D. Anthony Storm's Commentary on Kierkegaard

Fifth Period: Direct Communication (1848-51)

On Authority And Revelation (The Book On Adler)

  • On Authority and Revelation (The Book on Adler, or A Cycle of Ethical-Religious Essays)
  • Bogen om Adler, eller en Cyclus ethisk-religieuse Afhandlinger
  • 1846-47, revised 1848, published posthumously
  • Kw24, SKS15, Søren Kierkegaards Papirer

Of all of Kierkegaard's works, this work is easily the most labored over. He made a few attempts at publishing it, writing a new preface for it each time, but could not bring it to press for reasons which we will soon address. Typically, Kierkegaard would write a work and revise it once or twice. Either/Or, by way of example, is over 800 pages long, but was written in just eleven months. The Book On Adler was, by contrast, revised throughout. W. Lowrie, who translated most of the passages quoted here, complained that it was a very laborious task to review the additions, deletions, and copious emendations. Indeed, there are three different versions of the preface.

Originally Kierkegaard wrote a work entitled A Cycle of Ethical-Religious Essays, which was not published. A portion of it was published separately as an essay in Two Minor Ethical-Religious Essays, while the whole was left unpublished. Kierkegaard considered using the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, but declined, since this is a religious work, and Johannes represents the philosophical. He also contemplated new and similar pseudonyms: Petrus Minor, Thomas Minor, Vincentius Minor, and Ataraxius Minor. Ultimately, Kierkegaard decided that if he published the work, he would do so under his own name. He did, however, eventually publish the Two Minor Ethical-Religious Essays under the pseudonym H. H. Because of the different versions, H. Hong and E. Hong have translated this work with the title "The Religious of the Present Age Illustrated by Magister Adler as a Phenomenon".

This work was written in reaction to the writings of Adolf Peter Adler (1812-1869), who was a pastor in Hasle and Rutsker, on the Danish island of Bornholm. He became an avid Hegelian and took a pastorate in 1841. He claimed to have had a "vision of light" in 1842, which turned him against Hegelianism. In this vision Jesus commanded him to burn his former books and stated that he would dictate to him a new work. This book was entitled Several Sermons (Nogle Prædikener), and was published in 1843. Bishop Mynster suspended him in 1844. Adler was then deposed in 1845. He later conceded that his revelation was a mistake, that "revelation was perhaps too strong an expression". To make matters much worse, Adler later published other works, and declared that his former "revelation" was instead a work of genius. Moreover, Kierkegaard met with Adler, who, in reading his own works to Kierkegaard, would alternate between a regular speaking voice and a shrill "whistling" voice, as if the latter were to convey weightier and more spiritual truths. It was clear that the man was deranged. But beyond the mere fact of his delusions, Kierkegaard was impressed by the issues that the case of Adler raised, being particularly interested in Adler's confusion over the categories of genius and inspiration.

F. Sontag speculates that Kierkegaard had reason to be reluctant about publishing the work. First, it might appear to be unfair to oppose Adler after he had already been publicly humiliated. This is why he could publish Two Minor Ethical-Religious Essays, because it makes no mention of Adler. Furthermore, Kierkegaard had asserted the primacy of the subjective approach to truth. Adler in a sense epitomized a lunatic example of someone guided solely by subjectivity, without the grounding in theology that someone like Kierkegaard possessed. Sontag thinks that Adler's works made Kierkegaard re-think his own views on subjectivity. And in fact Kierkegaard makes more objective and dogmatic theological statements here. In contradistinction to his other works, he envisions his reader to be a theologian.

In the second of the three prefaces, Kierkegaard says,

The whole book is essentially an ethical investigation of the concept of revelation; about what it means to be called by a revelation; about how he who has had a revelation is related to the race, the universal, and we others to him; about the confusion from which the concept of revelation suffers in our confused age (p. 3).


In his Introduction Kierkegaard contrasts what he called "premise-authors" and "essential-authors". The former make known the battle-cry, and think that that will solve the problem. The latter writer has his own perspective.

He never raises more doubt that he can explain.... For he has a definite world-view and life-view which he follows, and with this he is in advance of his individual literary productions, as the whole is always before the parts (p. 13).

The essential-author communicates himself, while the premise-author has no need to do so.

The art of all communication consists in coming as close as possible to reality, i. e. to contemporaries who are in the position of readers, and yet at the same time to have a viewpoint, to preserve the comforting and endless distance of ideality (p. 15).

The relationship between the premise-authors and essential-authors is further likened to the relationship between a sick man and a physician.

On Adler's abilities as a writer, Kierkegaard says,

For it is certain that in his books there are many passages which one who is well-disposed cannot read without edification, that sometimes he is moving, not rarely entertaining by his liveliness, and does not altogether lack profundity, though he entirely lacks consistency in his thought (Lowrie, p. 12).

Again, Kierkegaard has no dispute with the mere claim of someone having had a revelation, but that Adler did not cling to his former claim of having had one.

I do not deny or affirm it. I regard myself simply as a learner. This at least is certain, that had he held fast to this fact of revelation as an unshakeable fact, though others might consider him mad or else bow to his authority—had he done that, had he not indecisively, waveringly, higgled about it and privately interpreted it away, I would not have been justified in calling him a premise-author (Lowrie, p. 12).

Kierkegaard does not judge Adler's work esthetically, nor as a critic normally would. For in the role of a critic one usually considers the work, and not the author. However, in this work, it is precisely the nature of authorship which is in question. Moreover, this helps us to appreciate Kierkegaard's work as well, though in a very different way, since his works are often laced with autobiographical material. At any rate, Kierkegaard does not judge Adler's doctrine either. How then does he justify his approach? He has an "ethical justification".

With geniuses I can hold my own fairly well. God preserve me—if it is in truth the greatest genius, then with esthetic propriety I gladly express my reverence for the superior mind from whom I am learning; but that I show him religious subjection, that I should submit my judgment to his divine authority—no, that I do not do, neither does any genius require it of me. But when a man coolly wishes to explain away what was intended to be an apostolic experience into being a genius, without revoking the first claim—then he confounds the situation terribly (p. 26).

Chapter 1: The Historical Situation

The Collision Of Magister Adler, As A Teacher In The State Church, With The Established Order; The Special Individual Who Has A Revelation-Fact

The first of four chapters is concerned with the claims of Adler. Adler distinguished sermons written with and without the aid of the Holy Spirit, but, Kierkegaard complained, he did not explain their different qualities and functions. This was especially odd since Adler published the inspired, dictated sermons with his own sermons, thereby obscuring his purpose. Kierkegaard finds it odd that Adler appeals to the content of the writing rather than the mere claim to inspiration, as if Adler expected that the product of a revelation would somehow be superior to other works and, what is more alarming for Kierkegaard, that somehow a revelation must be proven to be a revelation, rather than accepted for what it is.

The divine authority is the category, and here quite rightly the sign of it is: the possibility of offense. For a genius may very well at one time or another in the course of 50 or 100 years cause esthetically a shock, but never ethically can he cause an offense, for the offense is that a man possesses divine authority (p. 33).

Kierkegaard stresses that it is the reaction to the revelation that is important. That reaction is based on who the author is, and whether he has divine authority.

The question is quite simple: Will you obey? or will you not obey? Will you bow in faith before his divine authority? Or will you be offended? Or will you perhaps take no side? Beware! this also is offense (Lowrie, p. 26).

Kierkegaard is thinking not only of the general reading public, but especially of liberal theologians. This is marked in the following quote: "People treat the Scriptures so scientifically that they might quite as well be anonymous writings" (Lowrie, p. 27). Kierkegaard would later treat the offense of Christianity at length in Practice In Christianity, which would be one of his more direct assaults on Official Christianity.

In this chapter Kierkegaard also notes three general types of people: the universal, the individual and the extraordinarius, or special individual. The first type recognizes the demands of moral law, what Kierkegaard calls the universal in Fear and Trembling. He is not a simpleton or uncreative, but he simply recognizes the good and tries to do it. The individual is a person who counters the establishment. No doubt Kierkegaard had himself in mind when he delineated this category. In Fear and Trembling he is characterized by Abraham who was commanded to contravene the universal in order to obey the Absolute (God). The last category is the divinely inspired individual, such as the apostle Paul. Kierkegaard emphatically and repeatedly said that he was "without authority". This category did not refer to him. The Latin extraordinarius, as Kierkegaard himself points out, means "out of the rank". He is someone set apart.

Chapter 2: A Revelation in the Situation of the Present Age

Kierkegaard begins this chapter by countering the current notion that Christianity was true merely on account of its venerability and endurance.

The fact that the eternal once came into existence in time is not a something which has to be tested in time, not something which men are to test, but is the paradox by which men are to be tested.... To this end it is important above all that there be fixed an unshakable qualitative difference between the historical element in Christianity (the paradox that the eternal came into existence once in time) and the history of Christianity, the history of its followers, etc. (p. 37f.).

Kierkegaard complains, as he does in many places, that apologists try to make Christianity "plausible". Kierkegaard describes his first reaction to having heard that Adler claimed to have had a revelation, before he had read Adler's Sermons. He thought that either Adler was a possessor of divine originality or else a "knave" who wished "to demolish everything". But after reading the Sermons he thought of a third possibility. Adler is neither of the above. He is a "phenomenon", a "sign". "He is a very serious proof that Christianity is a power which is not to be jested with".

Chapter 3: Adler's Own Shifting of His Essential Point of View, or That He Does not Understand Himself, Does Not Himself Believe That a Revelation Has Been Given to Him.

Light is thrown upon this Directly-Indirectly by a Booklet that Contains Documents on his Dismissal Case, and Indirectly by his Four Latest Books.

In this chapter Kierkegaard addresses Adler's subsequent retraction of his claim, and his new literary output. Kierkegaard marvels that Adler published four works simultaneously (1846). Yet, he notes, due to their common themes, and the fact that several passages were identical, the works should have been released as one. Kierkegaard comments on Adler's retraction.

In case Adler is a genius, in God's name! I certainly shall not envy him for that. But he began by having had a revelation—though summa summarum by this we are to understand that he is a genius. This is a hitherto unheard-of confusion! After all, the category of genius is surely something other than and qualitatively different from that of having by a revelation from the Savior received a new doctrine!... A genius and an apostle are qualitatively distinct, they are categories which belong each of them to their own qualitative spheres: that of immanence and that of transcendence. (1) The genius may well have something new to contribute, but this newness vanishes.... The apostle has paradoxically something new to contribute, the newness of which, precisely because it is paradoxical and not an anticipation of what may eventually be developed in the race, remains constant.... (2) The genius is what he is by reason of himself, i. e. by what he is himself: an apostle is what he is by reason of his divine authority. (3) The genius has only immanent teleology: the apostle's position is that of absolute paradoxical teleology.... A genius may perhaps be a century ahead of his age and hence stand there as a paradox, but in the end the race will assimilate what was once a paradox, so that it is no longer paradoxical (p. 85ff.).

Kierkegaard may have had himself in mind as he contemplated the genius who is ahead of his age. At any rate, he appeals to the etymology of the words genius and apostle. Genius is from the Latin ingenium, which is inborn talent or ability. Apostle is from the Greek apostolos, meaning one who is sent, i. e. by God.

For previously to being an apostle he possessed no potential possibility. Every man is equally near to being an apostle.... A genius is approved on purely esthetic grounds, according to the content and specific gravity his productions are found to have; an apostle is what he is by reason of the divine authority he has. The divine authority is the qualitatively decisive factor. It is not by appraising esthetically or philosophically the doctrine that I must and can reach the conclusion that ergo he who has taught this doctrine was called by a revelation, ergo he is an apostle. The order of sequence is exactly the reverse: the man called by a revelation, to whom was entrusted a doctrine argues from the fact that this was a revelation, from the fact that he has authority (p. 106f.).

Kierkegaard notes that it is not the content of the revelation so much as the fact that it is revelation. By way of example he says that even if one were to quote Christ verbatim, only Christ is inspired. Kierkegaard held a prolonged fascination with the topic of inspiration, authority and the pastor's vocation. He himself had always said that he was "without authority", that is, that he lacked apostolic authority of an Apostle Paul.

One or another reader perhaps recalls that I have always used this expression about myself qua author, that I am without authority, and have used it so emphatically that it has been repeated as a formula in every preface. Even though as an author I have had no benefit, I have at least done everything finitely possible not to confuse the highest and holiest. I am a poor individual human being. If I am, as some think, a bit of a genius, about that I would say: Let it go hang. But an apostle is in all eternity qualitatively just as different from me as from the greatest genius who has ever lived and from the most obtuse person who has ever lived (Journals, VII 2 B 235).

Chapter 4: A Psychological View of Adler as a Phenomenon and as a Satire on Hegelian Philosophy and the Present Age

At the time that Adler had his alleged vision in which he was instructed to burn his books, he claimed to have abandoned Hegelianism. Kierkegaard maintains that Adler still demonstrates Hegelian thinking in his reasoning and displays indecisiveness in his leap away from Hegel, especially since he later retracts the use of the word "revelation". Moreover, alleges Kierkegaard, he confuses subjectivity and objectivity.

...he confounds the subjective with the objective, his subjectively altered condition with an external event, the experience that there rose up a light before him with the notion that outside of him there came about something new, the fact that the veil fell from his eyes with the notion that he had a revelation. Subjectively his emotion reached the highest pitch, he chose the highest expression to indicate it, and by a mental deception he used the objective determinant that he had had a revelation (p. 119).

Throughout this chapter, Kierkegaard seeks to show that an understanding of the phenomenon of Adler is indicative of his confused age. Broadly speaking, Kierkegaard criticizes his age for the following shortcomings, which he will return to in many other works. His age is objective rather than subjective. His age is still under the influence of Hegel. His age confuses the esthetic category of genius with the religious category of divine inspiration, that is, the office of an apostle with the professor. His age is under the influence of the French revolution, and therefore acts like a mob, rather than as a collective of thinking individuals. Because Adler came under the power of these influences, he was so able to confuse important categories, and then unthinkingly change his position, thereby worsening his credibility. Lastly, Kierkegaard is decidedly apolitical, as is evidenced by a postscript to the entire work.

In an excised draft Kierkegaard returns to the dichotomy of God versus the crowd.

As for the present treatise, the reader, I hope, will constantly get from reading it the impression that it is ethical-religious and has nothing to do with politics, that it investigates ethical-religiously how it comes about that a new point of departure is created in relation to the established order; that it comes about by the fact that the point of departure is FROM ABOVE, from God, and the formula is this paradox that an individual is employed. Humanly understood, an individual is nothing in comparison with the established order (the universal), so it is a paradox that the individual is the stronger. This can be explained only by the fact that it is God who makes use of him, God who stands behind him....

This abstraction is an inhuman something, the power of which is, to be sure, prodigious, but it is a prodigious power which cannot be defined in human terms, but more properly as one defines the power of a machine, calling it so and so many horsepower: the power of the multitude is always horsepower.

This abstraction, whether you call it public or the multitude or the majority or the senseless people—this abstraction is used politically to bring about movement... (p. 317f.).