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.

Gregory of Nyssa: The Trinitarian Economy of Salvation in Baptism

According to the Nicene Creed, as expanded upon by Gregory of Nyssa, the economy of salvation, as set forth by Christ in the baptismal formula (Matt. 28:19), is Trinitarian as God is Trinity and salvation is entry into the life of the Trinity. God’s abiding presence in Christ through the gift of the Spirit in baptism, shapes – informs – is the substance of, human transformation. This makes orthodox belief a direct correlate of salvation, and it also identifies the failure of belief connected with particular failures of salvation. “Therefore, since the power that gives life to those who are reborn from death to eternal life comes from the Holy Trinity upon those who are deemed worthy of the grace through faith, and likewise the grace is imperfect if any of the names of the Holy Trinity are omitted in saving baptism (cf. Acts 19.2–3)”[1] Just as salvation consists of a certain dynamism of the Trinity, so too heresy and sin consist of a dynamism of ignorance, self-love, and darkness in the absence of life coming from the Father by the Son and Spirit. For example, Gregory argues that Macedonian subordinationism will result in a deformed faith lacking in a true formation of piety. In turn, a failure of belief surrounding the Holy Spirit is the equivalent, according to Gregory, to a still born baby; “not a living human being” but “bones in the womb of a pregnant woman.”[2] If any person of the Trinity is not recognized, as in the baptismal formula, a failure of life results: “the mystery of rebirth is neither perfected without the Father by the Son and the Spirit alone, nor does the perfection of life come through the Father and the Spirit in baptism if the Son is passed over in silence, nor is the grace of the Resurrection perfected by the Father and the Son if the Spirit is omitted.[3]

In the Nicene Creed (325 A.D., revised in 381) the essentials of belief about the Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, and the Spirit as the giver of Life, are encapsulated in Christian belief about baptism, and may have been based on a baptismal creed. This is made clear by Gregory, who was involved in the revision of the original creed, and of whom it might be said, his theology is shaped by the baptismal formula given to the disciples by Jesus.[4] Gregory pictures all of the “Lord’s doctrine” of the gospel as summed up in Jesus baptismal formula: “Now the Lord’s doctrine is this: Go, he said, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28.19).”[5] This doctrine “is the foundation and root of right and sound faith (Tit 1.13, 2.2), and we do not believe there is anything else surer or more sublime than that tradition.”[6]

In combatting the early heresies of Arianism and Sabellianism, Gregory continually appeals to the understanding conveyed in baptism to sort out both the distinct role of each person of the Trinity, and their necessary contribution to the singular life of salvation thus conveyed. A baptism or a faith that is not fully Trinitarian cannot be said to be saving, as it is the Father, Son and Spirit who perfect the giving of life. The life conveyed in Baptism is Trinitarian in its origins and reception: “Thus when we heard ‘the Father’ we have heard the cause of all; when we learnt of ‘the Son’ we were taught the power shining forth from the first cause for the upholding of all things (cf. Heb 1.3); when we acknowledged ‘the Spirit’, we understood the power that perfects all things brought into being through creation by the Father through the Son.”[7] This understanding unfolds from the beginning of the letter, where Gregory once again quotes the baptismal formula.

As he succinctly spells it out, “because the life which comes to us through faith in the Holy Trinity is one, taking its source in the God of all, issuing through the Son, and effected in the Holy Spirit.”[8] The life of the Trinity is singular, and a mystery, but it is this singular mystery which, as in the image of water gushes from the Father in the life-giving bath in the Spirit through the entry into the death and resurrection of the Son. Baptism is the basis for receiving salvation and correctly apprehending the nature of the Trinity: “For this reason we place all our hope and the assurance of the salvation of our souls in the three hypostases acknowledged by these names, and we believe in the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1.3) who is the fountain of life (cf. Ps 35.10), and in the only-begotten Son of the Father ( Jn 3.14, 18) who is the Author of life, as the Apostle says (Acts 3.15), and in the Holy Spirit of God, concerning whom the Lord said, it is the Spirit who gives life ( Jn 6.40).”[9]

Gregory, deploying baptism and the baptismal formula, argues against the Macedonians who would make the Son and Spirit servile. “This bears the stamp of grossest impiety—to conceive of some weakness or powerlessness, whether in smaller or greater degree, concerning the only-begotten God (Jn 1.18) and concerning the Spirit of God. For the word of the truth hands it down that both the Son and the Spirit are perfect in power and goodness and incorruptibility and in all the sublime conceptions.”[10] As he sums up in the next paragraph:

If we piously confess the perfection of all good in each of the persons in the Holy Trinity in whom we believe, we cannot at the same time say that it is perfect and again call it imperfect by introducing scales of comparison. For to say that there is a lesser with regard to the measure of power or goodness is nothing else than to affirm that in this respect it is imperfect. Therefore if the Son is perfect and the Spirit is also perfect, reason does not conceive a perfect ‘less perfect’ or ‘more perfect’ than the perfect.[11]

Using the same formula, Gregory counters the charge of Sabellianism aimed at himself. He argues that there are three distinct and unconfused persons but One life which comes by the Three. While there is only ‘one life’ that comes to the believer through the three persons, its transmission follows the differentiated order of names that were handed to the disciples by Jesus (cf. Matt. 28:19-20).  “For it is not possible that the Father be called his own Father, for the title is not validly transferred from his own Son to the Father, or to suppose that the Spirit is not one of those named so that by addressing the Spirit the hearer is led to the thought of both Father and Son. The hypostasis individually and exclusively signified by each of the names corresponds to the titles accorded them.”[12] While the Three are One in the Life they share, they are distinct and unconfused in their hypostasis or personhood. The Father is the “cause of all” while the Son “upholds all things” and the Spirit “perfects all things.”[13]

Gregory’s conclusion: the sound faith is transmitted in baptism and the baptismal formula handed down by Christ. “It has no need of subtle interpretation to assist its truth, since it is able to be grasped and understood in itself from the primary tradition. We received it from the Lord’s own voice when he imparted the mystery of salvation in the washing of regeneration (Tit 3.5). Go, he said, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you (Mt 28.18–20).”[14] Salvation and Trinitarian orthodoxy are established together, as Jesus’ doctrine of salvation is established in baptism.

[1] Gregory, “Letter to those who discredit his orthodoxy, requested by those in Sebasteia,” (hereafter, To those in Sebastia), Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83. Leiden: Brill, 2007, 138.

[2] Alexander L. Abecina, Christ, the Spirit and Human Transformation in Gregory of Nyssa’s In Canticum Canticorum (The University of Cambridge, PhD Dissertation, 2021), 71. The reference is to Gregory’s commentary on Ecclesiastes, 11:5.

[3] Silvas, Ibid.

[4] This is the argument of Abecina, Ibid.

[5] Silvas, Ibid.

[6] Silvas, Ibid.

[7] To Heracleianus, Silvas, 192.

[8] To those in Sebastia, Silvas, 138.

[9] Ibid, 138-139.

[10] To Heracleianus, Silvas, 195.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. 192.

[13] Ibid.

[14]  Ibid. 191.