Kierkegaard versus the Biblical Critics


In For Self-Examination, Kierkegaard critiques the historical-critical method in biblical scholarship,  presenting the biblical critic as a self-deceived, crafty coward, comparable to a young boy who pads his pants with napkins before he gets a spanking. [1] The critic, according to Kierkegaard, commits himself so completely to solving textual difficulties that the application of the text’s commands are lost within a self-imposed critical distance. As a corrective, Kierkegaard offers an imaginative approach which bridges that distance by reminding us of what we share with the world of the text.

In Kierkegaard’s view, we each find ourselves in exactly the same position before God as every other person at every other time and in every other place. Despite the progression of history we stand before God with essentially the same ethical and religious choices as our forebears.

Therefore, when reading the Bible, we ought to say: “It is I that am addressed, it is about me this is said.”  When we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, we recognize that we ourselves are the uncompassionate priest and Levite, and that the command to love is required of us. [2] We imaginatively enter into the biblical narratives in order to recognize the way in which we stand in the shoes of the biblical characters, and are faced with the same choices with which those figures are faced.  There is little sense of the historical or cultural setting in Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the biblical narratives—the important thing is the spiritual reality of the characters’ responses to God’s call and commands and how they can reflect our own responses today.

Despite Kierkegaard’s harsh critique of biblical criticism, most of today’s prominent Christian biblical scholars, including those whose roots lie in the historical-critical approach, express the same concern as Kierkegaard. There is a shared emphasis upon taking the text seriously (notwithstanding varying accounts of what we mean by “authoritative”) and the role of the imagination in the task of interpretation.

The difference between these scholars and Kierkegaard is not in the level of respect for the text, but in historical criticism’s emphasis on the strangeness of the biblical text: there is a significant historical and cultural divide between us and the text, and only by first recognizing that difference can we begin to interact with the Bible in a way that takes seriously its ethical and religious, as well as its historical and literary, dimensions. It takes a great act of imagination to step out of our own time and cultural conditions in order to hear what the strange text of the Bible is really trying to say, but it is a crucial act if we hope to engage with the Bible with the respect and seriousness that the text requires of its readers.

As these contrasting approaches suggest, the Bible is an extraordinarily complex document: it is both utterly strange and intensely familiar.  Underneath the differences between these two interpretive approaches lies a shared awareness that the task of reading and understanding scripture demands that the reader express the willingness and the imaginative capacity to transform him- or herself in order to become a part of this complex text. The two approaches need one another, as they work together to provide the reader’s imagination with a more complete setting in which to place him- or herself, as he or she works to comprehend the meaning of the ancient text for our lives in the world today.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourselves! and Three Discourses 1851, trans. Walter Lowrie (London: OUP, 1941), 57-9.

[2] Ibid., 64-5.


Caitlin Washburn is a first year PhD Candidate at the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts and recently completed a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Historical-Critical Biblical Scholarship for her MLitt at St. Mary’s College. 


  • Caitlin Washburn is a musician based in Carrboro, North Carolina. She received her MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St Andrews in 2014, and served as an editor of and regular contributor to Transpositions through 2015. Her EP, Fragile Hands, will be available November of this year. For more information, visit

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