Kierkegaard and the Contradictory Incarnation

Many attack Kierkegaard for saying that the incarnation is a contradiction and that Kierkegaard embraces paradox by faith alone. I wish here to argue that these things are wildly misunderstood and Kierkegaard’s view of the incarnation is neither heretical nor absurd, but rather a stance that ought to be taken seriously.

In Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard calls God-in-time “the strangest of all things.”[1] It likely follows that Kierkegaard holds that God is typically outside of time – a view that seems consistent with Kierkegaard’s strong belief that God is transcendent. With the incarnation, God-outside-time became God-in-time. While contemporary metaphysicians discuss how this is possible, Kierkegaard titled this a paradox – something recognized but not entirely understood. As C. Stephen Evans writes, “when reason encounters the God-in-time, it must understand something, even to know that it has encountered what it cannot understand.”[2] Here, humanity recognizes some thing, but cannot explain what it is. We know God is man, know that he is somehow in time, but the analysis of how this is possible is unknown. It is a paradox.

But this paradox is no mere paradox. It is the mothership of all paradoxes. Kierkegaard titles the incarnation as a contradiction. God-outside-time became God-in-time, a merging of two opposites. Further, humanity, a creation that is inherently temporal, can acquire eternal life through this paradoxical incarnation. Polarities seemingly swap places. A contradiction seems to form.

But what is this contradiction? Many wrongly and prematurely accuse Kierkegaard of committing a basic logical contradiction. Not only that, but many assert that Kierkegaard is comfortable in this contradiction. Yet Kierkegaard does not seem to be affirming a contradiction like A and ~A are the same thing at the same time. Kierkegaard’s main philosophical opponent was G.W.F. Hegel and his contemporaries. The Hegelian system did not restrict the term ‘contradiction’ to the basic logical and Aristotelian definition. The Hegelians used the term to cite any relation of oppositions. Hegel was not so concerned with formal contradictions inasmuch as he desired to examine supposed incongruities within the natural world. In his attack on Hegelianism, Kierkegaard often utilized Hegel’s own terms in order to present his case against Hegel’s ideas. Thus, when Kierkegaard uses ‘contradiction’ he uses the Hegelian definition over the formal definition.

Evans writes that if Kierkegaard thought of the incarnation as a formal contradiction the incarnation would fail to fulfill its purpose: reconciling God and humanity. For how can two contradictory ideas form a logical reconciliation? Further, an essential property of the incarnation as the absolute paradox is that it must be entirely unique. God becoming human and reconciling the temporal humanity in a manner which offers eternality qualifies as such uniqueness. There is nothing unique about a logical contradiction. They (sadly) happen quite frequently.

Kierkegaard does assert that reason is limited by the paradox of the incarnation. It cannot understand how it occurs. This is more proof that Kierkegaard does not have a formal definition in mind when he uses ‘contradiction.’ A ‘square circle’ is a logical contradiction. In order to somehow perceive this formal contradiction, one must have an idea of what both a square and a circle are.[3]  Kierkegaard posits that the incarnation is a concept which reason cannot comprehend as humanity fails to understand God and human nature.[4]

Where one might have epistemological difficulties with Kierkegaard’s claim that the incarnation is beyond reason (something which I will discuss in a later post), one need not confuse Kierkegaard’s terminology with definitions that one commonly uses. While one may not be entirely comfortable with Kierkegaard’s use of the terms ‘paradox’ and ‘absurd’ in relation to the incarnation, it should be recognized that Kierkegaard’s analysis of the incarnate God portrays it as something uniquely and radically special.

The analysis here hopefully clarifies misconceptions about Kierkegaard and his treatment of the incarnation. The is lamentable that Kierkegaard has been so harshly branded in negative fashions because of confusion of his writing. He serves as a prime example that one ought to do due diligence in literary and philosophical analysis.

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 3rd Edition, trans. Howard V. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 58.

[2] C. Stephen Evans, Faith Beyond Reason: A Kierkegaardian Account (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 81.

[3] This illustration is borrowed from C. Stephen Evans.

[4] Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments, 39.

3 thoughts on “Kierkegaard and the Contradictory Incarnation

  1. JWB says:

    I definitely agree with you about the misunderstanding of Kierkegaard, and how many people misunderstand many of the philosophers in our history. But, you know, philosophy is not parallel with logic, and it never will be. So maybe people do not really misunderstand it, they just seem to fail at grasping the philosopher’s way of thinking.

  2. michaeldstark says:

    It is debatable whether or not logic is merely a tool in which philosophers use, but, with the rise of mathematics and science, logic seems to be an object of philosophy as well.

    Sadly, many interpret Kierkegaard’s use of a logical word in a much different manner than the one he uses. This has caused devastating interpretations of him amongst the Christian community.

    Thank you for your comment, sir. Best to you.

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