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What Is an Apostle?

In Of the Difference between a Genius and an Apostle,1 Søren Kierkegaard discusses, well, the difference between a genius and an apostle.

A “genius,” for him, is always immanent, always assimilable, never paradoxical (a favorite word of Kierkegaard’s)–even if he appears paradoxical, it is only temporary, for with the hindsight of history he will never appear so. His talent is innate, even if he develops it further by his abilities. Geniuses are born.

An “apostle” is the opposite of all these things: he is transcendent; always paradoxical; always new, as new now as he was in his own day. He has no native talents–or, at least, none that matter for his role as an apostle. As an apostle, he is called from the outside, commissioned by God, and given God’s message and authority. No one is born an apostle, and no one develops into an apostle, least of all along an observable and predictable trajectory. Apostles are made.

So Kierkegaard:

An Apostle is not born; an Apostle is a man called and appointed by God, receiving a mission from him. An Apostle does not develop in such a way that he successively becomes what he is κάτα δύναμιν [according to his ability]. For to become an Apostle is not preceded by any potential possibility; essentially every man is equally near to becoming one. An Apostle can never come to himself in such a way that he becomes conscious of his apostolic calling as a factor in the development of his life. Apostolic calling is a paradoxical factor, which from first to last in his life stands paradoxically outside his personal identity with himself as the definite person he is. A man may perhaps have reached years of discretion long ago, when suddenly he is called to be an Apostle. As a result of this call he does not become more intelligent, does not receive more imagination, a greater acuteness of mind and so on; on the contrary, he remains himself and by that paradoxical fact he is sent on a particular mission by God. By this paradoxical fact the Apostle is made paradoxically different from all other men for eternity. The new which he may have to bring forth is the essential paradox. However long it may be proclaimed in the world it remains essentially and equally new, equally paradoxical, and no immanence can assimilate it. The Apostle did not behave like the man marked out by natural gifts who is born before his time; he was perhaps what we call a simple man, but by a paradoxical fact he was called to proclaim this new thing. Even if thought were to think that it could assimilate the doctrine, it cannot assimilate the way in which the doctrine came into the world; for the essential paradox is the protest against immanence. But the way in which a doctrine of this kind came into the world is qualitatively decisive, and it can only be ignored by deceit or thoughtlessness. (92-3)

This distinction yields a further distinction: that between an aesthetic and/or philosophical appeal and an ethico-religious appeal. Someone who mistakenly applies the former criterion to the apostle might listen to him because he says something “profound” or “beautiful.” For Kierkegaard, this is blasphemy. The apostle should be heard because he has divine authority, and not because he says something “profound,” for the latter approach means that the apostolic message is subjected to some other criterion: it offers a conclusion that could have been reached by the intellect in principle, and thus makes revelation superfluous. Likewise, subjecting the apostolic message to the canons of beauty or good taste renders the fact that the message is divine revelation incidental to its acceptance. It is accepted not because it comes from the mouth of God, but because it measures up to certain standards we think something “glorious,” or “divine,” or “lovely,” ought to meet. Kierkegaard says:

Genius is appreciated purely aesthetically, according to the measure of its content, and specific weight; an Apostle is what he is through having divine authority. Divine authority is, qualitatively, the decisive factor. It is not by evaluating the content of the doctrine aesthetically or intellectually that I should or could reach the result: ergo, the man who proclaimed the doctrine was called by a revelation; ergo, he is an Apostle. The very reverse is the case: the man who is called by a revelation and to whom a doctrine is entrusted, argues from the fact that it is a revelation, from his authority. I have not got to listen to St. Paul because he is clever, or even brilliantly clever; I am to bow before St. Paul because he has divine authority; and in any case it remains St. Paul’s responsibility to see that he produces that impression, whether anybody bows before his authority or not. St. Paul must not appeal to his cleverness, for in that case he is a fool; he must not enter into a purely aesthetic or philosophical discussion of the content of his doctrine, for in that case he is side-tracked. No, he must appeal to his divine authority and, while willing to lay down his life and everything, by that very means prevent any aesthetic impertinence and any direct philosophic approach to the form and content of the doctrine. St. Paul has not to recommend himself and his doctrine with the help of beautiful similes; on the contrary, he should say to the individual: ‘Whether the comparison is beautiful or whether it is worn and threadbare is all one, you must realize that what I say was entrusted to me by a revelation, so that it is God Himself or the Lord Jesus Christ who speaks, and you must not presumptuously set about criticizing the form. I cannot and dare not compel you to obey, but through your relation to God in your conscience I make you eternally responsible to God, eternally responsible for your relation to this doctrine, by having proclaimed it as revealed to me, and consequently proclaimed it with divine authority. (93-4, emphasis original)

Kierkegaard, it seems to me, is trying to gloss texts such as Galatians 1 and 1 Corinthians 1 here, among others. The point is not (I think) that Christian discourse, or worship, or whatever, can never be profound or beautiful (although he rejects out of hand, here and elsewhere, that one’s posture toward religion should be fundamentally aesthetic, which is, for him, a category error of the most dangerous kind, and that oversubtle speculation and interpretation is inimical to the simple directness of the divine Word, and a way of ignoring it and treating it with contempt); it is that that the apostolic message itself must never be believed on those grounds.2 When Christ gives a simple command, he is not being “deep”; he is commanding you to obey, because he is God. When he says “Go!” he is not being “beautiful.” What of it? Will you go, or not? As he says later in the essay, “To honour one’s father because he is intelligent is impiety.”

It is for these reasons that, for Kierkegaard, “[d]ivine authority is…the decisive factor.” Because that is so, we shall look at Kierkegaard’s provocative conceptualization of authority in a follow-up post.

  1. The essay is included in this volume.
  2. Kierkegaard later indicates that it would be disturbing if an authoritative proclamation of a government department were witty or clever, or if the king were an artist.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.