Life in the Spirit

Trinitarian Grammar and Pneumatic Community in Hegel and Augustine

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Douglas Finn
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , December
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is common to assert a kinship relationship between Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s dialectic and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and almost as common to make this association and then continue on to discuss other matters. However, a few exceptions to this pattern exist. For example, Ludwig Feuerbach mentions dialectic and Trinity in sequence at the conclusion of his Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (Hackett, 1986), but avoids making a strong association between the two. Hans Urs von Balthasar goes further in his Theo-Logic Volume II, Truth of God (Ignatius, 2005), where he states that “[b]oth Augustine’s De Trinitate and Hegel’s philosophy of being’s triadic movement are attempts to bring to light the Trinitarian mystery of being as such.” Von Balthasar goes on to draw parallels between De Trinitate and Hegel’s works, resulting in a preliminary but optimistic assessment of their theo-logical identification of love with the movement of reason, in service of his theological project.

Although he does not mention von Balthasar, in his excellent new book Life in the Spirit, Douglas Finn of Boston College compares Hegel and Augustine on much more than just the topics of love and reason. With pneumatology as his key concern, and all of Hegel and Augustine’s works before him, Finn does more than just provide a comparison of contrasting views—although this is a strong part of the book. Reading Augustine’s sermons and commentaries as well as his more widely known works, Finn describes the shared concern for the spoken logos in the christologies of Hegel and Augustine, while emphasizing their differences: whereas Hegel confuses the distinction between God and world, Augustine maintains this separation (18-19). Correspondingly, while Hegel subordinates love to reason (13), Augustine puts love above pride and seeks to reorder the will toward the love of God and neighbour (54-56). Hegel’s Spirit becomes the agent of assimilation, eclipsing the Incarnation in the actuality of the spiritual community, while Augustine’s Holy Spirit animates the witness of the community as that community advances the work of love (129). Furthermore, unlike Hegel, Augustine understands a deep continuity between language and human corporeality (132-134).

Life in the Spirit contributes to the reinvigoration of Trinitarian theology both by critiquing Hegel’s work and by responding to criticisms of Augustine’s supposed instrumentalization of the Trinity (1-2). Tracing Hegel’s influence upon Trinitarian theology (through the work of Ferdinand Christian Baur), and seeking to recover Augustine’s pneumatology, Finn states that his book “brings Augustine and Hegel together in a mutually illuminating way” (3), and although this is technically true in that Finn’s incisive readings do indeed lead to the illumination of both parties, he does not treat the two thinkers with uniform mutuality. Consistently throughout Life in the Spirit Hegel comes second to Augustine, for the “Augustinian paradigm is in fact more adequate to the Christian belief that God has revealed his love for the world through Jesus Christ” (3). Although Finn may be correct about Augustine’s superiority to Hegel on questions of the Christian life, the evaluation of Hegel as the inferior party may foreclose the exploration of potential connections between Trinity and dialectic that someone like von Balthasar addresses in more detail. Granted, Finn’s concern is not for the abstract concatenations of dialectic, but instead for the witness of spiritual community. Finn states that “Hegel cannot be permitted to set the terms” in light of the risk that Augustine’s work will fall prey to his “assimilation” (8), but I wonder if sometimes in Life in the Spirit the assimilation goes the other way. Of course, Hegel will lose if the rules of the game are set by the questions of Christian theology. Indeed Hegel’s reduction of Christ to the status of a moral teacher (32), and his rejection of martyrdom for the love of heroes (122), make him an inferior theologian to Augustine, but should Hegel be held to the standard of a Christian theologian or a speculative philosopher? How one answers this question will determine how the framing of Life in the Spirit should be evaluated, but regardless of whether one is more inclined toward Hegelian or Augustinian questions, Finn’s Life in the Spirit provides a deep and rich look at the problems and prospects of the use of both Hegel and Augustine in contemporary Christian theology.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Maxwell Kennel is a Ph.D. student in religous studies at McMaster University.

Date of Review: 
June 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Douglas Finn is assistant professor of theology at Boston College.



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