Grundt work

I’m currently reading (on J.R. Hermeneut’s recommendation) Julia Watkin’s Kierkegaard, a biographical introduction to Kierkegaard’s life and thought.

In the first full chapter, on Kierkegaard’s “personal and cultural background”, Dr Watkin describes the rationalist “Enlightenment Christianity” that dominated the Danish state church in the 18th and early 19th century. Kierkegaard’s family was heavily influenced by two contrasting reactions to this rationalism: pietism (particularly that of the Moravians), and a movement known as Grundtvigianism.

Grundtvigianism was named after Nikolai Grundtvig, a pastor in the state church who reacted against those seeking to base Christian theology on “historical-critical biblical exegesis”, with “professors of biblical theology as the experts in explaining Scripture”. Watkin writes:

For Grundtvig, such an emphasis on elite specialists, and especially [the] emphasis on Scripture at the expense of the community of the church, was intolerable. (p.14)

Grundtvig’s response to this rationalist elitism was to seek out “some brief definition of Christianity for the benefit of Christians unskilled in theology” (which makes me wonder what had happened to the Small Catechism in the Danish church at this point), which led him to his “matchless” or “unparalleled” discovery:

the distinction between the spoken “living word” in the sacraments and the creed, and the written word. (p.14)

Grundtvig did not deny the importance of the Scriptures or need for biblical exegesis. His concern was over a rationalistic and individualistic approach that placed the Bible at the heart of Christian faith and life, rather than “the Christian community gathered round the sacraments in the confession of Christ”. As Watkin continues:

The Christian community gathered round the sacraments in the confession of Christ, an unbroken chain of baptized individuals in community, became for Grundtvig a kind of apostolic succession bound to the sacraments instead of ministry.

The heart of the Grundtvigian view can thus be seen to be an existential experience of God in Christ as the living Word, proclaimed at baptism and communion and heard in the Church from the beginning, a living word in which Christ as the Word is present as he is in the sacraments. (pp.14f.)

So it would appear that for some years I have been a Grundtvigian without knowing it. (Perhaps someone with more knowledge of Grundtvig can tell me if that’s a good or a bad thing!) That “existential experience of God in Christ” in the sacraments and preaching of the church has become central to my understanding of how the gospel comes to us.

The Bible is of critical importance, certainly, but its importance is principally as the foundation for that ministry of the church, as the source for the living Word in proclamation and sacrament. Problems come when we detach the Bible from the church’s proclamation and community life.

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2 Responses to Grundt work

  1. SimonPotamos says:

    To put it another way, while we should affirm the truthfulness of Scripture, our focus should be on the power or effectiveness of God’s word. The truthfulness is a necessary postulate of the power, but the power comes of the Word being the viva vox evangelii, the living voice of the Gospel—Christ Himself.

    The Word of God is not fundamentally a set of utterances by (or, in the case of theological liberalism, about) God, but a person.

  2. Michael says:

    Grundtvig thought the creed was the Apostles’ Creed because it was went back to the original Apostles’. I believe that is the only significant mistake that Grundtvig makes in this approach to theology. He inadvertently reinscribes the same bibliophile approach by shifting the question to the historical claim about the origin of the creed.

    But the emphasis on the living word in the community of Christians prepared by the Spirit to interpret the text appropriately is excellent, I think.

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