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‘Theologia Crucis’: The Heart of Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Part 4)

4 July, 2008

Crux sola est nostra theologia: “destroying the wisdom of the wise”[1]

From the outset of his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther laid down the foundation for being a theologian of the cross. In his prologue, he called his hearers to rely not on their own insight/ wisdom (Prov. 3:5) as they considered his theological paradoxes.[2]

In Theses 3-4 Luther introduced more explicitly the concepts and language that he would leverage with greater force later in Theses 19-24. He argued that it was man’s natural tendency to mistake as meritorious human works that appeared attractive and good, when in fact they were likely deadly (mortal) sins (Thesis 3).[3] On the other hand, Thesis 4 stated: “[a]lthough the works of God always seem unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits.” Thus Luther established early on that God revealed his works under the form of paradoxical opposites and things could be other than they appeared – if God has so willed it and revealed it.

God hidden and revealed through suffering and the cross

In reading Romans, Luther concluded that while God had manifested himself in works of creation, this direct way of knowing him had failed because man “did not honor God or give thanks to him but became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise they became fools” (Rom. 1:21-22). “The visible God was not recognized. The revelation of God in creation failed its purpose. For man it became not a revelation but rather a concealment of God’s essence and will.”[4] While Luther affirmed that there was knowledge of God to be derived from works of creation (cf. Rom. 1:20), he agreed with Paul that man twists it for improper and destructive ends (Rom. 1:22; cf. Thesis 24).[5]

In Thesis 20 Luther argued: “That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross.” The theologian of the cross was not concerned about brooding over or speculating about the deus nudus, the invisible things of God. Instead, he was constrained by the visible – by God’s acts in Christ – where God had promised to reveal himself.[6] He was willing to meet God on his terms, even if the sight was ghastly. For Luther, in the act of revealing himself God simultaneously hid himself (deus absconditus).[7] Therefore, for the theologian of the cross, this mode of revelation is the wisdom of God, but was foolishness to the speculative philosopher (cf. 1 Cor. 1).

Luther spoke of the visible things of God as his human nature, weakness, and foolishness; the very things the theologian of glory was not looking for.[8] Luther learned from the prophet Isaiah who said, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself” (Isa. 45:15). It was by this sub contrario means of revelation, in which God showed his “backside” or “hinder parts” (posteria dei; cf. Ex. 33), that he destroyed the wisdom of the wise, and their path of glory paved with glistening pebbles of self-righteousness (cf. explanation to Thesis 20).[9] For Luther, true theology and recognition of God are in the person of the crucified Christ (and not in some speculation into the divine being).[10] Gone are all speculations and flighty thoughts. The theologian of the cross finds himself inescapably confronted by the living God in the unattractiveness of the crucified Christ, “as from one from whom men hid their faces” (Is. 53:3). He comprehended the hidden God by faith. For Luther, faith had to do with that which was unseen and therefore everything that was believed should be hidden under the form of the opposite.[11] Thus, he believed there was no need to escape calling a thing what it is.

Calling a thing what it is

Released from the nihilistic and legalistic bondage of seeing God everywhere, the theologian of the cross was free and yet constrained by God where he had willed to be found, in suffering and the cross. According to Luther, he could finally call a thing “what it actually is” (Thesis 21b). He was able to look at the humility and shame of the cross head on, no longer trying to look through, around, or above it.[12] He believed that God, and thus life, could not be found anywhere else.

Luther believed that only through suffering and the cross could sinners come to know God. Because suffering was from God and he had chosen to reveal himself in this paradoxical form, it was good. Therefore, the crucifixion was good.[13] For Luther, it followed that the suffering God inflicted upon an individual, by virtue of his union with Christ, was also a good thing. This existential nature of faith Luther described as Anfechtung.[14]

The suffering that Luther had in mind was not of the self-imposed mystical sort, but God’s operation upon the sinner.[15] It was not something done by man, but was God’s work against the sinner, which could only result in suffering. In moving against the presumption of works, the sinner suffered the unilateral action of God and rendered totally passive. Accordingly, Luther argued that the Spirit cast out the salvation, peace, life, and grace of the flesh.[16]

Luther’s theology of the cross did not explain away the reality of suffering, whether Christ’s or his own. Rather, in paradoxical style, God accomplished his opus proprium (proper work), of bestowing life and salvation, by his opus alienum (alien work), in killing and destroying.[17] Luther believed that Anfechtung were God’s way of cognitive/ speech therapy. All this to the end that man might speak and proclaim the truth about God, to “say what a thing is.”[18] Therefore the theologian of the cross spoke of God revealing himself redemptively by hiding himself in the crucified Christ. Likewise, the life of faith was hidden under a veil of Anfechtung. For Luther, to avoid ‘calling a thing what it is’ was to lose God and the life of faith. In the end, Luther’s theology of the cross revealed a distinct path of righteousness, one distinct from the way of glory.[19]

Emergence of two ways of righteousness

By Thesis 22 it has become patently clear that Luther was arguing for two ways of righteousness, the great divide.[20] He had exposed the theologian of glory for his mishandling of the law and his false speech concerning it. He wrote that anyone fixated with “[t]hat wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man” was “puffed up, blinded, and hardened” (Thesis 22).[21] Despite all of its fanfare, glory, and pomp, the wisdom that thought and spoke in terms of law and works was soteriologically bankrupt, impoverished in its view of God and faith. Luther would go on to say: “[t]he law works the wrath of God, kills, curses, judges, and damns everything that is not in Christ” (Thesis 23; cf. Thesis 1).[22] Luther spoke of a curse that hands over every unmediated attempt to find God, for they all blaze trails of glory.

Put positively and in terms of the cross, Luther wrote concerning an alien (way of) righteousness. One that abandoned works and sought a mediated way to heaven, found in Christ alone, and appropriated by faith alone.[23]

In the final thesis of present consideration, Thesis 24, Luther provided a statement that both reaches back to summarize what has gone before and segues into the remaining theses in his Disputation (Theses 25-28 ). Concerning the law and its inherent goodness, he wrote: “Yet that wisdom [of the law] is not itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded” (Thesis 24a). Luther was no antinomian. At the same time, he feared the misuse of the law. Luther believed that while creation puts on display a kind of knowledge of God and his law, “without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner” (Thesis 24b). In a paradigmatic Reformation shift, Luther found freedom from the bondage of the law and found life in the most unexpected of places, the suffering and cross of Christ.

[1] Cf. 1 Cor. 1:19.
[2] In Thesis 1, Luther argued that the law of God, instead of bestowing life, actually hinders man on the path of righteousness. Accordingly, he ends his theological theses with Theses 25-28, with positive affirmations concerning the true path of righteousness: “he who, without work, believes much in Christ.” For, it is the love of God that creates (versus man finding) life (LW 31:39-41.)
[3] “For they [our works] appear to the doer and others good and beautiful, yet God does not judge according to appearances…” (LW 31:34.)
[4] Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 28.
[5] “Although God is Creator of the world, he nevertheless stands in sharp contrast to all that is called world.” For Luther, God was free of human calculation (Ibid., 50, 75.) To reiterate what has already been touched upon, Luther was not advocating a kind of anti-intellectualism that shuns the use of the mind. For Luther, reason was valid in its domain. It was a human work and should therefore always submit to and be dictated by God’s revelation.
[6] Ibid., 19. The kind of ‘seeing’ indicative of the theologian of the cross was through the eyes of faith and different, in kind, from the way of glory.
[7] What is in view here is God’s redemptive hiddeness, in which God’s mercy is found in Jesus’ crucifixion; as differentiated from Luther’s notion of Anfechtung, in which the Christian experiences God not in promise but in trial (Mattes, Mark C. “Theology the Lutheran Way: A Synopsis and Glossary” Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology Volume XVI, Number 4 (2007): 43.)
[8] Cf. 1 Cor. 1:25. Commenting on Thesis 20, Von Loewenich wrote: “Precisely in the things we regard as the counterpart of the divine, God has become visible. For it is precisely as the God of revelation that God is the hidden God” (Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 21.)
[9] LW 31:53.
[10] Luther knew the Johannine truth that no one comes to the Father but through the Son; he is the door and the way (cf. Jn. 10:9; 14:6) (LW 31:53.)
[11] LW 33:62. “Seeing and believing stand in sharp contrast” (Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 79.)
[12] Forde and Luther, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, 80. “Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the Old Adam, who is specifically edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person to be puffed up by good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s” (LW 31:53.)
[13] Ibid., 86. The influence of voluntarism (of the kind found in Duns Scotus) is evident here: things can be other than they appear to be – if God wills it to be so. For the voluntarist, it was not the human (or divine) intellect that was supreme, but rather the will of God, which had been made manifest in his revealed Word (Oberman, “Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough.”) See also Richard Cross, Duns Scotus, Great Medieval Thinkers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 31-56.
[14] The German term for ‘assault’ or ‘temptation’ (having strong affinities with the concept of Angst) in which “death, the devil, the world and Hell combine in a terrifying assault upon man, reducing him to state of doubt and despair.” God was the ultimate source of Afechtung (McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross : Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough, 170.
[15] With regard to Anfechtung, similarities between Luther and certain mystics, such as Johannes Tauler, have been noted. However, evidence indicates that while Luther used terms originating from mysticism and other forms of late medieval piety, his theological insights should not be regarded as having arisen through the influence of mysticism (Ibid., 171.) See also Von Loewenich’s discussion on this head in which, among other things, he argued that Tauler was ultimately a theologian of glory for whom self-chosen suffering was a station on the mystical way of salvation (Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 147-67.) For further studies on Luther and mysticism see Steven E. Ozment, Homo Spiritualis. A Comparative Study of the Anthropology of Johannes Tauler, Jean Gerson and Martin Luther (1509-16) in the Context of Their Theological Thought, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought. V. 6 (Leiden,: E. J. Brill, 1969).
[16] LW 14:335. Cf. Is. 28:21.
[17] McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross : Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough, 170-72.
[18] Forde and Luther, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, 90.
[19] It is a tempting, yet unfair reading of Luther, for his emphasis on suffering to degenerate into mere sentimentality, such as ‘misery loves company’ (cf. liberalism in the 20th century). In addition, it would be inaccurate to turn Luther’s theology of the cross into a vehicle for social reform, in the spirit of modern liberation theology. For such a tendency see Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God : The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, 1st Fortress Press ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). While Luther’s doctrine certainly had traction in the messy particulars of this life and invariably elicited an existential response, its soteriological significance was primary, and not to be eclipsed by any practical outworking.
[20] Theses 22 through 24 called into the question the wisdom of the law in light of the great chasm separating the theologian of glory from the theologian of the cross (Forde and Luther, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, 92.) Luther was concerned to differentiate the righteousness of God from Aristotle’s definition of the righteousness of man: one that follows upon actions and originates in them (LW 25:152.) For further explication, see Luther’s “Two Kinds of Righteousness” in LW 31:297-325. It is important to note Luther’s simultaneous indebtedness and critique of scholastic voluntarism and nominalism. While their insights helped pave the way for Luther’s Reformation breakthrough, these schools of thought fell short his greatest discovery: justification by faith alone. Another important qualification is that one should allow for the developing and transitional Luther during the years 1512-19. For instance, his doctrine of imputation is fleshed out more fully his later years. There is, however, in the Heidelberg Disputation a clear departure from intrinsicism of scholasticism and the opening up to an alternate way of righteousness (Cross and Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1007-08.) See also Heiko Augustinus Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation : Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986), 104-25. For further insight into Luther’s development on the doctrine of justification, especially with regard to forensic imputation, see Clark, “Iustitia Imputata Christi: Alien or Proper to Luther’s Doctrine of Justification?.”
[21] No matter how glorious the veneer, the synteresis of the via antiqua and moderna blazed a dangerous trajectory away from suffering and the cross. Whether it be the habitus of Aquinas’ or Biel’s ‘inextinguishable spark that necessarily inclines toward the good’, man must still do what is within him (Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 53.)
[22] Cf. Gal. 3:10, 13; Rom. 2:12; 7:10.
[23] LW 31:55-58.


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