The Forgotten Insight

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One of the things that is so striking about the current revival of interest in Reformation theology, broadly conceived, is the absence of perhaps the most glorious contribution of Martin Luther to theological discourse: the notion of the theologian of the cross.

At a meeting of the Saxon Chapter of the Augustinian Order in the city of Heidelberg in 1518, a monk called Leonhard Beier presented a series of theses which Luther had prepared, whilst Dr Martin himself presided over the proceedings.  The Heidelberg Disputation was to go down in history as the moment when Luther showcased his radical new theology for the first time.

At the heart of this new theology was the notion that God reveals himself under his opposite; or, to express this another way, God achieves his intended purposes by doing the exact opposite of that which humans might expect.  The supreme example of this is the cross itself: God triumphs over sin and evil by allowing sin and evil to triumph (apparently) over him.  His real strength is demonstrated through apparent weakness.  This was the way a theologian of the cross thought about God.

The opposite to this was the theologian of glory.  In simple terms, the theologian of glory assumed that there was basic continuity between the way the world is and the way God is: if strength is demonstrated through raw power on earth, then God's strength must be the same, only extended to infinity.  To such a theologian, the cross is simply foolishness, a piece of nonsense.

Now, some will respond: But the theology of the cross has not been forgotten; it is often talked about and discussed and even preached.  But here's the rub: in the Heidelberg Disputation Luther actually refers not to a theology of the cross but to theologians of the cross, underscoring the idea that he is not talking about some abstract theological technique or process but rather a personal, existential, real way that real flesh-and-blood theologians thought about, and related to, God.   A person's theology, whether true or false, good or bad, is inseparable from the individual's personal faith.

At this Reformation season, we should not reduce the insights of Luther simply to justification by grace through faith.  In fact, this insight is itself inseparable from the notion of that of the theologians of the cross.   Sad to say, it is often hard to discern where these theologians of the cross are to be found.  Yes, many talk about the cross, but the cultural norms of many churches seem no different to the cultural norms of -- well, the culture.  They often indicate an attitude to power and influence that sees these things as directly related to size, market share, consumerist packaging, aesthetics, youth culture, media appearances, swagger and the all-round noise and pyrotechnics we associate with modern cinema rather than New Testament Christianity. These are surely more akin to what Luther would have regarded as symptomatic of the presence and influence of theologians of glory rather than the cross.  An abstract theology of the cross can quite easily be packaged and marketed by a theologian of glory. And this is not to point the finger at `them': in fact, if we are honest, most if not all of us feel the attraction of being theologians of glory.  Not surprising, given that being a theologian of glory is the default position for fallen human nature.     

The way to move from being a theologian of glory to a theologian of the cross is not an easy one, not simply a question of mastering techniques, reading books or learning a new vocabulary.  It is repentance.

Posted November 1, 2011 @ 8:51 AM by Carl Trueman
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