The Essence of Christianity/Chapter VI

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach
Chapter VI. The Mystery of the Trinity and the Mother of God


If a God without feeling, without a capability of suffering, will not suffice to man as a feeling, suffering being, neither will a God with feeling only, a God without intelligence and will. Only a being who comprises in himself the whole man can satisfy the whole man. Man’s consciousness of himself in his totality is the consciousness of the Trinity. The Trinity knits together the qualities or powers, which were before regarded separately, into unity, and thereby reduces the universal being of the understanding, i.e., God as God, to a special being, a special faculty.

That which theology designates as the image, the similitude of the Trinity, we must take as the thing itself, the essence, the archetype, the original; by this means we shall solve the enigma. The so-called images by which it has been sought to illustrate the Trinity, and make it comprehensible, are, principally: mind, understanding, memory, will, love—mens, intellectus, memoria, voluntas, amor or caritas.

God thinks, God loves; and, moreover, he thinks, he loves himself; the object thought, known, loved, is God himself. The objectivity of self-consciousness is the first thing we meet with in the Trinity. Self-consciousness necessarily urges itself upon man as something absolute. Existence is for him one with self-consciousness; existence with self-consciousness is for him existence simply. If I do not know that I exist, it is all one whether I exist or not. Self-consciousness is for man—is, in fact, in itself—absolute. A God who knows not his own existence, a God without consciousness, is no God. Man cannot conceive himself as without consciousness; hence he cannot conceive God as without it. The divine self-consciousness is nothing else than the consciousness of consciousness as an absolute or divine essence.

But this explanation is by no means exhaustive. On the contrary, we should be proceeding very arbitrarily if we sought to reduce and limit the mystery of the Trinity to the proposition just laid down. Consciousness, understanding, will, love, in the sense of abstract essences or qualities, belong only to abstract philosophy. But religion is man’s consciousness of himself in his concrete or living totality, in which the identity of self-consciousness exists only as the pregnant, complete unity of I and thou.

Religion, at least the Christian, is abstraction from the world; it is essentially inward. The religious man leads a life withdrawn from the world, hidden in God, still, void of worldly joy. He separates himself from the world, not only in the ordinary sense, according to which the renunciation of the world belongs to every true, earnest man, but also in that wider sense which science gives to the word, when it calls itself world-wisdom (welt-weisheit); but he thus separates himself, only because God is a Being separate from the world, an extra and supramundane being—i.e., abstractly and philosophically expressed, the non-existence of the world. God as an extramundane being, is however nothing else than the nature of man, withdrawn from the world and concentrated in itself, freed from all worldly ties and entanglements, transporting itself above the world, and positing itself in this condition as a real objective being; or, nothing else than the consciousness of the power to abstract oneself from all that is external; and to live for and with oneself alone, under the form which this power takes in religion, namely, that of a being distinct, apart from man.[1] God as God, as a simple being, is the being absolutely alone, solitary—absolute solitude and self-sufficingness; for that only can be solitary which is self-sufficing. To be able to be solitary is a sign of character and thinking power. Solitude is the want of the thinker, society the want of the heart. We can think alone, but we can love only with another. In love we are dependent, for it is the need of another being; we are independent only in the solitary act of thought. Solitude is self-sufficingness.

But from a solitary God the essential need of duality, of love, of community, of the real, completed self-consciousness, of the alter ego, is excluded. This want is therefore satisfied by religion thus: in the still solitude of the divine being is placed another, a second, different from God as to personality, but identical with him in essence,—God the Son, in distinction from God the Father. God the Father is I, God the Son Thou. The I is understanding, the Thou love. But Love with understanding and understanding with love is mind, and mind is the totality of man as such—the total man.

Participated life is alone true, self-satisfying, divine life:—this simple thought, this truth, natural, immanent in man, is the secret, the supernatural mystery of the Trinity. But religion expresses this truth, as it does every other, in an indirect manner, i.e., inversely, for it here makes a general truth into a particular one, the true subject into a predicate, when it says: God is a participated life, a life of love and friendship. The third person in the Trinity expresses nothing further than the love of the two divine Persons towards each other; it is the unity of the Son and the Father, the idea of community, strangely enough regarded in its turn as a special personal being.

The Holy Spirit owes its personal existence only to a name, a word. The earliest Fathers of the Church are well known to have identified the Spirit with the Son. Even later, its dogmatic personality wants consistency. He is the love with which God loves himself and man, and on the other hand, he is the love with which man loves God and men. Thus he is the identity of God and man, made objective according to the usual mode of thought in religion, namely, as in itself a distinct being. But for us this unity or identity is already involved in the idea of the Father, and yet more in that of the Son. Hence we need not make the Holy Spirit a separate object of our analysis. Only this one remark further. In so far as the Holy Spirit represents the subjective phase, he is properly the representation of the religious sentiment to itself, the representation of religious emotion, of religious enthusiasm, or the personification, the rendering objective of religion in religion. The Holy Spirit is therefore the sighing creature, the yearning of the creature after God.

But that there are in fact only two Persons in the Trinity, the third representing, as has been said, only love, is involved in this, that to the strict idea of love two suffice. With two we have the principle of multiplicity and all its essential results. Two is the principle of multiplicity, and can therefore stand as its complete substitute. If several Persons were posited, the force of love would only be weakened—it would be dispersed. But love and the heart are identical; the heart is no special power; it is the man who loves, and in so far as he loves. The second Person is therefore the self-assertion of the human heart as the principle of duality, of participated life,—it is warmth; the Father is light, although light was chiefly a predicate of the Son, because in him the Godhead first became clear, comprehensible. But notwithstanding this, light as a super-terrestrial element may be ascribed to the Father, the representative of the Godhead as such, the cold being of the intelligence; and warmth, as a terrestrial element, to the Son. God as the Son first gives warmth to man; here God, from an object of the intellectual eye, of the indifferent sense of light, becomes an object of feeling, of affection, of enthusiasm, of rapture; but only because the Son is himself nothing else than the glow of love, enthusiasm.[2] God as the Son is the primitive incarnation, the primitive self-renunciation of God, the negation of God in God; for as the Son he is a finite being, because he exists ab alio, he has a source, whereas the Father has no source, he exists à se. Thus in the second Person the essential attribute of the Godhead, the attribute of self-existence, is given up. But God the Father himself begets the Son; thus he renounces his rigorous, exclusive divinity; he humiliates, lowers himself, evolves within himself the principle of finiteness, of dependent existence; in the Son he becomes man, not indeed, in the first instance, as to the outward form, but as to the inward nature. And for this reason it is as the Son that God first becomes the object of man, the object of feeling, of the heart.

The heart comprehends only what springs from the heart. From the character of the subjective disposition and impressions the conclusion is infallible as to the character of the object. The pure, free understanding denies the Son,—not so the understanding determined by feeling, overshadowed by the heart; on the contrary, it finds in the Son the depths of the Godhead, because in him it finds feeling, which in and by itself is something dark, obscure, and therefore appears to man a mystery. The Son lays hold on the heart, because the true Father of the divine Son is the human heart,[3] and the Son himself nothing else than the divine heart, i.e., the human heart become objective to itself as a divine Being.

A God, who has not in himself the quality of finiteness, the principle of concrete existence, the essence of the feeling of dependence, is no God for a finite, concrete being. The religious man cannot love a God who has not the essence of love in himself, neither can man, or, in general, any finite being be an object to a God who has not in himself the ground, the principle of finiteness. To such a God there is wanting the sense, the understanding, the sympathy for finiteness. How can God be the Father of men, how can he love other beings subordinate to himself, if he has not in himself a subordinate being, a Son, if he does not know what love is, so to speak, from his own experience, in relation to himself? The single man takes far less interest in the family sorrows of another than he who himself has family ties. Thus God the Father loves men only in the Son and for the sake of the Son. The love to man is derived from the love to the Son.

The Father and Son in the Trinity are therefore father and son not in a figurative sense, but in a strictly literal sense. The Father is a real father in relation to the Son, the Son is a real son in relation to the Father, or to God as the Father. The essential personal distinction between them consists only in this, that the one begets, the other is begotten. If this natural empirical condition is taken away, their personal existence and reality are annihilated. The Christians—we mean of course the Christians of former days, who would with difficulty recognise the worldly, frivolous, pagan Christians of the modern world as their brethren in Christ—substituted for the natural love and unity immanent in man, a purely religious love and unity; they rejected the real life of the family, the intimate bond of love which is naturally moral, as an undivine, unheavenly, i.e., in truth, a worthless thing. But in compensation they had a Father and Son in God, who embraced each other with heartfelt love, with that intense love which natural relationship alone inspires. On this account the mystery of the Trinity was to the ancient Christians an object of unbounded wonder, enthusiasm and rapture, because here the satisfaction of those profoundest human wants which in reality, in life, they denied, became to them an object of contemplation in God.[4]

It was therefore quite in order, that to complete the divine family, the bond of love between Father and Son, a third, and that a feminine person, was received into heaven; for the personality of the Holy Spirit is a too vague and precarious—a too obviously poetic personification of the mutual love of the Father and Son, to serve as the third complementary being. It is true that the Virgin Mary was not so placed between the Father and Son as to imply that the Father had begotten the Son through her, because the sexual relation was regarded by the Christians as something unholy and sinful; but it is enough that the maternal principle was associated with the Father and Son.

It is in fact difficult to perceive why the Mother should be something unholy, i.e., unworthy of God, when once God is Father and Son. Though it is held that the Father is not a Father in the natural sense—that, on the contrary, the Divine generation is quite different from the natural and human—still he remains a Father, and a real, not a nominal or symbolical Father, in relation to the Son. And the idea of the Mother of God, which now appears so strange to us, is therefore not really more strange or paradoxical, than the idea of the Son of God, is not more in contradiction with the general, abstract definition of God than the Sonship. On the contrary, the Virgin Mary fits in perfectly with the relations of the Trinity, since she conceives without man the Son whom the Father begets without woman;[5] so that thus the Holy Virgin is a necessary, inherently requisite antithesis to the Father in the bosom of the Trinity. Moreover we have, if not in concreto and explicitly, yet in abstracto and implicitly, the feminine principle already in the Son. The Son is the mild, gentle, forgiving, conciliating being—the womanly sentiment of God. God, as the Father, is the generator, the active, the principle of masculine spontaneity; but the Son is begotten, without himself begetting, Deus genitus, the passive, suffering, receptive being; he receives his existence from the Father. The Son, as a Son, of course not as God, is dependent on the Father, subject to his authority. The Son is thus the feminine feeling of dependence in the Godhead; the Son implicitly urges upon us the need of a real feminine being.[6]

The son—I mean the natural, human son—considered as such, is an intermediate being between the masculine nature of the father and the feminine nature of the mother; he is, as it were, still half a man, half a woman, inasmuch as he has not the full, rigorous consciousness of independence which characterizes the man, and feels himself drawn rather to the mother than to the father. The love of the son to the mother is the first love of the masculine being for the feminine. The love of man to woman, the love of the youth for the maiden, receives its religious—its sole truly religious consecration in the love of the son to the mother; the son’s love for his mother is the first yearning of man towards woman—his first humbling of himself before her.

Necessarily, therefore, the idea of the Mother of God is associated with the idea of the Son of God,—the same heart that needed the one needed the other also. Where the Son is, the Mother cannot be absent; the Son is the only begotten of the Father, but the Mother is the concomitant of the Son. The Son is a substitute for the Mother to the Father, but not so the Father to the Son. To the Son the Mother is indispensable; the heart of the Son is the heart of the Mother. Why did God become man only through woman? Could not the Almighty have appeared as a man amongst men in another manner—immediately? Why did the Son betake himself to the bosom of the Mother?[7] For what other reason, than because the Son is the yearning after the Mother, because his womanly, tender heart, found a corresponding expression only in a feminine body? It is true that the Son, as a natural man, dwells only temporarily in the shrine of this body, but the impressions which he here receives are inextinguishable; the Mother is never out of the mind and heart of the Son. If then the worship of the Son of God is no idolatry, the worship of the Mother of God is no idolatry. If herein we perceive the love of God to us, that he gave us his only begotten Son, i.e., that which was dearest to him, for our salvation,—we can perceive this love still better when we find in God the beating of a mother’s heart. The highest and deepest love is the mother’s love. The father consoles himself for the loss of his son; he has a stoical principle within him. The mother, on the contrary, is inconsolable; she is the sorrowing element, that which cannot be indemnified—the true in love.

Where faith in the Mother of God sinks, there also sinks faith in the Son of God, and in God as the Father. The Father is a truth only where the Mother is a truth. Love is in and by itself essentially feminine in its nature. The belief in the love of God is the belief in the feminine principle as divine.[8] Love apart from living nature is an anomaly, a phantom. Behold in love the holy necessity and depth of Nature!

Protestantism has set aside the Mother of God; but this deposition of woman has been severely avenged.[9] The arms which it has used against the Mother of God have turned against itself, against the Son of God, against the whole Trinity. He who has once offered up the Mother of God to the understanding, is not far from sacrificing the mystery of the Son of God as an anthropomorphism. The anthropomorphism is certainly veiled when the feminine being is excluded, but only veiled—not removed. It is true that Protestantism had no need of the heavenly bride, because it received with open arms the earthly bride. But for that very reason it ought to have been consequent and courageous enough to give up not only the Mother, but the Son and the Father. Only he who has no earthly parents needs heavenly ones. The triune God is the God of Catholicism; he has a profound, heartfelt, necessary, truly religious significance, only in antithesis to the negation of all substantial bonds, in antithesis to the life of the anchorite, the monk, and the nun.[10] The triune God has a substantial meaning only where there is an abstraction from the substance of real life. The more empty life is, the fuller, the more concrete is God. The impoverishing of the real world, and the enriching of God, is one act. Only the poor man has a rich God. God springs out of the feeling of a want; what man is in need of, whether this be a definite and therefore conscious, or an unconscious need,—that is God. Thus the disconsolate feeling of a void, of loneliness, needed a God in whom there is society, a union of beings fervently loving each other.

Here we have the true explanation of the fact, that the Trinity has in modern times lost first its practical, and ultimately its theoretical significance.


  1. “Dei essentia est extra omnes creaturas, sicut ab aeterno fuit Deus in se ipso; ab omnibus ergo creaturis amorem tuum abstrahas.”—John Gerhard (Medit. sacrae, M. 31). “If thou wouldst have the Creator, thou must do without the creature. The less of the creature, the more of God. Therefore, abjure all creatures, with all their consolations.”—J. Tauler (Postilla. Hamburg, 1621. p. 312). “If a man cannot say in his heart with truth: God and I are alone in the world—there is nothing else,—he has no peace in himself.”—G. Arnold (Von Verschmähung der Welt. Wahre Abbild der Ersten Christen, L. 4, c. 2, § 7).
  2. “Exigit ergo Deus timeri ut Dominus, honorari ut pater, ut sponsus amari. Quid in his praestat, quid eminet?—Amor.” Bernardus (Sup. Cant. Serm. 83).
  3. Just as the feminine spirit of Catholicism—in distinction from Protestantism, whose principle is the masculine God, the masculine spirit—is the mother of God.
  4. “Dum Patris et Filii proprietates communionemque delectabilem intueor, nihil delectabilius in illis invenio, quam mutuum amoris affectum.”—Anselmus (in Rixner’s Gesch. d. Phil. II. B. Anh. p. 18).
  5. “Natus est de Patre semper et matre semel; de Patre sine sexu, de matre sine usu. Apud patrem quippe defuit concipientis uterus; apud matrem defuit seminantis amplexus.”—Augustinus (Serm. ad. Pop. p. 372, c. 1, Ed. Bened. Antw. 1701).
  6. In Jewish mysticism, God, according to one school, is a masculine, the Holy Spirit a feminine principle, out of whose intermixture arose the Son, and with him the world. Gfrörer, Jahrb., d. H. i. Abth. p. 332-34. The Herrnhuters also called the Holy Spirit the mother of the Saviour.
  7. “For it could not have been difficult or impossible to God to bring His Son into the world without a mother; but it was his will to use the woman for that end.”—Luther (T. ii. p. 348).
  8. see note 7 (Wikisource contributor note)
  9. In the Concordienbuch, Erklär. Art. 8, and in the Apol. of the Augsburg Confession, Mary is nevertheless still called the “Blessed Virgin, who was truly the mother of God, and yet remained a virgin,”—“worthy of all honour.”
  10. “Sit monachus quasi Melchisedec sine patre, sine matre, sine genealogia: neque patrem sibi vocet super terram. Imo sic existimet, quasi ipse sit solus et Deus. (Specul. Monach. Pseudo-Bernard.) Melchisedec . . . refertur ad exemplum, ut tanquam sine patre et sine matre sacerdos esse debeat.”—Ambrosius .