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Kierkegaard on the Knight of Faith

Here's something I wrote on Kierkegaard from a forthcoming book of mine called "Greatest Philosophers" (Quercus 2008)


An authentic Christian faith

Kierkegaard’s book Fear and Trembling is a fascinating, and to my mind rather disturbing, account of what Kierkegaard considers to be authentic Christian faith, as opposed to the watered down “Sunday Christianity” that he thought most of his contemporaries had.

Kierkegaard points out that most people who describe themselves as Christians are born into their faith, and that their involvement doesn’t extent much beyond attending church on a Sunday. Danish Christians, thought Kierkegaard, were churned out by the Danish State Church “with the greatest possible uniformity of a factory product”. This, according to Kierkegaard, is not true faith.

Nor is the true Christian one who rationally recognizes the truth of religious claims, in the way that many Christian philosophers, including, for example, Aquinas, have thought possible. Faith is certainly not a sort of second-rate form of belief for those not sufficiently clever and well-educated to recognise the proofs of God’s existence (as Aquinas (chpt XX) supposed). True faith is not inferior to, but higher than, reason.

An authentic Christian faith, thinks Kierkegaard, involves making a deeply passionate and personal commitment to accept divine authority above all else. It involves making a fearful, life-transforming leap beyond what is reasonable and rational to accept what is profoundly paradoxical. It is a leap that must be made, not once, but repeatedly.

Abraham and Isaac

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard writes under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio (John of Silence) about God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his own son. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Abraham obeys. An angel appears only at the very last moment – when the knife is in Abraham’s hand – to revoke God’s instruction.

Kant thought Abraham wrong to follow the instruction of a voice in his head that commanded him to do something profoundly immoral – to kill an innocent child. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, considers Abraham’s faith a rare example of authentic Christian faith. The true Christian is one who realizes that our duty is ultimately not to the moral law, but to obey a higher authority still – God himself, who is, after all, the source of the moral law.

Kierkegaard contrasts Abraham, whom he considers a true “knight of faith” with the tragic hero or “knight of infinite resignation”: someone who recognizes that a sacrifice must be made on principle. A general who, standing on principle, knowingly sends an entire regiment to its death, knowing his own son is among the soldiers, makes such a sacrifice.

Abraham’s sacrifice is different. He has faith in something higher than the moral law. And, unlike our tragic hero who simply expects his son to die, Abraham has faith that his son will be restored to him by God.

Being a true Christian, involves placing your trust in something higher than the moral principles that govern society. There is a sense, then, in which it makes you an outsider – someone who stand apart from conventional, rule-based morality, who looks to something higher.

Criticism of Kierkegaard

Assuming Kierkegaard is sincere (remember, he writes as Johannes de Silentio, and some have questioned whether de Silentio’s views are really Kierkegaard’s), a critic might suggest that Kierkegaard is, in effect, giving people licence to slaughter the innocent in the name of whatever they believe their God wants. Kierkegaard anticipates this criticism, pointing out that Abraham acts out of love for his son. He is not motivated by hatred. That is a crucial difference between Abraham and, say, a hate-filled religious crusader or suicide bomber.

But of course, it seems Kierkegaard must, then, still admire the faith of the religious crank that lovingly smothers his own children because he trusts the “voice of God” in his head. The only difference between the admirable Abraham and this murderous crank is that, in the story, God does indeed save Abraham’s child while the crank’s children die. But of course, precisely because Abraham’s faith is supposedly beyond reason, Abraham was no more justified in trusting in such a happy outcome than was the religious crank.

It seems, then, that either Kierkegaard must also admire the faith of our murderous religious crank, or else he must say that the reason Abraham’s faith is admirable while the crank’s is not is that Abraham happened to get lucky.

But that, surely, hardly makes Abraham worthy of our admiration.


Anonymous said…
This kind of viewpoint is freightning. What is even more frieghtning is that it seems to be alive and well in the modern world.

I was shocked and horrified when I saw footage of an 'end timer' telling a congregation of poor african villagers to abandon economic concers, to forsake education, that all they needed was the bible because the rapture was coming.

I think these folk are called 'end timers' though I stand to be corrected on that. Very scary stuff. Anyone have any thoughts as to why religious extremism seems to be on the rise?

Check out the banner at the top of this page. Phycologists would have a field day with it.
Anonymous said…
I think it safe to say that you are right in your viewpoint that Abraham is a character not to be admired. Yet I think Kierkegaard most admirable for exposing the paradoxical about religion. To me the 4 scenarios concerning the outcome of the story of Abrahams is most rewarding. The 4th one especially since the focus is directed towards Isaac. Here Isaac is the one loosing his faith because in the moment where his farther was to sacrifice him he saw that Abraham was doubtful. Abrahams doubt becomes in this respect the fear and trembling of the Kierkegaard reader. If one is a deeply religious person like Kierkegaard was/wanted to be - facing scenario 4 is a most eye-opening and horrifying experience. Being Kierkegaard and finding that the only person he finds admirable due to his seemingly unquestionable faith was in fact displaying insecurity and doubt is earth shattering.
What is a man like Kierkegaard to do?
Kierkegaard wrote: “Og hvor skulle jeg søge tilhold da jeg vidste eller anede at den eneste mand, jeg havde beundret for sin styrke og kraft vaklede.” Índeed where my dear Kierkegaard and all there is left to say is from my perspective checkmate!
Anonymous said…
Fear and Trembling is a chilling, yet cold-splash of water to anyone who thinks they are Christians, when they could never do what Abraham did.

This is what true religion is, and if you can't hack it, stay in the ethical sphere and be an atheist. And do what Silentio suggests: "Condemn him as a murderer."
Anonymous said…
It's not quite as simple as that, Anon. You can't fully appreciate Fear and Trembling without first reading Kant's "Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone" and "The Conflict of the Faculties", and then if you have time, Hegel's "Philosophy of Right". Fear and Trembling is about the problem of sin and the possibility of grace and human redemption, not about the divine command theory of ethics. Admittedly my view of Fear and Trembling is greatly influenced by Ronald M. Green's brilliant analysis in "Kierkegaard and Kant: The Hidden Debt". Having taken his suggestions to read the three books by Kant and Hegel before rereading F&T, I am quite convinced that Fear and Trembling is a superb engagement and tour de force with Kantian ethics and philosophy of religion.
Anonymous said…
know for a fact that if atheism-Bolshevism got the upper hand in america,’
, ‘I should either be hanging from the nearest lamppost or locked up in
some cellar or other. So the question for me is not whether or not I want to
undertake this or that, but whether or not we succeed in preventing a atheism -Bolshevik
take-over. I myself have the blind faith that our CRISTIAN movement will win
through. We began2000 years ago with 12 men,’Today
I can say with confidence that our cause will prevail.’

believed that the AMERICAN people needed ‘a monarch-like idol’ – but not
some mild-mannered king, so much as a ‘full-blooded and ruthless ruler,’ a
dictator who would rule with an iron hand, like Oliver Cromwell.It is something
like training a dog: first it is given to a tough handler, and then, when
it has been put through the hoops, it is turned over to a friendly owner
whom it will serve with all the greater loyalty and devotion.’

I always used to regard antiATHEISM as inhumane, but now my own experiences
have converted me into the most fanatical enemy of ATHEISM:

ATHEISTS as born destroyers, not rulers at all; they had neither culture, nor art,nor architecture of their own, ‘the surest expression of a people’s culture.’

They are just
calculators. That explains why only ATHEITS could have founded Marxism, which
negates and destroys the very basis of all culture. With their Marxism, the
ATHEITS hoped to create a broad mindless mass of plebs without any real intelligence,
a gormless instrument in their hands.’
jeremy said…
You have got to be kidding.
Sebastian said…
Mmmmh. Not quite sure the child smothering crank and Abraham are the same thing. You have to investigate the process that led Abraham to becoming a Jahwe believer, and the process that led the crank to becoming a fanatic lunatic. I believe Kiergegaard would claim that Abraham has learnt to love God through prayer and intimacy to such a degree, that he can trust him blindly. Whereas the cult-nut would have gone a path of illness, neurosis, hate and deception. Abraham always followed his conscience - also in all the steps leading up to his great sacrifice. Whereas the cult-nut will have engaged in a lot of unwholesome stuff along the way. Abraham is placing his trust in an entity he has come to know as just an benevolent, whereas the cult-nut should know in his inner depth that he has been deceived.
Stephen Law said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen Law said…
Hello Sebastian

If Abraham has grounds for supposing that his God is both real and "just and benevolent", then his belief is not, after all, wholly beyond reason, is it? It turns out to be largely, if not wholly, rooted in reason after all. But that, I take it, is what K is denying.

But in any case, does Abraham have evidence that God is "just and benevolent"? The jealous, genocidal, petty and vindictive God of the Old Testament? The one that asks him to murder his own son as a test of loyalty?
anticant said…
Some quite frightening comments! Of course each one of us is convinced that our standpoint is "the truth" - otherwise we wouldn't hold to it.

"Orthodoxy is my doxy. Heterodoxy is your doxy."

The Pope has just reaffirmed the traditional claim of the Roman Catholic Church to be the only "true" Christianity, and some Protestants are expressing shock. I wonder why?
Anonymous said…
Consider what Kant said, in a lengthy passage from Book 4 of the Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone:

"Take, for instance, an inquisitor, who clings fast to the uniqueness of his statutory faith even to the point of [imposing] martyrdom, and who has to pass judgment upon a so-called heretic (otherwise a good citizen) charged with unbelief. Now I ask whether, if he condemns him to death, one might say that he has judged according to his conscience (erroneous though it be), or whether one might not rather accuse him of absolute lack of conscience, be it that he merely erred, or consciously did wrong; for we can tell him to his face that in such a case he could never be quite certain that by so acting he was not possibly doing wrong. Presumably he was firm in the belief that a supernaturally revealed Divine Will permitted him, if it did not actually impose it as a duty, to extirpate presumptive disbelief together with the disbelievers. But was he really strongly enough assured of such a revealed doctrine, and of this interpretation of it, to venture, on this basis, to destroy a human being? That it is wrong to deprive a man of his life because of his religious faith is certain, unless (to allow for the most remote possibility) a Divine Will, made known in extraordinary fashion, has ordered it otherwise. But that God has ever uttered this terrible injunction can be asserted only on the basis of historical documents and is never apodictically certain. After all, the revelation has reached the inquisitor only through men and has been interpreted by men, and even did it and even if it did appear to have come to him from God Himself (like the command delivered to Abraham to slaughter his own son like a sheep) it is at least possible that in this instance a mistake has prevailed. But if this is so, the inquisitor would risk the danger of doing what would be wrong in the highest degree; and in this very act he is behaving unconscientiously. This is the case with respect to all historical and visionary faith; that is, the possibility ever remains that an error may be discovered in it. Hence it is unconscientious to follow such a faith with the possibility that perhaps what it commands or permits may be wrong, i.e., with the danger of disobedience to a human duty which is certain in and of itself."

Kant's point is to stress the sufficiency of reason and to dismiss the need for historical faith. I think Kierkegaard agrees that you must exercise reason in all your wheelings and dealings, but the point is that reason is necessary; but not sufficient!

If Abraham didn't use his brains, didn't at least doubt and feel "fear and trembling"; there's nothing to distinguish him from a mental case/psycho killer who'd kill with wanton abandon.

Admittedly, Climacus (not Silentio) reinforces this statement in the Postscript:
"the objective way deems itself to have a security which the subjective way does not have (and, of course, existence and existing cannot be thought in combination with objective security); it thinks to escape a danger which threatens the subjective way and this danger is at its maximum: madness. In a merely subjective determination of the truth, madness and truth become in the last analysis indistinguishable.

One cannot be totally subjective (totally UNreasonable); otherwise, there's nothing to distinguish between madness and truth.
James James said…
"I think Kierkegaard agrees that you must exercise reason... but the point is that reason is necessary; but not sufficient!"

Could you explain why Kierkegaard thinks this is? (I'm going to need some convincing.)

"If Abraham didn't use his brains, didn't at least doubt and feel 'fear and trembling'; there's nothing to distinguish him from a mental case/psycho killer who'd kill with wanton abandon."

How exactly did Abraham use his brains? How does doubt and "fear and trembling" distinguish him from a murderous religious crank?
Anonymous said…
To quote Stephen: It seems, then, that either Kierkegaard must also admire the faith of our murderous religious crank, or else he must say that the reason Abraham’s faith is admirable while the crank’s is not is that Abraham happened to get lucky. But that, surely, hardly makes Abraham worthy of our admiration.

Silentio agrees with Stephen that it cannot be just that Abraham got lucky: "In case he who should act were to judge himself according to the result, he would never get to the point of beginning. Even though the result may give joy to the whole world, it cannot help the hero, for he would get to know the result only when the whole thing was over, and it was not by this he became a hero, but he was such for the fact that he began." (Problemata 1)

So then it comes to how can one differentiate between the crank and Abraham.

Silentio brings this up as well: "Can one then speak plainly about Abraham without incurring the danger that an individual might in bewilderment go ahead and do likewise?" (Preliminary Expectoration) On the surface, there doesn't seem to be any difference, and Silentio knows this.

Reason is necessary, but not sufficient otherwise, Abraham would always be stuck in doubt. And he would also not be a "knight of faith"; he'd be a "knight of infinite resignation".

Silentio writes in the Preliminary Expectoration: "The infinite resignation is the last stage prior to faith, so that one who has not made this movement has not faith; for only in the infinite resignation do I become clear to myself with respect to my eternal validity, and only then can there be any question of grasping existence by virtue of faith."

If the knight of faith had not experienced infinite resignation, which is doubt to the greatest (infinite) extent, he will not have true faith. One needs to analyze the situtation rationally, know that it [obeying God but still having Isaac alive] is humanly impossible, and then and only then can there be faith (To trust God?), or perpetual resignation to the fact that one has defied God and/or lost Isaac. To doubt but yet have faith that one can obey God and have Isaac back, by virtue of the absurd; that's the "double movement", Silentio speaks of.

Now to the criteria.... what are the differences between Abraham and the crank? Well, Silentio suggests some criteria in Problemata 2, some of which are, I think, questionable and need some expanding on. They are listed in detail in the latter half of the Problemata. Some of them include: "The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher", "The true knight of faith is always absolute isolation, the false knight is sectarian", and even the difference between love and hate that Stephen mentions.

But I think better criteria are in Kierkegaard's Works of Love; but which is out of scope of this discussion. Admittedly, I'm going to have to reread Problemata 2 carefully.

:: Using outdated, but free translation:
Anonymous said…
I think people should stop writing these blogs until they have entered into a deep study of K. it is stupidity to just have a quick read and feel abhorrence at what is being said. as with anything in philosophy it is always more subtle and intriguing, and there are rarely knock down objections as Dr Law would have you think.

The work of K is EXISTENTIAL not some kind of logical treatise therefore one should perhaps read some literature such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky before reading K and then have a think.

K is not advocating people going out and killing their children, he is using a story/parable as analogy to the kind of crisis of faith one may find oneself in. after all philosophy ends at some point and reason cannot always give the answer. K is wanting people to think and to live life, as opposed to just wandering through without any direction.

So, Dr Law, if you are going to try and give a superficial exegsis and criticism of K at least be honest say that you are doing so, rather than putting forward a parody of what he thought

Thank you
Anonymous said…
You miss the most fundamental point about Kierkegaard, because you treat him like he's an anti-realist.

If the voice in Abraham's ear actually IS God, then what he was about to do would have been justified.

If it is not God, if he's insane and hearing voices, then he is a murderer.

The difference (or lack thereof) between the crank smothering his children and Abraham is whether or not it is actually the case that God is telling him to do it. Kierkegaard is a realist, that distinction is a real distinction. It is also unverifiable to anyone else looking at the situation. In fact, its not even clear whether Abraham himself could know that he wasn't crazy.

The other thing is, the sacrifice of Isaac has to be understood in the context of Abraham's whole life of faith. This is how Kierkegaard opens Fear and Trembling. Abraham's faith is irrational, but it has been tested (and proven) time and time again. He has, over the whole course of his life, been called upon by God to do things that are incredibly difficult for him, things that he doesn't understand, and he's been rewarded for them. Being asked to sacrifice his only son, even after God had promised him descendants more numerous than the stars, is the culmination of a whole life of faith. For anyone else trying to understand Abraham, its incredibly hard, we don't have his faith, and we can't go out and acquire it. Abraham believed that he was going to kill his only son, he believed that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and to believe both, despite their incompatibility, required a leap of faith.
Stephen Law said…
Hi Jack. I was assuming K is a realist. What do you mean by "realist" and "anti-realist"?
Paul P. Mealing said…
When I was in Montreal in 2001, the author, Mordecai Richler died, so there were a lot of anecdotes and tributes written about him. But someone published an extract from one of his books where he writes specifically about this Biblical incident, only he calls the characters Abe and Izzy (remember Richler is a Jew). What I remember is the punch line, that he delivers after Izzy is saved by God, which goes something like this: 'I don't think things were quite the same between Abe and Izzy ever again.'

Regards, Paul.
Anonymous said…
Kierkegaard said there had only been two Knights of Faith, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. So let's not get hung up on the religious cranks 'lovingly smothering their children' line.

Let me offer what I consider that which is closest to the Knight of Faith - via the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis.

Here for example, is just one, small but key piece of devastating advice from the Imitation to the Christian which gives an extraordinary insight into the life of a 'Knight of Faith':

"On Four Things that Bring Peace - Resolve to do the will of others rather than your own. Always choose to possess less rather than more. Always take the lowest place and regard yourself as less than others. Desire and pray always that God's will may be perfectly fulfilled in you."

If you follow this advice, as you absolutely must if you are to follow Christ in faith, you must accept worldly failure and embrace daily humiliation.

I accept - with Kierkegaard - that there are many "Sunday Christians" who simply do not follow the above. But many others do, though their resolve is not to advertise themselves, but to embrace humiliation in near silence as a matter of the highest faith.

These are the true Knights of Faith. They are the ones you laugh at as followers of a truely foolish faith as you pass them by on the broad way to your worldly success.
Mohsin E. said…
The difference between the crank, and the Knight of Faith is the experience of loss that the Knight experiences versus the experience of ego/delusional grandeur experienced by the crank who thinks God is communicating with him.

The sacrifice of the son was for the Prophet/Knight an actual sacrifice, involving emotional pain. While the crank would feel no such qualms about 'sacrificing' anyone else for his own delusions.
Unknown said…
Stephen law, you have totally failed to engage with what Kierkegaard is saying- he even accounts for your very dilemna of how Abraham is different from a 'crank.' The comments of others reading this blog have prooven that you have communicated wrongly what he was trying to get at, and moreover I would think someone like yourself could engage a bit more with what someone else is trying to say rather than brushing him asside as permitting lunatic thought.
People who read this blog, read Kierkegaard for yourselves, his whole point is in a personal understanding of the world, not someones elses opinion you should adopt as your own.
Stephen Law said…
Great - I am always happy to be corrected. Can you now explain very clearly what K is saying, and how he deals with the dilemmma you raised?

After all, it wouldn't do just to say: "Oh, how stupid of you to have crudely misunderstood my (or K's) theism. What a twit. All those problems are dealt with. Byeee!"

We'd see through that straightaway, wouldn't we?
Anonymous said…
Just to make it clear, I don't for a second excuse the crank for what he does.
But the point needs to be made that if the crank were a true knight of faith, it would be entirely irrelevant whether universal ethics (i.e. the rest of us) condemns him. Kierkegaard's example of the young man who does not tell his fiancee why their engagement is broken off goes against all universal ethics, and we would not think well of him, and yet his relationship is only with the absolute and he does not need to justify himself to anyone else.
It's an all or nothing thing. And yes, it is terribly frightening.
Unknown said…
With K stating he knew of only two Knights of Faith in the history of the world, it seems to be one of those fine abstract points of little application for the World Population minus two.

I frankly do not understand the concept except superficially, but K presumably knew the idea from the inside out, and did not include himself as the 3rd Knight.

Life is short, and I don't have time for mental masturbation. So, assuming K was not playing games (or self-indulging), what are we to learn and apply?

Stephen's English vernacular of "Crank" is interesting. "Crank" is also a amphetamine substance, brand name methedrine. Either way, some sort of disorder is implied if one were to actually act as if the voices he hears are those of God. That's logical enough: most people would assume that if one were to be the true 3rd Knight of Faith who ever lived, he or she would be a total nut case.

But maybe this overstates the matter.
The two identified historical knights seemed imminently sane, even wonderfully warm, compassionate, and very clear headed--genuinely concerned for the good of others.

I personally find the "Knight of Faith" profile useful as a indictment of my conscious and habitual deceptions--the ways I toy with God and seek to manipulate the Creator to my purposes. The Knight of Faith it seems is completely undeceived and un-deceptive in submitting everything to God. The self-will is given completely to the will of God, in complete confidence that His will is knowable and known.

As for me, I confess I have no idea what God is up in most cases, especially those that involve human suffering and death.
Anonymous said…
You don't seem to have a clear and complete understanding of Kierkegaard or a 'knight of faith' and it is for that reason that I encourage you to objectively (put your faith aside) do more research into what you talk about before you try and criticize it. Your explanation is incomplete and ergo, your argument is flawed. I am not attempting to insult you, only to encourage a deeper understanding of the complexities of philosophical writing before you go judging one of them.
Stephen Law said…
OK - so why is my criticism misplaced?
Mohsin E. said…
Kierkegaard was wrong because the biblical version is wrong.

If this story is understood from a Quranic point of view, things become much more logical and reasonable. The whole incident becomes a cautionary tale against "blind faith". Abraham decided to take the "vision" on faith, without first questioning the content, which was contradictory to God's own laws. In the Quran, God never said the dream was from Him, and basically saved Abraham from committing murder.

This is very clear in the original Arabic analysis of the Quran, even some of the English translations don't make this clear, and most of the commentaries of the Quran are influenced by the biblical narrative.

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