EVALUATION OF LUTHER’S DOCTRINE
I have been discussing Martin Luther’s doctrine of God as both Hidden and revealed. God is hidden in that He providentially ordains all things, including the salvation of some particular persons and not others. God is hidden in the sense that we don’t know what His plans are and have no access to His secret counsels. On the other hand, God has chosen to reveal Himself in His Word, and especially in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. God is revealed in the sense that He tells us who He is and how we should respond to Him.
So what is to be said of Luther’s doctrine of God as hidden and revealed? At least a few things. First, negatively, there is the issue of Luther finding this distinction in 2 Thess. 2:4. As was discussed in an earlier post, this interpretation does not seem to be what Paul was intending in that passage. A second critique made by Althaus is that Luther to a large part bifurcates God so that “God, according to His secret will, to a great extent disagrees with His Word offering grace to all men.”1 It doesn’t help that Luther insists that God be distinguished from His Word so that God is in some sense free to be a different kind of God than He presents to us.2 So while we can come with comfort to God as He wills all men to be saved through Christ, nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is another God underneath it all that may be completely different. To give Luther credit, he states directly that the God hidden and the God revealed are “the same God,”3 but in the Bondage of the Will, he has painted it out to be such a sharp contrast that it is a fair criticism.
On the positive side, it must be said that Luther is earnestly wrestling with one of the most difficult tensions in Scripture, and he is trying to be faithful to the text and pastorally helpful as well. Since Luther was originally part of the Augustinian order of monks, Luther was influenced by the theological tradition of the early bishop of Hippo from whom the order received their name. This influence left it’s mark on Luther in the form of a strong emphasis on the absolute necessity of the grace of God in salvation and the particularity of God’s grace in the sovereign election of some people to salvation.4
And yet, Luther was concerned that predestination not be pondered in a way that distracts people from their primary responsibility to come to the Word and believe on Christ. His approach was always to confess that God does choose and elect, but then to drive people away from unhealthy speculation and to the cross where they would find God in Christ, and with Him, predestination and election. I believe that this is the key helpful insight of Luther’s doctrine as it has been explained in this series of posts. Luther teaches us to use the doctrine of election to humble men and lead them to worship God and rest in His mighty arms.5 But then rather than focusing on God as He has hidden Himself from us in His secret counsels, we must look to God as He has revealed Himself in His Word and listen and believe Him when He tells us to come to Him as He has offered Himself to us clearly in the Scriptures and especially in Christ crucified for our sins and raised gloriously for our salvation.
1. Althaus, Theology of Martin Luther, 278.
3. Luther, Genesis: Chapters 26-30, 45.
4. I remember reading somewhere that the Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of salvation over his doctrine of the church. It is interesting to note that Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, three of the earliest Protestant reformers, were all predestinarian in their approach to salvation. Indeed, that salvation is by “grace alone” was is one of the main concerns of the reformation and continues to be stressed by those who are consciously heirs of reformation theology.
5. I am assuming for the sake of argument that the reader agrees that God does in fact choose some people for salvation, but I understand that that may not be the case for every reader 🙂