Defending Faith

ImageTimothy J. Wengert, Defending Faith: Lutheran Response to Andreas Osiander’s Doctrine of Justification, 1551-1559 [Studies in the Late Middle Ages, Humanism and the Reformation, vol. 65] (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), xiv+468pp.

by Piotr Malysz

This monograph chronicles the development of a bitter controversy over justification that erupted in mid-16th century among heirs to Luther’s reformation. The controversy was occasioned by the teaching of Andreas Osiander, the “primary” theologian of Ducal Prussia, who rejected what he understood to be a merely declaratory conception of justification. He insisted, instead, that it was God’s essential righteousness that made believers righteous through the indwelling of Christ, according to his divine nature.

Wengert’s intention is not to present an overview of Osiander’s theology. He seeks, rather, to fill a different scholarly lacuna through a painstakingly meticulous analysis of the controversy’s printed output (90 separate publications in some 125 printings just in the years 1550-1559). Osiander’s own voice is heard occasionally through his own writings, but, as Wengert notes, he was “if not outclassed then certainly outgunned” (353). Wengert’s chief focus is thus on how Osiander’s ideas were interpreted by his opponents and on why they met with such widespread condemnation.

Adopting this lens allows Wengert to refract the Osiandrist controversy into a number of perspectives from which it might be approached. He discusses among others: (i) the types of response (printed or private), their genres, and the geographical, educational and theological provenance of the respondents; (ii) the likely and unlikely alliances that the controversy led to (such as that between erstwhile opponents, Matthias Flacius and Philip Melanchthon); (iii) the perceived doctrinal implications of Osiander’s ideas; (iv) and the nature of appeals to Luther’s authority. Of particular interest are the latter two. First, Wengert manages to show just how far-reaching were the consequences of Osiander’s understanding of righteousness, according to his opponents. The respondents emphasized variously the communication of properties between Christ’s natures, the Anselmian doctrine of the atonement, the theology of the cross, the need for pastoral comfort, the relation of theology to philosophy, etc.  In addition, Wengert shows the complex hermeneutical issues attending the elevation of Luther to the status of a church father par excellence and the ultimate arbiter of sound scriptural interpretation.

This multi-perspectival approach, in turn, allows Wengert to challenge, or nuance, various longstanding scholarly opinions. To begin with, Wengert’s research is inscribed into a larger effort to save Melanchthon’s reputation from the charges of doctrinal pussyfooting, and he does this with particular persuasiveness. Likewise, Wengert wishes both to distance the Swabian theologian, Johannes Brenz, from the unreflective charge of Osiandrian tendencies, while demonstrating Brenz’s clear desire to prevent the controversy from pastorally-harmful and politically-imprudent escalation. But Wengert’s goals go beyond textual archeology. His analysis seeks to illuminate the practical nature of 16th-century polemic, its pastoral focus, as opposed to an abstract or theoretical interest that aims at consensus by treating the opposing positions as equal (100, 194). However, the thrust of Wengert’s analysis of the variegated-yet-unified rejection of Osiander by a host of his theological contemporaries is aimed at the Finnish Luther research, especially the latter’s tendency to look for a soteriology centered on theosis in Luther’s theology.

It is in regard to the latter that a critical point ought to be raised. Throughout the book’s exhaustive argument, Wenger’s attitude to Osiander, as a theologian, thinker, and polemicist, remains perceptibly negative. As he criticizes Osiander for speculative ontologizing, Wengert himself plainly favors a view of justification that centers on a relation (339), established through a Word event (316, 335). But it becomes clear that what Wengert rejects, via Osiander, as ontology is a Platonic notion of participation (he is more approving of Aristotelian notions of causality, deployed by Osiander’s opponents). Yet there is surely more to ontology in general, and the ontological implications of Luther’s theology in particular, than a simple juxtaposition between Plato (and Aristotle) and a relational event. The research of Oswald Bayer and others which aims to uncover the ontological underpinnings of Luther’s theology, grounded in the communicatio idiomatum, is a case in point.

This said, Wengert’s work is a brilliant achievement in providing a staggeringly detailed and perceptive analysis of the Osiandrist controversy. As such, it illumines the nature of doctrinal consensus that drove late-Reformation and, to some degree, post-Reformation confessionalization. And it helps one to understand the theological and, above all, pastoral concerns that motivated the rise of Protestant orthodoxy.

This review first appeared in Theological Book Review 25:1 (2013) 55-56.

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The Church: Her Nature and Purpose

By Luke T Zimmerman

A review of Bo Giertz, Christ’s Church: Her Biblical Roots, Her Dramatic History, Her Saving Presence, Her Glorious Future. Introduction and Translation by Hans Andrae. (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2010).

To hundreds of American Lutheran seminary graduates in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Bo Giertz [1905-1998] has become a familiar name. This is due to the translation of his writings from Swedish into English, works published by both major Lutheran publishers in the United States. The introduction of Giertz’s writings into the curriculum at the seminaries of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has brought him a new audience.[i] Through the translation of Giertz’s works, a Swedish voice forms part of the harmony of Lutheran teaching in America.

The increasing number of Giertz’s works translated into English includes his 1939 book, Christ’s Church. Rev. Hans Andrae, a retired Lutheran pastor from Sweden now living in the United States, has brought this book into the hands of English-speaking Lutherans. The first of Giertz’s published works, Christ’s Church presents a Lutheran discussion of the nature and purpose of the Church. The book consists of two parts: the first (Ch. 1-5) discusses the Church’s essence; the second (Ch. 6-11) speaks of how the Church brings salvation to the world. This arrangement is familiar to Lutherans, since the first part aligns with Articles 7 & 8 of the Augsburg Confession, while the second part treats the teachings of Articles 5 and 9-12 of the same document.

Chapter two begins Giertz’s discussion of the Church’s essence. This discussion starts with an exploration of her Biblical foundations. Examining the New Testament name for the Church—ekklesia—Giertz makes the connection between this term and the Hebrew word qahal, comparing the Church to the Old Testament nation of Israel. Giertz also treats various New Testament terms for the Church: “body of Christ” and “kingdom of God.” Taking these terms at full value, Giertz shows that individualism and sectarianism are contradictory to the Church’s nature—a lesson that that American Christians should heed.

Chapter three is a treatment of the four-fold description of the Church in the Nicene Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Giertz provides a helpful historical summary of the schisms that have taken place within Christ’s Church on earth, honestly admitting the culpability of East and West, of Roman Catholic and Reformed, and lamenting the divisions. The author’s discussion of catholicity shows how Lutherans may fully embrace this term, including appropriating tradition when expositing the Scriptures.

Chapter four is a brief history of the Church in Sweden. For those unfamiliar with the Lutheran Reformation outside of Germany, this is a very useful primer. Giertz’s tracing of the roots of the Swedish Church and the way it received the Reformation shows the benefits of her keeping the Church’s historical form. However, Giertz speaks about the damage that the Enlightenment and “neo-Protestantism” inflicted upon the Church of Sweden. A return to the Church’s historical catholicity is needed: such a call deserves to be heard in every generation.

Part One concludes with a brief chapter on the parish church and how Christ is present within her and working through her. Part Two begins with a short chapter confessing that God is in our midst in the present day. The ways that Christ is present with His salvation in the Church forms the outline for the rest of the book, with a chapter on each of the means of grace.

Chapter seven about God’s Word is brief, yet the trust in the authority of the Scriptures is clearly seen. Giertz stresses the Lutheran understanding that the Scriptures are God’s authoritative statements that disclose what He desires to make known: the truth about mankind’s sin and God’s grace. He also states the key Lutheran hermeneutical principle: the Scriptures should always be read to learn about salvation. The author also emphasizes the dependence of salvation on hearing the Word of God and how the Church’s task of faithfully preaching it must not fall victim to estheticism: traditional or contemporary.

In chapter eight, Giertz discusses the Lord’s Supper. He puts forward six aspects of the sacrament’s essence: confession, remembrance, fellowship, seal of forgiveness, union with the Savior, and sacrifice. While lauding the greatness of the Lord’s Supper, Giertz also criticizes the infrequency that Swedish Lutherans had of participating in this sacrament. Giertz’s words would be helpful for Lutheran pastors seeking to increase communion frequency.

Chapter nine is about the new birth given in Holy Baptism. Giertz emphasizes how baptism makes an individual part of a new reality here on earth. It is how God’s life first flows into a person. The chapter also includes a short treatment about the propriety of infant baptism in the Church because it is an act of undeserved divine election, not a human deed.

The revival of private confession in the Lutheran Church is discussed in chapter ten. Giertz shows how this sacrament is thoroughly evangelical and should be provided in Lutheran parishes. The author answers several questions that are often raised by parishioners unfamiliar with private confession. Giertz’s discussion of this sacrament also includes a discussion about penance and satisfaction understood evangelically. This portion of the chapter may be unnerving to readers, but an open consideration of these two topics will likely reinforce already existing Lutheran pastoral practice.

The final chapter of the book treats the office of the holy ministry. Giertz begins his discussion by focusing on the commission that Christ gave to His apostles. That commission defines the office of the ministry, giving it divine authority and purpose. Having a divine commission, the holders of the office will know what is expected of them and be devoted to their calling. Giertz also speaks about the general priesthood of believers, distinguishing it from the office of the holy ministry. The author also briefly addresses the question of women’s ordination, speaking against it because it lacks divine institution. The chapter concludes with a discussion of apostolic succession and the importance of ordination in the Lutheran Church. This latter section would be very helpful for both new pastors and the congregations that they serve to read together.

Several incidents of errata are present in this edition of Christ’s Church. Inconsistency in italicizing foreign terms is noticeable. Occasional punctuation issues are also found. However, the errata present in this edition do not vary much from other first editions of self-published works.

Christ’s Church is not an exhaustive treatment of ecclesiology. But it does serve an important purpose for those who read it. Though brief, it does bring to the fore concepts and ideas about the Church that need to be emphasized and reemphasized among Christ’s people. This is seen in Giertz’s postscript:

It needs to be said with relentless persistency that even to people who call themselves Christian, the Church becomes all too often nothing more than an association of people who have become believers. They think that her foundations are placed in the human heart, that her beginning is the conversion of her members, that her attributes are certain pious characteristics, and that she is made up of people who think, act, and believe in a certain way.

Such an understanding of the Church loses her most important features. It leaves out her head, which is Christ, and her living pulse, which are the means of grace. It deprives her of that which makes her the Church, that which is not of this world but exists beyond all time and independent of all people. It reduces her to something far more insignificant than she actually is. (p. 177)

The truth about the essence and purpose of Christ’s Church cannot be heard too often, especially in the contemporary American Christian context.

Like the proverbial master of the house in Jesus’ teaching (Mt 13:52), there are new and old treasures brought out by the author. These treasures are accessible for both clergy and laity. The book would be very useful for a small group study about Lutheran teachings. The first of Giertz’s works, Christ’s Church whets the appetite for more from this author. One can hope that others will take up the task like Hans Andrae did in providing this gift from a bishop of the Swedish Church to English readers. Perhaps an English translation of the sequel to Christ’s Church, Church Piety (Kyrkofromhet), will be forthcoming. Giertz’s 20th century Scandinavian voice deserves to be heard by 21st century American Lutherans.


[i] The use of Giertz’s novel The Hammer of God in the 1999-2000 Field Education Classes led by Prof. John Pless at Concordia Theological Seminary was my first introduction to his works. Students from ELCA seminaries will have to relate their own accounts.


Apostolicity in 20th Century Lutheran Theology (II)

By Bryce P Wandrey

(Go to Part 1)

A Sassean (With a Little Help from His Friends) Understanding of the Apostolicity of the Church

Finally we are now able to analyze that which defines the church as being “apostolic” for Sasse (and some of those who share his same understanding). Sasse finds it absolutely necessary to base the apostolicity of the church solely on its pure teaching.  Necessarily, this means that a ‘visible’ element of unity and apostolicity has been tarnished beyond recovery by Rome and Anglicans. Due to this, episcopal ordination is not safe to ensure anything.  Francis Pieper, a leading dogmitician in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the 20th century, states that the attempt by the Roman Catholics and Anglicans to derive their apostolicity from episcopal ordination through the laying on of hands is “childish folly”.  This is because, first, Scripture makes no distinction between the offices of bishop and teaching elders, or pastors; second, Scripture tells us to avoid teachers who stray and depart from the Gospel, no matter their title.[i]

Sasse echoes the oft stated historical fact that the Lutheran fathers never intended to establish a new church but that they were renewing Christ’s one church with the pure apostolic doctrine in contrast to Rome.[ii] Consequently, the doctrine of the church is what ensures its apostolicity.  He intends to encapsulate this interpretation by writing,  “As the church of the One who truly became man, was actually crucified, and truly rose again, the church is called apostolic.  It is the apostolic church because it is the church of Jesus Christ.”[iii] The “apostolicity” of the church’s doctrine is its true mark of being the church of Jesus Christ and to argue from historical proofs is problematic. Consequently, the “apostolicity of origin”, a central claim made by Rome for its apostolicity (claiming that the church is the church of the apostles), must be a matter of faith.[iv]

The fact that Sasse sees the true apostolicity of the church as a matter of faith is significant.  In so doing, “apostolic” assurance must then lie in the apostolicity of doctrine and not in anything symbolic or visible. While the true unity of the church is found in her union with Christ, this is a union that is an article of faith and not of sight.  Kurt Marquart, former professor of Lutheran dogmatics at Concordia Theology Seminary (Fort Wayne), agrees when he asserts that confessional and sacramental unities are outward and visible, but only faith itself can see and understand these outward appearances as expressions of the true unity of the church.[v] Outward signs can be deceiving; because of this faith must be the true interpreter and badge of apostolicity.

Integral to this discussion, according to Sasse, is the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. When scripture is no longer definitive for the articles of faith, the doctrine of the New Testament is consequently impinged upon and corrupted.  Resultant is the complete loss of the apostolicity of the church.[vi] “When sola scriptura is left behind, left behind also are God’s revelation and its authority.”[vii] The sola scriptura principle can be used to call into question the emphasis placed upon tradition by other ecclesial communions. Sasse asserts that tradition in its initial stages is likened to a “tethered balloon” which is held in place by the apostolic witness.  When scripture and tradition become equal manifestations of revelation the rope upon the balloon is severed and it flies about unfettered.  This is what has happened to Rome and because of this approach they are no longer “apostolic”.[viii] Sasse believes that Rome’s doctrine is no longer based upon the apostolic witness of sola scriptura and the result is that it is corrupted by a tradition that is not a reflection of the New Testament message.  According to his logic, once that true apostolic witness is either tarnished or lost, so too is the apostolicity of the church.

Sasse highlights what understands to be one of the major problems with tradition in Rome’s system: its insistence upon the theory of development. This is the idea that at the Church’s conception all of the New Testament (apostolic) doctrines were contained within a seed and over time these doctrines unfold themselves. Contrarily Sasse makes the claim that doctrines do not progress from century to century but their understanding does. What happens within the true “apostolic” church is a development of a deeper understanding of the apostolic words but there is no unfolding of any doctrine that is not contained in those words.[ix] Within the true “apostolic” church doctrines are continually understood in ways that are accessible to their communities.  This is evidenced most clearly in the formulations of the Trinity and in Christ’s sonship in the first centuries of the church.  No doctrine was created, but these doctrines were defined and developed to respond to misunderstandings and disagreements enabling the church to more clearly proclaim its faith. For a Lutheran theology as formulated by Sasse, the Gospel and its subsequent doctrines are the true uniting factor.[x] Nothing beyond this can be held up to create the necessary unity to be labeled “apostolic”.  “Authentic apostolic succession, then, is always and only the succession of doctrine.”[xi]

The use of a visible element, as mentioned earlier, to illustrate apostolicity is rendered unnecessary and adiaphorous by some Lutheran theologians, Sasse included.  He makes the claim that, in order to counteract the Pharisees, Jesus intentionally did not lay his hands upon the apostles at their sending/ordaining.[xii] Pieper echoes this claim by stating that ordination by the laying on of hands and prayers is not a divine ordinance.  It is merely a church custom because, even though it is mentioned in Scripture, it is not commanded.  Due to the lack of a dominical injunction, ordination by the laying on of hands and prayers is to be considered an adiaphorous practice.[xiii]

Marquart joins his voice with both Sasse’s and Pieper’s as he states that true apostolic succession has little to do with external connections to privileged places, persons or hands.  The true succession of the church has everything to do with the faithful transmission of the Gospel and sacramental substance. Mere forms or appearance ensure nothing. Apostolicity is found in content, substance and truth. He claims that an outward connection to ancient Christian sees or links to an unbroken chain of hands are irrelevant attempts at maintaining apostolicity. Ancient customs may be valuable symbols and reminders of continuity with the apostolic truth but they must never be allowed to bear their own independent weight.[xiv]

Within such an overwhelming insistence upon doctrine contra ordination (as a symbol of continuity) as the guarantor of apostolicity stands that last statement from Marquart: that ancient customs and signs may not be allowed to bear their own independent weight when apostolicity is concerned.  And here we must beg the question: what if a visible form of unity does not try to bear the weight of apostolicity independent of apostolic doctrine? Can these two elements—doctrine and a visible element (episcopal ordination?)—be guarantors in Lutheran theology of apostolicity, working hand-in-hand to be evidence for the apostolicity of the Church?

(Go to Part 3


[i] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Volume III, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), pp. 411-12.

[ii] Sasse, Church, p. 87.

[iii] Sasse, Jesus Christ, p. 99.

[iv] Ibid, p. 86.

[v] Kurt Marquart, The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance (Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics IX), (Fort Wayne, IN: The International Foundation for Lutheran Confessional Research, 1990), p. 25.

[vi] Ibid, p. 88.

[vii] Ibid, p. 90.

[viii] Ibid, p. 88-9.

[ix] Ibid, p. 89.

[x] Marquart, p. 27.

[xi] Sasse, Church, p. 94.

[xii] Ibid, p. 100.

[xiii] Pieper, p. 454.

[xiv] Marquart, p. 28-29.

A Reformation Sermon

By The Revd Dr Carl E Braaten

SHADOWS OF THE CROSS

I Corinthians 2: 2:  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

I have chosen one verse from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, as the text for this sermon on Reformation Day.  It is a Bible verse that Martin Luther came back to again and again.  Church historians and polemicists have bequeathed to us many conflicting images of Luther.  For centuries Lutherans have made Luther into a hero, not surprisingly since he was the founding father of world Lutheranism, now numbering over sixty million adherents.  Then there is the other side of the story.  To Roman Catholics Luther has traditionally been viewed as a rebel who split the Catholic Church, called the Pope the Anti-Christ, and was rightly excommunicated.  Which image of Luther is historically the more accurate one?

Socialists have derided Luther as a nasty bourgeois man who called upon the  German nobles to put down the peasants’ rebellion.  In a heat of rage Luther screamed the words, “Stab, slay, and smite those murderous hordes fomenting an armed rebellion.”  A few historians have portrayed Luther as the spiritual ancestor of Hitler.  Luther urged the authorities to take swift and decisive action against the Jews — to burn their synagogues, raze their homes, seize their prayer books, and as a “final solution” send them back to the land of Israel.  Indeed, there are so many conflicting images of Luther; the most embarrassing ones we would like to forget.

However, I do not believe that Luther the man as such is a fit subject for a sermon, and Luther would be the first to agree with that.  We will leave the question of the real Luther to the historians to debate.  Rather, I would like to cut to the chase and focus on the permanent validity of Luther’s witness to Christ and his cross.

A New Way of Doing Theology

Luther called for a new way of doing theology.  Luther was by training and vocation a professor of the Bible.  As a twenty five year old student Luther wrote in a letter that “the only theology of any real value is what penetrates the kernel of the nut and the germ of the wheat and the marrow of the bone.”  After he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg (1517), he travelled to Heidelberg to hold a disputation with his fellow Augustinian monks (1518).  There he asserted: “The only theology of any real value is to be found in the crucified Christ” — a clear echo of the verse we read from I Corinthians 2: 2: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

For Luther the only theology true to the gospel is what he called a “theology of the cross.”  He contrasted that to a “theology of glory” that was being taught in all the schools at that time.  Popular theologians, not unlike many modern ones, were trying to get to God through a variety of other ways, teaching that people can come to know God through philosophy, mysticism, and morality, by means of reason, religious exercises,  and good works.  All of these ways lead heavenward to a glorious God of majesty, a God who wouldn’t be caught dead on the cross of that afflicted man of sorrows, in whom there was no “form or comeliness.”  (Is. 53: 2)

Luther was a follower of the apostle Paul’s theology.  Luther said:  There are two ways of doing theology, the way of the philosopher Aristotle who defined God as the First Cause of all things, an Absolute who could not care less about what is going on in the world, and then there is the way of the apostle Paul who decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  The two ways of doing theology are the way of glory and the way of the cross.  The way of glory rises up to meet God at the level of God in heaven.  The way of the cross looks for God in a down-to-earth manner, in things that are as lowly, weak, poor, and naked as the suffering man who died on a hill outside the gate.

God in the Flesh

The cross of Christ involves not only the death of a human being, one Jesus by name.  Rather, it is a God-event.  The person dying on the cross is not a mere man; he is God in the flesh.  This equation results in a strikingly new concept of God.  The very idea that God would allow himself to be crucified among criminals — it’s unbelievable!  The great religions of the world teach that God cannot suffer; God cannot bleed; God cannot die.  Because God is God he has no feelings at all; he has no passions; he has nothing in common with the suffering of human beings, in sharing their anguish, despair, and sickness unto death.  What happened to Jesus on the cross was something that presumably happened to Jesus only in his human nature.  This is what the theologians of glory taught, in order to exempt God from human deprivation and degradation.

For Luther the reformer and Paul the apostle what happened on the cross happened to God.  It is right to say that God himself is crucified, because Jesus is not only man but also God.  The crucified Jesus is “very God of very God.”  That is exactly what the Creed of Nicaea also says.  God is hidden in the cross of Christ.  Theologians of glory flee from the hidden and crucified God in favor of the omnipotent God of majesty.  Ashamed to find God in the cross of Christ, their pride tells them to look for God in loftier places, in  peak experiences, in which people scale the heights of their own human potential, their reason, creativity, and imagination.

What do we normally think of when we think of God?  Do we think of power, glory, wisdom, and majesty?  Of course, that is one way, the broad way, but Paul chose the narrow way, where God meets us in the cross of Christ.  Let us listen to some of Luther’s own words:

“We Christians must know that unless God is in the balance and throws his weight as a counterbalance, we shall sink to the bottom of the scale.. . .If it is not true that God died for us, but only a man died, we are lost.  But if God’s death lies in the opposite scale, then his side goes down and we go upward like a light and empty pan.  But God would never have sat in the pan unless he had first become a man like us, so that it could be said:  God is dead; here in Christ is God’s passion, God’s blood, God’s death.”

Such a theology of the cross is revolutionary in the history of religion.  When it comes to the nature and attributes of God, we are to think about Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Four hundred and fifty years later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyr who died on Hitler’s scaffold, was saying the same thing as Paul:

“God allows himself to be edged out of the world onto the cross.  God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us. . . .Only a suffering God can help.”

The Jewish writer, Elie Wiesel, in his book Night, tells about an incident at Auschwitz:

“The SS hanged two Jewish men and one youth in front of the whole camp.  The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. Where is God?  Where is he?’ someone asked behind me.  As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where   is God now?’  And I heard a voice in myself answer:  ‘Where is he?  He is here. He is hanging on the gallows. . . .’”

Could he perhaps have been thinking of the suffering God who humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the gallows?

Only in Christianity do we find this idea that God and the gallows go together.  In other major religions, God is high in his heaven and far away.  We humans are supposed to go there on the wings of our own reason and experience, our religious rituals and good deeds.  Against this Luther said, “We should not try to penetrate the lofty mysteries of God’s majesty, but we should simply be content with the God on the cross.  Anyone who tries to find God outside of Christ will find only the devil.”

The Happy Exchange

Of what use is this theology of the cross for you and for me?  In his Letter to the Romans, Paul answers this question by expounding his doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law.  The cross of Christ and justification by faith are not two separate things; they are two sides of the same coin.  Without the crucified Christ there can be no justification of sinners in the sight of God.  In the Lutheran tradition the doctrine of justification has been called “the article by which the church stands and falls.”  In light of this doctrine of justification, Luther found much to criticize in the church and theology of his day, from the Pope in Rome to the peddler of indulgences in his parish.  He claimed that they were teaching salvation by the merits of works and not by faith in Christ and the benefits of his cross.  “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”  So said John Tetzel, the popular preacher, while selling certificates of indulgence to raise money to build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

What is so great about this salvation that we receive through faith alone on account of Christ alone?  What hangs in the balance is the issue of bondage or freedom.  Freedom is the very essence of salvation.  In his wonderful treatise On Christian Freedom, Luther wrote:  “A Christian is free. . .and in bondage to no one.”  Yet, at the same time, he said, “A Christian is a servant, and owing a duty to everyone.”  Radical freedom was purchased for us by the cross of Christ and it means to be in bondage to no one, yet free to serve everyone.

The righteousness of God is revealed from heaven.  It is not something we render to God but what he gives to us.  “Lord Jesus,” cried Luther, “you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin.  You have taken upon yourself what you were not and you have given to me what I was not.”  This what Luther called the good news of the “happy exchange.”  God in Christ takes our sin, and we get his righteousness.  We are free, free at last, and off the hook.  Justification by faith alone means freedom from the way of works, which requires us to sweat for every inch of our stature in the face of God.  The cross is God’s way of shattering the way of works to make way for faith.  That is to let God be God who is in the business of saving sinners.  This frees us to receive his salvation as a gift and to live life to the hilt.

Luther wrote a letter to his friend, Philip Melanchthon, who was worrying about a dilemma:  If he did what he felt he had to do, he would be committing a sin, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it.  Then Luther said to his friend, “Pecca fortiter,” which means, “Sin boldly!”  Go ahead and do what you have to do, and then he added these words of qualification, “. . .believe in Christ even more boldly still, for he (Christ) is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”  Luther was assuring Melanchthon that Christ did not die for fictitious sinners, but for real sinners.  If it were possible for humans to be perfect on their own and avoid all ambiguities, then Christ would have died in vain.

Living Under the Cross

Finally, we must ask, what is the meaning of the cross for the daily life of ordinary believers in the world?  The cross is not only a way to be saved but a way to live.  Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  To be a Christian is not only to believe in Christ but to follow Jesus.  To follow him where?  Into the world in solidarity with the least, the lost, and the last.

The cross is not a symbol for pious people meditating on things religious.  The people of Christ live their lives under the cross, in school, on a farm, in a family, in a business, at city hall, in the every day secular world, doing what needs doing at the moment.  That will sometimes entail suffering, humiliation, grief, disgrace, and maybe even martyrdom.  Not many of the disciples or apostles died of old age.  Bearing the  cross of Christ aroused conflict and opposition.  Christians ought to expect that they may be dealt with as sheep for the slaughter.  In Greek the word “martyr” is the same as the world “witness.”  Martyrdom means being a witness to the truth, willing to pay the price that one unavoidably pays in doing hand-to-hand combat with forces of evil in the world.

We confess in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.”  Those are the four marks of the true church of Christ.  Luther placed on the par with these four marks the additional mark of the cross, of suffering, and martyrdom.  A church that wants to be great and glorious in worldly terms, that wants to be vocal and victorious in political terms, is deeply suspect.  Something is profoundly wrong with any church that wishes to be identified with the rich, beautiful, and powerful people.  That is the way of the theology of glory.  The church seeking glory tends to worship its own growth, success, popularity, and to peddle cheap grace to those who can afford to pay their way.

The reason that the Christian life under the cross brings suffering is that those who are set free by Christ go into the world to set the captives free.  That means to work for the liberation of the captives, to widen the range of freedom in every respect — in terms of freedom of the press, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, and freedom of opportunity.  Almost every American will agree with that.  But it also means freedom from want, freedom from war, freedom from ignorance, and freedom from oppression. The way of the cross in the world — in political, social, and economic terms — means to liberate people from the prisons of class, race, wealth, ideology, and anything else that keeps people down.

Just as Jesus was nailed to the cross for setting people free, those who claim to be his followers will go the way of the cross in setting people free from suffering and degradation, from poverty and hunger, from ignorance and superstition.

All of these ideas flow from Luther’s theology of the cross.  Luther carried this theology to his death bed.  His friends asked him if he was prepared to die in the faith he had preached.  Throughout his career Luther had said, “Preach one thing: the wisdom of the cross.”  Now on his death bed Luther answered, “Yes.  We are beggars.  That is true.”

It is to be hoped that churches today will learn from Paul’s theology of the cross how to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ and him crucified;

that they might teach nothing but a theology of the cross;

they they might preaching nothing but the crucified God;

that they might trust, not in themselves, but solely in the benefits of the cross;

and that their mission will take shape in the form of the cross of Christ.  Amen!

Communicatio idiomatum as the Ontological Foundation of Luther’s Christology (Review of “Creator est Creatura”)

By Piotr Malysz

Creator est Creatura: Luthers Christologie als Lehre von der Idiomenkommunikation,ed. Oswald Bayer and Benjamin Gleede (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2007), xiii + 323 pp., hb € 99.95 / $ 150.00.

The six essays contained in this volume collectively offer a picture of Martin Luther’s Christology that takes issue with its customary presentation as a diachronic series of contingent responses to crises and controversies.  Luther’s Christological thought did, to be sure, become more self-aware and more precise, as he was compelled to respond to various challenges.  But as these essays so admirably demonstrate, underlying Luther’s variegated Christological reflection was a fundamental and uncompromised insistence on the concreteness of the exchange of properties between Christ’s two natures.  As Luther saw it, only when taken as concrete – that is, as reciprocally holding nothing back – can the togetherness of the natures in Christ’s person give adequate expression to his identity as Saviour, who as a person is never, not even conceptually, to be separated from his work. Continue reading “Communicatio idiomatum as the Ontological Foundation of Luther’s Christology (Review of “Creator est Creatura”)”