The Christology of Hegel

Written by James Yerkes Reviewed By Eckhard J. Schnabel

The author lectures at Earlham School of Religion and presents here his dissertation which was presented 1976 at the University of Chicago.

The book is, in Yerkes’ own words, ‘an attempt to demonstrate that Hegel’s mature speculative philosophy of the Absolute as Spirit may best be understood as an explicit function of distinctly religious presuppositions’ (p. 1). Taking into account Hegel’s statement that the Christian doctrine of incarnation was the ‘speculative central point’ of his system Yerkes deliberately stays within Hegel’s system in order to provide a ‘textually immanent exploration of Hegel’s Christological convictions’ (p. 4).

The focus of Chapter I is on the young Hegel and his Jugendschriften (prior to 1801–1807). His Christological conception of this time is characterized as ‘largely christomorphic’, Jesus being conceived of as one whose religious attitude was simply to be imitated. Here Hegel clearly was a child of the Enlightenment, Kant’s critique being definitive for his earliest reassessments of Christianity. Hegel’s later conception which appears in his mature writings is characterized as ‘dominantly christomythic’. Hegel understands the crucial events of Jesus’ life as ‘symbolic paradigms’ (Yerkes), which represent the central moments in the dialectical ontological relationship of the finite and the infinite and provide the hermeneutical key for understanding the development of human cultural history and for developing a true and systematic knowledge of God (p. 62).

Chapters II–IV are devoted to an investigation of how Hegel’s (mature) Christological conception is systematically related to his views on the nature of religion, the meaning of history, and the possibility of a final speculative philosophy and how they are mutually determined. Yerkes first gives an analysis of Hegel’s general theory of religion in terms of his theoretical characteristics and its cultural manifestations. Hegel is clearly seen as epistemologically opposed to the scepticism and resultant vague religious subjectivism which owed themselves to Kant’s critical philosophy. In the light of this general theory he then analyzes Hegel’s view of Christianity as the absolute and final religion. He comes to the conclusion that Hegel’s Christological conceptions presuppose this general theory of religion and vice versa.

The Conclusion evaluates Hegel’s Christology ‘in retrospect’ and ‘in prospect’. It is viewed as historically related to the central personal, social and cultural problems which Hegel saw facing his own era (p. 308). The incarnation—the ‘speculative middlepoint’ of Hegel’s system—is seen as being the ‘deep personal motivation existentially’ for stressing the fact of God’s immanence in the world (p. 311). On the basis of striking similarities between both the cultural and theological situation of our own day and that of Hegel’s, the latter’s Christology is viewed as being ‘immensely more helpful’ than many contemporary theological discussions (p. 316ff.).

In order to be able to really appreciate Yerkes’ thesis one must be, more or less, an expert in Hegelian philosophy. There are a few things, however, that I want to mention as a critique.

Yerkes’ own existential presuppositions become evident enough to be recognized. Apart from the fact that he quotes his teachers (at the same time his dessertation committee, cf. p. xi) L. Gilkey, P. Ricoeur and D. Tracy quite often and at considerable length, Paul Tillich is quoted more often than any other scholar (e.g. pp. 68, 233f., 239f., 306, et. al.). These presuppositions become even more evident if one considers Yerkes’ terminology: phrases such as ‘Christ event’, the ‘event of Jesus of Nazareth’ being ‘a religiously central paradigmatic event’, ‘revelational significance of traditional christological symbols’, etc., certainly have nothing to do with an understanding of the ‘real’ Hegel ‘on his own terms’ (p. 5)! One must ask the question whether such presuppositions as those which are implicit in this terminology did influence or even determine the results of Yerkes’ investigation.

This seems to be proven by the fact that Yerkes conceives the Christ event as consisting only in the incarnation. It is indeed astonishing that he hardly mentions Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection (which are at least as important for a Christology as is the incarnation). Hegel’s concept of the ‘speculative Good Friday’, of the sufferings of Christ, of the cross, of reconciliation and salvation should nave been treated thoroughly and extensively—Yerkes’ treatment in this respect is both inadequate to New Testament Christology as such and to Hegel’s system. Even in the paragraph, ‘Hegel’s Christology in Prospect’ one is looking in vain for a proper and clear evaluation of Hegel’s Christology in comparison with or in contrast to the Christology of the New Testament revelation.

Another point where I want to criticize Yerkes is the fact that he obviously and simply equates Hegel’s ‘Spirit’ with the Holy Spirit of the Bible. For Hegel Geist (Spirit) is established by speculative philosophy; the promised sending of the Holy Spirit is interpreted as the ‘transportation’ (Uberführung) of direct faith in the person of Christ to (or ‘onto’) the level of thinking and Idea.

The book as a whole provides the reader with a good and helpful survey of Hegel’s general theory of religion, his Christology and the nature and role of the relationship between the two. Taking into account the nature of Hegelian philosophy as such and Yerke’s view of Biblical revelation, however, it is doubtful whether it is an immensely helpful contribution to the discussion of the character of New Testament Christology.

Eckhard J. Schnabel

Eckhard J. Schnabel
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Deerfield, Illinois, USA