The Single Individual: Kierkegaard’s Authorial Intent

It’s been a minute since I’ve written anything substantial here! Between fundraising for ministry with Mustard Seed and working on Master’s studies, I’ve needed to put the words to use in other areas. That said, now that the semester is over and everything has been graded, I wanted to share some of the writing which has occupied my time and mental energy in recent months. This particular paper, written for a class on “Church History Since the Reformation,” is focused on the point of view of Danish philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard. If you’ve kept up with this blog for a while, you might remember my fondness for his personality and writing. For anyone interested enough to stick it out ’til the end, I hope this paper might be a helpful introduction to a historical Christian figure who has often fascinated and inspired me! (I’ve tried to correct any formatting errors born from the copying-and-pasting of this paper from a document, but should you come across any I missed, please forgive them.)

Kierkegaard’s Authorial Intent for the “Single Individual”– CH502 Major Paper

“And now as for me, the author, what, according to my opinion, is my relation to the age? Am I perhaps the ‘Apostle’? Abominable! I have never given an occasion for such a judgment. I am a poor insignificant person. Am I then the teacher, the educator? No, not that at all; I am he who himself has been educated, or whose authorship expresses what it is to be educated to the point of becoming a Christian. In the fact that education is pressed upon me, and in the measure that it is pressed, I press in turn upon this age; but I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.

Søren Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as An Author[1]


Although he described himself as “insignificant,” Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was anything but that. On the surface, he may have appeared (at least for a while) to be a merely frivolous character, always present in the public square, frittering away his substantial inheritance. Very few had yet publicized their suspicions of his being the mind behind the behemoth work Either/Or, published under a pseudonym in February of 1843, and that was exactly what Søren wanted. Out of the public eye, however, he wrote incessantly – and kept up this pace for several years! As his authorship took shape, like a sculpture emerging from formless stone under the hands of a skilled artist, his intention became increasingly clear: to exhort the apathetic, nominal “Christendom” of his country to wake up, to think consistently, and to live rightly as individuals in relationship with God. As he was able to make his communication more direct (and more directly Christian in nature), he shed his various pseudonyms, which invited more direct scorn from his fellow Danes. Despite suffering immensely under their ridicule, Kierkegaard kept his eyes fixed on the goal, understanding that such suffering was inherent to the path he walked.[2]

The author himself considered the entire body of his work, both the pseudonymous aesthetic works and those penned in his own name, to be building toward the same telos – namely, the goal of becoming a Christian in the true, individual sense. Therefore, the entirety of his authorship must be read through the lens of applying Christian faith to one’s life. This paper will focus particularly on Kierkegaard’s communication to the Christian individual, with special attention to his own “point of view” regarding the purpose of his writing. Before we begin this examination, it will be helpful to provide some background information on this philosophical theologian’s life.



            Søren Kierkegaard was born May 5, 1813, the seventh child of Michael and Anne Kierkegaard. The Kierkegaards were well-off financially, thanks to their patriarch; originally descended from bonded peasants working on church land (hence the name Kierkegaard from “church yard”), a combination of hard work and good luck led to Michael’s relative success and the family’s subsequent comfort. (Søren would benefit from, or at least subsist off, the remnants of this wealth during his most productive period of writing.)[3] At home, Michael seems to have kept his sons engaged in strenuous mental exercises, talking more as a debater than a conversationalist. The man’s intensity was likely born from an event which occurred earlier in his life, vaguely hinted at in an 1846 entry in Søren’s diary, after which Michael seems to have perceived himself and his family as under a sort of divine curse. Søren carried the same idea close to his own heart for a time. It is not all that surprising that the son of such a man would grow up to exhibit such an often-melancholic spirit! On top of this, early roots of Søren’s tense relationship with the Church can be seen resulting from Michael’s strong Moravianism. The Moravian’s emphasis on solemnity and suffering had a powerful effect on young Søren; although he would never actually oppose Christianity, he admitted wrestling with the faith’s seeming “inhuman cruelty” at times.[4]


            If Michael Kierkegaard shaped Søren’s thinking in childhood, it might be fitting to say that Regine Olsen shaped him through his metaphorical “adolescence.” Søren and Regine met in 1837, when he was twenty-four years old and she was not yet sixteen. They grew in friendship for three years, during which time Michael Kierkegaard died and Søren completed his degree in theology. In 1940, he proposed, and she accepted. Following their engagement, Kierkegaard fell into an intense and agitated depression, full of concern about his purpose in life as he was coming to understand it. Regine, for her part, was familiar with his mood swings and not threatened by them! Søren reckoned with the responsibilities that would be put upon him as a husband, father, and patriarch. In the end, he came to believe that such roles were incompatible with the work he had to do in and against Christendom. The couple was engaged for about a year; in October of 1841, Søren broke off their betrothal despite Regine’s heartfelt protestations (and after one failed attempt to part ways earlier in the summer). He attempted to convince her to be the one to break it off, in order to spare her the shame and humiliation that would follow. She refused. For his part, Kierkegaard put on a show of being aloof, detached, so that the general public would direct their animosity toward him rather than her. Despite this appearance, he continued to love Regine for the rest of his life, as revealed in later diary entries. During their break-up, Regine told Søren that “she would thank him her whole life if she could stay with him and live in a little cupboard in his house.”[5] In memory of her wish, he had a tall cupboard made in which he kept all items which reminded him of her, including two specially-bound copies of Either/Or – one for each partner of this ill-fated couple.[6]


            Although he continued to care for Regine after their break, the event did allow Kierkegaard to commit himself to his writing – particularly to the polemical work which would invite the most negative attention. An 1848 diary entry reflects his philosophy in this regard: “What Christianity needs at every moment is someone who expresses Christianity uncalculatingly or with absolute recklessness. He is then to be regarded as a measuring instrument–that is, how he is judged in Christendom will be a test of how much true Christianity there is in Christendom at a given time.” Whether he found himself engaging with church officials in Copenhagen or embroiled in battle with disreputable tabloids, Kierkegaard would find judgment at most every turn.[7]

            It’s hard to imagine which judgment was more difficult for Søren to bear. On the one hand, a well-read satirical magazine, The Corsair, repeatedly attacked Kierkegaard with reductionistic readings of his work, cheap jokes at his expense, and even caricatured cartoons mocking his physical appearance.[8] To not have his work taken seriously certainly stung the great thinker. However, the alternative may have been even worse: to be read seriously by people of rank, only to be dismissed with equally little application or affected change.

            Bishop Jakob Mynster was one such public figure. In Søren’s youth, Mynster had served as pastor to the Kierkegaard family through their local congregation. Even following the death of Michael Kierkegaard, Mynster continued to be somewhat of a mentor for Søren. (He even wrote a positive review of Kierkegaard’s Edifying Discourses!) In 1846, after the Corsair had aimed a barrage at Kierkegaard for several months, Mynster met with Kierkegaard to encourage him to pursue the pastorate. This was not a new idea to Kierkegaard; he himself had tightly held the wish to one day retire out of the public eye, settle down, and preach to a small congregation consistently. Now, however, the suggestion from Mynster raised suspicions. While it was presented an opportunity to escape from the Corsair affair, Kierkegaard sensed condescension in Mynster’s idea – as if the bishop in some part agreed with the abusive magazine and believed a country parish would further humble Søren into a more manageable mood. In one biographer’s words, “Søren was trouble and Mynster knew it.”[9] It was not lost on the bishop that Kierkegaard’s criticisms of Christian culture would not let Mynster off easy; insofar as he supported the system on which Kierkegaard had set his sights, the bishop would share the church’s fate.

            Over the next eight years, the same number of works were published by Kierkegaard in his own name, full of commentary on Mynster, the church, and Christendom as a whole. (He also continued publishing pseudonymous works during this time, as well as writing books that would not be published until after his death!) His work was intended to draw the people of Christendom out of their stupor, to open their eyes to their own need to stand as individuals in relationship to God and each other (as opposed to remaining indistinct and unexamined as part of “the crowd.”) He would come to describe his position toward this goal as one of “armed neutrality.” An explanation for the term can be found in a posthumously published work:

            “If my relation were to pagans, I could not be neutral; then in opposition to them I would have to say that I am a Christian. But I am living in Christendom, among Christians, or among people who all say they are Christians…. This is why I keep neutral with regard to my being a Christian…. The task, then, is to present the ideal of a Christian, and here I intend to do battle.”[10]

The Goal of His Authorship

            It was through his engagement with different people and institutions over the course of many years that Kierkegaard’s understanding of his personal responsibility crystallized. His upbringing and family laid the foundation; his engagement to Regine revealed what he could not do with his life; the disdain of Christendom clarified what he must strive to do through his writing. Following the example of Socrates’ teaching (and, indeed, the parables of Christ Himself!), Kierkegaard took his stand unwaveringly even as he recognized that the reception of his message was out of his control. “In all eternity,” he wrote, “it is impossible for me to compel a person to accept an opinion, a conviction, a belief. But one thing I can do: I can compel him to take notice…. Compelling people to take notice and to judge is the characteristic of genuine martyrdom.”[11]

Aesthetic Works

            Kierkegaard cannot be understood correctly apart from a Christian reading of his works, or perhaps more accurately, a “Christian-telic” reading. The reader, that “single individual” addressed in the prefaces of Kierkegaard’s more direct communications, must always keep in mind that the author’s ultimate goal is to eventually present the ideal of Christian life, in order that the reader can measure their own life against that standard. (Kierkegaard would adamantly deny ever achieving that ideal himself!) Although he is often referred to by secular philosophers only in philosophical terms, a true reading of Kierkegaard the author must keep the Christian faith in view every step of the way.

            With that said, it is difficult to find the faith of this individual author at some points in his literary development! There is good reason for this, however. Kierkegaard conceived of three major “stages on life’s way” (as one of his early pseudonymous works was titled). The stages are the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. These three contradict each other in various ways, but are consecutive in the sense that an individual grows up through them. The goal is not to remain in the aesthetic stage, for example, but to continue toward maturity and greater understanding, learning what can be learned from each stage along the way. Kierkegaard was communicating with a “crowd” of people who lived in the aesthetic sphere; therefore, he reasoned that he could not fruitfully begin with direct proclamation of the ethical or religious. In Socratic fashion, the teacher must humble themselves to the level of their student, knowing what they know, speaking their language, in order to show them the way forward. There is “deception” in this approach, but it is deception designed to guide people toward truth.[12] [13] With the author’s end goal in mind, it is not helpful to interpret Kierkegaard as only a philosopher, detaching his existentialism from his Christian theology. To do so would be to miss his intention entirely! It is also not a good idea to read his aesthetic works as if they were written while he himself were in “the aesthetic stage,” because (as the author himself explains in his Point of View), he was writing both aesthetic and religious books in the same period of time![14] Kierkegaard’s religious goal of reaching the single individual was therefore consistent across the entirety of his authorship.

Direct Communication

            On February 27, 1846, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments was published under the name Johannes Climacus, one of Kierkegaard’s many pseudonyms (and also the listed author for the preceding work, Philosophical Fragments). This pseudonymous work has much to say on the topic of a religious life taken seriously, and it officially ends Kierkegaard’s authorship for the first time. (He would attempt to end his public career three more times before actually succeeding.) On March 30, 1846 — one month later — Kierkegaard published Two Ages under his own name. For the following year, nothing would be published, though he remained active in his journals and on other projects. On March 13, 1847, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits hit the shelves in a much more direct and seriously Christian way than his previous works. Kierkegaard is vigilant in his logical consistency; if Scripture says x, a true Christian, one who “wills the good in truth,” must necessarily believe y (and live accordingly). For example, to learn from the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, as Jesus exhorts His followers in Matthew, is to learn “to be contented with being a human being.”[15] His pastoral heart, still on some level desiring a rural parish out of the public eye, can be seen in the way his direct teaching applies practically to each individual’s life.

Some of Kierkegaard’s most direct (in every sense of the word) writing came in the last few weeks of his life. In 1855, his Attack Upon Christendom and Moment include some of his most striking attempts to expose the ways Christendom has become a civilization void of true Christianity. He even rebukes the recently deceased Mynster and his successor as Bishop of Denmark, Hans Martensen.[16] The last issue of The Moment was published on September 24, 1855, and a few days later, during one of his frequent walks around the city, Kierkegaard collapsed in the street. He was admitted to the hospital on October 2, where he remained until his death on Sunday, November 11, 1855 at the age of forty-two. In his final days, Kierkegaard’s matter-of-fact conversations with his friend Emil Boesen make it clear that he was not all that surprised by what was coming.

“Emil asked his friend how it was going.

‘Badly. It’s death. Pray for me that it comes quickly and easily.’”

And then again, a few days later, after Kierkegaard refused to take Holy Communion from members of the clergy:

“Emil was filled with pastoral concern for his friend but clearly also had an eye on making a report to history. A day earlier, he had enquired whether Søren believed in Christ and took refuge in him.

‘Yes, of course, what else?’ came the bemused reply.”[17]

            To the very end, Kierkegaard remained consistent in his convictions concerning Christianity –– regardless of how that consistency was perceived by others.

Posthumous Influence

            Generally speaking, the perception of Kierkegaard during his day was… not what the author may have hoped. Those who agreed with his piercing insights into the “Christian” social order of the day were certainly not outspoken in his support. (Who can blame them, given the treatment Søren received for most of his public career?) Following his death in 1855, much of his thought has been claimed for the study of philosophy. This is appropriate to a certain degree; however, as has already been shown, Kierkegaard’s philosophical thought must be understood as building toward a practical Christian theology. To read Kierkegaard as a “single individual” in the true sense is to strive to learn how to live rightly in relationship to the God of Scripture. Two prominent figures in Protestant Christianity have interacted with the body of Kierkegaard’s work since his death, setting an example for how the Church might engage this philosophical theologian.

Karl Barth

            Some have argued that Karl Barth differed from Kierkegaard more than he agreed with him; after all, Barth vocally distanced himself from Kierkegaard’s school of thought at times. He proclaimed that young theologians should only spend a short time studying Kierkegaard –– that it was a good but decidedly temporary period in one’s theological development. However, Barth himself held onto key concepts from Kierkegaard for a significant length of time, being formed by these ideas in significant ways against the liberal theology of his own cultural moment.

It is believed that Barth read only three works of Kierkegaard’s works before writing his own commentary on the book of Romans: Practice in Christianity, The Moment, and a collection of Kierkegaard’s journals and papers. A handful of terms appearing in Barth’s Romans originate from Practice in Christianity, including the impossibility of “direct communication,” Christ the God-man as “paradox,” and, most notably, the “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and humanity, between time and eternity.[18] In his preface to Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity, Richard John Neuhaus notes that this infinite qualitative distinction was crucial to Barth’s clear break from the liberal theology and cultural Christianity of the 19th century.[19]

Barth’s examination of Kierkegaard was not wholly uncritical. He took issue with Kierkegaard’s apparent break from the sola fide teaching of the Reformation (despite Kierkegaard’s frequent identification with Luther!). However, Kierkegaard was not denying the necessity of faith alone; he was simply pondering how this doctrine can be exploited by corrupt mankind. “What worries Kierkegaard is the fact that the Christian tends to abuse the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. This doctrine itself is sound and good. However, human beings are so cunning and crafty that they can exploit this doctrine to justify their secularity. Kierkegaard’s stress on the observance of the law originates from this concern.”[20] Perhaps it was this misunderstanding by Barth which led to his cautious warning against remaining in Kierkegaard’s school of thought for too long!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

            While Kierkegaard voiced aspiration toward genuine martyrdom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, another significant figure in Kierkegaard’s legacy, actually achieved the ideal with his execution on April 9, 1945 by the Nazis. Much of Bonhoeffer’s thought and conviction were cultivated by Kierkegaardian influence. In listing “genuine Christian thinkers,” Bonhoeffer includes Kierkegaard in the company of Paul, Augustine, and Luther.[21] For having such poor reception during his life, Søren Kierkegaard has certainly contributed to Reformation theology and ecclesiology in significant ways through his “students.”

            If a key Kierkegaardian concept for Barth was the infinite qualitative distinction, an equivalent concept for Bonhoeffer may be that of despair. He defines sin as something closer to despair, a mode of being, than a mere action or occasional experience. It’s easy to see how his being surrounded by Nazis would have sharply reinforced this understanding. For likely the same reasons, Bonhoeffer grasped the importance of the individual’s relationship to God in guiding ethical decisions in every moment; the “crowd” had no such responsibility in mind and does not attempt to rise above its natural fallenness.[22] With such significant ideas being shared, it’s no surprised that Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship has been compared to Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity for its emphasis on practical discipleship.[23]


            Kierkegaard’s personal journals reveal that the great thinker often felt misunderstood by his contemporaries. He would likely be disappointed to discover that, in the years after his death, secular philosophers were reading him as merely existentialist – entirely missing the goal that he articulated for his own work! By examining the people and institutions which shaped his life and the development of his thinking, this paper has attempted to show that his mission – his vocation – can only be understood in relationship to the eternal, the God of the Old and New Testaments. Kierkegaard’s intent for his writing, whether indirectly communicated through a pseudonym or directly addressed to that “single individual,” was always to exhort his reader to become a Christian in the true sense. When the social order of the crowd assumes Christendom as the norm, it is necessary to operate outside of that norm in order to stir up a new movement of genuine faith. This is what Kierkegaard consistently tried to do: to compel people to take their beliefs seriously. He remains a confusing character to many, but individuals like Barth and Bonhoeffer who spent time learning from the Dane have continued his legacy in the Church even to this day.


You who yourself once walked the earth and left footprints that we should follow; you who from your heaven still look down on every pilgrim, strengthen the weary, hearten the disheartened, lead back the straying, give solace to the struggling; you will come again at the end of time to judge each one individually, whether he followed you—our God and our Savior, let your prototype stand very clearly before the eyes of the soul in order to dispel the mists, strengthen in order to keep this alone unaltered before our eyes so that by resembling you and by following you we may find the right way surely to the judgment, since every human being ought to be brought before the judgment—oh, but may we also be brought by you to the eternal happiness with you in the life to come. Amen.[24]

[1] Kierkegaard, Søren. The Point of View for My Work as An Author: A Report to History. Harper & Brothers, 1962. Pg. 75.

[2] “When hardship is the road, then it is not something unavoidable in the hopeless sense, not at all; since it is the road, he could not wish to avoid it.”

Kierkegaard, Søren. Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. Edited by Edna Hatlestad Hong and Howard V. Hong. Princeton Univ. Pr, 1993. Pg. 299.

[3] Backhouse, Stephen. Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Zondervan, 2020. Pgs. 42-45.

[4] Ibid., pg. 57.

[5] Carlisle, Clare. Philosopher of the Heart: The Restless Life of Søren Kierkegaard. Picador, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. Pg. 28.

[6] Ibid., pgs. 15-17, 21-28.

[7] Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life, pg. 146.

[8] It is worth noting that the Corsair originally published support for Kierkegaard, but over the course of pseudonymous and direct correspondence which this paper does not have time to cover comprehensively, the once potentially positive relationship fell to pieces – sharp, scathing pieces.

Ibid., pg. 131.

[9] Ibid., pgs. 147-148.

[10] Kierkegaard, Søren. Armed Neutrality. Edited by Howard Vincent Hong, Edna Hatlestad Hong, and Gregor Malantschuk. Simon and Schuster, 1969.

[11] Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as An Author. Pg. 35.

[12] Ibid., pgs. 37-41.

[13] “Teleological suspension in relation to the communication of truth (i.e. to suppress something for the time being in order that the truth may become truer) is a plain duty to the truth and is comprised in the responsibility a man has before God for a proper use of the reflection bestowed upon him.”

Ibid., pg. 91.

[14] “For when one looks closer it will be seen that nothing like three years elapsed before the change occurred, but that the change is simultaneous with the beginning––that is, the duplicity dates from the very start. For the Two Edifying Discourses are contemporaneous with Either/Or.”

Ibid., pg. 11.

[15] Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. Pg. 162.

[16] “The ‘pastor’ has a pecuniary interest in having people call themselves Christians, since every such person is of course a contributing member and also contributes to giving the whole profession visible power––but nothing is more dangerous for true Christianity, nothing is more against its nature, than getting people light-mindedly to assume the name ‘Christians’…”.

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Moment and Late Writings. Edited by Howard Vincent Hong and Edna Hatlestad Hong. Princeton University Press, 1998.

[17] Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life, pgs. 183-188.

[18] Woo, B. Hoon. “Kierkegaard’s Inflluence on Karl Barth’s Early Theology.” Journal of Christian Philosophy, no. 18 (2014): 197–245.

[19] Kierkegaard, Søren. Training in Christianity. Edited by Walter Lowrie, John F. Thornton, and Susan B. Varenne. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. Pg. xix.

[20] Woo, B. Hoon. Pg. 206.

[21] Tietz, Christiane. Kierkegaard’s Influence on Theology. Edited by Jon Stewart. I. Vol. I. London, 2012. Pg. 46.

[22] Ibid., Pgs. 48-52.

[23] Kierkegaard, Søren. Training in Christianity. Pg. xix.

[24] Kierkegaard, Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits. Pg. 217.

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