The Logic of John Expanded Upon by Hegel

In the Gospel of John the incarnation, as presented in the Prologue, is the interpretive key, not only to the book of John, but as Origen and Maximus the Confessor take it, to everything. That is Maximus, following an interpretive tradition from John through Origen and the Cappadocian Fathers reaching to G. W. F. Hegel, focuses on the logic of the Logos as presented in John.  In the words of Maximus, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things.”[1] The Word become flesh is the goal of creation. The incarnational work begun in Jesus culminates in spiritual worship, an order of spirit and truth in which the historical Christ is the entry point and touchstone of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is to incarnate Jesus (14:26), to glorify Jesus in the disciples by making what is His, theirs (16:14). The Logos sets up the unfolding (in John), from the Word made flesh to the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh. Jesus identifies his words directly with Spirit: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63). Jesus is the Logos of God but by the same token his words come directly from God and are light, life, truth and Spirit (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). The incarnate Logos is the interpretive key for understanding the Spirit as the singular movement of history, and this understanding of John is definitive of the Hegelian project – tracing the phenomenology of Spirit.[2]

The argument, as worked out by Benedict Viviano can be summed up in two steps: 1. “our principal thesis is that the key to the right understanding of the Johannine concept of the Spirit as a force working in the believers who live in the world of history is the incarnation, the word of God made flesh in space and time.” 2. “of all John’s many interpreters it is the Christian philosopher Hegel who has done the most to take this Johannine doctrine of the Spirit seriously in its singularity and in its richness. And it is Hegel who has worked out its implications for an understanding of the universal significance of the biblical historical mode of discourse, as well as for an understanding of the meaning of the human historical process as a whole.”[3] In John, the work of the Spirit is to expand (universalize) the saving revelation of Christ, and it is Hegel who has focused on explicating a proper understanding of this work of the Spirit.

Hegel begins his philosophical career as a seminarian, particularly interested in the Gospel of John. Two of his favorite texts were John 4:24 (“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”) and John  16:13 (“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”)[4] As T.M. Knox, the translator of his early texts on John notes, “After years of theological study, Hegel came to the conclusion that the spirit underlying the letter of Christian dogma could be discerned only if he first placed the teaching of Jesus in its historical context.”[5] To approach a right understanding of Spirit is to understand the particular events and teaching of Jesus, which pertains directly to his reading of John. According to Knox, Hegel’s theological and philosophical thinking begin with his reading of the Prologue of John.[6] The young Hegel finds in John the key to the solution as to how a particular historical event (in the life and death of Jesus) can have universal significance. The answer is to be found in Jesus’ incarnation, enfleshing the will of the Father, and ushering in the universal saving work of the Spirit.

Jesus therefore demands attention for his teachings, not because they are adapted to the moral needs of our spirit, but because they are God’s will. This correspondence of what he said with God’s will, and his statements that “who believes in me, believes in the Father.” “I teach nothing save what the Father has taught me”(which particularly in St. John is the dominant and ever recurring idea), gave him his authority, and without this authority they could not in themselves have been brought home to his contemporaries, no matter how eloquent his conception of virtue’s worth.[7]

Jesus embodies the will of God, such that he is the incarnation of His will. “He who has seen me, has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:8). Jesus’ teaching is straight from the Father. The historical, enfleshed, concrete person Jesus is the entry point into the universal God. Hegel notes, “John is the Evangelist who has the most to say about God and the bond between God and Jesus.”[8] Commenting on the Prologue to John, he notes that what is being offered here are not judgments or concepts, but being and life. However, the recipients of this Gospel cannot receive, these seemingly (“intellectually”) contradictory ideas (such as God became flesh, the Logos is Divine) apart from the Spirit. “Of the two extreme methods of interpreting John’s exordium, the most objective is to take the Logos as something actual, an individual; the most subjective is to take it as reason; in the former case as a particular, in the latter as universality; in the former, as the most single and exclusive reality, in the latter as a mere ens rationis.”[9] As Knox notes, “Hegel is arguing that the living relationship between God, Jesus, and men can be apprehended in spirit, but this creates difficulties for the intellect.” If it is understood according to standard reason “insoluble contradictions arise” but Hegel sees Christ synthesizing what cannot be intellectually grasped.[10] Analytic reason forces one to separate God and Logos (or form and matter), but in Hegel’s understanding they are one life, “aspects of one whole.” [11]  

As Hegel puts it, “God and the Logos are only different in that God is matter in the form of the Logos: the Logos itself is with God; both are one.”[12] Hegel, in a manner that reminds one of Maximus’ logoi, clarifies that this explains the basis of God’s presence in creation: “The multiplicity, the infinity, of the real is the infinite divisibility realized: by the Logos all things are made; the world is not an emanation of the Deity, or otherwise the real would be through and through divine. Yet, as real, it is an emanation, a part of the infinite partitioning, though in the part (ἐν αὐτῷ is better taken with the preceding οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν) or in the one who partitions ad infinitum (if ἐν αὐτῷ is taken as referring to the λόγος), there is life.”[13] On the other hand, the “single entity” or “the restricted entity” is “opposed to life,” it is “something dead.”[14] Human reason divides into subject and predicate, such that all finite things have their opposite (e.g., light and darkness), but only in Christ are the oppositions inherent to consciousness overcome. For example, “John the Baptist was not the light; he only bore witness of it; he had a sense of the one whole, but it came home to his consciousness not in its purity but only in a restricted way, in specific relations. He believed in it, but his consciousness was not equivalent to life.” Jesus’ consciousness “is equivalent to life” as “in it consciousness and life differ only in that the latter is being, while the former is being as reflected upon. Though John was not himself the φῶς (light), yet it was in every man who comes into the world of men (κόσμος means the whole of human relationships and human life, i.e., something more restricted than πάντα and ὃ γέγονεν v. 3).”[15] The Cosmos is the world of men (not all being), such that Christ is enlightening all human interconnections and relationships.

As Hegel explains, it is not simply a case of man’s being lighted by entry into the world, though the light is also in the world. The world and all of its relationships are in the light of this man, but the world did not realize that the whole of creation is brought into “self-consciousness” in him. “Nature now coming to self-consciousness was in the world but it did not enter the consciousness of the world.” That is, “the world of men did not recognize that Jesus was ‘Nature becoming conscious of itself, i.e., was the Logos.”[16] As he puts it in Philosophy of History, “This reflection of the mind on itself is individual self-consciousness — the polar opposite of the Idea in its general form, and therefore existing in absolute Limitation. This polar opposite is consequently limitation, particularization, for the universal absolute being; it is the side of its definite existence; the sphere of its formal reality, the sphere of the reverence paid to God.”[17] Those who recognize Christ are empowered to have life through this particular one who is life. “They do not become other than they were, but they know God and recognize themselves as children of God, as weaker than he, yet of a like nature in so far as they have become conscious of that spiritual relation suggested by his name (ὄνομα)” as they too become men lighted by the true light and they find their essence in God.[18]

The Jewish principle, which may be representative of the human principle, would separate thought and reality, reason and sense, and “this principle involves the rending of life and a lifeless connection between God and the world, though the tie between these must be taken to be a living connection; and, where such a connection is in question, ties between the related terms can be expressed only in mystical phraseology.” Hegel takes the term Son as an example. If it is understood in its ordinary sense, the meaning of Jesus being the Son of the Father will be lost – and this is the tendency in “reflective thinking.” “Thus the son of God is the same essence as the father, and yet for every act of reflective thinking, though only for such thinking, he is a separate essence.”[19] Hegel might have the Chalcedonian formula in mind, as he specifically defends the absolute difference between deity and humanity, and recognizes that on the basis of human intellect there is no reconciling of these “opposites,” yet in Christ what cannot be conceptually or intellectually synthesized are brought together. The choice is one of clinging to the intellect as a means of grasping God (knowledge), or accepting Jesus (faith). “The relation of Jesus to God, as the relation of a son to his father, could be apprehended as a piece of knowledge or alternatively by faith, according as man puts the divine wholly outside himself or not. Knowledge posits, for its way of taking this relation, two natures of different kinds, a human nature and a divine one, a human essence and a divine one, each with personality and substantiality, and, whatever their relation, both remaining two because they are posited as absolutely different.”[20] Those who cling to irreconcilable difference “save the intellect” by opting for “destruction of life.”[21] There is only an objective knowing which does not allow for a relational fulness of the Subject.

Christ’s relation to the Father forms the basis for understanding every child of God who comes to share in the life of the Spirit. Here Hegel employs a metaphor on the order of Jesus’ depiction of the branches and the vine (John 15:4-16). “A tree which has three branches makes up with them one tree; but every ‘son’ of the tree, every branch (and also its other ‘children,’ leaves and blossoms) is itself a tree. The fibers bringing sap to the branch from the stem are of the same nature as the roots.”[22] In the words of Jesus, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:5-7). Hegel explains both the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit through this analogy, and then broadens it to include all children of God.

 As the Jews recognize in John, Jesus makes himself equal with God (John 5:18; 10:33). What they do not recognize is his call to all people to participate in this Trinitarian relationship. In his counter to their accusation Jesus does not deny the claim to deity but points to Psalms, which acknowledges deification of all who have received the word: “Jesus answered them, ‘Has it not been written in your Law, ‘I SAID, YOU ARE GODS’? ‘If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture cannot be broken), do you say of Him, whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” (John 10:34–36). The Jews are right, Jesus claims divinity, but they misunderstand the self-giving love (kenosis) which calls everyone into this Divine Trinitarian relationship. As Hegel notes, to get them to look beyond his individuality, Jesus takes several approaches. He continually appeals “to his oneness with God,” but it is the Father “who has granted the son to have life in himself, just as the father has life in himself. He and the father are one; he is bread come down from heaven, and so forth”[23] His is a shared life with the Father, and one open to being shared with all. But to try to sift this through Jewish conceptuality, “as a by-product of the imagination” is to empty it of truth “and, instead of the life of the image, nothing remains but objects.”[24]

Just as the Word became flesh, so too the Spirit must transform the fleshly mind, bringing together in each particular individual the universal truth made immanent in Christ. As Hegel states it, “The union of universal abstract existence generally with the individual – the subjective – that this alone is truth.”[25] As he puts it succinctly in an earlier work, “The truth is the whole.”[26] (As Maximus puts it, “The end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end.”[27]) In contrast, in a Greek metaphysical understanding, the meaningful is in the timeless, ahistorical, universal and necessary realm, and truth is precisely not particular or individual. The Enlightenment, in this sense, is Greek, and English deism is the sign that the historical personage of Christ really has no place in this religion. As Hegel notes, religion can “adumbrate reason” or it can serve as its own sort of reason. “It makes a difference, however, whether Reason is explicitly developed in Religion, or merely adumbrated by it, as constituting its hidden basis.”[28]

In Hegel’s estimate he is staying true to the Nicene creed and the Gospel of John:

It was the Church that recognized and established the doctrines in question — i.e. the Spirit of the Church; and it is itself an Article of Doctrine: “I believe in a Holy Church;”as Christ himself also said: “The Spirit will guide you into all truth.” In the Nicene Council (A.D. 325), was ultimately established a fixed confession of faith, to which we still adhere: this confession had not, indeed, a speculative form, but the profoundly speculative is most intimately inwoven with the manifestation of Christ himself. [29]

Then, once again quoting from the Prologue of John, he concludes, “The profoundest thought is connected with the personality of Christ — with the historical and external. . . it is the very grandeur of the Christian religion. . .”[30]

Christian truth is historical and personal, and in Christ the particular, the individual, the personal and the historical are the universal. There is nothing more Christian, and Hegel sharpens this Christian theological reality. Christian reason is a different order of understanding and it is Hegel who develops this difference. [31] Hegel describes a universal abstract existence united to the individual, which is the true reason (the Logos) which governs the world and gives history its intelligibility. As Viviano argues, “Hegel is here clearly speaking about God in the form of Spirit, «the energizing power realizing» God’s aim in history, which became incarnate in Jesus and is then carried on by the gift of his Spirit, as in the period before Christ the Spirit was active as the Spirit of prophecy.”[32] As Hegel succinctly describes it, “This spiritual movement, which in its simplicity gives itself its determinateness, and in this determinateness gives itself its self-equality – this movement, which is thus the immanent development of the concept, is the absolute method of the concept, the absolute method of cognition and at the same time the immanent soul of the content.”[33] The spiritual movement of history is the arrival at a true self, the “immanent soul” coming to fulness.

Hegel sums up his understanding of the point of John, and in doing so summarizes the central point of his project.

This one, the Spirit, desires to guide you into all truth – not the company of Christ and his words. Only {erst) after him [Christ] and his instruction through the text will the Spirit come upon the apostles, will they become full of the Spirit for the first time. We could almost say that if you led Christianity back to its first appearance then you would be bringing it back on the basis of Spiritlessness; for Christ himself says that the Spirit will only (erst) come after me when I have gone away. The text of the first appearance thus contains only the presentiment of what the Spirit is and of what will be known as true.[34]

To go back to the historical Jesus, absent the gift of the Spirit, is to understand Christ “on the basis of Spiritlessness,” lacking the personal Spirit and Truth which Christ came to convey. As J. N. Findlay indicates in the Forward to Phenomenology of Spirit, “spiritual identification of two natures was conceived of as first occurring in the historic person of Jesus, it was also thought of as being capable of being shared by a whole society of believers, to whom the Divine Spirit at work in Jesus could be further communicated. Such a union of the individual and the specific with the transcendently universal is of course for Hegel the sense and ‘truth’ of everything.”[35] The transcendent and universal brought together in the particular person of Jesus, is for Hegel as for John, the very entry into truth.

Contrary to the common assumption, Findlay concludes, “If Hegel was nothing better, he was at least a great Christian theologian.”[36]


[1] Maximus, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) 7.22.

[2] This is the conclusion of Benedict T. Viviano, “The spirit of John’s Gospel : a Hegelian perspective” published in Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie (2001) pp. 368-387.

[3] Viviano, 387.

[4] According to Hans Kung, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel’s Theological Thought as Prolegomena to a Future Christology, trans. J.R. Stephenson (New York 1987; orig. 1970), p. 423. Cited in Viviano, 370.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings by Friedrich Hegel, Trans, by T. M. Knox With an Introduction and Fragments Translated by Richard Kroner, (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1948) vi.

[6] Early Theological Writings, 60.

[7] Ibid, 76.

[8] Ibid, 255.

[9] Ibid, 257.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 257-258.

[13] Ibid, 258.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, With Prefaces by Charles Hegel and the Translator, J. Sibree, M.A. (Kitchener Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001) 40.

[18] Early Theological Writings, 259.

[19] Ibid, 260.

[20] Ibid, 264.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid, 261

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] The Philosophy of History, 36. Cited in Vivano, 373.

[26] G.W.F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, ed. J. Hoffmeister (Hamburg 1952), p. 21. Cited in Vivano, 373.

[27] Ambigua 7.21.

[28] The Philosophy of History, 348.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid, 348-349.

[31] Ibid, Vivano.

[32] Ibid, Vivano.

[33] The Philosophy of History, 10.

[34] Hegel, Werke, Glockner ed. 19, 11, cited in Viviano, 387.

[35] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, Translated by A. V. Miller with Analysis of the Text and Foreword by J. N. Findlay, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) xxvii.

[36] Ibid.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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