God’s hideous self-portrait.
Whoever does not know God hidden in suffering does not know God at all.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
One of the theological distinctions from the works of Martin Luther that, I’d say, is deserving of more attention is his juxtaposition between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. These categories might seem like esoteric abstractions. Distinguishing between the two can feel as though you’re splitting hairs, a meticulous theological and philosophical tincture that doesn’t offer much in the way of “rubber-meets-the-road” applicability. But Luther’s discrimination between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross represents a fundamental hermeneutic not only for the crucifixion narratives of the Gospels but also for the entire text of Scripture.
This theological apparatus finds its roots in Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, in which the German reformer was afforded the opportunity to abdicate or affirm some of his statements in the previous year’s infamous Ninety-Five Theses. In so doing, Luther was granted the bandwidth to more accurately articulate his quarrels with the church and the papacy. Gerhard Forde writes in On Being a Theologian of the Cross, a pseudo-commentary on Luther’s 1518 disputations, that “the Heidelberg Disputation is the most influential of all Luther’s disputations. It is theologically much more important and influential, for instance, than the Ninety-five Theses, even though the Ninety-five Theses caused more of an ecclesiastical and political stir” (19). This due in large part because of Luther’s insistence on the basic tenets of theology itself, particularly in Thesis 20, in which he avers, “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” For Luther, the cross wasn’t merely the coronation of God’s saving action through his only begotten Son, it was the culmination of God’s self-disclosure.
“The cross is the theo-logy, the logos of God,” Forde continues (3). It is the prime mode in which God makes himself known. The picture of who God most truly is, is made apparent in the bruised and bleeding face of his only begotten Son nailed to a Roman spigot. Such is the theology of the cross. “There, in the brokenness of the suffering Christ,” notes church historian Carl Trueman, “the believer sees the triumph and the glory of the God of grace over the world, the flesh and the devil. There, in this strange and powerful contradiction of all our human expectation, is where we see God as he really is towards us, in all his power and glory” (44). Such is the scandal inherent to the gospel.
When the apostles began proclaiming the message that the Galilean preacher-blasphemer-traitor who had only lately been crucified was the Christ of God, they sent a flurry of scandalous reverberations throughout the known world. The idea of God suffering, let alone suffering the agony and shame and disgrace of a Roman crucifixion, was an entirely foreign concept. “That a man,” writer and historian Tom Holland notes, “who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque” (6). It was nothing short of sacrilege, not to mention blatant crassness, to maintain such a thing. And yet, such is the basic premise of the apostles’ doctrine.
For instance, in St. Paul’s memorable christological anthem in Philippians 2, he affirms the theology of the cross in a not so subtle way. “Because he was in the form of God,” Christ took upon himself “the form of a servant,” Humbling himself to the lowest of the low, becoming “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:7–8). But catch what he says next: “Therefore God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). The apostle’s claim, then, was that Christ’s exaltation is inseparable from the suffering of the cross. The very idea of God is inseparable from the cross. For Paul, the cross wasn’t a variable when it came to preaching the kingdom, it was the central element in his theology (1 Cor. 2:2).
Even still, the theology of the cross is a hard message to accept. Forde calls it “an offensive theology,” because “unlike other theologies it attacks what we usually consider the best in our religion” (2). It runs counter to our intrinsic logic. Our natural assumption is that success and renown are spoils of the strong, the mighty, and the powerful. Through our own dogged effort, then, we strive to overcome suffering, seeing it as the means by which we can realize ascendant glory. In a world seized by “survival of the fittest,” there is no room for the appearance of weakness. “A theology of glory,” Forde continues, “operates on the assumption that what we need is optimistic encouragement, some flattery, some positive thinking, some support to build our self-esteem. Theologically speaking it operates on the assumption that we are not seriously addicted to sin, and that our improvement is both necessary and possible” (16). Such notions turn the preaching of the cross into nothing more than a coach’s impassioned halftime speech, the goal being to rouse his lackluster players to new levels of effort and energy, the byproduct of which is success (a.k.a. glory), so the logic runs.
Forde agrees: “Religiously,” he says, “we like to look on ourselves as potential spiritual athletes desperately trying to make God’s team, having perhaps just a little problem or two with the training rules. We have a thirst for glory” (92). But the solution to the human condition isn’t another motivational speech. The problem of sin isn’t resolved by turning the grace of the cross into the “special sauce” of spiritual performance. Rather, what’s needed is precisely what Christ offers: death and resurrection. And so it is that the cross is God’s great antithesis, which puts our hubristic theologies and philosophies in the grave, leaving them there, like he does our sin. Carl Trueman remarks:
What we have on the cross is not the defeat of a criminal, but the triumph of the king of glory; not the victory of the powers of evil, but the victory of good over evil; not the hopeless curse of God, but the blessing of God by which all may be saved . . . the cross is not simply God’s saving action on behalf of sinful humanity . . . it is also a demonstration of how God acts in general, how he achieves those purposes which he intends . . . the cross appears to be a defeat but is in fact the means to divine victory. The alien work of death, suffering, wrath, and condemnation taking place on the cross is actually the vehicle for achieving life, blessedness, mercy, and salvation. This pattern, of which the cross is the supreme example, is basic for Luther’s understanding of the Christian life: God always achieves his proper work in us (i.e. our salvation) through his alien work (our suffering and weakness). (43–44, 51–52)
If the cross is God’s truest self-portrait, then it’s safe to say that suffering is decidedly not antithetical to the faith of the church. “True Christian expectations,” Trueman continues, “centre on the cross and involve an acceptance, if not the willing embrace, of the suffering, weakness, and marginalisation which inevitably come to those who follow in the footsteps of the Master” (53). Which is to say that the applicability and resonance of the theology of glory vs. the theology of the cross meets us right where we are — in our seasons of abject heartache, grief, and loss. Those moments of suffering which so often stain the tapestry of our lives are not, in fact, aberrations or obstacles that require our strenuous effort to overcome. Rather, they are the moments in which our merciful Savior is drawing us to himself.
“Whoever does not know God hidden in suffering,” Forde comments, “does not know God at all” (85). The love of God is manifest in the languor of the cross. It’s the perpetual demonstration that his logic is foolishness to us (1 Cor. 1:27). Instead of the mortal logic of glory, the very life of Christ himself is the very epitome of humility. He does not barge into our frayed realm ranting and raving like a salty coach. Nor does he bark at us and all we’ve done wrong. Rather, he reconciles the world to himself by humbling himself to where we are, sin and suffering and shame and all.
Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997).
Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
Carl R. Trueman, Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2000).