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The Theology of Glory: Luther’s Theology of the Cross, Part 3

3 July, 2008

Theologia gloriae: ‘claiming to be wise’[1]

When Luther spoke of the theologian of glory, he had in view a particular thinking and consequent speaking – a kind of ‘wisdom’ – that was informed by medieval scholasticism and its dangerous concoction of philosophy and theology. A closer examination of the Heidelberg Disputation brings this into sharper focus.

Knowledge of God and works of creation: ‘seeing’ God everywhere

In Thesis 19 of his Disputation Luther described a theologian of glory as one who sought to establish a direct and unmediated line to God by observing creation.[2] Wisdom concerning the nature and logic of God were apparently plainly evident by looking upon the manifestation of his invisible attributes, namely, his power, wisdom, justice and goodness, and so forth.[3] Supposedly, man was able to see through things that are made, by pulling back the divine masks of creation, and peer into and have clarity on the “invisible things of God”: his essence. According to Luther, the theologian of glory considered visible creation and the way things worked in the world as yielding clues, even if by analogy, as to what God is like.[4] Luther’s way of glory theorized a kind of Thomistic neo-platonic flight into the divine; made possible by the merging of the human and divine mind, where the particulars of creation fitted neatly into preconceived universals. [5]

Luther argued that this kind of “seeing” led to a system of man-centered ethics for justification.[6] For, he wondered what, other than ‘works’, creation could put on display. Thus, constrained by his philosophical underpinnings, in which the particulars of creation shared in universals, the theologian of glory devised a system of ethics derived from human standards of glory and power.[7]

For Luther, the salvific scheme of the theologian of glory did not, however, discard grace altogether, nor the cross for that matter. Instead, for those ‘wise’ enough to have seen the way of glory from clues in creation and who did their natural best, they earned the help of grace.[8] Thus, Christ was called into the equation to make the whole system work. For the way of glory, Christ apparently paid for failures and mistakes in the pursuit of “virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth.” [9]

For the theologian of glory, the cross alone was not sufficient. In fact, he saw through the cross to some transcendent meaning and made it into yet another stepping stone to glory. It invariably followed that in being unwilling to look at the cross alone, the evil of suffering was stripped away and replaced with some ‘good’ ethereal/ ahistorical abstraction (drawn from the invisible things of God).[10] This way of seeing consequently produced a certain kind of speaking.

Calling evil good and good evil

Espousing a ‘seeing’ that led to a natural knowledge of God, the theologian of glory spoke. Luther wrote: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil (Thesis 21a).” It has already been shown that Luther’s theologian of glory viewed human works as intrinsically meritorious and therefore called them good. At the same time, Luther noted how suffering was lumped without qualification into the category of evil, evils such as disaster, crime, misfortune and abuse.[11] Therefore suffering was avoided at all costs, for it was bad. What is more, if he could not escape suffering, he tried to turn it into another good work.[12] For Luther’s theologian of glory, God, of course, had nothing to do with suffering and evil. For, “God is ‘good’, the rewarder of all ‘good’ works, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of merit.”[13] The way of glory called works good and suffering evil.[14] The theologian of glory could not conceive of things being any other way. Yet, Luther thought otherwise.


[1] Cf. Rom. 1:22.
[2] “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which actually happened [Romans 1:20]” (LW 31:52).
[3] LW 31:52.
[4] Forde and Luther, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, 72.
[5] Reality is shaped by preconceived ideas. The realist fingerprints of the Thomistic influenced via antiqua are evident here (Oberman, “Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough,” 655, 58. See also Idem—, Luther : Man between God and the Devil, 117.
[6] Such things as “virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth”, which seemed to be a collection of those things humans are to strive for and that find their perfection in God (Forde and Luther, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, 73.).
[7] Standards of emperors and kings, and their glory and power, defined how glory and power were supposed to look (Robert Kolb, “Luther on the Theology of the Cross,” Lutheran Quarterly XVI (2002): 446.
[8] As the nominalist would say, “do what is in us”, even if it is just a “little bit”, which was a tell-tale sign of a theologian of glory (Forde and Luther, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, 50.)
[9] Ibid., 75-76. Luther would have in mind the synergistic echoes of the likes of Peter Lombard, St. Thomas, Ockham, and other medieval theologians who argued for intrinsic, proper righteousness: the product of created grace and the cooperation with that grace (Clark, “Iustitia Imputata Christi: Alien or Proper to Luther’s Doctrine of Justification?,” 285.)
[10] Forde and Luther, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, 76-77.
[11] Ibid., 83-85. Such theologians learned from Aristotle “that the object of the will is good and the good is worthy to be loved,” while evil is to be hated (LW 31:227.)
[12] In the case of the medieval mystics, suffering became a self-chosen religious exercise and thus a work of man: another rung on the ladder of meritorious ascent into God (Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 84-85, 152-67.)
[13] Ibid.
[14] Here one can see the influence of a realist informed epistemology, which posits that there must be a genuine connection between the name and the thing named (i.e. how can suffering be anything other than evil?) (F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1162.)


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