[Chapter Review] George W. F. Hegel and Speculative Idealism

Livingston, James C. “Christianity and Speculative Idealism.” In Modern Christian Thought: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 1:116-141. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006.

James C. Livingston is a specialist in Enlightenment Christianity, specifically the 19th century. Livingston served at the College of William & Mary from 1968 until his retirement in 1998. At William & Mary, he founded the Department of Religion and helped progress studies in Asian religions, Biblical studies, Western History and Thought, and American Religion. His first volume of Modern Christian Thought is one of his remarkable works.

In this critical chapter review, MCT’s chapter 5 focuses on George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s (1770-1831) Christian philosophy, and those whom he influenced in Germany and the British Isles, Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), Alois Biedermann (1819-1885), John Caird (1820-1898), and Edward Caird (1835-1908).

Hegel’s goal is to harmonize religion and culture. To this goal, he presents the idea of God as the union of the infinite and finite—the Absolute Spirit and the temporal. Providentially, he saw the culmination of this union in the revealed God-Man, the incarnate Jesus of Christianity. However, he emphasizes this speculative Idea of harmony to which the Christian community also extends the spirit’s embodiment or manifestation.

Before concluding Hegel’s incarnational theology, he saw the significance of the overarching narrative of world history. He focuses on and defends the significant part of the Hebrew religion until Christianity. Hegel started with the Creation story’s Paradise as a dispensation of dreaming innocence or without any will. From here, he equates knowledge is consciousness and the ability to will. In Paradise, the dependence on the Infinite is present.[1] He pushes further and perceives the Fall as a necessary act. The Fall introduced the feeling of independence, alienation, and self-estrangement due to grasping knowledge. This point then implies evil as separation from the will of the Infinite. It becomes necessary as a step toward ultimate reconciliation—the union of the temporal due to the Fall and the eternal.


Nevertheless, for Hegel, the ultimate representation of alienation, estrangement, and longing for a union was the Hebrew religion. This longingness for divine harmony is best expressed in the Davidic Psalms. This harmony became reachable because of Jesus. Christ coming into the world is the implicit unity of God and humanity which becomes explicit in Christianity. This whole speculative Idea demands the very beginning of Creation, Fall, and Union in the historical appearance of the God-Man, Jesus. Further, the death and resurrection of Jesus is overcoming the finitude and then the emergence of the Absolute Spirit.

From the Idea of the Creation past to the historical future, the goal is to inaugurate and consummate the Kingdom of the Absolute Spirit. Hegel concludes that Christianity, then, is the Consummate Religion. Through becoming part of this kingdom community—the Christian church—humanity harmonizes with the divine. Hegel promotes revelation as a historical, divine autobiography. Several philosophers ground their methodology and views on these religious and philosophical thoughts. These Hegelians perceive all history is “just religion progressively defining itself (133).” Neo-Hegelians are the right wing, and Young Hegelians are the left.

Bahr and Biederman take the Hegelian principle to a more historical Christology and creedal tradition. Unlike Hegel, who oversimplifies incarnation, these two take historical Jesus as a serious matter. Their goal is the same, harmonizing historical and religious consciousness. However, these two philosophers lean toward Friedrich Schleiermacher’s perspective that philosophy can purify religious faith but not replace it. For Hegel, the highest form of philosophic knowledge is theology.

Meanwhile, John and Edward Caird crystallize Young Hegelian thoughts with thesis, antithesis, and synthesis methodology. Historically, Greco-Roman religion is objective and outward, nature, world, and transcendent. In contrast, the Jewish religion is subjective, inward, and self-purification. The synthesis is historical Christianity, a union of outer and inner realities. This logical method became a defense against pantheism and deism. The former absorbs the Infinite in finitude; the latter reduces the Infinite to finitude personality. The Cairds thought that both were restless and not rationally satisfying. However, these philosophers also conclude that “God fulfills and realizes His own nature in the temporal existence of the world and, above all, in humanity’s spiritual life (135).”

In conclusion, as much as Hegel’s idealistic goal to harmonize religion and culture, divine and humanity, and creation and eschaton, it produced many dangers in Christian orthodoxy. Livingston comments that Hegel and Hegelians reduced evil to something necessary rather than the biblical reality of its evilness. Somehow, from a revisionistic curiosity thought that this may be another reason for the “evilness” of their cultural conflict and oppression in the mid-20th century. Moreover, another point is the tendency of open-theistic or process theology views that are intrinsic same with 20th-century panentheism that “God influences the world, and the world influences God (135).” Lastly, making Christ self-sufficient by tying him to the church. For Caird, as Livingston explained, “Christ is not fully actualized when considered in isolation from the community of believers (136).” Overall, Hegel is a significant theologian and philosopher of the 19th century, and his methodology is still used today.

[1] Hegel’s view is different from Friedrich Schleiermacher’s thought of the feeling of absolute dependence. Hegel commented that if “religion consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence, ‘then the dog would be the best Christian (117).’”


Published by JP Arceno

A Mere Christian, no other religion, but Christian church, call me a Catholic Christian ~ Richard Baxter

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