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Luther’s Theology of the Cross: By Simon Jooste

1 July, 2008

Here’s Part 1 of another great piece of writing by C or C’s friend Simon.


According to Martin Luther, the church of his day had fostered an illicit relationship between theology and philosophy. He was concerned about late medieval scholasticism’s magisterial use of human ratio that sought to penetrate the being of God. This penchant for an unmediated view of God, via the elevator of speculative reason, Luther called a theology of glory.[1] In hostile opposition to this trend Luther formulated his theology of the cross.[2] In this paradigmatic shift, Luther sought to redefine the relationship of theology to philosophy.[3] His polemics on the subject find their most explicit early form in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. In commenting on Luther’s theologia crucis, Luther scholar, Walter Von Loewenich argued: “[I]n no theologian of the Christian church have these thoughts of Paul experienced such a revival as in Luther.”[4] Accordingly, Luther endeavored to recover Scriptural authority and thereby spell anew the theological grammar of his time.[5] Furthermore, Von Loewenich argued: “the theology of the cross is a principle of Luther’s entire theology, and it may not be confined to a special period in his theological development.” Thus, Luther’s theology of the cross is a hermeneutical key in understanding Luther at large and therefore well worth consideration.[6]

In this essay I will argue that in Heidelberg Disputation Theses 19-24 Luther contended for his theology of the cross, because in it he saw God paradoxically hidden and revealed through suffering and the cross. This view will be contrasted with his depiction of the theologian of glory, who claimed an unmediated ‘view’ of God in nature and on the pages of human history. Accordingly, it will be shown that Luther argued for two ways of doing theology. For, depending on a theologian’s epistemological view of God determines, in turn, how he speaks of communion with him. For Luther, these two ways of theologizing led to a fork in the road of salvation.

This essay is comprised of four parts. In the first, I provide a brief consideration of the background and precursors to the Heidelberg Disputation. Secondly, I will sketch Luther’s depiction of a theologian of glory, indicative of the late medieval theologian. Thirdly, and in striking contrast, I describe Luther’s theology of the cross. Finally, and having set the stage in the first three, part four brings to the fore the emergence of two paths of righteousness.[7]


1. Oberman, “Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 54, no. 4 (2003): 655.
2. In being historically accurate, it is important to remember that the “reformer was a student of the tradition shaped by Occam, Gregory of Rimni, Pierre d’Ailly and Gabriel Biel” (Ibid.: 642.). Therefore, Luther’s disdain for medieval scholasticism does not imply his wholesale rejection of all that scholastic theology had produced or stood for. For example, Luther lauded the dialectical prowess of his nominalist ‘master’ William of Ockham, while at the same time criticizing his ‘master’s’ teachings on grace and justification (Heiko Augustinus Oberman, Luther : Man between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 120.) In fact, as late as 1520, “long after Luther had decisively rejected scholastic theology, he continued to describe himself as an Ockhamist.” Furthermore, D.V.N. Bagchi has argued: “Luther’s critique of scholasticism was emphatically that of a scholastic” (D.V.N. Bagchi, “Sic Et Non: Luther and Scholasticism” in Carl R. Trueman and R. Scott Clark, Protestant Scholasticism : Essays in Reassessment (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999), 4-5.) See also Heiko Augustinus Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation; the Shape of Late Medieval Thought, [1st ed. (New York,: Holt, 1966). What Luther despised in scholasticism was that in its pursuit of philosophy, theology had lost sight of revelation. Philosophy/ reason crowded out the Bible (Walther von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1976), 68.)
3. Oberman, “Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough,” 642.
4. Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 12. References to Paul are numerous in Luther’s Lectures on Romans and his Heidelberg Disputation (see below).
5. Oberman, “Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough,” 642.
6. For Luther, so pervasive was its importance that the theology of the cross was not a subject of theology but the distinctive mark of all his theology, an integrating element, in his opinion, of all Christian knowledge (Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 12, 17ff.) However, some scholars have disagreed and argued that Luther’s theology of the cross should be understood as and assigned to his pre-Reformation theology. Otto Ritschl, in his separate chapter of Dogmengeschichte des Protestantismus, Vol. II, 1, argued that the theology of the cross bears a distinctly monkish character and thus belongs to the preliminary Luther (Otto Ritschl, Dogmengeschichte Des Protestantismus : Grundlagen Und Grundzüge Der Theologischen Gedenken- Und Lehrbildung in Den Protestantischen Kirchen (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1908).) Alister McGrath also departs from Von Loewenich on this assertion. See McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross : Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough. Agreeing with Von Loewenich, I will argue for the former. Evidence of the insignia of theologia crucis, in addition to works mentioned in this essay, can be found in Luther’s Lecture’s on Genesis, Lectures on the Psalms, Bondage of the Will, etc. (LW 1-14, 33).
7. While Luther’s hermeneutic has pervasive theological and practical implications, the scope of this essay is concerned with demonstrating how it uncovers two irreconcilable trajectories for justification before God. Justice, however, cannot be done to Luther’s doctrine of justification within the limits of this essay. Thus, I provide a cursory (noting its developing nature) view of his doctrine of justification as it emerges from Theses 19-24 in the Heidelberg Disputation.

  1. 1 July, 2008 12:06 pm

    SJ: Your writing is like your preaching–beautiful as well as illuminating. Can’t wait for the following portions.


  1. Luther’s Theology of the Cross « Heidelblog

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