The Hiddenness of the Preached God

It was Gerhard Forde who, taking his cue from Martin Luther, systematized the concept of the hidden God as the God preached and not preached.1

The God not preached is God in eternity, God the absolute, the immortal, the omnipresent and omniscient One. This God is the governor of the universe, the judge and upholder of the Law, who sees that all things come to pass. The God not preached is the “naked God in his majesty.”

Martin Luther often spoke about the hiddenness of God. This God is God outside of Christ, who is free from the grace of the Word; this is the hidden One who works through the Law. The God not preached is the creator-destroyer God, who works mysteriously in the laws of the universe as we encounter it. There is no comfort or help from this hidden God. As Luther stated, the God not preached remains unbound by God’s Word, and “has kept himself free over all things.”2  We want nothing to do with this God, for this God is a God of wrath, a God who cannot stand sinners being in God’s holy presence. The God not preached is hidden from us because God is impenetrable. Human minds cannot peer into the being or intentions of this God.

For Forde, the only solution to the dialectic between God preached and not preached is the audacity of the preacher to claim the authority through the Holy Spirit to preach God as God has revealed Godself to us in Jesus Christ. This is our encouragement to preach Christ crucified: to preach the God of never-ending grace and mercy, who seeks us out in our sorry corners of the world to tell us that in Christ we have been chosen to be God’s holy children. As Forde puts it, “The point is that since God is an electing God, the only real solution to the problem of being unreconciled to the God not preached is to do the deed of the preached God: ‘Once you were lost but now you are found.”3  Proclaiming the God who has revealed an incomprehensible and endless love in the mystery of Jesus Christ is to point to the preached God, the knowledge of whom brings us comfort, joy, and peace.

In Forde’s logic, the revelation of God preached is the antidote to the hiddenness of God not preached. Preaching God means proclaiming God revealed, God opened up to humanity, God taking on our sin and giving us a promise of God’s eternal and comforting presence. Hiddenness, hiding behind revelation and existing outside of Christ, have no place in God preached. For this reason, the Church must take proclamation and preaching seriously. The Word of God in Jesus Christ is carried on and communicated by the words of proclamation. God preached calls us to run to the God we know and cling to Christ, the babe in the manger, the one dying for the sake of our lives. The preached God does not leave us in shadows and uncertainty about the God who hides from us and does not allow Godself to be preached. Hiddenness, for Forde, points primarily to God not preached.

Our task of working towards the proclamation of the preached God must be informed by another definition of the hiddenness of God that occurs in Luther’s doctrine of God, which fades from view in Forde’s distinction of God preached and not preached. This stream in Luther’s thought places the hiddenness of God precisely in God’s revelation and God’s Word. Hiddenness, which was so crucial for Luther’s theology, has everything to do with the preached God, and it must be distinguished from the hiddenness of God that refers to the unpreached God, naked in God’s majesty.

This concept of hiddenness in Luther’s theology is a cornerstone to the theology of the cross. It shows that God works in ways that are incomprehensible to the human mind, and therefore also hidden from the mind’s eye. This sense of the hiddenness of God shows that God works sub contrariis, under opposites and contradictions. God’s wisdom is hidden in what seems to be foolishness to the world. God’s power is most fully revealed under the weakness of a suffering Savior on the cross. Salvation comes to us through damnation; life comes through death. This hiddenness of God points to the paradox of grace. God hides in these events because we do not experience their true meaning through our rationality, but through faith. Luther’s writing follows the logic of 1 Samuel 2:6, “when God makes alive, he does it by putting to death; when he justifies, he does it by making guilty; when he transports to heaven, he does it by bringing to hell…”4  Following Colossians 2:3, Luther claims that in Jesus crucified, the Incarnate God, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are there, only hidden.5  This is the hiddenness of God in God’s revelation.

This understanding of God’s hiddenness is of vital importance for the pastor on Sunday mornings — it may be even more important for pastors on the proverbial Saturday night. The hiddenness of God in God’s revelation is an indication that even the preached God is a God who hides and veils Godself as God reveals Godself in the Word. Even though God is ‘preached’ and the preached God is the revealed God, whose grace and mystery is proclaimed by bold and audacious preachers, God still works beyond and despite our words about God. There are two implications for pastors that can be drawn from this sense of hiddenness in Luther’s theology.

First, proclaiming the preached God is never fully under the preacher’s control. Indeed, we are called and ordained to proclaim directly to our congregations: ‘you are the ones’ to whom God has elected to be gracious. But this claim can never exhaust the wide-reaching, mysterious work of God who works through the Holy Spirit in ways that are incomprehensible, and beyond all human understanding. The hiddenness of the preached God is a theological reminder that the word of the preacher can only ever be the Word of God within the creaturely, limited, historically-bound way that is appropriate to the nature of human speaking. While the Word of God does come through the word of humans, the word of humans is not identical to the Word of God. That God hides even in being preached is a reminder to pastors that our task is to be nothing more than faithful witnesses to the God who moves in ways beyond our imagination, and who works above the expectations we place upon our own words and activities.

Second, preachers realize that God does indeed work despite and beyond the limitations and feebleness of our human speaking. Preaching the hiddenness of God reveals the full humanity of the preacher. The well-known situation of the pastor includes those times when words do not come, when Scripture seems mute, and when bumps in our personal and professional lives prevent us from fully living into the audacity and authority that is required of congregational leaders. The hiddenness of God in revelation is a theology that believes in the effectiveness of God’s Word, even if our human words do not always appear to be very effective. It is the theology of the cross, which trusts that God’s Word does not come back empty. God preached leads us to the prayer: “Come Holy Spirit, take my words and actions and do with them what you will.” Lutheran theology of the hiddenness of God in God’s revelation helps us not to lose sight of the fact that God’s activity and God’s work moves in mysterious ways that might be opposite, despite and beyond, what we preach.

1Gerhard Forde, Theology is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 13-37.
2“The Bondage of the Will” in Luther’s Works American Edition, 55 vols. J. Pelikan and H. Lehmann, eds., (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955ff.), 33:139 [Hereafter LW].
3Forde, 33.
4LW 33:62.
5LW 33: 145.