The Hidden God
Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology
During this 500th anniversary of the Reformation many books will be written about Martin Luther and the other Reformers. They will mostly be theological in scope and content. Marius Timmann Mjaaland’s The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology looks at Luther from a more philosophical perspective–interacting with continental philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, René Descartes, Reiner Shürmann, and others. Though not primarily a theological study, Mjaaland expounds a great deal of Luther’s theology.
Luther was schooled in medieval nominalistic philosophy and used philosophical argumentation in his writings. So it is surprising that there have not been more philosophical studies of Luther like Mjaaland’s.
For Mjaaland, Luther’s Heidelberg Theses and Bondage of the Will are the two main theological treatises for the concept of the hidden God.
The philosophical “destruction of metaphysics” attempts a “deconstruction of traditional metaphysical” concept. Mjaaland argues that Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation played a key role in the “general destruction of metaphysics” in that it attacked the ego and “the speculative metaphysics of scholastic theology” (11). Four centuries later Heidegger’s phenomenological philosophy drew from Luther’s deconstruction and his concept of the hidden God.
Schürmann stated that “modern philosophy” has its origin in Luther’s thought (117). Mjaaland provides an excellent digest of Schürmann’s study of the topology of the self in Luther (111-124).
Mjaaland sees Luther as belonging to the late medieval world, yet the “structures of his thought are innovative” and “revolutionary, especially in his theory of scripture.” Luther’s “destabilization” of the prevailing theology and philosophy of his day is the “decisive theoretical condition for the political and religious movement we call the Reformation.” This includes “an ambiguous understanding of the self” which flows into modern philosophical discourse (35).
Luther’s subversive theological deconstruction centered on Christ’s cross, his suffering, and his weakness, which deflated trust in the self, and opposed the powers ruling the church and the world. His “hermeneutics of suspicion” was guided by Scripture rather than by human reason. For Luther, the cross “and scripture are the two conditions” which enable his “theory of knowledge” (44-45).
Traditional Reformation hermeneutics held the proposition that the text of Scripture is clear and has one meaning. Mjaaland posits a double meaning for the scriptural text in some of Luther’s theology, especially for the phrase justitia dei (56-61).
Like Gerhard Ebeling, Mjaaland sees Luther standing under the authority of the biblical text. The reader is not a ruler over the text of scripture, rather the scriptures rule the reader and hearer. This is important in Luther’s understanding of the hiddenness of God.
Luther objected to the sale of indulgences and other such practices as they enabled human beings to believe they could pay off their moral debt. But scripture stated that this could not be done. God’s grace does not allow a barter economy.
Having studied Luther’s deconstruction of metaphysics, and his view of the centrality of the scriptural text and its grammar, Mjaaland then proceeds to study Luther’s concept of the hidden God.
Luther’s conflict with Erasmus in the Bondage of the Will was a disagreement about free will and scripture. Luther rejected Erasmus’s contention that the scriptures are unclear. For Luther, the scriptures clearly reveal God and say very little about the hidden God.
Dionysius the Areopagite’s Mystical Theology provides background for Luther’s hidden God. Luther’s understanding of the hidden God is “radically” destructive of the myths about faulty images of God’s power (89). Luther’s view flows from christology and the cross which emphasizes Christ’s human vulnerability, suffering, and brokenness. In this anthropological reversal Mjaaland sees Luther’s rejecting the prevailing philosophy of his day, and the emergence of two perspectives on the hidden God—“a hidden god beyond reason” and “God hidden in suffering and weakness at the cross”—the God hidden behind visible masks (93). This is the theology of the cross.
Mjaaland studies the apocalyptic interpretation of Daniel and Revelation in Thomas Müentzer, Luther, and Catharius. Mjaaland notes that these three approaches to apocalyptic thought reflect a correlation between “the hidden God and political strategy.” This leads to his thought that “there is no politics without theology and no theology without politics” (174).
The difference between Müentzer’s and Luther’s interpretation of scripture’s apocalyptic texts is seen in Luther’s discouragement of violent revolution, and Müentzer’s encouragement thereof. Mjaaland also examines the ties between Müentzer and the revolutionary thought of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx.
For Luther, there was importance to the difference between God’s “hiddenness and revelation” because in all applications or interpretations of scripture, especially the political ones, God may still “have secrets in reserve” (175). Mjaaland advocates the need to study “the line of distinction” between the revealed and hidden God in Luther (107). Atheism speaks about God’s non-existence due to a lack of empirical evidence. This reviewer wonders how the hidden God’s secrets in reserve might interact with atheism’s claimed lack of evidence?
Apocalyptic visions are an increasing part of our modern world. Current apocalyptic political theology reveals a contrast between “light and darkness” and “good and evil” (176). How might God’s hiddenness interact with apocalyptic political theology today?
The Hidden God analyzes Luther’s scriptural rejection of the traditional metaphysics and metaphysical frameworks of his day “as the basis for truth” and “knowledge” and for “religious” and “secular authority” (177).
Mjaaland sees Luther’s foundation for the restructuring of metaphysics in the “cross” which is “based in passivity, suffering, and sacrifice.” Luther’s deconstructive work reformats reality “according to the letter and grammar of scripture” and overturns the barter economy so that salvation is “the unconditional gift” of God’s justifying grace in Christ (178). God’s clear self revelation in scripture leaves space for God’s hiddenness and the distinction “between seclusion and revelation” (179).
This is a bold work of philosophical theology. Mjaaland plans a second volume on the subject of the hidden God in modernity. This reviewer looks forward to that book.
Armand J. Boehme is associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran in Northfield, Minnesota.
Add New Comment
Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.