THE ESSENCE OF LUTHER’S TEACHING
This is the second in a series of posts on Martin Luther’s view of God as both revealed and hidden. In the last post, we saw that Luther used this hidden/revealed distinction in two different ways. The first is that God’s hiddeness has to do with the way God reveals Himself to confound the human wisdom, while the second has to do with the fact that God is hidden insofar as He has not revealed Himself to us. This series is focusing on the second sense – Luther’s view that God in His infinite majesty is hidden from us, but revealed to us in His Word, the Bible. In this post we will explore what exactly Luther had to say on this subject. In order to see clearly what he taught, we will start with Luther’s famous dialogue with Erasmus of Rotterdam.
Erasmus, like Luther, was critical of the Roman Catholic Church of their time. But although he wanted reform in the church, he was interested primarily in moral reform, whereas Luther saw that what was needed was doctrinal reform. While they at first saw that there was some common ground between them, eventually Erasmus distanced himself from Luther by writing a polemic against him entitled On the Freedom of the Will. In 1525 Luther responded to Erasmus’ book with his own book, The Bondage of the Will. Luther’s main argument is that apart from God’s grace, man is hopelessly enslaved to sin. One of the major implications of this work is that since man is enslaved to sin, it is God who first chooses to save man and not man who chooses to turn to God first. The hiddenness of God comes into play in that, in Luther’s thinking, it is God as He is hidden that He chooses some men and rejects others, while God as He is revealed offers and desires salvation for all men.
One of the most explicit teachings of the hiddenness of God is found in the context of Luther’s refutation of Erasmus. Erasmus claimed that since God does not desire the death of the wicked, then the wicked die by their own free will.1 Luther responds: “We must discuss God, or the will of God, preached, revealed, offered to us, and worshipped by us, in one way, and God not preached, nor revealed, nor offered to us, nor worshipped by us, in another way.”2 Luther says that it is true that God, as He is revealed, does not desire the death of the sinner; but God as He is not revealed does will the death of the sinner, and in fact wills all things that come to pass.3
This clearly demonstrates the essence of Luther’s distinction between “the hidden God” and “the revealed God.” There are two things that can be said about how Luther comes to this conclusion. The first is that Luther tries to prove this distinction from 2 Thess. 2:4: the man of sin exalts himself above “all that is called God or that is worshipped.” From this Luther deduces that there is a sense in which a man can exalt himself over God as He is preached and worshipped (in Luther’s thinking, “the revealed God”). But Luther says that no one can exalt himself over God as He is “in His own nature.” So there must be a distinction here between God as He is revealed, whom a man can exalt himself over, and God as He is not revealed, whom a man can not exalt himself over.4 But Althaus rightly states that “there is no basis for this [distinction] in the text.”5
The second thing that can be said about how Luther comes to this conclusion is that it appears he is trying to come to grips with two lines of teaching as they are found in Scripture. On the one hand, there is God’s apparent desire that all men be saved. Luther recognizes this when he says, “For He desires that all men should be saved, in that He comes to all by the word of salvation, and the fault is in the will which does not receive Him; as He says in Matt. 23: ‘ How often I would have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldst not!’ (v. 37).”6
On the other hand, there is an apparent choice of God that some are saved. Luther comments on this line of teaching when he says that “It belongs to the same God Incarnate to weep, lament, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, though that will of Majesty purposely leaves and reprobates some to perish. Nor is it for us to ask why He does so, but to stand in awe of God, Who can do, and wills to do, such things.”7 Perhaps this tension is the real reason why Luther comes to the distinction between God as hidden and revealed. His exegesis of 2 Thess. 2:4 may just have been a desire to find the Scripture speaking directly to what he saw implied throughout the Scripture.
This thinking in Luther may even be a development of Luther’s meditation on the Scripture and personal efforts to understand how it is that God both elects and offers salvation to all. While Bondage of the Will was written in 1525, Luther had written on the doctrine of Divine election at least as early as 1516 in his lectures on Romans. In his lecture notes, Luther defends an Augustinian view that God chooses some people to be saved on the basis of His own good pleasure and not on the basis of anything they have done. One of the arguments that Luther refutes in these lectures is the argument that God does not choose to save only some people because He wants all people to be saved. Interestingly, Luther at this point in his thinking does not appeal to a hidden/revealed distinction to explain this, but rather he answers that the phrase “God wants all men to be saved” in 1 Timothy 2:4 (and in other places where similar things are said) pertains to the elect.8
Here in 1516 we see in Luther one will of God regarding salvation that pertains only to the elect. While it is possible that the difference in argument is one of different contexts, it does suggest the possibility that Luther’s thinking on the will of God changed over time. By 1525 and his debate with Erasmus, there is a definite framework of a hidden/revealed distinction that he is appealing to in order to explain the two lines of biblical teaching.
In the next post we will look at how Luther would see our relationship to God as He is hidden and revealed.
1. Luther, Bondage, 166.
2. Luther, Bondage, 169-170.
3. Luther, Bondage, 170-171.
4. Luther, Bondage, 170.
5. Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 277.
6. Luther, Bondage, 171.
7. Luther, Bondage, 176.
8. Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia. Edited by Hilton C. Oswald. Vol. 25 of Luther’s Works. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 375-376.