Hegel: the Protestant Aquinas?

In Protestant Thought: From Rousseau to Ritschl, the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth refers to the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), as the “Protestant Aquinas.” Barth mentions that he has some theological differences with Hegel, but wonders why Hegel did not become for the Protestant world what Aquinas was for the Catholic world.

It’s a good question. Hegel and Aquinas are certainly comparable in the sense that they treated a wide variety of topics in philosophy and theology, and unified and organized them. Another similarity resides in the prominence of theology in their writings – but with the following caveat: Whereas, in the scholastic approach adopted by Aquinas, philosophy (Aristotelian, Platonic, Stoic, etc.) is the “handmaid of theology,” with Hegel the relationship is inverted: theology becomes the handmaid of philosophy.

Hegel was a staunch Lutheran. Trained to become a Lutheran pastor, he found his vocation as a professor of philosophy instead, and attained great fame and celebrity, even in his own time – rare among philosophers.

Hegel was critical of Catholicism at times, in his writings and lectures. For example, he once made a scurrilous remark about the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, causing one of his Catholic students to complain to the authorities, since professors were public servants in Germany. Hegel simply replied that he was a Lutheran and always would be, and in covering religion should not be expected to present Catholic dogma.

But Hegel also offered some backhanded compliments to Catholics. For example, in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, he compares Protestant theologians unfavorably with Catholic theologians:

The philosophical or speculative element is much greater in Catholic dogmatics. In the Protestant doctrinal system or in Protestant dogmatics. . .the content is, on the contrary, more historical in kind or more vested in a historical form, with the result that the doctrine becomes arid. In the Catholic Church the linkage of theology with philosophy has in substance always been preserved.

In his extensive lectures on the history of philosophy, including the Middle Ages, he gives short shrift to Aquinas, but finds St. Anselm and William of Ockham somewhat more philosophically interesting.

Nevertheless, as I have brought out in a number of my books on Hegel, it is hard, with Hegel, as with Aquinas, to classify him as a philosopher rather than a theologian. Theological foundations are found throughout the Hegelian corpus. Most modern philosophers pride themselves on being independent from theology in their thinking, but for Hegel this is not a virtue. “Theology,” he says, “continues to be through and through the same thing as philosophy, and it cannot separate itself from philosophy.”

G.W.F. Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger (1831)

This position plays itself out in all of his major works. His early Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) is characterized by Hegel as a reenactment of Golgotha by the human spirit, searching for an overcoming of the dichotomies of self and otherness, being and thought, consciousness and the world. Towards the end of the Phenomenology, the path to “Absolute Spirit” requires a journey through ancient “nature-religion” and Hellenic “art-religion” to Christianity, wherein Hegel analyzes the Genesis account of creation and the Fall, the emergence of the knowledge of good and evil, the Virgin Birth, the atonement of the God-man, and the development of the spirit of love in the Christian community.

Hegel’s later works show a continuation of the same overall philosophical/theological project. His Science of Logic is not “logic” in the usual sense, but a study of the divine Logos, and a speculative investigation of “the life of God before the creation of the world.” He describes nature, in his Philosophy of Nature, as the external offspring of God  (“the son of God, but not as the Son, but as abiding in otherness – the divine Idea as held fast for a moment outside the divine love”). Political philosophy is the investigation of the “march of God” in the progressive development of human society. The Church is the kingdom of God on earth, which supplies the indispensable foundation for a free and ethical society. And at the beginning of his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, he takes theologians to task for merely giving pious affirmations of divine providence, without trying to demonstrate its workings: “Our mode of treating the subject,” he says, is a “Theodicaea – a justification of the ways of God.”

So-called “ontological” proofs for the existence of God by Anselm, Descartes, and others, encountered severe criticisms by Kant and others; but Hegel developed what he thought was an unassailable Trinitarian version of the proof in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion.

Hegel’s constant emphasis is on “speculation” (not a pejorative word for him) as the optimum way to bring the truths of Christianity to full conceptual realization:

Philosophy brings to our minds the same content [as in religion] and thereby attains that most spiritual worship in which thinking makes its own and knows conceptually what otherwise is only the content of subjective feeling or pictorial thinking.

The Christian religion (the “Absolute Religion”), in Hegel’s opinion, had brought about the union of the fundamental opposites of interest to philosophy – matter and spirit, being and thought, divine and human; and now it was up to philosophy to bring this unification up to the conceptual level.

Nineteenth century philosophers like Karl Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach criticized Hegel for being too spiritual. But the tendency in the last century, from Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, Karl Löwith, and others is to accuse him of dismantling “transcendence” from Christianity. What they miss is that Hegel’s goal, whether achieved or not, was to coordinate transcendent and emanent aspects by systematic philosophical “elevation” of Christian beliefs to a rational/conceptual level.

Hegel was not a “Protestant Aquinas” in the sense of providing for the Lutherans a reliable guide to traditional doctrines, ecclesiology, and moral norms – which would have been quite difficult anyway because they have no Magisterium. But like Aquinas his coordination of philosophy with the truths of Christianity is unique and worthy of study.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz is emeritus professor of philosophy at Marquette University. His most recent publications include Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), Five Metaphysical Paradoxes (The 2006 Marquette Aquinas Lecture), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • ib

    It’s good to read column at TCT that treats of the intellectual life and is independent of worldly events. Thank you, Dr. Kainz!

    I recently read your book “Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: Not Missing the Trees for the Forest”. I have read many other books on Hegel, but I found yours to be the best of all of them. Again, thank you!

  • Jack,CT

    @ib,DIITO!, great article!

  • Peter Northcott

    Bernard Lonergan, if he were still with us, would agree, I think. He’s unfairly ‘lumped together’ with the Transcendental Thomists, like Rahner, because he makes use of Kant and Hegel.

    But, unlike them, anyone who knows Lonergan’s work well, knows that Aquinas and Newman are his key focus, and Kant and Hegel are read through those lenses, not vice-versa.

  • Kevin Bauer

    This, like all you write here is well done. As for transcendence, doesn’t Hegel identify the begetting of the word with the incarnation thoroughly historicizing (immanentizing?)God?

  • Howard Kainz

    @Kevin Bauer: Yes, Hegel saw the Incarnation as God becoming immanent in the world, but the passion and resurrection of the God-man made possible a transcendence of the Christian community through divine love.

  • Bernardus

    Dr. Kainz,

    For students of theology interested in Hegel’s thought as it pertains to the development of moral doctrine, could you give a recommendation for where to begin?

  • Brad Miner

    @Bernardus: On the chance the Prof. Kainz may not check back — and also on the chance that modest might prevent him from mentioning it — I will recommend his own book, G.F.W. Hegel, which is available from Amazon. -Brad Miner

  • Howard Kainz

    @Bernardus: Hegel was living in an era when natural law theory was considered passé and utilitarianism and the Categorical Imperative of Immanuel Kant were considered the new scientific approaches to ethics. They still have an ascendency in our philosophy departments. Hegel’s critique of both these theories is found in the second half of his Phenomenology of Spirit. I published an analysis and commentary on this with Ohio University Press. His critique of Kant is incredibly incisive.
    But as regards Hegel’s ethics: Hegel, like many German philosophers, considered ethics as intertwined with Law, Politics, and Religion. So his ethics is somewhat embedded, for example, in his Philosophy of Right, which begins with the idea of freedom, the source of rights, the foundation of the family, and the emergence of what he calls the ethical and political domains. So his ethics is very contextual.

  • Linda Frommer

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer leveled a devastating and accurate critique on Hegel in his Creation and Fall A Theological Exposition on Genesis 1-3, indicating that Hegel’s God is not the God of Christianity.

  • Thomas Palmieri

    Hegel I believe was the greatest of all of the modern philosophers, an extraordinary genius. However there is a certain sense in which his systematic theology became an idol for him, who presumed to reduce the radical and infinitely mysterious revelation of the Trinity to his own synthetic categories, and who seemed to introduce notions of want and incompleteness and the resultant oppositional dynamics into his conception of the Triune God. It is, after all, a delusion to imagine that the life activity of the eternal Godhead is somehow dependent upon the deliberative activity of the finite in order to bring itself into full self conscious realization–Hegel himself, that is to say, the thought of Hegel therefore representing the ultimate realization of the life activity of God himself! The error resides in his belief that thought is the most exalted aspect of the human nature, which notion is rejected by all mystical theologians, who understand experientially that the spirit nature is the highest human reality, in that it images the divine, and can only be accessed by the stilling of the ruminative function, which conceals rather then discloses its existence. Inasmuch, then, as his theological approach seeks to fashion God in the image of the speculative idol he has fashioned for himself, it becomes stillborn, drawing forth nothing from the living waters of the Spirit. His systematic interpretation of the conceptual dynamics which are observed to be at play in the unfolding of human history is a treasure of riches, there is perhaps no more insightful thinker that the world has thus far produced; but when he raises that weighty intellect of his into the oceanic realm of the pneumatic, his thought appears most puny and diminutive. One is far more enriched in this domain by reading Thomas a Kempis’s more spiritually insightful Imitation of Christ.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Thomas Palmieri: Hegel doesn’t say that God comes to self-consciousness in mankind and especially Hegel himself. At the end of Chapter 6 of the Phenomenology, discussing he evolution of consciousness in mankind, the divine emerges in humans with the idea of mutual forgiveness. You say his “error resides in his belief that thought is the most exalted aspect of the human nature.” But Aristotle said humans are superior because they are rational animals, and Aquinas followed him on this. Aristotle also in his metaphysics described God as self-thinking thought, and Hegel at the end of his Philosophy of Mind offers this Aristotelian citation on God’s self consciousness to cap off his own ruminations on the Absolute. Hegel along with St. Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz, and others spent enormous amounts of time contemplating the Trinitarian mystery through analogies and conceptual analyses (I added a column about this syndrome on this website on Jan. 20, 2011). This is the sort of thing Christian philosophers sometimes do, taking a short break from more practical issues.