L. Harold DeWolf and Soren Kierkegaard

Lotan Harold DeWolf was professor of systematic theology at Boston University and became Martin Luther King Jr.’s dissertation adviser at Boston University’s School of Theology in 1955. DeWolf was a Methodist minister and he lived from 1905-1986.  Albert Cornelius Knudson (1873–1953) was DeWolf’s teacher in theology. Knudson published The Philosophy Of Personalism (1927).

DeWolf’s funeral oration for King can be found here.

DeWolf published The Revolt Against Religious Reason in 1949 and A Theology of the Living Church in 1953 with a revised edition in 1960 and The Case for Theology in Liberal Perspective 1959.

.  Here is a quote from A Theology Of The Living Church.

Sometimes with the more mature discoveries of freedom come experiences of a fearful insecurity attendant upon the blazing of new paths in the unknown wilderness of the future where rewards beckon but where the infinite darkness of death also threatens. As Kierkegaard taught, this dread, so far from keeping the pilgrim from wandering, actually lures him with a strange, wild fascination all its own. Reinhold Niebuhr and others have shown many of the ways in which this dreadful sense of insecurity leads to the seeking of false self-assurance in wealth, social power, military force and other earthly idols. But such search is unending. Only an infinite defense will serve since the perils of the future to a finite creature are limitless. Hence, however great the wealth or power achieved, the insatiable demand continues unabated. So arise the monstrous competitions and conflicts for self-advantage which are continually blighting every community and periodically laying waste ever-greater portions of the world.

L. Harold DeWolf,  A Theology Of The Living Church Revised Edition 1960 p. 196

Personal Idealism:

DeWolf mentioned Kierkegaard very often in his book The Revolt Against Religious Reason.  He says his task in the book is “simply the description, analysis and critical evaluation of the irrationalistic trend in recent theology, especially in Kierkegaard, in whom it is most thoroughly developed, and the drawing of some conclusions from this study.” (19) Karl Barth (1886-1968) is credited for doing the most since World War I to discredit reason and he is linked to Heinrich Emil Brunner (1889–1966) who along with Barth says man can obtain no knowlege of God from reason.

DeWolf says:

The remarkable influence of irrationalism among educated men today is largely due to the critical and literary genius of its greatest modem proponent, Søren Kierkegaard. A study of the modern revolt against reason, and particularly of the religious revolt, must consequently be devoted principally to a study of his ideas. Kierkegaard, in fact, presented a critique of reason at once so bold and so penetrating as to be unmatched in the history of Christendom. In addition he gave to this critique a literary expression of extraordinary vividness and persuasive power. Many a recent reader of Kierkegaard’s strange but brilliant works has found in his defiance of reason an attitude which seemed altogether novel. There is no denying the creative genius of his thought. On the other hand, the partial or complete rejection of reason as arbiter of truth in theology is in principle as old as rational theology itself. Such rejection has appeared usually as a reaction to rationalistic attacks on religion. (32-33)

Wherever the distrust of reason is conspicuous in recent theology the reader is almost sure to find the name of Soren Kierkegaard. Walter Lowrie and David F. Swenson, who have been mentioned as crisis theologians prominent in the revolt, are the principal translators of Kierkegaard’s works into English, and both are devoted disciples. British and American thinkers not directly dependent on Kierkegaard but influenced by the crisis theology are usually readers of Barth and Brunner, both of whom derived their antirational bent largely from him.

Karl Barth s dependence on Kierkegaard is too general and too well known to need extended comment here. When Barth is charged with “imposing a meaning on the text of the Epistle to the Romans rather than extracting its meaning from it,” he declares significantly, My reply is that, if I have system, it is limited to a recognition of what Kierkegaard called the infinite qualitative distinction between time and eternity, and to my regarding this as possessing negative as well as positive significance.

Brunner, as regards his distrust of rational approaches to God, points to Kierkegaard as his only modern predecessor who has expounded his own specific view:  As all natural human action reveals the sinful heart, so all philosophical speculation, when left to itself, bears witness to the obscuration in the inmost recesses of our reason. For this cause it is impossible to build up the Christian proclamation of the Gospel and its theology on the basis of a philosophical doctrine of God. It was Kierkegaard alone among the great men of later times who had a firm and vital hold of this truth.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) cites Kierkegaard’s ideas and writings with conspicuous frequency and usually with approval. Occasionally he lavishes on him such high praise as he rarely bestows on any modern writer. In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Niebuhr refers to Kierkegaard oftener than to any other writer since the Reformation. He calls him “the greatest of Christian psychologists.” And, “Kierkegaard’s explanation of the dialectical relation of freedom and fate in sin is one of the profoundest in Christian thought.” (46-49)

DeWolf read both volumes of Walter Lowrie’s biography of Soren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard (1938) and A Short Life of Kierkegaard (1942).

Lowrie (1868-1959) wrote in 1942: “Several Freudians have rashly undertaken to psychoanalyze S.K. without observing these very exacting conditions. Hjalmar Helweg, Director of the Hospital for the Insane at Oringe, Denmark, has taken the pains to read every word S.K. wrote and studied them with sympathy. He modestly concludes his preface with these words: “‘However well one may think one has managed to say a thing, he will always discover that S.K. has said it better.” I have no fault to find with the verdict he renders except that it is not very illuminating. He concludes that S.K. suffered from a condition of depression alternating with, or more commonly blended with, maniacal exaltation. It is to be noted that “”maniacal” is a technical word: S.K. was not pronounced insane. In my opinion S.K. “said it better.” (22)   Hjalmar Helweg lived from 1886-1960.

DeWolf compares Georg Friedrich Hegel (1776-1831) and Kiekegaard in his book.

Kierkegaard’s consuming purpose was to bear witness to mans need of God and to God’s all-sufficient grace. This he did by an extraordinary variety of writings which represent three stages in a great dialectic. As in Hegel’s dialectic, one level of thought, or of life, after another is elaborated, shown inadequate and transcended. However, he rejects the lower levels rather than including them, as did Hegel, E.g., he writes, “When my poet comes he will assign me a place among those who have suffered for an idea; he will say about me: The martyrdom which this author suffered was due to the fact that he was a genius living in a market town.” Quoted by David F. and Lillian M. Swenson in the Introduction to their edition of Edifying Discourses, Vol. II, xx. in more comprehensive syntheses. Whereas Hegel resolved his antinomies, Kierkegaard rejected all synthetic solutions and insisted on absolute commitment to God in a faith which scorns the contradictions of all human thought. Thus, while Hegel is the philosopher of both-and, Kierkegaard is the author of Either/Or . (51-52)

Many and serious are the objections made by Kierkegaard and other recent thinkers to the use of reason in determining the proper content of theology. The objectors have not often brought these accusations together in one place. Moreover, even when that has been done, as by Kierkegaard in his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, the method has been called, with peculiar appropriateness, “Unscientific,” which is to say, unsystematic. As a result, it has been difficult to see the objections in distinct outline and in their relations to each other. The defender of rational method is likely to feel that he is being shot at from behind every bush and tree without once having a fair view of the enemy against whom he fights. Likewise, many a revolter against reason as a decisive instrument in theology fails to recognize how many and relatively important are the arguments which have been advanced in support of his own position. (54)

Hegel, of course, was all reason. He once said somewhere that Reason could not be doubted as faith was because reason is the very instrument used to doubt faith.

DeWolf quoted David F Swenson (1876-1940) thus in regard to Kierkegaard’s use of reason:

Kierkegaard has had no more appreciative and authoritative interpreter than David F. Swenson. It is he who writes as follows in a note on a passage in Philosophical Fragments: (1844)

The thoughtful reader will already have noted that “Reason,” as used in this chapter and throughout, is not to be taken in any abstract-intellectual sense, but quite concretely, as the reflectively organized common sense of mankind, including as its essential core a sense of life’s values. Over against the “Paradox” it is therefore the self-assurance and self-assertiveness of man’s nature in its totality. To identify it with any abstract intellectual function, like the function of scientific cognition, or of general ideas, or of the a priori, or of self-consistency in thinking, etc., is wholly to misunderstand the exposition of the Fragments. Specifically, Kant’s distinction between Reason and Understanding, or any other similar distinction, is wholly beside the point . All our activities of thinking and speaking can have only a secondary significance and, as activities of the creature, cannot possibly coincide with the truth of God that is the source of truth in the world . (55-56)

It is precisely one of Kierkegaard’s greatest claims to fame that he was the first of all Christian theologians to make a sustained attack on reason, not merely from the religious standpoint of a dogmatic existentialist, but also from the theoretical standpoint of the rationalists themselves. (58)

I leave you with one more quote from DeWolf and point you to the Sources below if you want to read more.

Consider, then, the case of the philosopher seeking to know whether he is immortal or whether there is a God to whom he owes allegiance. Such a man faces an ultimate question concerning his own eternal destiny. If he is to make legitimate and hence reliable use of his reason, he must be as detached in spirit as if he were an intelligence in some other universe, curiously inquiring whether that little creature, man, might have any important future awaiting him. In all this weighing of evidences, all this subtle balancing of value-judgments and sense perceptions, this facing of experiential data and the demands of systematic clarity, not by one iota must he allow his concern for his own soul to affect his thought. If he does he has lost objectivity and with it the reliability of his reason. But here arise the first charges against reason. (60)


The Philosophy Of Personalism by Albert C. Knudson 1927

A Short Life of Kierkegaard, Walter Lowrie 1942 (he quotes Kierkegaard extensively)

The Revolt Against Religious Reason  L. Harold DeWolf 1949

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