*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 Christianity. In 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 Christian Church. 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[1] 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).[2]

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 subsumes Providence. 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 development. 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 salvation. Indeed, 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 intended meaning. 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.”


[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Reason in History, translated by Robert S. Hartman (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1997). Originally published, 1837.

[2] Numbers in parentheses refer to pages in Reason in History.