October 1, 2012

Hegelian Lawlessness

Hegel’s Influence on Marx and the Doctrine of the Saviour State

Examining the Hegelian roots of Marxist ideology reveals that the God described in Hegel's philosophy is utterly irreconcilable with the God revealed in Scripture.

Hegel and Marx

The biblical understanding of law and gospel is frequently misunderstood and misrepresented; I would here like to consider some of the roots of this pervasive error, and the importance of maintaining and defending a consistent biblical worldview with respect to law and gospel.

Marxism is by now a familiar theme, and its subversive doctrines have been exposed and critiqued in greater detail than this entry warrants. It is worth remembering, however, that Marx’s dialectical materialism did not spring full-panoplied from a post-Napoleonic, post-Industrial worldview.  While Marx built his philosophy largely on foundations of Greek philosophy, particularly Plato’s Republic, the specific revolutionary outworking of Marxism is a direct descendant of Hegelian philosophy.

If he is given any thought at all, Hegel is usually associated with the formulation, “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” – a vague and uncertain aphorism often used to support forms of universalism (and also a historical exaggeration; Hegel used this formula only once, and attributed its origin to Immanuel Kant).[1] However, it is his early and less popular theological writings that provide a key to understanding his philosophical system at large, and it is here that we see most obviously Marx’s linguistic and ideological inspiration.

World Spirit and Statism

The dream of the ‘saviour state’ – government efforts to fix, heal, teach, and otherwise restore mankind through legislative fiat and social programming – are popularized and made concrete by Marx, but it is Hegel who planted the seeds of this insidious ideology, and it is in his writings that we find their foundation. The Hegelian term geist, or ‘Spirit,’ is used interchangeably with terms like ‘God,’ ‘the absolute,’ ‘Other,’ or the divine ‘Idea.’[2] Regardless which of these terms is used, they refer to something utterly at odds with the holy and righteous character of God revealed in Scripture.

Hegelian geist: An Unbiblical God

Hegel’s god is not transcendent. Rather, only by immersing itself in human communities, and then finding expression in the states and laws that emerge from this union, can spirit – and man – come to a realization of its own freedom. However, the Hegelian understanding of freedom is a dubious goal, for it is the freedom “that man has in following his own essence, reason…. To follow reason is to participate in the larger life of the state, for ‘in the state alone has man rational existence’.”[3]

An Unbiblical Freedom

The purpose of the Hegelian spirit-God in history is to bring people to a realization of their own freedom; beyond participating in the life of the state, Hegel is not clear what the purpose of freedom is, or even what it is freedom for. The striking thing about this agenda, however, is that it is necessarily accomplished through man, in the form of the state and in the arena of history. Hegelian ontology asserts two points, that “man is the vehicle of cosmic spirit, and the corollary, that the state expresses the underlying formula of necessity by which this spirit posits the world.”[4] According to Hegel, then, God needs man and man’s institutions just as much as man needs God; without the world and the state, God is stagnant, powerless and inarticulate. In fact, God himself is subject to a higher power, that of Reason, which is somehow separate from and prior to God.[5]

Rejection of God’s Law

Such a characterization of God, the state, and freedom has very real implications for understanding law and gospel. First, it irreparably severs the teaching of Jesus from the Law revealed to Moses. Hegel identifies an element of “positivity” in religion – an inferior, physical expression manifested in creeds and dogmas; this positivity he understands as an impediment to the realization of the freedom of the human spirit.[6] Problems of sin, rebellion, law, and holiness do not factor into Hegel’s religious outlook; freedom is merely a question of understanding. It is religion and religious expression which Hegel believes to be dead, not sinful humanity.

Reinterpreting Jesus

This break from Old Testament law also moves Hegel to interpret Christ’s incarnation and ministry through a cracked lens. Hegel argues that historically, Christianity included a ‘positive’ element out of necessity, due to the condition of the first-century Jews to whom Christ came. Between Pharisaic religious law and political Roman law, Hegel believes that the Jewish worldview could not comprehend the unmediated reality of total freedom, and so Jesus was constrained to deliver a message of total freedom through a ‘positive’ medium, in the form of speaking with authority. Jesus’ message, according to Hegel, was intended to “convince [people] of the inadequacy of a statutory ecclesiastical faith,” and therefore he “must of necessity have based his assertions on a like authority.”[7] Hegel’s Jesus is a revolutionary, antinomian moral and spiritual teacher, unencumbered by Old Testament law and eager to free his followers from the yoke of obedience to ritual, teaching rather “the value of a virtuous disposition.”[8]  Such a subjective, rootless ‘spirituality’ is still in vogue.

The Biblical Response

In stark contrast, Scripture makes plain that it is God’s law and God’s gospel that work together for our salvation and sanctification. We are not simply ignorant, awaiting more complete understanding; we are the dead brought to life – convicted and executed under the law, and raised to new life by the gospel. It is significant that at each of these points, the God of Scripture is the one purposing and acting for his own ends, the continuing unfolding of his Kingdom. God is King and lawmaker; he is not manipulated or necessitated into his actions, nor is he dependent on created men or women and their organizations to manifest his Kingdom purposes. Utterly distinct and transcendent, God has acted on our behalf, and as St Paul tells us:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:7-10)


Hegel’s concept of history destroys the possibility of a distinct, transcendent God, replacing it with a lesser god, a god dependent on human will and rationality.

To be sure, history moves forward, but we can go confidently, knowing that God is not a shifting, insecure Idea, working out his own self-knowledge through the historical process. Rather, he is the God who created the world and reveals himself to us according to his purpose, and he holds history itself; we would do well to remember the testimony of Job: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).


For a more complete treatment of this subject, see the editorial in the Winter 2012 issue of Jubilee.


[1] Walter Kauffman, Hegel: A Reinterpretation, (New York: Anchor Books, 1966), 37.

[2] Charles Taylor, Hegel, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 394

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, quoted in Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 96.

[4] Taylor, Hegel, 387.

[5] Hegel, quoted in Taylor, 1975.

[6] Hegel, “The Positivity of the Christian Religion,” in Early Theological Writings, translated by T.M. Knox and Richard Kroner, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971).

[7] Hegel, “The Positivity of the Christian Religion,” 76.  

[8] Hegel, “The Positivity of the Christian Religion,” 70.

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