Hide Not Your Face

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, July 2nd 1997
Jul/Aug 1997

Passing through the Wall into the last East Berlin train station on a characteristically grey day over a decade ago, I made my way to various sites, arriving finally at the Bundesmuseum, which housed some of Germany's finest paintings. In each room a guide was positioned who could explain each piece. One older woman, whose face mirrored a whole history, approached me and invited me to discuss the painting I was enjoying. Once she realized I was an American and that what little German I knew caused her great anguish to hear, I gave up the attempt and we spoke in English. It was a painting of the Garden of Eden in its pristine state. "What does this mean to you?", she inquired. "What once was, but was spoiled because of our rebellion against God," I replied. "Our rebellion?", she demanded in an offended tone. "Where was this 'God' when I was a little girl and Hitler was in power, while our homes were left in ruins by the bombs?" Caught off-guard by her superior life experience, I spent more time gathering my composure than evangelizing. Her question was a good one. I know the answer in part, but it was-and is-a good question.

Before long, there will be few people who can tell us stories about their experience during that horrific chapter in Western history. But there will always be a new tragedy, whether flood victims in the Midwest, unrest in the Middle East, inter-tribal holocausts in Rwanda and Bosnia, and the everyday disasters in which each of us offers up that familiar lament, "Why me, God?" Either God is too close, or too far away. Either way, he is a problem and not an answer. That is how we often feel, whether we express it or not.

Is Anybody Up There?

There is a real sense in which God is not there. Long before medieval theologians were speculating about the Deus absconditus (the Hidden God), and radical theologians were announcing the alleged "death of God," the prophet Isaiah declared, "Truly You are God, who hide Yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior!" (Isa. 45:15). If Israel's experience in exile left her wondering whether God had turned his face from her, leaving her desolate and without his presence, surely the sense of alienation from God is justly experienced by the modern person. In the Tractatus, the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein writes, "God does not reveal himself in the world" (6.432). Whether philosophical speculation or personal experience (or, more likely, a dialectic between these), God's presence is not taken for granted in our age.

Even before the Holocaust, the "enlightened" age anticipated the despair that no longer surprises or dismays, but is simply there, like an open wound one must learn to bear with no expectation of cure.

In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche introduces us to the classical myth of the gods Apollo and Dionysius. Apollo is a god of light, order, sanity; Dionysius a god of darkness, chaos, and insanity. While the former was the god of the heavens, the latter was the god of nature. While Apollo behaved himself-and expected everyone to do so as well, Dionysius was the ribald and intoxicated deity who devoted himself to music and revelry. Identifying with Dionysius rather than Apollo, Nietzsche and his disciples looked forward to the day when a superman would arrive, a Dionysian hero whose will to power would conquer the world, in sharp contrast to the biblical God who, as a remnant of "inferior" Jewish mythology, has taught us to be weak and to accept our fate in this world. "The god on the cross is a curse on life, a signpost to seek redemption from life." But "Dionysius cut to pieces is a promise of life; it will be eternally reborn and return from destruction." (1) In Nietzsche's writings, it is the madman who, first having sought God, is the one who announces his death:

"Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him-you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?" (2)

In the modern age, Plato's dualism between the world of reality and the world of appearances was revived with great vigor. For the great Greek philosopher, to the realm of the Real belonged the eternal and changeless forms and ideas, reached only by rising above the senses and the ever-changing realm of Appearances. Our observable world of history, of rocks and trees, sunsets and crashing waves, is a shadow, a vain and passing-not to mention, misleading-chimera that mocks us. Only by pure reason, speculating our way above the world we encounter with our senses can we ever hope to attain true knowledge and salvation from our temporal, physical, historical existence.

First in the modern age to revive this vision was Rene Descartes (1596-1650): "I will consider myself as without hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that I am possessed of these." (3) Doubting everything he possibly could, Descartes was determined to come to mathematical certainty about whatever he could not doubt. That indubitable certainty, he concluded, was the existence of his mind: "I think; therefore, I am." G. E. Lessing (1729-81) followed in tow, contrasting the imperfect knowledge that can be gained from the senses with certain knowledge gained by pure speculative reason. Since history belongs to the ever-changing world of appearances, it cannot yield genuine knowledge. Thus, in commenting on the Christian claims, Lessing confessed that even if Jesus rose from the dead, this fact of history would be insufficient to command his allegiance. "That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap. If anyone can help me get over it, let him do it. I beg him, I adjure him. He will deserve a divine reward from me." (4)

This "ugly, broad ditch" haunts the modern mind. In fact, contemporary Cambridge theologian (and former evangelical) Don Cupitt declares, almost repeating Lessing verbatim, "How can we depend upon the uncertainties of historical tradition for knowledge of, and our power to attain, a history-transcending truth?" (5)

Immanual Kant (1724-1804) did not seem troubled by this Platonic dualism that had created an unbreachable chasm between the two realms. Like Plato, he held that the realm of reality was the noumenal (eternal forms, ideas), accessible to pure reason alone, while the realm of appearances, the phenomenal, consists of empirical facts. God cannot be known except as the presupposition for morality. Thus, the only significance of the life of Jesus of Nazareth lies in his example of the ideal moral life. In modern theology, this meant that somehow knowledge of God had to take place either in the mind (rationalism/idealism) or in the heart (pietism/romanticism), since history was no longer God's playing field. Denying the historicity of the Resurrection, Friederich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) located the essence of religion in "the feeling of absolute dependence." Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) argued that the only way to get across the chasm is to close one's eyes and simply leap. The key question is not whether one has reasons for doing so (he followed Tertullian's maxim, "I believe because it is absurd"), but whether one will make a decision in the moment of crisis. Thus, for Kierkegaard and his existentialist followers, the point of contact was not in history, the mind, or the heart, but in the will.

On the present scene, we have not surpassed these modern options inherited from Plato's false dilemma. Rudolf Bultmann may construct his dualism between Geschichte (redemptive events) and Historie (actual historical events), peeling away the "husk" of Christianity's historical myths from the kernel of universal, rational truths to which those sagas point, but this is the Platonic-Kantian dualism of the realms of ideas (the noumenal) and appearances (the phenomenal). Even Barth may frame his dogmatics, as he himself says, on Kierkegaard's "infinite qualitative distinction" between God above and us here below, so that what is required is a "leap of faith," but neither of these great modern theologians has challenged the underlying assumption: "the ugly, broad ditch" itself. All of modern theology assumes that it is still there and must somehow be crossed by us. We must reason, work, feel, or decide our way across it.

Or there are those who have tried to merge the two realms into one absolute rational entity. Hegel (1770-1831) tried to do this in his day, as Wolfhart Pannenberg is attempting to do it in our own. But it is done at the expense of God's transcendence, his distance and hiddenness apart from Christ.

It's no wonder, then, that Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) announced that "Religion is the dream of the human mind," with God as nothing more than the projection of humanity. (6) For him, each of the doctrines of Christianity was an obstacle to humanity realizing its power and glorious destiny. "The Christian theory of justification by faith," he wrote, "is rooted in a cowardly renunciation of moral effort" and belief in the hereafter nothing more than "an escape mechanism." "Religion," he said, "is as bad as opium." (7) Thus, he anticipated Karl Marx (1818-83), arguing that religion is "the opiate of the people." (8)

But it was Nietzsche (1844-1900) who actually felt the burden to bring humanity the news of God's demise. After Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) turned this critique into a pseudo-scientific theory, insisting that religion is nothing more than an illusion, a coping mechanism in the face of life's traumas.

So, you see, long before the tragedies of our century, the modern age has been preparing itself for life without God.

Hide Not Your Face From Us, O LORD

God warned Moses when the patriarch asked to see God's face, "No man can see Me and live." In fact, as the people of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Law, God warned Moses to place limits around the mountain, "lest the people break through to gaze upon the LORD." So terrified were they of God's Word, with the lightning, thunder, and smoke, that they begged that God speak no more. Instead, they decided to fashion a golden calf, a more "seeker-friendly" version of God, one that they could create and therefore control. The essence of idolatry is the fear of dealing with the true God whose presence in holiness fills us with fear because of our own sinfulness.

Thus, throughout biblical history (and history in general) there is this flight from the "I AM," the God of power and glory. Our consciences testify to this God, but this awareness is something that we try to suppress in our wickedness. Instead we build suitable "projections" of gods who will not threaten us, gods who are not far away-or, if they're friendly and useful enough, gods who are close at hand, gods who do not judge. Indeed, they are projections of ourselves (Rom. 1 and 2). To that extent, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud have more on the ball than many modern theologians. Religion is a projection of our own "felt needs," fig leaves of our inner life to cloak our guilt, a golden calf of our own imagination to hide us from the God of blinding glory.

After Israel's disobedience at Sinai, there remained the problem of God's presence. If God maintains his presence among his sinful people, he will very likely break out in wrath against them. Yes, Moses says, but if God does not lead them, the world will say that God led Israel out of Egypt only to let his people die in the desert. So God maintains his presence, but "outside the camp," in a pitched tent where his glory is hidden behind a curtain.

Eventually, when God leads his people into the promised land, Solomon builds the majestic temple and the Glory Cloud filled this earthly sanctuary of God's presence. Once a year, the high priest would enter with the sacrificial blood and sprinkle it on the Mercy Seat, laying his hands on the head of a scapegoat to transfer Israel's guilt to the animal, sending it into the wilderness. But as Israel's sins grew greater and she turned from Yahweh to the gods of the nations, the Glory Cloud left the temple as it had in Eden, and once again God's sanctuary was taken back up into heaven. He hid his face from Israel and she was immediately sent into captivity.

It was in this exile that Isaiah was raised up as a prophet. Although God has hidden his face from the house of Jacob, Isaiah and the remnant will hope in him (Isa. 8:17). "'With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,' says the LORD, your Redeemer" (Isa. 54:8). God's nearness and distance are metaphorically revealed in spacial terms, but the point is the qualitative distinction between Creator and creature: "'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' says the LORD. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts,'" (Isa. 55:8-9). Israel must learn that her "hidden God" cannot be seen. "For no one can see Me and live." If they are to be saved, they must learn to receive God as he reveals himself through his Word. Turning away from the false religions, Israel must ignore her own imaginations, speculations, and experiences as the ground for her faith and practice, relying only on the promise of the Gospel. Thus, even in exile, far from the Temple and the land of promise, the remnant that heard and accepted this Word enjoyed God's merciful presence in far greater measure than the adulterous generation had known in Israel.

But Why Is God Hiding?

God is everywhere, isn't he? Don't we believe in his omnipresence? To be sure, God is Spirit and the cosmos cannot contain him (2 Chron. 2:6). But does that really help us where we are right now? This is equivalent to trying to prove God's existence. So what if we are able to demonstrate God's presence? Again let us listen to Nietzsche, a most unlikely (and unwitting) biblical commentator:

One can do absolutely nothing with it, not to speak of letting happiness, salvation and life depend on the gossamer of such a possibility. For one could assert nothing at all of the metaphysical world except that it was a being-other, an inaccessible, incomprehensible being-other; it would be a thing with negative qualities. Even if the existence of such a world were never so well demonstrated, it is certain that knowledge of it would be the most useless of all knowledge. (9)

If we were inherently righteous, faithful in all ways to God's holy will, the announcement of God's omnipresence would be good news. But Adam and Eve didn't see it that way. After they had sinned, they fled from God's presence, that localized presence they used to enjoy as the Holy of Holies was the whole garden itself, without a curtain to separate the royal couple from their Creator. Their sinfulness caused the Israelites at Mount Sinai, at first curious to catch a glimpse of the eye of the storm (God in his majestic glory), to beg God to be silent. News of God's majesty, power, glory, holiness, and justice only comforts those who are not guilty. This is why God denies Moses the request to see the divine Majesty, but condescends to show him his "backward parts": that is, his goodness and mercy, by preaching a sermon: "I will proclaim my name, Yahweh. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy." As Adam and Eve were redeemed only after God, the only true Seeker, caught up with them and proclaimed the Gospel, stripping them of their fig leaves only to clothe them in sacrificial skins, so the Israelites were only calmed and comforted by the Holy Presence when they knew that the high priest was interceding on their behalf with the blood sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.

The theologian of glory, said Luther, sees God everywhere and in everything. Now, that doesn't mean that we deny God's omnipresence if we are to reject a theology of glory. What Luther meant was this: For those who seek an unmediated, direct encounter with the God of Glory, it is enough that "the heavens declare the glory of God" (Ps. 19:1). They can contemplate the majesty of God without fear, because they do not really know themselves very well. But for the person who knows herself to be a helpless sinner, guilty and under God's just sentence, this is hardly comforting. Calvin makes this point in the very beginning of the Institutes. All of the star-lit nights, summer breezes, moving symphonies, dramatic demonstrations, and visible testimonies to God's glory only confirm our conscience in its verdict against us. There is no comfort in knowing that God is nearby unless I know that he is nearby for my good, and not in order to bring me to trial. Until that is settled, no general knowledge of God from his visible works will bring me to any place except despair. The glory of God testifies to God's existence and perfection, but it does not testify to God's interest in saving me. For that, more than the visible realm of nature is needed. I need a promise, and not a general promise, but a particular promise, addressed to me: "I have forgiven your sins, so come unto me. Do not be afraid."

Although he will meditate on God's works in creation and redemption, the psalmist confesses, "Your way was in the sea, your path in the great waters, and your footsteps were not known" (Ps. 77:19). Mystics and rationalists revel in this abyss. Instead of regarding it as God's hiddenness, into which God warned the Israelites not to gaze, they invest great energy and enthusiasm in probing, speculating, opining, experiencing, imagining. As Luther reminds us, however, the God they meet at the other end is the "consuming fire."

God hides those who trust in him under the shadow of his wings (Ps. 17:8), but he also hides his face from his enemies (Ps. 10:11). After his great sin, the psalmist begs God, "Do not hide your face from me" (Ps. 55:1). He is a hiding place (Ps. 32:7), and yet when he comes in wrath, the inhabitants of the earth will cry out for the rocks to fall on them in order to hide them from his glorious appearing (Rev. 6:16). From Genesis to Revelation, there is this struggle-this awkwardness-ranging from indescribable joy to utter terror, when we talk about God's presence. This is far indeed from the modern triviality with which we treat God's presence. We assume that God is near, and that is necessarily good news, without needing to hear anything more said. But that is because we do not really know either God or ourselves. How do we know we will not hear the same Word spoken through Amos? "Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! For what good is the day of the LORD to you? It will be darkness, and not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear! Or as though he went into his house for safety only to lean his hand on the wall, and a scorpion bit him! Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light? Is it not very dark, with no brightness in it?" (Amos 5:18-20). What makes us think that God's appearing is good news for us? At least Nietzsche knew himself, better than most of us know ourselves today. He knew that someone had to go: either God or himself. He would not entertain the third possibility: that God was present to save, so he could only conclude that God's presence meant death for himself. Nietzsche conceded that this was the cause of his madness, and he did, in fact, die insane, but there was nowhere else to hide.

The Secret Things Belong to the Lord

The preacher says, "Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth" (Ecc. 5:2). Some bold souls who forget this try to storm heaven's gates and search God's secret chambers. "God told me to move to Kansas," "God gave me a revelation for you": this is the sort of thing about which God commanded Jeremiah to warn Israel. Even when we discuss God's gracious election, our natural curiosity leads us to inquire beyond the sacred page. After discussing predestination, the Apostle Paul cries out in praise instead of speculation: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 'For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?' 'Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?' For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen" (Rom. 11:33-36). Calvin reminds us, "Human curiosity renders the discussion of predestination, already somewhat difficult of itself, very confusing and even dangerous. No restraints can hold it back from wandering in forbidden bypaths and thrusting upward to the heights. If allowed, it will leave no secret to God that it will not search out and unravel" (3.21.1). This is why Calvin insisted that instead of seeking out God's secret predestination, we must contemplate Christ, in whom we are chosen. We do not know what God has decided in his deep and mysterious hiddenness, and we can only know that which God condescends to reveal to us as he "cloaks" his unapproachable light in humility and weakness. Earlier Calvin wrote, "When a shameless fellow mockingly asked a pious old man what God had done before the creation of the world, the latter aptly countered that he had been building hell for the curious" (1.14.1). While human curiosity tempts us to pry into the private thoughts and plans of God, he refuses to be known except as he condescends to reveal himself to us. Like mystical experiences or meritorious deeds, we only speculate our way to hell, never to heaven.

It is God who must take initiative to reveal himself. He does this in creation, but in this natural revelation he is still hidden. We can know him as Power, Majesty, Governor, Wise Creator, Providence, and Judge, but of what good is this knowledge to us when we are in the grip of our personal and collective sinfulness, living this side of Eden?

To question God's presence in manifestation is not to question his ontological existence, but his relation to us. Cardinal Newman reminds us that the "Conscience is the faculty to which natural revelation is directed. As I must use my own lungs and not another's, so I must use my own conscience. I cannot adduce incorrigible arguments in support of this, but I cannot live without exercising it. In fact, says Newman, "Conscience is nearer to me than any other means of knowledge." (10) But what kind of knowledge does conscience provide with respect to God's presence or absence? "In consequence, the special Attribute under which it brings Him before us, to which it subordinates all other Attributes, is that of justice-retributive justice. We learn from its informations to conceive of the Almighty, primarily … as a God of Judgment and Justice; as One, who, not simply for the good of the offender, but as an end good in itself, and as a principle of government, ordains that the offender should suffer for his offense." (11)

It follows, then, "that the aspect under which Almighty God is presented to us by Nature, is (to use a figure) of One who is angry with us, and threatens evil." (12) Hence, Newman infers, the world's universal sense of sin and the need for atonement. Wherever one looks across the vast horizon of polymorphous and diverse religious forms, these two elements reign. The Epicurean poet Lucretius laments the "heavy yoke" of religion, although in their evolution most religions discover ingenious ways of replacing their immediate intuitions with more positive representations of the divine. Even the need for a substitutionary sacrifice is ubiquitous, "for wherever there is a priest, there is the notion of sin, pollution, and retribution, as, on the other hand, of intercession and mediation." (13) Thus, we learn in natural revelation that there is a God who has made us and the world, that "we are personally responsible for what we do, that we have no means of shifting our responsibility, and that dereliction of duty involves punishment." (14) Although amendment may be attempted, the conscience knows that this is not the same as reparation. If Hitler could have come to see the error of his ways and, in his later life, served the happiness and good of the subjects of his cruelty, the world would nevertheless have been dissatisfied. Our innate sense is too powerful and our conscience too definite to admit the justice of substituting repentance for reparation. If that is true in the case of the unjust (ourselves), how can God accept our feeble attempts at restitution? Although Newman would not have taken the point this far, Scripture clearly does: we sin in the very act of presuming to offer our righteousness as meritorious. What we see as glorious, God sees as shameful; what we see as shameful, God sees as glorious. This is true at least with respect to the theology of the cross.

Thus, "what strikes the mind so forcibly and so painfully is, [God's] absence (if I may so speak) from His own world," says Newman. "It is a silence that speaks … Why does not He, our Maker and Ruler, give us some immediate knowledge of Him?" (15) This is where natural religion leaves us, staring into the abyss. It is this awareness of our own culpability that transforms the initial delight in God as creator of the world and author of beauty into despair. Even Kant, for whom God was unknowable by pure reason, famously remarked, "Two things move the mind with ever increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within." (16) This is hardly "foolishness to Greeks," for everyone knows that God exists by observing the natural world. But what is foolishness to Greeks is what God was doing at Calvary. Even the "starry hosts" on a clear night cause us to turn the positive contemplation of the greatness of God into the dark realization that this is merely a measure of terror, dread, hiddenness, and the fearful expectation of judgment. Doesn't David's contemplation of the starry heavens intoxicate him with the question, "What is man, that you are mindful of him?" (Ps. 8)?

We either push God into a totally tran-scendent, un-knowable realm (as did Kant), or identify him with our own selves, as an "inner spark" or universal principle of reason and experience. Or we kill him.

Natural religion leaves the human race in the tension between respect and hatred of the divine, a tension from whose release is sought through the device of appeasement, propitiation, atonement. How to cross this abyss is the subject of special revelation, but natural revelation attempts its own strategy, a fumbling in the dark toward often ingenious methods of redemption. At this edge, the natural person will generate special revelations and redemptive schemes, but the Christian faith maintains that natural revelation issues universally in idolatry and self-redemption. Only in Christ is the abyss crossed, by divine descent rather than by human ascent. For all of this, the conscience is ill-equipped. It can lead us to the abyss, but it cannot lead us across. Here we must be confronted by divine movement to us from the other side.

The history of philosophy, whether eastern or western, is as much the history of the abyss as is religion. Whether discovered in dogmas about the release from samsara or in the dualisms of Western thought (the world of form and appearances, noumenal and phenomenal, ideas and matter, mind and world, Historie and Geschichte), this sense of the abyss pervades the historical consciousness of the human race, however multifarious its forms. That philosophy, especially metaphysics, has been so long preoccupied with crossing the chasm attests to its abiding significance as a legitimate interest. Although its religious identity has been concealed in sophisticated schema which often (at least in the modern age) discount religion as speculative prejudice, our age is finally beginning to come to terms with the fundamentally theological basis of these questions. Even the trajectory beginning with Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche, leading up to Martin Heidegger's and Jacques Derrida's progressive critique of religion, points to this.

The Summer Is Past, the Harvest Has Ended, and We Are Still Not Saved

In the fullness of time, "the Word became flesh and dwelt [literally, "pitched his tent"] among us" (John 1). In the Incarnation, that same Word who spoke from the unapproachable mountain of smoke and tempest became a man in history. Instead of coming in power, glory, judgment, and blinding light, he came in weakness, humiliation, and suffering. In Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the true Temple is rebuilt after its destruction. It is his body torn, like the veil of Herod's temple, from top to bottom, that gives us access through his blood into the Holy of Holies. Both the High Priest and the Victim, he is God's Presence in mercy toward us rather than in judgment and destruction.

But still we can say in our exile, with Israel, "The summer is past, the harvest has ended, and we are still not saved" (Jer. 8:20). Peter writes, "Beloved, I now write you this second epistle…that you may be mindful of the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and of the commandment of us, the apostles of the Lord and Savior, knowing this first: that scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of His coming? For since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation … The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is long-suffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:1-4).

Even the apparent "absence" of God in this "in-between" time is the very opposite of what it appears to be to the world. Faced with injustice, rapacity, poverty, cruelty, suffering, and unrelenting news of crisis, our age thinks that God, if there is such a being, has taken a long vacation. But let us remember that when the world saw God at his weakest moment, the Father hiding his face from the humiliated and guilt-laden Son, God was performing his greatest act of redemption, beside which the exodus pales in comparison. And so, even now, where the world can only see God's absence, we, by faith, see God's strength. As Jesus told Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9). So Peter tells us that while the world sees only an opportunity to scoff at God's apparent absence, the church sees this as God's saving presence. The world should not long for God's presence, because when he does appear this time, it will be in glory and judgment. But the church sees God's presence hidden under the form of absence, bringing the lost to a saving sight of the Crucified by the preached cross. "For Jews request signs and wonders, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness … (1 Cor. 1:22-23). Just when it looks like God has taken a long vacation from the world, he is actually busy building his kingdom and even the gates of hell will not be able to withstand this mighty work.

Thus, Feuerbach's conviction that in religion "To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing," (17) is turned on its head: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). The Father hid his face from his Son on Good Friday so that we could see his face forever.

Is this story of God's triumph through tragedy, power through weakness, wisdom through foolishness not sufficient to comfort us when our conscience, heart, and mind condemn us? And if God's presence in saving mercy is so powerful in weakness, so active in the very moment it looks as if there is nobody up there when we see the God-Man on the cross, surely we can trust God to be most present in our own lives when everything within us would convince us that he is the least present: when we are suffering, being treated unfairly, when we fail God miserably, and when we are tired and lonely in the world. Like their Greek forebears, the philosophers of our age may find such a message "foolishness," a crutch for the weak, "the opiate of the people," "but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor. 1:24-25). Those who seek to hold onto their life will lose it, while those who give up their life will find it.

At last, "the broad, ugly ditch" is breached. God has built a bridge to us in the person and work of the God-Man. While we cannot leap across it or pull God down out of heaven by our rational, moral, or emotional strength, God has come down to us. Not only has he become human, suffered in our place, and been raised to life as the down payment on our own resurrection; he comes to us now in the ministry of Word and Sacrament. "But the righteousness that comes by faith speaks in this way, 'Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?"' (that is, to bring Christ down from above) 'or, "Who will descend into the abyss?"' (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? 'The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart' (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:6-9).

At long last, God's presence among us is forever only good news, filling our hearts with delight instead of terror. Comforted by the cross, let us turn away from the theologies of glory we find all around us: in the signs and wonders so many demand, in the clamor for success, numbers and popularity in this world, in the speculative, mystical and subjectivist trends of our time, and in the triumphalism that so marks the contemporary church. Content to die with Christ, let us be raised in his new life. Christ's "will to weakness" is stronger than modern humanity's "will to power," and that which the supermen of our age regard as "opium for the masses" is "the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes …" (Rom. 1:18).

1 [ Back ] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (NY: Vintage, 1968), 1052.
2 [ Back ] F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Walter Kaufmann (NY: Vintage, 1974), 125.
3 [ Back ] Rene Descartes, Meditations on the First Philosophy, in The Rationalists, trans. by R. H. M. Elwes (NY: Doubleday, 1974), 116-7.
4 [ Back ] Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, edited and abridged by E. Graham Waring and F. W. Strothmann (NY: Ungar, 1987), 47.
5 [ Back ] Don Cupitt, "A Final Comment," in John Hick, ed. The Myth of God Incarnate, (London: SCM, 1977).
6 [ Back ] Ludwig Feuerbach, op. cit., 48.
7 [ Back ] Ibid., 47.
8 [ Back ] Karl Marx, quoted by E. Graham Waring, intro. above, op. cit., viii.
9 [ Back ] F. Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 9.
10 [ Back ] John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay in Aid of A Grammar of Assent (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1973), 390.
11 [ Back ] Ibid., 391.
12 [ Back ] Ibid.
13 [ Back ] Ibid., 392.
14 [ Back ] Ibid., 394.
15 [ Back ] Ibid., 397.
16 [ Back ] Immanuel Kant, conclusion to his second Critique.
17 [ Back ] Ludwig Feuerbach, op. cit., 28.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, July 2nd 1997

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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