A Trichotomy of Existence: Søren Kierkegaard’s Theological Anthropology

In The Sickness unto Death and The Concept of Anxiety, Danish theologian/philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes humanity as having body, soul, and spirit. While such terms may sound like the trichotomy of theological anthropology, Kierkegaard uses these terms to portray a view of an existing self. Humans are physical (bodies) and eternal (souls), yet two opposites cannot coincide in the same person without some form of synthesis. Only when someone has body, soul, and a properly operating spirit is one considered a true self. This means that humans are not automatically “selves” at birth: they must become selves. Humans only acquire “spirit” once they are in the religious sphere of existence—that is, when they have faith. This paper calls for an examination of Kierkegaard’s view of the self, for Kierkegaard’s existential understanding demonstrates the importance of living for God. The converse is also important: those who are not “selves”, since they are not being who they are supposed to be, will never find rest. They may be existing, but they are not living.

I begin the paper by examining Kierkegaard’s explicit discussion of the components of the self in The Sickness unto Death and The Concept of Anxiety. Next, I show that although Kierkegaard uses trichotomist language, he differs significantly from the trichotomist position. Then, I examine what Kierkegaard means by becoming a self. Kierkegaard does not imply that we choose who we are to be—as the later existentialism of the 20th century purports. Kierkegaard always couches his picture of the true self in relation to the Christian God—for in him we move and have our being. Lastly, I show how Kierkegaard’s trichotomy of existence can aid us in thinking about the importance of living the Christian life.

3 thoughts on “A Trichotomy of Existence: Søren Kierkegaard’s Theological Anthropology”

  1. good proposal
    Michael Steinmetz wrote his dissertation on the concept of sin in Kierkegaard, which is published by Gruyter. He is a faculty member at a Baptist university. He does the highest level of scholarship, & I am confident that this proposal both addresses the conference theme and does so quite competently.

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