Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The theology of the cross vs. the theology of glory

 From "Introductory Matters," the first chapter in Gerhard O. Forde's On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518:
Crux sola est nostra theologia.

The cross is in the first instance God's attack on human sin. Of course in the second instance, and finally, it is also salvation from sin. But we miss the bite of it if we do not see that first off it is an attack on sin. Strange attack - to suffer and die at our hands! God's "alien work," Luther called it. As an attack it reveals that the real seat of sin is not in the flesh but in our spiritual aspirations, in our "theology of glory." The point is that what happens in the crossl is completely contradictory to our usual religious thinking. St. Paul knew this. In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 he said,
The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Therefore the theology of the cross is an offensive theology. The offense consists in the fact that unlike other theologies it attacks what we usually consider the best in our religion. As we shall see, theologians of the cross do not worry so much about what is obviously bad in our religion, our bad works, as they do about the pretention that comes with our good works. So the theology of the cross can only be spoken of truthfully in contrast to all other types of theology. To express this, Luther made a fundamental distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. A theology of the cross does not, therefore, present itself as one option among many. In fact, in spite of what seems to be an endless variety of religions and theologies, it would be safe to say from this perspective that there are at the bottom only two types of theology, glory theology and cross theology. "The theology of glory" is a catchall for virtually all theologies and religions. The cross sets itself apart from and over against all of these.

1. The word "cross" here and in the entire treatise that follows is, of course, shorthand for the entire narrative of the crucified and risen Jesus. As such it includes the OT preparation (many of the foundational passages for the theology of the cross come from the OT!), the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and his exaltation. It is important to include resurrection and exaltation because there is considerable confusion abroad about their place in a theology of the cross. It is often claimed, for instance, that a theology of glory is a theology of resurrection while a theology of the cross is "only" concerned with crucifixion. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, a theology of the cross is impossible without resurrection. It is impossible to plumb the depths of the crucifixion without the resurrection.

To me, it's  really, really unfortunate that this description is so focused on what looks to my eyes to be a Reformation-era squabble for religious insiders!  I so resonate with the basic concept of "the theology of the cross" that  it's incredibly disappointing that the discussion immediately turns to "religion" and its alleged failings (until Luther, of course).    Wouldn't it be better to offer a theology that can address the human condition by itself, without any conditions?   You apparently have to be religious first, before any of this has any relevance to you - and what good is that, really?

I suppose Paul really was speaking to the religious impulse in Corinthians above - but doesn't Forde's interpretation say, basically, that that religious impulse itself is entirely impaired?    I mean, if  "God made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Him" - well, why would God give us a completely disordered religious instinct to begin with?  Is this some kind of bizarre endurance test?

Why not just say, instead, that our instincts for survival overwhelm our religious instinct - and that the job of religion is to correct that problem?  Or that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" - and it takes a long time (and a lot of suffering) to understand that?  Or that the koan of the crucifixion - "God's alien work" (a great phrase!) - stops us in our tracks and attacks our superego at a basic level (as all koans are meant to do)?

All that is to say that while I find "the theology of the cross" to be dead on accurate (so to speak) - I'm not so sure I'm crazy about how the Reformers I've read approach the topic.  I love the central idea - but there's something in Reformation theology that does not sit well with me.  I'm not quite sure yet what it is.

Still reading, though!


Lee said...

You might check out the work of Douglas John Hall--he's been trying to work out the implications of a theology of the cross for contemporary life & faith without getting hung up on Reformation-era debates.

bls said...

Thanks, Lee! That's a name I haven't heard before; I'll definittely look for stuff by him.