Does Defending Christianity Discredit Christianity?

A friend recently asked me to comment on something he read in The Sickness Unto Death written by philosopher Søren Kierkegaard under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus. In the quotation, Kierkegaard seems to attack the discipline of apologetics—that is, defense of the Christian faith. Here’s what he says:

One sees now…how extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of men this betrays, and how truly, even though it be unconsciously, it is working in collusion with the enemy, by making of Christianity a miserable something or another which in the end has to be rescued by a defense. Therefore, it is certain and true that he who first invented the notion of defending Christianity in Christendom is de facto Judas No. 2; he also betrays with a kiss, only his treachery is that of stupidity. To defend anything is always to discredit it. Let a man have a storehouse full of gold, let him be willing to dispense every dollar to the poor, but let him besides that be stupid enough to begin this benevolent undertaking with a defense in which he advances three reasons to prove that it is justifiable—and people will be almost inclined to doubt whether he is doing any good. But now for Christianity! Yea, he who defends it has never believed in it. If he believes, then the enthusiasm of faith is…not defense, no, it is attack and victory.

Before I offer a short critique of the view being expressed, let me say from the outset that I’m not very familiar with Kierkegaard’s work. It would be unfair for me to speculate on what he believed about apologetics from this short quote penned under a pseudonym. However, for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll do my best to respond to the view as stated above.

It’s not uncommon to hear people attack the legitimacy of apologetics. Many different challenges have been offered against defending the Christian faith, but they all suffer the same fatal response. Kierkegaard’s challenge is no exception.

Kierkegaard’s challenge is based on a principle. Simply put, the act of defending anything will always discredit it. Therefore, Christians shouldn’t defend Christianity.

It was very astutely pointed out to me that Kierkegaard is probably using the word defense in a different sense than modern-day Christian apologists.* Kierkegaard writes,

One sees now how extraordinarily stupid it is to defend Christianity, how little knowledge of men this betrays, and how truly, even though it be unconsciously, it is working in collusion with the enemy, by making of Christianity a miserable something or another which in the end has to be rescued by a defense. [Emphasis mine.]

In this sense, a defense is given because the thing is vulnerable and needs defending. There is a built-in assumption that is being smuggled in. That is, a defense is only made for what is defenseless. So, the act of defending something demonstrates—even unwittingly—that it is also weak and defenseless.

This is a false assumption. True, some things are defended because they cannot defend themselves. Unborn children, orphans, and widows are all examples. But apologetics doesn’t make this assumption. We defend Christianity, not because it needs a defense, but because we were commanded to give one. This leads to the fatal flaws in Kierkegaard’s challenge.

The Fatal Flaws

First, the biblical writers commanded defending Christianity. The apostle Paul says, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4–5). Likewise, the apostle Peter writes, “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). Jude tells his readers to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). What is commanded by God cannot also be “working in collusion with the enemy,” as Kierkegaard puts it.

Second, the biblical writers engaged in defending Christianity. They practiced what they preached. For example, Paul defends the Christian faith on numerous occasions. It was part of his routine. In his letter to the Church at Philippi, Paul says, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7). He goes on to write, “The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel” (Phil. 1:16).

In the book of Acts, Paul regularly reasoned with the people about Christianity: “And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead…. And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas (Acts 17:2–4). Yet, this use of reason and proof is precisely what Kierkegaard seems to be railing against. In fact, if Kierkegaard is right, then Paul and the other apostles were guilty of both discrediting Christianity and “never really believing in it.”

I think the biblical case is enough to meet this challenge. But there is something in Kierkegaard’s own words that undermines his entire argument. He forcefully states, “To defend anything is always to discredit it.” I disagree. But what’s interesting is that Kierkegaard follows this assertion with evidence to try to defend his assertion. He says,

Let a man have a storehouse full of gold, let him be willing to dispense every dollar to the poor, but let him besides that be stupid enough to begin this benevolent undertaking with a defense in which he advances three reasons to prove that it is justifiable—and people will be almost inclined to doubt whether he is doing any good.  

While attempting to support his claim, Kierkegaard ends up refuting his claim. In fact, any defense of the proposition “to defend anything is always to discredit it” will be self-refuting. He cannot possibly defend this proposition without also discrediting it.

More could be said, but this is enough to show that Kierkegaard’s criticism of defending Christianity doesn’t work. Any defense to the contrary proves my point.

_____________________

*My friend Abe Mathew should get the credit for this observation. 

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Tim Barnett

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