Friday, June 27, 2014

Luther's Theology of the Cross: Great Blessings Through Great Suffering

Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer, talked about something called the theology of the cross (as opposed to the theology of glory). The first theology is the good and right one, but harder for our human nature to embrace than the second one. Yet it's the only theology that offers sanity and hope in all the difficult experiences of this life. This excerpt from an article by Carl Trueman tells a little bit about how the theology of the cross is so very meaningful for our lives. I highly recommend following the link to and reading the whole article.

Luther...had a dramatically restrictive view of revelation. God revealed himself as merciful to humanity in the incarnation, when he manifested himself in human flesh, and the supreme moment of that revelation was on the cross at Calvary. Indeed, Luther sometimes referred enigmatically to Christ crucified as "God's backside"—the point at which God appeared to be the very contradiction of all that one might reasonably have anticipated him to be. The "theologians of glory," therefore, are those who build their theology in the light of what they expect God to be like—and, surprise, surprise, they make God to look something like themselves. The "theologians of the cross," however, are those who build their theology in the light of God's own revelation of himself in Christ hanging on the cross.

The cross is [the paradigm] for how God will deal with believers who are united to Christ by faith. In short, great blessing will come through great suffering.

This point is hard for those of us in the affluent West to swallow. For example, once I lectured at a church gathering on this topic and pointed out that the cross was not simply an atonement, but a revelation of how God deals with those whom he loves. I was challenged afterwards by an individual who argued that the cross and resurrection marked the start of the reversal of the curse, and that great blessings should thus be expected; to focus on suffering and weakness was therefore to miss the eschatological significance of Christ's ministry.

Of course, this individual had failed to apply Luther's theology of the cross as thoroughly as he should have done. All that he said was true, but he failed to understand what he was saying in light of the cross. Luther would agree that the curse is being rolled back, but that rollback is demonstrated by the fact that, thanks to the cross, evil is now utterly subverted in the cause of good. If the cross of Christ, the most evil act in human history, can be in line with God's will and be the source of the decisive defeat of the very evil that caused it, then any other evil can also be subverted to the cause of good.

More than that, if the death of Christ is mysteriously a blessing, then any evil that the believer experiences can be a blessing too. Yes, the curse is reversed; yes, blessings will flow; but who said that these blessings will line up with expectations of affluent America? The lesson of the cross for Luther is that the most blessed person upon earth, Jesus Christ himself, was revealed as blessed precisely in his suffering and death. And if that is the way that God deals with his beloved son, do those who are united to him by faith have any right to expect anything different?

This casts the problem of evil in a somewhat different light for Luther than, say, for Harold Kushner, the rabbi who wrote When Bad Things Happen to Good People. They happen, Luther would say, because that is how God blesses them. God accomplishes his work in the believer by doing his alien work (the opposite of what we expect); he really blesses by apparently cursing.

Indeed, when it is grasped that the death of Christ, the greatest crime in history, was willed in a deep and mysterious way by the triune God—yet without involving God in any kind of moral guilt—we see the solution to the age-old problem of absolving an all-powerful God of responsibility for evil. The answer to the problem of evil does not lie in trying to establish its point of origin, for that is simply not revealed to us. Rather, in the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good. Romans 8:28 is true because of the cross of Christ: if God can take the greatest of evils and turn it to the greatest of goods, then how much more can he take the lesser evils which litter human history, from individual tragedies to international disasters, and turn them to his good purpose as well.

Luther's theology of the cross is too rich to be covered adequately in a single article, but I hope that my brief sketch above will indicate the rich vein of theological reflection which can be mined by those who reflect upon 1 Corinthians 1 and upon the dramatic antitheses between appearance and reality that are scattered throughout Scripture and marshaled with such force by Martin Luther. An antidote to sentimentality, prosperity doctrine, and an excessively worldly eschatology, this is theological gold dust. The cross is not simply the point at which God atones for sin; it is also a profound revelation of who God is and how he acts toward his creation.

3 comments:

mmcallison said...

Very insightful. Thanks for posting. Particularly like the quote: "The cross is not simply the point at which God atones for sin; it is also a profound revelation of who God is and how he acts toward his creation."

Tami Dalton said...

I concur. Thanks Jeri

Jeri Tanner said...

Thanks for commenting!