graphic website title banner

Unmasking - The Hidden God?...No Way!

Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (WordAlone board member and Professor of Philosophy and Religion, South Dakota State University)

December 6, 2006

photo of Dr. Dennis BielfeldtSome have claimed that the eight theological-philosophical fundamentals being considered by the WordAlone Network are misguided because they try to do what never ought to be done by a Lutheran, namely, they try to unmask the hidden God. After all, has not Lutheran theology always assumed that speculating about God's unrevealed nature is wrongheaded? While Luther claims that "human reason is the greatest gift of God to human beings," he quickly points out that it is adequate only to deal with things below it, for example, business affairs, politics, science and so on. The attempt to reason out God's nature and ways apart from the revealed Christ would be said to exhibit what Gerhard Forde has called "the upward fall." For Luther, the primal sin was the human's desire to be God. Speculating about God in His inner nature is an attempt to control or judge God and, thus, in itself displays this primary human sin.

But how exactly does asserting theological realism, theophysical causation (the view that God can and does, at least some times, cause natural events) and semantic realism (the position requiring robust conditions of truth for theological language) involve one in a misguided attempt to unmask the Infinite?

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. I claim that the reassertion of all of these eight basic or fundamental statements is necessary if Lutheran theology is to reconnect to that horizon from which Luther's theological innovations emerged, if it is going to retrieve the "center" of its tradition for contemporary man and woman. While Luther believed that God was hidden, and that, consequently, we could not know what God was in and of Himself, he did believe that God existed, that He used His overwhelming (although sometimes apparently capricious) power to effect changes in the world and that statements about this God were either true or false. In other words, for Luther, theological realism and theophysical causation were presupposed in the very concept of God -- even if one could not know, apart from Christ, who God was.

Imagine, if you will, living in a time and place where people actually thought that God was real, that He could effect natural events, that nothing but His naked will separated being from nonbeing, our being from nonbeing. Imagine that this real God really did hate sin so much that it seemed He would willingly condemn His entire creation. Imagine that people generally thought that there really were powers of darkness, and that God either actively promoted or passively permitted those powers in their worldly operations. Imagine living in a time when people actually feared God because their experience of Him was overwhelming, so overwhelming, in fact, that it was deemed inappropriate to put a claim on His seemingly capricious will. What is imagined is the hidden God about whom Luther speaks, particularly in his book "Bondage of the Will." It is the absent yet present quality of this God that drove Luther to rivet his eyes only upon the Christ, upon God's concrete act of love for all.

We cannot, of course, recreate today the late medieval experience and conception of the divine. However, I think we post-moderns have "fallen upward" so effectively that we have closed off the possibility of any fear of God at all. Clearly, there is no reason to fear a God who is not real, who is causally impotent and whose "truths" depend solely upon human attitudes, sentiments and orientations. If it is indeed true that, as Kant taught us, God cannot be a substance having causal relations with the universe, then God is not worthy to be feared. God is then, in fact, no longer a problem for human beings if He can't do anything to His world.

The people in our churches, especially the young, "know" full well now that God is not the kind of thing to be feared. God is, after all, our friend. He helps us out in life. We pray to Him for strength before the exam, before the speech, before the tough conversation. For most post-modern Americans, God is like Harvey the rabbit in the old movie. God, like Harvey, is invisible and private. One can talk to God on one's own, but this God is so personal, that He is one's personal possession. Of course, the only way that this generally could be assumed is if people really were convinced that God were not the kind of being that does or can do anything. A causally isolated God really becomes merely an ideal of human thought. His distinct identity and existence apart from human identity and existence no longer remain and He becomes our most noble construct and projection.

We Lutherans preach the free grace of the love of God made manifest for us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. While in former times, this was very good news, it becomes less so when there is no underlying problem of sin and separation from God. If God is already with us, invisibly and privately strengthening us in our everyday activities, then what do we really need Christ for? In truth, we Lutherans have been busy proclaiming Christ as the answer to a question that is no longer asked. Indeed, why would contemporary man and woman want to find a merciful God if there is no divine otherness in the face of which mercy is needed?

The assertion of theological realism, theophysical causation, and semantic realism, ought not deflect anyone's attention away from the real "fundamental" for Lutherans: We are justified and saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. My fundamentals are a modest attempt more fully to articulate the context for which the answer is Christ. They concern semantic (the meaning of words) and ontological (the nature of His existence) issues because, frankly, the change in semantic and ontological suppositions about the context has affected the very possibility of contemporary men's and women's hearing the astounding message of grace.

The most important truths of mathematics are not its presuppositions. The same is true of theology. Fundamentals in theology are the ontological and semantic presuppositions and commitments that affect the very contour of the Gospel. The fundamentals are not important in themselves, but only in so far as they can lead us back to authentic confrontation with the One who saves sinners from the wrath of a very real God. Far from unmasking the hidden God, the fundamentals are crucial if there is going to be any possibility of human confrontation with that God, and, a fortiori, any real appreciation of the Gospel.