Martin Luther on God as Hidden and Revealed (Part 1)

The reformer Martin Luther did the church of Jesus Christ a great service in taking her back to the Scriptures as the final authority for life and doctrine. While he was a flawed sinner like the rest of us, he was also a ravenous student of the Word. Luther taught many crucial doctrines that have characterized Protestantism through the years, as well as some distinctive doctrines that have characterized him as a theologian.

A couple of semesters ago I took a class on the theology of Martin Luther, and I had to do a paper on one aspect of Luther’s theology. I chose the distinction that he made between God as “hidden” and “revealed.” I found my study to be really profitable, and so I am going to adapt the material for a series of blog posts. In this series I will examine Luther’s teachings and evaluate them, noting any profitable application that the doctrine might yield. In this first post, I am going to distinguish between a couple different ways in which Luther talked about God as “hidden” and “revealed.”

SOME DISTINCTIONS

Luther used the idea of God as “hidden” in two different ways. The first way is primarily found in the Heidelberg Disputation. In this writing, Luther develops the idea of the “Theology of the Cross” and the “Theology of Glory.” The theologian of glory is characterized by being concerned with God in His glory and majesty, and likewise is concerned with approaching Him through the attainment of great wisdom and great works1. On the other hand, the theologian of the cross is concerned with God as He is found in suffering and especially as He is found in the cross, in the form of the Man Christ Jesus. The theologian of glory finds this way of approaching God to be foolishness. Luther says that “[the theologian of glory] prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general, good to evil”2. But Luther says that to really know God, we must see Him as He is hidden in Christ. He says, “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering”3. In Luther’s thinking, to confound the wisdom of man, God hides Himself under what is the opposite of Himself, namely weakness and suffering.

The other way that Luther talks of God’s hiddenness is found in his book against Erasmus and free will, The Bondage of the Will. In this book, Luther teaches that there is a distinction between God as He has revealed Himself in His Word, and God as He is in His infinite majesty4. God as He is in Himself in His majesty is hidden from us. It is important to note that while these two ways of talking about God as hidden are related, they are also distinct. In the first case, the hiddenness of God as discussed in the Heidelberg Disputation is the way God reveals Himself. In Bondage of the Will, the hiddenness of God is God as He has not revealed Himself5. This series of posts will discuss Luther’s view of God as “hidden” and “revealed” in the second sense.

Footnotes:
1. Martin Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation.” In Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy F. Lull, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 43-44.

2. Ibid.

3. Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” 43-44.

4. Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. J. I Packer and O. R. Johnston, trans., (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 2003), 169-170.

5. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther. Robert C. Schultz, trans., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 276-277.

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