Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Dialectic of the Hidden and Revealed God as Trinitarian Advent.

I came up with this on the treadmill the other day. I had to add it to chapter 5 of the book.

It's significant because people like Christine Helmer have complained that reading Luther primarily through the lens of Bondage of the Will and therefore through the lens of the dialectic of the hidden and revealed God (Elert and Bayer are faulted by her for this- though as you can see below, I don't consider this a fault of Bayer) destroy the importance of the Trinity. In her book on Luther and the Trinity, she actually wants to marginalize use of the dialectic (even though Luther thought the Bondage of the Will and the Catechisms were the only things that he wrote which were any good!) in favor of a primarily Trinitarian description of divine agency in Luther. 

I think she's on to something, but she goes a bit far. Theodosius Harnack, Althaus, Elert, and Forde are right to place the dialectic of hidden and revealed at the forefront, but they are wrong to not coordinate this with Luther's highly Trinitarian understand of divine agency.  My point below is that Trinitarian advent and the dialectic of hidden-revealed are for Luther understood through one another. Oswald Bayer does a marvelous job saying something similar in his reading of Dear Christians One and All Rejoice- though he's not as explicit about it as I am.  

The condescending and concealing movement of the Son actualized in the narrative of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection also unfolds the word of the testament as a specifically Trinitarian act of mutual concealment and revelation.  The dialectic of the hidden and revealed God is not properly understood as the unfolding of an essentially unitarian account of the deity (even though certain Lutheran theologians have given that impression!), but is rather shaped by the Trinitarian structure of the divine life and the taxis of its temporal manifestation. 

At Christ’s baptism, the Father testifies that he is his Son.  As we noted above, Jesus does not appear to be God’s Son in that he stands in solidarity of with sinners.  Throughout his ministry, Christ testifies of the Father against the experience of condemnation suffered by Israel. The Father hides as deus absconditus under wrath and law.  He does so through the mask (larva dei) of continuing exile and a decaying creation (Rom 8:22).  In contradistinction to this mask, Jesus testifies that the Father is the gracious giver of every good.  Jesus, as the true Son of the Father, is his very image (Col 1:15, Heb 1:3) in his ministry of compassion and forgiveness.  He sees what the Father does and does it himself (Jn 5:20).  Those who have seen him have seen the Father (14:9).  Although the Father is hidden and no one has ever seen him (1:18), he reveals his grace by making the rain fall on the just and unjust (Mt 5:45) and loves those who abuse his grace (5:43-8).  Indeed, only the Son knows the Father, just as the Father alone knows the Son (Mt 11:27, Jn 10:15).  This is because Jesus and the Father are one (Jn 10:30), and Jesus is in Father and the Father is in Jesus (Jn 14:11).  Nevertheless, this unity of the Father and the Son is hidden and only revealed by the power of the Spirit.  This unity is both revealed and conceal at Jesus' baptism through Jesus' reception of the Spirit under the concealing form of a dove.  In Jesus' ministry, the Spirit reveals the unity of the Father and Jesus through the word that Jesus gives (Mt 11:27). 

As Jesus’ ministry persists, the aporia between his testimony regarding his unity with Father and the actual circumstances of his existence grows ever deeper.  Jesus forgives sinners who are condemned by the Father's law by means other than those set down by the Pentateuch (i.e., Temple and cultic sacrifice).  Jesus is not opposed to the law (Mt. 5:17), but rather claims that the law is ordered to the gospel (Jn 3:17).  Jesus’ identification with sinners and his eventual death along with them will therefore be an act of divine redemption, not a final condemnation of him as a mere messianic pretender.  In fact, the Father's love for the Son lies in the fact that he bears this judgment (10:15). This judgment will not be an end in itself, but rather will serve the purpose of the Father’s loving plan to redeem the whole world (3:16).  Hisopus alienum is therefore ordered to his opus proprium.  This truth is nevertheless not really accessible to vision.  The Father, whom Jesus prays to and testifies of, finally reacts in silence to Jesus' cry of desperation in the garden of Gethsemane.  The Father remains loving even though his benevolence is hidden when he abandons the Son to a cruel fate.  In the same way, Jesus remains divine and righteous, though he dies under the veil of sin and weakness.  On the cross, the visible rupture between the Father and the Son (as well as between vision and hearing!) is completed when we hear both: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “Truly this was the Son of God!”

In the resurrection, the Spirit who raises Christ (Rom 8:11) resolves the aporia between the Son's testimony and the Father's action. Jesus' claim that the Father's wrath is order to his love is validated once and for all.  Similarly, his claim of unity with the Father is reaffirmed in the unity of the Spirit, for: "In that day [that is, at the time of the receiving the Spirit after the resurrection] you will know that I am in my Father" (Jn 14:20).  This revelation is nevertheless hidden in that no one directly observes the event of resurrection.  Jesus himself testifies to the disciples that he has been raised and gives them the Spirit (20:19). By receiving the Spirit, they will preserve and propagate Jesus' infallible testimony regarding the Father (14:16-26).  The Spirit's activity is also hidden for believers in Word and sacrament.  The audible word given by Jesus in his promises concerning the word of the apostles and sacraments testifies to the Spirit's hidden work.  In establishing the means of grace, Jesus testifies to work of the Spirit against vision, in the same manner that the Father testified of him and he testified of the Father sub contrario.

Faith holds to Jesus as the true revealed God over-against sinful human perceptions of the Father hidden in majesty.  Faith also trusts in the Spirit and the Father's word of testimony regarding Jesus in opposition to his manifest form of weakness and condemnation.  Through this testimony, faith recognizes Jesus is a mirror of the Father's heart.  Luther writes in the Large Catechism: "For (as explained above) we could never attain to the knowledge of the grace and favor of the Father except through the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the paternal heart, outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge."  Faith gains this knowledge through trust in the hidden work of the Spirit in Word and sacrament: "But of Christ we could know nothing either, unless it had been revealed by the Holy Ghost."[1]  Therefore for Luther, the whole dialectic of the hidden and revealed God resolves itself for faith in the Trinitarian advent of Christ's life made accessible in Word and sacrament.[2]


  1. Jack,

    How do you take the Cyriliian and eastern view of the atonement, that when Christ says "why have you forsaken me" he isn't speaking of himself but as mankind.

  2. Drake- Thanks for the question. No, I would most certainly disagree with St. Cyril. God did abandon and condemn Christ because our sins truly adhered to him. Luther says that people always want to remove and separate Christ and our sins. The Scripture though tell us that our sins really and truly adhere to Christ and therefore God condemns and destroys them in him. So in a sense Cyril is correct, but only insofar as Christ bears and is the person of all sinners before God.

  3. Jack,

    That's some pretty heady stuff. Will be thinking about this for a while. Thanks for posting it.

    "This truth is nevertheless not really accessible to vision. The Father, whom Jesus prays to and testifies of, finally reacts in silence to Jesus' cry of desperation in the garden of Gethsemane. The Father remains loving even though his benevolence is hidden when he abandons the Son to a cruel fate."

    I have heard some LCMS theologians say that His cry is evidence of His perfect trust in the Father - i.e. that He still addresses Him, clings and clings to Him and does not curse Him. I wonder... is Jesus' cry "Why have you forsaken me *now* - at this moment", i.e., with the whole of Psalm 22 in mind - or is it "Why have you forsaken me forever?" (i.e. total desperation). What questions would you suggest I, or we, should be asking here, if any?


  4. Nathan,

    I would agree with those LCMS theologians (I guess I would be one of them!) who say that Jesus did trust in God when he said those words. When people in the ancient world cites one passage in Scripture, they typically mean to invoke the total context. Of course, you might ask, would Jesus dying in agony really have thought that out? I would say, no- but I would qualify that by saying that if one is in a habit of quoting Scripture in a particular manner , in a moment of extreme presure one will follow the usual course reflexively.

    I would also point to Hebrews 11 and its statement that Jesus is the supreme exemplar of faith, who trusted in God in spite of the shame of the cross.

    This of course doesn't mean that Jesus didn't feel the whole weight of God's wrath crashing down on him. The use of this verse obviously expresses the feelings of sadness and angst that he experienced.

    I think Oswald Bayer is helpful here also. Bayer notes that lamentation in the Bible only works if you have faith. No one really laments God's action when it causes pain unless they have a prior trust in God's goodness and grace. In other words, lament functions only when the faithful see temporal events and they can't square them with you they know and trust that God really is. Hence, lamentation on Jesus part means that he still trusts in the Father and his goodness. People who do not believe in God as good or gracious typically don't worry about suffering or pain being inconsistent with God's character. If bad things happen, God turns out to be just who they believed him to be all along.

  5. Jack,

    Thanks much for your fine answer. I guess I have trouble thinking that Jesus would not have known in that moment - probably before He even cried out to God - that ultimately, God was going to raise Him from the dead, as Jesus, had, of course predicted himself... Certainly that belief would have helped sustain Him as He suffered.

    What about Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane? Where He asked that if it was His Father's will the cup would pass? Perhaps, even though Jesus knew about the "theology of the cross" better than anyone (He defines the theology of the cross), He wanted to expect nothing but good from God in every situation(as Luther told us we should... http://concordiansisters.blogspot.com/2011/01/expect-only-good-from-god-in-every.html )?

    Ultimately, we are all theologians of glory (good sense), are we not, in that as we look past this world, we see nothing but the goodness described in Revelation? Still, is it really wrong to hope for and expect this glory now? Deliverance now? The last day - the restoration of the whole creation - now? (not even the Son knows the hour or the day...) Perhaps this might have something to do with His cry?

    Obviously, I haven't thought out this "expecting goodness in every situation" thing much, much less living it, I'm afraid. In my case, doesn't expecting good from God in every situation mean not just "good for me", but "the greater good" sometimes? (i.e. should not my highest desire and joy be the good for my neighbor, as it was for Paul [see Rom. 9:1-5]). And if with me, how much more so for Jesus?... But if so, does this necessarily mean that this will not be combined with a faith and hope that each moment says "maybe today - maybe now - the Lord will come? - and bring perfect restoration to all things..."

    The proper theology of glory?

    I know I'm probably not thinking so clearly here... : )

  6. Nathan,

    I get where you're coming from, I believe. Couple of things.

    I address the Gethsemene question in the 4th chapter of my book (which BTW, is in the midst of being copy-edited right now!).

    First, Jesus not wanting to suffer is not sinful. Remember Adam and Eve were told prior to the Fall that they would suffer death if they ate the forbidden fruit. Wanting to avoid death and suffering is just part of human nature.

    Now, after the fall wanting to avoid death becoming problematic. In the post-lapsarian human situation, our desire to avoid death and suffering is tainted by the fact that it is an act of self-justification. In other words, because we all have it coming, our rejection of death and suffering is based on the premise that we are righteous and don't deserve it. This is where the non-sense of theodicy comes from. Trying to justify the ways of God always presupposes that we are ourselves are just and don't have it coming and therefore is really is at its core sinful.

    Jesus didn't of course have that problem, since he wasn't fallen and didn't try to justify himself ("yet he did not open his mouth"). So wanting to avoid death with simply the natural rejection of unfallen human nature in his case.

    Another question that is asked is, was then Christ's will different than the Father's? I cite Athanasius here in the book. Athanasius says that God in Christ willed that his humanity enter into this fear of death and ask for a reprieve just so that he could fully appropriate our situation under sin. Having done so, he went ahead to the cross in spite of this fear and thereby conqueror it in our stead.

    Regarding the theology of the cross, theologians of the cross call things what they are, as Luther says. That doesn't mean pretending that suffering and death are good and fun- actually it means acknowledging that they are bad. This is a mistake in the interpretation of the theology of the cross that has been prevalent in modern theology. It's what Gerhard Forde called a "negative theology of glory" where suffering and weakness now become a positive ideal. Suffering and weakness are bad. The point is that our sinful nature is humble by seeing suffering and weakness in ourselves and in Christ's appropriation of them on our behalf. If we had never fallen, this would never be necessary.

    Hope this helps.

  7. Jack,

    Thanks for your words. I think they help, but it might take me some time to really wrap my mind around these things.