More on the (supposed) hiddenness of God

Although week by week I play mostly modern songs in church, on guitar, it’s the hymns of my distant childhood that still resonate most with my theology. One I learned, and loved, at primary school was Immortal, invisible, God only wise (number 407 in The English Hymnal – even that fact has deeply lodged in my memory for 60 years! Here it is for those only familiar with Hillsongs:

1 Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.

2 Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, Thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

3 To all life Thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life Thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish, but nought changeth Thee.

4 Great Father of Glory, pure Father of Light
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render, O help us to see:
’Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee.

At my last church, it wasn’t sung much because my friend Andrew always reminded us how it has no mention of Christ. I think he considered it tainted by Deism. But it was actually written by a doctrinally sound minister and moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, Walter Chalmers Smith, and published in 1876 in his Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life, which suggests that any absence of christology is a local phenomenon of that particular hymn.

In fact the reason seems to be that Smith was drawing on Old Testament scriptural sources, most obviously Daniel (in the term “Ancient of Days” for the Father), but also clearly on the “theology of nature” seen especially in Job and the psalms. I want to draw attention to the last couplet in particular:

All laud we would render, O help us to see:
’Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee.

This imagery, I think, is drawn directly from 1 Timothy 6: 15-16:

He who is blessed and the only Sovereign One, the King of kings and Lord of lords. He alone is immortal and dwells in unapproachable light. No one has ever seen Him, nor can anyone see Him. To Him be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

But Paul’s words in turn derive from the very start of Genesis, in which the light that is the specific creation of the first day both hides God in glory, and paradoxially reveals his invisible nature by being glorious. The revelation of glory, then, is the first work of the creation of God’s cosmic temple.This idea of nature as revealing God the invisible through what is visible is what I documented as near-universal amongst the earliest Christian writers. When Psalm 19 says,

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands…

I think the main allusion is not so much to standing at night and seeing the milky way spread out across the heavens, but rather the brilliance of the daylight sky, the light God created as both a manifestion of, and a veil for, his glory. That is what the hymn captures in its celebration of nature – that God is only hidden from us by the brilliance of his light.

Yet the keen-eyed will spot that, just as my friend Andrew noted the lack of any overt mention of Christ in the hymn, so there is something missing from this couplet. For it is not only the splendour of light that hides God from us, but (if we take Romans 1:18-22 seriously), also the darkness of sin. Yet I don’t think the hymn-writer is to be blamed for not including everything in one psalm: I suspect that the blindness of sin, like the glory of Christ, would be found in the other hymns of the collection.

Effectively, what I think we can appreciate in this hymn is, as it were, representing the state of the world at its creation in Genesis 1, before the drama of the garden of Eden dimmed mankind’s understanding. It shows the natural state of creation. But the garden of Eden was intended to take mankind beyond the natural, into the supernatural realm of intimate fellowship with God, of access to eternal life, and of mankind’s rule, under God, over all things including the angels of heaven.

But in Genesis 2:3, God reigned unopposed in the glory of heaven, and, it would appear, mankind had a natural inclination towards worship of the invisible God through the appreciation of the visible creation. Before sin, it was indeed true that “’twas only the splendour of light” that hid God from human gaze.

Nature being unchanged, in essence, since then (I have a book coming out about that, all being well – watch this space), the hymn still speaks truth, but the blindness of mankind has to be factored in as well. That blindness in the religious arena has been true not only since Paul wrote Romans 1, but since David wrote in Psalm 14 that “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” meaning not the minority cult of atheism, but the universal sin of seeking self, rather than God – practical atheism.

But there is also a more local form of blindness, which applies particularly, and paradoxically, to those who look most intently into nature. I speak, of course, of scientists, who for the most part are convinced that it is not only the brightness of the light that hides God, nor that it is the darkness of human sin, but that God, if he exists, is, contra Walter Chalmers Smith and the consensus of the Church Fathers, intrinsically hidden by the creation itself.

This is unusual, or perhaps even unique, in the history of human thought. What can explain it? The answer appears quite simple to me – it is the commitment to a metaphysics of naturalism, whether that be in the full-blown “metaphysical naturalism” that denies all that is not material, or in the “methodological naturalism” that takes naturalistic metaphysics as a working tool by which to do science.

But just as working in nuclear research or laser technology carries the risk that what you are studying may damage you, so it is a rare scientist who is able to keep a methodological naturalism and a Christian metaphysics clearly separated. Work too closely with bright light, and you may end up blind.

Oddly enough, the same is not true of the inaccessible light in which God himself dwells. If you take the Scripture too literally and try to see God by staring at the sun, you have only yourself to blame for your subsequent sightlessness. But take the metaphor seriously, and search the light of God intently through the gospel of Christ – and through the created world too – and paradoxically you find your darkness turning to day.

I think the difference is that the uncreated light that hides God heals, rather than harms.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to More on the (supposed) hiddenness of God

  1. Edward Robinson says:

    Thanks for this column, Jon. It comes in timely fashion for me, as just yesterday I was in a (friendly) debate with a leading figure of the EC/TE movement, who exhibited the same pattern of thought and reasoning that you ascribe to your friend Andrew regarding the above-mentioned hymn.

    (I do recall that hymn, by the way. I don’t remember where or when I first heard it. I remember a friend in graduate school singing the opening lines — evidently he knew it well from his own upbringing. I enjoyed reading the whole text above.)

    In my debate with the EC leader, I was responding to his charge (made on BioLogos among other places) that ID places too much emphasis on natural theology and not enough on revealed theology — more specifically, his complaint that ID is religiously or theologically defective because ID leaders don’t mention the name of Jesus nearly often enough in public contexts to suit him.

    My response was that ID leaders mention Jesus plenty — when the subject of discussion is their own Christian faith — but that one would not expect the name of Jesus to appear frequently — or at all — in a book or article whose aim was to prove that the bacterial flagellum could not have arisen by chance mutations, or that the Cambrian explosion cannot be explained in terms of classical neo-Darwinism. I asked him if in his own scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals, he always made sure to mention Jesus at least once, and if he always made sure to mention Jesus when discussing, say, genetics with his (mostly secular) university students. (He hasn’t yet responded to that question.)

    You make the excellent point that a Christian hymn-writer need not mention Jesus in every single hymn he wrote to prove that Jesus was important in his thought. And if the name of Jesus can be fairly left out of a hymn in a Protestant hymn book, then surely it is permissible to leave the name of Jesus out of a treatise on the origin of life via the RNA world, or on “the edge of evolution”.

    Admittedly, if Smith had written an entire volume of hymns which never mentioned Jesus, a Christian might have cause to be alarmed. But as you have pointed out, this is not the case. Similarly, if Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, William Dembski, John Sanford, etc. never mentioned Jesus in any public context at all, one might have cause to be alarmed. But there are public contexts other than books and articles arguing for ID. The ID writers — at least those who are Christian — do write about theology directly sometimes. Dembski has done so often. (His famous statement connecting ID with the Logos has been used against ID often enough!) And what about all the times the ID writers speak in their own home churches about faith and science issues? I find it hard to believe that they never mention Jesus in the context of a worship community.

    This writer charges that too much attention to natural theology will cause one not to pay enough attention to revealed theology (or worse, that paying attention to natural theology might indicate a lack of confidence in revealed theology, i.e., in Jesus). But I know of no cases of that sort. Natural theology, while in principle it can exist wherever there are people who are rational, has in fact flourished mainly in Christian cultures where belief in Jesus is strong. While one can find natural theology arguments in ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, the great works and classic passages of natural theology were produced by people like Aquinas and Paley, in clearly Christian settings.

    In any case, while ID arguments can in principle be used to anchor a natural theology, ID writers actually do not explicitly discuss natural theology very often. Yet constantly they are charged, directly or by implication, with doing so. Whenever a TE/EC leader bashes natural theology, whether in comments on BioLogos, in ASA venues, on this site, or elsewhere, it is in proximity to negative comments about ID. It is as if they wish to strike at ID by striking at natural theology. And often TE/EC writers seem to go miles out of their way to “neutralize” any Biblical passage that might seem to admit the legitimacy of a modest natural theology — e.g., Romans 1, Psalm 19.

    This is a very odd reaction, when you consider that on most of the occasions where ID people have explicitly discussed natural theology, they have either classed it under “possible theological implications” of ID (rather than part of ID itself) or have denied that natural theology is what they are trying to do (as in the Behe-Barr debate, in which Behe explained to Barr that his purpose in arguing for ID was *not* to prove the existence of God but to improve biological science by adding intelligence to the list of admissible causes for certain phenomena). Yet the stream of remarks casting aspersions upon ID for its alleged connection with natural theology, and its alleged lack of appreciation of Jesus, continues unceasingly.

    I wouldn’t mind so much if someone said that natural theology doesn’t “turn him on”, and that in his view there are more important things for Christians to talk about. But the implication that if someone doesn’t mention Jesus every time he writes about biological origins, that person must hold to an unhealthy Christian theology which puts too much stock on natural reason and not enough emphasis on revelation, is too much for me.

    The irony, of course, in any charge of “deistic” thinking against ID people, coming from TE/EC people, is that if anything TE/EC is more prone to adopting a “deistic” view of God’s relation to the created world than ID is. Just set up the natural laws, touch off the Big Bang, and presto! you get galaxies, stars, planets, water-oxygen environments, life, multicelled life, vertebrates, mammals, primates, and man by the action of virtually autonomous natural processes. I didn’t hear any mention of Jesus in the assault on Stephen Meyer’s book on the origin of life by Falk and Venema. I heard only about the sufficiency of natural causes (natural causes created at the beginning of time by a hands-off God) to produce everything from primordial slime to man. I don’t think the irony meter of TE/EC leaders is working very well.

    I would imagine that at least in some of the churches attended by the ID leaders, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” is sometimes sung. But I would imagine that “The Church’s One Salvation is Jesus Christ Her Lord” (which has one of my favorite hymn melodies) is sung in those same churches. Maybe my correspondent (and some other TE/EC leaders who think that ID people are obsessed with natural theology to the point where they don’t give a big enough role to Jesus) should actually spend a Sunday with one of the ID leaders at his/her home church. He might write differently about their supposed lack of public confession of Jesus after that.

    • Jon Garvey says:

      It is an old and tired accusation to be sure, Eddie – and somewhat of a Catch 22, in that if an ID writer does start talking about Christ, someone always calls him/her out for deceiving the world by claiming ID is not Christian apologetics. We live in an age when tropes replace arguments. I’m afraid.

      I won’t say much about invidious comparisons between IDists and ECists, but my impression is that the latter wax most christological when criticising IDists for NOT doing so.

      Also, the most consistently christological approaches made in EC theory (as opposed to having an Evangelical personal faith and mainstream naturalistic science in watertight compartments), tend to be in using the kenosis of Jesus to argue for God’s non-interference in nature, whereas my own approach to a thoroughly christological creation attracted no interest from them – an approach that sees the Logos as personally and intimately involved with every part of nature as he is with each of his believing children. Go figure, as the Americans say.

      Just for interest, here’s another familiar example of an apparently Christless hymn that needs to be seen in the context of the poet’s total output:

      1. O worship the King,
      all glorious above,
      And gratefully sing
      His power and His love;
      Our Shield and Defender,
      the Ancient of Days,
      Pavilioned in splendor,
      and girded with praise.

      2. O tell of His might,
      O sing of His grace,
      Whose robe is the light,
      Whose canopy space,
      Whose chariots of wrath
      the deep thunderclouds form,
      And dark is His path
      on the wings of the storm.

      3. Thy bountiful care,
      what tongue can recite?
      It breathes in the air,
      it shines in the light;
      It streams from the hills,
      it descends to the plain,
      And sweetly distills
      in the dew and the rain.

      4. Frail children of dust,
      and feeble as frail,
      In Thee do we trust,
      nor find Thee to fail;
      Thy mercies how tender,
      how firm to the end,
      Our Maker, Defender,
      Redeemer, and Friend.

      • Jon Garvey says:

        A supplementary thought on your friend’s comment, Eddie. If the charge that ID is a branch of natural theology is true, then it’s to be expected that it will say a lot about natural theology, and not much about revealed theology.

        It’s like complaining that biblical theologians don’t say enough about systematic thology, or that Old Testament scholars seldom mention the cross.

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