Hegel’s Trinity

Hegel’s Trinity November 28, 2007

In his book on the Trinity in German Thought, Samuel Powell gives a remarkably lucid summary of Hegel’s Trinitarian theology. A few of his major points:

1) Hegel worked out his position as a way between the Enlightenment and pietism, focusing on the question of whether and how we can know God. Pietists, he charged, escape into feeling; while the pietists are right to emphasize a moment of subjectivity in religion, they “wrongly come to oppose feeling to thought, with a resulting loss of all objective knowledge.” For Pietists, Hegel said, “we cannot know God as an object, we cannot cognize him.” On the other hand, the Enlightenment’s theology was without any truth. According to Hegel, the Enlightenment was so fearful of superstition that it ended up with only a formal understanding of truth. The Enlightenment also assumed that a thing’s finitude was directly proportional to its specificity or determinateness; since God is infinite, he has no determinations, no specificity. As a result, theology comes to “nothing but abstract understanding masquerading under the name of reason.” Following Aristotle, Hegel believed that we can come to participate in God’s own knowledge of HImself.

2) Hegel’s effort to reconcile religion and Enlightenment rationality by moving from the realm of “representation” ( Vorstellung ) to conceptual thinking. Knowledge is supposed to ascend from sensuous perception through representation to thought. Representation is thus a transitional position that “combines the figurative character of intuition with the universality of thought.” Religion is full of representations that need to rise to thought – angels, demons, Satan, and other beliefs are at the level of representation; they contain some germ of truth but need to ascend further to attain a purer form of truth. At this conceptual level, thought arrives at universality. The Trinity in particular could be philosophically deciphered, and this was the key to resolving “every philosophical perplexity and religious mystery.” In dogmatic terms and popular piety, the Trinity is representational; it needs to be brought to thought and concept.

3) Hegel linked up Vorstellung with the faculty of understanding, and conceptual thought with “reason” ( Vernunft ). Reason is dialectical; dialectic is the true method of thought because “each entity, including God, is a unity of opposites and so possesses a dialectical movement.” Negation is a key to grasping what Hegel means by “dialectic.” Negation is not annihilation but “the negation of particular content.” Powell gives the example of the seed and the plant that grows from it; the seed must be negated for the plant to emerge. Negation in thought means that “a new concept, but a higher, richer concept than that which preceded it” emerges (Hegel’s words). The real partakes “of the dialectical movement of life, whereby immediacy produces negation, resulting in the unity of opposites” (Powell).

4) Powell explains that Hegel’s logic defines God “as he is in his eternal essence before the creation of Nature and of a Finite Spirit.” He suggests that for Hegel “‘God’ is the word used in religion for that which in philosophy is known as absolute spirit. Absolute spirit is the totality that includes logic and the finite world . . . That is, God is that inclusive totality that comprises all that is: the world of matter and the forms of thought – not independently of each other, but their unity.” He does not think of God as “a being or a particular self-conscious personality. God is not actual apart from the world.” Yet, Hegel does not think that “God” is a dispensable representation. His system is incomplete without absolute spirit. Powell concludes that “the doctrine of the Trinity is the culmination of the Hegelian system,” insofar as it is a representation of Absolute Spirit.

5) Hegel links up the Trinity with the knowability of God, which is to say, with a theory of revelation. God reveals Himself because He is not envious but self-revealing. This is the mode of existence of spirit itself, and thus is God’s mode of existence. For Hegel, revelation means the particularization of the universal. For ordinary thought, universal and particular are opposites, but they are not mutually exclusive. The universal, like all real and mobile things, generates its opposite; this is the movement of the dialectic. But then this opposite is folded back into a fresh unity. Revelation is “this self-particularizing of the universal, this self-negation and differentiation.” Revelation is a moment in the life of God, and Hegel isolates two main moments in which the universal generates particularity in order to be united with it – creation and Jesus. Creation is God’s self-othering, and in Jesus “God has again passed out of universality and entered into the realm of particular being.”

6) But the move from universality to particularity is not the end of the process. After sheer particularity is the movement toward “concrete universality,” which Hegel labels “individuality.” The doctrine of the Trinity represents this movement; this is the movement that the word “God” refers to: “when religious people misleadingly affirm that God creates something that is different from God or appears as a particular being then implicitly God is truly known, for God is the religious name for the process of setting forth something different and then overcoming the difference.” God’s life develops according to what Hegel describes as the “concept” ( Begriff ). More radically, God’s life is the concept, manifested in the three moments of universality, particularity, and individuality. This is the philosophical truth of the dogma of the Trinity.

7) Each of these moments in the concept corresponds to a particular state of consciousness. Universality corresponds to thought, particularity to representation, and individuality to subjectivity. These also correspond to three modes of God’s existence: As universal, God is “the eternal idea of God in and for itself, an object of thought”; in particularity, God appears in the world of nature that comes to a climax in Jesus; in individuality, God appears as the Spirit, which is “the Christian community’s reconciled union with God.” Father, Son, and Spirit are the representations that correspond to “idea, finite reality, and the reconciled community,” and together these “constitute absolute spirit.”

8) Hegel refused to apply “Trinity” to the economic Trinity, speaking instead of the self-actualization of absolute spirit. Trinity means “God in the element of universality, known in thought.” But in this sense Trinity is not the full actualization of spirit, because the full actualization of anything only comes at the end of a movement of alienation and reconciliation. Trinity is not God, but “one logical moment of actual spirit, namely the concept (or form).” “God” and “Trinity” are thus not interchangeable terms: “the real reference of ‘God’ is actual spirit, which presupposes the particularization that constitutes finitude and the reconciliation that constitutes the Christian community.”

9) On the use of “person” in theology, Hegel suggests that this points to the self-differentiation of the idea. To avoid the conclusion that there are three gods, Hegel introduces the concept of love, identified with the concept of spirit, and defined as “intuition of oneself in another.” Love in other words is both unity and difference, and is a moment of “being-outside-ourselves,” as Hegel describes it. For Hegel, love cannot be differentiation and duality; duality must be a moment on the way to reunion, and applied to the Trinitarian persons this means that they cannot be absolute and separate: “Love consists in giving up one’s personality, all that is one’s own . . . It is the supreme surrender of oneself in the other.” Each of the Triune persons has his being only in the other. But “the persons are real in the sense that the idea of God in the element of universality truly is self-differentiating and not a mere unit. However, they are not actual beings.”

10) Hegel’s work has had its most sustained impact in theologies that emphasize the Trinity unfolded in history. For Hegel, this is an essential moment in the actualization of Spirit, because actualization takes place through differentiation, negation, and reconciliation. This makes the world and history a necessary dimension of God’s life, but Powell says that Hegel was trying to “make the world part of God’s life while still maintaining a distinction between this life in its finite manifestation and that life in its eternal form, before the world so to speak.” But since h believed that “divine life is not actual apart from the finite world,” this distinction is, shall we say, difficult to maintain.


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