Kierkegaard at the Rail: The Individual and the Eucharist in Kierkegaard’s Thought

I. Introduction

A colleague once said to me that he used to really enjoy Kierkegaard, until he realized that you could “read Kierkegaard and never have to believe anything.” An oversimplification, but I knew what he meant. He was getting at Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual, and his frequently repeated aphorism, in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, that “truth is subjectivity.” “Subjectivity” is a loaded term in our relativistic Western culture, usually referring to personal, individual truths. However, in Kierkegaard, “subjectivity” refers rather to the individual subject’s thinking, acting, and speaking in relation to truth—a definition not inherently at odds with the catholic Christian faith. It is in view of such “subjectivity” that Kierkegaard wrote and spoke frequently about the sacraments—a surprising revelation for most, since Kierkegaard is regarded more as a philosopher than a theologian. Yet he pursued ordained ministry prior to committing himself to philosophy, and there is much scholarly work still to be done regarding his ecclesial and spiritual writings.[1]

When we bear in mind what Kierkegaard really meant by subjectivity, its relevance to the sacraments becomes quite apparent. Just as Protestants don’t believe that one person can be baptized or receive the Lord’s Supper on behalf of another, so Kierkegaard affirmed that one person cannot reckon with the singular truth of the creating, redeeming, triune God on another’s behalf. Each must do so himself. Kierkegaard may have chafed against significant elements of the catholic faith at points, but these moments (and a disappointing spiritual decline in his final years) are regrettable missteps within an otherwise consistent, sustained Christian critique of the phenomenon Bonhoeffer later labelled “cheap grace.”

Grace, and the corresponding objectivity of the sacraments, were so important to Kierkegaard that he wrote a number of discourses to be read before the additional service of the sacrament held on Fridays after private confession and absolution, as was still the custom in nineteenth-century Denmark. From these discourses, a vibrant and clear confession of the real presence of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, a right reception of the sacrament of the altar, and a Christian spirituality emerges in an arresting and edifying fashion. The focus here will be a closer examination of these neglected discourses, perhaps prompting a renewed appreciation of Kierkegaard as a truly Christian philosopher, and demonstrating that one does, in fact, have to believe something when they read him.

II. The Lord’s Table in Christian Discourses and Sickness Unto Death

Kierkegaard’s pre-communion discourses would have served as the last exhortation for parishioners coming to receive the Lord’s Supper on Fridays and possibly on Sundays.[2] Reception of communion was not frequent, so attendees had to make a conscious decision to receive the sacrament—a decision of the kind that Kierkegaard wished all of Christendom would take. Themes of forgiveness, atonement, and faith would have been in the air as parishioners heard Kierkegaard’s material. These discourses might also be considered sermons in their format and function, except for the fact that Kierkegaard himself denied this status.[3]

Seven of these discourses are published in Christian Discourses, and they are some of Kierkegaard’s most scriptural texts, focusing usually upon just a verse or two—generally from a Gospel or Epistle. The dates of composition are unknown, but Kierkegaard approved their publication in February 1848—a little less than seven years before his death. Four common Lutheran themes pervade the discourses: 1) the Lord’s Supper as a “concrete picture of God’s love,” bestowing forgiveness of sins; 2) a “blessed exchange” in which Christ covers the communicant; 3) the Supper’s inward and outward efficacy, suffusing the whole person; 4) and the corporate communal character of communion.[4] Kierkegaard’s overriding concern is that, in order to be a part of the body of Christ, one must first take stock of his own situation, and then his accountable role within the body. Only then can he understand and appreciate the Church and what flows forth from it.

Another common thread in these discourses is a low anthropology and a correspondingly high Christology. For example, in his discourse on 1 John 3:20 (“for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything,” ESV), Kierkegaard discusses the frailty of human effort and language to apprehend God. And yet Kierkegaard retains a homiletical thrust of assurance and hope in Christ:

The broken heart that condemns itself cannot have, seeks in vain to find, an expression that is strong enough to describe its guilt, its wretchedness, its defilement—God is even greater in showing mercy! What a strange comparison! All human purity, all human mercy is not good enough for comparison; but a repenting heart that condemns itself—with this is compared God’s greatness in showing mercy, except that God’s greatness is even greater: as deep as this heart can lower itself, and yet never itself deep enough, so infinitely elevated, or infinitely more elevated, is God’s greatness in showing mercy![5]

Because the human being has great need of grace, mercy, and providence from his God, the proffered Supper is mighty to satisfy temporal need and uncertainty, and to anchor the believer to promises yet unfulfilled but delivered in the present.

Kierkegaard articulates a similar thought outside of the communion discourses in The Sickness Unto Death:

Therefore, taking full responsibility, I venture to say that these words, “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me,” belong in the proclamation about Christ, if not in the same way as the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper, yet as the words “Let each man examine himself.” They are Christ’s own words, and they must be declared again and again, especially in Christendom, must be repeated and addressed to each one individually. Wherever these words are not pronounced also, or, in any case, wherever the presentation of Christianity is not penetrated at every point by this thought, Christianity is blasphemy. For without a bodyguard and servants to prepare the way for him and make men aware of who it was who was coming, Christ walked here on earth in the form of a lowly servant. But the possibility of offense (what a grief to him in his love!) defended and defends him, confirms a chasmic abyss between him and the person who was closest and stood closest to him.

The person who does not take offense worships in faith. But to worship, which is the expression of faith, is to express that the infinite, chasmic, qualitative abyss between them is confirmed. For in faith the possibility of offense is again the dialectical factor.[6]

To worship, then, is to receive rightly what God gives out of His fullness to those who come acknowledging their lack, having examined themselves so as not to be offended by Christ’s grace, found in the context of the sacraments in corporate worship.

III. Towards A Synthesis of Kierkegaard’s Eucharistic Theology

Given his writing style, Kierkegaard’s thought is notoriously hard to systematize. Yet we can find the beginnings of some kind of systemization in a theme common to both Kierkegaard’s communion discourses and philosophical writings: individual responsibility. Kierkegaard’s “individual” is not that of garish modern individualism, but simply the way in which all mankind exists. For Kierkegaard, the individual approaches the table of the Lord to receive the holy things that He has prepared for His holy people. This is, in essence, a nuancing of a concern in prior Lutheran theology, such as in the individual emphasis of Martin Luther’s explanation of the Creed in his Small Catechism:

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

This focus on the individual has seen Kierkegaard labelled a proto-existentialist, anticipating the bleaker twentieth-century thought of the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others. However, Kierkegaard simply understood that, before the judgment seat of God, Christ is our advocate, but He cannot advocate for one He does not know. Despite being later associated with decidedly un-Christian existentialists, Kierkegaard insisted that his conclusions were already present in the doctrine of the Church—if only the Church were not so hellbent on obscuring them from her people! Kierkegaard’s emphasis may always be on the subjective and the experience of the individual, but this is only because the objective reality of Christ’s work, and its presentation in the sacraments, is assumed. The subjective focus was intended to call attention to these very theological realities “in an age that had reduced Christianity to an insipid, social convention that required no alteration to the lives of those who professed to be Christian.”[7] Kierkegaard would not permit such insipidness to prevail at the Lord’s Table.

Throughout Kierkegaard’s discourses, the general experience is one of assuaged uncertainty, delivered in a thoughtful yet intimate fashion. A clear example would be one of his discourses on 2 Timothy 2:12–13,[8] in which he describes the relationship of the faithful to their Creator as a child to its mother. Kierkegaard describes the child, helped in walking by his mother, and almost unaware of his total dependence on her:

…basically God is holding on to us. When we see a mother play with her child the game that the child is walking alone though the mother is holding on behind—and we then see the child’s indescribably, radiant face, its self-satisfied look and its manly bearing—we smile at the child because we see the whole pattern.[9]

Kierkegaard later reminds his hearers that they come to confession to be unburdened, exhorting that they surely would come to receive the sacrament even if it were not a liturgical exercise, because it truly bestows grace. He concludes that, because Christ cannot deny Himself, He cannot and will not deny His own, the faithful, whom He bids to come and receive His gifts.[10] The danger, however, is found when the hearer would have this to be the end of his life in Christ, rather than the beginning. Kierkegaard works to combat “dead orthodoxy” by fighting notions of a sterile life lived solely amidst the masses.

Kierkegaard clearly lays out this argument and the dangerous venture of being a Christian in his last discourse in this volume:

But receiving Holy Communion is indeed in the strictest sense a holy act, a godly undertaking. You are to receive Holy Communion—it is for this holy act that you are gathered here today. You receive Holy Communion in order to meet him, for whom you long more every time you are parted from him. But if as a human being you are nothing before God, therefore entirely in need—at the Communion table as a sinner you are in relation to the Redeemer less than nothing—you feel all the more deeply the need of the blessing. At the Communion table you are capable of doing nothing at all. And yet it is there at the Communion table that declaration is made of satisfaction for guilt and sin, for your guilt and your sin. The greater the requirement is that you be capable of something and the more necessary this is when you nevertheless are capable of nothing, all the more clear it therefore becomes, and all the more deeply do you realize, that you are capable of less than nothing—but then all the more clear is the need of for the blessing, or that it is everything. At the Communion table you are capable of nothing at all. Satisfaction is made there—but by someone else; the sacrifice is offered—but by someone else; the Atonement is accomplished—by the Redeemer. All the more clear it therefore becomes that the blessing is everything and does everything. At the Communion table you are capable of less than nothing. At the Communion table it is you who are in the debt of sin, you who are separated from God by sin, you who are so infinitely far away, you who forfeited everything, you who dared not step forward; it is someone else who paid the debt, someone else who accomplished the reconciliation, someone else who brought you close to God, someone else who suffered and died in order to restore everything, someone else who steps forward for you. If at the Communion table you want to be capable of the least little thing yourself, even merely to step forward yourself, you confuse everything, you prevent the reconciliation, make the satisfaction impossible. It holds true at the Communion table as it was said to that impious man who in a storm implored heaven for deliverance, “By all means do not let God notice that you are present.” Everything depends on someone else’s being present at whom God looks instead of looking at you, someone else you count on because you yourself only subtract. At the Communion table, therefore, he is present, blessing, he who, blessing, was parted from his own, he to whom you are related as the infant was related to him when he blessed it, he your Savior and Redeemer. You cannot meet him before the Communion table as a co-worker as you indeed can meet God in your work as a co-worker. You cannot be Christ’s co-worker in connection with the reconciliation, not in the remotest way. You are totally in debt; he is totally the satisfaction. It is indeed all the more clear that the blessing is everything. What is the blessing? The blessing is what God does; everything that God does is the blessing; the part of the work in which you call yourself God’s co-worker, the part God does, is the blessing. But at the Communion table Christ is the blessing. The divine work of reconciliation is Christ’s work, and in it a human being can do only less than nothing—therefore the blessing is everything, but if the work is Christ’s, then Christ is indeed the blessing.

At the Communion table you are able to do nothing at all, not even this, that you hold fast the thought of your unworthiness and in this make yourself receptive to the blessing. Or would you dare, and even if it were only at the last moment as you come up to the Communion table, would you dare even with regard to the thought that recognizes your own unworthiness, would you dare to guarantee yourself, trust in yourself, that you would be able to keep away everything disturbing, every anxious thought of recollection that, alas, wounds from behind, every suddenly aroused mistrust that turns against you as if you were still not adequately prepared, every most transient delusion of security in yourself! Alas, no, you are capable of nothing, not even of holding your soul by yourself at the peak of consciousness that you stand totally in need of grace and the blessing. Just as someone else supported Moses when he prayed, so also at the Communion table you must be supported by the blessing; when you are to receive the blessing, it must encompassingly support you as it is communicated to you.

The pastor who is present at the Communion table is not able to communicate the blessing to you, nor is he able to support you. Only he who is personally present is able to do that, he who not only communicates but is the blessing at the Communion table. He himself is present; he blesses the bread when it is broken; it is his blessing in the cup that is handed to you. But it is not only the gifts that are blessed—no, the supper itself is the blessing. You partake not only of the bread and wine as blessed, but when you partake of the bread and the wine you partake of the blessing, and this is really the supper. Only he who instituted this supper, only he can prepare it—because at the Communion table he is the blessing.

See, therefore he stretches out his arms at the Communion table; he bows his head toward you—blessing! In this way he is present at the Communion table. Then you are parted from him again, or then he is parted from you again—but blessing. God grant that it might also become a blessing to you![11]

Even if his work is difficult to systematize, Kierkegaard’s philosophical and theological reflections bear strong imprints of one another, and the latter especially should not be neglected as thoughtful, edifying, catholic devotional material, encouraging the reader to a lifelong returning to Scripture, to live life fully, and to desire growth in faith.

IV. Contemporary Engagements

Surveys of contemporary secondary literature reveal some engagement with Kierkegaard in theological issues, many provided by Lutheran scholars.[12] These sources find him to be a worthy contributor to central Christian doctrines, secondary matters like ecclesiology, and personal spirituality. In addition, a growing body of mid-level theological writing has reinvigorated Kierkegaard studies in the last two decades. These studies are certainly uneven in areas that a confessional Lutheran or Reformed pastor might want to focus upon (e.g., the sacraments), but they do enable contemporary Christians to freshly engage a great thinker from a neglected era of church history. Additional literature attempting to make Kierkegaard more accessible has also become more prominent, specifically one volume dedicated to his “spiritual writings,” specially formatted to demonstrate the Christian consistency of his thought.[13] An increase in English translations of his work will also ensure that Kierkegaard remains an interesting figure at the the borders of both theology and philosophy. He is emerging as a fiery and reflective guide for many who, like him, wish to raise the stakes of the Christian life: never denying the objective certainty of Christ’s work on the cross for all people, but retaining the subjective, phenomenological quality of being an individual in tension with one’s place in the wider flock.

As it was in Kierkegaard’s day, so it remains in contemporary American Christendom, even if it is a Christendom on the wane. Kierkegaard’s focus on the real presence of Christ, with accordingly vivid imagery, was an attempt to shake parishioners from the malaise of established Christianity. Some scholars have used the term “sacramental anxiety” to describe the experience Kierkegaard desired for himself and his hearers at the Table: a joint recognition of the groundlessness of one’s existence apart from God’s intervention and care, and the true freedom one possesses within the sacramental moment. With this in mind, the sacraments remain rightly valued, and daily reflected upon, with baptism frequently returned to and the Lord’s Supper frequently received.[14]

V. Conclusion

So what can we draw from Soren Kierkegaard, philosopher and preacher, after all this?

As stated previously, one cannot go to the Lord’s Table and eat on someone else’s behalf. One doesn’t even explicitly go to the Lord’s Supper to commune with those saints who have gone before you. A Lutheran would first and foremost recite to you from Luther’s Small Catechism: you go to Christ at His table because He has promised to be there for you, and He has promised at His own expense to give you eternal life and the forgiveness of sins. God most certainly is everywhere in His creation, and yet we must ask: “where has He promised to be for me?” The answer is: in the sacraments.

Kierkegaard found both the Christ of faith and the historical person of Christ present in the Lord’s Supper. This is why he grew so upset with the status quo of his state church: God actually does something to those who receive Holy Baptism, and Communion, and to those who hear the words of absolution. To come to the font or the table was no little thing for Kierkegaard, which was why he took these pre-communion discourses so seriously. They’re not merely fine rhetoric but a lively public confession, at times sharply contrasting with the Danish state pastors of his day. There is no reason to assume that his pietism-influenced upbringing has compromised in some way his confession either of the Lord’s Supper, or of baptism.

Despite this, a perplexing tragedy in Kierkegaard’s own faith is his own decision to deny himself the assurance of the Lord’s Supper when dying. It is hard to comprehend how his thought could be so dynamic in 1848, and his behavior at life’s end in 1855 be so uncertain and disappointing. The difficulty of systematizing his thought only adds to the problem of interpreting his later years.[15] His harsh criticism of the state of the clergy and their expectations of the laity at this time leave many readers concerned and uncertain regarding this would-be reformer. To many, he appears a bitter iconoclast, intent on destroying and subverting the things of the Church.[16]

The reality, however, is not so simple. Despite such difficulties within his own life, Kierkegaard has left a legacy of work profound in its depth. Its resistance to systemization does not betray an incoherent or maudlin mind; rather, Kierkegaard’s work is grandly and visibly consistent, and now widely available in translated collections.[17] A thoughtful, Spirit-enlivened mind can and will appreciate Kierkegaard’s desire to spur the faithful on and to warn the one who presupposes that he stands to take care lest he fall. Kierkegaard’s work is dynamic in the sweeping changes it demanded of both the institutional church, and of individual Christians, something reflected beautifully in the homiletical endeavour of his discourses. Any pastor of worth knows the righteous but rigorous pursuit that is the act and art of preaching, as did Kierkegaard. He consistently urged his hearers to return to that which they knew, which they could only do as baptized, thinking, sensing individuals, and to receive all as one even as they supped and drank one at a time of their Lord’s embodied promise and presence. A real presence demands a real awareness and an authentic acknowledgement of real sins, truly forgiven. Like Kierkegaard’s first hearers, catholic audiences today should seek nothing less. In closing, it seems appropriate to let the subject himself speak from his own discourses something of his own theology:

Today is not a holy day; today there is a divine service on a weekday—oh, but a Christian’s life is a divine service every day! It is not as if everything were settled by someone’s going to Communion on rare occasions; no, the task is to remain at the Communion table when you leave the Communion table…But when you leave here, remember that the event is not finished—oh on, it is just begun, the good event, or, as Scripture says, the good work in you that God who began it will complete on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ…The day today, however, will soon be over. God grant that when it is long since gone and forgotten—the blessing of this day, recollected again and again, may still be a vivid recollection for you, so that the remembrance of the blessing may be a blessing.[18]

Rev. Philip Jaseph (B.A., Lehigh University; M. Div, Concordia Theological Seminary—Fort Wayne) is an ordained minister of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), and has been called to serve as a missionary of the LCMS in Uruguay. He is married to Deaconess Rachel Jaseph, and currently lives in the United States.

  1. Plekon notes this lacuna was an issue at least twenty years ago in his paper “Kierkegaard and the Eucharist,” Studia Liturgica 22, no. 2 (1992): 214–36. Ollie-Pekka Vainio referred to the same gap twenty years later in his paper “Kierkegaard’s Eucharistic Spirituality,” Theology Today 67, no. 1 (2010): 15–23. Arguably, Vainio bridged a significant gap in scholarship as his most commonly used sources were the older English translations of Kierkegaard by Walter Lowrie, which remained standard until more volumes from the volumes translated and edited by the Hongs became available.

  2. For a helpful sketch of what the Friday service would have looked like, see Michael Plekon, “Kierkegaard and the Eucharist,” Studia Liturgica 22, no. 2 (1992): 214–36, doi:10.1177/003932079202200207. Whilst the service of the Word remained similar to that outlined by Luther, the Danish high mass had been significantly stripped back.

  3. Theology scholar Murray Rae notes this in his concise but thorough volume Kierkegaard and Theology.Murray Rae, Kierkegaard and Theology, Philosophy and Theology (London: T & T Clark, 2010), 184n69.

  4. Olli-Pekka Vainio, “Kierkegaard’s Eucharistic Spirituality,” Theology Today 67, no. 1 (2010): 18–22, doi:10.1177/004057361006700103. .

  5. Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses: The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress, in Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 17, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 292.
  6. Kierkegaard, The Sickness unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, in Kierkegaard’s Writings, 128–29.

  7. Murray Rae, “Kierkegaard,” in T&T Clark Companion to Atonement, ed. Adam J. Johnson, Bloomsbury Companions, Vol. 5 (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017), 598–600.

  8. Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses, 282–88.

  9. Kierkegaard, Discourses, 286.

  10. Kierkegaard, Discourses, 287–88.

  11. Kierkegaard, Discourses, 298–300.

  12. Lutheran scholars like Ronald Marshall, Michael Plekon, David L. Coe, and others distinguish this work, among theologians from other denominations.

  13. This volume is Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 2014. It has gone through some editions and is arranged thematically as a kind of reader on his work, or devotionally by topic. Considering the breadth and depth of Kierkegaard’s thought, it is a significant but apparently well-received undertaking to edit a volume comprised of so many curated excerpts of his writings.

  14. Some interesting work has been done toward applying Kierkegaard to postmodern and post-Christian settings. A volume addressing the challenges and opportunities of sacramental Christianity in these contexts encapsulates many of these concerns, including “sacramental anxiety.” This essay in particular draws on both Kierkegaard’s notion of “anxiety” and his Three Imaginary Discourses, placing the reader in hypothetical situations of the Christian/secular life for purposeful reflection: “The sacramental occasion could never be a secure or explanatory enterprise (except perhaps in superstition and systematic thinking), but inherently entails “anxiety, i.e. the perils of freedom, the need to act, and the wonder of the unfathomable. A sacramental occasion, then, is momentous insofar as it requires one to venture oneself into what might be called the adventure of anxiety: in confession one must “become open/opened in honesty” by embracing responsibility (past, present and future) so as to begin a new history; in marrying one must resolutely promise for an unknown future; and at a graveside one must feel the silence of one’s own death; and in each be decidedly changed/transformed.” J. C. Ries, “The Concept of ‘Sacramental Anxiety’: A Kierkegaardian Locus of Transcendence?” in Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context, ed. L. Boeve and Lambert Leijssen, Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology (2nd: 1999: Louvain, Belgium), . Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium, 160 (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2001), 323–24.

  15. Knut Alfsvåg, Christology as Critique: On the Relationship between Christ, Creation, and Epistemology (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2018), 194–95.
  16. Alfsvag, “Christology as Critique,” 194–97.

  17. Alfsvag, “Christology as Critique,” 193.

  18. Kierkegaard, Discourses, 274.


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