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deus absconditus

Excerpt from The Hidden God (Indiana University Press 2016), Chapter 9:

Thus God is hidden and incomprehensible, Luther writes as early as 1513, commenting on the passage “Darkness is his hiding-place” (Psalms 18:12). His model of thought is formed by the negative theology of Dionysius Areopagita, to whom he explicitly refers.[i] The passage is all about the place of the divine: on the one hand, that God is hiding in darkness, on the other, that an inaccessible light has become God’s hiding place, to which a human being may ascend only by following the way of negations. God is not bound to either darkness or light; hence, the place of God is beyond this distinction. These examples follow the Dionysian pattern of exceeding beyond the common limits of reason, beyond the visible as well as the invisible, beyond being as well as non-being: “There the simple, absolved and unchanged mysteries of theology lie hidden in the darkness beyond light of the hidden mystical silence, there, in the greatest darkness, that beyond all that is most evident exceedingly illuminates the sightless intellects.” (Mystical Theology 998A-B)[ii]

Dionysius is a common reference for philosophers and theologians in medieval Europe, an authority who comes close to the biblical authors. It is nevertheless worth noticing the way Luther adopts Dionysius in his commentaries, indicating that the query [quaerare] for God advances through negations and negations of negations; hence, God “is” neither light nor darkness, neither being nor non-being. Luther’s negation of the Scholastic definitions of God is the philosophical and linguistic precondition for everything he will say and write about deus absconditus later on. Toward the end of the short text known as The Mystical Theology, this way of negations brings Dionysius into linguistic difficulties when describing the unknown Cause of all, which transcends and thus logically precedes philosophical distinctions, including the Aristotelian rules of logic, stating that things should either be classified as being or non-being and propositions should either be true or false: “It is not non-being nor being, not known as it is by beings, not a knower of beings as they are. There is neither logos, name, or knowledge of it. It is not dark nor light, not error and not truth.” (Mystical Theology 1048 A)[iii]

How do these contradictory statements influence the rationality of Dionysius’s text? Instead of taking the meaning of the name “God” for granted, it is drawn into a reflection upon the difficulties of defining its referent. Hence, intellectually grasping the ultimate referent of the linguistic and philosophical system is rendered impossible. Instead of being the answer to all questions, the name of God has itself become a question, and a way of questioning the foundations of Scholastic theology and metaphysics.[iv] These radical negations introduce a general doubt about the linguistic system and the Aristotelian Law of the Excluded Middle as well as the Principle of Non-Contradiction. Luther becomes increasingly skeptical of Aristotelian scholasticism in this period, and Dionysius’s apophatic theology is helpful in order to open up a space for a different logic and thereby question the place of God. This place cannot be rationally identified, he concludes; it brings reason to rest in silent reverence of the Hidden One.

In the Heidelberg Disputation (1518), the abscondity of God is confirmed once more, but the point of view is different: Luther describes the sovereign God who is hidden in suffering (absconditus in passionibus). The cross is identified as the specific place of hiddenness. The denials that pointed beyond the world are now drawn into the human world; the “visible” things of God are thus placed “in direct opposition to the invisible, namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness.”[v] When I analyzed the Heidelberg Disputation above, I underscored the paradox, thus crossing out and subverting the principles of Scholastic metaphysics in a destruction of man and of human constructions of God. Dionysius’s way of negations, referred to in the Lectures on the Psalms (1513/15), never rejected the power and superiority of the Almighty. On the contrary: This double negation of the possibility of grasping God is indirectly a confirmation of divine power. With the Heidelberg Disputation, negative theology suddenly takes a political and bodily turn, subversive in its criticism of human power, strength, and wisdom. The body is the visible site of this suffering, at once concrete and tangible, although the suffering of Christ is historically linked to a singular event of the past. Hence, the perception of anything divine in this body depends on belief; on seeing this body as a sign of the invisible (invisibilia) within the visible (visibilia), as a broken sign. Luther argues with Paul (1 Corinthians 1) that such insight into the wisdom of God presupposes a certain folly, or counterintuitive wisdom. Hence, the question is whether this text represents a new way of reasoning: Is the destruction of human wisdom an implicit criticism or even an explicit rejection of the negative theology he endorsed only a few years earlier?

The decisive difference is linked to the passivity of perception, to suffering, to the subversive understanding of power. A new anthropology emerges, which emphasizes the vulnerability of the human body: The suffering of Christ is experienced in the flesh, and the cross becomes the symbol of humanity suffering in Christ, and of God who is experienced and recognized in suffering, in passion, in passivity, rather than in superiority and perfection. This logos of reasoning is explicitly based on Pauline Christology but proceeds differently compared to negative theology. Moreover, it is of immediate political and social relevance. It is clearly based in Luther’s grammatical discovery of a double (or triple) iustitia Dei, and thus of grace understood as a gift of unconditional absolution.

With the Heidelberg Disputation, we see a change of conditions and a change of perspective, from essence to existence, from power to suffering, from the invisible supra nos to the invisible within the visible. This conversion or subversion of the categories is identified as an event, indeed a repetition of the events of the cross, that is, of death and resurrection, of destruction and creation, of annihilation and new existence: “The Law brings the wrath of God, kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything which is not in Christ. ( . . . ) Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.”[vi]

The confrontation with philosophy is open and direct: Philosophical authorities are rejected in favor of Christology, apparently an inner-theological discourse, and yet Heidegger has shown how Luther’s destruction of metaphysics exceeds the limits of theology. His rejection of philosophy is one of the reasons for a permanent ambivalence between philosophy and theology in the centuries to come. But is theology of the cross therefore completely irrelevant to philosophy? This is a question of much debate, of whether the conditions of the two fields from here on follow diverging paths or remain in critical dialogue, even within Protestantism. However, it is at least possible to argue that Luther’s excessive doubt of the premises for thought becomes a paradigm for critique in terms of (existential) doubt and despair. Hence, I have suggested a reading of the text which includes and reformulates the metaphysical questions within a process of destruction, rather than simply excluding them and leaving them behind. The Heidelberg Disputation would not only be read as a theological statement rejecting philosophy, but also as a more sophisticated critique of the premises for philosophical reasoning, just as indicated by the division into 28 theological and 12 philosophical theses.

Two entirely different understandings of deus absconditus emerge, though: a hidden god beyond reason versus God hidden in suffering and weakness at the cross. The former applies the negative theology of Dionysius, pointing beyond the logic of reason. The latter draws the beyond back into the world, to the suffering and the cross. Whereas both transcend the limits of reason alone, the latter locates this transcendence  ‘within’ the experience of suffering in Christ. This immanent transcendence interrupts the process of rational reflection at its weakest point; interrupts and destructs the carefully constructed concept of God with respect to omnipotence, being, glory, and perfection. The paradox of Christology is located in the wounds, in the suffering which takes the reader by surprise, not in the light of her perfection but in the darkness of her passion.[vii] And outside of this suffering, Luther asserts that there is no gift of selfless love, no grace, no forgiveness of sins, and so forth.

The discussion between Erasmus and Luther in Diatribe de libero arbitrio (1524) and De servo arbitrio (1525) is more complex when it comes to the logic and structure of thought, much due to the objections from Erasmus. He brings in new aspects to this debate: first, the critical objection of whether it is important to delve deeper into these questions at all, since every discourse on these obscure issues seems to produce further speculations and end up with frightening myths rather than knowledge;[viii] and second, the insinuation that Luther’s position may imply a threatening and dark image of God, which leaves all believers and non-believers in doubt when it comes to the most decisive questions of Christian faith, namely, whether God is good beyond goodness or also the ultimate cause of evil.[ix] Is God ambivalent when it comes to the distinction of good and evil? Is God partial and unpredictable when some people are elected whereas others are rejected? May anyone then trust God, or should everyone fear God as the ultimate cause of terror and confusion, of fear and trembling?

The objections go to the core of Christian faith, but also to the general philosophical question of sense and coherence: Is the ultimate source of being reasonable and at least to a certain extent predictable? Is the world in which we live governed by a higher principle of reason and goodness, or do we have to cope with arbitrariness and injustice as the basic conditions of life? When Luther denies that there is any such “thing” or faculty called free will (liberum arbitrium), Erasmus accuses him of ascribing both good and evil to God. And he does not exactly find Luther’s reference to a hidden God helpful or comforting. On the contrary: This leaves us with an inhuman, threatening, and unsettling deity, he argues.

Such unsettling ambivalence of the divine has its own dark fascination and is well known from Manichaeism, mystery cults, and Gnostic systems of beliefs, mostly rejected as heretic by the defenders of Christian doctrine, and in particular when such notions are ascribed to the biblical scriptures. Hence, Erasmus warns his opponent against this danger lurking within the text. Scripture promises some secret knowledge and insight, he writes, yet he fears that the promise will be delusive and thus disappointing—or even worse: that the mysteries of the text possess an incredible fascination, owing to their site in the depth of secrecy. Humans have always been attracted by secrets and mysteries, although such secrets in the long run tend to drive them to despair. Erasmus warns against disseminating such mysteries among the common people, since they are apt to spread confusion and irreligiosity.[x] He even insinuates that fantasies about the hidden God may lead to political turmoil and riots, probably hinting at the secret teachings of Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer, both charismatic preachers.[xi] With his references to Karlstadt as an opponent of liberum arbitrium, he insinuates that there is a connection between radical theological doctrines and radical political doctrines that would disaffirm Luther in the public debate.[xii]

As a leading academic and humanist, Erasmus is not a supporter of mysteries. He prefers to leave the authority in questions of faith and doctrine to the Church. However, he is aware that the textual references to the hidden God are still there within scripture, and therefore he can only appeal to the responsibility of the interpreter and warn against the consequences of delving deeper into the potential meaning of these passages, which may be disruptive in political as well as religious respects, and a threat to the unity of the Church. An image from Greek mythology gives an apt circumscription of the ambiguity he sees lurking beneath the surface of the text:


For there are some secret places in the divine letters into which God did not intend us to penetrate more deeply and, if we try to do so, then the deeper we go, the darker and darker it becomes [hoc magis ac magis caligamus]. This is presumably in order to make us recognize the unsearchable majesty of divine wisdom, and the frailty of the human mind. It is like that cave [de specu] near Corycos of which Pomponius Mela tells, which begins by attracting and drawing the visitors to itself by its natural beauty, but then as one goes deeper, a certain horror and numinous majesty of the divine presence that inhabits the place makes one draw back.[xiii]


The myth of the Corycian cave becomes an allegory of text interpretation, illustrating but also mystifying the study of Holy Scripture. This is an explicit warning and prohibition against entering the secret places in the divine letters. Moreover, it is a warning against the speculative dangers of text interpretation, not only because of the weakness of the mind and the potential narcissism of the mirror (speculum), but also the confusing darkness of the cave (specu).[xiv] Although such places seem attractive at first sight, they will soon reveal their true horror, he assumes, connected to the numinous majesty of divine presence—thus Erasmus draws back into safe distance, an escape into the protective shelter of interpretation. Separation is the first response to this uneasy suspicion, raised by the obscurity within scripture, alas, not “everywhere” but on “certain places” (adyta quaedam) where the text becomes less transparent and difficult to understand.

The myth of the Corycian cave is identified by Erasmus as the limit of reason, a limit which should not be crossed unless one is willing to accept a mythical discourse. Old myths like the story of the Corycian cave, or the creation myths, or the fall, do not follow the logic of non-contradiction to which philosophers have subscribed since Aristotle. Hence, the distinction between good and evil, true and false, God and humans may be suspended by reference to a third place or a third genus, as described in Plato’s Timaeus .[xv] A similar evasion of the principle of non-contradiction is developed in negative theology, but according to Erasmus, philosophical explanations are thereby confused and it gets darker and darker until the logos of reason collapses altogether in the depth of the cave, confronted with the ultimate divine mystery. By rejecting such irrational distinctions, Erasmus tries to save scripture from speculative theories and from all the religious enthusiasts flourishing at the time of the Reformation.


From Marius Timmann Mjaaland: The Hidden God: Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016)

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[i]“Latibulum dei est tenebre: primo quia in fidei enygmate et caligine habitat. Secundo Quia habitat lucem inaccessibilem, ita quod nullus intellectus ad eum pertingere potest, nisi suo lumine omisso, altiore levatus fuerit. Ideo b. Dionysius docet ingredi in tenebras anagogicas et per negationes ascendere. Quia sic est deus absconditus et incomprehensibilis. Tercio potest intelligi mysterium Incarnationis. Quia in humanitate absconditus latet, que est tenebre eius, in quibus videri non potuit sed tantum audiri. Quarto Est Ecclesia vel b. virgo, quia in utraque latuit et latet in Ecclesia adhuc, que est obscura mundo, deo autem manifesta. Quinto Sacramentum Eucharistie, ubi est occultissimus. Unde et illud potest intelligi de incarnatione Christi.” Luther, Ennarationes in Psalmos (1513/15); WA 3, 124.

[ii] Dionysius Areopagita, The Mystical Theology, in: The Divine Names and Mystical Theology (Milwaukee, Wisc.: Marquette University Press, 1980), 211.

[iii] Dionysius Areopagita, The Mystical Theology, 222. Translation modified. Cf. also: Ibid., The Complete Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 141.

[iv] Since Thomas Aquinas and the other school philosophers frequently refer to Dionysius and include his thought in their philosophical systems, this strategy of negative theology, where the hiddenness of God is emphasized more radically, means questioning the conditions of philosophical theology from within.

[v] Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, LW 31, 52; WA 1, 362.

[vi] Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, LW 31, 54–55; WA 1, 363.

[vii] “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.” Luther, Heidelbeg Disputation, LW 31, 52–53; WA 1, 362.

[viii] Cf. Erasmus, Diatribe, CW 76, 8; EW 4, 10.

[ix] Cf. Erasmus, Diatribe, CW 76, 82; EW 4, 182–184.

[x] Cf. Erasmus, Diatribe, CW 76, 10–11; EW 4, 14–16.

[xii] Cf. Erasmus, Diatribe, CW 76, 5–6; EW 4, 2–4.

[xiii] “Sunt enim in divinis literis adyta quaedam, in quae deus noluit nos altuis penetrare, et si penetrare conemur, quo fuerimus altius ingress, hoc magis ac magis caligamus, quo vel sic agnoscoremus et divinae sapientiae maiestatem impervestigabilem et humanae mentis imbecillitatem, quemadmodum de specu quodam Coricio narrat Pomponius Mela, qui primum iucunda quadam amoenitate allectat ac ducit ad se, donec altius atque altius ingressos tandem horror quidam ac maiestas numinis illic inhabitantis submoveat.” Erasmus, Diatribe, CW 76, 8–9; EW 4, 10. Translation modified.

[xiv] Hence, toward the end of this passage he argues for a deferral of secret knowledge until the end of times, when we according to Paul shall no longer look into “mirrors and enigmas” (speculum et in aenigmate) but see God’s glory revealed, in the face (cf. Erasmus, Diatribe, CW 76, 9; EW 4, 10).

[xv] Plato, Timaeus, 48a

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