than a human passion.
Kierkegaard does not hesitate to speculate and lifts up the ideas of the love of God and the loving God:
But he who loves God has no need of tears, needs no admiration, and forgets his suffering in love, indeed forgets so completely that afterwards not the least hint of his pain would remain would God himself not remember it; for God sees in secret and knows the distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing.
This is an interesting description of an aspect of relationship that might exist between believer and God. We are challenged again to relate to God in the strongest and most mature possible way.
However influential Kierkegaard was in the secular world of philosophy, he will probably continue to be understood by most Christians as one who presents an eccentric but very challenging approach to relationship with God. Let us return, shall we, to Genesis 22:11-12 and savor the happy ending of the story of Abraham and Isaac:
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."
It will not be sufficient to obsess over what Abraham was prepared to do-we must look at the whole story. Indeed, the whole story is probably much more magnificent than most of us understand. The merciful nature of God revealed in this story reverberates within all three of the great monotheistic religions. We know furthermore that the story of Abraham foreshadows the greatest and grandest sacrifice of all:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:17).
We are still rather mystified by it all but we are joyfully and gratefully mystified. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of God! Praise the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forevermore.
In faith and fellowship,
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 Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (London: Penguin) 2005, cover.
 Kierkegaard, page 14.
 Donald D. Palmer, Kierkegaard for Beginners (New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc.), pp. 76-77.
 Palmer, page 102.
 Kierkegaard, page 53
 Kierkegaard, page 52.
 Kierkegaard, page 151.
 Kierkegaard, pages 147, 148.