Influence of Protestant dogmatics in the thought of Immanuel Kant

Note: This is the summary of a paper I presented in the Annual Philosophical Week organized by the Faculty of Philosophy of the National University of Asunción. This year the Week’s emphasis was on Kant, in commemoration of the bicentennial of his death. I planned to offer the full Spanish version (8 pages in letter-size paper) in HTML, but that will have to wait till Monday since my LaTeX source code was left on my office workstation.

The paper was very well received. Thanks goes to Professor Sergio Cáceres, who invited me to participate, and the whole pastoral staff of the church, who generously granted me permission to work on the paper during some office hours. Special mention goes to Rev. A., who made available to me his office library.

The Paper

When one examines the thinking of Immanuel Kant, there are some readily discernible influences, such as Wolff’s rationalism, Hume’s skepticism or Newton’s mechanics. However, one influence which is as deep and decisive as all the aforementioned three is seldom mentioned and almost always forgotten: the influence of Protestant dogmatics.

It is not easy to take account into that fact, since dogmatics is no longer part of a general curriculum in the liberal arts tradition; and furthermore, since we (I am talking here of Paraguay) were situated in the part of Christendom that was the farthest away possible from developments in Protestant thinking.

It is also necessary to pinpoint that we’re not talking about dogmatic philosophy, as Kant intended it, i.e, that philosophy that takes the possibility of knowledge for granted. We are talking about dogmatic theology, that systematic reflection on the revealed material done by the Church. Finally, we need to take into account that the word Protestant here denotes the legacy of the magisterial Reformers, such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, and not those of the radical Reformers.

With that being said, I will explore the issue of possible points of influence in two avenues: (1) Pietism; and (2) Protestant scholasticism.


One can say that Pietism’s influence over Kant is a confirmed and self-evident fact; but Pietism itself is ill-understood and maligned as a movement.

Pietism was formed as a reaction to the hardening of categories of Protestant thought brought on by Protestant scholasticism, especially in the excesses shown by Lutheran dogmaticians. The main trait of Pietism is the introduction of the radical subjectivity of the religious experience as the normative criterion for ecclesiology and theology, and a progressive distanciation of the more objective content of dogmatics. Thus, and together with deism and proto-liberalism, Pietism has favored the reduction of the idea of God to the immanent.

According to Roger E. Olson, you can identify four special traits of Pietism: (1) A religious expression characterized by a conversional piety; (2) A tolerant, irenic kind of Christianity; (3) The emphasis on the visibility of the faith; and (4) An activist outlook on the consequences of the faith.

Besides the abundant indications made by his biography, one can point these points of influence in Kant:

  1. It is possible to point that Kant’s transcendental subjectivity has a direct parallel with Pietism’s radical subjectivization of religious experience;
  2. Conversional piety might be the influence behind Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”, i. e., his transition from dogmatic to critical philosophy, and his account of the fact in the Introduction of his Prolegomena to any Future Metaphysics, the famous passage where he tells that Hume’s skepticism “awoke me from my dogmatic slumber” is laid out in clearly conversional form;
  3. It would be possible to link Pietism’ emphasis in Christian tolerance with Kant’s superation of the Church as an institution in his Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone and the coming of the Kingdom of God on the earth, as set forth in his work Zum ewigen Friede (“For Everlasting Peace”); and
  4. Lastly, the most common contact point between Pietism and Kant’s thought is that of ethics, so we won’t dwell on it here.

Protestant scholasticism

Protestant scholasticism was a theological movement brought forth by a natural evolution of the Reformation of the 16th century. Generally speaking, it can be characterized as a natural hardening of the categories of Protestant thinking, and the (mis)use of these categories as an instrument of controversy agains those in different theological camps. It is possible to establish some points of influence, and I am going to mention the two more evident:

  1. First, we see that Kant does admit in Book I of Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone the radical corruption of the will, a question hotly debated in all theological circles. This is surprising, since Kant more or less generally sides with the Enlightenment rationalism rather than with Christian faith; but then again, he says that despite this corruption of the will, it must be somehow able to obey the moral law.
  2. Another related question, and one equally debated, is the question of the bondage of the will, a polemic that was started with Erasmus and Luther and went on through the centuries to our very days. It is noteworthy that one of the Antinomies that Kant puts forth in the Transcendental Dialectics part of his Critique of the Pure Reason to illustrate the impossibility of a rational cosmology is that very question of bondage versus freedom. This might be more or less a jab to the contending spirit of Protestant scholastics.


After seeing all this possible links between Protestant dogmatics and Kant’s thought, the question might arise, Why it is so? I would like to offer three possible causes:

  1. A quick survey of Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone shows a considerable number of Scripture references. This might indicate that Kant wishes to place himself not as an heretic and innovator, but as a thinker that is essentially orthodox, perhaps of a different kind of orthodoxy. Obviously, Kant’s results are far from any manifestation of orthodoxy.
  2. The use of disputed questions as the starting point of certain features of his thinking shows that Kant is very partial to Pietism’s emphasis in the superation of all denominational differences.
  3. Finally, the use of themes that figured prominently in the Lutheran-Calvinist debate illustrate the growing political tendency towards the unification of the Lutheran and Reformed churches in the Kingdom of Prussia, and in fact there was a law signed by the King Frederick Wilhelm III in 1817 mandating a church merger, only 13 years after Kant’s death and in the tricentennial of the Reformation. In my opinion, Kant saw the writing on the wall and he wanted to rally on its support with Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone.


The brief examination we made allows us to state beyond any possible doubt that Kant was influenced by Protestant dogmatics. Pietism was the most important factor, but Protestant orthodoxy should also be taken into account.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Bible verses brought to you by bVerse Convert and