In the age of post-modernism and the seeker-sensitive faith movement, theological inquiry has often been vilified as irrelevant and unattractive – a vestige of traditional religion. But many forget that Protestantism – as a breakthrough in Christianity – was a theological breakthrough; and bringing us this theological breakthrough was Martin Luther. Central to Luther’s breakthrough was his theology of the cross. “For Luther, true theology begins through beholding the crucified Christ,” says Alister McGrath in his book Luther’s Theology of the Cross (All McGrath quotes here on in are from this book). In other words, Luther tells us that we can know God and His love concretely by looking to the suffering of Christ on the cross.
But for Luther, at the center of his theology of the cross lies a paradox. This paradox states that the crucified God is both hidden and revealed. McGrath writes, “For Luther, the sole authentic locus of human knowledge of God is the cross of Christ, in which God is to be found revealed, and yet paradoxically hidden in that very same revelation.” To unaided reason, Jesus is a weak man in history who died a shameful death on a Roman cross. Rational human beings expect God to manifest Himself in the world through power and majesty, not through humiliation and suffering.
The world, however, has preconceived notions of how God should reveal Himself. However, through the cross, God does not grant salvation through the power of human reason, but by grace through faith alone. McGrath writes, “In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed.” God hides Himself in the weak things of the world – those things which are God’s opposites – to reveal Himself, His love, and His salvation to humanity. God can only be grasped and salvation can only be obtained through faith as it gazes upon the suffering Christ. In his book, The Suffering of God According to Martin Luther’s Theologia Crucis, Dennis Ngien explains:
[Luther’s] Theologia crucis calls a thing what it is, declaring that it is God incarnate who suffers death, even death on a cross for the sake of humanity’s salvation, that only in shame and humility on the cross can one find the true and gracious God. That God reveals Himself in His opposites means that God reveals Himself in the folly of the world rather than in wisdom, in the weakness of His humanity rather than in strength, in suffering rather than in power, in humility rather than in glory, in shame rather than in majesty.
Here, Ngien displays the contrast in Luther’s thought between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. This contrast was first described by Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation (1518). In theses 19 and 20, Luther writes: “Anyone who observes the invisible things of God, understood through those things that are created, does not deserve to be called a theologian. But anyone who understands the visible rearward parts of God as observed in the suffering and the cross deserve to be called a theologian.” Luther derived this contrast from Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33: 18-23. Here, McGrath says, “Moses’ request to see the glory of God is denied; instead, he is constrained by God, denied a full disclosure of the divine glory or any direct sight of God’s face. All that Moses is permitted to see is the passing of God, catching a glimpse of God’s back as God strides into the distance.”
For Luther, a theologian of glory attempts to understand God through reason and has preconceived notions of how God would and should reveal Himself to humanity. Ngien writes, “Because the theologian of glory expects God to be revealed in glory, majesty and strength, he deduces that God cannot be present in the cross of Christ. He rejects the scene of dereliction on the cross as the self-revelation of God.” But on the other hand, the theologian of the cross depends not “upon the human capacity to understand,” but on the “human capacity to perceive” the crucified God who hides Himself in weakness. Indeed, “The cross does…reveal God – but the revelation is of the posterior Dei,” says McGrath.
Further to the paradoxical reality of the hidden and revealed God is a second paradox. For Luther, not only do we see the Deus absconditus and the Deus revelatus on the cross, but we also see God’s opus alienum and opus proprium. God’s wrath – seen in the crucifixion of the One who bore humanity’s sin – is God’s alien work of punishing sin. But God’s alien work leads to God’s proper work of forgiving humanity’s sin through the substitutionary atonement of Christ. For Luther, this can be applied to the Christian life.
When believers are undergoing what he calls “Anfechtung” (assaults), this is God’s alien work to test believers and draw them into the merciful hands of the Father. The cross models for Christians how God often works in the world—through suffering. This allows believers to find encouragement and strength as they suffer in fellowship with Christ. McGrath writes:
The cross, for Luther is…the foundation and criterion of an authentically Christian theology, illuminating how the believer must exist in a shadowy world of sin and doubt, and challenging natural human preconceptions of what God is like, and how God should act….Luther offers a vision of how the Christian is to exist in the dark wastelands of a fallen world, and cope with the deep anxiety of existential and metaphysical uncertainty.
For Luther, the theology of the cross is not a systematic theology that speculates about different theories of atonement, “but rather,” McGrath contends, “a way of ‘seeing’ the world…and of living the Christian life that recognizes the profound ambiguities of faith.”
May we be encouraged this Good Friday by God’s suffering in Christ who enters into the contradictory realities of our own lives and stirs hope in our hearts as we look towards the Easter resurrection and God’s promise of cosmological renewal.