Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Invisible Things of God

Thomas Adams at Without Authority has put up some good posts recently on the subject of natural theology. Most recently he has undertaken to swim the heady waters of the debate as it flowed between Brunner, Barth and Tillich. But me, I'm Old School, so I thought I'd offer some thoughts from Luther.

Given the extended nature of my comments, it seemed best to me to chime in here and not just in the comments there (but do check out Thomas' blog for some good theological reflection).

Luther touches on a point that seems to me to be relevant to the Brunner-Barth debate in his 1518 Heidelberg Disputation (my favorite of Luther's works). In thesis 19 he says:
That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.
Other translations read "created things" in place of "those things which have actually happened." Now, on the face of it, this seems to be a direct contradiction of St. Paul in Romans 1:20 ("Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made."), but it is clear from Luther's "proof" that he is intentionally going for shock value. His proof states:
This is apparent in the example of those who were "theologians" and still were called fools by the Apostle in Rom. 1[:22]. Furthermore, the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth. The recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.
So, it would seem that Luther grants a "point of contact" in nature, such that God may be perceived in nature (or in "those things that have actually happened"), but he maintains, on the authority of the apostle, that we would be fools to seek to know God that way. When we seek to know God that way, we are seeking the "naked God", as Luther says, rather than God clothed in his promises. What we find may lead us to knowledge about God, but we will never meet God in such a way and certainly not know God.

Luther's proof above raises an interesting parallel to Abraham Heschel's thoughts on the message of the prophets. Heschel maintains that the prophets have no intention of expounding the value of abstract ideals which God happens to possess as attributes. The prophets do not wish to educate us about "virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth." Rather, they wish to introduce us to a God whose nature is manifested in virtue, justice, goodness, and so forth. Their primary intention is that we know God, not that we know God's attributes.

And this, I think, is the sought after "point of contact." The point of contact is the God who comes down, the God who comes to us in the world. In vain do we search for God in human things. Nevertheless, in human things God comes to us. We may meet God in relationship but never in analytic inquiry.


Thomas Adams said...

I'm glad that you brought Luther into the discussion, as I’ve always been unsure about where he stands regarding the “point of contact”. As you point out, his theology of the cross seems prohibit any form of natural theology. But on the other hand, his teachings on "law and gospel" assume and require a point of contact. As I intepret it, his theology suggests that people can know about God and his will through creation, but only in a negative sense (i.e., through the Law). To my way of thinking, his position is the equivalent of Tillich’s (more modern) argument that humans have an innate ability for asking radical questions about God, but not for providing the corresponding answers. For both Luther and Tillich, the negative knowledge of God gained through sin and doubt prepares the way for God’s positive revelation through Christ. Natural theology is rejected, but the “point of contact” is retained.

I really like your comment about the difference between knowing about God and actually knowing God. And you’re absolutely right that the prophets weren’t giving seminars about God’s divine qualities – they were trying to mediate a God/human encounter. As Amos said, “Prepare to meet your God, O Israel.”

Luthsem said...

Good Theology of the Cross! The Late Gerhard Forde would be proud.

Andy said...


You're right, Luther's theology does indicate that people, by nature, are able to know the Law through nature, but Luther has an odd view of the Law, to say the least. He tends to distance the Law from God in as much as the Law is one of the things from which we are saved. It tends to fall on the "sin, death and the power of the devil" side of things for Luther. So, again, you're right in saying that Luther means we can only know this "in a negative sense". We can only know the Law that always condemns, accuses and works death.

Of course, the whole idea of even potentially not being aware that God is even there, so fundamental to many modern formulations of the question, would have been completely foreign to Luther.

Lee said...

Gerhard Forde has a very original discussion of the "hidden God" vs. the revealed God in Where God Meets Man (and elsewhere). I particularly like how he deals with the question of predestination - our natural bent (or natural theology, you might say!), he says, is to think of God as this inscrutable sovereign will that saves and damns, but what we need is to have God's gracious saving will revealed to us concretely (rather than as an abstraction which inevitably becomes law for us), which is why he comes to us in Jesus.

Though I'm not entierly sure how faithful Forde is being to the letter of Luther here, b/c Luther actually did seem to think that there was a "hidden will" of God that was, at least in principle, different from his revealed will. And that seems to undercut the comfort one derives from the gospel.