The Theology of the Cross

The cross is the apex of the Christian faith. Thus Paul told Corinth, “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Here’s a little something from an article I published on this in 1989, looking at the role the theology of the cross played in the thought of Martin Luther.

Luther first referred to a “theology of the cross” (theologia crucis) at the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, in a series of theses on the nature of revelation:

Thesis #19: “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 have actually happened.”

Thesis #20: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”1

Revelation is necessary for Luther because speculation on the basis of what is visible will not lead one to a knowledge of God. Yet what God reveals of himself is, at the same time, concealed. God shows only his “back side.” This revelation of the posteriora Dei takes place in suffering and the cross, not in common human morality or in the design and order of creation. And it demands faith–for only faith recognizes that the One on the cross is, in fact, God.2

Luther’s emphasis on the cross as the primary locus of God’s self-disclosure is not unique to him, but goes back at least as far as the renewal of devotion to the humanity of Christ at the time of Francis (about which Ewert Cousins has written much3). What is unique to Luther is his sharp distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory, which he sees as mutually exclusive.4 As he says in Bondage of the Will (1525):

Faith has to do with things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Hence in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it.5

Thus, on this point, at least, the early Luther and the later Luther are in perfect harmony: “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”6 And the converse is also true: where there is not pain and the cross, but pride, wealth, and ostentatious display, one must doubt whether God is, in fact, present.

Luther’s theology of the cross was the basis for his critique of the triumphalism of the medieval Church and the papacy.7 He “was convinced,” says Eric Gritsch, “that the church may have to suffer the loss of its status in order to become a better instrument of the Gospel.”8 Luther called the Church to embrace Christ’s humility–he called it to the cross. There the Church sees its true vocation to be that of suffering servant.9 It is to be called by the world “Afflicted one, as well as storm-tossed, and not comforted, ‘Miss Hopeless.'”10 Luther’s theology of the cross demanded that the Church, like its Lord, be hidden under suffering. By this he did not mean the self-chosen discomfort of pious deprivation, but that genuine suffering which inevitably follows the faithful proclamation of the Word of God.11

The Church, then, like the individual, is justified by faith alone. And, Luther argues, one can be reduced to such a faithful clinging to Christ only through humiliation. It is through a direct, intense encounter with the wrath of God, experienced as suffering and Anfechtungen, that the sinner comes to know “that his salvation is utterly beyond his own powers, devices, endeavors, will, and works, and depends entirely on the choice, will, and work of another, namely, of God alone.”12 This point receives its greatest elaboration in Bondage of the Will (1525), just cited, and Luther’s 1521 Commentary on the Magnificat. Humility is said in the latter to be a necessity for justification–not in the sense of a “work,” but in the sense of an utter repudiation of trust in works. Thus Luther distinguishes between “true” and “artificial humility.” The latter he regards as an affectation which seeks reward through outward appearance. True humility seeks no reward. It is “nothing else than a disregarded, despised, and lowly estate, such as that of men who are poor, sick, hungry, thirsty, in prison, suffering, and dying.”13 Those in such a state know they have nothing. Therefore they cling in faith to the promise of the Crucified One.

I’m grateful to Pr. Jan McKenzie for drawing our attention to the Theology of the Cross in a recent series of posts (now numbering 95, he notes). This is his primary criterion for criticizing conspiracy theorist Walter Veith–Veith has hours and hours of secret information on conspiracies, but does not uplift Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

Adventism in its early days sometimes forgot the centrality of the cross, as is evident in a contrast between two engravings published in the 19th century. In the one, the cross is but one thing among many, standing in the shadow of a tree bearing the ten commandments; in the other, the cross is central, all else gives way before it.  The latter is Biblical Christianity.

One thought on “The Theology of the Cross

  1. Do Adventists have particular feelings about the way the Cross (or Crucifix) is used in Catholicism, e.g. in classrooms, centrality of place in churches and art etc?

Comments are closed.