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Early Theological Writings Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Philosopher Herman Nohl sorted Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s manuscripts into five groups: “Folk Religion and Christianity” (Volksreligion und Christentum), “The Life of Jesus” (Das Leben Jesu), “The Positivity of the Christian Religion” (Die Positivität der christlichen Religion), “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate” (Der Geist des Christentums und sein Schicksal), and several fragments including “The System Fragment of 1800” (Systemfragment von 1800). This arrangement of Hegel’s unfinished works may not have pleased the philosopher.

Hegel’s decision never to publish any of these works is significant. His first published book, Differenz des Fichte’schen und Schelling’schen Systems der Philosophie (1801; The Difference Between Fichte’s and Schelling’s Philosophy, 1977), reveals that by then he had already gone beyond Immanuel Kant and toward Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, from whom he was shortly to break as well. Yet, through all the essays and fragments that Hegel wrote up to 1800, Kant can easily be seen as the dominant influence on Hegel’s thought.

The two most valuable essays in Nohl’s collection are “The Positivity of the Christian Religion” and “The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate.” They form the centerpiece of the 1948 English translation, which does not include either “Folk Religion and Christianity” or “The Life of Jesus” because the translator, Thomas Malcolm Knox, considered the former too disorganized and the latter a clumsy attempt to portray Jesus Christ as only a preacher of Kantian ethics.

“The Positivity of the Christian Religion” criticizes the legalistic and worldly aspects of the Church. Because Hegel worked on it sporadically for about six or seven years, its method is inconsistent and its quality is uneven. Yet its overarching theme is clear. In philosophy, the term “positivity” refers to whatever exists, as it directly exists rather than as it suggests any deeper meaning or expresses any subtler reality. For Hegel, a positive religion values obedience to authority more than obedience to conscience. Church authority is what believers immediately encounter in Christianity, but because this authority is not unified, it is not true to the teachings of Jesus. The moral progress of Christianity suffers because of the many individuals and sects that have arisen through history, each claiming to embody the only true interpretation of Jesus and each insisting on loyalty and obedience to that particular view. Christian positivity is therefore a divisive phenomenon, counterproductive to the intent of Jesus to found a moral Kingdom of God on earth. Such a kingdom would require spiritual unity among all believers. The stubborn ideological distance of church authorities from each other and from original Christian spirituality undermines the possibility of achieving this unity.

Hegel’s premise for this essay is that true Christianity can be rescued from its positivity only by extracting the pure ethical and religious content from the word and mission of Jesus. Toward this goal, Hegel examines the relationships of Jesus to Judaism, church to state, miracles to ordinary events, the disciples of Jesus to those of Socrates, and the ancient to the modern world. He compares various notions of messianism, equality, morality, and shared spiritual life. He searches each of these topics to detect the origins of Christian positivity. For Hegel, the advent of positivity is the advent of spiritual decay. By becoming increasingly positive, the Church becomes more political than religious. Hegel says that each separate Christian denomination functions more like a state than is proper for a true Christian church.

“The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate” continues many of these ideas but shows an even greater appreciation of the ethical teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and a sympathetic appraisal of Christian mysticism. Hegel wrote this essay over a much...

(The entire section is 1,033 words.)