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The Problem of the Hiddenness of God in Luther’s Theology

[Since I just recently uploaded a paper that Pat Roach wrote on the concept of divine hiddenness in Martin Luther's theology of the cross, I thought it would be worth re-posting his summary and a link to the paper: The Problem of the Hiddenness of God in Luther's Theology.]

One of the most important contributions to Christian thought made by Martin Luther is his theology of the cross.  In this theology we learn that God hides Himself in His revelation, for the purpose of drawing out faith in the person.  The living and true God has most powerfully made Himself known to humanity in an unlikely way and in an unlikely place – the cross of Jesus Christ.  The scandal of this revelation is that this is not where we would reasonably expect to find God.  The all-powerful maker of heaven and earth has not made Himself most fully known by categories of reason, or by a display of raw force.  Instead, God has revealed Himself in the opposite of these things, in the weakness of His crucified Son.

But for Luther there is a second way in which He speaks of God’s self-concealment.  The Lord not only hides Himself in the revelation of Christ crucified, but He hides Himself outside of His revelation as well.  This second hiddenness is God hiding behind and beyond revelation in the mystery that forms His work of saving some and damning others.  It is in this mysterious, inaccessible realm of hiddenness where “God himself” exists, beyond His word, and not in it.

There is an apparent tension between these two kinds of hiddenness. If the concealed God of the second hiddenness is the real God, free and unbound in His will, and unknowable as He truly is, this seems like an altogether different God than the one revealed/hidden in the cross, i.e. the first hiddenness.  The God revealed in hiddenness in revelation is gracious, calling all to know Him in the His crucified Son, for it is there that salvation and mercy is found for humankind, unexpected as it might be.  But the God who hides Himself outside of revelation, seems altogether different.  He is the one who in power and incomprehensibility chooses some to be His elect, and reprobates others to damnation – and for reasons that are unknowable, inscrutable, and apparently unrelated to His self-revelation in the cross.

In my paper , I examine the key sources for understanding Luther’s theology of God’s hiddenness, The Heidelberg Disputations (1518), The Bondage of the Will (1525), and The Commentary on Genesis (1535-1545), to show how the doctrine unfolds and develops throughout his ministry. After considering these primary sources, I will look at how this tension in Luther’s theology has been addressed, along with their strengths and weaknesses.  Then I will give my own attempt at providing an answer for how the first hiddenness relates to the second hiddenness, by looking at Luther’s view of the role and function of faith in the Christian life.

Greek Fathers Annotated Bibliography

We’ve started posting a number of papers and abstracts that some of the Th.M. students wrote during last semester’s class on the Greek Fathers. The class started with Irenaeus and Origen as two fathers who exercised a profound influence on the later Greek Fathers. We then worked our way from Athanasius to John of Damascus. So far we’ve posted the papers that were written on Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus. We’ll be posting a few others over the next couple of weeks.

We also compiled a working Greek Fathers Annotated Bibliography. This is far from an exhaustive bibliography, but it does provide good resources on each of the individuals studied as well as a number of resources on theosis.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Infinite Progress: A challenge for an integrated theology

Here is an abstract of my [Adam Bottiglia] paper Gregory of Nyssa’s Infinite Progress: A challenge for an integrated theology.

One of the greatest challenges to a theologian is to take all of the education in philosophy and exegesis and the finer details of theology and convert them into a digestible and useful form for the church. In Gregory of Nyssa we find a great example to emulate. He is the paradigm of an integrated theology, a theology that has as much to say to the heretic as it does to the devoted believer. In this paper I will be looking at his doctrine of God’s infinite nature in order to show that Gregory had a knack for taking even the most weighty theological and philosophical concepts and applying them significantly to the spiritual life of the believer.

He supports me, he supports me not

Near Emmaus recently directed my attention to a discussion at New Leaven about a book by C. Michael Patton arguing for a cessationist position on spiritual gifts. (You can download a free .pdf of the book here.) New Leaven has had a number of posts on the continuationist/cessationist argument that are worth reading. And, if you’re interested in pursuing the subject some more, Brian has posted his own thoughts on why he is a continuationist here.

But, my primary interest here is not about the cessationist debate itself. (I actually didn’t think there still was one.) My interest is in the use of historical authorities in theological argumentation. At one point in his argument, Patton cites Augustine in support of his position. The point of the post at New Leaven was to suggest that Patton was being selective by quoting Augustine, who is amil, when Patton himself is premil. Now, this criticism could have been unpacked a bit more, since there’s nothing necessarily wrong with favorably citing one part of a person’s theology even if you disagree with other parts. So, I offered the following comment to make the concern a bit more apparent:

…the implicit rhetorical thrust of appealing to a theologian of Augustine’s stature is to show that he’s on Patton’s side. And, that’s where the problem comes in. Since a theological claim like this is nested within the broader fabric of a person’s theology, we shouldn’t simply pull out one strand like this and wield it selectively. And, since Patton and Augustine are operating with quite different theological frameworks, he needs to exercise due diligence to make sure that he is handling Augustine’s theology carefully. Just using the same words does not entail theological agreement.

What I found fascinating about this were the comments that came after I posted this comment. The majority of the comments criticized the post (and apparently my comment) because they thought we were saying that you had to agree with everything a person believes before you could refer favorably to anything they’ve written. They seemed to think that this implied some form of “guilty by association” – i.e. you believe A, and A is wrong, therefore I can’t use anything you’ve said.

But, that misses the point of the argument entirely. This has nothing to do with whether you can use the ideas of people you don’t agree with. (I do this all the time.)  So, I tried (probably unsuccessfully) to clear things up a bit more with a later comment:

….If Patton is using this as a theological argument (i.e. Augustine’s on my side), then T.C. is right to ask about whether he’s doing justice to the theological framework within which Augustine makes the claim. The point isn’t that you can’t agree with one part of a person’s theology and disagree with some other part, we do that all the time. The point is that before you do this, you need to make sure that you’ve understood both issues within the person’s overall theology. Only then can you be sure that you’ve understood either claim adequately enough to agree/disagree with it or use it in a theological argument.

The point is that we need to be very careful about assuming that we know what a person means when he says X. And, we need to realize that X does not stand alone. It is nested within an entire theological system that provides the context within which X makes sense as a theological assertion. You can’t simply pull X out of that framework and say, “Look, he agrees with me.” Maybe he does. But that cannot be assumed. The simple fact that you and he may be using the same words does not mean that you are necessarily in agreement. This is what people refer to as “historical proof texting.” You need to do the extra work to make sure that you’ve understood the statement as the author intended it, which means (at least) understanding it within the context of their whole theology, before you think you understand it well enough to use it in a theological argument.

This is what makes historical theology such an important discipline. When historical theology is done well, it forces us to understand people and ideas within the historical, social, ecclesial, and cultural contexts that provide the only framework within which we can understand their theological assertions. It’s hard work. But it’s well worth doing. And, unless we’re willing to do it, we should probably refrain from citing (or critiquing) these theological giants.

Origen: Heretic or Great Theologian?

Here is my paper that I wrote for our Greek Father’s class.  Before taking the class, the only thing I had heard about Origen was that he was a heretic.  After studying him this semester, I found that my conclusions were wrong.  There we definitely things he taught that would be considered unorthodox today, but he was clearly one of the first great Christian minds.  Therefore, I submit this paper for your reading enjoyment.

Origen’s Trinitarian Theology


Origen is one of the most controversial early church fathers.  He was accused of heresy by the 5th Ecumenical Council and was excommunicated from the church.  The anathema centered around several tenets of his theology, one of them being his doctrine of Subordinationism.  Subordinationism was the teaching that the Son and Holy Spirit were both subordinate to the Father in nature and being.  Origen is thought to be the first theologian to insinuate, if not out right teach such an idea, and that subsequent heresies derived their authority from Origen’s initial teaching.  In light of this accusation, this paper attempts to do three things.  The first section takes a look at what Origen actually said about the Father, Son, and Spirit and tries to piece together a coherent view of his Trinitarian theology.  An explanation is then given as to why Origen appears to be misunderstood, and clearly affirms that he does not adhere to a doctrine of relational subordinationism within the Trinity, but does see a subordination of roles within the divine mission.  The final section discusses two contradictions between Origen’s theology and that of the Arian doctrine that was linked to him.

Icons or idolatry: iconoclasm in the early church

Andreas has graciously posted his recent paper on John of Damascus for your perusal. He provides an interesting summary of the iconoclastic controversy, offering much food for thought on the role of images in contemporary worship. I’d be interested in hearing your comments on Andreas’ paper, or just the idea of icons in general.

Here’s his paper and abstract:

Saint John of Damascus and the Iconoclastic Controversy: The Essential Need for Image(s) in Christian Worship

Scholars have pointed to various motives that may have induced the Iconoclastic emperors of the Isaurian dynasty (717-886). These motives have often been characterized as being mainly political: for one, the army was recruited from territories traditionally hostile to, not only the use of icons, but also the dominant Church and its practices (Armenians, Mardiates of Lebanon, Isuarians, Manicheans, Paulicians). Some have suggested that Leo was aiming to stabilize the Empire by suppressing local freedom. Unfortunately, for Leo III, this move seemed to have the opposite effect on the people. It increased the enthusiasm with which the images were defended, and Monks of the monastic movement, who stood for non-conformity, soon took advantage of the situation. They saw the opportunity to shake off the imperial yoke that the Emperor had placed on the Church, once and for all. Finally, considering the heightened presence of Islam, and the ongoing dialogue with Jews, it made sense for the Emperor to suppress or at least limit the use of images.

Who will we be talking about 50 years from now?

One of things I love about teaching is being able to ask students questions that I don’t know the answer to. It’s fun. I get to throw something out there and see what the class comes up with. If they come up with something particularly insightful, and if my level of sanctification is running particularly low that day, I can pretend that I was steering them toward that conclusion all along. Makes me look like a genius. Teaching is fabulous.

One of the questions that I like to throw out to my church history class when we get to the twentieth century is, “Who do you think we’ll still be talking about 50 years from now?” Of course, in many ways, that is a very challenging question. How many of the theological giants of the 1950s are we still talking about? There are a few, but the majority of the “heavy hitters” of that generation have fallen into a quiet obscurity. And, that’s the way things usually go. Very few biblical and theological scholars rise to the level that their work is still being discussed 2-3 generations later. But, I like to toss the question out there and see what comes back.

I was reminded of this the other day when someone mentioned in a casual conversation that he thought NT Wright would be one of those people whose work would stand the test of time. He wasn’t saying that he thought NT Wright was the best and brightest of today’s Christian thinkers, nor was he saying that he thought NT Wright’s work was correct on every point. He was simply saying that NT Wright has had such an impact on biblical and theological studies that he would likely be the focus of discussion for generations to come.

So, acting like the teacher in front of the class, I want to toss this one back to you. What do you think? Of the Christian theologians, biblical scholars, speakers, and writers currently living (or, I guess we can cheat a little and include any who have died within the last ten years or so), which one(s) do you think we will still be talking about 50 years from now? Who do you think has (or will have by the end of his/her career) made such an impact on Christian thought that future generations will not be able to avoid talking about them? And, do you think NT Wright will be one of them?

Irenaeus: Not a Lucky Winner

Here’s an abstract of my paper, “Irenaeus: Not a Lucky Winner.” Feel free to post any questions or comments below.

Contemporary writer and lecturer Bart Ehrman has achieved great notoriety over the past decade by espousing his view that the Christian church of the early centuries was a variegated enterprise.  Consolidated only by a series of political and ideological victories, the victors of these theological battles bestowed upon themselves the title “orthodox,” while the losers, deemed “heretics,” were erased from the history books.  Ehrman’s idea is not original.  In fact, the 1934 treatise by Walter Bauer which gave the thesis it’s fullest expression has taken severe criticism which has flowed constantly since the 1950’s.  Yet, postmodern skepticism has kept the ground fertile for contemporary writers to continue the promulgation of the theory.  Perhaps the greatest recipients of this skepticism have been the early Fathers of the Church.  Among these, none is more central than Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyons and author of Against Heresies, the anti-Gnostic polemical work.  In the face of insinuations that Christianity lacked any unique identity and that Irenaeus’ motives were to enforce his own version of Christianity in order to increase his power base, this paper will demonstrate the contrary.  An objective orthodoxy can be established and Irenaeus was a man of both high competence and noble motive.

Gregory Nazianzen’s Trinitarian Relationship

Here’s the abstract for my paper on Gregory of Nazianzen’s understanding of Trinitarian Relationship

Gregory Nazianzen used very specific terms to demonstrate the deity of the Son and Spirit by showing their relationship to the Father. He based his proof in the unquestioned deity of the Father, and then used relational terminology to explain how the Son and Spirit both shared in the deity of the Father and were distinct persons in and of themselves. The two terms which he primarily used to do this were begotten and procession. These terms were biblical and expressed the essence of their relationship, yet Gregory drew a sharp distinction between the two. Begetting is not procession and vice versa. To interchange the two would invalidate only-begotten and create either 2 Sons of a Son/Grandson relationship. But in his use of Begotten and procession Gregory described the Father as the Source of their divine nature and simultaneously refuted Sabellian Monarchism by establishing the presence of separate persons within the Godhead.

Early Christianity lectures

The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies has a couple of good lectures available online.

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