I have been discussing Protestant reformer Martin Luther’s view of God as both hidden and revealed. I wrote in the last post about the essence of Luther’s teaching – namely that God as He is hidden in His majesty chooses to save some people through Christ and not others, while according to God as He is revealed to us in His Word He does not delight when sinners perish but desires to save all men. This naturally leads to the question “what are we supposed to do about this?” This post will examine how Luther thought we should relate to God in light of the fact that He is both hidden and revealed.
OUR RELATION TO GOD HIDDEN AND REVEALED
Regarding God as He is hidden, Luther says, “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.”1 Luther says that as far as God as He is hidden is concerned, we have no access to Him and no [direct] relationship to Him. Since we have no access to God as He is hidden, we must look for Him where He has revealed Himself: in His Word. He says in again in The Bondage of the Will, “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 us to deal with Him. We have to do with Him as clothed and displayed in His Word, by which He presents Himself to us.”2
In fact, Luther strongly opposes trying to delve into the unknown counsel of God. In his Lectures on Genesis, Luther discusses this topic further. In his treatment of Genesis 17:10-11 on God’s commandment that the descendants of Abraham circumcise their sons on the eighth day, Luther comments on the fact that many people want to talk about why God commanded them to do it. His response is that it is enough that God told them to and beyond that we should not speculate.3 This train of thought seems to trigger in him an excursus into the idea of speculating upon what God has not made known.
Luther here says that if Adam had paid attention to what God said to him rather than speculating the reasons for God’s prohibition in the garden, he would not have fallen.4 Further, he identifies this kind of speculation beyond God’s revelation as the reason for the fall of Satan. Luther says, “I have no doubt that the sin of Lucifer was something like this, that he wanted to find out and know more about the unknown God than became his station, that is, about the God who has not been revealed and disclosed through the Word.”5 What is important is that for Luther, what is characteristic of man as a sinful creature is his desire to neglect the Word in preference for his own supposed wisdom.
Later in his lectures on Genesis, Luther speaks of how this same principle applies to many people’s thinking on predestination. He echoes Bondage of the Will when he repeats here, “what is above us in none of our concern.”6 He says that many people, in thinking about predestination, become obsessed with knowing God’s secret will, and start to think in a fatalistic way and neglect to lay hold of Christ because they think that it makes no difference what they do because they are either chosen or not.7 Luther, speaking from God’s perspective, then gives what he believes is God’s instruction for how “you may be able to know whether you are predestined or not.”8 He says of Christ,
“Behold, this is My Son; listen to Him (cf. Matt. 17:5). Look at Him as He lies in the manger and on the lap of His mother, as He hangs on the cross. Observe what He does and what He says. There you will surely take hold of Me.” […] If you listen to Him, are baptized in His name, and love His Word, then you are surely predestined and are certain of your salvation. But if you revile or despise the Word, then you are damned; for he who does not believe is condemned (Mark 16:16).”9
Luther was devotedly Augustinian in his theology of election. But his concern was for the practical impact that questions of election and predestination have on an individual. This may derive from his own spiritual journey, where he was constantly tormented about questions regarding his salvation. At one point he refers back to his experience in the Augustinian cloister. He says, “Staupitz10 used to comfort me with these words: ‘Why do you torture yourself with these speculations? Look at the wounds of Christ and at the blood that was shed for you. From these predestination will shine.’”11
These passages demonstrate that Luther wanted to point people away from God in His hiddenness and specifically, he wanted to point them to God’s Word. This is the most important implication of Luther’s doctrine of God as revealed. It is the fact that even though He believed and taught election and the hidden purpose of God, he was concerned that people look for God not by means of speculation and pondering what God has not made known, but by looking to what God is speaking to them through His Word and through Christ. Luther says,
“I say, as I said before, that we may not debate the secret will of Divine Majesty […]. But let man occupy Himself with God Incarnate, that is, with Jesus crucified, in whom, as Paul says (cf. Col. 2:3), are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (though hidden); for by Him man has abundant instruction both in what he should and in what he should not know.”12
Luther was constantly working to get people to the Word, because that is where life is found, not in pondering about whether one is predestined. More than that, Luther thought that it was by coming to the Word and responding to Christ in faith that men found that they were predestined. But this did not mean that Luther was totally unconcerned with God as He is hidden. In the next post we will try to find out in what way Luther was concerned about God in His hiddenness.
1. Luther, Bondage, 169-170.
3. Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 15-20. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan. Vol. 3 of Luther’s Works. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 138-139.
4. Luther, Genesis: Chapters 15-20, 138-139.
6. Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 26-30. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen. Vol. 5 of Luther’s Works. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 44.
7. Luther, Genesis: Chapters 26-30, 43.
8. Luther, Genesis: Chapters 26-30, 45.
9. Luther, Genesis: Chapters 26-30, 45.
10. Johann von Staupitz, the vicar of the cloister and Luther’s early spiritual mentor.
11. Luther, Genesis: Chapters 26-30, 47.
12. Luther, Bondage, 175-176.