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date: 27 July 2017

God in Martin Luther

Summary and Keywords

Luther’s understanding of God saturates his oeuvre, and in turn, this understanding is saturated by his doctrine of the justification of the sinner. God is the sovereign source and origin of all that is, and Luther develops his understanding of God in a manner that tries to safeguard this position in such a way that the personal relationship to God becomes the focus point for all he says. The doctrine of God as creator and as savior is modeled in a parallel way in Luther, as he sees God as the source of everything positively in both contexts. God is the sole giver of the gifts that human life requires. As creator, God is omnipresent, omniscient, and sovereign. Nothing can determine God. God is accordingly also the only instance in reality that has free will. Everything else is dependent on God, God’s foreknowledge, and God’s predestination. It is possible to see Luther’s position as an attempt to offer the human being a reliable and trustworthy notion of God, someone he or she can cling to in times of despair and desolation. The only God who deserves to be God, who is trustworthy with regard to being able to provide a safe and reliable basis for human life, is the God who justifies the sinner because of God’s own righteousness. In contrast, a human who puts her trust in herself and her own works or merits makes herself a god and will not be able to stand justified coram deo in the last judgment.

Luther develops the idea about God’s hiddenness in different ways, most notably in his ideas about the hidden God in De servo arbitrio. But also in his notion of the theology of the Cross in the Heidelberg Disputation, and in other places where he writes about the masks of God, behind which God hides in order to do God’s work, we can see related or similar ideas. Thus, Luther develops an ambiguous element in his understanding of God.

Keywords: Martin Luther, theology of the cross, predestination, goodness, sovereignty, free will, omnipresence, omniscience, hidden God

Luther’s understanding of God is a vast topic. Accordingly, every presentation of it depends on what frame one chooses for the topic. Such framing can be established in relation to methodological, hermeneutical, historical, and theological suppositions. Furthermore, given the large bulk of work from Luther’s hand, the choice of texts as a basis for the study of this topic may also present scholars with challenges, as there are differences between exegetical material and material related to sermons and disputation. In addition, Luther’s theology undergoes considerable development during his career. The unsystematic character of Luther’s writings makes it hard to say that his understanding of God fits one specific category of writings that is possible to define precisely.1

In the following, the fundamental approach is theological: that is, the aim is to clarify the basic decisions, concerns, and structural components in Luther’s articulation of faith in God. That we address Luther’s articulations of faith in God is conditioned by the fact that Luther always states his theology in the first person: it is an articulation of personal beliefs, and not distanced, second- or third-person statements. Hence, Luther’s theology has an existential (but not existentialist) dimension that characterizes all his writings, including what he writes about God. Luther is not simply speaking about God—but about how God appears pro me. However, most of what Luther writes on God’s attributes he develops in relation to the three Trinitarian persons, and hence, this article does not enter that arena.2

Luther discusses God many places, but often in passing. However, important and main traits in his understanding of God become apparent in two of his “classic” texts on the matter, the Large Catechism and De servo arbitrio. In the following, these two texts are read with regard to an exposition of the specific (or even idiosyncratic) traits in Luther’s understanding of God.3 These two texts have been central to the discussion of Luther’s doctrine of God, and they offer an introduction into the specific character in Luther’s doctrine of God. This approach will not exclude also referring to other texts that are relevant to his doctrine of God.

God Is the Source of Everything

Reality is not possible to comprehend without God. God is the one who works all in all—and this can be seen as the starting point for all that Luther writes about God. If this fact is not recognized, the fundamental relation to both God and the world is compromised. Although this statement is related to God as creator, there is a close structural parallel between how Luther understands creation and redemption which must be seen as linked to this point: when God works all in all, then God is the sovereign source of reality, of goodness, and to God alone all honor is due. God can be God only if God is the only source of goodness, Luther seems to think. “This fundamental conviction lasts through all controversies with and about Luther: he lays emphasis on the free, absolute sovereignty of God and his merciful acts of grace toward creatures full of sin and separated from him.”4

God’s power is infinite and, therefore, ubiquitous. Furthermore, it is present in all that is, even “the tiniest leaf.”5 “God creates, effects and preserves all things through his almighty power and right hand, as our Creed confesses.”6 God’s omnipresence means that God is present in the innermost and outermost of all beings; yes, God is truly present in everything.7 God is thus the first or principal cause of all that is,8 and all beings in the created world must be seen as originating from God’s work, and as dependent on God. This point means, in turn, that God uses creation for God’s own purposes, and that God can hide Godself under the mask of God’s creatures. Thus, when God governs the world God is not appearing directly, but uses masks “under which he conceals himself and so marvelously exercises dominion and introduces disorder in the world.”9 This idea of God as being both active and concealed is present in different forms throughout Luther’s writing.

As the source of everything, including goodness and reason, God is the main reference point for deciding the content of the law and its commandments, as well as for the human understanding of what the law entails in terms of its demands. This is important, because readings of Luther that make him a medieval nominalist and/or voluntarist may easily ignore that God’s goodness and love are closely tied to each other, and thus are determinative for the content of the law that God has given for God’s creation. God’s decision about the content of the law is by no means due only to the mere arbitrary decisions of God’s will (which would be the nominalist position), but rather is linked to the divine essence of God as love and reason. In this way, Luther’s views on God, God’s work, and the goodness that God’s law wants to establish cannot be linked easily to either a rationalist or a voluntarist position.10

Against this backdrop, it also makes sense to speak about God as the one who not only offers God’s gifts, but who offers Godself as the main gift: “What God gives is not an effect of a cause, but himself, and the preached word is the way he bestows this gift upon creatures.”11 Thus, the reality of God as a gift is what Luther constantly tries to articulate when he addresses the human as being subject to the proclamation of the Gospel.

The Reliable God

Luther presents his doctrine on God as part of the common faith of all Christians. Little or nothing in his writings suggests an awareness of deviating from tradition and the common Christian faith.12 Nevertheless, given his emphasis on justification, Luther’s theology has some important characteristics. These become apparent when we look at one of the most quoted texts he offers on God: the explanation of the first commandment in the Large Catechism. It reads:

What is to have a god? What is God? Answer: A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.13

Here, Luther offers a formal and universal definition of God that simultaneously opens up to several different layers of meaning. Even though he does not mention it explicitly, the understanding of God developed here makes it possible to articulate the Gospel about justification by faith, since what it means to have a God immediately is something he supplies with underscoring the need for believing in a true God. This approach is understandable against the backdrop of the existential dimension or concern in Luther’s theology. How a human being orients herself in the world by means of faith is the decisive element.14 Thus, to speak about God is to speak about the instance from which one governs and orients one’s own life. Hence, it all hangs on believing in a true God, that is, a God who deserves to be called God, and who can be God.15

The only God who deserves to be God, who is trustworthy with regard to being able to provide a safe and reliable basis for human life, is the God who justifies the sinner because of God’s own righteousness. The true God is the God who justifies the sinner. This point may also be understood as Luther’s explication of the basic definition of God as offered above. A human who puts her trust in herself and her own works or merits makes herself a god—but as an idol. She will not be able to stand justified coram deo in the Last Judgment. However, by pointing toward God as the only true God, Luther points to the One who is reliable and who can provide the human being with a secure basis for her justification because this basis is given in the righteousness that the works of Christ provide.16 Thus, God’s act of justification of the human is the pivotal expression of the fact that God is God.17

The main contribution in Luther’s understanding of God is accordingly that it directs the human being away from a focus on herself and her own achievements, and toward the basis for justification extra nos. By directing the human being outside herself, toward the works of God instead of herself, Luther indicates that the only reliable God is a god who is extra nos, that is, one who is not ourselves. The only reliable God is a God who justifies humans by God’s own grace. Thereby, Luther introduces the basic distinction between God and humans, and between God’s works and the works of humans, as a governing distinction in his theology. These distinctions also make it necessary to decide against all forms of synergism. If God is to be God, then God must be fully sovereign—a point that is expressed most fully in Luther’s elaborations in De servo arbitrio (see below).

So, although the explanation of the first commandment in the Large Catechism, of what it means to be a god, starts out as quite formal, it is possible to see in Luther’s use of this definition that he uses the main theological building blocks he has at hand in the way he explains it. Consequently, already in his “definition” of what a god is in the Large Catechism, Luther opens up to an understanding of God that engages the human being in a critical self-assessment: Who do you trust? This is not an approach meant to bring about a basic lack of trust in oneself, but it aims at directing one’s trust toward God when it comes to the question of justification and the basis for it.

God and the Good

A further element in the explanation of the first commandment is that it relates God and the good to each other, as indicated above. Thus, Luther links the human expectation for goodness intimately to the notion of God. God is trustworthy because this God is the source of goodness, the one who provides human life with what humans need and for which they strive. This is important to Luther because it allows humans to see experienced goodness as something that is originating not from themselves and their own work, but from the abundance offered by the generous God. In turn, this move points toward a similar structure with regard to creation and with regard to justification: the goodness we experience in creation is not originating from our own works and merits, but neither is the justification God offers us by faith alone. In both cases, we are referred to God as the only reliable source of the qualities we need.18 Accordingly, the meaning of the first commandment is that it directs the human being (outward) toward the only reliable source from which he or she is to expect the good:

[…] we are to trust in God alone, and look to Him and expect from Him naught but good, as from one who gives us body, life, food, drink, nourishment, health, protection, peace, and all necessaries of both temporal and eternal things. He also preserves us from misfortune, and if any evil befall us, delivers and rescues us, so that it is God alone (as has been sufficiently said) from whom we receive all good, and by whom we are delivered from all evil. Hence also, I think, we Germans from ancient times call God (more elegantly and appropriately than any other language) by that name from the word Good, as being an eternal fountain which gushes forth abundantly nothing but what is good, and from which flows forth all that is and is called good.

That God and goodness are linked so closely together furthermore means that Luther’s understanding of God’s gifts can be expressed in the understanding of God as love. It is because God loves human beings that he bestows his gifts on them. Thus, God’s nature is love, a point that also comes to full expression in how God gives humans the eternal goods in his Son—and thus Himself as well.19 The fact that this loving God is the one and only summum bonum constitutes, in turn, the creature’s obligation to let God, and nothing else, be God.

Augustinian Features

Luther’s elaborations on what a god is or what it means to have God articulates a clear Augustinian concern. By pointing to God as the one from whom one can rightly expect the good, Luther employs an approach that goes back to Augustine’s distinction between the timely and the eternal, and between what humans should enjoy and what they should simply use, a distinction that comes to the fore in the distinction between true worship of God versus idolatry. When Luther uses the contrast between God and Mammon, between that which is reliable and that which only provides false security, he elaborates on the importance of putting one’s trust in the true God:

Thus, you can easily understand what and how much this commandment requires, namely, that man's entire heart and all his confidence be placed in God alone, and in no one else. For to have God, you can easily perceive, is not to lay hold of Him with our hands or to put Him in a bag [as money], or to lock Him in a chest [as silver vessels]. But to apprehend Him means when the heart lays hold of Him and clings to Him. But to cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust in Him entirely. For this reason, He wishes to turn us away from everything else that exists outside of Him and to draw us to Himself, namely because He is the only eternal good. As though He would say; Whatever you have heretofore sought of the saints, or for whatever [things] you have trusted in Mammon or anything else, expect it all of Me, and regard Me as the one who will help you and pour out upon you richly all good things.20

We can read this text against the backdrop of the Augustinian notion of what it means to enjoy (frui) God as opposed to using God for our own purposes. Then it becomes clear that Luther sees humans as presented with two options when it comes to how they relate to God. In one option, humans can love God for God’s own sake, and as an end in its own; moreover, this is the only appropriate way to relate to God. Alternatively, they can try to use God for their own purposes. That happens when humans put their trust in their own works and use God, including the natural knowledge of God,21 as a means (uti) of securing their own righteousness. Consequently, in the latter case they trust themselves more that the God they attempt to use. Works, money, or other earthly possessions are something we should love only because they are means to an end. When we use them as ultimate ends in order to provide our own false security, it means that we make them gods. Augustine’s notion of uti and frui is applied tacitly by Luther in order to underscore that this human love of creatures is mistaken, and is in fact what God alone deserves.

To love something else like God is thus to make this other an idol. To love God for God’s own sake and as an ultimate end is the only appropriate way to relate to God. Thus, to expect all goodness from God and to love God in return contributes to maintaining a world order in which God remains God, and humans remain God’s creatures. The created order is to be loved (uti) as a means to the higher end of the love of God, and only God is loved for God’s own sake. When God is loved thus, all created things and beings can be loved for God’s sake because they are God’s creatures and reflect the divine love.

When humans trust their own works, including specific practices such as “false worship and extreme idolatry,” all this implies that humans seek to establish themselves as God. Thereby they are putting their trust in finite conditions instead of God’s infinite grace.

Against this backdrop, it becomes understandable how Luther can see sin as lack of trust in the true God, since this implies that one orders one’s life without trusting in the gifts of God. Sin is thus a form of idolatry that loves the finite as an ultimate end in and for itself.22

How Do We Know God?

Given the emphasis that Luther lays on putting our trust in the right God, the obvious question is how we get to know this God. Again, the answer Luther offers is one that combines the existential element on the part of the human with the proclamation of God’s works—especially God’s works in Christ. The God worth putting one’s trust in is a God who has shown Godself in history in a specific way: not in such a way that one can hold onto it in an unambiguous and triumphant way; rather, God has revealed Godself in a way that requires faith, because we get to know God as trustworthy only sub contrario. The main text Luther has written to develop this point is the Heidelberg Disputation. Here, he elaborates on the fact that although humans can see the goodness of God as manifest in what they experience of good things of this world, the elements of salvation cannot be experienced and identified directly. Luther’s main concern in his elaborations on the idea of God as the one we can acknowledge though his opposites originates out of a special emphasis: the fact that it is nothing but faith alone that should be the basis for a human appropriation of the goods of salvation.23

In order to safeguard this concern, Luther has to employ the distinction between the visible and the invisible: among the invisible things of God are virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth.24 However, the deep knowledge about and understanding of God emerges out of the recognition of how the Cross manifests God: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.”25 Luther uses this approach to hold forth the understanding of God’s works for salvation as something reason alone cannot comprehend. He writes:

The “back” and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Cor. 1:25 calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because men misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering, and to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in his works should honor him as he is hidden in his suffering (absconditum in passionibus) … Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the Cross.26

In other words, the true recognition of God is related to the realization of God’s presence in the crucified Christ. Accordingly, Luther can also state, “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering.” However, the reason why God can be found only in suffering and the Cross is linked to the doctrine of justification: “Through the Cross works are dethroned and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified.”27

Luther’s concern with the theologia crucis is thus another attempt to ensure that God, and not human reason and knowledge obtained by relating directly to the world, is the basis for the human relationship with God. Reason cannot be the cause of knowing God—only God and God’s works can be. Any attempt to capture the works of God by reason is an attempt to make God less than God is, and, therefore, to make the human God instead of letting God be God.

Luther’s strategy here is to eliminate all that humans can identify and hold onto as positive qualities on their own part, as a basis for salvation. In his rejection of human wisdom and virtue as nil and folly, he eliminates all that can take away honor from God, and, in turn, clears the slate for anything but Godself when it comes to how God can be known. The most important element of the doctrine of God in the Heidelberg Disputation is, however, how it anticipates the theme that is developed fully in De servo arbitrio, namely the notion of the hidden God—Deus absconditus.

The Ambiguity in the Notion of God—For the Sake of God’s Trustworthiness

In his treatise on the bondage of the will (De servo arbitrio), Luther’s main concern is to ensure that the distinction is clear between God and what God does, and humans and what they can do. Only then can God and humans be in a right relationship to each other. Hence, the understanding of God is dependent on how humans relate to and understand themselves in relation to Him.28 The discussion with the humanist position of Erasmus has this as the main concern. Thus, the book is primarily concerned not with theological anthropology or with a doctrine of predestination, but with an adequate understanding of God, as this understanding relates to, and is based on, the doctrine of justification by faith, which is then the main hermeneutical key to the reading of the treatise.29 As already suggested above, it is the main concern in the Reformation that is at stake here: that God is the one who is God, and that the human being is human, and not installed as God.30

When Luther develops his understanding of the bondage of the will, his aim is thus to make it clear that only God is God, that is, a concern that can only be safeguarded if God is identified as the only source of the life and salvation of humankind, and accordingly, as the only one to receive honor for both. “You must let God be God. He knows more about you than you know about yourself.”31 When Luther defines the human being in Disputatio de homine (1536) one decade later, the relationship between the human being and God is expressed in a similar way. Here, the human being is defined in the passive, as the one who is justified,32 thereby referring the basic understanding of the human to a context in which it is subjected to the salvific work of God.

For the doctrine of God, this approach has the consequence that the human being cannot understand herself unless she relates herself to God and God’s works. This is also the point in De servo arbitrio.33 A clear understanding of God’s work is the prerequisite for understanding oneself adequately, and for a salvific faith. Luther can say, therefore, that the doctrine of the bondage of the will is a core element of faith. Only if this belief is maintained can the works of Christ be recognized and can he be honored in a way that safeguards against denial and false doctrine.34

There are three elements concerning the doctrine of God that deserves specific attention in De servo arbitrio: (a) the idea that God determines the will of the human when it comes to questions about salvation; (b) the idea of God’s foreknowledge and predestination; and (c) the idea of the hiddenness of God.35 However, none of these elements is of interest in itself for Luther; rather, they are the “kaum erträgliche, sondern unvermeidliche Konsequenz” of the doctrine of justification.36

God as Sovereign

Since God is the sovereign power of reality, everything that is and happens is subjected to, governed by, and related to God. Thus, humans are not free to choose whatever they want; they are under God’s rule and mandate, and God governs them owing to the power of God’s commandments.37 Hence, there is a correspondence between the status that God has as creator and redeemer of human life: in both cases, God must be determined as the sole and only agent of what takes place. Anything else would jeopardize both the order of creation and the conditions for salvation. Thus, Luther defines God’s work in creation as something that is reflected, or repeated at another level, in the works for the salvation of humankind.

Against this backdrop, it becomes clear that the only one who can have free will is God. The notion of free will in Luther is thus developed on a specific theological basis and with a clear and specific theological concern. He does not develop it according to elements in theological anthropology (as does Erasmus). The totally free and sovereign will of God implies that no one else can be free in a way similar to the way God is free: God is the only one who can freely determine everything according to God’s will.38 Everything is thus dependent on God’s will. The sovereignty of this will implies that there is no contingency or arbitrariness in the will of God: God’s will is consistent in its aims, and thus not subject to change, as is the case with the will of humans.39

The logic that determines Luther’s considerations about God as the one who predestines the fate of humans when it comes to salvation is thus related to three elements in the notion of God: God as consistently wanting to justify the sinner; God as sovereign, free, and undetermined by anything else; and finally, God as someone we can trust because of God’s word, despite the fact that some of God’s will remains hidden from us.

If one wishes for something to be exempt from God’s sovereign and determining will, this wish implies that one wishes for God not to be God anymore.40 When God is the one who is the cause of existence for all that is, it means, on the other hand, that everything is dependent on God’s creating and sustaining presence. Accordingly, God’s ubiquity is linked closely to his sovereign power and will.41 God’s ubiquity is part of what makes God alone work all in all, with the foreknowledge that such works require.42

Predestination for the Sake of Consoling the Troubled Conscience? The Hidden God

There are two main points related to these elements in Luther’s doctrine of God’s free will. One is the concern for consoling the troubled conscience, and the other is the implications of this doctrine with regard to predestination.

The consoling element has to do with the fact that only in cases where one has a clear knowledge of what God can do, can one trust in God in a way that can reassure a troubled conscience. In this regard, the doctrine about God’s sovereign and free will serves the purpose of allowing God to appear as trustworthy to the human who is insecure about to what extent the conditions for her salvation are fulfilled:

For if I am ignorant of that, how far, and how much I can and may do in relation to God, it will be equally uncertain and unknown to me, what, how far, and how much God can and may do in me, although it is God who works everything in everyone. But when the works and power of God are unknown, I do not know God himself, and when God is unknown, I cannot worship, praise, thank and serve God since I do not know how much I may attribute to myself and how much to God.43

Thus, Luther’s doctrine about God in De servo arbitrio has the purpose of making God trustworthy, and, in turn, of making people believe in the Gospel about justification by grace alone. The notion of God as the sole power that works in all creation contributes to a notion of the human as totally dependent on God. Because God not only knows but also determines what will happen, Luther believes that God can appear as fully reliable in questions about salvation.44 If God has not ordered it thus, it would be impossible to trust God’s promises and be sure that God would fulfill them.45

There is, however, another side to this concern for consolation in Luther’s doctrine of God in De servo arbitrio. Luther draws the consequences of the consolation discussion to their full conclusion when he says that God “foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will.”46 This is nothing but a doctrine of a double predestination—a position that was not maintained by Lutheran theologians later.47 In the elaborations in De servo arbitrio, Luther accordingly speaks of a God who predestines both for salvation and for damnation (the latter in the case of Pharaoh). Although he is concerned with the consolation of the troubled conscience and writes in the first person, this position may be difficult to distinguish from Calvin’s notion of predestination when it comes to its ontological features. It is also hard to see how this position can contribute to a stable and permanent consolation for the troubled conscience.48

As mentioned, later thinkers have had trouble with Luther on this point. When the Book of Concord limits God’s predestination to God’s will to save in Christ, this position would probably have been seen by Luther as an undialectical affirmation of the God who has revealed Godself in Christ. However, there is an important element in Luther’s position that is not recognized in the Book of Concord, and which can be formulated in two different ways. First, the position there does not take fully into account that human existence is always determined by powers other than human ones. It is either God or the Devil that determines the content of the human will. Hence, it is possible to paraphrase Luther’s position with the words of Schopenhauer: “We do what we will, but we cannot will whatever we will.” This, in turn, points to the second, and related, point: Luther will always hold that it is the relation to God in faith that determines who God is for us. Therefore, the one who believes that God is revealed as mercy and grace in Christ will see God as Trinitarian, whereas the one who conceives of God apart from God’s revelation in Christ will only conceive of God as hidden in his arbitrariness (and as Unitarian).

It is not sufficient for Luther to appeal to the notion of the consistency of God’s will for salvation in order to outweigh the insecurity that the notions about predestination may cause. He therefore also introduces another notion, the hiddenness of God. This notion, however, does not seem able to serve any consoling purpose, but rather adds to the insecurity of the one who may find it hard to believe in God’s works. Luther introduces here a distinction in God’s own will. On the one hand, we have the merciful will of God that is preached and offered to every sinner who is called to faith. On the other hand, we also have “that hidden and awful will of God whereby he ordains by his own counsel which and what sort of persons he wills to be recipients and partakers of his preached and offered mercy.” The ambiguous character of this position is further strengthened when Luther adds that this latter dimension in God’s will “is not to be inquired into, but reverently adored, as by far the most awe-inspiring secret of the Divine Majesty.”49

Luther thus makes a distinction between God as revealed as the one who wills salvation, on the one hand, and a hidden God who works both life and death, and to whom we have no access, on the other hand. The purpose of this distinction is clearly to refer some of the issues that that notion of God’s sovereign will creates with regard to human reactions and concerns, to this notion, which then seems to function like a black box in his thought. It is, however, noteworthy that the notion of the hidden God seems to play no major role in Luther’s later writings. The reason for this absence may be that he realized that this was a notion not serving any consoling purpose. It nevertheless continues to play a part in destabilizing positions that developed their view of God in order to secure their own power or privilege, and in criticisms of metaphysical definitions of God made in order to keep open a space for the incontrollable in God.50

The treatise places human beings as subject to their creator. Human will is finite and shaped by the conditions of the finite creation.51 Thus, all freedom that humans have, they have in relation to the finite world, and not in relation to their creator. However, the creaturely character of the finite human will that cannot determine its own content is, in turn, a reference to the creator and the creator’s free and sovereign will. To acknowledge the bondage of the will when it comes to both choice and action is therefore also to relate to God in such a way that all spiritual hubris or self-confidence (fiducia sui)52 is blocked. To the extent that humans can will something and experience it as willed or done freely, they can do so because God has enabled it already. Luther’s insistence on the sovereignty of God implies that any synergism is impossible in the context of salvation, and that there is nothing in the human realm of life that can influence or change God’s free will. That would make humans God, since it would mean that humans determined the content of the will of God. God is God’s own, unconditional law:53

The knowledge that God has man’s salvation and damnation completely in His hand and that he chooses and rejects by his own free will, completely frees a man from the delusion that he could contribute something to his own salvation. This teaching of God’s hidden will and activity serves to ‘humble our pride and lead us to know God’s grace.’54

Therefore, we can conclude that in all that Luther writes about God, there is a soteriological concern: the basis of salvation is the decision and the predestination of God, which is solid and unchangeable by any human work, merit, or decision. In his hyperbolic elaborations based on this concern, Luther can say that the Gospel is nil and falls apart if one cannot believe in God’s predestination of humans for salvation:

Therefore, Christian faith is entirely extinguished, the promises of God and the whole Gospel are completely destroyed, if we teach and believe that it is not for us to know the necessary foreknowledge and the necessity of the things that are to come to pass. For this is the one supreme consolation of Christians in all adversities, to know that God does not lie, but does all things immutable, and that his will can neither be resisted nor changed nor hindered.55

As becomes obvious in this quote, Luther’s notion of God’s predestination is the consequence of his rejection of synergism, which is coupled with the main concern that was indicated at the outset: that there is no legitimate theological “condition” for goodness, salvation, and reassurance for justification other than God and God’s works. It must be underscored, though, that God’s sovereign work in the context of salvation does not rule out that the human being can have a certain (experience of) freedom in the worldly realm—that which is subjected to human will and decision. God’s grace enables humans’ freedom of the will in worldly things. Thus, God constitutes human freedom in this realm as well. Without this grace, human will, acts, and desire are sinful and the human cannot will the good.56 Accordingly, we can talk about Luther advocating cooperation between God and humans in the worldly realm in order to realize God’s will, which is then also the free human beings’ will.57

Review of the Literature and Future Research

The three different approaches we can find to Luther’s understanding of God are similar to the approaches to other topics in his work. First, we have historical studies that study different aspects of Luther’s development in relation to his predecessors.58 This historical approach may see Luther as an expression of late medieval theology (especially nominalism), but there are also those who see Luther as a predecessor to more modern approaches.59 There is also the possibility of combining these two approaches, and reading Luther as one who develops a doctrine on God and freedom that emerges out of medieval nominalism and anticipates important elements in the modern era. Second, we have studies that are devoted to selected writings of his, especially De servo arbitrio and the Large Catechism, and that deal with them from the point of view of trying to solve some of the riddles and problems that they can be perceived to contain. These studies are, with regard to the present topic, directed toward interpretations that can solve the contradictions and problems related to his views on predestination. Finally, we have studies that develop different types of overviews of his theology, based on sources selected from different parts of his oeuvre, with or without paying attention to the development of his theology.60

Most scholars who have written on Luther’s theology in general touch on his doctrine on God in some way or another,61 but without making it a distinctive topic in itself. A major topic with regard to his understanding of God has been his notion of the hidden God in De servo arbitrio.62 Elaborations on other aspects of Luther’s doctrine of God can also be discussed, such as how we can have knowledge about God,63 on God as creator,64 or on God as trinity.65

For future research, it would be relevant to explore further Luther’s doctrine on God in relation to several medieval sources (including Augustine) and voluntarism/nominalism.66 In particular, his relation to Augustine seems complicated. Furthermore, Luther’s personal and first-person perspective in theological discourse might be relevant to explore in relation to pastoral psychology and counseling. This is so because Luther’s explications of the doctrine of God and its relevance seem to presuppose a specific understanding of the human being, its psychological disposition, and its problems, which are in turn very determinative for the way he elaborates his doctrine on God. Hence, future research may benefit from engaging with both historical and contemporary sources of psychology and philosophy.67 This first-person perspective could also be explored further in order to investigate what it means to live in faith (a phenomenology of faith), because it opens up to an understanding of religion where God is seen not as detached from human life, but actively involved in it and conditioning the concrete elements in human experience.68 And finally, it seems necessary to follow up on the political dimension of what it means to speak of a hidden God.69

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979.Find this resource:

Forde, Gerhard O.On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997.Find this resource:

Helmer, Christine. The Trinity and Martin Luther: A Study on the relationship Between Genre, Language and the Trinity in Luther’s Works, 1523–1546. Mainz: von Zabern, 1999.Find this resource:

Helmer, Christine, ed. The Global Luther: A Theologian for Modern Times. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.Find this resource:

Helmer, Christine, and Bo Kristian Holm. Transformations in Luther’s Theology: Historical and Contemporary Reflections. Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2011.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther to the Formula of Concord. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.Find this resource:

Luther, Martin. Luther’s Works. Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan et al. 78 vols. St. Louis: Concordia, 1955–2015.Find this resource:

Mjaaland, Marius Timmann. The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Paulson, Stephen. “Luther’s Doctrine of God.” In The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb et al., 187–200. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Vainio, Olli-Pekka. Engaging Luther: A (New) Theological Assessment. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010.Find this resource:

Watson, Philip S.Let God be God! An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther. London: Epworth, 1948.Find this resource:

Wriedt, Markus. “Luther’s Theology.” In The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther. Edited by Donald K. McKim, 86–111. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) See Christine Helmer, The Trinity and Martin Luther: A Study on the relationship Between Genre, Language and the Trinity in Luther’s Works, 1523–1546 (Mainz: von Zabern, 1999); Albrecht Peters and Thomas H. Trapp, Commentary on Luther’s Catechisms: Confession and Christian Life (St. Louis: Concordia, 2013); and Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979).

(2.) See for these aspects of God Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2008), chapters 9–11. Bayer distinguishes between God’s wrath, his love and mercy, and his presence, in relation to Father, Son and Spirit.

(3.) The following will not enter into any detailed presentation of Luther’s Trinitarian thinking, as that is the subject of another article.

(4.) Markus Wriedt, “Luther’s Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther. Edited by Donald K. McKim (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 90–91.

(5.) LW 37:57.

(6.) LW 37:57 f.

(7.) Cf. LW 37:59. This is a point that Luther develops in relation to the real presence of God in the sacraments, as well.

(8.) Althaus, Theology, 107.

(9.) LW 45:331 (1524). The notion of God’s masks is also used in other contexts, as in LW 26:95, “On Galatians.” Further on the topic of Larvae Dei, see A. J. Steinbronn, “The Masks of God: The Significance of Larvae Dei in Luther’s Theology” (PhD Diss., Concordia Theological Seminary, 1991).

(10.) Thus, God’s unconditional and immutable will to save may be one of the places where Luther actually deviates from a mere Occamist nominalism. For a nuanced approach to Luther in relation to nominalism, voluntarism, and rationalism, see Antti Raunio, “Divine and Natural Law in Luther and Melanchton,” in Lutheran Reformation and the Law. Edited by Virpi Mäkinen (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 21–61, especially 22 f.

(11.) Stephen Paulson, “Luther’s Doctrine of God,” in The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 188.

(12.) See e.g. the elaborations in The Three Symbols or Creeds of the Christian Faith, LW 34:201–229. As for accusations of heresies in the doctrine of God, see Helmer, Trinity, 12–14.

(13.) Martin Luther, Large Catechism, I, 1.

(14.) Gunther Wenz, Gott (Studium systematische Theologie 4; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 20, identifies this usage in Luther as pointing to an anthropological condition, and interprets Luther as seeing the topic “God” as something that is not uniquely Christian, but an “anthropological universal.” Therefore, everything depends on which God the human puts her trust in. Accordingly, Luther is not concerned with atheism as an option, but with true and false worship. However, it is necessary to add to Wenz’s point here that it is only on true worship that God can be God as God wants to be God.

(15.) Cf. Paulson, “Luther’s Doctrine of God,” 193: it is “the faith of the heart [that] makes its God from the law, and so misidentifies God. If God is not grasped as he wants to be grasped in the preached word of promise apart from the law, then necessarily God will be your God unpreached as wrath and death.” Accordingly, the only chance for humans is to trust in the preached word that offers us God’s gifts extra nos, and not as something derived analytically from human works.

(16.) Cf. Luther’s exposition of the Letter to the Romans, LW 25:6 ff.

(17.) Cf. Althaus, Theology, 118: justification means that God is God.

(18.) This point comes clearly to expression in the continuation of the text in the Large Catechism I, 4: “Therefore it is the intent of this commandment to require true faith and trust of the heart which settles upon the only true God, and clings to Him alone. That is as much as to say: ‘See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,’ i.e.: Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.”

(19.) Cf. Althaus, Theology, 115–116.

(20.) Luther, Large Catechism I, 13.

(21.) Humans’ use of the natural knowledge of God for their own sake is addressed as one version of the theology of glory that Luther criticizes in the Heidelberg Disputation. However, all natural knowledge must be incorporated in the task of seeing God through the cross (cf. Thesis 24, LW 31:55). Thus, natural knowledge of God may also be interpreted in the light of the uti/frui distinction.

(22.) For the Augustinian account here, see De doctrina Christiana, I, 3–5. See especially on God as the true object of enjoyment in chapter 5: “The true objects of enjoyment, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are at the same time the Trinity, one Being, supreme above all, and common to all who enjoy Him, if He is an object, and not rather the cause of all objects, or indeed even if He is the cause of all.” It is especially the emphasis on God as the cause of all there is that makes Luther’s argument possible to understand within an Augustinian framework.

(23.) For further on these issues, see David Curtis Steinmetz, Luther in Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 23 ff.; and Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1997).

(24.) LW 31:52.

(26.) Ibid., 52–53.

(27.) Ibid., 53.

(28.) Cf. Gerhard Ebeling and R. A. Wilson, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (London: Collins, 1970), 210, but also 258, where Ebeling suggests that De servo arbitrio just as well could bear the title De Deo, because of its emphasis on how it is, in the end, God who works all in all.

(29.) Klaus Schwarzwäller, Theologia Crucis: Luthers Lehre vom Prädestination nach De servo arbitrio (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1970), 45.

(30.) Cf Inge Lønning, “Innledning til Om den trellbundne viljen,” in Verker i Utvalg by Martin Luther (Oslo: Gyldendal, 1979), vol. 4, 116; and Philip S. Watson, Let God be God! An Interpretation of the Theology of Martin Luther (London: Epworth, 1948).

(31.) WA 2:69; cf. WA 18:684, hereafter Althaus, Theology, 281.

(32.) Disputatio de homine, Thesis 32; LW 34:139.

(33.) Cf., e.g., Kjell Ove Nilsson, Simul: Das Miteinander von göttlichem und menschlichem in Luthers Theologie (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966), 39 f.

(34.) This is how Schwarzwäller, Theologia Crucis, 39, references WA 18:786 f.

(35.) Paulson speaks about two attempts by later scholars to tame the notion of the hidden God in De servo arbitrio: either by interpreting it as due to the limits of human knowledge, or by establishing it in relation to an underlying metaphysics that explains this hiddenness as an expression of God’s transcendence, and not as contrary to God’s essence as mercy (Paulson, Let God Be God!, 191). The latter positon he sees as expressed by Anders Nygren and Gustaf Aulén.

(36.) Thus Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Der Einfluss der Anfechtungserfahrung auf den Prädestinationsbegriff Luthers,” Kerygma und Dogma 3 (1957): 116, n. 29, on the deterministic structure in the notion of predestination in De servo arbitrio.

(37.) Cf. Nilsson, Simul, 51, and WA 18:686 ff.

(38.) WA 18:636.

(39.) Cf. WA 18:616. The point here is that Luther thinks that God’s will cannot be understood as contingent and changeable in any way, similar to the case with the human will.

(40.) Cf. Herbert Olsson, Schöpfung, Vernunft und Gesetz in Luthers Theologie (Uppsala: University of Uppsala, 1971), 15 f.

(41.) Olsson, Schöpfung, 371. Cf. WA 18:662, 754, 709 et passim.

(42.) Cf. Althaus, Theology, 274.

(43.) LW 33:35; WA 18:614.

(44.) LW 33:42; WA 18:618f.): “For if you doubt or disdain to know that God foreknows all things, not contingently but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe his promises and place a sure trust and reliance on them?”

(45.) WA 18:619.

(46.) LW 33:37.

(47.) See The Book of Concord XI, and Althaus, Theology, 274 f. It can hardly be doubted that Luther actually is developing a position implying a double predestination in De servo arbitrio. See, e.g., LW 33:178–184. Niels Henrik Gregersen, “Gud og tilfældigheden: Et teologisk forsøg med indeterminismen,” in Kaos og Kausalitet, ed. A. Wiin Nielsen and N.H. Gregersen (Århus: Århus Universitetsforlag, 1992), 174–180, has in a discussion of the notion of omnipotence in Luther argued that it is based on the mediveal understanding of creation as pure productivity. Gregersen problematizes Luther’s understanding of the hidden God, and holds that it is in need of further development. He says that Luther may be right in saying that God’s work is hidden (opus dei absconditum), but this position is in itself not sufficient to speak of a hidden God who wills something other than the God who has revealed Godself. Accordingly, Gregersen sees Luther’s notion of deus absconditus as a hypostasizing that is both theologically and philosophically untenable (178, n. 19).

(48.) This point is also made quite strongly by Marius Timmann Mjaaland, The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016), who writes about how Luther places the notion of deus absconditus outside what can be developed fully on the basis of what God has revealed in scripture: “The disturbing effect is that this outside scripture keeps on displacing the distinctions frequently applied to clarifying the concept of God, such as light and darkness, good and evil, being and non-being. Every time the name of God is mentioned, the negative theology of Dionysius recurs, as a destabilization of the distinctions drawn within the text. The potential confusion and despair introduced by the abscondity is excluded again and again, with the most decisive and categorical rhetoric. Still, the need for repeated assurances does not exactly contribute to an ending of the suspicions of something more, of a secret which is and remains concealed” (99–100).

(49.) LW 33:139. Volker Leppin, “God in Luther’s Life and Thought: The Lasting Ambivalence,” in The Global Luther, ed. Christine Helmer (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 82–95, points to how one can discern ambivalence, or even division, in Luther’s concept of God in two respects: ambivalence in God’s action (law and gospel) and division in God’s essence (hidden and revealed); seeespecially 92–94.

(50.) Cf. Mjaaland, Hidden God, 178–179 and 104–105.

(51.) Hans Joachim Iwand, “De Servo Arbitrio: Eine theologische Einführung,” in Ausgewählte Werke, Ergänzungsreihe, ed. Martin Luther, vol. 1 (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1962), 286, referencing WA 18:661–671.

(52.) Iwand, “De Servo Arbitrio,” 280.

(53.) Althaus, Theology, 282, referencing WA 18:712.

(54.) Althaus, Theology, 283, referencing WA 18:632.

(55.) LW 33:43; WA 18:619.

(56.) Cf. LW 33:114. A similar position is found already in the Disputation against Scholastic Theology, Thesis 5, 7 (LW 31:9). Luther argues from predestination also in that context, Thesis 29 (LW 31:11).

(57.) Cf. Luther, Thesis 68–78 (LW 31:14), which also is possible to interpret from the point of the uti/frui distinction presented above.

(58.) Raunio and other historically oriented scholars, especially in Finland, but also others, like Paulson.

(59.) Cf. e.g., Helmer, Trinity; and Mjaaland, Hidden God.

(60.) This is the case in much former Swedish scholarship on Luther, such as that of Gustaf Wingren, David Løfgren, Herbert Olsson, Gustaf Aulén, and others.

(61.) Cf. e.g., Althaus, Theology; Gerhard O. Forde and Steven D. Paulson, The Captivation of the Will: Luther vs. Erasmus on Freedom and Bondage (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2005); Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology; and Peters and Trapp, Commentary.

(62.) As, e.g., Poulson, Pannenberg, Schwarzwaller, Gregersen, Nilsson and others.

(63.) Althaus, Ebeling.

(64.) E.g., Althaus, Albrecht Peters, Olsson, Gregersen.

(65.) Helmer, Trinity; see also the entry on this topic by Schwöbel.

(66.) Cf. Graham White, Luther as Nominalist: A Study of the Logical Methods Used in Martin Luther’s Disputations in the Light of their Medieval Background (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola-Society, 1994).

(67.) Cf. V. Leppin, in Helmer, The Global Luther.

(68.) Cf. Peters and Trapp, Commentary, 59–104.

(69.) This is a point developed somewhat in Mjaaland, Hidden God, but the topic seems to require further and more extensive studies of the relevant sources.