Georg Hegel was a German philosopher (and Protestant seminary Grad), who lived from 1770 to 1831, and in his publication Phänomenologie des Geistes created a “master-slave” dialectic (a metephor in fancy philosopher terms).
My purpose here is to explore exactly how Hegel’s dialectic image has shaped modern Christian ethical reflection, explore the relevancy of that metaphor after Nietzsche’s postmodern critique, and confirm if in all reality Hegel’s general thought is in keeping with his generations biblical thinking (His own quirks / theology aside).
In fact, after some theological refining, absorbing some necessary criticisms, and refocusing Hegel through the light of Scripture, reappraising how much we have allowed Christian ethics to be driven by Hegel’s metaphor will make possible new directions and ethical insights for tomorrow that might even make Nietzsche’s head begrudgingly nod.
Quick word on “Master” and “Slave” language
Hegel’s terms “Herrschaft” and “Knechtschaft” have been unfortunately taken as “master” and “slave” by communist, fascist, etc. to the point it is unavoidable to use the terms in this discussion.
Some readers may find it difficult to separate Hegel’s intended sense from cultural sense for the terms. His sense is very political, a product of his time and his European culture, which for a layman can be related to attitudes around the generation right after the American revolution.
His terms “Lordship” and “Bondage” can just as easily be meant in the democratic leaning sense of “Self-Sovereignty” and “None.”
The basic premise of the master-slave dialectic is that when two individuals, cultures, or groups meet, one comes out the dominant master and the other the submissive slave. This results in those who are submissive ultimately serving those who are dominant.
For Hegel slaves subconsciously cooperate with their slavery. Slaves, because they are forced into the submissive position in Hegel’s must labor. However, Slaves can improve their self-definition with and through their labor: by dividing into labor divisions and increasing skills they may even come to a type of dominance themselves. And the cycle again repeats.
Hegel sees a paradox.
Hegel wonders though, “Who owns who?” because for Hegel the master is “dependent” upon the slave’s labor and goods. Because of this dependence, the slave’s identity eventually becomes the source and symbol of the master’s identity as well.
Masters need slaves and slaves need masters to maintain these external “roles” that they play. Hegel highlights that this means both the slave and master do not have an individual self-identity. They both are defined by their outside relationship and roles.
Hegel concludes, uniquely, that only through reconciliation and the denial of slave and master roles can people have independent self-consciousness, peace, and real relationships.
Self-Determination was the End Goal of Hegel
Hegel’s ethic of reconciliation has as its ultimate goal self-consciousness. He maintains the Enlightenment ideal that a complete and free individuality is life’s goal or “the good.” For Hegel, the duel identities of master and slave are equally unethical primarily because the definition of self comes from the outside. These coerce the minds and people to comply with third-party-set definitions that causing interpersonal conflicts as people force definitions on-top of themselves and others.
Hegel believes reconciliation and ending of the unnatural slave-master relationship must rest on dual-party self-definition working in concert to defeat these negative external factors. This language has become very popular in Western Cultures; it has also never had wide acceptance beyond the realm of ideal.
Hegel’s lasting Influence
Most people familiar with the work of MLK, and many other non-violence leaders probably notice a lot that is familiar in Hegel. And not a few Biblical stories are in popular hermeneutics rendered to deliver a similar ethical conclusion.
Hegel’s influence is even visible in the academic side of Christian thought. In Glen Stassen’s and David Gushee’s joint work, Kingdom Ethics, the authors take an approach that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ teachings are “not impossible ideals but transforming initiatives” (pg 141). And this idea of “transformation” echoes much of Hegel’s reconcilitory language.
In fact, Stassen and Gushee’s reading of many passages is thoroughly Hegelian even if in different terms. The authors take violence or conflict (dialectic) as a cycle of abused (slave) and abuser (master). What’s more, they also conclude that only by the abused and abuser re-approaching one other as equals can issues be morally corrected.
This allows them to translate turning the other cheek as, “Saying, nonviolently, you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.” Stassen and Gushee believe that by treating each other as self-valuable equals “the cycle” or person-to-person dynamic can be resolved.
Example One: Buber
Surveying recent theological history (particularly Germans), I find Hegelian views of conflict resolution are normative among Occidental Christian theologians. Even those writers who are often seen as “ground-breaking innovators” are heavily influenced.
For instance, Rabbi Martin Buber, someone who may be perceived as having views or a context that conflicts with Stassen and Gushee’s worldview, still comes to a Hegel like conclusion. In Buber’s Ich und Du real freedom comes from the rejection of objectifying others. 
Buber’s strong emphasis on two self-defined individualities “I” and “Thou” who, in complete realization of their own independence and their inability or lack of desire to control each other, eventually find reconciliation in Buber through a process that reads like a page right out of Hegel’s playbook.
Many famous German theologians, even if they do not admit to following Hegel, have openly admitted familiarity with Rabbi Martin Buber. Barth, Brunner, and Bonheoffer all publicly acknowledged being influenced by Buber.
Example two: Bonheoffer
Bonheoffer’s view of the Sermon on the Mount (there seems to be a theme here) ultimately promotes renunciation of the self in a way that it is possible to see either influence or confluence with Hegelian thought.
Bonheoffer is, for me, an extreme example of the master-slave dialectics malleability, one derived by combining the ideals of reconciliation within self-definition. In Bonheoffer’s work, The Cost of Discipleship, his oft-quoted phrase, “When God calls a man, he calls a man to die,” sums up his exegesis.
Bonheoffer defines a Christian self-awakening as total self-renunciation. People are to deny their will (evil internal desires, a.k.a. desire to be master) while simultaneously refusing to submit to evil outside wills (recalling Hegel’s slavery) for conflicts to be resolved.
The idea of hegalian “external definitions” in Bonhoeffer are replaced with a dynamic of evil. But this evil behaves in a familiar way as an external and internal force. Bonhoeffer felt that evil could only be removed once it found no “counter-evil” against which to push, and that the “external” of evil had to be removed to cause “peace.” (MLK echoes this in Strength to Love)
The mechanics of Bonheoffer closely mimic Hegel’s; however, his inclusion of both internal and external tensions, plus Christian phrasing, show a deeper theological understanding being fit into Hegel’s reconciliation mechanic.
This Hegalian shift in Christian ethics is widely prevalent.
Due to its relevance, and its malleability, Hegel’s metaphorical constructions command the field in modern ethics. When comparing the transforming initiatives of Kingdom Ethics, the concept of renunciation in Bonheoffer, and American Racial politics there is ever present the Hegelian ideal that external definitions forced upon and into situations limit individual’s potential and prevent reconciliation.
Hegel’s metaphor provides a solid conceptual critique that encapsulates many contemporary issues and shapes most contemporary thought. It is also hard to see the alternatives as functional.
Rejectors of Hegel Examined
For example, there are counter-traditions that have arisen within the “conflicts-zones.” These have tried to shrug off Hegel’s metaphor or denied its utility.
Example of the radical liberal rejection of Hegel: Liberation theology
Liberation theology takes a position that that the slave, as the oppressed, is defined as morally superior to the master. This would seem to block off the path to reconciliation, and to force the Hegelian conflict. Susan H. Lindley reacts to liberation theology in her article, A Crucially Necessary Risk from what we may call the Hegelian normative position: “it is always demonic, in whatever age, to divide the visible world into two classes—the open and the uptight, the saints and the sinners, the oppressed and the oppressors—and consign one group to Hell.”
It is worth pause to note that Liberation theologian Frederick Herzog’s Origins of Liberation Theology openly states:
The Christian God is not found in the depths of the soul primarily…God as God becomes relevant in his involvement in the struggle for the survival of the oppressed. And the hermeneutical problem gets disentangled in the praxis of the identification with the oppressed through God in Christ.
Also, in the Duke Divinity Schools, Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology many of the writers expressed concern that liberation theology is a doctrine that makes the liberation of the oppressed the only concern of God and seems to equate those deemed “masters” (in the Hegelian sense) as overtly evil.
Hegel predicts the arising conflict.
Detractors complain it appears that liberation theology is actually reinforcing the slave mentality. Because there is such a stress on identification as a “slave” (poor, colored, etc.) someone believing in reconciliation will see the under-privileged as reinforcing their own “vicious cycle” by identifying themselves as such.
If the ideal is “to renounce evil” Liberation theologians use of oppressive evil to count themselves as blessed is the same strange paradox Hegel pointed out. They are defining off “the other.” At the same time, as Lindley pointed out, by forcing the identity of master/abuser onto opponents there is the impression that forgiveness and reconciliation are being withheld.
If one truly follows Hegel’s logic, liberation theology refuses to allow people self-identity by separating obtaining it from reconciliation to others.
Nietzsche (Who studied Hegel)
After pointing out the long-term influence of Hegel, and finding it is very difficult to move past his dialectic, it is important to discuss a pertinent philosophical corrective.
A second example of Rejecting Hegel: Radical Nihilism
Frederick Nietzsche was a controversial figure who claimed that he rejected the Hegelian strand of German scholarship. He perceived a harmful over-emphasis on the righteousness of being downtrodden and on the goodness of helping the weak in Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic majority of southern Germany.
Nietzsche saw Hegel as an outgrowth of this Catholic community’s values and rejected his ethics. Yet, unlike the Liberation theologians, Nietzsche retains his metaphorical construction.
Nietzsche’s critique of Hegel fails because it is itself Hegelian.
Because he retained a structure which was based in Hegel’s own nominally Christian ethics, a careful investigation of Nietzsche, In my opinion can only reinforce and strengthen the Hegelian metaphor.
Keeping the concept of slaves versus masters, Nietzsche diverged from Hegel’s view that these where differencing “levels of willpower” two instead see them as divergent moralities. Nietzsche, in keeping with the Darwinian “Zeitgeist” of his time, believed that a struggle for survival and power motivated both mentalities. He removes the enlightenment meanings of Hegel’s “self-definition” and “will of the people” and replaces them with racialized Darwinist values of “self-survival” and “will of the strong.” (I think all the Nazi blame he gets is 100% fair)
Machiavelli’s got nothing on Nietzsche
Nietzsche saw that there was a master morality maintained by those who had power over others, fashioned to help them maintain it. He described master morality as essentially pragmatic, “what is good for me is good and what is bad for me is bad.” He never denied the subjectivity of such morality. He in fact felt that a culture or at least an educated “Ubermensch” should hold the morality of masters if possible.
Nietzsche also felt master was a position conferred upon the genetically superior, so they had a “divine mandate” to fulfill their “will to power” as masters.
Anything else would be hypocritical.
Genetically weak morality
Nietzsche often contrasted this master morality to his proposed opposite, the slave morality. Though Nietzsche felt the weak were “naturally” inferior and thus morally/physically unable to be masters, he still felt they were equally motivated by a genetic lust for power and self-survival.
Nietzsche felt that since slaves where naturally inferior and can NEVER be masters, they had to find different competitive advantages. In fact, his proposed slave morality was simply a subversive outlet for a frustrated Wille zur Machte for it “does not intend to overthrow masters but to make them slaves too.” 
This “fits” with a lot of what we see today, and speaks to why the church has failed to buck certain trends
Historically, this master morality holds manifest danger; it rejects all pity as evil emotion, because it holds back the progress of the strong for the sake of the weak. This made ample philosophical fertilizer for Hitler’s National Socialism and has since made it popularly anathematized. Nevertheless, the master morality is a wedding of pragmatism and the scientific view (at that time unproven) that genes pass hereditarily, both aspects of our current society, so popular or not, they retain continued subconscious relevance.
New Atheism, Secularism, as the Anti-Semitism, etc. of the last generation, share hallmarks of this Nihilistic philosophy in it. And because it is set so counter to the Hegelian metaphor, the contemporary language of the Church fails to offer a corrective to a culture that is quickly growing “post-Hegel.”
Diving into Nietzsche’s Anti-Christian Mechanic
Understanding the lingering Hegelian groundwork is important because it informs how Nietzsche viewed Christianity.
Christianity plainly rejects the idea of master morality. Concepts such as the least shall be first, the leader as servant to all and the tendency to see the oppressed as synonymous with the blessed all smacked of slave morality to Nietzsche.
More indepth, Nietzsche sees Christianity as a product of the Jews growing weak (to the point they could not be masters); they had to explain the fact that God had not saved them. ‘If they are the people of God but weak,’ Nietzsche claims the Jews figured, ‘then that being weak must somehow be good/godly.’ For Nietzsche it follows that if God favors the weak, he probably condemns the strong.
Nietzsche saw Christians as “slaves” who were unable militarily to destroy Rome yet still hungered for power. Their moral system, to satisfy this desire then had to morph to enable them to destroy the master morality, and: “use pacifism as a weapon. They stood against defense because they were weak and wanted to make the weak the good.”
Does the shoe fit?
Ultimately, Nietzsche comes across a polemic against liberation theology. For him this type of “Christianity” was an “inversion of values (with which is involved the employment of the word for ‘poor’ as a synonym for ‘holy’ and ‘friend’) that the significance of the Jewish people resides: with them there begins the slave revolt in morals.” Nietzsche interpreted Christianity as a bitter revenge plot of the Jews against the Romans.
While I disagree with Nietzsche’s worldview, he makes it clear that there is a very real possibility for some to use of the best Christian intentions to cloak very bitter resentment. However, one must doubt if he is even on target in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic or Christianity’s understand of it.
That Christianity is 100% sympathetic to class struggle interpretations is a very suspect thesis. In fact, the critique in other circles is that Christianity does not explicitly condemn social inequality. For example, Paul sends the actual slave back and Christianity was used to defend the institution only a few decades before Nietzsche wrote. The embarrassing versus on Jewish slave holding and issues of misogyny, etc. are not so easily dismissed by those wishing to cleans Christianity’s conscious; why should Nietzsche find them any easier to exculpate?
Moreover, Church history shows forth a movement that aims for seats of power and to use existing structures to spread the Gospel. Caesar is not demonized as an “office,” more as a competing religious ideal. If the office can be used subject to Christ it is quite acceptable in most theological frames.
Still we do well to keep his critique in mind
The most important take away from Nietzsche is that resentment can serve as a lust or Wille Zur Machte as much as power struggling to retain power. The core ethic of an “outside force,” (Natural selection, etc.) finds internalization in Nietzsche. He empasizis the aspect of Hegel that strives for self-definition; he has changed that definition to depend on the struggle.
This recalls Bonheoffer’s synthesis of Hegel which was internal and external but with the twist that “evil” or “desire for power” is internal and expresses outward.
With ways to get even Nietzsche onboard, I believe the Hegelian metaphor has enough ethical clout to warrant examining if an ethic based on self-awareness, reconciliation, and redefinition is biblically sound.
Starting with the most Nietzsche-like book
In Richard Baukham’s commentary, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, he explores the conquering and violence metaphors that seem to put off many readers. In this study, he highlights that Christians are not called to conquer Babylon but to come out of her. There is for Baukham throughout the book of Revelation a need for re-self-identification as Christians. In turn, this self-identification cause tension, because it drives Christians to start reconciling people, to pick up abandoned children in Rome, to treat slaves as people, to care for the poor and sick, and to elevate individual to equality.
All of which causes resistance. This reconciling other is thus tied with identification with Christ and his eternalized “struggle” with the outsider “Babylon.”
Opposite this positive movement, the opponents of the church start to self-identify as those who resist Christ’s message. They act out this identity through oppression and evil, but Revelation does not sink into a “slave morality” vrs “master morality” dialectic.
Baukham points out that while Christians are called “to conquer,” it is not until the satanic trinity of the “Dragon or Serpent (the primeval, supernatural source of opposition to god), the Beast or Sea Monster (the imperial power of Rome), and the second Beast or earth monsters (the propaganda machine of the imperial court)” are introduced.
For Revelation, the church is not placed in conflict with those who have identified against it (we struggle not with flesh), but against an “external force” that is motivating the division. Yet, even in the “easier” books and life of Jesus, there are other ways the Hegelian reconciliation ethic of modern Christian thinking breaks down.
The biblical worldview is not Hegelian
Revelation takes the fight to the evil Wille Zur Machte itself by setting two wills into opposition that work independent of people’s own inputs. This is in part because contra the master slave dynamic, the Biblical worldview does not posit the struggles between people in terms that are interpersonal of “democratic” 1700’s thought but rather in terms of “larger powers.”
Paul gives manifold witness to Jesus as a reconciler of all people to his Father (Col 1:20, Roman 5:10). Yet, Jesus seems at times to deny a focus on reconciliation between people, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34).
Jesus even coolly says to “let the dead bury the dead” (Matt 8:22) or to be willing to end relationships between kinsfolk (Luke 14:26). We need to take care when talking about simple reconciliation as the goal of Jesus. When Jesus says he gives a peace, “not like the world gives” (John 14:27), there is a wink towards the value of tolerance and interpersonal harmony; he seems to desire something more. What is it?
Still, Hegel can be read into Jesus
In Jesus we might think we see the Hegelian dynamic embodied. Jesus rejects the temptation for worldly power (Luke 4:1-13) and “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Phil 2:6). The Master even “lays down his cloak,” that is, he lays down all externals, he washes feet (John 13:4-5), and he demands of Peter that he allow him to do so (vv. 8).
However, Jesus is a self-identified “Lord” as he serves his servants (vv. 9). Jesus even as he washes feet claims to be “Lord and Teacher” (vv. 14) and Jesus retains the title “Lord” and the position of master and does not deny it for the sake of reconciliation as Hegel suggest is necessary.
Staying the Master
In a flip of Hegel, however, and the main point of Hegelian dialectic breaks down in John’s foot washing scene… Hegel felt that the master, being served by the slave came to depend on the slave for their own self-definition. And the only way out was to eliminate both the roles of master and slave. That was what Nietzsche so hated. Yet in Christ, the slave (disciples name for themselves), being served by the master is now defined by who the master is and not the other way around.
In the biblical books familiar to us a similar dynamic often resufaces. They go from defeated enemies to friends in relationship with God (Col 1:21). They are transferred from enslavement the world, to reigning with God over it (Rev. 22:5). We do not see a slave morality based like liberation theology on a resistance to outside evil, a violent the toppling of Rome nor even condemnations hurled.
Being “in-Christ” provides a central self-identification that serves to unite and reconcile the community. While not in completely, this new slave defined by master relationship rather as avoids Nietzsche’s criticism. The Church is not trying to tear down walls and make no-one master, nor is it condemning the very role of master itself. Rather to the contrary, the “slave-morality” is based on imitating and aspiring to the master’s own morality itself.
It is here the matter of the church’s critique being “relevant” comes into question. Are we really speaking with Gospel power or with German philosophical niceties?
The Hegelian system works when it calls for a balance. It warns us that we can oppress the downtrodden further by retaining their oppression as part of their identity or keeping our superiority as part of ours. The systems that try to embrace the identity of the downtrodden, not only: do not resolve the conflicts they propose to, but as Nietzsche expanded have a tendency to codify them into subjective back-biting moral worldviews.
Relevant to todays discussions.
An example is the idea of separate but equal. In order to maintain this concept, the terms black or white becomes so self-identifying as to effectively eliminate the possible for the groups to reconcile.
By maintaining the term white, the privileged group refuses to renounce its feeling of superiority. By maintaining the term black (as the culture did), the second group is forced into a minority position. Following Hegel’s model, if even the term minority or black (in a negative sense) is used, people who are one or the other are socially defined as such.
Thus, Martin Luther King Jr. in a nod to Hegel dreamed of a day when character, not color, was the sole determinate of a person’s social status. Historically, many efforts at affirmative action have sidetracked racial reconciliation by concentrating minorities into projects or allowing them to gain economic benefit by identifying as an “under-privileged” group.
The current outlook for the church in America remains one framed by Hegel. One that ask such questions as, “how to move a society so that all the labels are removed.” I am not sure that this is a positive approach. I am under the opinion that we must instead use a biblical metaphor and describe via the master. “Black” must not be a negative term in any sense. Any sense it is pejorative, etc. means we are not fully enduing the humanity and dignity given by God to humanity.
Avoiding the issue by saying “no-one” is neither both allows no healing into the situation and risk a nihilistic outcome.
Hegel’s rabbit hole remains it’s weak spot
There is within the Hegelian system a tendency to quantify or qualify groups as master or slave. The issue of quantifying who exactly is a master or a slave lends itself to subjectivity, particularly for the slavery group that may see slave morality as a tempting alternative to true reconciliation.
Additionally, there is no mention of middle-managers in Hegel’s system. The introduction of a third party that is perhaps part-master and part-slave introduces new dynamics.
What groups stand to gain if reconciliation is not achieved? How then are those groups themselves reconciled to the original masters and slaves? Hegel’s metaphor does not provide such answers.
It is towards finding such answers that theologians such have Bonheoffer have historically tweaked or critiqued the Hegelian metaphor. It is the duty of Christian thinkers then, to see how the Hegelian system fits or does not fit into the mission of the church. Hegel in many regards was a nominal believer who was simply heavily influenced by his time. There is a Christological core in Hegel’s thought that has remained even in the secular sphere of western culture. It would therefore be most wise for Christians to build upon that common Christian core as we work to reconcile the world to Christ.
Baukham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: New York 2010.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, tr R.H Fuller, revised Imgard Booth. Macmillian: New York 1963.
Buber,Martin. I and Thou, tr. Ronald Smith. T & T Clark: Edinburgh 1950. e-book
Hegel, Georg W.F. Phaenomenologie des Geist German original 1807, Gutenberg e-book version, last accessed 6/4/12. URL: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6698/pg6698.html
Herzog, Fredrick. Origins of Liberation Theology, ed. Charles K. Robinson, in Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology, in Duke Divinity School Review 38, no 3, 1973.
Lindley, Susan. A Crucially Necessary Risk, ed. Charles K. Robinson, in Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology, in Duke Divinity School Review 38, no 3, 1973.
Moran, Phillip. Hegel and the Fundamental Problems of Philosophy. Holland: Grüner, 1988.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Antichrist tr. H.L.Mencken Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1924. e-book
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. London: Penguin Books 1973.
Stassen, Glen., and David Gushee. Kingdom Ethics. IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2003.
 Hegel, Georg W.F. Phaenomenologie des Geist Gutenberg e-book, CH IV, A&B last accessed 6/4/12 URL: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6698/pg6698.html
 Original terms are Ger: Herrscahft Lordship and Knechstschaft Bondsman-ship.
 Hegel calls in “Frieheit des Selbstbewusstseins” which translates literally as “Freedom belongs to self-knowing-being”
 Philip Moran, Hegel and the Fundamental Problems of Philosophy, (Holland: Grüner, 1988) Not a specific page, the overall theme of the book
 Glen Stassen, David Gushee Kingdom Ethics (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2003) pp140
 Martin Buber, I and Thou tr. Ronald Smith (T & T Clark: Edinburgh 1950) e-book pp99-101
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship tr R.H Fuller revised Imgard Booth (Macmillian: New York 1963) pp156-161
 Susan Lindley, A Crucially Necessary Risk ed. Charles K. Robinson in Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology found in Duke Divinity School Review 38 no 3 1973
 Fredrick Herzog, Origins of Liberation Theology ed. Charles K. Robinson in Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology found in Duke Divinity School Review 38 no 3 1973
 Nietzsche was Prussian from Northern Germany (Historically Lutheran)
 German: Lit. an Over-Man, often translated Superman
 German: Will to/for power (dat.)
 Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin Books 1973) pp118
 Friedrich Nietzsche Antichrist tr. H.L.Mencken (Alfred A. Knopf: 1924) e-book pp58
 Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin Books 1973) pp118 (Italics original)
 Richard Baukham The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: New York 2010) pp89