Hegel and Humility in Christian Ministry

It all started with a joke during tea time that hinged on everyone’s awareness of a certain dead German theologian of the early 1900s. Everyone laughed, sipped their tea, and moved on to the next topic.

Five minutes later, Wikipedia received a search request for said German theologian; actually, Google received it first, primarily to make sure the spelling was correct, then Wikipedia. Google has yet to release the search logs regarding who actually submitted the request, but the NSA surely has received it already. But I digress.

Everyone knows that seminary jokes are pretty bad. But PhD jokes are even worse, and this moment during my first week here brought home to me a certain and painful realization: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Hegel was right, at least about one thing

Only a few days ago was I able to begin articulating the implications of this brief tea time exchange. Strangely, perhaps, I can best describe it in terms put forth by the German philosopher (not the guy from the joke, to be clear) G.W.F. Hegel.

Everyone's favorite bedtime reading
Everyone’s favorite bedtime reading

Now, I admit it’s incredibly odd to describe anything in my life in terms of Hegel. As one of my philosophy professors in the past said, “Of all the philosophers I’ve studied in detail, Hegel is hands down the hardest. I don’t think I’ve ever really understood anything he said. In fact, I’m not sure Hegel understood what Hegel was saying.”[1] Hegel was a complicated thinker who influenced in a dramatic fashion numerous post-Enlightenment politicians, scientists, philosophers, and theologians. He was fundamentally an atheist who redefined God as some sort of transcendent universal mind or spirit (Geist) towards which all human progress is working; his “god-talk” was actually an extreme form of humanism (hence my comment about how it is bizarre to bring him up here).

In the course of time, as philosophical whims ebb and flow, Hegel’s philosophy has been regularly challenged and overturned, but his shadow still looms large. One of his most well-known concepts, which was a key contributor to the rise of the higher criticism within biblical studies, is now known as the Hegelian Dialectic.

Hegel tends to deny summarization, but to keep it very simple, the “Dialectic” runs like this. Historical patterns of ideas, trends in what is in vogue or not in vogue, and even actual historical events themselves all operate according to the following three-stage process:

(a) Thesis: the initial idea or starting point.

(b) Antithesis: the negation or opposite of that idea, brought forth from internal or external circumstances fighting back against the thesis. This contradiction would, in effect, bring everything grinding to a halt.

(c) Synthesis: a third idea that resolves the contradiction of the thesis and antithesis and provides a way to move forward out of the impasse.

To illustrate, we could frame the rise of representative democracy in America along Hegelian dialectical lines:

(a) Thesis: absolute rule by a single British monarch representing all the people

(b) Antithesis: every man representing himself in absolute rule (e.g., anarchy or mob rule)

(c) Synthesis: rule of all people by a plurality of (elected) representatives

To be sure, Hegel’s Thesis + Antithesis ==> Synthesis dialectic has been shown to have a lot of problems; history (political, intellectual, religious, you name it) simply does not operate along these clear cut lines.

However, I think Hegel’s framework is still right about one thing.

The Hegelian dialectic in ministry

The phenomenon experienced by a new PhD student is much the same as what a new seminary student feels, or what a new pastor feels, or what a new missionary feels, or what a new children’s ministry coordinator feels. For everyone transitioning into a new stage of ministry, the Hegelian dialectic plays itself out in a clear and simple way that may be described as “Being humbled.” Let me explain.

Everyone, whether they admit it or not, approaches a new stage in ministry with a certain track record (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense, but rather in the more positive “recognition of ministry fruit” sense). The problem is that our sinful natures tend to inflate this track record, such that we think we are somewhat “better” (however that may be defined in the given context) than we actually are. We think we have what it takes, that we’ve arrived, that we are good to go. That is our thesis: “Let’s be honest, I’m a pretty big deal.”

Then we face the antithesis, and we nearly fall apart. “Sorry, friend, you are not that big a deal.” This leads to an impasse, a crisis of conscience, a terrifying moment of realizing you may be “found out” or exposed as a fraud. You feel like you might need to pack it in. Fortunately, God’s tender but stern hand of providence is actually at work to bring about a synthesis, which allows you to move forward more sanctified, more humbled, and, ironically, more equipped to do what you’re called to do because the overinflated thesis has been cut to shreds.

In other words, the dialectic yields sanctification.

Embracing the dialectic

It seems like John the Baptist’s profound ministry experience expresses this very dialectic. He had arrived on the scene in Judea preaching, teaching, and gathering quite a following. The time had come for him to fulfill his fundamental role as Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” that would prepare the way for the visitation of God himself in Jesus Christ. The thesis that was making the rounds in his group of followers was that John might himself be the big show, that he might be the Christ (Luke 3:15). However, John expressed the following antithesis: I am not the Christ, I am only the forerunner (John 3:28). I am not the big show you’re waiting for; I’m temporary. It’s not about ME. It’s not about my preaching; I’m just a pointer to the greater One. This introduces tension: should they just give up? Is it all over for his ministry and posse? He then states the only possible way forward, the great synthesis (which should, in fact, be the slogan of all ministry): “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). In other words, the thesis that would make John increase meets the antithesis that Jesus alone deserves such stature, resulting in the synthesis that allows John’s ministry to thrive in an even better way than the thesis would allow: he will decrease in order to magnify Jesus more.

It is my hunch that this dialectic plays out (or should play out) in all sorts of ministry contexts. In fact, given the theses of self-congratulatory pride we bring to the table in ministry, this dialectic HAS to play out. Here are a few examples:

  • New seminarian: (a) Thesis: We all come to seminary with a certain conception of our potential as ministers of the gospel which is polluted with a heavy amount of pride, sourced both internally (“I am a delightful and unique combination of the next Jim Elliott, F. F. Bruce, and John Piper”) and externally (“You are the best preacher ever“). (b) Antithesis: Then seminary pours cold water on our overheated ambitions to be the single key player in worldwide Christian revival. We realize we can’t consistently string together three coherent points in an expository sermon; the Hiphil stem in Hebrew eludes us constantly; and, most importantly, our professors, colleagues, and pastoral mentors point out our weaknesses that we are blind to (and the strengths as well, of course). (c) Synthesis: We emerge humbled. We realize how hard ministry really is. We realize how much work it takes to preach a half-decent sermon, how much life experience and tears it takes to counsel well, and how difficult it really is to lead a group of grown men and women who are not impressed by our seminary grades. In other words, the dialect breaks us where we need to be broken, so that we can heal stronger and be more able to serve Christ’s purposes rather than to promote our own ministries. At least, that’s the hope.
It's okay ... we all need humbling
It’s okay to be in the minor league dugout … we all need humbling
  • New pastor: (a) Thesis: “Everyone loved my preaching in lab at seminary. I have preached, what, like 7 times! I aced my presbytery floor exam. I have a blog AND a Twitter feed with over 100 followers. Just give me a month to fix a few things at this church, and the invitations for T4G’14 will be flooding in.” (b) Antithesis: Dud sermons. Members leaving. Harsh critiques from the senior pastor (and good ones mixed in, to be fair). Disagreements over vision with key elders. (c) Synthesis: Realizing that this is not about me. If my ministry is defined by giving the congregation more and more of ME (my cleverness, my biblical exegesis, my sermon applications, my clever programs with interesting names), then I will be starving them of the real Bread of Life. I must decrease, he must increase. I can follow T4G on YouTube.
  • New doctoral student in divinity: (a) Thesis: “I made good grades in my MDiv / MA / ThM program; the professors said I have the ability to write and think at an academic level. I’ve read a little N. T. Wright. I belong at the next level. I’m going to change the game.” (b) Antithesis: Every single conversation you have with people who are 10x smarter than you, plus the jokes about dead Germans you don’t get, plus the realization that those around you know Hebrew, Greek, German, and Coptic better than you know English (feels that way at least), plus the recognition that, for all intents and purposes, you are (at least for now) a poser, an amateur, a Single A bench warmer in the farm leagues. (c) Synthesis: Coming to terms with the fact that you really do have a lot to learn; that this is a whole different ball game; that you can get there, but it’s going to be harder than you ever thought to learn how to operate in this new world; and, finally, that the only true way to be a Christ-honoring “scholar” is to be a humble one who rests in Christ and who submits under the hand of God, rather than assumes a position over Scripture as an “expert.”

Obviously, these are embellished rhetorical examples, but they point to the reality that our hearts are deceitful enough to make us think we are much better / smarter / more talented in ministry than we actually are. We need the painful process by which God’s tender hand humbles us, so that we can be more useful for him in the end. The dialectic is awfully painful. Running headlong into your antithesis is not fun, for it wasn’t designed to be fun. Sanctification rarely is. But it is good.

So while Hegel got nearly everything else wrong, we should embrace the dialectic of humility in ministry.



[1] The American pragmatist philosopher William James was noted as remarking, “I could only understand Hegel under nitrous oxide.”


6 thoughts on “Hegel and Humility in Christian Ministry”

  1. Let me see if I understand.

    Thesis: I killed it in Comm Lab last Friday by leading a lecture on the covenantal connection between Exo 34:28-35 and 2 Cor 3:7-18. Dr. Cara smiles … heartily. He seems genuinely proud at both my topic and my presentation. I think to myself, I’m basically amazing.

    Synthesis: I attend a women’s conference the next day, and sit there the whole time thinking, “I should be the main speaker. I am trained for this, and I was awesome yesterday.” But, when it’s my turn to lead my break-out session with 11 people, I bomb it. I get totally flustered and end up saying things along the lines of, “So, like, what I’m, like, trying to say, is that, like.” Realization hits, I am the worst teacher ever! I should never speak ever. I should hide in my house.

    Antithesis: I come home distraught, discouraged, and humbled! I process a bit with the hubby, confess some of that ugly pride and … Sunday morning, I joyfully lead Sunday school for the 4 year old girls. We talk about the fall … and about Jesus, who brings redemption.

    This post could not have been more perfectly timed!

      1. Yes, girls’ comm. 4 girls and Dr. Cara – Elizabeth, Casey, Kim McCurda, and me. I’m just auditing, but because there are so few girls, I get to participate. It has been wonderful!

  2. Have you even read Phenomenology of Spirit? Your use of his form of dialectic to supplement your religious beliefs is rather discomforting, and your simple dismissal of his challenging philosophies as “regularly challenged and overturned” so you can use his frameworks is both belittling and preposterous. But I can apply humility to myself – maybe you have read some works by Hegel and I just didn’t pick it up in your writing style, but this seems to be a dramatic misrepresentation of what Hegel brought to the philosophical table, and the applications and implications of his assertions- being reduced to a neat dialectic you can use to propagate a more basic, less logical understanding of the world. I’m only asserting what the obvious to a person who has read Hegel and has read the Bible- that the two philosophical world-views are incompatible in that Fichte attributes natural causes to events as a determinist, and that the bible asserts metaphysical non-causes to events in order to explain phenomenon.
    As a person who taught the bible (and read it regularly) and as a person whose finished most of phenomenology of spirit (finishing within the next few days),I’m gonna go ahead and say you seem to have a more poignant understanding of the bible and its representation of reality than of Hegel’s representation. But that leaves me to suspect a bias, as both writing styles utilize metaphors, parables, and invoke the metaphysical (and Hegel’s is in a directly observable sense), such as Hegel’s discussion of humility and servitude in his chapter on Lordship and bondage, or the same topic being broached in Exodus and even in a similar writing style. You appear to have a more conventional understanding of one than the other, and based on this one-way understanding, you attempt to meld two incompatible philosophies (one outside of its context), which does not allow you to explore the intricate compatibilities present in Hegel’s writings, natural to our logical understanding, and represents reality in an observably realistic manner.

    To fully approach the researching of philosophy one must remove their biases as best as possible, examine the philosophy, and see if it stands up to observable logic in the real world. This is why we toss old philosophy that doesn’t apply, such as the flat earth theory, or newton’s conceptualizations of gravity (updated to Einstein’s). This process is subjectively much more difficult in metaphysics because it challenges the majority of people (roughly 70% are religious) to do something that they are uncomfortable with: accepting that a previous notion is wrong. Not just a notion but a critically, and dearly held belief. And on top of that, challenges an underlying structure of reality: that the TRUTH is often dark, and crippling, instead of enlightening and freeing. Hegel and other unexamined, non-catholic agenda cooperating philosophers, like Fichte (Vocation of Man: Knowledge), proclaim, all within our own reason, that there is no such thing as free will- an integral part of many individuals’ previously held beliefs- WHICH, would also in turn, throw the heaven/hell caste system into a kind of scary programmed chaos with unnerving implications if merged with the set of beliefs you establish from the bible. An example of this would be that more people born in the middle east are Islamic, because their circle of influence, from friends to family, to culture, and possibly even legal freedom are all in an Islamic realm. So God, being all knowing- even to the degree of how many hairs are on one’s head (Matt 10:30) and knit you into your mothers womb (Psalm 139:18) knowingly made people in regions of the earth where they would never find Jesus, which is the only escape from eternal torment, as he proclaims no one can get to the father except through me (John 14:6). Having no free will kind of makes God look like a bad guy, or perhaps even challenges the notion of heaven and hell to the degree where a God seems like a superfluous, fictitious side story.
    But Fichte and Hegel are only challenging you to think about the world you live in- and how it appears logically to us. What, in your head, is free from any influencing agent? Something outside of what you were told as a child or heard on tv or read in a book somewhere? Beyond this what is free from chemical influence that organizes your responses to situations? Even growing up without language and social prowess your sensations could be mapped out deterministically (when a person will be hungry, aroused, angry, and we could then even do a meta-analysis to see the general threshold before action in various situations). Then, after uncomfortably swallowing that possibly metaphysically accurate pill, think about this contrasting scientific doozy.
    Descartes (who often seems to champion for christian philosophers) totally infers this mapping cannot happen for a mind (it already did). His philosophy centers around the idea that there is a body, and then a soul, which sort of acts as a pilot inside this body shell. It was this inside pilot that would return to God, which he inferred to exist from the notion that something cannot exist from nothing. This, however, has been disproven by einstein’s special theory of relativity in the last century (also famously known as E=MC^2 or the Energy of an object equals the Mass of the object times the Constant speed of light squared). i.e. energy compiled becomes mass, and this is how a lot of elements are forged in the sun. The opposite of this is actually how the atomic bomb was made- turning a small amount of matter into a large amount of energy. If Einstein’s theory did not work, and something could not come of nothing, than the mechanisms of the bomb that we bet on ending a war would not have worked, but it did- and the terrifying truth likely prevented delayed warfare and increased bloodshed. Something can come of nothing, and knowing this, Descartes would have to go a step further to assert the existence of a God.
    Not only this, but his pilot theory is challenged by much of what neuroscience teaches us; the most clear example being Phineas Gage. This guy was a railroad worker with a family and was well loved by his community, but when a railroad accident sent a spike through the front of his head (importantly his Pre-Frontal Cortex), and became a social mess while still maintaining other mental and bodily functions. Gage began swearing and practicing auto-eroticism in public, even though he could still learn new information and his ability to speak and move were fine. “…he had taken leave of his sense of responsibility” (Damasio 1). These studies have also remained consistent over time in elucidating the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC) as the regulator of primal urges. People with damage to their PFC or individuals who take substances that relax blood flow or inhibit this area of the brain also tend not think about things with regulation, as the PFC seems to play a role in human thought, as it gives pause to the other machinations of the brain. This is what allows us to say [pause] “there’s a better way to do that”. [pause] “I really want that candy bar but I don’t have enough money… but if I take it the shopkeeper will see me”. This brings some serious complications to Descartes’ notion of a soul. If a soul is the pilot of the vessel, than what of Gage?
    If the pilot is a thing completely independent from the vessel, than the vessel might be shut down from a siege, but the brain (or the Mind (soul), as descartes calls it) should remain intact. If the soul is not independent of the vessel, than the pilot (or brain) can be damaged from destruction to the vessel, and asserting that there is a soul independent of the body is fruitless and not provable so long as we are encased in our vessels. We can’t find a pilot untouched if to find it we must go rifling through the vessel. The catholic (for Descartes) implications would be extremely troublesome.
    Lets say for all intensive purposes Gage claimed to be a christian (as more than 70% of Americans do, and even more did back in the day-1850’s). The structured reality of the bible goes to say that if Gage believes in Jesus Christ as his savior (Romans 10:9), he will experience a transforming of the mind (Romans 12:2), focus his energies on Christ and Christlike behavior, and attempt to hear that he’d been performing God’s will to the end that he will be rewarded as a “good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:21). This was his soul before the accident, and whereas that ability to pause and think of how an action should be handled in a Christ-like manner , he is now left without the ability to pause. In essence, he can no longer pause to recall what it means to behave in a Godly manner. Scarily enough, these breaks also allow for meta-analysis of one’s self and morals to form in general. For example you would need the PFC (or the breaks) for any kind of moral assertion.
    [Pause] I am Phineas. [pause] I have a wife and a son. [pause] I stand against bullying. [pause] Because I believe bullying is wrong. [Pause] This is because I have been bullied. [Pause] It was unpleasant for me. [Pause] I think other people are like me. [pause] I should not be bullied. [Pause] Therefore others should not be bullied. Without these pauses Phineas just has impulses and his body’s followup about how he should achieve that impulse. So in a sense God stripped Phineas Gage of his ability to act thoughtfully and rightously- this is without debate, and again documented with PFC brain injureies. But where does this leave us in the “truth” of the scriptures? Does God allow Phineas safe passage to heaven based on his previous care and service to what God wanted via his brake systems, or does God now see the soul of a careless, shameless lecher who cannot even pause to think about his actions?
    It would seem that the most obvious answer is that it does not matter. The way I categorize a “soul” is the makeup of that person’s cognitive perceptions in combination with their actions. Since a pilot is indistinguishable from the damage the individual as a whole receives, there is no reason to assume that a soul exists, outside of the assertions of others that one does based on subjective interpretation of other observable influence. The importance becomes the actions we can take with the physical form to decrease as much displeasure or pain for the experiencer as possible. The proof of successful treatment would be measured in the vessel, not the theoretical “saving” of the dependent pilot.
    Hegel and Fichte only assert what is observable or sensible in the world, and therefore Hegel can use a logical dialectic system. The bible asserts many metaphysical, even sometimes provably false statements about reality, and so a synthesis of real and possibly non-real (metaphysical) information can often lead to skewed conclusions. The use of Hegel’s system without tackling any of his theoretical constructs and just dismissing them as “overturned” is the precise reason why you cannot efficiently use his system of dialectic knowledge. You have not looked at his system of variables, and believe in a different set of rules outside of a deterministic universe, which essentially pollutes any truth you can garner from his system.
    Works Cited
    Damasio, H., Grabowski, T., Frank, R., Galaburda, A., & Damasio, A. (n.d.). The Return Of Phineas Gage: Clues About The Brain From The Skull Of A Famous Patient. Science, 1102-1105.
    Fichte, J., & Chisholm, R. (1956). The vocation of man. New York: Liberal Arts Press.
    Hegel, G., & Miller, A. (1977). Phenomenology of spirit. Oxford [England: Clarendon Press.
    The Holy Bible: New international version, containing the Old Testament and the New Testament. (1978). Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible.

    1. This is, well, a rather interesting blog response. You clocked in at 2,011 words in reply to an 1,800 word blog post … and included a bibliography. In the words of the slightly less famous philosopher Ron Burgundy, “I’m not even mad. I’m impressed!”

      I willingly admit that I lack the philosophical wherewithal to respond to your comment, and I cannot eveb say I understand much of it, which is probably due to my own lack of formal philosophy training, which I take it you have received.

      I’ll only say (a) it was just an analogy, my friend, and it was not my intention to engage with the subtleties of Hegel and Fichte; (b) I’m not sure whether having a “poignant understanding of the Bible” is a compliment or an insult, mainly because I don’t think poignant means what you intend it to mean there; (c) best wishes finishing up “Phenomenology of Spirit”; (d) I hope you can turn this essay in for a course assignment at North Arizon Univ (where I assume you attend), since you worked hard on it.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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