James Yerkes. The Christology of Hegel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a nineteenth century German philosopher. James Yerkes’ The Christology of Hegel
is about Hegel’s view of Jesus Christ, and how that fit into Hegel’s
larger religious, historical, philosophical, and political ideas.
Yerkes’ book, as I understood it, presented a lot of tensions. Here are some of them:
1. Hegel believed that a spirit, God, was moving history forward to a
time of freedom and rationality. He treated German Protestantism as an
exemplar of where history should lead. Yet, Hegel was not always so
optimistic. At times, he did not regard German Protestantism as the
ultimate culmination of historical progress, thinking there was a yet
future stage. Hegel looked at Germany and saw problems like
factionalism. Yet, in the midst of these problems, he clung to the idea
that God is close to human beings, and he regarded Jesus’ incarnation
as an exemplar or a precursor to that.
2. Hegel believed that Jesus was an essential part of historical
progress. Jesus needed to be here and do what he did for humanity to
arrive at where it needed to be. For Hegel, Jesus promoted authentic
morality and embodied God’s presence with humanity. Yet, my impression
is that Hegel also had some problems with Jesus. For one, Jesus was
from a Jewish culture, and Hegel did not have a high opinion of Judaism,
believing that it promoted alienation within the human race (i.e., God
chooses a people who are separate from others). Second, Jesus had
apocalyptic and world-denying ideas, and Hegel thought this was why
Christianity encouraged separation and systemic fragmentation rather
3. On the one hand, Hegel emphasized the importance of the
incarnation, which is God becoming man. On the other hand, Yerkes
interprets Hegel’s Christology as being rather adoptionistic: that Jesus
was a man who was particularly in tune with the divine, and so God
decided to make this man Jesus into the Christ.
4. On the one hand, Hegel championed reason. He did not care for
Shleiermacher’s subjective, feelings-oriented approach to religion. He
hoped that reason could sift between the universal and normative aspects
of Christianity and what was merely historical and cultural. He
believed in people doing what was right out of a free recognition that
it was the reasonable thing to do, and he supported political systems
that would allow that. He regarded the religion of his time as slavish
adherence to doctrines and laws, without much authenticity.
On the other hand, Hegel valued the cultural expressions of religion
(i.e., church, doctrines, practices, etc.). He believed that fed people
in a way that mere philosophy could not. He wanted to unite his
people, and culture was a way to do so. He was against human autonomy
because that could amount to each person doing what was right in his own
5. On the one hand, Hegel believed that we can know about God
rationally. He disagreed with Immanuel Kant's idea (or an idea
attributed to Kant) that we cannot know anything about God through
reason. For Hegel, we can see that we are finite, and thus we can draw
the conclusion that there is an infinite. On the other hand, Hegel
thought that people could believe in God as a result of illumination
from the Spirit.
This was my impression after reading Yerkes’ book, and I may have
missed some nuances. Yerkes was a clear author in terms of his prose,
clearer than many who write about philosophy. But I am unclear as to
how Hegel held all these tensions together, assuming I am correct in
saying there are tensions in the first place.
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