Theologia Crucis: The Foundation of Evangelical Doctrine
Martin Luther’s theology of the cross is of central significance. His impact cannot be overstated. It is felt forcefully even in our own day, although sometimes his successors’ views may have deviated somewhat form Luther’s original intentions. Still, an investigation into what some consider ‘the heart of Luther’s theology’ is essential not merely for showing the differences with some theologians of the present, but with appreciating the essence of Luther’s own unique approach to the cross of Christ as being the basis of his understanding of an evangelical doctrine of justification. This will enlighten us as to how the reformation got started, namely, as one author put it, with “[a] man, a Bible – and God: that is how it all began.” My own curiosity has taken me into research for the purpose of trying to uncover not only the dimensions of the reformation in terms of content, important as they are, but also to the when of Luther’s breakthrough. Although the time of Luther’s insight is surely not as important as the very fact of having an insight, it may help in explaining the means behind the eventual break with Rome and establishment of a Christianity which once again breathed the air of the first century church.
A Christo – Soteriologico – Theology.
It is certainly true that Luther’s theological development moved in conjunction with his own religious development. Although some see Luther as primarily a contributor to religious piety and not as a theologian per se, it is his theological contributions that have stood the test of time. He was no systematizer as was say, Calvin who produced the Institutes, but he was more so a contextual theologian moved by the contemporary concerns of his day. Salvation was the all encompassing matter which drove him originally into the Augustinian order and which dominated his life and thought. Even after the ‘evangelical’ breakthrough, and one could say, Luther’s own personal religious struggles met up with the righteous God who forgives by grace, Luther still strove to fine tune his theological articulation and never lost concern for how others understood the work of God in Christ. Hence, Luther was driven by one passion: a knowledge of God as revealed in the scriptures through Christ crucified. The theologia crucis was the central focus of knowing this God of grace. Atkinson well said of Luther’s critique of the theology of glory, “[t]his knowledge of God means, of course, a saving knowledge of God revealed by God Himself and is not the same kind of knowledge which philosophers may talk about when they argue whether it is possible to know God at all.”
At the Heidelberg disputation of April 1518, part of the debate revolved around certain philosophical theses which had their goal to generate debate so Luther could show the inadequacies of the scholastic theologians’ method at arriving at a knowledge of God. Although during the middle ages the cross had been reserved as containing some use in liturgical practice, it was nonetheless resisted as a means for approaching God. The way of suffering depicted by Jesus of Nazareth hanging on a cross rejected by God did not appeal to the clergy’s or theologian’s sense of triumph and dignity of the Christian religion. The way of rational speculation was the order of the day. “In thesis 19 Luther speaks primarily to scholastic theologians,” notes Kadai “when he warns that true theologians should know better than to try to speculate about God on the basis of created world and historical data.” The mystery of the cross is that revelation meets us in ways that one would never imagine “right’ for God. God is hidden in the cross as it were, and in this place is the real glory of God manifest. The idea of the hiddenness of God was not unique to Luther. It was also held by the so called Nominalists who linked this notion with God’s freedom. Luther merely advances this concept because, as Luther held, God could not be know as He is in Himself. The idea of hiddenness, and that in the cross, is for the sake of sinners’ redemption. Clearly in the articulation of the theologia crucis we begin to see how revelation, Christology, Theology proper, and salvation are all intertwined. The epistemological strand in this approach was not for the sake of knowledge itself. For Luther, knowledge of God was the highest attainable knowledge, and that it is saving in itself. This is what John meant when in John 17:3 we read, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Luther spoke of a true way and a false way of knowledge. “Speculation and philosophical reflection,” Kadai asserts, “do not lead to a true knowledge of God because God dwells in the darkness of faith.” It is therefore not surprising seen “[i]n this light Luther’s theologia crucis might also be called a theology of faith.” We may find that the more we investigate Luther, there is truly much with which we will and should disagree, but on the concept of Christ crucified and justification by faith alone as an integral part of God’s revelation, we must stand with Luther. What is at stake is the gospel. Here, Luther got it right.
In order to understand fully how this came about is more complex than one might at first imagine. Too often in history survey courses the student is given a brief insight into the backgrounds of major events, such as the posting of the 95 theses. In fact much is overlooked. The intricacies of understanding the high and later middle ages is absolutely necessary for appreciating Luther’s own position within this historical, social, and theological milieu, and for seeing the significance of his break from within it. I have benefitted greatly from Alister McGrath’s treatment of Luther’s background in his work, Luther’s Theology of the Cross. Acknowledging the various strands of thought associated with the Arts Faculties devotion to the via antiqua and/or the via moderna in the medieval Universities, and their contributions to emerging emphases within Theological Faculties is very illuminating for the period of Luther’s early theological training. McGrath concludes that one has to see Luther right up to 1514 as a product of his environment and as fully within the tradition of the via moderna. He goes on to state, “The fact that Luther displays such a continuity with this later medieval tradition serves to emphasize the significance of his break from it . . .” That Luther’s struggle was one related to understanding the idea of the “righteousness of God” is well known. This was no doubt a long drawn out process especially heightened while working on the biblical material for his lectures. Although McGrath articulates the view which sees Luther standing in the medieval consensus of his day, advocating the well worn phrase: Homini facienti quod in se est Deus infallibiliter dat gratiam, and this was no doubt still evident on his first series of lectures on the Psalms (the famous Dictata), he nevertheless had this to say also, “It is, however, clear that changes in Luther’s thought took place even within the Dictata . . .” Luther is beginning to move toward a purely evangelical view of justification with a forensic understanding at its core. McGrath claims this as a step toward a fuller developed theology of the cross. The link between justification, its importance for Luther (he referred to it as the Hauptartikel in the Schmalkald articles), and the emerging importance of expressing this in light of the theologia crucis is expertly undertaken by McGrath.
Both Timothy George and Scott Murray express the emerging understanding of Luther on justification as moving away from the Augustinian approach to embracing a forensic understanding which is based on the complete work of Christ on the cross. George notes,
We have rejected the thesis that Luther’s doctrine of justification was produced de novo as the result of one shattering insight. His doctrine developed over a period of years, being influenced by various strands of late medieval thought and undergoing several fundamental shifts. The most crucial of these shifts involved the redefinition of justification in a non-Augustinian framework.
Luther’s changing attitudes toward Augustine eventually led him to embrace a new understanding of the concept of the righteousness of God. There is a marked difference between Luther’s treatment of Romans 1:17 in 1515 (Romans lectures), and “[i]n October, 1518, [when] Luther again expounded Romans 1:17, but now asserted that faith operates without any predisposition or preparation prior to justification, and we find the striking sentence: Faith alone justifies (Sola fides justificate).” Certainly one must conclude something akin to a shattering insight has taken place despite George’s earlier warning. Luther has abandoned once held notions of righteousness being infused or imparted. No more is there a hint of salvation being a healing process for the sick. Now the grand new imagery of a law court takes center stage as the theme of imputation becomes the real way of salvation. Faith alone in Christ alone. Our sins are not expunged; they remain present but no longer count against us. George may sum it up best when he remarks, “Luther’s new insight was that the imputation of Christ’s alien righteousness was based, not on the gradual curing of sin, but rather on the complete victory of Christ on the cross. The once-for-allness of justification was emphasized:‘if you believe, then you have it!’” Now we have an evangelical Martin Luther.
In an all important study on the theology of the cross, the great Luther scholar Walther von Loewenich claims:
For Luther the cross is not only the subject of theology; it is the distinctive mark of all theology. It has its place not only in the doctrine of the vicarious atonement, but it constitutes an integrating element for all Christian knowledge. The theology of the cross is not a chapter in a theology but a specific kind of theology. The cross of Christ is significant here not only for the question concerning redemption and the certainty of salvation, but it is the center that provides perspective for all theological statements. Hence it belongs to the doctrine of God in the same way as it belongs to the doctrine of the work of Christ. There is no dogmatic topic conceivable for which the cross is not the point of reference.
These are crucial observations by von Loewenich. The far reaching implications of Luther’s theologia crucis are implicit in these statements. The theology of the cross should cut across every aspect of one’s theology. In fact the most striking dimensions of the theologia crucis are gathered from the very words of Luther in the theses presented at Heidelberg in April 1518. There Luther spoke not only of a theology of the cross, but of theologians of the cross as opposed to theologians of glory. The question should be framed as such, not what type of theology does one advocate, but what type of theologian is doing the advocating? If the cross of Christ is the event of history, and if God is known there like nowhere else, and if Christianity is more than a set of doctrinal distinctives, but is a way of life corum Deo, then the question has application for every minute aspect of our lives. Not just what kind of theologian am I, but am I a Christian of the cross? Am I a father of the cross? Am I a son of the cross? Am I an employee of the cross? Am I a neighbor of the cross? Am I living my life within the shadow of the cross? For the specific task at hand, namely theology, it is Gerhard Forde, who has grasped the significance of the issue like none other. His observation on Luther’s intent is interesting to say the least. Forde explains, “. . . ‘a’ or ‘the’ theology of the cross cannot really be written. Luther himself does not write a theology of the cross. Rather, particularly in the Heidelberg Disputation, he gives an account of what those who have been smitten and raised up through the cross do.” Obviously, these comments are made in reference to the Heidelberg theses 19 -21. In his commentary and reflection on the theses and their proofs, Forde says “There are two kinds of theologians, theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. The theses basically set forth the contrast in the way the two operate.” He next presents the theses with a contrasting structure as follows:
The Theologian of Glory
The Thesis 19
1. That person does not deserve to
be called a theologian
2. Who claims to see into the in-
visible things of God
3. By seeing through earthly things
4. The theologian of glory calls
evil good and good evil.
The Theologian of the cross
1. But [that person deserves to be
called a theologian]
2. Who comprehends what is visible
Of God (visibilia et posteriora Dei)
3. Through suffering and the cross.
4. The theologian of the cross says
What a thing is.
Forde, goes on to remind us the intent of Luther by saying, “once again note carefully that the immediate focus is on theologians and their modes of operating, not on theology as such. The great divide is first of all in the way they look for God in the world, in their “seeing” (19, 20), then secondly and consequently in their speaking (21).” Much of what has been said in theology over the last 2,000 years concerning the cross would probably fail in meeting Luther’s criteria of being really theology of the cross by theologians of the cross. The challenge remains for us as aspiring theologians to heed the call of God and to defend His way of being known to a world that hasn’t a clue. “The cross [of Christ] is not inspiring” notes Timothy Lull, “but a scandal.” Yet those who have had their eyes opened by God, know that this is a scandal we must all be proud of. We once again, in our preaching, teaching, theological exposition and articulation must center in on the Cross of Christ. Christ crucified must be the fountain from which streams all our theological endeavor and pursuit. Yes, and all our Christian ministry and life must spring forth from the same precious center–Christ and Him crucified.
Kadai has certain implications that he sees as a result on focusing attention on Luther’s theologia crucis. The immediate theological concerns revolve around what has been hinted at already, namely that all our theology should “. . .stand in the context of the cross.” Theology cannot be subsumed solely under Christology, but all our theology needs to be Christocentric as the Bible evidently is. Again, here, Luther was right. Take away Christ and what else does the scripture say? Jesus gave warrant for this understanding when he explained to the two disciples heading toward Emmaus that the Old Testament throughout the canon spoke of Him (Luke 24). No one would argue that the New Testament does not center around the Lord Jesus Christ. So we have a complete Bible of revelation primarily of Jesus Christ. All our evangelical theology must be biblical and the biblical message is focused on Christ, therefore all our theologizing must be Christocentric. When one especially centers on the suffering of Christ seen with full clarity in the cross, one also must realize the solidarity that the church has with her Lord and expect a measure of suffering in this world. Kadai warns us, that rather than suffering, “. . . some empirical victory of the Christian church may actually be an embarrassment to God’s kingdom.” One immediately thinks of recent trends among the mega-church movement, and marketing strategies which promise numerical results if only one buys into the correct methodology. The church has been deceived by the “success syndrome” and has forfeited true biblical success of being faithful to the scandalous message of a crucified carpenter. Kadai also speaks of pastoral matters as they hinge on one’s understanding of the cross. Our world has been plagued by immense suffering. There is a truth to the claim that God is our fellow sufferer, yet one has to resist building a superstructure out of some so called “vulnerability doctrine” as Forde has cautioned us about. Also God does not suffer because of not being able not to, but suffers out of choice electing to love though this medium for the sake of the objects of his love, namely His people, whom Jesus will save through the cross, (cf. Matthew 1:21; Romans 5:8; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14; Hebrews 9:28; and Revelation 5:9). God is not weak and subject to suffering by nature but only by condescension. Even Jesus’ death on the cross was a voluntary act–nobody takes His life from Him, He gives it up out of love for His own, (John 10:1-18). Still the truth remains that we can draw strength from one who has been tested as we are tested, (Hebrews 4:14-16). Ultimately, however, an answer is found in the cross for every assumed injustice that occurs in this fallen world. No matter how terrible the event or tragic the occurrence, nothing comes close to the suffering of Jesus. One is tempted to lament as meaningless the tragedy of infants killed in their innocent condition. As a parent I am moved by the suffering of the young, not to mention the slaughter of the unborn so prevalent in our day. Still nothing that has or could occur comes even close to the way God incarnate was treated during His earthly sojourn. Whatever happens to us, we remain sinners who live in a sinful world. Jesus, However, was the truly righteous and innocent. His treatment was the crime of crimes. His suffering was unimaginable given that He was God, yet made to be sin for the salvation of God’s sinful people. The cross gives us perspective; yet also hope.
One other area of possible need of readjustment in my own thinking and practice is the area of apologetics. Although not strictly a theology issue, it touches upon and builds upon theological presuppositions. I have recently rethought through my convictions concerning evidentialism and presuppositionalism and I am emerging with a new sense of appreciation for the presuppositional approach. Luther’s concerns may have some direct bearing on developing “apologetics of the cross.” Our evangelistic endeavors should strive to present Christ. The Gospel of the crucified Lord is still to this day the power unto salvation (Romans 1:16), and the preaching of the cross is still the means to bring people to the point of faith (1 Corinthians 1:21; cf. Romans 10:17). This leads to the proclamation task that I am constantly engaged in as a pastor. Luther’s concerns lead one to think through the need for developing a “preaching of the cross” ministry. Kadai closes his essay with these challenging words, “The Biblical insights of Luther’s theologia crucis are too precious to be lost. On the theology of the cross stand the four great solas of the reformation heritage: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, and solus
If we are concerned about preserving this grand tradition as we must, a renewed appreciation must be made of Luther’s basic theological axiom of a crucified Christ, and once again must the church stand upon this foundation of all sound evangelical doctrine. Still we must tread carefully and always with humility. As Murray reminds us,
The theologian of the cross never trusts his own insights but always conforms them to God’s self-revelation. The theologian of the cross knows that the verdict of St. Paul, “If God is true then every man is a liar” (Rom 3:4), applies to himself as much as to any other man. The theologian of the crossknows that he is a sinner with a fallen intellect and will. Repentance is the constant companion of the theologian of the cross. He never masters theology; he can only be mastered by it and so become its servant. Man needs a sure word of prophecy from God that he might know God as God wants to be known.
One will greatly appreciate the opportunity of reading Luther and spending some time with a few of the authorities on his life and thought. As I indicated earlier, my initial interest, which has not subsided, was to investigate when Luther made his breakthrough. No doubt because Luther is an “ocean” and the secondary literature an immense “sea” in and of itself, no firm conclusion can be drawn at this time. What I have found are further questions springing forth on the heels of forthcoming answers to questions originally asked. Despite this uncertain answer to the burning question in my mind I am not disappointed because theology is not the exercise of an academic semester, but of a lifetime. Yet Luther has taught me one sure thing –spend that lifetime worshiping, studying, loving, and proclaiming the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth hanging on a cross, who remains hidden, and yet revealed for those who have eyes to see.
Theodore Zachariades, Ph.D.