By Dr Ken Sundet Jones
The language of Theology of the Cross comes to us from Luther’s 1518 Heidelberg Disputation.* After the explosion of the Ninety-Five Theses across Europe, Luther was asked to come to a meeting of his Augustinian order in the university city of Heidelberg and discuss his ideas. In the Disputation, Luther used Theology of the Cross and Theology of Glory as categories for how stances on free will can move us in opposite directions.
Luther argues, “A ‘theologian of glory’ calls the bad good and the good bad. The ‘theologian of the cross’ says what a things is.” A Theology of Glory assumes free will as true: We can choose to do what is within us in order to advance toward what is good. Thus, we do good works, build ourselves up to our potential, and engage in religious practices that show forth our growing righteousness. When theologians of glory confuse the good and the bad, they look to their actions, status and worldly glory as an indication of their standing before God. But as good as these things appear, they actually hinder our righteousness and salvation. They turn us away from Christ crucified and risen as the source of forgiveness, life and salvation and fool us into believing we can make it on our own (or at least that God will reward our good intentions). As Luther argues, a Theology of Glory “puffs up, blinds, and hardens” us.
The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, regards free will as a fiction and knows that we sinners are captive to ourselves and bound to press our defense against an almighty yet hidden God. From our forebears in the Garden forward, we human beings have not been able to abide a God who refuses to allow us behind the veil. Such a God demands that ultimate matters like salvation, eternal life and our very future remain in divine hands. As sinners will, we insist on our autonomy and veer off down the path of visible, unveiled things in the creation. We apply Newton’s laws to our standing before God: If every action has an equal and opposite reaction, God must indeed help those who help themselves! The theologian of the cross sees such a move as unproductive flailing at best, and a worldly wisdom that brings the wrath of God at worst.
So a theologian of the cross begins with a captive will, understanding that human beings are unable to let go of themselves. To become such theologians, we must utterly despair of our own ability to get things right with God. Theologians of the cross look not to visible things we can do (glory) but to the utterly unlikely possibility that God has done the work by taking on flesh in the one who was despised and rejected, “a man of suffering” (Isaiah 53). The theologian of the cross looks to Jesus and regards Christ’s cross not as an example for all of life’s what-would-Jesus-do moments, but instead sees it as the result of what happens when sinners lay their hands on God.
For such a theologian, the cross speaks a resounding “No!” to the way of glory, striving and good works as the path to salvation. The Theology of the Cross recognizes that Jesus is a threat to the sinner’s spiritual and religious house of cards, for Christ claims all things for himself as the way, the truth and the life. All things have been put under his feet (Ephesians 1:22). A theologian of the cross, then, starts a consideration of ultimate matters with Jesus himself. And if Christ holds all within himself, that means we sinners stand empty-handed before God. As Luther argues, “The one who does much ‘work’ is not the righteous one, but the one who, without ‘work’, has much faith in Christ.” The theologian of the cross, with Paul, can say, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
This is why words like suffering and loss flow so frequently off the tongues of theologians of the cross. It is those moments in life where we come up against the limits of our own power and possibility, where we face the hard truth that our lives are truly and only in God’s hands. It is death itself that becomes the ultimate mirror to our helpless striving and asks, “On whom does your next breath, your next heartbeat, your next moment depend?” The Theology of the Cross sees how the Law snatches self-management and self-continuity out of our grasp and how God’s mercy given in the crucified and risen one hands back the gift and joy of life in full measure. So Luther says, “The law says: ‘Do this!’, and it never is done. Grace says: “Believe in this one!’, and forthwith everything is done.” Thus the theologian of the cross regards proclamation of the gospel as bringing the good news of Jesus’ work to sinners wrecked on life’s shoals. Such proclamation pulls us away our self-obsession and captivates us with the picture of a God who saves fully and freely out of “fatherly and divine goodness and mercy” (Luther, Small Catechism) on account of Christ’s work and not our own.
While the Theology of the Glory is rampant in a world rife with advertising (“Buy this or vote this way, or live in this suburb and your future will be assured.”), the Theology of the Cross is a little gem of proclamation that pulls the struts away from those houses built on sand. Those who become theologians of the cross make up what Luther later called the heuflein Christi, the little band of Christians (Sermon at Castle Pleissenberg). Luther’s last written words, found on a slip in his pockets at his deathbed, sum it all up, “We are beggars. This is true.” A Theology of the Cross stands with empty pockets pointing at Christ who desires to give all he has to us, sinners every one.
* All references to the Heidelberg Disputation from Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, John Dillenberger, ed. (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961), 500-503.