Tag Archives: Hegel

“No Worldless God!” – The Ghost of Twentieth-Century Theology

Hegel stampI have been enjoying Roger Olson’s The Journey of Modern Theology for the last few weeks. It has taken many, many hours so far and I am still 130 pages from the end. One thing that has struck me is how prominent the thought and influence of Hegel has been throughout the twentieth-century. At several points Olson refers to one or another theologian who has been influenced by, or sought to exorcise, Hegel’s “ghost.”

I have been accustomed to thinking of modern theology as deriving more from Schleiermacher and Ritschl, either accepting and extending their thought and approach, or alternatively, reacting against it. Olson’s account of the “journey” which is modern theology, suggests that twentieth-century theology owes much more to Hegel than I had previously acknowledged. In his discussion of Hans Küng, for example, Olson notes Küng’s debt to Hegel with respect to the doctrine of God (581-582):

In spite of large areas of disagreement with Hegel, who had also taught at Tübingen, Küng is clearly dazzled by the German philosopher’s overall vision of the dialectical unity of God and the world. …

In Hegel, God and the world—or God and humanity—are not “rolled into one.” Nevertheless, they are united in intrinsic, reciprocal unity-in-differentiation, so that Hegel’s God “is rarely described as a living, active person in an I-Thou relationship, but rather as a creatively present universal life and Spirit” (Küng, Theology for the Third Millennium, 133). …    

At the same time, Küng found much to embrace in Hegel’s concept of God and God’s relationship to the world. In contrast to the all too static and otherworldly God of traditional theism, Hegel’s God is living, dynamic and capable of suffering, and it includes its antithesis in itself, rather than standing aloof from the world’s history.

The historicisation of the divine being, the divine immanence and divine pathos: these are all the outgrowth of Hegel’s thought. Schleiermacher’s feeling of absolute dependence is a religious a priori which accounts for the shift in theological method which occurred in the nineteenth century, but Schleiermacher’s God was still utterly transcendent. True, it is a transcendence coupled with immanence: God is the “infinite, all-determining, supra-personal power immanent in everything” (144), but Hegel’s account of God deepened divine immanence, tying God necessarily to the historical process. God became dependent on the world for the realisation of his own being. In the twentieth-century, Barth developed the idea of a history in God, admittedly in very different directions to Hegel. Tillich, process thought, Moltmann and Pannenberg all echo Hegel in some aspect of their work.

Olson’s image of Hegel as a “ghost” is provocative, creative and stimulating—and probably quite true. It seems that we will be unable to understand twentieth-century theology without some understanding of Hegel.

Is that true of modern cultural sensibilities as a whole? Earlier this month our education minister, Christopher Pyne, walked away from the utilitarian views about postgraduate research he expressed while in opposition. Among his characterisations of “ridiculous” research projects was Hegelian philosophy. If Hegel’s ghost is as prominent in modern thought and culture as it has been in theology, there is nothing ridiculous in understanding him, even in cultural and secular contexts.

Bruce McCormack on Modern Christology

“Colorful Jesus Painting”

“The Person of Christ” in Kapic & McCormack (eds), Mapping Modern Theology, 149-173.

McCormack introduces his essay on the Person of Christ by noting that the doctrine of the person of Christ has to do with the ontological constitution of the mediator as divine and human. This duality of Jesus’ being has its roots in Scripture, and led to ancient debates culminating in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. Here the essential parameters of the doctrine were set: the union of two natures—divine and human—in the one person, Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Chalcedon did not fully settle the christological questions. The relation of the two natures to one another, and the identification of the Subject of the person’s activity continued to arise in the history of the church as matters of controversy. For example, in the seventh-century, the church debated whether, in fact, Jesus had two wills. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III, 681) concluded that he did, the human will functioning as any other human will, though always in agreement with the will of the Logos. The sacramental dispute between Lutheran and Reformed theologians in the Reformation period revolved around whether the attributes of the one nature may be applied to the other nature, or whether the attributes of each nature should more properly be attributed to the person of Christ. For example, may we say that Jesus’ humanity is omnipresent or that God can die? Or would we better apply these various attributes to the person of Jesus in his unique divine-human unity?

In the modern period, a growing awareness of human self-consciousness and development posed sharp questions to Chalcedon. Cyril of Alexandria had portrayed Jesus’ humanity as static, almost an inert instrument of the Logos who was the acting Subject of the man Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, Constantinople III affirmed that each nature possessed its own mind and will. In 1848, then, David Friedrich Strauss argued that this must mean that Jesus was possessed of two personalities, one infinite and one finite. If this was so, it must inevitably mean that Jesus’ divine nature overwhelms his human nature with the result that his humanity differs from ours. Is Jesus fully and genuinely human? This modern concern is one that McCormack shares.

McCormack identifies the Friedrich Schleiermacher and Georg Hegel as the two men who set the agenda for modern christology. Schleiermacher conceived of God in classic terms of an absolute and omnipotent God standing outside the created order. Nevertheless God’s activity is directed toward the world as a continual causative power, guiding and sustaining the ‘system of nature’ as a whole. God’s whole creational and providential purpose finds its climax and goal in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is perfectly open to God and so possesses a perfect God-consciousness. So powerful is this God-consciousness that he is able to live a sinless life and so become the Redeemer who communicates the power of his own God-consciousness to others. But Schleiermacher is concerned about human development and so in his view, the divine essence unites itself to human nature in the person of Jesus only gradually. This allows room for personality development in the human Jesus, as McCormack notes:

It was only as Jesus’s “higher powers” (reason and will) developed that the uniting activity could produce that redemptive power that would emanate from him to those who came after. To be sure, the uniting activity was present in such a way that it kept him preserved from sin at every point—but always in a manner congruent with his stage of human development.[1]

Because Jesus has a perfect passivity with respect to God’s uniting activity,

he is the replication in human form of the pure activity which God is—an incarnation of God by any other name. And he alone can be this. It is in him alone that the creation of human nature is made complete (in his pure receptivity to God). This is something that can only happen once. Therefore, Christ is utterly unique, and what takes place in him is final (in the sense of being unrepeatable) and universal in its significance.[2]

Hegel, more a philosopher than a theologian, approaches the question very differently. Whereas Schleiermacher clings to classical theism, Hegel’s God is a being-in-becoming, a God who is realising his divine being in and through the processes of world history. God is not a being complete and external to the world. Rather, God is on a journey to become who he is; God requires another to become self-conscious. Thus, God posits another alongside himself, a finite creature, the world, and in the world, a particular finite and personal creature, who is yet identified with God himself: Jesus Christ. Now, God has another over against himself in whom he also recognises himself. This other—Jesus—is separate from God, the opposite of God, and indeed in his suffering and death experiences the very antithesis of all that God is. In Jesus Christ, then, God has created and embraced and experienced the extremity of human alienation, finitude and death, and has taken it into the very life of God, triumphing over it.

The God who identifies himself with the crucified Jesus by raising him from the dead is the God who is made known as Self-sacrificial love, a love that goes to any extreme to be reconciled with the object of his love. And in that all of this is revealed to those who follow Jesus, their knowledge of God is made to be the vehicle of God’s own Self-knowledge. God knows himself in and through their knowledge of him.[3]

Albrecht Ritschl
Albrecht Ritschl

McCormack then goes onto discuss other forms modern christology has taken, including the kenotic christology of Gottfried Thomasius, the moral-historical christology “from below” of Albrecht Ritschl, and the “classical” yet post-metaphysical christology of Karl Barth. McCormack refers to all these christological models as the “basic paradigms” which shape the contours of almost all other modern christologies, including those of Moltmann and Pannenberg, the liberationists and feminists, Walter Kasper and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

McCormack’s essay is typically thorough, learned and well worth reading. Yet a significant question can be raised about his treatment of modern christology. McCormack argues that,

Modern Christology was born in a reaction not so much against the theological values that sought expression in and through those categories [of the Chalcedonian formula] as against the categories themselves. We make a huge mistake at the outset if we understand modern Christology as simply a repudiation of the dogma of the church. Initially, at least, it was anything but that. … The modern period saw a transformation in the categories employed to explain the basic values that came to expression in the formula, but no abandonment of those values.[4]

McCormack identifies these values very simply in terms of the Chalcedonian formula: Jesus is both divine and human in one person. By limiting the theological values of Chalcedon and the broader ancient tradition in this fashion he can suggest that Schleiermacher, Hegel and Ritschl are, to some extent at least, “orthodox” in a Chalcedonian sense. He is, of course, certainly aware that this is a problematic suggestion and acknowledges with respect to Schleiermacher and Hegel,

For both, the triunity of God is the consequence of the divine act of relating to the world in Christ and through the church. The Trinity is an eschatological rather than a protological reality. And that means, as Schleiermacher put it, God is not differentiated in himself in independence of his union with Christ and with the church.[5]

Surely this is a fatal departure from ancient theological values in which God is eternally the triune God, and Christ and the Spirit are eternal God. Why, then, has McCormack argued thus?

[1] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 159.

[2] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 160, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 162.

[4] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 150-151, 157.

[5] McCormack, “The Person of Christ,” 163.

Bruce McCormack on ‘Modern’ Theology

JacobWrestlingAngelBruce McCormack asks what constitutes and characterises modern theology as ‘modern,’ as opposed to ancient theology. He considers this question in two introductions: first to his Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, and second in Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction. In the first introduction, McCormack argues,

The conviction I came to at that time is one I still hold today: that it was the rise of ‘historical consciousness’—by which I mean the awareness that all human thinking is conditioned by historical (and cultural) location—that was most basic to the emergence of what we tend to think of as ‘modern’ theology today (10-11).

McCormack identifies two preconditions necessary for the emergence of historical consciousness in German culture: Kant’s limitation of what may be known by the theoretical reason in phenomenal reality, and second, the emergence of early romanticism in Herder and Hamann. “It was the confluence of these two developments especially which brought an end to Enlightenment rationalism and made possible the first truly modern theologies” (11). McCormack goes on to identify the features which characterise modern theology:

Beyond the historicizing tendencies unleashed by the rise of historical consciousness, any truly ‘modern’ theology will also include the following: an acceptance, in principle at the very least, of critical methods for studying the Bible; a recognition of the loss of respect among philosophers for classical metaphysics in all of their (Greek) forms; the recognition of the breakdown of the old Aristotelian-biblical cosmology in the course of the seventeenth century; and acceptance of the necessity of constructing doctrines of creation and providence which find their ground in more modern theological and/or philosophical resources.

Negotiable elements (i.e. those found in some ‘modern’ theologians but certainly not in all) include the following: a relatively positive stance towards evolutionary science…; nonfoundationalism, and opposition to natural theology (11).

In the second introduction McCormack covers much of the same ground though with a little more detail and discussion. Here he speaks of three defining moments in the move toward modern theology:

  1. The Rise of Science and its challenge to traditional orthodoxy, especially in the field of creation. Traditional theological authorities, especially Scripture, could no longer be taken at face value, but required interpretation in the light of new knowledge and new realities.
  2. The Rise of Critical Philosophy and its challenge to our knowledge of God. Kant’s dualist epistemology meant that God could not be known. Enter Hegel, whose speculative theological philosophy brought God back into knowledge, but understood now in personalist terms as an infinite Subject rather than in terms of classical metaphysics as an infinite Substance.
  3. Given God’s personal subjectivity, revelation came to be understood in terms of personal self-disclosure rather than the communication of information, and Scripture as a witness to revelation, as revelation only in a secondary and derivative sense.

As a result of these defining moments, modern theology either accommodates its interpretation of Scripture to knowledge gained elsewhere, or mediates traditional theological values in entirely new forms. It puts aside classical metaphysics and theism, and seeks to understand God and the God-world relation in new ways. It embraces biblical criticism as a matter of principle, while not necessarily affirming every form of criticism.

McCormack notes that not all theology done in modernity is actually ‘modern.’ It is only characterised as modern if it shares these modern commitments. Nor is a return to pre-modern theology desirable or legitimate, for the modern challenge has arisen precisely because of problems inherent in classical thought. McCormack therefore approves these three moves and obviously wants to be a ‘modern theologian’ in this sense, but is also very aware that these three commitments have often led modern theologians in unbiblical, unorthodox directions. His intent is to be a modern theologian, but within the orbit of biblical orthodoxy. Has he managed to walk this fine line?

A “Romantic” Doctrine of the Trinity?

Hegel stampSchleiermacher Stamp









Fred Sanders argues the interesting thesis that the doctrine of the Trinity in modernity is “Romantic” in its orientation. Although Enlightenment rationalism found no place for the Trinity, the Romantic impulse in modern thought funded a reinterpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity according to:

a)      History: In rationalism, reason is supra-historical, necessary truth which must be real in all possible worlds. Here Lessing’s “ugly ditch”—the idea that accidental truths of history can never become proofs of necessary truths of reason—dismissed the doctrine of the Trinity to the realm of the unthinkable. Many modern theologians have been influenced by Hegel, however, and seek to relate God and history by having the latter as the medium within which the divine being is realised. Smith identifies Moltmann, Pannenberg and Jenson as examples.

b)      Experience: Romanticism insisted that truth may or even must be experiential and not simply rational. Schleiermacher grounded theology in experience, and some following him have sought to correlate the doctrine of God and human experience—something Schleiermacher did not do. Sanders’ argument is not as strong here as it was for his previous assertion. The key to this category of trinitarian thought is the collapse of the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity (Rahner, LaCugna). Elizabeth Johnson and other liberationists use the economic Trinity to explicate human experience. As such, the doctrine does not arise out of human experience—as Schleiermacher also insisted.

c)      Retrieval: As a response or reaction to the “thinness” of theology in Enlightenment thought, retrieval theologies hope to restore biblical and patristic priorities with robust and confident explications of faith.

Sanders ends by suggesting that the doctrine of the Trinity was never really lost (and hence did not need to be “rediscovered”) in modernity, except among those who accepted Enlightenment criticism as primary. Under that pressure modern theologians transposed the doctrine into categories of history and experience. This certainly opened opportunities for trinitarian reflection which hitherto had not been explored, but also in some ways distorted the doctrine.

My interest is twofold: first, the idea that modern theologians have appealed to Romantic categories of thought to explicate their doctrine of the Trinity; that is, they appealed to one mode of modern thought against another. Second, while Sanders hints that these modern explications have some value in theological reflection, he is concerned that the doctrine itself has been reinterpreted in unwarranted ways. Stephen Holmes has argued that point more polemically in his recent The Holy Trinity: “In brief, I argue that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable” (xv). More on Holmes’s argument later.

See Sanders, F., “The Trinity” in Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Kelly M. Kapic & Bruce L. McCormack (eds); Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012) 21-45.