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, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.