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A Response to Wayne M. Martin’s In Defense of a Bad Infinity (2007)

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Wayne M. Martin’s essay, In Defense of a Bad Infinity: A Fichtean Response to Hegel’s Differenzschrift. To see his essay in the Internet:

A response by Peter D.S. Krey

Again, I would argue that Hegel is a Lutheran philosopher and he gets a good deal of his philosophical inspiration from Luther’s theology. For example, one could interpret Luther’s justification by faith experience in terms of the bad and true infinities: locked into one’s own finite effort and strength one cannot fulfill what the infinite God demands. Thus to bring Aristotle’s critique of Zeno to bear: finite moments cannot traverse the infinite moments of infinity. But those that are infinite can traverse the moments of infinity. So the infinite effort and strength of God can fulfill God’s commands in Luther’s justification by faith experience. The passive finite understood in a Pauline sense becomes filled with infinite grace in Luther’s divine linguistic event. His experience needs to be understood in the contours of a language event, because he was struggling to understand the Pauline Passage, Romans 1:17:

For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

Hegel thought that an infinite limited by the finite was a bad infinite. (I will go along with Wayne Martin and not call it a spurious infinite which would mean that a bad infinite was no infinite at all.) When the Holy and Absolute Infinite enters the finite and fills it, we have the fulfillment of the infinite demands, by the infinite traversing the infinite.

In Luther’s eighth point of his “Freedom of a Christian” he writes:

The commands teach and prescribe for us many good works. Merely prescribing them, however, does not make them happen. Laws point the way, but they do not help; they teach us what we ought to do, but they do not give us the strength to do it. They are set up only so that persons become aware of their incapacity for good and learn to despair in themselves. That is why they are called “old” testament and why they belong in the Old Testament.[1]

Luther then shows in point 9 how faith in Christ, how the Infinite accomplishes what the finite or even a bad infinite could not do:

Believe and you have it; don’t believe and you won’t have it.[2] For what is impossible for you through all the works of the commandments, which are so many and are of no use anyway, is quickly and easily done by faith. For I have placed all things in a compact form inside faith, so that whoever has faith has all things and whoever does not have faith has nothing. In such a way the promises of God provide what the commandments require and accomplish what the commandments demand, so that everything belongs to God, command and fulfillment. God alone commands and God alone fulfills. Therefore, the promises of God are the word of the “new” testament and belong in the New Testament.[3]

Faith is the way the infinite (God) enters and fulfills the finite such that the promises of God through their true infinity can fulfill the infinite requirements and demands of the law, because “everything belongs to God, command and fulfillment,” meaning that the infinite is at work though the finite.

Another way to say it: the finite through faith receives the power to grasp and contain the infinite. This is the way William Blake describes it in his famous poem, “To See the World”:

See a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.[4]

Thus justification by faith is the way infinite grace transforms the person, who no longer limits the infinite. In the Incarnation, God became a human being, as the Word became flesh. Mary can be beheld as the Mother of God, the Theotokos. The infinite body and blood of Christ is in the Eucharistic bread and wine. And while the finite “I” of Fichte cannot live the infinite Christ, the infinite Christ comes and enters and lives the life of the believer. Thus Paul can write, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” I first could not see how Wayne Martin could resolve the Pauline infinite demands with the teaching of kenosis or the emptying out of a person. But perhaps he means that the finite ego must become nothing so that the Infinite can completely enter the finite person.

Taking the side of Fichte and the bad infinite’s ideals, Wayne Martin keeps looking at our human condition from a human and finite point of view. Reinhold Niebuhr also spoke of our being responsible for ever increasing approximations of justice. Just because a person cannot do everything is not an excuse to do nothing. A person remains responsibility for the little something that the person can do. The bad infinity is like the perfect becoming the enemy of the thing that is possible.

I wonder what made the early Greek Philosophers, Aristotle as well as the atomists look askance at the infinite regression and progression. It does not lead to nothingness, but perhaps it defines the edges of the finite, beyond which the Creator God, the Absolute Infinite, as consciousness and word, is out there coming to us in continuous creation, incarnation, and the use of the sacraments.

Thus what I am arguing for is Hegel’s true infinity, in terms of being filled by the Holy Spirit or concretely, by the Word of God, Christ, so the dynamic of the Infinite accomplishes untold wonders amongst us finite being. From the view point of the ideals of the bad infinite, we are locked into the incremental approximations, but they also will not be possible without the power of the True Infinity giving us those breakthroughs.


[1] Philip and Peter Krey, editors, Luther’s Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2007), p. 73.

[2] Glaubstu so hastu; glaubstu nit, so hastu nit. (In Luther’s German)

[3] Ibid., page 74.

[4] William Blake, Fragments from “Auguries of Innocence.”

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