Creation and the hiddenness of God: some Lutheran perspectives

As I mentioned in my previous post, I think there are a number of areas where a distinctively Lutheran approach can help us understand the relationship between scientific and theological narratives of creation.

I’m not putting these forward as attempts to persuade my YEC-accepting fellow Lutherans that Lutheranism “really” teaches an evolutionary position. The question I’m trying to answer is, rather, this: given that many Christians (including many Lutherans) accept evolution, does Lutheran theology have a distinctive contribution to make in relating that understanding of science to the Christian proclamation?

These are also far from being fully worked-out theological schemes. They are more “hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses” as to how these questions might be approached from a distinctively (though by no means uniquely) Lutheran perspective. I would very much welcome people’s further thoughts, whether in support or criticism.

Creator absconditus

The theology of the cross is an important – I almost said crucial – theme in Lutheran theology. It involves contrasting the “theologian of glory” with the “theologian of the cross”.

The theologian of glory seeks the “Deus revelatus”: a direct, unmediated knowledge of the God who is revealed in visible things and events. In Luther’s words, the theologian of glory “looks upon the ‘invisible’ things of God as though they were clearly ‘perceptible in those things which have actually happened'”.

By contrast, the theologian of the cross recognises God as the “Deus absconditus”: the God who is hidden under suffering and the cross, and can only be known through the church’s proclamation of the crucified Christ. As Luther writes, “true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ”.

This principle of the truth of God being hidden under seemingly contradictory externals is used by Dr Hermann Sasse to explain how we are still able, in an age of thousands of churches and denominations, to confess faith in “one holy, catholic and apostolic church”. It is not that there are two churches, one “visible” and one “invisible”. Rather, the one true church is “hidden under the various church bodies with their different languages and nationalities, constitutions and forms of worship”. The church’s unity is an “object of faith”, not a matter of human observation.

In the same way, we could say that the createdness of the universe (and God’s Fatherly care for it) is also an object of faith, hidden under the outward appearance of a self-contained, impersonal, seemingly purposeless universe. We believe that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”, not because we can see that by observation, but because we are told it by God’s Word, received by faith.

In, with and under

A related thought derives from the Lord’s Supper. If we were to take the consecrated bread and wine from the altar and subject it to scientific analysis – a gross act of sacrilege, so please note this is only a “thought experiment”! – we would find nothing there but ordinary bread and ordinary wine.

The bread and wine in the Supper are the body and blood of Christ not because we can observe a change in their nature, but because the word of Christ declares them to be such.

In the same way, we should not be dismayed by a universe – or a history of life on earth, even of human development – that shows no sign of observable “createdness”. It is by the word of God that they are declared to be such. Our createdness is to be found “in, with and under” what can be discerned about us by scientific observation.

The vocational universe

The doctrine of vocation is one of the most heartening and liberating Lutheran teachings. The perennial tendency of all Christian traditions is to distinguish between “secular” and “spiritual” spheres of life, to the detriment of the former. Many people feel guilt-ridden that their jobs and family commitments prevent them from doing enough “for the Lord”.

How liberating it is to learn that, in fact, our everyday vocations (whether in paid employment or otherwise) are “masks of God”, in which he is at work to provide for ourselves and those around us. As Luther writes (as quoted in one of my earliest posts):

All our work in the field, in the garden, in the city, in the home, in struggle, in government � to what does it all amount before God except child’s play, by means of which God is pleased to give his gifts in the field, at home, and everywhere? These are the masks of our Lord God, behind which he wants to be hidden and to do all things.

It does not seem too much of a stretch to extend this to natural processes in the world around us. These too are “masks of God”, used by him to accomplish his purposes. As I’ve argued before, Psalm 104 demonstrates how natural processes – all of them capable of “comprehensive” scientific description – are used by God to provide for his creation.

At the very least, this shows that one of the objections raised against evolution by Christians – that it leaves “no room for God to work” – is misplaced. God does not need “room to work”, fitting himself into the gaps around natural processes. Rather, he hides himself within those natural processes and uses them to accomplish his purposes, in a manner incapable of scientific observation. (How? That is a mystery we cannot explain.)

If we can believe that of how he quenches the animals’ thirst or provides food for them to eat (as taught by Psalm 104), then I don’t see how we are required to deny it of the processes of natural selection that undergird evolution. We live in a “vocational universe”, where every aspect of it – however ordinary, meaningless or random it may seem to us – is a means used by God to achieve his purposes.


So there are three suggested areas in which a Lutheran perspective can help us relate the narratives of evolution and other scientific theories to the narratives of Christian proclamation and theology.

The common theme in each of these is the hiddenness of God, and I’d suggest that as a theme which should be fundamental to a Lutheran approach to science. Of all traditions, ours is the one which should be most comfortable with the idea that God’s work of creation is hidden within the seemingly natural and “unspiritual” stuff of scientifically-observable data, and discernible only by faith in God’s Word.

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11 Responses to Creation and the hiddenness of God: some Lutheran perspectives

  1. Chris Williams says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for writing this series which I am reading with great interest. A lot of it resonates with a lot of my thinking. Thank you very much for expressing it in such a coherent and clear way.

  2. Phil Walker says:

    Good stuff (well, two out of three 😉 ). Applying the theology of the cross to creation is a good way to illustrate what we—seeking after the theology that is the cross, whatever our denominational label—mean when we say crux sola est nostra theologia, because at first the cross seems to have so little to do with creation. The cross is not simply another head of doctrine like the doctrine of creation.

    Which reminds me, I must knock a post together that’s been batting around in my head for a few days. GenevaNet (slogan: “We think we’re Reformed, but no-one’s guaring the door.”) was buzzing with the thorny Omphalos question: “Why can’t we say that God made the universe look consistently old so as to fool us all into thinking it is older than it truly is?” I realised that one of the ways to defend “appearance of age” is essentially a theology of glory. And then I realised essentially that point about the cross and creation.

  3. Rick Ritchie says:

    I have been in broad agreement with your other posts on the subject. I have some questions for this one, however.

    The Theology of the Cross versus Theology of Glory is a good motif. But I always like knowing what texts stand behind motifs, helpful as they are. (And I am the kind of guy who can hear a lecture and get excited, thinking “Great! A new category!”) The tough thing here is that Romans 1:20 (NASB) states, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” The words “invisible attributes,” “clearly seen,” and “what has been made” are uncomfortably close to Luther’s “invisible things,” “clearly perceptible,” and “things which have actually happened.” I think these have been harmonized, so long as we don’t equate “what has been made” and “things which have actually happened.” St. Paul seems to block the possibility of “Creator absconditus,” at least taken in a total sense. We may be blocked from knowing exactly what God was up to when certain things happened, say, in the Cambrian era. That doesn’t mean that the created world as we find it is unreadable to us, however. Certain things definitely can be read from creation, and we are culpable when we don’t read them.

    It has also been pointed out that when Luther discusses creation in the Catechism, he points to our lives in the present, what he gives us now.

    Now it may be that seeing God’s invisible attributes in creation is a far cry from immediately discerning His will from it, especially at distant points in the past. But I would want to take each of these steps slowly. The actual teaching of Scripture cannot be run over by a motif. And in this case, the chief application of the motif historically has not been to this doctrine.

    It may be that the Theology of the Cross motif could slow us down from quickly accepting the kind of speculation that Teilhard de Chardin did. You offered some good warnings against that kind of speculation in a previous post. That is the kind of thing that I think the Theology of the Cross might guard us against.

    I don’t know that these observations refute anything stated above. But the language should be carefully weighed, or other readers may wonder what happened to Romans 1. (Or worse yet, dump the teaching without realizing it.)

  4. John H says:

    Rick: thank you. Good point about Romans 1. Psalm 19 could also be cited.

    I think it’s important not to press Romans 1 too far. What it tells us is that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are sufficiently clearly seen in his work of creation that people are “without excuse” in rejecting him. It is only because people, in rejecting God, have had their “senseless minds … darkened” that people don’t see this.

    However, I don’t think that’s the same as saying there must be aspects of creation which are incapable of scientific description. God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are clearly seen in all of what God has made, not just the unexplained bits or the bits relating to the creation of animals or people.

    And “all” that creation tells us is that God is there and he has great power. Paul doesn’t say that creation tells us how God made it, and so on. We could still conclude, with Newman, that the God we see in nature is “One who is angry with us, and threatens evil”.

    Perhaps an analogy would be with a painting or other work of art: only an idiot would deny that there must be a painter of great ability who had created the painting, but that wouldn’t in itself tell us very much about who the painter was, what they were like or how they had gone about creating the painting. (Of course, the analogy breaks down in that an expert could probably tell a lot about those questions through close examination of the brushwork etc. My point is just to illustrate two different levels, or “registers”, of explanation.)

    A fully worked-out version of the argument in my post would need to cover off these points, but I do think that it could be done.

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    “only an idiot would deny that there must be a painter of great ability who had created the painting”

    I agree with the analogy. But this suggests that the world’s “createdness” is visible. Perhaps not in the sense of the artist’s fingerprints. But THAT the universe is created rather than not is not a statement of faith. Likewise, THAT the painting was painted by a painter is not an article of faith.

    What I would want to do here is not so much offer a counter proposal for starting assumptions. Nor is my purpose to try to press a “God of the gaps” argument. I do, though, have a problem with making the fact of creation an article of faith. If the universe really does appear “self-contained, impersonal, seemingly purposeless,” there will be little reason to listen to the proclamation. If I hear the Law and the Gospel, why not just attribute my own response to a genetic glitch? There may be some real limits to what we can do with the philosophical arguments for God. But I think some sense of the world’s createdness probably undergirds most people’s sense that Jesus could be the answer to the world’s problems. You can fix something that has broken. You can’t exactly fix something that was never built to work, even if you can alter it to better suit your own intentions. If some do come to believe in the createdness of the world AFTER responding to the Gospel, well, I won’t try to argue that they went in the wrong order. I just don’t want the doctors telling me that it is normative.

    Another point on hiddenness. When Luther wrote his Lectures on Genesis the application of hiddenness that he seems to make is to believe that God is the best revealer of what his works have been. So he takes the world to be less than 6000 years old (LW, vol 1, p. 3). He also argues that God works against that nature of things (LW, vol 1, p. 25—Luther argues that since the heavens are watery, they cannot be held up by nature, so the Word of God must be keeping them in bounds), but has a place for experts, arguing that it would be boorish to ignore the ancients when they teach the four elements since they match experience. Luther had his own applications of his principles which might lead into the very kinds of errors you see in the YEC’ers, if not worse. (This does not mean Lectures on Genesis isn’t greatly valuable in other areas.)

    Your program would be more one of going back to first principles and making careful application. That would be one that I would commend. We don’t have to slavishly follow Luther. But if we are working somewhat independently, we should carefully work out the boundaries of the concepts. If it comes to a Theology of the Cross and Creation, I want to know how Creation and Redemption relate before I will know whether the Theology of the Cross really is something I can rightly apply to Creation.

  6. L P Cruz says:

    I am skeptical that evolution is science in the macro scale. Also my problem with it is that it does not account for randomness. To say that some process is random is no addition of knowledge and science is precisely goes against that, it tries to disentangle randomness and penetrates it.

    So my problem is even before the starting point of this post then. I see a need for evolution to be dealt with theologically if it is proven to be science. My problem with it is stems from my philosophy of science and philosophy of history on both counts, evolution as a theory is falling below par.

    We could still conclude, with Newman, that the God we see in nature is “One who is angry with us, and threatens evil”.

    This is quite correct based on my experience, after being an atheist and then becoming a theist, the realization that there is a God or my admission of it did not bring comfort but fear. The fear though propelled me to search.


  7. John H says:

    Lito: thanks for your comment. As I said in my post, my aim here is not to try to persuade people to change their mind re evolution, but to ask how those who /do/ accept evolution can think through how this relates to theology.

    That said, I’m puzzled by your comments about randomness. You seem to be equating science with determinism, or at least saying that only a deterministic theory can be /fully/ scientific.

    Evolution is not a matter of randomness. It is a matter of random – or at least, what may/must be treated as random – factors, in particular genetic mutations, which are then operated upon by the /non-random/ process of natural selection. To put it another way, it is concerned with statistical trends across populations, rather than the individual “random” events – a mutation here, an animal getting eaten there – within those populations.

    As such, I don’t see what makes it any less “scientific” than thermodynamics or quantum mechanics. The latter in particular should be even more problematic, because it does not merely treat chance and probability as a useful or necessary approximation, but as a real and fundamental aspect of how particles etc. behave.

  8. John H says:

    Rick: it’s not really a case of “applying the theology of the cross to creation”. It’s more a case of saying, “since God behaves like this in redemption, would it be so surprising if he also behaved like this in creation?”

    Also, when I talk about a universe that appears meaningless, purposeless etc, what I mean is a universe in which /scientific observation/ fails to turn up any meaning or purpose, or in which (as in quantum mechanics – see previous comment) randomness seems built-in to fundamental reality: “God playing dice”. What I’m saying is that God can still be hidden within, and working through, those aspects of creation.

    Another point is that even at the cross the work of God is in some senses “obvious”, as it is in creation. The darkened sky, the opened tombs, the torn curtain: only a hardened fool would fail to see God’s activity in those things, just as only a hardened fool can fail to see God’s work in creation when they lift their eyes from the seemingly-impersonal details and look at the big picture.

  9. L P Cruz says:

    John, I understand you want for Christians believing in evolution to be accommodated, I am cognizant of that, but my point is that first let us consider if it is science.

    those who /do/ accept evolution can think through how this relates to theology

    That said, I’m puzzled by your comments about randomness. You seem to be equating science with determinism, or at least saying that only a deterministic theory can be /fully/ scientific.

    Science does not have to be deterministic, but its goal is to advance beyond that. Saying the dice will likely come up 1 at 1/6th of a time is OK, but you still want to know how it will land if you were a betting man. Besides at the end of the day, there is no such thing as an unbiased dice. In evolution, you cannot even say where the variation will go or not go. I do not deny there are micro variations, but evolution says more than that, it says a specie can turn to become another specie.

    Let me give an example, a scientific theory to be of value should have some predictable usefulness. The predictability is not understood to be perfect, an approximation is already useful and can be improved. The better it models reality the more conducive the scientific theory to be.

    Compare that with evolution or neo/Darwinism, does it have such a thing? Can we even say that a fish will not likely turn to an elephant? Besides mutations are degradation of information not the addition of it.

    Let me know what you think


  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    Rick: it’s not really a case of “applying the theology of the cross to creation”. It’s more a case of saying, “since God behaves like this in redemption, would it be so surprising if he also behaved like this in creation?”

    Not a bad question. And I think some of our theological categories are more productive of good questions than trustworthy as absolute rules. Here I would just note that Luther’s language seemed provocatively close to the language of Romans in a way that reminds us that we must keep the distinction between reading events and reading what has been made.

    Though I think we may not be that far from each other on reading what has been made. I’m talking more of an overall global read. I balked at your talk of things looking random because I thought you meant that in an overall sense, the world we see now appears random, not just that there appears to be a lot of randomness in what happens.

  11. Himangsu Sekhar Pal says:

    [MOD: Off-topic and apparently cross-posted over multiple websites. Please get your own blog rather than using others’ comment threads for this type of material!]

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