Apologies to Hegel: Knowing God is Essential

One thing we all know to be true about Hegel – he is presumptuous, assigning too much weight to philosophy and human knowing, and thus he is pitting philosophy against Orthodox Christianity.

Whatever else one might say about Hegel, the presumed consensus is precisely wrong, both in its reading of Hegel and most likely in its understanding of the Christian faith. One does not have to read much of Hegel to recognize he is challenging the presumptuousness of Enlightenment thought, in particular that of Immanuel Kant, as it has impacted theology. He is arguing for a biblical, doctrinal, Trinitarian, Alexandrian, Christianity, in which Christian dogma, and not human reason takes first place. He is not displacing Christ or Christianity but working from the axiom of the incarnation, very much like Maximus the Confessor. As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes, Hegel is a thinker on the order of Maximus, sharing focus on synthesis, on Trinity, on escaping a finite dialectic, and even on developing the Chalcedonian formula. As Balthasar puts it, “Maximus looks straight in the eye of Hegel, who clearly derived his synthetic way of thinking from the Bible-more precisely from the anthropological antitheses of the Old Testament and from that between the Bible and Hellenism, as well as from the reconciling synthesis of Christ, understood principally from a Johannine (and thus, in effect, from an Alexandrian) perspective.”[1] Balthasar here pictures the singular difference as Maximus being more open in his Christology, “everyone recognizes that his ontology and cosmology are extensions of his Christology, in that the synthesis of Christ’s concrete person is not only God’s final thought for the world but also his original plan.”[2] Yet, he pictures them as directly reflecting one another. Maximus’ focus on synthesis and not confusion and his bold application of “theological truth to philosophical, ontological, and cosmological thought” is directly taken up by Hegel (it is here that Maximus is looking into the eyes of Hegel).[3] As Balthasar notes in private correspondence concerning his work on Maximus, “This morning I put the finishing touches on a new two hundred-page book about Maximus Confessor, the ‘Hegel’ of the Greek fathers and ‘father’ of Eriugena.”[4] Could the problem be that, like Maximus, Hegel is developing a form of thought so centered upon Christ that it is beyond the common notion of reason. At a minimum, to accuse Hegel of presumptuously displacing Christ is misdirected.

First of all, Hegel is concerned to recover Christ as the true import of the Bible. He recognizes that all parties might appeal to the Bible, but philosophy, theology and reason are implicitly undermining Scripture. He describes a form of exegesis that “has taken counsel with reason” and “pretends only to lay stress on the understanding of the word, and to desire to remain faithful to it” but empties it of all spiritual value and content.[5] He describes a system in which “in downright earnest” exegetes imagine “the Bible is made the foundation” but due to the very categories of thought and reason with which Scripture is read “the thoughts of the interpreter must necessarily be put into the words which constitute the foundation.” In turn, “Commentaries on the Bible do not so much make us acquainted with the content of the Scriptures, as rather with the manner in which things were conceived in the age in which they were written.”[6] The “most contradictory meanings have been exegetically demonstrated by means of Theology out of the Scripture, and thus the so-called Holy Scriptures have been made into a nose of wax.”[7] This form of exegesis, a “Theology of Reason,” “is put in opposition to that doctrinal system of the Church,” though it “pretends only to lay stress on the understanding of the word, and to desire to remain faithful to it” in reality it “takes possession of the written word” and bends it to its own shape.[8]

Hegel notes that all heresies appeal to the Scriptures. So too the “Theology of Reason,” claims to keep to Scripture as foundation but is a form of reason alien to the Bible.  The end result of this approach is not encounter with God, but the knowledge of God made impossible. “It no longer gives our age any concern that it knows nothing of God; on the contrary, it is regarded as a mark of the highest intelligence to hold that such knowledge is not even possible.”[9] Hegel is attempting to bring about a return to the faith of the Bible, by refuting the negative understanding associated with the Theology of Reason.

He sees his philosophy as a counter to the arrogance of those who would “dispense both with the content which revelation gives of the Divine nature, and with what belongs to reason.”[10] This form of thought (the very form of thought accusing him of arrogance), he accuses of the “blind arrogance which is proper to it.”[11]

If, then, those theologians, who busy themselves with their argumentations in exegesis, and appeal to the Bible in connection with all their notions, when they deny as against philosophy the possibility of knowledge, have brought matters to such a pass, and have so greatly depreciated the reputation of the Bible, that if the truth were as they say, and if according to the true explanation of the Bible, no knowledge of the nature of God were possible, the spirit would be compelled to look for another source in order to acquire such truth as should be substantial or full of content.[12]

Hegel describes the plight of theology in his age (which sounds so familiar), as denying the dogmas and doctrines which once served as the center of the faith. In place of dogmas there is a “widespread, almost universal, indifference towards what in earlier times were held to be essential doctrines of the faith.”[13] Though, according to confession, Christ “continues to be made the central point of faith as Mediator, Reconciler, and Redeemer; but what was known as the work of redemption has received a very prosaic and merely psychological signification.” The old “edifying words have been retained,” but they have been emptied of significance – “the very thing that was essential in the old doctrine of the Church has been expunged.”[14] Depth of faith has given way to a “devotional bent” leaving aside the doctrines on which the early church focused: “the weighty doctrines of the Trinity, of the resurrection of the body, as also the miracles in the Old and New Testaments, are neglected as matters of indifference, and have lost their importance. The divinity of Christ, dogma, what is peculiar to the Christian religion is set aside, or else reduced to something of merely general nature.”[15]

 In particular, Hegel notes the neglect concerning the Trinity, with those of the Enlightenment or those given to theological piety concluding, “the Trinity was brought into Christian doctrine by the Alexandrian school,” or “by the neo-Platonists.” Whether Trinity is essential-Truth no longer matters, “that is a point which is not examined into, and yet that doctrine is the key-note of the Christian religion.” As Hegel sums up, “If an opportunity was given to a large number of these theologians to lay their hand on their heart, and say whether they consider faith in the Trinity to be indispensably necessary to salvation, and whether they believe that the absence of such faith leads to damnation, there can be no doubt what the answer would be.” First of all, such a one would shrink from such words as “damnation” and though he might not want to deny the Trinity, “he would, in case his being directly appealed to, find it very difficult express himself in an affirmative.” [16] He continues in this train with indictment of religious books and sermons, in which one might suppose “the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion are supposed to be set forth” and yet, he concludes it is highly doubtful they perform this basic task.[17]

Far from Hegel displaying an arrogant dismissal of Christ, doctrine and the church, he can be read as providing a zealous indictment of this very dismissal. So much of what he writes could serve as tract against the contemporary church, not least of which is his dismissal of those who are solely concerned to recover the history of the New Testament. Such theologians are no better than “clerks in a mercantile house, who have only to keep an account of the wealth of strangers, who only act for others without obtaining any property for themselves. They do, indeed, receive salary, but their reward is only to serve, and to register that which is the property of others.” The faith passes through them, like a reward of which they are not the direct recipients. “Theology of this kind has no longer a place at all in the domain of thought; it has no longer to do with infinite thought in and for itself, but only with it as a finite fact, as opinion, ordinary thought, and so on.” A theology focused on history, imagining it enough to recover the historical Jesus, is not encountering and possessing the truth, but is content with what served as truth for others. “With the true content, with the knowledge of God, such theologians have no concern. They know as little of God as a blind man sees of a painting, even though he handles the frame.”[18]

The end product of the Theology of Reason is a denial of the basic premise of the New Testament and the life of Christ. While one might refer to this negative knowledge as a form of reason, Hegel’s point is it is not true reason. True reason is grounded in the Spirit given through Christ. Thus, it is not a Spirit “beyond the stars, beyond the world. On the contrary, God is present, omnipresent, and exists as Spirit in all spirits. God is a living God, who is acting and working. Religion is a product of the Divine Spirit; it is not a discovery of man, but a work of divine operation and creation in him.”[19] God is reasonable and has shared his form of reason in the Spirit, but humankind abandons this reason and abandons the particularity of the Spirit (of incarnation) in grasping for the absolute and universal apart from the concrete.

In particular, Hegel notes, that finite conceptions of the infinite (abstractions), exercise dominance.  “For the doctrine concerning God goes on to that of the characteristics, the attributes, and the actions of God. Such knowledge takes possession of this determinate content, and would make it appear that it belongs to it. It, on the one hand, conceives of the Infinite in its own finite fashion, as something which has a determinate character, as an abstract infinite, and then on the other hand finds that all special attributes are inadequate to this Infinite.” The infinite becomes defined by what it is not, in relation to the finite. “By such a mode of proceeding the religious content is annihilated, and the absolute object reduced to complete poverty.” [20]

Hegel describes the Enlightenment as the “consummation of finite knowledge,” but in imagining it is exalting God by regarding “all predicates” as “inadequate” (mere “unwarranted anthropomorphisms”) in “reality, it has, in conceiving God as the supreme Being, made Him hollow, empty, and poor.”[21] As Balthasar notes in regard to Maximus, “only when Christ appeared did it become irrefutably clear that the creature is not simply pure negation with respect to God and, thus, cannot be saved simply through mystical absorption in God, but rather-however much he is elevated to share in God’s being, however much he dies to the world-the creature is saved only in the express preservation and perfection of his nature.”[22] This is Hegel’s point in regard to the Enlightenment, which ends with a purely negative notion of God and thus misses the concrete reality of Christ due to its misplaced focus on the infinite.

In the typical understanding of the infinite, it takes on its characteristics as the opposite and negative of the finite. As Hegel remarks, this is the foundation of human knowing. Human thought is grounded on difference, such as subject/object or north/south in which the terms are understood in contrast, but as he notes, they are different but “inseparable.”[23] What Kant and the Enlightenment thinkers missed was the inherent negativity in the dualism between infinity and finitude. “The further step which speculative philosophy had to take was to apprehend the negativity which is immanent within the universal or the identical, as in the ‘I’ – a step the need for which is not perceived by those who fail to apprehend the dualism of infinity and finitude, even in that immanent and abstract form in which Fichte understood it.”[24] Thought grounded in the ‘I’ is inherently dualistic. There is no bridge between thought and the thinking thing. Likewise, infinity and finitude contain this same inherent dualism. The infinite is no more accessible than the noumena or the thinking thing. “But this indeterminacy is itself merely a negation with regard to the determinate, to finitude: ‘I’ is this solitude and absolute negation.”[25] What this form of thought misses is its own inherent negativity. As Jordan Wood and Justin Coyle summarize, “We know the Ding an sich [thing in itself] only as unknowable, as that which eludes our grasp. Hegel wants to know exactly how Kant knows all this. How, for instance, does Kant know for certain that what is a priori and so subjective cannot also prove objective? Here Kant’s very attempt to scrupulously police the boundaries of thought betrays a deep presumption. Kant has somehow mapped an unnavigable trench before he’s crossed it.”[26]

As Hegel argues, “This logical knowledge, which comes first, must lie behind us when we have to deal with religion scientifically; such categories must have long ago been done with. But the usual thing is to employ these as weapons against the Notion, the Idea; against rational knowledge.”[27] Hegel is contrasting this “logical knowledge,” with his development of the Christian “Notion” and his new order of reason and science. “In religion it is not, however, with phenomena that we have to do, it is with an absolute content. But those who employ this argumentative kind of reasoning seem to think the Kantian philosophers have existed only to afford opportunity for the more unblushing use of those categories.”[28] Reason must pass beyond the Kantian antinomies and his presumed delimitation of knowledge.

Hegel proposes a path around Kantian dualism, inherent to human reason, in worship of the Incarnate Christ: “Worship is thus, in fact, the eternal process by which the subject posits itself as identical with its essential being.”[29] In worship we become what we truly are and we escape the dualism inherent to abstract reason. “Through worship, unity is attained; what is not originally united, however, cannot be posited or made explicit as such. This unity, which appears as the act, the result of worship, must be recognised, too, as existing in and for itself. For what is object for consciousness is the Absolute, and its essential characteristic is that it is unity of its absoluteness with particularity. This unity is therefore in the object itself; for example, in the Christian conception of the Incarnation of God.”[30] There is a direct encounter with God in Christ, in which the Absolute is fused with particularity. “This self-existent unity, or, put more definitely, the human form, God’s becoming man, is in fact an essential moment of religion, and must necessarily appear in the definition of its object.”[31] Religion, in Hegel’s definition, is encounter with God, and thus the incarnation is definitive of religion.

However, if one is committed to reflection rather than incarnation as the central guiding point, darkness will prevail. There is no determinate content, but only abstraction devoid of spirit. In the incarnation, however, the darkness is lifted: “The content, it is then said, commends itself to me for its own sake, and the witness of the Spirit teaches me to recognise it as truth, as my essential determination. And, undoubtedly, the infinite idea of the Incarnation for example that speculative central point has so great a power in it that it penetrates irresistibly into the heart which is not as yet darkened by reflection.”[32]

The turn to the incarnation involves passage beyond abstraction to the concrete, or what can be known by faith. Faith, “actuated by the courage of truth and freedom, grasps the truth as something concrete, as fulness of content, as Ideality, in which determinateness the finite is contained as a moment.”[33] No longer is one given to the abstract negative of logical knowledge, but there appears its opposite, “thinking reason” grounded in God as Spirit. “God is not emptiness, but Spirit; and this characteristic of Spirit does not remain for it a word only, or a superficial characteristic; on the contrary, the nature of Spirit unfolds itself for rational thought, inasmuch as it apprehends God as essentially the Triune God.”[34] As I pointed out (here), Hegel’s notion of Spirit is Johannine in that it is a result of and continuation of the incarnation. All the members of the Trinity are made known in Christ. That is, in the first instance, Christ is God’s image known and being made known. “Thus God is conceived of as making Himself an object to Himself, and further, the object remains in this distinction in identity with God; in it God loves Himself.”[35] This love is then shared through the gift of the Spirit, which is the gift of God’s life and Spirit. “Without this characteristic of Trinity, God would not be Spirit, and Spirit would be an empty word.”[36] In this understanding, true reason and knowledge, the knowing of a determinate content within the human subject, are opened.

So, the choice is a theology, philosophy, and mode of reason on the order of nominalism, or accentuating the divide which marks the immanent and economic Trinity. As Hegel notes, most theologians would have no problem fudging on or relinquishing belief in the Trinity, and of course what they are simultaneously relinquishing is knowing God.

What is laid down by the Christian religion as the supreme, absolute commandment, “Ye shall know God,” is regarded as a piece of folly. Christ says, “Be ye perfect, as My Father in heaven is perfect.” This lofty demand is to the wisdom of our time an empty sound. It has made of God an infinite phantom, which is far from us, and in like manner has made human knowledge a futile phantom of finiteness, or a mirror upon which fall only shadows, only phenomena. How, then, are we any longer to respect the commandment, and grasp its meaning, when it says to us, “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” since we know nothing of the Perfect One, and since our knowing and willing are confined solely and entirely to appearance, and the truth is to be and to remain absolutely and exclusively a something beyond the present ? And what, we must further ask, what else would it be worthwhile to comprehend, if God is incomprehensible?[37]

The point of biblical Christianity is knowing God, and apart from this knowledge it is not clear Christian faith survives. “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Such verses could be multiplied as they serve as the backbone of the faith, yet Hegel is accused of arrogance for taking this knowledge seriously, and in the meantime this simple and most concrete fact, the very point of Christianity, is passed over. As Hegel perceived it this is the height of arrogance and the last stage of the degradation of man. It is “all the more arrogant inasmuch as he thinks he has proved to himself that this degradation is the highest possible state, and is his true destiny.”[38] But of course this form of arrogant dismissal of the foundations of the faith is directly counter to the true faith. “Such a point of view is, indeed, directly opposed to the lofty nature of the Christian religion, for according to this we ought to know God, His nature, and His essential Being, and to esteem this knowledge as something which is the highest of all.”[39] Knowing God is the point of Christianity and Hegel is the thinker who has accentuated this truth.


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.]. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) 207.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In a letter from 1937, to Emil Lerch. Cited in Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (p. 217). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul,  Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid, 36.

[10] Ibid, 37.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 32.

[13] Ibid, 38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 39.

[17] Ibid, 40.

[18] Ibid, 41.

[19] Ibid, 33.

[20] Ibid, 28.

[21] Ibid, 29-30.

[22] Balthasar, 207-208.

[23] On the Philosophy of Religion, 56.

[24] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Tran. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 40.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jordan Daniel Wood and Justin Shaun Coyle, “Must Catholics Hate Hegel?” Church Life Journal (June 8, 2018). https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/must-catholics-hate-hegel/

[27] On the Philosophy of Religion, 55.

[28] Ibid, 56.

[29] Ibid, 70.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. 151

[33] Ibid, 30.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 30-31.

[37] Ibid, 36.

[38] Ibid, 36-37.

[39] Ibid, 37.


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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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