Wednesday 9 August 2006

Hegel: a trinitarian theology of the cross

This extended quote is admittedly rather dense – but it’s a profound passage which, I think, describes one of the deepest fundamental structures of Christian belief: namely, that the death of Jesus is an event in God, and that this event can be understood only if God is the triune God. Here’s the quote:

“The history of the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the right hand of God begins at the point where this history [of Jesus’ death] receives a spiritual interpretation. That is when it came about that the little community achieved the certainty that God has appeared as a human being.

“But this humanity in God ... is natural death. ‘God himself is dead,’ it says in a Lutheran hymn, expressing an awareness that the human, the finite, the fragile, the weak, the negative are themselves ... within God himself, that finitude, negativity, otherness are not outside of God and do not ... hinder unity with God.... [D]eath itself is this negative, the furthest extreme to which humanity as natural existence is exposed; God himself is involved in this.

“... For the community, this is the history of the appearance of God. This history is a divine history, whereby the community has come to the certainty of truth. From it develops the consciousness ... that God is triune. The reconciliation in Christ ... makes no sense if God is not known as the triune God, if it is not recognized that God is, but also is as the other, as self-distinguishing, so that this other is God himself..., and that the sublation of this difference, this otherness, and the return of love, are the Spirit.”

—G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Lectures of 1827, ed. Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 468-69.


David W. Congdon said...

Fantastic. I had read much of this quote in Jüngel's writings, but it's nice to see it quoted all at once. Thanks, Ben.

Anonymous said...

FWIW Lewis Ayres sketches a critique of Hegel (and his subsequent influence on Trinitarian theology) in the last chapter of 'Nicaea and its legacy' (OUP).

Shane said...

Isn't Christ's death is an event in "God" for Hegel because . . . it is an event in history? When the greeks invented philosophy, wasn't that an event in "God" (i.e., a step in the self-development of Geist) for Hegel too?

Drew said...

Serendipitous... I just started reading Hegel's Philosophy of History the other day, and I was wondering what you might think on Hegel.

Shane said...

I heartily recommend William Desmond's new book, "Hegel's God: A Counterfeit Double?" (Ashgate 2005?) to all those theologians interested in Hegel.


Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Shane -- I haven't read William Desmond's new book yet, although I've been meaning to.

For a very sympathetic view of Hegel's theology, it's also well worth reading Hans Küng's great work, The Incarnation of God: An Introduction to Hegel's Theological Thought as Prolegomena to a Future Christology (1987).

Regardless of how we evaluate Hegel's theology, it's certainly an interesting coincidence that our four best contemporary dogmatic theologians (Pannenberg, Jüngel, Jenson, Moltmann) have all been profoundly influenced by Hegel.

Shane said...

I've been digging at David Congdon about Divine Immutability and his nascent hegelianism and I've just sent him a nice article I found by Tom Weinandy of Greyfriars, Oxford, which I think ought to give pause to anyone who thinks Hegel's "God" was a step in the right direction. Basically it comes down to this: for Hegel, "God" is in history, i.e. God is coming to be himself through the historical development of Spirit. For Christians, God is in eternity already always fully actualized. God has no need to enter time to become himself. Whatever God's interruption into time means for a christian, it simply cannot mean what it does for Hegel.

In Desmond's book he is especially critical of Hegel's understanding of reconciliation, since, for Hegel, reconciliation is ultimately meaningless. Suppose some grave sin occurs, such as a genocide or a war. That very sinful action itself is part of the dialectical history through which Spirit is revealing itself. Now, what would it mean for God to reconcile or forgive if sin itself is part of his own being (God's being is in becoming!)?

Desmond of course, explains this critique much better and more fully than I do. But having studied under Desmond and having read quite a bit of his work, I simply cannot see how someone would want to take on his thought as a helpful aide in proclaiming the gospel.

David W. Congdon said...


Your critique of Hegel is duly noted, though limited. Hegel is often maligned as a pantheist, but he was also trinitarian in ways that perhaps some of his more well-read theology fails to emphasize as clearly. McCormack criticizes Hegel for turning identifying Christ solely and entirely with the human person Jesus without divine remainder. I can see this as a more valid criticism of Hegel which retains Hegel's trinitarianism without falling into the error of viewing him as a card-carrying pantheist.

One important note: When Jüngel speaks of God's being-in-becoming, he does not mean that God's being is changing to become something else. He says as much in the introduction to the book. Being-in-becoming refers to the ontological dynamism within the life of God. It does not identify God's being with God's becoming, nor does it mean God moves toward a future which is unknown to God. As a being-in-becoming, God anticipates all creaturely realities as the God who is relationally constituted, bothin ad intra and ad extra.

Shane said...

David, but this is precisely what God's being-is-in-becoming would mean for Hegel. God is literally the dialectical process of history moving towards its final culmination.

Wilf said...

Can anyone help me with a theological problem I've been thinking about recently? I confess I don't know much about theology, so please feel free to state the screamingly obvious when you reply - I promise that it won't be screamingly obvious to me.

Kierkegaard accuses Hegel of attempting to turn faith into understanding - indeed, Hegel does attempt to build a "system" which assumes that God's law is comprehensible to human intellect. But I've been told by people wiser than me (at least wiser than me on this topic) that Hegel's trinitarian beliefs demand faith. If this is true then Hegel is not attempting to turn all faith into understanding - if his definition of God requires one to have faith (which I assume a trinitarian definition would - again, please correct any false assumptions that I make, I'm not very experienced in this area) then Kierkegaard's attack may not be as powerful as it currently seems to me. In Kierkegaardian terms, faith seems to be the acceptance of the contradictory - the belief in something despite its incompatibility with human reason. Is this the case with Hegel's trinitarian views? Any kind of help with this question would be hugely appreciated - especially if it's coupled with some kind of reference I can take a look at myself.

Thanks hugely,


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