Does Hegel’s Philosophy
Fall within the Bounds of Orthodox Christianity?
*Term paper for upper level college class
on 19th century philosophy
One of the great debates concerning
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegel (1770-1831) is the extent to
which his philosophy is coherent with various aspects of
orthodox Christianity, as He makes many, many explicit
references to the Trinity and Christian theology in his
writings. The resolution of this question, however, poses its
own problem—what is orthodox Christianity?
With thousands of sects and denominations who make the
claim to be “Christian,” how does one determine “orthodoxy?”
In Germany, most Christians would consider themselves to
be Lutherans, but even Lutherans have to determine how their
understanding is consistent with traditional or orthodox
fact, Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of Lutheranism, was
“protesting” (thus, “Protestant”) against the lack of orthodoxy
of the Catholic Church in his day.
So, in a sense this paper is along the lines of Luther’s
“protest.” In this
process, I am not trying to discern whether Hegel was personally
a Christian. Only
God can see hearts; I am only assessing the coherence of his
philosophy with orthodox Christianity.
I propose that Christian orthodoxy be
determined by 66 books of the Bible and The Apostle’s Creed,
both of which were formalized in the early centuries of the
While every person or church that would claim to be “Christian”
would differ over both the authority and the exact books that
should be in the Bible, the major divisions of
Christianity—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and
Protestant—all agree upon a certain 66 books of the Bible.
And, while Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox include
other authorities (the apocryphal books, tradition, the
magisterium, and the
Pope when he speaks ex
cathedra), they agree upon these books in the Holy Bible.
Further, this authority is considered to be “God
breathed” (II Timothy 3:15), the very voice of God speaking to
men. As such, it
carries an authority granted to no other source by these
churches. Belief in
The Apostles’ Creed, the earliest one formalized by the Church,
is required for membership in all these churches and frequently
recited in worship.
This creed gives concrete specificity to some of the central
doctrines of the Christian faith.
My focus on Hegel will be
Reason in History
since that book has been our class reading and virtually my only
acquaintance with Hegel’s writings.
Our selected readings and the lecture on DVD on Hegel
seem to be consistent with what follows here.
My project is to discuss
the contrast of four concepts of Hegel’s system with Christian
orthodoxy and name five others.
These issues for both Hegel and Christianity are
extensive and deep, and thus, can only be touched upon lightly
in a brief essay.
(1) Hegel uses various terms to refer to
his concept of that which is moving through history: “Idea,”
“Spirit,” “Reason,” “Logic,” “World Spirit,”
nous (mind), the True, the Eternal, Absolute Power, and Thought—to
name only a few!
However, nowhere in his
History does Hegel refer to this Reason with any pronoun
other than “it.” For
example, he uses “in
itself the infinite material,” “it
is substance,” “it is
infinite power,” and “it
is the infinite power” (26).
The Apostles’ Creed, however, presents God
as a Personal Being in Trinity.
“God, the Father …
His only Son… born of the virgin Mary (a person born to a person) …
suffered (as a person) … (and) crucified dead and buried (as a
mortal person)… “I
believe in the Holy Spirit” completes the concept of Trinity in
the Creed, as “Three Persons in One” or Trinitarian orthodoxy.
The question, then, is, “Can Hegel’s neutered “Reason” be
the Person or Persons of the Trinity?”
I think not.
Hegel is consistent throughout his
History with his
neuter pronoun, when he is not always consistent with other
terms (in my opinion).
Someone might counter with Hegel’s use of
God’s “Providence” in several places (for example, 14-19), but
from the beginning of this discussion Hegel’s World Spirit
He states, “Only Socrates took the first step in comprehending
the union of the concrete and the universal.
Anaxagoras, then was not opposed to such application; but
faith in Providence is” (15). So, “faith in
Providence,” that is, God’s total plan is history, is opposed to
this “union of the concrete and universal.”
On the next page, he
links Providence to the “question” of “knowing God.”
Here Hegel is quite specific in that “we (he and those
who agree with him) contradict what the Holy Scripture commands”
and “categorically deny what is written.”
This denial of the final and complete authority of the
Christian Scriptures, and the aforementioned impersonalism, is
incompatible with Christian orthodoxy.
Hegel’s “World Spirit” cannot be the Holy Spirit who
wrote the Holy Scriptures (II Timothy 3:16) and works His own
Providence in History.
(2) Hegel’s Reason is clearly a process of
development which he describes as “actualization of itself as
content” (11), “world history is the exhibition of spirit
striving to attain knowledge of its own nature,” and “the
Spirit’s development, its progression and ascent to an ever
higher concept of itself”—to name only a very few.
The concept of Hegel’s dialectic—thesis, antithesis,
synthesis, and the repetition of this process—is also one of
However, the orthodox concept of God is that He has been, is,
and always will be omniscient—all knowing.
He cannot gain more knowledge, even of Himself (opposing
Hegel’s developing self-consciousness).
He is “the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews
13:8). “All things
are upheld by the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).
“Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of
the world” (Acts 15:18).
(3) In Hegel’s system religion is subsumed
in philosophy. Of
course, when Hegel (and almost all Western philosophers) says
“religion,” they mean Christianity.
Hegel’s philosophy subsumes Christianity in its Truth.
“Thus we translate the
language of religion into that of philosophy” (25).
“It (philosophy) is in this respect the highest, freest,
and wisest product” (63).
Beyond explicit statements, Hegel’s system is a
philosophy. His end for
history is Absolute Reason, Thought, and Logic—philosophical terms. He
does not call it a “religion, but a philosophy.
His followers may have, and seemed to have, called it a
religion, but this reference denies Hegel’s use of philosophical
terms as ultimate and religious terms as subservient.
God and His Providence in history is not
philosophy, but Christianity, a religion, even The Religion, by
its own claims. “I
am the way, the truth, and the life.
No man comes to the Father (is saved—now and forever) but
by me” (John 6:44).
Thus, Christianity claims its own absolute position, and one
concerning salvation, while Hegel gives no plan for individual
his telos is a whole,
the State and Reason in unity, not individuals.
The only purpose and hope of individuals is to contribute
to the final State.
Even Hegel’s heroes, while individual persons, have significance
only in their contribution to Ultimate Reason.
For God, all persons are significant to the extent that
they will, as individual
persons, be rewarded or damned for their actions—especially
their faith in, or rejection of, Jesus Christ as their Lord and
substitute for God’s punishment of their sins.
For Christianity “religion” and individuals are the
importance of history; for Hegel religion and individuals are
only a part of the process to the whole of Absolute Reason.
There is no significance of individuals
per se in Hegel’s
history, but they are ultimate in God’s history.
(4) Hegel’s concept of freedom is entirely
different from that within Christian belief.
Hegel’s freedom is “precisely … Being-within-itself
(self-contained existence) … I am free when I am within myself …
self consciousness, consciousness of self” (23).
“Freedom is itself its own object of obtainment and the
sole purpose of spirit” (25).
These phases seem to say that freedom is the fully
developed self, conscious of what it is, and independent of
anything else as the whole of Reason.
Freedom is to be found within this Self.
Christianity poses the opposite.
Because of sin (failure to meet God’s rules and
standards), man is said to be enslaved (the total opposite of
freedom) to himself—so enslaved that he is
dead. The Apostle Paul
cried, “Wretched man that I am!
Who will set me free from this body of sin and
death?” (Romans 7:24).
“The wages of sin is
death” (Romans 6:23a).
The freedom from this bondage is “the free gift of God
... in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b).
In opposition to Hegel’s Spirit that eventually evokes
his Idea of Freedom, the Apostle Paul also says, “Where the
Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (II Corinthians 3:17).
In the Scriptures, sin is this prevailing disposition
within man that prevents his full development and freedom.
The answer is not a vague, impersonal Spirit, but the
Holy Spirit (a Person) who regenerates (gives a new life force
to) the sinner who then understands that Jesus Christ (a Person)
has satisfied God the Father (a Person) who requires sinless
perfection to give his life-force to His own.
These three Persons are integral to
the Apostles Creed, also.
There are other divergences of Hegel’s
system from Christianity, but which cannot be developed here.
(5) Hegel’s truth is dialectic, developing towards a
final truth in history, whereas Christian truth exists already
and perfectly in God Himself and in His Scriptures.
(6) While Hegel’s ultimate form is the State, the world
(the major form of which are earthly authorities and states) is
antithetical to God’s Kingdom.
Hegel’s State and God’s Kingdom will not merge in a
dialectic, but the latter will eventually overcome the former.
(7) Again, in Hegel the State is ultimate, but in
Christianity the Church is ultimate, becoming united with Christ
in the final eschaton.
(8) Hegel’s “heroes” have legitimate reason in the
dialectic to supersede commonly recognized morality, but God
never condones immorality, including that practiced by earthly
kings and rulers. (9) In
the attempted unity of his system, Hegel merges nature (the
material world) into the Spirit—they become one.
God never merges Himself with His creation, even while He
actively governs it. He
is both immanent and transcendent. (See above.)
These nine conflicts are just the tip of
the iceberg. More
extensive development of these and other conflicts would bring
out more distinctives between Hegel’s thought and Christian
thought. What is
perhaps most interesting about Hegel’s system is that
it could be compatible
with Christianity had he framed his process with the Trinitarian
God as his Absolute and all human actions (including history)
guided by the parameters of Scripture.
But Hegel’s design in his history (and
presumably his logic, phenomenology, and other works) without
more strict identity with orthodox Christianity in the Bible and
The Apostles’ Creed cannot be termed “Christian” in any
meaningful sense of its own standards.
While his writings are suffused quite frequently with
Christian terms, including those of Trinity, he has loosed them
from their own system and thus they do correspond to their
Perhaps this discrepancy and departure from Christian orthodoxy
contributed to the eventual separation of his followers into
right and left groups with their own particular identity of what
is or is not “orthodox.”
G. W. F. Hegel,
Reason in History, translated by Robert S. Hartman
(Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1997).
Originally published, 1837.
Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in
Reason in History.