Moses said, “Please show me Your glory.” And He said, “I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you My name Yahweh. And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I show mercy. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for many shall not see Me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me where you shall stand on the rock, and while My glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”Exodus 33:18-23
Moses asks to see God’s glory, and God does the merciful thing of not allowing him to see His face since no one can look upon His face and live. Nonetheless, He allows him to see His backside. No one can see God’s face and live, but every person who lives in Christ shall see Him face to face and live. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
The late Gerhard Forde discusses the human effort to “get God off our backs.” He argues that right theology proclaims God preached rather than God not preached. In essence, God preached is preaching what we know about God as revealed in the Scriptures whereas God not preached is preaching what we don’t know about God that the Scriptures do not tell us. The aim is to preach the former, lest by proclaiming God not preached we become theologians of glory.
Forde writes, “We see that apart from God preached, we are estranged from God. Rather than being the one we are allegedly always seeking, God not preached appears more as the one we can never quite get off our backs” (Forde, 14). In other words, when there’s something we don’t know about God because the Scriptures don’t tell us—that is, when we are facing God’s backside—we can’t quite seem to get God off our backs. Both theists and atheists have their own methods to try and get God off their backs. “The theist most often does it by trying to make God ‘nice,’ to bring God ‘to heel,’ so to speak, and the atheist does it by trying to make God disappear” (Forde, 14).
In other words, the theist, such as the Christian, will create a theodicy about God to defend the unknown about Him. For example, to answer the question, “Why does God permit suffering,” Christians will get God off their backs by making something up to defend God and make Him appear “nicer” and, therefore, bring Him “to heel.” This is what the theologian of glory does. The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, says what a thing is, which in this case is, “God only knows.” The atheist will get God off their backs simply by getting ride of Him entirely. Whatever the reaction is, it never works. (The Christian’s theodicy never truly solves the problem and the atheist still hates a being they claim doesn’t exist. God is still on their backs.)
Getting God off our backs is like a fight or flight response. As Forde puts it, “We never seem to get God off our backs. God just persists… We are caught between seeking and fleeing God’s presence” (Forde, 15). The Christian will “fight” by seeking God’s presence, that is, trying to turn God around and see His face, peer into His hidden mind, and ascertain His will by the sheer force of human logic that inevitably ends up being vain human speculation; whereas the atheist will simply flee from God’s presence, pretending He doesn’t exist.
Thus, we have a supposed dilemma: even in His presence, God has a terrifying absence, or hiddenness (absconditus). (To “abscond” means “to depart in a sudden and secret manner” [Dictionary.com]). Returning to God’s theophany in the above text, God was present, but He did not fully reveal Himself to Moses. Moses was only permitted to view God’s backside, Yahweh’s face was hidden. In this sense, in His presence, the fullness of His presence was terrifyingly absent when He hid His face. Lest Moses be destroyed, God partially revealed Himself yet absconded His face.
Forde notes that there is both a positive and a negative to this. The negative is that “the constant temptation of the theologian of glory in us is to try to penetrate the ‘hidden majesty’ of God” and “that apart from the proclamation we live under the wrath of the divine hiddenness—the terror of the naked abstractions, the divine absence, the nothingness” (Forde, 16). The negative of God absconding His face is that (a) the theologian of glory within us fecklessly attempts to peer into His hidden majesty (God not preached) and (b) it reminds us that we live under the wrath of His divine abscondence since the mere fullness of His presence destroys sinners.
The positive, simply put, is that God solves this problem for us in Christ. In Forde’s words, “The revealed God must conquer the hidden God for you in the living present. Faith is precisely the ever-renewed flight from God to God: from God naked and hidden to God clothed and revealed [in human flesh]. Thus Luther insisted that we must cling to… the God who hung on the cross and was raised from the tomb in the face of the desperate attack launched from the side of the hidden God” (Forde, 22). In other words, as we face God’s backside under the wrath of His divine hiddenness (God not preached), we run from the hidden God to God revealed (God preached) in Jesus Christ on the cross and from the empty tomb. In Christ, God’s abscondence turns around and we see His face.
As Jesus Himself said, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). On the cross and in the tomb, Christ suffered the wrath of God’s abscondence and has done what we could not do: He got God off our backs. That is, all God’s mysteries—even suffering— are revealed in Christ. As Paul says, “In [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, which He lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of His will, according to His purpose, which He set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:7-10).
Theology Terms Used
- Theodicy: literally, “defence of God.” As theologians of glory, we put forth a theodicy—an apology/defence—of God to explain what God has not explained. The effort is pointless because (1) God does not need our defence and (2) we cannot peer into the hidden mind/majesty of God.
- Theology of the Cross/Glory: Luther created and defined this term in his 1518 Heidelberg Disputation, “The person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who understands the visible and the ‘backside’ of God [Exodus 33:23] seen through suffering and the cross. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it actually is.”
- Theophany: a physical manifestation of God’s presence.
 Timothy J. Wengert, et. al, The Annotated Luther: The Roots of Reform, Vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 84; emphasis mine.
“Definition of Abscond.” Diciontary.com (website). Accessed December 1, 2021. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/abscond.
Forde, Gerhard O. Theology Is for Proclamation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990.