A Theologian of the Cross

September 28, 2017 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement


October 31st will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Most of us are familiar with a little history behind the Theses: Luther wanted to debate the abuses of indulgences. But are we familiar with Luther himself? His background? What led him to dispute the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church? What impact his ministry has on our church today? In what ways might we disagree with Luther? Over these few weeks leading up to the 500th anniversary, let’s consider Luther and his teaching. I will use primarily Carl Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, as a resource. This is part two of a multi-part series.

One of Martin Luther’s most famous theological distinctions came six months before nailed the 95 Theses to the church door. This theological distinction is found in what is known as the Heidelberg Disputation, held in April 1517. At this disputation Luther had 40 Theses presented, mostly unpacking his new understandings of the nature of sin and the condition for salvation. The famous theological distinction comes in the 21st Thesis:

A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

A theologian of glory versus a theologian of the cross. What does Luther mean by this distinction?

Carl Trueman helps us understand what Luther is getting at: “In terms of the objective sources of theology, the distinction turns upon the theologian’s identification of the sources for knowledge of God. The mistake the theologian of glory makes is to think that the way the world appears to be is actually an accurate account of who God is…The theologian of the cross, by contrast, draws his understanding of God from looking at how God revealed himself in the place where God has chosen to do so” (p. 61).

For Luther, the cross had become the chief interpretive lens for understanding God and his ways. His critique of the Roman Catholic Church (theologians of glory) was that their chief interpretive lens for understanding God and his ways was themselves (mankind). The “glory” was a self-celebration. The implications of this distinction are multiple. Let make quote Trueman at length to explain:

“Theologians—whether of glory or the cross—use words to express their beliefs. For Luther, the conceptual content of these words needs to be defined by the act of God’s revelation that takes place in Jesus Christ upon the cross. Thus, the theologian of glory will no doubt understand the word power, when applied to God, as referring to something analogous to a king’s power: imposing and coercive. Yet the theologian of the cross gives the word different content: power is there revealed in and through weakness. Then there is the idea of wisdom. The theologian of glory will understand wisdom in terms set by the world around, perhaps seeing it as intelligence or the knowledge of how to play the system. The theologian of the cross understands wisdom in terms of the incarnate God hanging weak and broken on a cross: a contradiction of all that the wise of the world around us would expect from the sovereign Creator. The theologian of glory will understand righteousness as an outward, visible quality constituted by good works. The theologian of the cross sees it in the one who is sinless yet made sin for others. The theologian of glory sees life and death as antitheses, and the latter as something to be avoided. The theologian of the cross understands that death is actually the gateway to true life” (page 63-64).

 Let’s apply this to the very practical area of love. In human terms, we love that which we find lovely. If we apply this concept to the love of God, then, when we hear a verse like John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world…”), we will believe that God has placed his love on that which he has found to be lovely, namely us. Luther would say this is the theology of glory. We are glorious because God found us lovely and placed his love on us. 

 Luther contends that God’s love is different. Thesis 28 of the Heidelberg Disputation states, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” Trueman explains this theology of the cross perspective on God’s love: “the lesson of the cross is that God chooses that which is unlovely and repulsive, unrighteous and with no redeeming quality, and lavishes his saving love in Christ upon it” (p. 66).

 At its core, the distinction between a theologian of glory and theologian of the cross highlights one’s inclination to be man-centered or God-centered in understanding sin, salvation, good works, suffering, etc. This distinction became vital for Luther’s disputes with the Catholic Church.

 More next week.





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