Ingolf Dalferth:

In all its varieties the Christian sense of the presence of God individualizes, i.e. transforms particular human beings into individual persons.

When it dawns upon me that I live in the present, and can become present to my present, because God becomes present to me, I begin to realise my infinite dignity and uniqueness of being singled out by God.

God becomes present to me as my God or God for me and places me as his singled-out creature in the presence of my creator.  This marks me off from my physical, communal and personal environments but also relates me to them as one who is meant to live his life in this world in the presence of God.


(Hopefully normal blogging will resume soon–I’m trying to polish up this manuscript so I don’t embarrass myself and Mere-O!).

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. The primacy given to to individuals and individualization by God’s presence seems a bit strong, although such emphasis is common. God’s presence may indeed be said to result in the “transform[ation of] human beings into individual persons,” but I would argue that, in the Christian sense, God’s presence necessarily transforms particular human beings into communal persons, as well, and that (perhaps) the communal aspect should not be merely viewed as an offshoot of individualization. That is, the transformation which God’s presence enacts results in relational participation in two ways: 1) we are invited through Christ into communal relationship with the Triune God, and 2) we are invited through Christ into communal relationship with the mystical body of which He is Head.


  2. I think Dalferth makes an interesting point. It seems to make sense to say that the best ground for identity as an individual is that God called us by name before the foundation of the world. And numbers the hairs on our head.

    Likewise, God’s saving call is a call to be part of the body of Christ, a collective spiritual reality that cuts across space and time.

    Individually, we receive the blessings of adoption, to call God “Father.” Collectively, we are graced to be–corporately–the Bride of Christ. A church must answer collectively to God, and each individual will have to give God an account of their deeds.

    I think it is wrong to pit the collective against the individual aspects of our relationship with God in Christ. The solution to radical individualism is not to be washed away into some communal whole. There is such an error as radical communalism, even if it does not get the same press. The solution is redeemed indivualism-in-community, or to recognize the union-of-the-called-by-name.


  3. I think it was Cyprian of Carthage who said that outside the church there is no salvation. One doesn’t have to be Roman Catholic or Orthodox to agree to this with an important qualification. Being a Christian MEANS being a part of God’s church. I know many make distinctions between visible and invisible church, but NT writers were certain to note (heck, most of the epistles were written to CHURCHES) that being a Christian fundamentally means expressing that visibly in a local context. To be Christian IS to be Christ’s body and bride in a corporate sense. Others have said, “christology IS ecclesiology.” Jesus was the church even as He created it. He embodies its mission.

    So, in response to this quote, I’d have to respectfully disagree. While knowing God does make us fully our individual selves, it fully makes us other people’s possession too. We belong to the church and our identity cannot and should not be dissociated from her.

    Have I missed the intent of the quote?


  4. Dave, you haven’t missed the point. This is the conversation that I hoped would happen. : )

    I think as Kevin points out, pitting the collective against the individual is inherently problematic. In fact, it’s Christianity’s distinct ability to integrate the two that has been at the heart of my passionate belief in it as a dogmatic system. I don’t think what Dalferth is saying undermines any aspect of the church, even while it raises the question about the grounds of our membership in the church.

    That said, I think I should point out that her point is about the “sense” of the presence of God that individualizes. And I think that’s irrefutable, in the same way that “understanding” seems to individualize us. No one else can have our understanding–as we pursuit it, we become distinct from others, even while we pursue it in relationship and dialog with others.

    I’m trying to find an outlet for a chapter I want to write tentatively titled, “Individuals without Individualism.” Part of my worry among younger evangelicals is that we’re all running about trying to overcome the poor ecclesiology we inherited and rejecting the individualism of modernity that we’re missing out that the individual is one of Christianity’s great gifts to the world. : )



    1. I think as long as the individual and the collective are not, as Kevin says, pitted against each other then Dalfert, as you mention, would not be “undermin[ing] any aspect of the church.” Avoiding this dichotomy was what I was trying to encourage in my earlier comment, but, it was probably a bit colored by a tendency to, as you say, “reject the individualism of modernity.” Thinking more on this, it was helpful for me to consider Dalfert’s notion of the sense of the presence of God as dislocating and reorienting our reality, which occurs from the individual perspective of the person God becomes present to. This dislocation and reorientation, I take it, would include becoming oriented into the community of the church (unless I am mistaken).

      I’d love to hear more about what you have in mind when you say “that we’re missing out that the individual is one of Christianity’s greatest gifts to the world” – care to expand on that a bit?


  5. […] Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy offers the following quote from Ingolf Dolferth’s Becoming Present: An Inquiry into the Christian Sense of the Presence of God (Studies in Philosophical Theology): […]


  6. “As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God. Hence these relations take on fundamental importance. The same holds true for peoples as well. A metaphysical understanding of the relations between persons is therefore of great benefit for their development. In this regard, reason finds inspiration and direction in Christian revelation, according to which the human community does not absorb the individual, annihilating his autonomy, as happens in the various forms of totalitarianism, but rather values him all the more because the relation between individual and community is a relation between one totality and another. Just as a family does not submerge the identities of its individual members, just as the Church rejoices in each “new creation” (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17) incorporated by Baptism into her living Body, so too the unity of the human family does not submerge the identities of individuals, peoples and cultures, but makes them more transparent to each other and links them more closely in their legitimate diversity.”
    (Source: Caritas in Veritate)


  7. @Greg, I appreciate the quote.

    One thing I wonder is if the *ordering* of the way the community forms matters. So if it is a community of people who all have the “sense of the presence of God,” then the individual precedes the community (even while the individual is not properly an individual outside the community).

    @phil, you wrote: “it was helpful for me to consider Dalfert’s notion of the sense of the presence of God as dislocating and reorienting our reality, which occurs from the individual perspective of the person God becomes present to.”

    That’s exactly right. She actually describes belief in almost the exact terms you use (reorienting our reality). It’s a change of a whole life, not just one aspect of our lives. I honestly don’t know yet whether she’s going to develop an ecclesiology out of this, but I think she’s got the conceptual resources to do it. That may just take another volume. : )

    “I’d love to hear more about what you have in mind when you say “that we’re missing out that the individual is one of Christianity’s greatest gifts to the world” – care to expand on that a bit?”

    Well, I think it was Cochran’s *Christianity and Culture* where I first picked this up, but he makes the claim that the ancient near-eastern world didn’t have a very rich understanding of the individual person (prosopon, or face, was a theatre term). Plato certainly did, but it’s easy for us to overestimate Plato’s influence in the ancient world (he was, after all, writing while Athens was starting to decline and the Romans knew of him, but seemed to want to do their own thing). Cochran argues that Greco-Roman intellectual thought had all but dried up, and that it was the disputes about the Trinity that reinvigorated it–specifically around the question of what a person was, an essence, etc. The result is an incredibly rich moral psychology (in Augustine) and a new emphasis on the individual as bearer of dignity, rather than simply as a representative of the community.

    I’ll have to look over all those notes again, though, before I move it out of a blog comment….so don’t quote me on this. : )


  8. >> I think it is wrong to pit the collective against the individual aspects of our relationship with God in Christ.

    Yep. So very common too.

    I happen to think that Christianity has an aspect to it that does individualize us in some comparatively radical terms, or at least so it appears from a radically idealistic communitarian perspective. But of course the uber communitarian warm fuzzy goodness cloud that envelops persons who merely invoke such terms in an argument makes such radically idealistic views immediately both plausible and unassailable. Who doesn’t have a dream of an ideal community and wish for better ones? Precisely no one. Which is one indication that intolerance for the very word “individualism” is missing something awfully big.

    The best article I have ever read on this issue is by D. A. Carson. All I can say is “What he said.”


  9. Dalferth took this idea straight from Kierkegaard. Check out “Purity of Heart” in Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits and also Works of Love.

    I think it’s essentially right to speak about Christianity individualizing the person, but the question is whether it is important for us. It was rhetorically necessary for Kierkegaard to say such things to challenged the easy assumption mid-19th century Danes had that they were Christians because their country belonged to Christendom. Since hardly anyone thinks we’re in Christendom anymore and Christianity isn’t assumed in most places in the North America, what theological benefit does Dalferth’s insight provide?


  10. You don’t see a benefit in being essentially right?


  11. Andrew,

    I think “took this idea straight from Kierkegaard” is a little strong. She mentions K. at several points, but has gone quite a bit further beyond him. She is not, I think, closer to the phenomenologists than existentialists in her approach. But her understanding of “presence” takes her into the differences between A-theory and B-theories of time, which is good fun.

    That to say, I could be wrong, but it sounds as though you’re positing a straight line between Kierkegaard and her. I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

    As for “whether it is important for us” to so speak, I’m a little surprised at the presupposition behind the question. It’s almost as though you’re positing that we should only speak of those things which benefit us or correct certain contextual imbalances. That seems odd.

    But I’d say this: in a world with debased understandings of individuality and authenticity, reframing both of those ideas around the presence of God seems to have an enormous theological benefit. Additionally, reframing our presence as individual persons around the presence of God seems to have enormous benefits in discussions about the (im)possibilities of “presence” that is mediated by technology, which seems helpful in a world where our individual “presence” has been incredibly watered down.

    I’d also point out that in his lectures at Trinity, John Webster suggested that Protestants in the 21st century needed to develop a theology of “presence” to help them navigate the overly-muddy waters of “sacramental” theology and the relationship between Christ and the church. I think that intuition is spot on and Dalferth’s book is a very helpful step in that direction.

    But I want to know what sort of standard you’re holding “theological benefits.” What insights makes the cut, if not the reality that it is the presence of God–rather than our environment, inherent capacities, etc.–that marks us off as individual persons in the world?



    1. Hey Matt,

      I’m still pretty convinced she got this from Kierkegaard, but I certainly didn’t mean that to be a dismissal of her idea! The writings from which I guess she got her (very well put) idea of God’s presence giving us individuality are from his so-called second authorship. These works, mostly written in his own name and not pseudonymously, tend to be much more influenced by Christianity. But I’m in the middle of a seminar, so forgive me if my comments are sophomoric on this point.

      I happen to think that we Evangelicals have done a pretty good job with the concept of being an individual, which is why I said that it might not be so important to talk about it. I went back and read your earlier comments, however, and I see that you think in our eagerness to be communal we might forget this strength bequeathed to us by our forebears. I think that’s valid. We should be vigilant in that regard. I personally haven’t encountered too many who don’t have a good idea about individual, but I think you’d have a better sense for this. (Which will help me be more patient to learn from Kierkegaard on this matter–so, thanks!)

      The assumption behind my point was that theology’s task is humbly to hold the Church’s proclamation accountable to the Word of God. If the Church is proclaiming something well, sure, there’s nothing wrong in praising it. But the more urgent task is to teach what is lacking in our message. As long as we don’t neglect that urgent task, then fire away. I was just saying we should pay attention to where our words are directed in theology.


  12. Matthew,
    Can the lectures you referenced by John Weber be accessed online (or anywhere else)?


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