Infinite qualitative distinction  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The infinite qualitative distinction (German: unendliche qualitative Unterschied), sometimes translated as infinite qualitative difference, is an important concept coined by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The distinction emphasizes the very different attributes of finite and temporal men and the infinite and eternal qualities of a supreme being. This concept is fundamentally at odds with theological theories which posit a supreme being able to be fully understood by man. The theologian Karl Barth made this concept a cornerstone of his theology.

For Kierkegaard, direct communication with God is impossible, as the idea of God and man are infinitely different. He argues that indirect communication with God is the only way of communication. For example, in Christian belief, the Incarnation posits that Jesus Christ is God incarnate. The infinite qualitative distinction is opposed to rational theology in the sense that, whereas the latter argues one can prove empirically Jesus is God incarnate, the former argues that empirical evidence is utimately insufficient in making that conclusion. The paradoxical nature of the Incarnation, that God is embodied in a man, is offensive to reason, and can only be comprehended indirectly, through faith.

Barth's book The Epistle to the Romans also emphasizes such a gulf. Barth writes, "if I have a 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: 'God is in heaven, and thou art on earth'. The relation between such a God and such a man, and the relation between such a man and such a God, is for me the theme of the Bible and the essence of philosophy."



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