A bit of a long read but well worth it if it will allow us to make better disticntions about what we believe and why. I pray many here will take the time necessary to read and ponder.
On being a Theologian of the Cross . . .
by Gehard O. Forde
I have three reasons for writing this little book. First, to fill a need. Talk about the theology of the cross seems to be growing in church circles, and I am often asked what a theology of the cross is and what makes it so different from other kinds of theology. After I try to give as helpful a reply as I can, which under the circumstances of casual conversation is usually sketchy and superficial, the next question is whether there is something to read that would enlighten further. Then, alas, I am even more at a loss. Even though there is some literature available in German, there isnt much of anything in English one can recommend enthusiastically to the ordinary reader. To be sure, there are works like Walther von Loewenichs Luthers Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), the classic treatment of the subject that first appeared in German in 1929. It is still essential reading for anyone who wishes to delve deeply into the theology of the cross. However, it is heavy going for
1. There has been a recent burgeoning of articles and books concerned with the theology of the cross, but most of it is related to questions surrounding liberation theology or problems of victimization, speculation about the vulnerability of God, and so forth, which doesnt get at the central issue of being a theologian of the cross as I attempt to set that forth here.
one not aware of some of the scholarly debates of the time, and it was written as much to make a case about Luthers theological development as it was to expound the theology of the cross per se. More recently, Alister McGrath has also written a book with the same title, Luthers Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), but that too, even though well worth reading and helpful, is rather an interpretation of Luthers development than a treatment of the theology of the cross. We thus find ourselves in a situation where there is increasing talk about the theology of the cross but little specific knowledge of what exactly it is. Although this treatise cannot pretend to exhaust the subject, it does hope to make a modest addition to the understanding of the theology of the cross.
The second reason I have for writing follows from the first. In the absence of clear understanding, the theology of the cross tends to become sentimentalized, especially in an age that is so concerned about victimization. Jesus is spoken of as the one who identifies with us in our suffering, or the one who enters into solidarity with us in our misery. The suffering of God, or the vulnerability of God, and such platitudes become the stock-in-trade of preachers and theologians who want to stroke the psyche of todays religionists. But this results in rather blatant and suffocating sentimentality. God is supposed to be more attractive to us because he identifies with us in our pain and suffering. Misery loves company becomes the unspoken motif of such theology.
*This might help explain why the pep rally mentality of todays church.
A theology of the cross, however, is not sentimentalism. To be sure, it speaks much about suffering. A theologian of the cross, Luther says, looks at all things through suffering and the cross. It is also certainly true that in Christ God enters into our suffering and death. But in a theology of the cross it is soon apparent that we cannot ignore the fact that suffering comes about because we are at odds with God and are trying to rush headlong into some sort of cozy identification with him. God and his Christ, Luther will be concerned to point out, are the operators in the matter, not the ones operated upon (thesis 27, Heidelberg Disputation). In the gospel of John, Jesus is concerned to point out that no one takes his life from him but that he lays it down of his own accord (John 10:18). In the end, Jesus suffers and dies because nobody identified with him. The people cried, Crucify him! One of his disciples betrayed him, another denied him and the rest forsook him and fled. He died alone, forsaken even by God.
Now we in turn suffer the absolute and unconditional working of God upon us. It is a suffering because as old beings we cannot abide such working. We are rendered passive the divine activity.
Passive, it should be remembered here, comes from the same root as passion, which is, of course, to suffer. And so we look on the world anew in the light of Christs Passion, through suffering and the cross (thesis 20), as ones who suffer the sovereign working of God. A sentimentalized theology gives the impression that God in Christ comes to join us in our battle against some unknown enemy, is victimized, and suffers just like us. *Like the daughters of Jerusalem we sympathize with him.
*and are manipulated into some emotion state of guilt by teachers who see things this way and that we might be sustained by it.
A true theology of the cross places radical question marks over against sentimentality of that sort. Weep not for me, Jesus said, but for yourselves and for your children.
My third reason for writing is related to the second. It is evident that there is a serious erosion or slippage in the language of theology today. Sentimentality leads to a shift in focus, and the language slips out of place. To take a common example, we apparently are no longer sinners, but rather victims, oppressed by sinister victimizers whom we relentlessly seek to track down and accuse. Of course, there are indeed victims and victimizers in our culture all too many of them. But the kind of collective paranoia that allows us to become preoccupied with such a picture of our plight cannot help but nudge the language just enough to cause it to slip and fall out of place. The slippage is often very slight and subtle and hardly noticeable; that is what makes it so deceptive.
We no longer live in a guilt culture but have been thrown into meaninglessness so we are told. Then the language slips out of place. Guilt puts the blame on us as sinners, but who is responsible for meaninglessness? Surely not we! Sin, if it enters our consciousness at all, is generally something that they did to us. As Alan Jones, Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of San Francisco, put it once, We live in an age in which everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.
Since we are victims and not really sinners, what we need is affirmation and support, and so on. The language slips and falls out of place. It becomes therapeutic rather than evangelical. It must be trimmed more and more so as not to give offense. In thesis 21 of the Heidelberg Disputation Luther says that a theologian of the cross says what a thing is, whereas a theologian of glory calls the bad good and the good bad. This stakes out the claim that language and its proper use in matters theological is a fundamental concern of the theologian of the cross. Luthers words suggest that the misuse or slippage of language in this regard has a theological root. When we operate on the assumption that our language must constantly be trimmed so as not to give offense, to stroke the psyche rather than to place it under attack, it will of course gradually decline to the level of greeting-card sentimentality. The language of sin, law, accusation, repentance, judgment, wrath, punishment, perishing, death, devil, damnation, and even the cross itself virtually one- half of the vocabulary simply disappears. It has lost its theological legitimacy and therefore its viability as communication.
A theologian of the cross says what a thing is. In modern parlance: a theologian of the cross calls a spade a spade. One who looks on all things through suffering and the cross is constrained to speak the truth. The theology of the cross, that is to say, provides the theological courage and the conceptual framework to hold the language in place. It will, no doubt, also involve critical appraisal of the language and its use. It will recognize indeed that the half of the vocabulary that has disappeared can be frightening and offensive.
But it will see precisely that the cross and the resurrection itself is the only answer to that problem, not erasure or neglect. So this study hopes to make some small contribution to holding the language in place.
It is curious that in spite of attempts to avoid offense, matters dont actually seem to improve. We seek affirmation, but we seem to experience less and less of it. We look for support, but others are too busy looking for it themselves to pay us much mind. Preachers try to prop up our self-esteem with optimistic blandishments, but more and more people seem to suffer from a deteriorating sense of self-worth. Perhaps a return to calling a spade a spade has its place. At least that is one of the hopes behind this treatise.
This is not to say, however, that the language of affirmation, comfort, support, building self-esteem, and so forth does not have its place. On the level of human relations it can be quite necessary and beneficial. It has its place, however, among that which is pen ultimate, in caring for the well-being of persons in this age. The danger and misuse comes when such language displaces or obscures the ultimate. It would be as though an alcoholic were to confuse breaking the habit with salvation. Penultimate cures are mistaken for ultimate redemption. When that happens the church becomes predominantly a support group rather than the gathering of the body of Christ where the word of the cross and resurrection is proclaimed and heard. This temptation is abroad in the land and must be resisted.
How true this is and that it explains much we have wondered about and not had answers for; being unwilling to judge the situation.
Even though the reasons for wanting to write a treatise on the theology of the cross may be stated, we soon run into the difficult question of how to do it. We discover why there is not much literature available. It is a hard thing, indeed a risky thing, to write about. That will no doubt become clear to the reader here. What is, after all, the subject matter of a theology of the cross? Is it simply a repetition of the Passion story? Hardly. Is it then perhaps just another treatment of the doctrine of atonement? Not really. Is it just an account of an unusual sort of religious experience, a kind of spirituality; as we might say today? That may be closer to the truth, but still not exactly. It is rather a particular perception of the world and our destiny, what Luther came to call looking at all things through suffering and the cross. It has to do with what he referred to often as the question of usus, the way the cross is put to use in our lives.
Yet that is rather difficult to write about. Indeed, as I shall maintain later, 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 event of the cross do. In casting about for a way to proceed, therefore, it gradually became clear to me first of all that I should give the work the title On Being a Theologian of the Cross. Second, I found that the more I worked with the sources, the more I was drawn to the Heidelberg Disputation itself as an account of what a theologian of the cross does. That is, the Disputation itself is the doing of a theologian of the cross. It is, we might say, what the theologian of the cross puts up for dispute before the world. The more I studied that ancient dispute, the more it became evident to me that, in spite of the fact that it is couched in the language and problematic of the 16th century, it is so radical and deep for its time that it is still vital for our time. Because of this radicalness, it anticipates and answers the questions that are with us yet, and no doubt always will be. However, the Disputation in the end needs no apology; not even in. appeals to contemporary relevance. Its theology is of such consequence as to command our attention for its own sake. Contemplating it with some care is a theological experience in itself. It leads us to see theological matters in a new light what Luther meant when he said a theologian of the cross says what a thing is. So it became clear to me in the end that the form my work should take would be simply some reflections on the Disputation itself, probing the theses and their proofs as a beginning attempt at opening up the text. It is by no means an exhaustive treatment, but an attempt.
If I have reasons for wanting to write of being a theologian of the cross, I also have some apprehensions. It might well be asked whether there is need or place for theologians of the cross today. They, as we shall see, cannot but appear very critical and negative over against the optimism of a theology of glory. *Is it not cruel to attack what little optimism we are able to muster these days?
*Do we not see great defenses go up when we do?
Would not the attack already be too late? The attack in the Heidelberg Disputation begins by ruthlessly shredding all ideas of the place of good works in the scheme of salvation. Yet, as the oft-repeated remark has it, who is trying to do good works any more? Is the theology of the cross a magnificent attack on a nonexistent enemy, a marvelous cure for a disease that no one has? Could it be perhaps, as with smallpox vaccine, that finally the vaccination causes more illness than the disease? Is a theologian of the cross a curious historical relic spreading pessimism where desperate people are hanging on by their fingertips?
We should hesitate, no doubt, to be drawn too easily into arguments about the worth or usefulness of our own efforts. The treatise itself will have to argue its own case.
Nevertheless, some preliminary indication of how my apprehensions were set aside long enough to risk writing may be of interest to the reader. In the first place, anyone who gets some glimpse of what it means to be a theologian of the cross immediately realizes that the bane of a theology of glory never vanishes. It is the perennial theology of the fallen race. We have to persist in a theology of the cross in order precisely to expose that fact. In the second place, I laid my apprehension aside because I have come to wonder if the very theology of glory is not in a state of severe crisis. If it is true that no one is trying anymore, what does that portend? Does it mean, as a post-modernist might say, that the Holy Words no longer signify a meaningful destiny? Have we lost the thread of the story? Is the official optimism of North America, as Douglas John Hall spoke of it, finally running off into sand? Could that be one of the reasons for the despair and chaos in our homes and in our streets? Has the thirst for glory finally issued in the despair that Luther foresaw? This treatise is written with the suspicion that the malaise of the theology of glory is the ultimate source of contemporary despair, not the
theology of the cross. My writing proceeds on the assumption that a theology of the cross brings hope, indeed, the only ultimate hope.