Reformation 500:The Hiddeness of God in Luther’s Theological Method

In few areas did Martin Luther break more cleanly from the Roman Church than in his outright rejection of scholastic theology. This was not a superficial revision of certain scholastic abuses, but a full-blown condemnation of the heart of scholastic thought. Perhaps this is most clearly seen in his radical departure from the prevailing theological methodologies of his days. Luther’s controlling principle he called the “theology of the cross”, and both he and his successors found it fruitful. Yet, especially when expressed in his formula of the “hidden God”, it also wrought some vexing problems.

Luther formulated his notion of a “theology of the cross” as early as the Heidelberg disputation of 1518. Here he contrasts his approach to the scholastic approach, which he labeled a “theology of glory”. While, of course, this method had many facets, what Luther found objectionable was that it attempted to build a system of objective truths about God. It attempts, through reason, to comprehend God as He is in Himself. For Luther, only through the cross do we have true knowledge of God. There is no objective truth for the theologian. To speak of God apart from his affects is to wrongfully objectify the faith.

Walther Von Loewenich, in his excellent monogram, notes, the theology of the cross “is not a chapter in theology, but a specific kind of theology. The cross of Christ is significant here not only for the questions concerning redemption and the certainty of salvation, but is the center that provides perspectives for all theological statements.”

One idea central to his  theology of the cross is Luther’s notion of the “hidden God” (Deus absconditus) as opposed to the “revealed God”. The revealed God is God for us. It is God as we find in Christ, the God who becomes incarnate and suffers a humiliating death. This directly relates to the theology of the cross, for it is only on the cross that we see the God with which we must deal. Only the preached God, the revealed God, the God as seen in the Word, is of concern to us: “Now, God in his own nature and majesty is to be left alone; in this regard, we have nothing to do with Him, nor does He wish to deal with us. We have to do with Him as clothed and displayed in His Word, by which He presents himself to us.”

Why is it that God can only be seen in this way? Luther gives two reasons. First, because God in his essence is too overwhelming for fallen man; it is incomprehensible to him. Thus, God must “cover” Himself in order to come to man. Perhaps Adam might have been able to approach God before the fall, but now our sinful nature is “so depraved and utterly corrupted that it cannot recognize God or comprehend His nature without a covering. It is for this reason that those coverings are necessary.

The second reason God must be “clothed” is based on Luther’s understanding of faith. In his bondage of the Will he wrote, “Faith has to do with things which are not seen (Heb.11:1). Thus, that there may be room for faith, everything which is believed must be concealed;” Thus, even when God is revealed, He must be hidden. The revealed God is hidden in the humanity of Christ. This means we should seek to know God not as He is in his majesty, but as He is revealed in Christ.

Therefore begin where Christ began–in the Virgin’s Womb, in the manger, and at his mother’s breasts. For this purpose He came down, was crucified, and died, so that in every possible way He might present Himself to our sight. He wanted to fix the gaze of our hearts upon Himself and thus to prevent us from clambering into heaven and speculating about the Divine Majesty.

Or, as he elsewhere asserts: “The incarnate son of Man, is therefore, the covering which the Divine majesty presents himself to us with all of His gifts…”

Thus, we find in Luther a theology controlled by Christology. When we see Christ, we see God. The revealed God is also the hidden God. He is hidden in the baby nursing in common barn, and He is hidden in the “king” riding an ignoble donkey. Most of all, He is hidden in the cross.

There is, however, another aspect to Luther’s exposition of the hiddeness of God. While he primarily emphasized the hiddeness of God in revelation (God hidden in Christ) he also talked about a hiddeness of God outside His revelation (A God who cannot be seen or known, and whose decrees seem to contradict the will of the revealed God). This is easily confused with the emphasis of hiddeness within revelation, since Luther used the same terminology, but the concepts are quite different in effect. So different, in fact, that some theologians have attempted to distinguish the concepts by different terminologies. Brunner held that Luther’s God who is hidden in revelation should be called the “veiled God” to distinguish Him from the God hidden outside revelation. Paul Althaus prefers the term “mystery of god” for the first concept.  B. A. Gerrish has distinguished the hiddeness of God in his revelation as hiddeness I and the hiddeness of God outside his revelation as hiddeness II. He notes that while the first of these has been found theologically fruitful in recent years, the second “has been found something of an embarrassment.” It will soon be apparent why.

It is not insignificant that the notion of hiddeness II should find its first and only full treatment in The Bondage of the  Will. The basis for the hiddeness of God is determinism.

Luther was responding to the The Freedom of the Will by Erasmus, who at one point used Ezek. 18:23 to support his position of free will. The text asks the rhetorical question, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” Of course, other passages could also be cited to show that God does not want people to die in their sins, perhaps none more graphic than the picture of the the Son weeping over Jerusalem’s rejection of Him.

Erasmus makes his point as follows: If God grieves over the sinner’s death, than he cannot be the one who caused it. Therefore, God did not plan their death, but their free will caused it.

Since Luther was arguing against free will (and seems to have believed in double predestination), Erasmus’ argument is cogent.  Without free human will, only God’s will is in play. But how can God not will the eternal death of those whom He alone willed to eternally die?

It is here that Luther turns to the notion of God’s hiddeness.  As Von Loewenich says, “Luther has recourse to the doctrine of the hidden God in an exegetical predicament. From a purely exegetical point of view Erasmus is obviously in a much more favorable position.”

I reply, as I have already said: we must discuss God, or the will of God, preached, revealed, offered to us, and worshiped by us, in one way, and God not preached nor revealed, nor offered to us, nor worshiped by us in another way. Wherever God hides Himself, and wills to be unknown to us, there we have no concern. Here that sentiment: “What is above us does not concern us”, really holds good. Lest any should think that this distinction is my own, I am following Paul, who writes to the Thessalonians of the Antichrist that he should “exalt himself above all that is God preached and worshiped, (II Thes. 2:4); clearly intimating that a man can be exalted above God as He is preached and worshiped, that is, above the word and worship of God, by which He is known to us and has dealings with us.

Beyond the questionable application of the passage, this is a remarkable rhetorical move. Luther seems to be drawing a real dichotomy (not just an epistemological one) between the God who is preached and worshiped and God as He is in Himself.  To remove all doubt, he goes on to say, “God preached (or revealed) works to the end that sin and death may be taken away, and we may be saved….But God hidden in majesty neither deplores nor takes away death, but works life, and death, and all in all…”. And again, “God wills many things which he does not in His word show us that He wills. Thus, He does not will the death of a sinner- that is, in His Word; but He wills it by His inscrutable will.” As Gerrish notes here, “And the Incarnate son must weep as the Hidden God consigns a portion of mankind to perdition.”

What strikes one, of course,  is the difference between the two Gods. We must discuss them in different ways, he tells us. Erasmus is charged with ignorance for not observing this distinction. As Marc Lienhard notes, “One is struck by the force with which Luther distinguishes the two wills of God, even puts them in opposition to each other, and to a certain extant introduces a double reality in God.” This does seem to be the case, especially when Luther talks of the revealed God and the Hidden God having opposite wills on the salvation of man. Even Von Loewenich admits that “the hidden and revealed God are sharply differentiated. One cannot affirm of the former what applies to the latter.”

What are we to think of this odd dualism? How does it fit in the rest of Luther’s theology? In particular, the real area of concern is how Luther’s portrait of the hidden God here harmonizes with the revealed God, the one who is revealed. Luther’s whole Christology is at stake, and with it his whole theology (since it is all based on Christology). B. A. Gerrish notes, “The image of God does not, after all, fully coincide with the picture of Jesus…It is surely clear enough that “Father of our Lord Jesus Christ does not exhaust Luther’s conception of God. It is but one side of it.”

This may be only a theological, not practical, concern if indeed we have nothing at all to do with the hidden God (as he sometimes suggests) but is not helpful if it is ultimately to this God we must give account and worship. Even Luther said that we must “fear and adore” this hidden God.

Does this damage Luther’s Christology? Yes. Luther made it clear that Christ is the exact picture of God. It is through Him that we have saving knowledge of God.  As Ian Siggins puts it, “That Christ has revealed the Father, that He is the very image of God, the abyss of His nature and godly will, and that faith in God and in Christ is one faith-this is the Kern and Ausbend of Luther’s gospel.”

Luther himself distinguished Christ as God’s image as different from a painting or sculpture being a man’s image: The work of art is only a replica of a different substance, while Christ is the very substance of God. A crucifix is wooden image of Christ, But Christ is a “god-den” image of God.

But clearly this is contradicted when Luther says that “He does not will the death of the sinner- that is, in His Word (Christ); but He wills it by His inscrutable will.” The God who weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem is not the same God who predestines its destruction solely because He wants to.

Thus, Luther gives us a Christology based on Christ being God’s image, yet also tells us that Christ and the Hidden God may be at odds. Here Gerrish notes, “And the question seems inescapable which Luther elsewhere rejects as misguided and wrong headed: Granted that Christ speaks nothing but comfort to the troubled conscience, who knows how it stands between me and God in Heaven?”

Is there a way out? Some scholars have tried to hold that the difference is only epistemological. This seems, however, to confuse Hiddeness II with Hiddeness I. By now Lienhard’s observation seems obvious: “One cannot in effect deny that the concept of Deus absconditus bears a different significance here from that in the theology of the cross.”

Most scholars sympathetic to Luther hold it out as a mystery of the faith. This seems to be the approach Luther took as well. He tells his readers that the question of why God does not save all “touches on the secrets of His Majesty, where His judgments are past finding out. It is not for us to inquire into these mysteries, but to adore them.” In the same way, “God in his nature and majesty is to be left alone.” These quotes do not explicitly declare that  the relationship itself between the Hidden and Revealed God is a mystery, but that seems to be implicit.

Luther gave an analogy of this mystery. He notes that the prosperity of the wicked, to the natural eye, seems to indicate that there is no God or that God is unjust, for a just God would reward the good and punish the wicked. Yet this problem, which vexed Aristotle, Pliny and even the Prophets, is instantly cleared up by the light of the gospel and the knowledge of grace. For now we see that there is a life after this life, and the ledger will be balanced there.

This illustrates how things that are mysteries now will be cleared up with the light of glory; heaven will reveal them. “Do you not think,” he asks” that the light of glory will be able with the greatest ease to solve problems that are insoluble in the light of the word and Grace…? As the light of the gospel solved in an instant the problem of the prosperity of the wicked, so will glory make evident that God’s justice is most righteous – provided only that in the meanwhile we believe it..”.

Is leaving it to a mystery satisfying? Undoubtedly that will depend on the reader. What seems clear, however is that it weakens Luther’s basic Christological approach. He regards Christ and the cross as the basic epistemological sources for understanding all of theology, yet leaves it extremely unclear exactly how the Son, the revealed God, relates to the Father, the Hidden God.

Thus, the notion of God hidden outside His revelation causes problems for Luther’s methodology. Perhaps he realized this but felt it was worth it in order to defend his view of man as without free will and totally passive in salvation. If so we have an example of his anthropology dictating his Christology. The example may be instructive.

14 thoughts on “Reformation 500:The Hiddeness of God in Luther’s Theological Method

  1. I could never see God as hiding himself at all. The books of written word and testimony of so many varieties witness to his great desire for us to know him. What I find so hard to believe and struggle with myself is that we have some kind of notion that God cannot overcome sin nature. Yes I would agree that the divine cannot be part of sin but at the same time that creator knew of it and the connection it would serve. Christ was and has been the answer to that from before the creation ever was. No plan B……Sometimes I am almost there in the completeness of my thoughts and yet I seem so far away. I believe that two exist in the same place at the same time and because of that it becomes complete.

    The book of Job outcome was never in question ever and always shows me that at the end Job spoke with God. God is never condescending but rather with each word spoke a lifting and great rising of who he is is expressed in a language our ears yearn for over and over again even in correction…..Simply it is called love….. The Greeks called it agape. Maybe we could at some time raise ourselves but it is to me unlikely without plan A which was and always has been.


  2. I have been working on a translation from the Hebrew of the book of Job (although it has recently rather stalled) and have come to some tentative conclusions:

    1. Job’s sufferings are not random but very specifically persecution by a specific group of people, the “wicked”.
    2. The sufferings caused by the “wicked” are on a national scale and the “wicked” portrayed as invaders sacking the place.
    3. Job’s chief complaint is that he is not exempt from the depredations of the wicked because of his own individual piety: the destruction of his children is portrayed in particular as Job’s prayers shielding them from punishment for their sins for Job’s sake, and that protection being withdrawn.
    4. The “comforters” start off by telling Job to stop moping and call down God on the invaders. They only turn nasty and blame Job for his own misfortunes when Job insists he can’t do so because it is God himself who has brought down the wicked on Job (and everyone else).
    5. Eliphaz does not echo the comforters specifically. His key point is that the storm of God’s anger is instructional, and immediately passes so that all is light and sunny if listened to (this is obscured by repeated translations in standard versions of Hebrew “light” as “lightening” despite them being quite different words).
    6. All the animals mentioned by God are allegorical (this is the bit I have yet to thoroughly work on). The animals are the various wicked nations attacking, which God admits to have summoned. Behemoth is the people of the land who expect God to defend them but have been sinning and brought it on themselves, so have no chance against Leviathan. Job is compared to an ostrich which wants to fly away and escape, but would leave its egg (the people of the land) behind, and Leviathan is the invincible invading army which God has brought and will take away.
    7. God’s accusation against Job is not of sin, but complacent piety, and his point that while Job was exempt from the general suffering he did nothing about it.
    8. Job’s sufferings are ended along with everyone else’s when he finally prays for his friends and his prayers end the national crisis described.


  3. But we trust that he comes to us in the bread and wine, in baptism, because of what he has said and done, because of what he has revealed, in Jesus Christ, not because of what he has hidden.


  4. Is leaving it to a mystery satisfying? Undoubtedly that will depend on the reader. What seems clear, however is that it weakens Luther’s basic Christological approach. He regards Christ and the cross as the basic epistemological sources for understanding all of theology, yet leaves it extremely unclear exactly how the Son, the revealed God, relates to the Father, the Hidden God.

    Karl Barth taught that God’s face, will and character are not hidden from us, but fully shown, and revealed, in Jesus Christ. According to Barth, there is no hidden face of God, or will of God, other than the will and face we see in Jesus Christ. God has truly and totally shared himself with us in Jesus. Barth’s teaching makes sense to me.


  5. If the number of the Elect is already fixed from eternity then what’s the point of this existence? Is it just a show for Someone’s amusement? .

    Can one be Elect and not know it? Or be Unelect and think you are?

    How can the glory and grace of God be reconciled in any way with the idea of creating billions of people who are doomed

    Stephen, you’re asking the right questions. One of the answers I’ve received to similar questions is, “Oh, but that’s HYPER-Calvinism.” But, but… it was right after we were shown a video in which one of the speakers (D.James Kennedy) rambled on about God not desiring all to be saved after all, only the elect to be saved. So what is the difference between hyper-Calvinism and the garden variety? No answer.

    This crowd is worried that the non-elect are among us, thinking that they’re elect—and that it’s their duty to squash the non-elect’s delusion. Yet somehow, “Blessed Assurance” remains in their hymnals.


  6. I don’t believe that God is inconsistent. Rather, I believe, we misunderstand Him.And that includes biblical authors. I think we have more do do with how the world works than God does. God created it, yes, but it got the way it is through our actions. Christ shows us how to change that. We are the ones off on a tangent, doing things that are not in keeping with the will or nature of God.


  7. I was raised country “free will” Baptist and have to admit I don’t understand the predestination thing at all. I know the proof texts certainly and understand the idea but still it remains obscure.

    If the number of the Elect is already fixed from eternity then what’s the point of this existence? Is it just a show for Someone’s amusement? .

    Can one be Elect and not know it? Or be Unelect and think you are?

    How can the glory and grace of God be reconciled in any way with the idea of creating billions of people who are doomed (no other word for it) to eternal torture merely for the crime of being born? Is that God the loving Abba of the NT or a moral monster?

    I’m happy to have people who already share my questions post here but what I really want is someone who accepts the doctrine of predestination post and tell me what point I’m missing. These are not rhetorical questions.


  8. Good post and comments; grateful to see this, first thing this morning. Thanks Daniel; you do a good job pinch hitting.


  9. God also hides himself in water, bread and wine. When we see an individual baptize, we only see water and we hear words but God is at work in salvation. When we see and taste bread and wine and we hear the words, we don’t see Christ by he is hidden in the bread and wine.


  10. Mike: do you remember the discussion in “Finding God in the Waves” Part 5; where Mike McHargue is explaining the neurological disconnect in his brain that he felt explained the disconnect in his desire to be a Christian and an atheist at the same time? I wonder if something similar went on with Luther. In his emotions and sympathies, Luther grasped the “God-is-for-us” revelation of Christ through the cross. While in the “logic center” of his brain he logically deduced that free will didn’t exist. I’m not sure I agree the paradox is in God; I strongly suspect we are the source of the paradox in our own brains and minds.


  11. Doing a hit and run here. Anyone who is familiar with me knows I’m playing an old record here that I have played a couple of times before but IF this extravagant thought from Jung we’re true, it would make seamless and coherent the seamingly contradictory wills and intents of God. I’m not making a defense of it, I’m just throwing it out there. Taken from Wikipedia:

    In Jung’s interpretation, Job is completely innocent. He is a scrupulously pious man who follows all the religious conventions, and for most of his life he is blessed with good fortune. This is the expected outcome for a just man in a rationally ordered universe. But then God goes to work on him, tests him with misfortune, reduces him to misery, and finally overwhelms him with questions and images of divine majesty and power. Job is silenced, and he realizes his inferior position vis-a-vis the Almighty. But he also retains his personal integrity, and this so impresses God that He is forced to take stock of Himself. Perhaps He is not so righteous after all! [ As Marc Fonda observes, God’s omniscience precludes self-awareness. Being omniscient, God has no concentrated self to speak of. Being a part of everything, God has no opportunity to distinguish self from non-self. However, as God knows the thoughts of humans, through the thoughts of his creation he can experience what self-awareness is. ] And out of this astonishing self-reflection, induced in God by Job’s stubborn righteousness, He, the Almighty, is pushed into a process of transformation that leads eventually to His incarnation as Jesus. God develops empathy and love through his confrontation with Job, and out of it a new relationship between God and humankind is born.”[1].
    I would only add two things. One, that the Mean Man of Old Testament fame did some downright dastardly and indefensible deeds. Hence our continuing, up to this very moment, inability to reasonably defend them. Maybe evolution is flowing into the natural world from its essence in the spiritual world. Two, God did not blunder into anything. Humanity, in His image, was His necessity and His desire. Signing out!


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