Intolerable God,The

Kant's Theological Journey

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Christopher J. Insole
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , April
     186 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Immanuel Kant's philosophy has made on indelible impact on modern Christian theology. Christopher J. Insole’s The Intolerable God focuses on Kant's theological struggle to account for God's divine presence and activity in relationship to human freedom and happiness. Kant cannot be called a "Christian" in the historical/traditional sense of the term. It was the work of the British skeptic David Hume that awoke Kant from his "dogmatic slumbers." Yet in his early writings he does not surrender personal belief in God, owing in part to his Pietist upbringing. Kant, rather, wrestles to preserve human freedom in such a fashion that the concept of God becomes, for him, both intolerable and irresistible (9). In other words: How can a human be truly free if a sovereign being guides and directs all things?

In his early works, Kant adopts a theological rationalism in which the divine mind [God] is the source and ground of all possibilities, and the "very structure of reason, goodness, harmony, order and perfection is an aspect of the being of God" (23). Kant believes that this confirms God's necessary existence, even as he rejects traditional proofs that appeal to order and design in the universe. As Kant's journey progresses, he will abandon the idea that we can have any "theoretical" knowledge of God from experience (31). It is the moral law within the human conscience that, for Kant, points to a divine presence (34). Genuine happiness for humans is achieved when we strive for the "highest good"—the end of the moral law—which is God's final end in creating the world (39). That moral law, however, exists independently of any act of divine will. For human beings to either fulfill or reject the moral law, they must be free from any external or determining causes.

Kant's early account of human freedom allows for a "compatibilist" model whereby our wills are free to choose to do—or not do—an act according to a prior state of the universe created by an omnipotent God. Kant concludes that this "only unsolvable metaphysical difficulty" is very unsatisfying (71). Insole notes that Kant's theological "great light" arrives in 1769, and it is this light that might be Kant's most significant contribution to modern theology. Taking some key concepts from Plato’s thought, Kant declares that the existence of all things lies within a phenomenal or empirical realm—how we receive and interpret knowledge in the world—and a noumenal realm—that which underlies our experience or is the "thing in itself." Although, the appearance of something [phenomena] depends on the thing in itself [noumena], it does not disclose or even resemble the nature of the thing in itself (88). The noumenal realm always sets limits to our knowledge of the non-spatial world. This will have far-reaching implications for modern conceptions of God's relationship to the world [theology], ethics, and human autonomy. Kant’s basic epistemology exercises significant influence on the rise of “liberal” theology in the early nineteenth century, which leads to significant reconstruction of the doctrines of atonement, incarnation, salvation, resurrection, etc.

For Kant, God is the creator of the noumenal reality but it is not a determined reality. Human beings provide the originating principle [phenomena] to the appearance of all things. Even time and space are not divine creations but rather, they are simply human constructs that derive from our reception of the spatial and temporal world (126). It is through the prism of the noumenal/phenomenal realms that Kant finds a place for genuine human freedom. Kant, not surprisingly, rejects any concept of divine concurrence whereby God acts upon human decisions, even as the human appears to choose freely to carry out a specific act. Fulfilling the commands of the moral law means that when we act, God cannot act. Given this account of non-compatibilist freedom, humans can consequentially choose to do evil rather than seek the highest good. Kant admits that he is at a loss to explain why we turn away in our rational nature from doing the good we ought to do and, thus, forsake harmony and happiness.

In the latter years of his life, Kant states that God is not a being who lives outside of us but, rather, “I ... am God myself, inasmuch as I am capable of giving myself a moral law” (132). Kant’s parting reflections on God’s existence finds the presence of the divine [a form of theosis] in human participation in the moral law. Insole notes that Kant now moves away from the rationalist God of his early and mature thought (133). If there is to be a moral perfection, or happiness achieved through this perfection, then it must be in ourselves and our reason given that God cannot save or transform us (147).

This book is born from the 2013 McDonald Lectures that the author presented at the University of Oxford. Insole demonstrates a strong command of Kant’s voluminous work and engages comfortably with other Kant interpreters. Insole also seeks to give theology students and other interested readers who are non-specialists in the philosophical discipline an accessible path into Kant's thought (2). The author faces a daunting task; it is an ambitious project that he manages to accomplish admirably, and with much success. He employs some helpful literary devices—conceptual rooms and imaginary conversations—that will be of assistance to the reader new to Kant’s background and his philosophical development. Following Kant’s journey is well worth the effort if one is an aspiring theologian. The overall structure of this work is successful in achieving the author’s intention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William T. Chandler, III is a pastor and adjunct professor of theology at Liberty University Online.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher J. Insole is professor of philosophical theology and ethics at Durham University, England. Among his previous books is Kant and the Creation of Freedom: A Theological Problem.



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