The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy and Political Theology (Indiana University Press, 2015)

[1] Marius Timmann Mjaaland, professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Oslo, provides a dazzlingly, provocative exploration of the political implications of Luther’s theological method and scriptural exegesis. He argues that Luther’s own texts laid the groundwork for radical political interpretations of his thought, even as Luther would claim such applications were outside the scope of his intentions in the wake of the Peasants’ Revolt. The book shows how certain strands of Continental philosophy can be put into productive conversation with Luther’s thinking. This review cannot do justice to the complexity and density of the book’s argumentation, but it can trace some of the major outlines of this important work.

[2] Mjaaland argues that Luther’s training in Augustinian, nominalist, and Thomist philosophy causes him to chart new courses for philosophy as well as theology. For example, the book’s opening chapter explores how Martin Heidegger reads Luther’s thinking on the hidden God. Mjaaland seeks to explore Luther’s method of reading Scripture, rather than seeking to claim Luther’s authority for any contemporary program, a mistake that he claims “Luther Renaissance thinking” in the 20th century often made. Luther claims in his debates with Erasmus that the “Hiddenness of God” must remain a central topic of conversation, even though thinkers maintain that this concept of hiddenness might compromise the rational logic of theological argumentation. According to Mjaaland, Luther sees God’s hiddenness as a “space” in discourse and metaphysics that has both political and theological implications.

[3] The book turns from argumentation about Luther’s teaching on the hiddenness of God to his teachings on sola scriptura. Luther claims that by focusing on the grammar of the text, one can have a clear sense of what it means. This allows Luther to claim that the reader is not in control of the text, but the text in control of the reader, a position many post-modern theologians would not accept. Luther analyzes the concepts of will and grace found in Scripture and finds them incompatible. Therefore, he reconstructs his own understanding of Christian selfhood on the basis of his reading of Scripture. This especially made evident in the Heidelberg disputation, according Mjaaland.

[4] The paradox of Luther’s writings on authority according to the book is that while Luther maintains that it is dangerous to obey the papal authorities in Rome since they jeopardized one’s salvation with false teachings, he urges Christians to give unquestioned obedience to the German princes. Although to be fair, Mjaaland should have nuanced this claim a bit more than he does. Luther also took the position that the prince could not order a Christian to violate what Christ was commanded them to do, which perhaps strengthens the case Mjaaland is trying to make about the instability of Luther’s writings on obedience to authority.

[5] The book goes on to explore the Heidelberg Disputation, and rehearses the difference between the “theology of the cross” and the “theology of glory” in ways that readers of Luther will be familiar with. Yet, here the book argues that Luther creates a new metaphysics, one that has the cross at the center, and redefines the perception of both the world as it is, and our own perceptions of good and evil. “The cross becomes the key figure in this process of perception.” (p. 44) Within this metaphysics of grace and forgiveness, there is a radical political claim. In medieval Christianity, the church forgave debts when they were repaid by the purchase of indulgences. Hence, the debtors (sinners) were always subservient to those who could forgive their debts (the church). This same economics of exchange structured the feudal political system of the Middle Ages. However, if God forgives debts out of mercy, why, the peasants would ask, should feudal lords not also forgive debts?

[6] Mjaaland looks again at the way Luther thought that readers should interpret Scripture. Instead of coming to the text with prior moral categories, Luther urged readers to stay focused on the text itself, to allow it to disrupt and surprise readers with its own insights. But the text acts on the reader, it cannot be “fixed” in any dogma since as soon as it is fixed, its revelatory power to change the reader is lost. Luther claims Erasmus misunderstands the Scripture because he is not letting Scripture speak for itself, but is forcing his own categories on Scripture. The following chapters contain arguments about how Scripture changes our understandings of God in relationship to the will. These discussions are rich as well as complex, a challenge to the reader but a challenge worth taking up.

[7] The book then turns again to the ways that Luther can be taken up in relation to modern philosophy especially in relationship to the notions of the self found in Kant and Descartes. Transcendental readings of Luther come to see the knowledge that one is justified by faith as an existential equivalent to the Cartesian cogito.

[8] The book’s final section situates Luther in debates on political theology and secularization. He discusses Luther’s commentary on Daniel found in Luther’s 1521 text Response to the Book of Ambrosius Catharinus. Here, he notes that Luther used the book of Daniel to argue for parallelism of the contexts between Rome and the Babylonians. Mjaaland argues that Luther uses Daniel as a “mirror” for his contemporary situation, not to apply an apocalyptic worldview, but to show parallels about ways systems of power can inform and deform societies. Yet, these apocalyptic texts have two faces in Luther’s mind, the promise damnation to the oppressors and liberty to the captives, so the political implications of a text are directly relevant to where one stands in relation to how one applies the text.

[9] Mjaaland proceeds to show the ways in which Luther’s reading of Scripture in relation to Müntzer’s readings of Scripture informed his response to the Peasants’ Revolt. While the material covered in this chapter is well known to readers familiar with Reformation history, the ways in which this book frames them in light of political philosophy sheds new light on what was at stake in the exegetical disputes and notions of authority between Luther and Müntzer. The book’s final chapter traces the legacy of Luther’s thought in 19th Century German debates and gives special focus to exploring the way Engels treated Luther’s thought, a way which was more sophisticated than Karl Marx’s reading of Luther.

[10] Mjaaland’s book is dense, technical and highly sophisticated. It is not for general readers. However, for those ready to expand their understanding of Luther in relation to the world of modern philosophy the book will provide them with insightful arguments and engagements with Kant, Derrida, Levinas, and Heidegger as well as sources more familiar to Lutheran readers such as the work of Gerhard Ebeling. It is perhaps beyond the scope of this work, but it would have been interesting for the book to engage Gerhard Forde’s work on Luther’s theology of the cross. Still, the work is an important addition to philosophical thinking about Luther’s political theology in conversation with contemporary philosophy. The author tells us that second volume of this work will trace the ways Luther’s thinking on the hidden God continues to echo in the story of contemporary political philosophy. If this first volume is any indication, the second will be a challenging and thought provoking continuation of this brilliant examination of Luther’s political, theological, and philosophical legacy.

Aaron Klink

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Hospice in Durham, North Carolina.  He received his MAR is Systematic Theology from Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, his M.Div. from Yale and a ThM with a concentration in Ethics from Duke Divinity School.