Hegel on “the prevalent indifference to definite dogmas”

July 4, 2017

I began rereading Hegel this afternoon, after coming across a note in the book Geist oder Energie by Dorothea Wendebourg (Münich 1980). Wendebourg (p. 7) says that the point stressed as an axiom by some modern theologians (Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, et al.) that the only way to a knowledge of God in his eternal being is through God’s self-revelation in his economy, was made by Hegel some two hundred years ago in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, vol. 3. That axiom is important, not only in itself, but also for the work I am currently doing on Bekkos: in his book Against George Moschabar which I have edited, one of the main criticisms Bekkos makes against his adversary is that the latter, by claiming that grace, or divine energy, is separate from the person of the Holy Spirit and denying that what Christ sends is the Holy Spirit himself, the third person of the Trinity, undercuts the whole basis for our understanding God to be a Trinity. Wendebourg (who has evidently not read this book by Bekkos) makes essentially the same point as Bekkos in a short English summary of her book, titled “From the Cappadocian Fathers to Gregory Palamas: The Defeat of Trinitarian Theology,” in: Elizabeth A. Livingstone, ed., Studia Patristica, vol. XVII, part one (Oxford 1982), pp. 194-198.

Anyway, those who have read Kierkegaard, who criticizes Hegel as a proponent of a soulless historicist approach to faith, may find the following passage from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion fairly shocking. Although Hegel held an extreme view on the ability of reason to comprehend the truths of faith, he was, on matters of basic Christian dogma, an orthodox Christian. And his criticisms of a purely historical approach to dogma that, because of its indifference to the content of what is studied, remains spiritually dead, still deserve to be taken to heart.


From J. Glenn Gray, ed., G. W. F. Hegel on Art, Religion, and Philosophy (New York 1970), pp. 163-166.

“Christ still indeed continues to be made the central point of faith, as Mediator, Reconciler, and Redeemer; but what was known as the work of redemption has received a very prosaic and merely psychological signification, so that although the edifying words have been retained, the very thing that was essential in the old doctrine of the Church has been expunged….

“Even though Christ be for many the central point of faith and devotion in the deeper sense, yet Christian life as a whole restricts itself to this devotional bent, and the weighty doctrines of the Trinity, of the resurrection of the body, as also the miracles in the Old and New Testaments, are neglected as matters of indifference, and have lost their importance. The divinity of Christ, dogma, what is peculiar to the Christian religion is set aside, or else reduced to something of merely general nature. It is not only by the Enlightenment that Christianity has been thus treated, but even by pious theologians themselves. These latter join with the men of the Enlightenment in saying that the Trinity was brought into Christian doctrine by the Alexandrian school, by the neo-Platonists. But even if it must be conceded that the fathers of the Church studied Greek philosophy, it is in the first instance a matter of no importance whence that doctrine may have come; the only question is whether it be essentially, inherently, true; but that is a point which is not examined into, and yet that doctrine is the keynote of the Christian religion….

“The strongest indication, however, that the importance of these dogmas has declined, is to be perceived in the fact that they are treated principally in a historical manner, and are regarded in the light of convictions which belong to others, as matters of history, which do not go on in our own mind as such, and which do not concern the needs of our spirit. The real interest here is to find out how the matter stands so far as others are concerned, what part others have played, and centres in this accidental origin and appearance of doctrine. The question as to what is a man’s own personal conviction only excites astonishment. The absolute manner of the origin of these doctrines out of the depth of spirit, and thus the necessity, the truth, which they have for our spirits too, is shoved on one side by this historical treatment. It brings much zeal and erudition to bear on these doctrines. It is not with their essential substance, however, that it is occupied, but with the externalities of the controversies about them, and with the passions which have gathered around this external mode of the origin of truth. Thus theology is by her own act put in a low enough position.

“If the philosophical knowledge of religion is conceived of as something to be reached historically only, then we should have to regard the theologians who have brought it to this point as clerks in a mercantile house, who have only to keep an account of the wealth of strangers, who only act for others without obtaining any property for themselves. They do, indeed, receive salary, but their reward is only to serve, and to register that which is the property of others. Theology of this kind has no longer a place at all within the domain of thought; it has no longer to do with infinite thought in and for itself, but only with it as a finite fact, as opinion, ordinary thought, and so on. History occupies itself with truths which were truths—namely, for others, not with such as would come to be the possession of those who are occupied with them. With the true content, with the knowledge of God, such theologians have no concern. They know as little of God as a blind man sees of a painting, even though he handles the frame. They know how a certain dogma was established by this or that council; what grounds those present at such a council had for establishing it, and how this or that opinion came to predominate. And in all this, it is indeed religion that is in question, and yet it is not religion which here comes under consideration. Much is told us of the history of the painter of the picture, and of the fate of the picture itself, what price it had at different times, into what hands it came, but we are never permitted to see anything of the picture itself.

“It is essential in philosophy and religion, however, that the spirit should itself enter with supreme interest into an inner relation, should not only occupy itself with a thing that is foreign to it, but should draw its content from that which is essential, and should regard itself as worthy of such knowledge. For here man is concerned with the value of his own spirit, and he is not at liberty humbly to remain outside and to wander about at a distance.”

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