LAWRENCE PASTERNACK | Guidebook to Kant on Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason | Routledge 2014


By Christopher Insole

Part of the reason for the undoubted success of Pasternack’s excellent book is the distinctive and persuasive interpretative framework within which Pasternack treats fine-grained textual problems. Pasternack considers Kant to be genuinely committed to belief in God, in a robust and non-deflationary way, whilst also underscoring that Kant is not a traditional Christian. The whole commentary carefully builds up evidence for this claim, showing that there are more interpretative options than either secular naturalism or traditional Christianity. As Pasternack puts it:

[The] ‘Religion’ offers us a coherent, consistent, unified, and intellectually mature way of thinking about sin, faith, salvation, and worship. This is not to say that everyone should accept it, but hardly is it a series of unresolved wobbles. (p. 238)

Pasternack therefore sets himself against commentators who find that Kant’s Religion is a failure (or an “unresolved wobble”), insofar as it fails to “follow traditional Christianity” (p. 238). Pasternack has in his sights the interpretations offered by commentators such as John Hare (1996), Philip Quinn (1986), Nicholas Wolterstorff (1991) and Gordon Michalson (1990). All these commentators tend to gravitate around the problem that Kant requires God to act in order to achieve our salvation, or our transformation to virtue, but that, for various Kantian reasons, God is unable to act. John Hare, for example, argues that Kant needs divine grace in order to make up the “moral gap” between what we are and what we ought to be. But because of Kant’s conception of divine justice and human freedom, Kant is not able to resort to the very same divine grace that he needs. Such readings, Pasternack claims, attempt to align Kant too closely to traditional Christianity. Rather, “what we discover in the body of the text”, is a “philosophical theology that has far less in common with traditional Christianity than Kant initially insinuates” (p. 239). In this brief response, I will focus on two areas of Pasternack’s treatment: first of all, his claim that Kant, in the Religion, sets forward a consistent soteriology; secondly, on Pasternack’s account of Kant’s attitude to grace and revelation, and the related question of Kant’s ‘Pelagianism’.

A consistent soteriology?

Pasternack finds that “Kant’s soteriology is internally consistent” (p. 252). The shape of this soteriology, as interpreted by Pasternack, is, putting it briskly, as follows: at the heart of the question of “redemption”, for Kant, is whether or not we have “given priority to self-interest or morality” (p. 253). Only if we have given our priority to morality are we ‘saved’, and if we have given priority to morality, we have done everything necessary for our redemption or restoration. When “judging our worthiness”, God “penetrates to the intelligible ground of the heart” (AA 6:48), and “sees whether we have given priority to self-interest or morality, and thereby passes judgement upon us” (p. 253). There is a sense, then, in which only God can make this judgement, as “this is not a judgment we ourselves could make, for from our limited empirical viewpoint we can only measure worth through behaviour” (p. 253). But at the same time, God making a judgement is not the same as God offering some sort of ‘divine supplement’ which seems, in Kantian terms, to stand in tension both with divine justice (if the ‘debt of sin’ is unpaid), and with human freedom (if the moral action must be imputable to us, and not to God). We can call this soteriological model the ‘cognizer and distributor’ account: God’s role is restricted to cognizing our moral status, and distributing happiness in proportion to this.

If this is correct, Kant provides an elegant account of divine involvement in salvation, where God does something that only God can do, but without doing things that God ought not to do, by Kant’s own lights. The ‘involvement’ amounts to God being a cognizer and rewarder of our true noumenal and moral status. Pasternack cites the following passages from Kant:

We indeed have no rightful claim [to salvation] according to the empirical cognition we have of ourselves. (AA 6:75)

God, who “alone has cognition” (AA 6:76), can discern who “has undergone a Change of Heart”, and who can be “deemed well-pleasing”, such that “punishment cannot be considered appropriate to his new quality” (AA 6:73). On this account there is no hint of a “divine supplement” (p. 252), with God changing, causing, or transforming our moral status. Rather, on the basis of divine (and thus true) cognition of what we have done for and by ourselves, God could secure a world where happiness is distributed in proportion to virtue, given God’s insight into our moral status, and God’s powers over nature. The shift that occurs is not from having a debt of guilt to being forgiven or repaid, but from “how the new man sees himself to how God sees him”: “the new man is ‘relieved [entschlagen] of all responsibility … though fully in accord with divine justice’ (6:76)” (p. 253). Pasternack helpfully draws attention to Kant’s choice of verb, entschlagen, rather than vergeben: to be ‘relieved’ (entschlagen) of debt is different from being ‘forgiven’ (vergeben). The latter term is the standard term for Christian soteriological views, where mercy or divine action are needed for forgiveness to be offered. Entschlagen connotes more a “withdrawal of the debt”, or a dismissal or striking down (p. 253). God does not ‘forgive’ us, in a transforming action; but God sees the Change of Heart, and strikes down the debt, which could no longer be justly held against us. As Pasternack puts it, “we are ‘relieved’ of it because of ‘an improved disposition of which, however, God alone has cognition’ (6:76)” (p. 253).

The position Pasternack ascribes to Kant is elegant and internally consistent, and Pasternack provides solid textual evidence.[1] Certainly, I think we have to concede that such a position can be found in the Religion. Pasternack makes a further claim though, about the whole developmental arc of Kant’s thought in this area, which is more ambitious and problematic. Pasternack claims that Kant develops this account, for the first time, in Religion, and that, having arrived at this conception, sloughs off alternative accounts, which are less successful (pp. 65–71). This is a narrative of intellectual progress, from inconsistency to consistency, which gives Religion a special place in a “developmental story”, which shows “awareness of the weaknesses” of preceding accounts (p. 42). Part of this developmental story, for Pasternack, is Kant’s ability to give an account of God’s role in the highest good, as cognizer and distributor, which preserves the centrality of the concept of the highest good, in terms of our hope for happiness, without affirming that we need a “primary or supplemental moral motivator” (p. 65).

Pasternack has given Kant scholars a worthwhile project, testing out whether the ‘cognizer and distributor’ soteriology of Religion is found first of all, and distinctively, in Religion, and whether, within this text, Kant manages to be consistently consistent, as we might say. This brief comment is not the place to do this detailed exegetical work. What we can do here, is to set out a theological framework, against which the various positions staked out in Kant’s texts can be understood and interrogated. To this end, I set out, first of all, a range of alternative soteriological models. We will then be able to determine which accounts of soteriology Kant avoids, and which construals he perhaps gravitates towards, and where it can be difficult to know precisely which position Kant favours. I then present some texts, from Kant, that present problems for Pasternack’s developmental story.

First of all, I set out two types of Christian soteriology, which I call here ‘blessedness’, and ‘justification’, offering some commentary on the distance between Kant and both of these (in fact closely-related) positions. First, we can sketch the following outline of ‘blessedness’:

Blessedness’. Classical Catholic Christianity, describing the post-Fall situation, where God chooses to bring us to the beatific vision, whereby we know and love God in Godself. To make us virtuous, God needs to transform us. God does this by being the ultimate object of our will and intellect (our final cause), through God’s ordinary concurring action (where God is the efficient cause of all our actions, voluntary and involuntary, even those ‘natural’ actions not caused by special grace), and through special grace (whereby God restores that which has been lost because of sin). There is a further act of grace whereby God brings us to the beatific vision, which goes beyond the natural virtue that we enjoyed before the Fall, bringing us to a vision of God, whereby our final state involves knowing and loving God. The ‘highest (created or derivative) good’ is our attainment of the beatific vision, of which the incarnation, the hypostatic union of God and man, is the paradigm and the means. The highest good is, above all, Christ, and through Christ, our enjoyment of the life of God in the beatific vision.

This identification of the ‘highest good’ with Christ and the beatific vision is found across all scholastic theologians. For example, we find Aquinas interpreting the tradition like so:

Hence it belongs to the essence of the highest good (summum bonum) to communicate itself in the highest manner to the creature, and this is brought about chiefly by “His so joining created nature to Himself that one Person is made up of these three—the Word, a soul and flesh”, as Augustine says (De Trin. xiii). Hence it is manifest that it was fitting that God should become incarnate.[2]

It is possible to make this sort of affirmation about the ubiquity of the beatific vision in the medieval conception of the ‘highest good’, and the role of Christ, because of the common core of scholastic theology. The medieval university system required all theologians to write a commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Lombard’s Sentences are largely a compilation of passages from Augustine, amongst which are Augustine’s reflections on the beatific vision.[3] There are nuances, differences and distinctions within the medieval tradition, about the relative priority of our willing or knowing in the beatific vision, about how precisely we might say God is ‘seen’, and about whether our desire is satiated, or continuously expanding, as we journey into God. These subtleties need not concern us, as the largest differences in scholastic thought about the ‘highest good’ amount to very little, in comparison to the difference between all of them and Kant’s conception of the highest good. For Kant, the highest created good does not involve, at all, the enjoyment of God, either through knowing or willing.[4] What “alone constitutes the highest good”, Kant writes in the First Critique is “happiness in exact proportion with the morality of rational beings, through which they are worthy of it” (A814/B842). In the Second Critique, Kant explains that what constitutes “possession of the highest good in a person”, as in a “possible world”, is not enjoyment of God, but the possession of “virtue and happiness together” (AA 5:110), where “virtue and happiness are thought as necessarily combined” (AA 5:113). Rather than a vertical structure, with the enjoyment and participation in God as the highest good, Kant conceives of the ‘highest good’ as a “great whole”, a “systematic unity of ends” in a “world of intelligences”, in “accordance with universal and necessary moral laws” (A815/B843). All the movement and structure on this conception is horizontal, between rational moral agents, rather than vertical, between creatures and the creator.

It might be regarded as unsurprising, and undramatic, that Kant does not endorse a more ‘Catholic’ conception of ‘blessedness’. A line of thought that one can find in the literature, and expressed at learned gatherings, goes as follows: Kant was a Protestant, informed by the categories of Lutheran Pietism.[5] It is not appropriate, therefore, to relate his thought to more Catholic and scholastic traditions, which refer, for example, to the ‘beatific vision’. Such a line of thought, I think, treats categories such as Catholicism, Protestantism and scholasticism in a way that is too wooden and reified, neglecting the complex and multi-faceted layering of traditions. We do better not to work from assumptions and intuitions about mind-sets and -isms, but to track known influences, and, more importantly, textual evidence. When we do this with Kant, an insistence that Kant was a ‘Protestant’ does not offer much illumination. Kant was formed as a child in a Lutheran Pietist household, but from his own writings, we can see that his main intellectual encounters were with a highly philosophical rationalist theology, with long-tendrils through medieval scholasticism, back to Plato and Aristotle. Kant receives this through influences such as Leibniz (who had read widely in medieval and patristic sources), and also Wolff, Baumgarten, Meier and Knutzen. The eclectic mixture of Lutheran Pietism and highly philosophical theological rationalism was in fact a fairly standard intellectual profile in eighteenth-century Germany, shared by all the figures just listed. Focusing on the content of the texts themselves, especially where Kant discusses the summum bonum, we find Kant deploying, appropriating, and transforming, familiar scholastic categories such as ‘beatitude’ (AA 5:119), ‘glory’ (AA 5:131), concursus (AA 8:362) and the category of an ‘object’ of our will and reason (AA 4:441), derived from the Latin-scholastic concept obiectus, where for the tradition, God is our ultimate and plenitudinous ‘object’, in the sense of being the ultimate object of our attention, understanding and desire.

Even taking the ‘Protestant not Catholic’ challenge head on, and in its own (mistaken) terms, we still find that Kant is no more a ‘Lutheran’ than he is a ‘Catholic’. Putting it briskly, an outline of Lutheran soteriology would look something, more or less, like the following:

‘Justification’. Because of sin, the human being is unable to do anything for himself towards his own salvation. Salvation is possible for the human creature by virtue of the mystical union, or marriage, of the human soul with Christ. Christ takes on our sins, and we take on Christ’s righteousness. In this life we are justified by virtue of Christ’s righteousness, whilst simultaneously remaining sinners. Our final end is to love the hidden God, who reveals Himself to us in Scripture. Only through divine action upon us, and in our actions, is such love possible. Our moral transformation towards virtue (‘sanctification’), depends entirely upon divine action, and follows from our being justified by Christ, and is in no way the cause of this justification.

There is no part of this account that Kant could wholeheartedly accept. Most alarming of all, for a Lutheran, is Kant’s unwavering conviction that, with respect to our ‘salvation’, there is no need to refer to Christ, nor Scripture. Christ is, for Kant, at most, an exemplar of moral perfection, but not a living reality, with whom we are in any sort of relationship (AA 6:129). Scripture is instrumentalized as a means to secure the “moral improvement of human beings” (AA 6:112), where “each individual can recognize by himself, through his own reason, the will of God which lies at the basis of his religion” (AA 6:104), and where even the concept of

Divinity actually originates solely from the consciousness of these laws and from reason’s need to assume a power capable of procuring for them the full effect possible in this world in conformity with the moral final end (AA 6:104).

Perhaps on the issue of divine and human concurring action, there is some agreement between Luther and Kant, but for wildly different reasons. Luther, like Kant, does not accept the notion of divine and human concurring action, but not because of a worry about the integrity of human action, but because concurrence makes too confident a claim about the human being, with not enough due being given to divine sovereignty. In particular, Luther and Kant are in violent disagreement on the key question of human freedom in relation to God. “Free will”, Luther writes in the Heidelberg Confession, “is dead, as demonstrated by the dead whom the Lord has raised up, as the holy teachers of the church say” (Heidelberg Confession, 1). Kant affirms that “grace” cannot be incorporated “into our maxims for either theoretical or practical use”, because the employment of the concept contradicts a “rule concerning what good we ourselves must do” (AA 6:53). When we run this alongside Luther’s assertion that “the person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty” (Heidelberg Confession, 3), it is hard to sustain the claim that Kant is any sort of Lutheran (or Protestant), on the issue of soteriology. In a related vein, we might question Pasternack’s claim that we find a Lutheran moment in Kant’s stripping away of the pretensions of theoretical reason in relation to God. Pasternack finds in Luther’s claim that “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has”, a precursor of Kant’s project of securing “religious belief” on a “basis outside of theoretical reason” (p. 18). The relevant contrast, for Kant, is not between reason and faith, as with Luther, but faith and theoretical knowledge. Faith, for Kant, in stark opposition to Luther’s emphasis upon divine action, Scripture, and explicit belief in Christ, is an aspect of practical reason, universally available to all competent reasoners, employing their natural capacity to reason.

Kant, if I am right, is not in any straightforward sense a traditional Christian, at least not in any sense in which Kant would himself have received Christianity, be that ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’. We can now go on to set out alternative construals of Kant’s ‘soteriological’ position, freed from the constraint to make Kant’s soteriology fit into the strictures of orthodox Christianity:

Kantian construal A. God is needed to transform us to a state of being virtuous, through a ‘divine supplement’, but without being the ultimate object of our will and intellect (our final cause), and without God’s ordinary concurring action.[6] God transforms us, or assists us to virtue, and then, given God’s insight into our moral status, and God’s power over the laws of nature, God rewards virtue with proportionate happiness.

Kantian construal B. God is not needed to transform us to a state of being virtuous through a ‘divine supplement’. We need primarily to transform ourselves through virtuous free action. But God is able, in some cases and in a limited way, to supplement our efforts (a type of ‘divine supplement’), but without being the ultimate object of our will and intellect (our final cause), and without God’s ordinary concurring action. Given God’s insight into our moral status, and God’s power over the laws of nature, God rewards virtue with proportionate happiness.

Kantian construal C. We need to transform ourselves through virtuous free action. Divine action or supplementing is not permitted, as it goes against divine justice, and destroys human freedom. God is needed to secure the proper relationship between happiness and virtue, through God’s genuine insight into our true moral status, and through God’s power over the laws of nature.

Kantian construal D.  We need to transform ourselves through virtuous free action, and we do what we can to secure the relationship to happiness, using ‘God’ as a regulative or heuristic principle.

Reviewing the different Kantian construals, we can make the following observations. Kantian Construal A does look to be inconsistent, in ways that Christian Kant-commentators, such as Hare, Michalson, Quinn and Wolterstorff, have traditionally gathered around. On Construal A, Kant appeals to divine action, whilst other strands of Kant’s philosophy do not permit Kant to allow God to act. In particular, there will be difficulties in relation to the need for human freedom to be absolute, un-impacted upon by antecedent causation, of which divine action would be a particular overpowering type. There will also be problems in relation to Kant’s conception of justice, whereby we ought to be rewarded or punished for our free actions.

On Kantian Construal B, limited divine action is permitted, after the self-transforming move towards morality. Construal B seems to be unstable, oscillating between redundancy (at best), and inconsistency (at worst). Consider: if the limited divine action is construed as somehow essential, we come back to the problem of inconsistency. If this limited divine action is understood as non-essential, there is no immediate inconsistency, although God, qua divine action, becomes redundant, even though God remains crucial in his capacity as the perfect cognizer and rewarder of virtue. I say there is no ‘immediate’ inconsistency, but when we push a little, inconsistency threatens again. In the case of God, in particular, it is hard to see how God can act upon us without destroying our freedom, when Kant construes what our freedom amounts to (‘transcendental freedom’) in such a demanding way. Perhaps God simply does something ‘helpful’ for us in a rather ‘impersonal’ sense, such as secure immortality and a stable moral universe wherein happiness is met with virtue. If this is the case, then we gravitate towards Kantian Construal C, which maps onto Pasternack’s suggestion as to how to read the soteriology of Religion. Construal C is really a great distance from Christianity, as any reference to divine action in relation to the creature’s actions and virtue has been thoroughly removed; but in itself, qua it being a philosophical position, that is no objection. It is simply to say that Kant is not a Christian, although he might be a philosophical theist. Kantian Construal D maps onto the deflationary reading, which although attractive against a naturalist framework, is hard to sustain textually, as Pasternack ably shows.

Pasternack seems prepared to acknowledge that Kant gravitates towards something like Construal A or B in texts previous to Religion, for example in the Second Critique, where Pasternack finds that Kant draws upon the notion of a “divine supplement” that is “incompatible with the rest of his philosophical theology” (p. 252). The scope of Pasternack’s claim, then, is that by the time Kant writes Religion, he has arrived at the consistent and intellectually satisfying position marked out by Construal C. This is the claim that needs to be carefully tested against texts in Religion, and in other works from a similar period, and later in the 1790s. Does Kant consistently avoid patterns of writing that evoke, suggest, or require, Construals A or B? Is what he writes always consistent with, or most clearly explicated by, Construal C?

We can find passages in Religion that seem to strain against Construal C. Here I briefly present three sets of texts, regarding, respectively, ethical community, radical evil, and grace. Pasternack himself draws attention to the first set of texts, where Kant discusses the divine aid needed to build up an ethical community. Pasternack concedes that Kant goes beyond the ‘cognizer and distributor’ model of divine action; at the same time, Pasternack does not follow through the implications of this concession for his claim that Kant has a consistent soteriology. Pasternack draws attention to passages in Kant where we are told that we need a “higher moral being through whose universal organization the forces of single individuals, insufficient on their own, are united for a common effect” (AA 6:98), such that “a moral people of God is, therefore, a work whose execution cannot be hoped for from human beings but only from God himself” (AA 6:100).[7]

In a sense, there is a ready answer on Construal C as to what God might do: God has insight into the moral worth of each individual, and God has powers over nature to secure the distribution of happiness in accordance with moral worth. But Pasternack seems to find something ‘more’. After setting out the usual way in which God helps, which is by providing a stable moral universe and perfect moral cognition, Pasternack reports that “[m]oreover, Kant claims that the nature of law in the Ethical Community demands a non-human lawgiver”, and that “the laws of virtue that operate within the Ethical Community require Divine rule” (p. 255). Pasternack continues:

[W]hat I want to here emphasize is that unlike what we see in most of Kant’s other discussions of Divine aid, where God’s actions are considered unnecessary and His role (if any) uncertain, with regards to the Ethical Community in particular, God’s assistance is now taken as necessary. (p. 256)

We finally see in Kant a clear commitment to God having a necessary soteriological role. Moreover, our inability to achieve this victory is due to our innate limitations. It is, thus, because of our unsocial sociability that we ultimately need Divine aid in this battle. (p. 256)

Of course, with regards to our individual efforts, God’s role is left speculative, unclear, and seemingly unnecessary. But once we turn to the role of God in the establishment of the Ethical Community and the Highest Good, His aid does become necessary. And yet it is vital that we take great care when publicizing this point, for the idea that God’s aid is necessary for our salvation could distract from what we in turn must also do. (p. 257)

My question is this: if this is a correct reading of Kant at this point, does it not gravitate towards Construal A or B? And if it does, does this not threaten the claimed coherence of Kant’s soteriology, opening it up to the sort of criticisms of inconsistency thrown at Kant by Christian commentators, who are more able to draw upon the categories of grace and divine action? And if Kant is inconsistent here, should we be wary of claims to consistency across other parts of Religion? Pasternack certainly gives the impression that what God does, distinctively, in setting up the Ethical Community, is something ‘more’ than God’s enjoying divine cognition, alongside God’s power over the laws of nature. But, as he himself admits, “exactly what God will do to bring about the transformation of society remains an open question”:

Kant cautions us against giving too much importance to such speculations. But there is nevertheless a vital role here assigned to God, one that is necessary for “only in this way can we hope for a victory of the good principle over the evil one” (6:94). That is, without the establishment of the Ethical Community, there is no security or stability to the Change of Heart. (p. 256)

When we read Kant telling us that “to found a moral people of God is, therefore, a work whose execution cannot be hoped for from human beings but only from God himself” (AA 6:101), it seems to me that we can go either way. Possibly, this claim could be unpacked in terms of our needing God to cognize our moral status, and then to ensure the proportionality of happiness to virtue so cognized: God still does not act upon our action (in a way that Kant could not accept). Rather, God occupies a sort of epistemic panopticon, without which an ethical community could not be coordinated.

In any case, Pasternack might need to make some adjustments: if his exegesis of Part III (the ‘Ethical Community’) is correct, the claim to consistency in Kant’s soteriology is jeopardized. If the claim to consistency can be upheld, the exegesis needs to be modified, perhaps along the lines that I have suggested, to remove the need for ‘something more’ than divine cognition of our moral status, and divine government of the laws of nature.

Pasternack suggests that it is only in these passages about the ethical community where Kant reaches out for a sort of ‘divine supplement’ to our actions, which exposes Kant to the charge of inconsistency. But there are other passages, which we find in different places in the Religion, which do seem to imply our inability to be moral without divine assistance, in a way that gravitates more towards Construal A or B. In the context of a discussion of our ‘natural propensity to evil’, Kant writes the following:

This evil is radical, since it corrupts the ground of all maxims; as natural propensity, it is also not to be extirpated through human forces, for this could only happen through good maxims—something that cannot take place if the subjective supreme ground of all maxims is presupposed to be corrupted. Yet it must equally be possible to overcome this evil, for it is found in the human being as acting freely. (AA 6:37)

In the insistence that ‘human forces’ cannot reverse our evil propensity, Kant seems, in this passage, to require God to do more than occupy a sort of epistemic panopticon, whereby God can perfectly cognize virtue where it occurs (through our own free action), and use God’s power over the laws of nature to distribute proportionate happiness. Such passages, I submit, lend themselves, on first blush, to Construal A or B, whereby God has to act upon and within us, in order to transform us, mapping partially onto a notion of ‘sanctifying grace’, albeit stripped of any traditional Christological associations.

The passage cited here is not a knock-down refutation. Religion, as Pasternack ably shows us, is a complex text to interpret. The boundaries can be unclear as to where Kant is offering a statement of ‘something that may be said/is customarily said/represented’, which needs translating into ‘the religion of pure practical reason’, and where he is beginning the translation itself, expressing his own philosophical commitments. About the former (‘what is said’), Kant has little choice. He must translate the deliverances of traditional historical Christianity as they are, not as he would have them, if he were building up a coherent moral philosophy. To trip Kant up as inconsistent, when he is doing no more than ventriloquizing the tradition, is to mistake genres: Kant is offering a translation, not building up a constructive philosophical account. Nonetheless, it is hard to make this excuse for the passage cited above about the propensity to radical evil. Although Kant begins the passage by saying, “if a propensity to this [inversion] does lie in human nature” (AA 6:37; emphasis mine), in the wider context, Kant does seem to commit himself to a version of the reality of this propensity. A few pages before this conditional statement, Kant writes that “we can spare ourselves the formal proof that there must be such a corrupt propensity rooted in the human being, in view of the multitude of woeful examples that the experience of human deeds parades before us” (AA 6:32–3).

The strategy of ascribing the appearance of inconsistency to Kant’s faithful representation of authentic Christianity, rather than his own philosophy, is, initially, more promising in the case of a passage about grace. Kant prefaces his comments about grace by saying, “it is furthermore customary (at least in the church) to call grace what only serves to supplement the deficiency of all his [the human being’s] moral capacity” (AA 6:174). But when we attend to the wider context of this passage, the picture is further complicated. The passage comes in a subsection entitled ‘The Moral Principle of Religion Opposed to the Delusion of Religion’, where, in the run-up to his discussion of what the church has taught about grace, Kant says the following:

Reason does not leave us altogether without comfort with respect to the lack of a righteousness of our own (which is valid before God). Reason says that whoever does, in a disposition of true devotion to duty, as much as lies within his power to satisfy his obligation (at least in a steady approximation toward complete conformity to the law), can legitimately hope that what lies outside his power will be supplemented by the supreme wisdom in some way or other (which can render permanent the disposition to this steady approximation). (AA 6:171)

This seems to move us, again, back towards Construal A or B. The apophaticism about the means and mechanism by which God achieves the supplement does not derogate or weaken the claim that the supplement is needed, and can be hoped for.

In any case, such passages, and others like them, need some careful handling, if the claim to consistency (along the lines of Construal C) is to stick. It might be that we can reduce the significance of the passages, by treating all, or most of them, as parts of the ‘original language’ of historical Christianity, which Kant translates, without being committed to it. There will be a cost in this strategy, though, for Pasternack, who precisely wants to insist that Religion often reflects Kant’s (consistent) philosophical position, and in some areas, offers an extension and improvement of this position over previous statements.

There is another complication to Pasternack’s ‘story of development’, which is that some passages from ‘less adequate’ previous presentations of the concept of the highest good, in fact seem to support Construal C. Consider the following passage from the Second Critique:

For a rational but finite being only endless progress from lower to higher states of moral perfection is possible. The eternal being, to whom the temporal condition is nothing, sees in what is to us an endless series the whole of conformity with the moral law, and the holiness that his command inflexibly requires in order to be commensurable with his justice in the share he determines for each in the highest good is to be found whole in a single intellectual intuition of the existence of rational beings. All that a creature can have with respect to hope for this share is consciousness of his tried disposition, so that, from the progress he has already made from the worse to the morally better and from the immutable resolution he has thereby come to know, he may hope for a further uninterrupted continuance of this progress, however long his existence may last, even beyond this life; and thus he cannot hope, either here or in any foreseeable future moment of his existence, to be fully adequate to God’s will (without indulgence of dispensation, which do not harmonize with justice); he can hope to be so only in the endlessness of his duration (which God alone can survey). (AA 5:124)

This passage would seem to map onto Construal C. God’s role, as eternal being contemplating our intelligible moral act, is one of ‘surveying’, or cognizing, the true source of our moral progress. Based upon this cognition, God can distribute happiness proportionately:

Accordingly, the existence of a cause of all nature, distinct from nature, which contains the ground of this connection, namely of the exact correspondence of happiness with morality is also postulated. However, this supreme cause is to contain the ground of the correspondence of nature not merely with a law of the will of rational beings but with the representation of this law, so far as they make it the supreme determining ground of the will, and consequently not merely with morals in their form but also with their morality as their determining ground, that is, with their moral disposition. Therefore, the highest good in the world is possible only insofar as a supreme cause of nature having a causality in keeping with the moral disposition is assumed. (AA 5:125)

In these passages, at least, God does not offer a problematic ‘supplement’, but acts, precisely, as a cognizer and distributor. This is not to deny, just as in Religion, that there are passages in the Second Critique, as Pasternack identifies (p. 252), that imply different models. The problem is more with Pasternack’s narrative of progress, from a less consistent soteriology (Construal A or B), to a fully consistent one (Construal C). Pending a full treatment and interpretation of texts from Religion that imply Construal A or B, and passages from earlier works that also imply Construal C, the picture begins to look more like this: Kant, explicitly and implicitly, throughout the 1780s and 90s, seems to commit himself to a number of different models of how God will, or might be hoped to, act in relation to the highest good. Some of these models are inconsistent with one another, and some of them (but not others) are inconsistent with wider principles in his philosophy. But the claim that there is a progression from inconsistency to consistency looks to be under some strain, and needs more exegetical work.

Grace, revelation and pelagianism

What has emerged, in the previous section, is that we get a more consistent Kant, to the extent that we get a less Christian Kant: that is to say, his soteriology becomes more internally consistent as it depends less upon divine action and grace. Both interpretative and philosophical advantages can accrue, then, when we do not try, and/or Kant does not try, to fit Kant’s philosophy into orthodox doctrines. This insight is at the heart of Pasternack’s distinctive hermeneutic, as he goes through Kant’s Religion, showing us that Kant can be (i) religious, (ii) consistent, but (iii) not (straightforwardly) a Christian. Nonetheless, in three areas, we might ask whether Pasternack could do more to push home the advantages of distancing Kant from Christianity. I deal with these three areas in turn: grace, revelation, and Pelagianism.

In relation to the question of grace, Pasternack writes that “Kant is agnostic as to whether or not we receive any Divine assistance in our efforts to morally improve ourselves”, because, as Kant writes, “whether, if and when, or how much grace has effect on us—this remains totally hidden to us”, such that it is “salutary to keep ourselves at a respectful distance from it” (AA 6:191) (Pasternack, p. 232). Technically, this is correct: Kant does not claim to know that divine grace is impossible. But Kant’s self-distancing from the category of grace is more thoroughgoing and emphatic than this way of putting it suggests. Technically, we do not know theoretically that there is a God, or that we are free; these are required beliefs of practical reason. Just to say we do not know whether, or how, grace works seems to put it too much on a par with these central categories of Kant’s philosophy. If Pasternack is right about Kant and grace, and if Kant is able to make a sotto voce appeal to the category of grace, without violating his wider philosophy, then we get the interesting result, perhaps contrary to what Pasternack would wish, that Kant need not fear the ‘divine supplement’ element in Construals A or B, as Kant does in fact have a (quiet and disciplined) way in which he can talk about grace.

In fact, Kant’s discussion of grace is less sanguine than Pasternack suggests, and is more antagonistic in relation to traditional Christianity, and more tortured in relation to Kant’s (occasional) tendency to talk about our need for grace (see above). What Kant precisely says about the notion of grace is that neither theoretical nor practical reason can make any use of the concept (“even to accept it as idea for a purely practical intent is very risky and hard to reconcile with reason” [AA 6:191]). This includes but goes beyond agnosticism. A concept that neither theoretical nor practical reason can use, and, in fact, that even practical reason is warned to avoid, is not, in Kantian terms, a very important, central, or useful concept. Grace, like concurring divine-human natural action, is not a category that Kant is consistently or comfortably able to employ. There is a partial similarity here with the concept of freedom itself, which cannot be theoretically understood, and which is “incomprehensible” to us (AA 6:191). However, there is, also an important asymmetry between the agnosticism and mystery that surrounds the concept of freedom, and the agnosticism and mystery that surrounds grace. In the case of the concept of freedom, practical reason must still make use of this concept; this is not so with grace. Precisely because of the ambitious claims made about freedom, and the impossibility of God acting in, and through, our free actions, it is not permitted (or, at least, not consistent with Kant’s deeper philosophical principles) to make practical use of the concept of grace.

In relation to the question of revelation, we might also encourage Pasternack to go further, or to be more explicit, in distancing Kant from traditional Christianity. Pasternack implies an overly serene and eirenic reading, when he glosses Kant’s admission that he cannot “peremptorily” deny that “the way a church is organized may perhaps also be a special divine dispensation” (AA 6:105), as amounting to the tolerant stance that “Kant indicates that he is open to revelation as a possible source of our moral duties”, and that he “remains open to both reason and revelation as sources, so long as whatever is necessary for our salvation is still ultimately discoverable through reason alone” (p. 221). As with the claim that Kant is ‘agnostic’ about grace, this underestimates the distance between Kant and Christianity. Revelation in the Christian tradition is not an optional supplement of things that can be perfectly well-known otherwise. It is, rather, the only secure way of knowing those things that are essential to salvation, of which our restoration in virtue of the grace of God will be a part. In fact, the relationship between revelation and reason, in the tradition, is more usually the inverse of that envisaged by Kant. For example, Aquinas holds that reason can, partially, inaccurately, and after much toil, come to a broken recognition of some things that are also delivered by revelation (for example, that God exists); but the believer, for salvation, must still believe these things on the more secure ground of revelation.[8] Reason is ‘tolerated’, by the tradition, as long as it delivers that which revelation can and does secure, unaided by reason. To accept revelation on the terms set by Kant, is to reject it by any other name.

The third area, where Pasternack could make a cleaner break with Christianity, arises in relation to the issue of Kant’s ‘Pelagianism’. In a number of places Pasternack seems almost eager to get Kant off the ‘charge’ of Pelagianism, and on a technicality. So, for example, Pasternack explains that there is a sense in which we do not, through our own efforts, “pay off” an infinite debt in a Pelagian way, because “our moral efforts cannot rise to the level of an infinite payment nor, in fact, any payment at all since there is no ‘surpass over and above what … [we are already] under obligation to perform each time’ (6:72)” (p. 252). This seems not to put the question mark deeply enough. One way to avoid a heresy is indeed to deny an even deeper premise upon which both the heretic and the orthodox agree, in this case, that there is a debt of sin to pay off at all. But in the process of avoiding the heresy, one has also avoided Christianity.

Towards the end of the book Pasternack provides a fuller account than is usually provided, of what the Pelagian heresy actually was considered to be, in historical terms. Pasternack concedes that Kant is Pelagian to the extent that Kant “limits the role of Divine aid”, and perhaps eliminates such aid (over and above being the cognizer and rewarder of virtue) by the time of the Religion, holding that “we are not so corrupt” that such aid is necessary (p. 249). But then Pasternack lists further Pelagian commitments, far more obscure to contemporary readers, including “that Adam would have died even if he did not sin; that Adam’s sin was borne by himself alone and not the whole human race; that newborn infants are without sin; that our death is not due to Adam’s sin, and our resurrection is not due to Christ; that Mosaic law as well as the moral teachings of the Gospels provide a path to Heaven; that there were men before Christ who were wholly without sin” (p. 250–1). Pasternack goes on to point out that “if this Inquisitorial standard is used, it would condemn nearly all contemporary Christians” (p. 250), because they do not “read Genesis literally”, or believe that “death is a biological inevitability for mammals”, or because they think that original sin is an “innate feature of the species rather than a biological inheritance from our progenitors” (p. 250).

At this point, it feels as if Kant is being ‘got off’ the charge of Pelagianism on a clever technicality: Kant is not a Pelagian (or not in a ‘bad’ sense), because most Christians score some Pelagian points on some of the (to us) more obscure and peripheral criteria. The point is nice rhetorically. But is there not a more fundamental response to the whole anxiety about Kant being a Pelagian? This is that Kant would not care, or at least, that the Kantian should not care. Because Pelagianism is a Christian heresy, and Kant barely gets to first base with Christianity, let alone with heretical derivations from it. If we remind ourselves of the shape of classical Christianity, as set out above on the issue of salvation:

‘Blessedness’. Classical Christianity, describing the post-Fall situation, where God chooses to bring us to the beatific vision, whereby we know and love God in Godself. To make us virtuous, God needs to transform us. God does this by being the ultimate object of our will and intellect (our final cause), through God’s ordinary concurring action (where God is the efficient cause of all our actions, voluntary and involuntary, even those ‘natural’ actions not caused by special grace), and through special grace (whereby God restores that which has been lost because of sin). There is a further act of grace whereby God brings us to the beatific vision, which goes beyond the natural virtue that we enjoyed before the Fall, bringing us to a vision of God, whereby our final state involves knowing and loving God. The ‘highest (created or derivative) good’ is our attainment of the beatific vision, of which the incarnation, the hypostatic union of God and man, is the paradigm and the means. The highest good is, above all, Christ, and through Christ, our enjoyment of the life of God in the beatific vision.

As far as I understand it, a plausible reading of the Pelagian position might demonstrate that the only clause in the above paragraph that Pelagius needs to dispute, or the only one that Pelagius himself thought he questioned, is the one I have put in bold: that we need special grace to restore what is lost by sin. The Pelagian could still regard God as our final cause and efficient cause, whereby God is the object of our will and intellect, and whereby God concurs immediately and directly in all our actions. The Pelagian would also consider that we need grace, through Christ, to know God in Godself. The only question is about whether we need special grace to restore what was lost at the Fall, or whether natural human freedom is sufficient, where, crucially, such natural freedom is always saturated (in a way that Kant could never accept) with divine activity and initiative. What we should note is that, in contrast to Kant, divine action is still everywhere for the Pelagian, because ‘Pelagianism’ is struggling to be a form of Christianity, albeit that there is a dispute about a particular texture of divine action in regard to restoring what is lost in the Fall: is it ordinary divine action acting immediately in human actions, or is it extraordinary divine action working through grace? Nothing particularly turns upon the accuracy of my understanding of Pelagius. The point is that it is enough to count as a Pelagian, to deny this one specific clause about restorative grace. This aspect of Pelagianism is what has most troubled Christian theologians, and Pelagius’ insistence that all our good actions nonetheless depend upon divine grace, has not reassured them. In contrast to the significant difference between Kant and traditional Christianity, the disagreement between Pelagius and traditional Christianity looks more like a close family squabble, heated because of the proximity.

To put the point provocatively: Kant does not even manage the base-line Christianity requisite to qualify as a Christian heretic. And to the (limited) extent that Kant does move closer to Christianity, he becomes internally inconsistent.


[1] See also L. Pasternack, ‘Kant on the Debt of Sin’, Faith and Philosophy 29,1 (2012): 30–52.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Blackfriars Edition, ed. Thomas Gilby OP et al., 60 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), III, 1.1.

[3] See, for example, Augustine, City of God, Bk. 22.

[4] For a full justification of this claim, see my ‘A Thomistic Reading of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Searching for the Unconditioned’, Modern Theology 31,2 (2015): 284–311.

[5] For an interpretation of Kant that aligns him with Protestantism, and especially Lutheranism, see F. Beiser, ‘Moral Faith and the Highest Good’, in P. Guyer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), pp. 588–629.

[6] For a full justification of these claims, that God, for Kant, is not the ultimate object of our will and intellect, and that God does not concur in ordinary human action, see, respectively, my ‘A Thomistic Reading of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals: Searching for the Unconditioned’, op.cit., and Kant and the Creation of Freedom: a Theological Problem (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013), Chs 8–10.

[7] Cited by Pasternack, Kant on Religion, p. 255.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.1.1.



Hare, J. (1996), The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996).

Michalson, G. (1990), Fallen Freedom: Kant on Radical Evil and Moral Regeneration (Cambridge: Cambridge UP).

Quinn, P. (1986), ‘Christian Atonement and Kantian Justification’, Faith and Philosophy 3,4: 440–62.

Wolterstorff, N. (1991), ‘Conundrums in Kant’s Rational Religion’, in P. Rossi & M. Wreen (eds), Kant’s Philosophy of Religion Reconsidered (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991), pp. 40–53.

© Christopher J. Insole, 2015.

Christopher Insole is Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion, University of Durham. His research interests lie in, among others, Kant, Edmund Burke, religious epistemology, the relation between metaphysics, theology, and political philosophy, and Thomism. In 2013, he published Kant and the Creation of Freedom: a Theological Problem (Oxford UP), which will the subject of a forthcoming discussion on this blog.