Apologetics. Part I.

Over the last few days there has been a shakeup in the Mormon scholarly community. See here here here and several here for the details, of which I am uninterested in discussing in this post. (Maybe in some future post). I have since heard these current events likened to Trekkies arguing over Klingon verb conjugation–the reaction by some has been so intense because the stakes are so low. It actually wouldn’t surprise me in the least to learn that less than 1% of all Mormons even know of the existence of the Maxwell Institute, FARMS, and FAIR, and that even less than that have any genuine interest in any of them. However, I think it’s inaccurate to say that the stakes are abysmally low or astronomically high, largely because I think we often (all of us) misunderstand the potential purpose and place of religious apologetics. Here, then, I’d like to to explore in a more philosophical vein what Mormon/Christian apologetics is, could be, and should be. I know that there are many within Mormon and Christian intellectual communities who not only think that apologetics are worthless, but that any kind of apologetic discourse needs to be stamped out in the name of “real” scholarship and “genuine” dialogue with those inside and outside the faith. I have been somewhat sympathetic to this in the past–I’d never considered myself an “apologist” and have only ever had a causal interest in Mormon apologetic organizations. However, apologetic discourse is not only inevitable with regard to religious organizations, concepts, and practices, but there is a vital place for an authentic religious apologetic within a religious community, a kind of discourse that should be, in fact, much broader, more rigorous, more radical, and more religious than it has often been within our community. What, then, might such an apologetic look like? That’s all I’m interested in here. This discussion will range over 3 posts over the next few days. I’ll delete comments that have little to do with these parameters. I’m not interested in 150 threadjacks, sidebars, and apoplectic fits of rage or glee deployed in the annihilation or lionization of certain so-called Mormon apologists. There are plenty of other electronic venues in which to satiate oneself in that regard. It should go without explanation that I am not trying to exhaustively cover every aspect of this issue, but simply provide some interconnected thoughts from my own point of view and area of expertise.

In my own studies I have found that French Catholic philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion and Danish philosopher and writer Soren Kierkegaard (especially as interpreted by my friend and colleague Keith Lane) are particularly fruitful thinkers for a serious and thoughtful consideration of religious apologetics. In this post I’ll discuss Kierkegaard’s thought; in the following post, Marion. Finally, in the 3rd and final post I’ll provide some of my own thoughts and conclusions, applying Kierkegaard and Marion to our contemporary Mormon context.


Kierkegaard points out that there is a vital difference between an apostle and a “genius” (he’s referring oh so humbly to himself, but more broadly to philosophers, theologians, teachers of religion, etc): “I am not to listen to Paul because he is matchlessly brilliant, but I am to submit to him because he has divine authority.”

To see Paul as a genius is to miss the point of Paul for the religious believer entirely. What apostles (or those given authority) actually say may be persuasive and elegant, even brilliant, but to recognize this is to miss the importance of the function of the authority they possess. There are three ways in which the apostle is qualitatively different from the religious teacher, apologist, philosopher, etc. 1) The apostle is paradoxically different from all other human beings and paradoxically brings something new to humanity. Paradoxically different because the apostle is a human being in every sense of the word and yet has become what no human being can become: a divine messenger. Thus he is something other than human (no matter how human he otherwise is in every other respect. Remember, it’s a paradox). The apostle is a paradox that divides with the intellectual and spiritual sword: he is either believed or not believed, but not examined strictly according to aesthetic or philosophical categories. Not that he is superior to these categories or that he has ascended step by step from immanent genius to transcendent messenger of the divine, but that it makes no sense to strictly judge the apostle according to these standards. 2) The apostle is what he is as a result of a calling, and therefore cannot be evaluated according to the same categories as the “genius.” In this sense the apostle is also, like Christ himself, offensive. Not because of the content of his speech (the righteous receiving the words gladly while the wicked are outraged) but because he stands in front of you and claims to be divinely favored and called and receives divine messages for others as a result, while you cannot make such a claim and must stand helpless before his message, to either obey or disobey. This leads to 3) that the apostle thus presents the ultimate inequity: he is stationed with a paradoxical telos, an “in order to” that the genius as a genius could never validly possess. The apostle as apostle stands in a state of demand: he has a mission or mandate from God that requires him to be positioned teleologically in relation to humanity in a way that the genius is not. In fact, the genius seeks to destroy all teleology, all “in order to’s” because his is the realm of persuasion, argumentation, and useful knowledge. The apostle, according to Kierkegaard, might say something like the following: “You must consider that what I say has been entrusted me by revelation; so it is God himself or the Lord Jesus Christ who is speaking, and you must not become involved presumptuously in criticizing the form. I cannot, I dare not compel you to obey, but through the relationship of your conscience to God, I make you eternally responsible for your relationship to this doctrine by my having proclaimed it as revealed to me and therefore by having proclaimed it with divine authority.”

In contrast to the apostle stands the genius, the philosopher, the apologist, all of which are reducible to the teacher without authority. The teacher is not situated paradoxically in relation to humanity; she is one of them. As teacher she ultimately speaks for herself and not for God. More importantly, her role is to clarify and remind, or to describe. She may say things in a new way but her message is not a teleological paradox, like the message of the apostle. The teacher as a teacher doesn’t, in fact, exist at all without the apostle or the prophet. The teacher must wait for the apostle to speak before teaching. The teacher, then, welcomes criticism in a way that the apostle cannot (again, the apostle can technically listen to criticism all day every day, but because he dwells in the realm of the religious as divine messenger, he cannot, as an apostle, respond in kind, not without becoming something other than an apostle). The apostle as apostle simply delivers the message. The teacher, on the other hand, wants to get things right grammatically, philologically, philosophically, theologically,. She welcomes criticism, then, as a means through which to do this sort of work. Beyond clarification and reminding, the teacher has no right to make authoritative assertions. The teacher is to be judged and weighed aesthetically and philosophically in a way that it makes no sense to judge the apostle (as opposed to being immoral to judge an apostle in this way, which would be besides the point).

When one accepts the religious on religious grounds, one receives or judges the religious based on the authority of its origination.  Teachers without authority have no business making demands of their listeners, of setting up the stakes of Us vs. Them; the apostle, by contrast, makes nothing but demands, not by virtue of the content of his teaching, but by his authority alone. The teacher must constantly and unremittingly acknowledge her lack of authority, consistently qualifying her teaching, repenting and revising at all times as necessary. The teacher broadcasts that she or he speaks for herself or himself and not for God; the inverse is true of the apostle.

Kierkegaard, is cautious about apologetics. He advocates a mild sort of apology for Christianity, one that seeks to clarify what Christianity really is and to indirectly persuade the Christian of this, to help the Christian come to an authentic judgment for himself or herself about Christianity. The teacher without authority seeks, as one with no authority, to persuade the already convinced of Christianity clarified, helping the truly religious to actually appear. Outside of that which is genuinely religious however, apologetics is self-serving and even non-sensical. In other words, outside a religious context, apologetics becomes prescriptive and not descriptive and this erroneously places apologetics alongside the apostles.

Kierkegaard’s central problematic is that the Christians of his time had confused the aesthetic (which includes culture, politics, and philosophy) and even that which is ethical with religious modes of thinking and living. He sought in nearly all of his writings to reveal the authentically Christian and authentically religious. His contention was that Christians confused the categories of the aesthetic and the ethical with the religious and therefore lived their lives, in the end, as false Christians. In other words, the genuinely religious is not something that is synonymous with the aesthetic (culture, politics, etc) or with the ethical (moral norms). The religious is that which directly leads to a relationship with and an understanding of the divine.

Kierkegaard’s goal was to make Christians aware of the categories, to wake them from their deep sleep. What they did with their newfound consciousness was of course up to them. He was the Christian Socratic midwife attempting to deliver religion from the irreligious (and most Christians were, in his eyes, ultimately irreligious because they consistently treated the aesthetic and the ethical as the religious). Obviously, then, Kierkegaard’s form of apologetics was a good deal milder than the traditional Christian apologist (who might very well argue that clarification alone is hardly apologetic at all). Kierkegaard sought to persuade indirectly (as a clarifier and as multiple  pseudonymous voices) in assisting his audience in coming to a real decision about Christianity through seeing the truth for the first time by revealing real differences. Kierkegaard hoped that those so persuaded would then become authentic single individuals before God.


  1. that’s lovely. very helpful. thanks, jacob.

  2. I’d like to see you describe a little bit further the “in order to” part of Kierkegaard’s framework and your analysis of that in this summary. Any chance of getting some of that in a comment to this thread? It wasn’t clear how the “in order to” actually functions in the apostle’s paradoxical situation.

  3. I agree, Jacob. I’ve always been slightly envious of LDS historians who put some apologetics in their work, because they are operating in a role larger than that of the historian. They are participants in the faith community; they are contributors to the life of the community’s mind.

  4. Also, doesn’t the name Kierkegaard mean “defender of the Church,” or something like that?

  5. No, it means “cemetery” or “Churchyard” in Danish (from Kirkegaard)

  6. I’m having some trouble with how authority is laid out here. Im not convinced authority functions any differently between apostles and teachers/philosophers, etc. It seems to me that the idea we must accept someone’s authority simply from claims of authority is not very mormon or Christian. Just because someone claims to be a messenger from God does not exempt him/her from giving reasons for us to accept that authority. I would argue that the failure of someone to actually produce such, other than their authoritative claim is a sign they prob dont have authority. No power or authority over others should be maintained by claims of authority. The Jesus I read about seems to not be particularly obsessed with claims of authority per se. The content of his words and ultimately real signs and tokens (ie miracles, raising the dead, and lastly his resurrection) served to establish his authority not merely verbal apostolic claims of the ones described above. You want to know if he is the Messiah, then come and see. I imagine this is why the resurrection is so important. As scholars have pointed out it serves as vindication of his words and teachings. It is the stamp of authority (something real not merely claims).

    Likewise, if some scientist showed up and told us to cut our Co2 usage that may be worth something listening to. We could evaluate his claims and determine if it was authoritative. Maybe he has actual evidence, signs, or tokens to back up his demands.

  7. Great post, Jacob. I’m anxious to follow the series and discussion….

  8. J Madson, from my understanding Jacob is not arguing that the true apostle has something called ‘authority’ which allows him to claim authority, but rather the very claim of authority is what makes him an apostle and allows others to grant him authority. Paul is the prime example of this. Unlike the ‘three pillars’ Peter, James, and John, who could make appeals to their discipleship with Jesus, etc, Paul’s authority derived from his very claim “I saw.”

    Thus, while the philosopher/teacher must turn to scripture, analysis, reason, etc to make claim of authority, the apostle simply “speaks as one having authority.” She simple says “This is how it is. Take it or leave it.” And others are left to do just that.

  9. narrator, I guess what Im saying is that even the apostle must turn to something other than the very claim of authority in and of itself. Saying “this is how it is” because I say so, appears to me as a form of unrighteous dominion. Its certainly not persuasion. The claim of authority must be founded on something no? Even Paul gives some rationale beyond a claim as you note, he says he saw something. We can weigh and judge whether that merits listening to. In other words, there is a difference between Paul saying this is the case because I have a title and this is the case because I saw something. I dont see using scripture, analysis, and reason as that different. A scientist tells us something is true because he saw it or others observed it (more than once). I see apostles and teachers as the same so long as their claims for authority stand on something more than the claim in and of itself. They all give rationales for why we should accept their word or authority. I saw two personages, they said x. Wouldn’t it be folly to accept Joseph’s claimed authority without any rationale, no vision, no Book, no evidence? Im just not sure about the distinction.

  10. narrator, I reread the OP and I would agree that I mischaracterized a bit what jacob wrote. I was responding more to how authority seems to work in our faith (where the rationale or “I saw” is assumed and in the worst case is not needed because someone inherently has a thing called authority) as opposed to how Kierkegaard describes it in which an apostle does have a rationale for authority claims.

  11. “Outside of that which is genuinely religious however, apologetics is self-serving and even non-sensical. In other words, outside a religious context, apologetics becomes prescriptive and not descriptive and this erroneously places apologetics alongside the apostles.”

    I don’t understand this. I thought apologetics gave potential explanations to bridge the gap between the declarations of the apostles and contrary human reasoning. In other words, I don’t see how apologetics claims authority. In fact, it seems it would be much more likely to overreach while trying to “clarify” what the apostles said.

  12. Excellent comments and questions, thank you.

    john f., by “in order to,” and “positioned teleologically in relation to humankind,” Kierkegaard is saying that the apostle as apostle stands outside the normal orders of the aesthetic and the ethical, in that he brings revelations from God that require a “yes” or a “no.” We can argue about the content of these revelations but in the end must nevertheless answer “yes” or “no.” The apostle as divine messenger ensures this kind of relationship, a relationship to ultimate (religious) causes that does not rely on argumentation or persuasion but on decision and fidelity. Argument and persuasion is the realm of the teachers without authority, those who cannot (but often nevertheless do) present you with such a yes or no decision. Apostles demand decision, teachers require critical rationality. Neither as what they are–Apostle, Teacher–can require what the other requires. Teachers cannot demand decisions, Apostles cannot require critical rationality, not because it’s impossible, but again, because it is nonsensical. Apostles as Apostles are simply not doing that–as Apostles. Now, it’s important to note that I’m speaking hear in capitals–capital A and capital T, as categories of individual, not as instantiated actual persons as apostles and teachers. An apostle can in theory also be a teacher and vice versa but as Apostle he declares unremittingly an “in order to” as one who speaks for God. It is the job of the Teacher, actually, according to Kierkegaard, to separate out and clarify these issues and these roles, even as they might appear and exercise themselves in the same individual.

    J. Madson, yes, essentially what narrator said. The Apostle becomes Apostle by virtue of the fact that others recognize the Apostle as Apostle, as divine messenger, not because of some metaphysical substance that the Apostle carries called “authority.” This was the common mistake Christians were making concerning Paul, that because Paul was so brilliant in his elaboration of the Law and grace in Romans or so poetic in his enunciation of charity in Corinthians that he had provided the reasons on Christianity in these documents and there, as a result, was his main value. For Kierkegaard, the fact that Paul ALSO seemed to be brilliant was beside the main point of Paul–in fact, it had obscured Paul’s true importance to the realm of the religious because Christians were constantly yanking him back down to the ethical and the aesthetic, thereby emptying him of true religious authority and making him into an astute secular apologist for Christianity instead (secular because no longer truly religious).

  13. Martin, yes, absolutely, the work of clarification can potentially “overreach.” This was one reason Kierkegaard was cautious about the employment of apologetics in the first place. What Kierkegaard is essentially saying about apologetics outside the religious was that (and I’ll explore this in greater detail in my next posts) outside the religious (outside of the telos of staying in relationship with God and helping others to see and be in relationship with God) apologetics no longer points the way to God but instead points to itself, and thereby becomes increasingly self-important and independent of God. Apologetics must point to Christ; anything outside of this is secularism (not as a pejorative, but simply the irreligious) or idolatry. Outside of its connection to the religious apologetics DOES claim authority, its own authority. Genuinely religious apologetics, as I’ll say later, does not in fact provide reasons so much as it provides a way of stopping the desire for more and more reasons.

  14. Interesting post, Jacob.

    “It seems to me that the idea we must accept someone’s authority simply from claims of authority is not very mormon or Christian.”

    Maybe not at the theorhetical or theological level, J.Madsen, but try telling many (if not most) members not to accept the statements of the prophets and apostles as authoritative just because they are prophets and aposltes. I’m not a betting man, but I’m quite sure you will get more negative than positive responses.

    Sure, we give lip service as a group to the idea that apostles and prophets are fallible and can be wrong – and we even have apostolic statments to back it up, but when push comes to shove? There’s a very strong inclination to accept and follow for no other reason than an acceptance of authority – and that is not unique to Mormonism and the LDS Church, at all. I’d say it’s true of almost much every denomination and congregation within Christianity in which there really is perceived authority with regard to a leader.

    My biggest problem with LDS apologetics is exactly the idea that we have invested authority in the views of those who are not “religious” authorities – that we are conflating the two in exactly the way this post describes. When that happens, entire apologetic organizations can implode over what is essentially disputes over authority – and members start taking sides in intellectual fights. It’s just as bad on each side of the fight, since each one believes passionately in the correctness of its own view – and, ironically, each side tends to dismiss or ignore apostolic statements that support the other side. What generally is overlooked is that there often are apostolic statements that support multiple “sides” – and that brings us full circle back to the issue of aurhority independent of reason.

  15. Can anyone tell me where Satan stands in this? Because, for reasons so obvious I won’t enumerate them, I will stand on the side where Satan isn’t standing. Which is another way of saying I will stand against the Devil and all his works. (This is something I committed to when, as a little side step in my personal faith journey, I was baptized into the Church of Jesus in the Lesser Archipelago.)

    Please don’t try to baffle me with pseudo-information about how there might be a little bit of Satan on both sides. I know that Satan is a personage of spiritual fluid, and he can only be at one place at one time. It could very well be that he can move so fast that he can effectively be on both sides, but not at one time. It seems to me, if this is the case, my only recourse will be to distinguish where Satan is at any given time, and run as quickly as I can to the other side. I suppose it could also be that Satan is a very big spew of spiritual fluid, and thereby could effectively occupy space in both camps. However, since we know he is a personage, which means personal-like, or person-ish, it seems unlikely to me that he is bigger than, say, an elephant, and no elephant I know is big enough to effectively occupy space on both sides of an issue as large as this one.

  16. “Can anyone tell me where Satan stands in this? ”

    Well since he has no feet he doesn’t stand. He more floats around.

  17. Kierkegaard, although critical of it, was writing out of the context of an established, state, Troeltschian church. That is not where Mormonism has been. Perhaps jacob is recommending that is where it needs to head, but there would have to be some very fundamental changes in the LDS church for that to occur. Changes that are not probable and might well be impossible.

    Mormonism is a Troeltschian “New Religious Movement.*” And while it has, and would like to develop, I think the world has changed too much for it, or any new religion, to become a Troeltschian church.

    In Mormonism, there is no such thing as a Kierkegaardian Teacher. Everyone is a Kierkegaardian Apostle. Whether in formal church calling, personal life or employment, every member is entitled, even required, to have a Pauline experience, even in regard to mundane issues. And please note, many apologists work for an LDS church related institution, doubling the issues of personal revelation as to church calling, personal life and employment.

    In a church of personal revelation in all aspects of life, where every member should strive for a personal seer stone (whether actual or symbolic), where every member is a missionary, teaching by the Spirit, and even BYU mathematics is explicated with divine inspiration, I don’t see room for a Kierkegaardian Teacher.

    Excellent blog post. I should spend some time here.

    *Troeltsch did not name the “third” category of his tripartite model but it came to be known as “cult” although not necessarily in the pejorative sense. His other two categories were “church” and “sect.”

  18. “every member is entitled, even required, to have a Pauline experience”

    “To some is given to know . . . to some is given to believe . . .”

    I am in complete agreement with the general ideal of being led by the Holy Spirit in everything we do, but I also am a fan of faith.

    I’ve seen far too many members who have wanted a Pauline experience so badly that they crashed and burned as a direct result of those unrealistic expectations. We speak of “a Pauline experience” explicitly because it is so rare thorughout the entire history of our canonized scriptures. We can count those types of experiences and see them as numerous and normal – until we realize what the actual percent of Pauline experiences / total “people of God” really is.

    I’ve had some powerful spiritual experiences in my life, but I’m still hoping for a Pauline experience. However, if I die without having had one, I’m fine with that. I don’t require such an experience; I’m fine with the type of spiritual experiences that seem to be my lot. I’d love to have a Pauline experience, but I don’t feel I am entitled to one – and I certainly don’t believe I am required to have one.

  19. Along with Lulu, I would also like to point out that Kierkegaard was using pure types to make a point. He probably used Paul as the pure apostle and himself as the pure teacher. My guess is that the pure types rarely exist. Whom we call apostles can also be managers, for example. Where do managers fit in this picture? Where does the drive for self-aggrandizement fit in the picture, which will distort apostles and teachers alike?

    When I make an argument I like to drive the system to the extremes because if the extremes to not hold in their simplicity, then the argument will probably not hold in the transitional, mixture, states. I think Kierkegaard has used this basic engineering and philosophical tool with good effect to dichotomize the situation and to analyze the extremes. This method allows us to examine the nature of religious life and the uses of various people in it in a very simplistic two-dimensional , not even, rather a two-polar, model. This simplistic description allows us to see without the distractions of complexity.

    However, life is never this simple, as Lulu pointed out.

  20. Ray, I think that many of us have had “mini-road-to-Damascus” experiences. This presents a huge problem to the “apostles” in our Church because there are so many apostolic voices. As you point out, there are many people seeking the full-on experience. Just what would happen if even 1% of those seeking that experience had one?

    People want the experience without the consequence or do not know what they are asking.

    With my “mini” experiences my life has got much harder and more complex as a result. Would the Church survive that outpouring of revelation? I read (or imagined I read, I had attributed this quote to Joseph Smith since it seems like his philosophy) that revelation is a trial to your faith. So many apostles, so much trial.

  21. “I think that many of us have had “mini-road-to-Damascus” experiences.”

    I agree.

  22. Ray, how do your comments relate back to Mormon apologetics?

  23. lulu, I’m not sure I understand the reason for your question. Do you mind elaborating a little?

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