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Caught by the Cross

The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. The theologian of the cross says what a thing is.

(Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)

Dear People of God,

We are about to enter the most important time in the church year.

Holy week, the week culminating in Easter, recounts the event central to the Christian faith: Jesus’s arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection. While the happenings of this week are commemorated across several different worship services, they are in fact part of one unified whole, called simply “the Cross” by Paul and other New Testament writers.

During Maundy Thursday, we observe Jesus serving and eating with his disciples who will betray, deny, and abandon him before the night’s end. During Good Friday, we hear the account of Jesus’s trial, and we see firsthand how even our most fervent religious intentions are twisted by sin to set us against God’s anointed, putting to death the Lord of Life. And on Easter Sunday, we behold God’s vindication of Jesus in raising him from the dead, and we witness his return with forgiveness for the sins we have heaped upon him. Because this “Word of the Cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) forms the heart of Christianity, all Christian teaching should be done from the perspective of the Cross.

In his Heidelberg Disputation, one of the early academic debates of the reformation, Martin Luther described this way of seeing the world and ourselves as being “a theologian of the Cross” as opposed to “a theologian of glory.”* Now, when Luther uses the word theologian, he doesn’t only mean trained professionals or deep thinkers, but rather anyone who ever thinks or speaks about God. This definition includes pretty much everyone regardless of their beliefs on the matter, and it certainly includes everyone reading this article!

Luther’s concern is not whether one is a theologian, but the way in which they go about it. A theologian of glory begins with an assumption that Gerhard Forde calls ‘The Glory Story.’ There are lots of different forms of this story, but the basic idea remains the same: we came from glory and we are destined for glory, but we’ve become sidetracked on the way. This could be told in the way the ancient Greek philosophers would tell it, where we were once pure souls that became trapped in material bodies, or it could be told in a much more mundane way, where we are all innocents who have become wounded on our way through the world. In any case, The Glory Story involves some kind of original purity or innocence that has been tarnished, and sets our present task as amending or restoring ourselves to our former glory.

A theologian of the Cross, however, starts not with any kind of glory, but rather with the actual concrete event of the Cross. A theologian of the Cross regards this event as it actually is and takes seriously what it teaches us about ourselves, God, and all creation. A theologian of the Cross calls the thing what it is: our unjust execution of the Son of God, and God’s insistence on giving us mercy. It is the story of how God-in-the-flesh took the very worst we could throw at him, including death itself, and overcame it by rising from the dead with forgiveness.

Confronted with this reality, a theologian of the Cross seeks no glory for herself. She does not come up with reasons she would have acted differently had she been there, nor does she reduce Jesus’s death to some behind-the-scenes system of divine bookkeeping. Rather, she sees herself in his betrayers, deniers, and killers, and she recognizes that Jesus rose from the dead to grant mercy to people like her. Rather than distancing herself from the Cross through clever interpretations, she finds herself exposed, condemned, and forgiven by Jesus himself.

To be clear, the distinction here is not between two groups of people, but rather between two ways of being a theologian. In the space of a few minutes, a person could move from being a theologian of glory to being a theologian of the Cross and back again. In fact, part of being a theologian of the Cross is recognizing how we are always trying to glorify ourselves, twisting even scripture itself in order to keep ourselves in control.

But the actual story of the Cross does not allow this. It reveals that the glory we are seeking is the very same thing which drove the people of Jesus’s day to demand his execution. It was precisely the devoutly religious that Jesus offended the most, for he left them with no way to claim a righteousness of their own. By associating himself with those recognized as sinners and by forgiving their sins in God’s name, Jesus condemned the best efforts of those the world regarded as righteous. The story of the cross tells us exactly what happens when a merciful God places himself into the hands of sinners who insist they are not sinners: we shut him up with all the power we have. We abuse him, we mock him, we crucify him, and we seal him away.

But of course, all our sinful power is no match for the mercy of God in Christ. The resurrection on the third day proves it once and for all. And when this mercy finally breaks through our self-righteousness, it turns us strident theologians of glory into faithful theologians of the Cross. Having lost any claim to righteousness in ourselves, we joyfully receive the merciful righteousness of Christ. Having been set free forever from the ladder of righteousness by which we tried to storm heaven, we return to our earthly existence, content to be creatures of our loving Creator. Having abandoned any claim to glory for ourselves, we are free to simply receive the good things of God and to busy ourselves with the work God sets before us.

As we enter into Holy Week, be taken up into the Word of the Cross. Do not hold it at a distance, and be wary of any theory or interpretation which leaves you in control. Instead, be content with what you are: a sinner of Christ’s own redeeming, for there is nothing more gloriously free than that.

Your brother in Christ,

-Pastor John

*This insight and those which follow come from Gerhard O. Forde’s 1997 book On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.

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Thank you Pastor John. For me, this writing gives cause for self-examination and reflection regarding the need for recurring philosophical examination about what we believe.

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