Paul’s “Futility” Versus Hegelian Dialectics

Given creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), one can either recognize with Paul (in Romans 8) and Gregory of Nyssa, Origin, and Maximus, that creation continues toward an eschatological realization of pleroma or fullness in which the nihilo (the chaos, disorder) is reduced and eventually has no place, or one can assume the nothing is part of a cosmic dualism giving rise to fullness (fullness of knowledge or a fullness of salvation). The difference pertains to two readings of Scripture and two modes of ordering reality. Do we read from creation to Christ and understand who Christ is on the basis of creation or do we apprehend creation as being fulfilled or completed through Christ?

Our reading will make a world of difference in how we define sin and evil and how we picture the work of Christ. The Hegelian mistake, in that it sums up the human mistake in giving first place to an immanent frame within creation, is key in regard to the nihilo. Hegel’s dialectic fully articulates Paul’s depiction of the reign of death through the reifying of nothing. Given subjection to this understanding our tendency will be to misread Paul (in the manner of the Western theological tradition?) and to imagine Romans 8 depiction of futility and its defeat pertains simply to sin (a sin reduced to the individual). To put it anachronistically, the world is with Hegel (and by extension the forebears and heirs of Luther) in Paul, while salvation is deliverance from out of this order.

Nonetheless, there is a certain value to be gained in engaging Hegel through Paul. The theological concepts of sin and evil tend either toward reductions to misdeeds and perverse thoughts or toward abstractions of cosmic battle which do not easily translate into the fabric of human experience. Even in our reading of the New Testament we may be so focused on individual transgression that we miss how sin can be definitive, not simply of some experience, but of experience per se as it is filtered to us through our world (so much so that it becomes a mode of reading the Bible). In Marx’s language, we might recognize the failures of the bank robber and even of the banker, but we tend to miss the definitive role of capitalism, which gives us both (bankers and bank robbers). Understood rightly, the nihilo of creation ex nihilo (a key point of departure for understanding God) is not simply an abstraction about the order of creation in relation to God but concerns the “fleshing out” or the overcoming of futility accomplished by Christ. If evil is a privation or a nothing given its opportunity in the manner of creation (i.e. it is without any metaphysical or ontological ground but a parasite on the good), this not only locates sin’s origin in the contingency of creation but its ongoing point of access in human experience as a “counter-force” or absence. Hegel gives full and positive articulation to this understanding.

The point at which Hegel and Paul converge pertains to the psychological or experiential reality of this imagined dualism (nothing and futility as a necessary something) in its constitution of human experience. Both will refer to it as a form of enslavement – even agreeing upon its point of entry in and through human cognition. For Hegel, “we are the activity that thought is.”[1] For Paul, human words and thought are deployed in an attempt to displace God and found an independent realm. Its specific point of entry is futile or deceived thought: “they became futile in their speculations” (1:21). Ματαιόω – is “to present what is vain” or “to deceive.”[2] Though Romans 8:20 (“the creation was subjected to futility”) does not “solve the metaphysical and logical problems raised” by this futility it explains that it has a beginning and end.[3] It arises with finitude and contingency and taken as an end in itself this lie turned them into fools (1:22). But this futility is delimited in those who put on Christ: “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Paul consigns this force to its original contingency as part of the unfolding of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:22). The pain of childbirth is no more necessary to the fully formed child than the nihilo is to creation. To assign death, futility, and suffering, to part of the constitution of the finished product is to serve the futility. It is to hollow out reality with the unreality of a lie. Creations purpose fulfilled in Christ consigns this futility to a passage through suffering forgotten or subsumed by the eschatological end point of creation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18).

Paul, in an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures, depicts the advance of futility through empty human speech and its embodiment as a lie incarnate: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Ro 3:13–14). Paul describes the phenomenology of the lie as characterizing all forms of humanity (the original contexts of his quotations point to both Jews and Gentiles), originating as part of the universal man (the first Adam in Ro 5) and as definitive of individual human experience (Ro 7). Collective experience, universal experience, individual experience, which is inclusive of human religiosity, human sexuality, and human ethics, all fall under this futility – the exchange of the truth for a lie (Ro 1:21-23).

Hegel (and I presume Hegel is indeed the master thinker – truly summing up the alternative to Paul and the New Testament) gives primacy to human knowing (it is the true creation or outworking of spirit) while Paul presumes that this incarnate lie is an enslaving power and is not part of a creative dialectic. For Hegel enslavement necessarily precedes freedom; slave/master, nothing/something, evil/good are the terms of truth and freedom but also the substance of experience. For Paul, this presumed dualism and its defeat explains his form of dialectic in Romans 7 and Romans 9-11. There is for the individual, the law of the mind and the law of the body constituting the law of sin and death which gives way to the body of Christ (7-8), and there is the corporate experience of Jews and Gentiles fluctuating between disobedience and mercy which results in a Pauline synthesis: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (11:32). This is not a dialectic between nothing and something but a false dialectic of the lie and disobedience defeated individually, corporately, and cosmically. The lie (disobedience, misorientation to death and the law) is countered by the truth or by the Word (the final Word of creation, the completion or fullness of creation).

The opening to Romans 6 points to sin as the slaveholder but it also indicates the perversity of the Hegelian notion that maintains the necessity of this enslavement for freedom (Ro 6:1). Even those who recognize “sin reigned in death” (5:21), are in danger of positing a dialectic between sin and grace: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). In both Paul and Hegel the dialectic of sin is definitive of human experience. For Hegel, perhaps the archetypical sort of Christian perverter of the Gospel Paul has in mind, the dialectic of sin is normative for Christian thought. Paul recognizes dialectic is liable to be carried over into Christian understanding at key points in 6-7. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is to allow sin to “be master over you” (6:14-15). For Hegel this explains why history is necessarily a “slaughter bench” while for Paul the violence of history definitive of human activity (3:9-18) is a futility overcome in Christ.

Paul’s description of how the dialectic arises through an orientation to the law gives rise to his pithiest dialectic formula: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7). He seems to have recognized the danger of pitting grace against law, such that the law itself is perceived as the problem (perhaps a succinct formula for the Protestant dilemma). But of course, it is not that law is the problem but sin coopts even the law of God. It is not simply that the Jewish law, due to this lie, reduces to the law of sin but all human religious and ethical striving – even the best, even that built upon God’s law, is sin possessed. Thus, Paul concludes that all are unrighteousness and all are misoriented to the law. In the progressive argument of Romans there is a flattening out of all law to the law of sin and death.

The difficulty, where sin and evil are pervasive, is to be able to name this thing – to name and recognize the idol (the ideology, the politic, the value system, or even the theology by which Paul is read) by which we measure and experience. Paul does not presume to have a place from which to begin to describe sin apart from the Gospel. The law provides an opening to sin and serves as a point of revelation only in conjunction with the Gospel. Romans opens with the good news (a proclamation of everything being made right) and part of this news concerns the universal reign of sin and death. God’s saving power (1:16-17) to redeem all of creation (8:19-23) simultaneously reveals that the world spirit is not God but the enemy defeated by Christ.

In David Bentley Hart’s depiction, for Paul we are living in the midst of transition between two worlds: “we are living in the final days of one world-age that is rapidly passing and awaiting the dawn of another that will differ from it radically in every dimension: heavenly and terrestrial, spiritual and physical.” This is a story of “invasion, conquest, spoliation, and triumph” in which “nothing less than the cosmos is at stake.”[4] The world has been made subject to death in and through some form of malign governance (“angelic” or “demonic”). These archons, or what Paul calls Thrones, Powers and Dominions, divide us off from God. Whether arising from a sub-personal or demonic realm, Christ exposed these powers and this exposure is part of their defeat. Given that evil’s modus operandi is a lie, exposure is the beginning of defeat.

Indicators that we have to do with a deadly lie, with philosophy gone bad, with corrupt powers of state, is that sin’s defeat is through life giving truth; it has to do with the transformation of the mind enabling a capacity to know and do God’s will (12:1-2), which is integrated with and gained in new forms of human community (12-15). The futility of the nihilo is displaced with hope (5:1-5; 8:24), peace displaces bloodshed (5:1; 14:17; 15:13), and joy and love displace despair and condemnation (8:1ff; 15:13). While this describes a radical alteration of human experience it is a difference grounded in an alternative reality and alternative world.

The resurrection is the opening and summing up of this world as it defeats and exposes the reign of death which saturates this world order. Cosmic and individual enslavement is a servitude to death definitive of sin and Christ’s death and resurrection dethrone death so that his followers can now face down the powers. The death dealing power can no longer separate from God.  “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” or being “slaughtered as sheep” separate from the love of Christ? (8:35-36). There is a confrontation that continues between Jesus followers and the principalities and powers, but Jesus Christ, “He who died, yes, rather who was raised” has determined the outcome of this confrontation (8:34). “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

To miss this vision would seem to endanger the opportunity to “crush Satan under your feet” (16:20) and to instead give way in the conflict and be overcome by “deceitful men” who may pose as slaves of Christ. Paul warns, “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (16:18). These deceivers appear to be turning once again to a preference for human speech over God’s Word. How many have been drawn in by their “flattering speech” which would diminish sin and smooth it over through human speech or dialectic?

In summary, sin entered through the opening of nihilo and is accentuated and spread out through human futility. Death, the ultimate futility, entered through Adam and continues to reign through the offspring of Adam, who are its helpless victims. Sin is not a force to simply be forgiven, placated, or satisfied. It is not a force that God can overlook and it is certainly not a force humans can pass over. It is a beast before which one kneels (in the form of nations and kings), a value system by which one gauges all achievement (mammon), and an all-consuming impetus giving rise to human thought and action. It is a mode of thought passed on in this worlds wisdom and it constitutes a philosophical tradition (Colossians 2:8). It is a principal or power that is either served or defeated.

The question is if a Gospel focused on imputed righteousness (a dialectic between law and grace), penal substitution (a dialectic that presumes suffering and death accomplish God’s will through Christ), deliverance from an eternal torturous existence (a dialectic which gives primacy to futility), has anything left of the Gospel in it. In David Bentley Hart’s estimate such a gospel, may have terms “reminiscent” of those used by Paul, “at least as filtered through certain conventional translations”; but “it is a fantasy” to imagine it coincides with Paul’s Gospel. He concludes, “that a certain long history of misreadings of the Letter to the Romans . . . has created an impression of his theological concerns so entirely alien to the conceptual world he inhabited that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory.”[5] A recovery of the Gospel, lost as it has become in misreadings of Romans, will of necessity have to begin again with reading Romans.

The notion that sin primarily has to do with guilt and forgiveness or with personal deliverance or private spiritual blessing through a violent sacrifice is not simply inadequate but would seem to be part of the deception. It is deceived in its diminished depiction of sin and in its failure to realize the scope of salvation.


[1] https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=phil_facpub 105

[2] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

[3] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, p. 373, University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]Hart, p. 371-372.

Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul

For most of human history people lived out their lives in the codified cocoon of traditional societies in which the cosmic order was presumed to dictate immutable laws determining every aspect of human life. One might respond by submitting or transgressing, but the laws were held in place by divine dictate. To change up the world order was not a possibility and was made a possibility only by one who would claim to be the way, the truth, and the life. Changing the world order is a possibility introduced by Christianity but the notion of freedom, even among the first Christian heretics, is perverted to mean an absolute freedom from all constraint.  Freedom from the law combined with the revolutionary notion of recreating the world, apart from the specifics of the work of Christ, created a stream of thought already developing in the Corinthian Church but famously represented by such key figures as Descartes, Hegel and Nietzsche. Beginning with doubt and constructing from the foundations up (Descartes), with death and nothingness itself as foundational (Hegel), philosophy marked the turning to a radical freedom in which no values hold (Nietzsche). Continue reading “Beyond Hysteria: From Frankenstein’s Monster to Hegel, Freud, and Paul”

Kierkegaard’s Alternative to Hegelian Atonement Theory: Curing the Sickness Unto Death

One of the key confrontations in human thought (philosophy/religion/psychology. . .) occurred in Denmark with the clash between the thought of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (or SK). In that Hegel is summing up the possibility of human thought (not only the history of thought in philosophy and its various forms but its future) and SK is positing his own Christian understanding as the alternative to Hegel, it might be said that one has the choice of either being Hegelian or Christian.[1] Overlooking for the moment the questions this might raise, I would like to blunder along with the two-fold assumption that Hegel sums up the possibility of human thought and potential under a fallen perspective and SK provides a summation of the Christian diagnosis of the problem (represented by Hegel) and the alternative to Hegel (authentic Christianity).  Hegel, in this reading of SK, is not simply wrong but is a summation of how we have all gone wrong and of how Christ addresses the primordial human problem (represented and articulated best by Hegel). At the same time that Hegel offers deep psychological insight gone bad, SK builds upon this insight – providing at once an alternative analysis and resolution. We are sick (with a sickness unto death) and we need to be clear about the diagnosis so as to understand Christ’s intervention into the disease through his death.[2]  At the same time, the contention between Hegel and SK is over the meaning of the death of Christ – Hegel’s understanding poses the problem as the cure and SK sees the cross as specifically confronting the Hegelian cure. Continue reading “Kierkegaard’s Alternative to Hegelian Atonement Theory: Curing the Sickness Unto Death”

Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God

The God of the philosophers (the unmoved mover), the God of German idealism (who is becoming), and the God constituted as part of the psyche (the source of the previous two) is, I would claim, a singular entity which Christ defeated and rendered unnecessary in his death and resurrection. In each instance, God is the end term of a logical and psychological necessity in which the posited structure requires God. The philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological world constituted (I was going to say “glued together” but this is a world continually coming unglued) in conjunction with this God precedes, rather than proceeds from, his existence. It is not only a particular logic and mode of argumentation at work but this logic, in producing or arriving at God, absolutizes itself or the self’s capacity for the divine.  This way of putting it may miss the fact that this is an absolute immediately at hand, which argument does not so much render necessary as it renames. Underlying the absolute conclusion (God), the necessity of the argument (an irresistible logic, often equated with the divine), is a more immediate constraint – human finitude and mortality.  The trick of turning death into an ontological and epistemological resource equated with God is, precisely, the necessity Christ overcame. Continue reading “Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God”