Discovering God in Suffering Luther: A Theologian of the Cross

“God can only be found in suffering and the cross.” Martin Luther (1483-1546) wrote these words in 1518 as he was preparing for the Heidelberg Disputation, a discussion of his “new” evangelical teachings. At Heidelberg, Luther used the terms “theology of glory” and “theology of the cross.” From there, although his theology developed, Luther never moved away from these two major themes. At first glance, perhaps both of these terms sound right and reasonable to use as we discuss the Christian faith. Does not Scripture declare what happened on the cross, and is not God a God of glory? For Luther, however, only one of these two terms was reserved for Christians. The other was the theology of the devil.

Once we understand the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross, we will gain deeper insight into the rest of Luther’s theology. If we want to appreciate Luther entirely, we must understand these two themes of his. Negatively, we might say that you cannot fully understand Luther’s theology unless you understand his distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. This article will argue as much: the distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory was so essential to Luther that it pervaded all of his theology.

We do not have the space to discuss how the aforementioned two themes affected every aspect of Luther’s theology, so for the purposes of this article we will focus only on three aspects. After defining the terms, I will demonstrate that the distinction between the theology of the cross and glory permeates Luther’s dislike for reason, his high view of Scripture, and his law/ gospel distinction. Before doing so, however, it is essential to define relevant terms.

Terms Identified

In Luther’s day, as well as him, some Scholastics and other theologians were religious and philosophical speculators. They attempted to figure out who God is in Himself (in se), using reason and speculation. Luther waged war against such theories: “nothing is more dangerous…than to build one’s own road to God and to climb up by our speculations.” Climbing up to God on this ladder of speculation and mysticism will bring a man to Deus absconditus, the hidden God who, apart from revelation, is a terrifying Judge and holy King who condemns.

For Luther, the theology of glory (theologia gloriae) was a theology that did an end run around Christ directly to God. The theologians of glory were attempting to peek at God in the nude (Deus nudus)—God outside of His revelation in Scripture, in Jesus Christ. Luther claimed that the medieval scholastics “set out to scale heaven and find the Deus nudus.” In short, the theologian of glory bypasses God’s revelation in attempt to go directly to God as He is in Himself. The theologian of glory does not understand that man cannot experience God in His own nature.

Yet man can find and know God, Luther adamantly maintained. “He deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering on the cross. God can only be found in suffering and the cross.” The theology of the cross (theologia crucis) seems weak, helpless, foolish, and even stupid to those who do not believe in the gospel (1 Cor. 1). But this is exactly where we can find and know God: in weakness and suffering, the God who reveals Himself (Deus revelatus). For Luther, the Christian must begin and end with Christ. He is God in a manger, an infant in diapers, an unattractive man who died a shameful death on the cross.

“The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation.” The glory of God “is not something we see or experience right now” as pilgrims on earth. A theologian of the cross, for Luther, is one who sees the hidden yet revealed God on the cross. As mentioned above, one permeating aspect of Luther’s theology was the theology of the cross, but we cannot think of the theology of the cross apart from Luther’s concept of Deus revalatus. “The idea of the hidden God is most intimately connected with Luther’s theology of the cross.” Jesus Christ on the cross is God hidden in suffering, and at the same time revealed in suffering. The merciful and loving God cannot be found outside of His “hidden” revelation, Christ on the cross. Here we begin to see how foundational the cross—the theology of the cross— was for Luther.

Reason: A Very Slippery Thing

“Whenever one abandons the Word and speculates without and apart from the Word, reason becomes a very uncertain, slippery thing.” Some have criticized Luther for his hatred of reason when he called reason “a big red murderess,” “the devil’s bride,” “a blind guide,” “the enemy of faith,” and the “greatest and most invincible enemy of God.” Luther’s dislike for reason also appeared in his small catechism, the third article, where he wrote, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.” In part, Luther’s negative view of reason was in response to the volumes of speculative philosophy he had read and which was prevalent in the medieval Roman church.

Luther’s definition of the theologia gloriae and his distaste for reason go hand in hand; they are inseparable. Reason is the authority for a theologian of glory. He speculates on the mysteries of God apart from His Word, His revelation of Himself. The theologian of glory does not bow to Scripture, but climbs the ladder to God using reason and speculation. His reason expects God to reveal Himself in gusto and strength, in glory and in splendor. He cannot understand how or why God would reveal Himself in a suffering and dying man on a cross.
On the other hand, the theologian of the cross bows to God; his reason submits to the authority of God’s Word, His revelation. Reason that submits to Scripture is a gift of God that we should not despise, Luther said. Indeed, the believer must think about the gospel and Scripture using reason. At one point, Luther even asserted that reason serves faith. The theologia crucis is theology where reason is not authoritative, but Scripture, God’s revelation. This theology is one that sees God on the cross, revealed yet hidden, in suffering and tears. The theologian of the cross knows of these things not by reason, but by faith alone. Furthermore, he knows that the creature can never know the Deus absconditus, so he stays at the cross, where he finds Deus revelatus. This phrase shows how central the theology of the cross was for Luther: “Crux sola est nostra theologia” (the cross alone is our theology).

In summary, then, the theology of glory is theology where reason is authoritative, where faith serves reason, and where reason brings a man to God. If reason is a person’s final authority, according to Luther, it has no place in Christian theology. It belongs in the devil’s book of theology.

The theology of the cross, however, is theology where reason serves faith, and where faith brings a man to God as He reveals Himself on the cross. If we would approach Luther’s discussion of reason without presupposing his distinction between the theologies of glory and the cross, we could not see the essence of his argument. As always, Luther approached every topic as Scripture defined it.

That Word Above All Earthly Powers: Scripture

The theologia gloriae is not theology derived from Scripture, the Word of God. The theologian of glory has no primary place for the Word of God. When Luther preached, he often reproved the Roman church for trampling on Scripture by making decrees of man equal to the Word. He rebuked the Roman church and her leaders for setting up idols and condemning true evangelical preaching. Notice how this goes hand in hand with the theology of glory. The theologian of glory, with his Bible closed, considers who God is and what man can do to get to Him. Thus the theology of the Roman church with her indulgences, merits of the Saints, purgatory, relics, cowls, monasteries, tonsures, pilgrimages, and so on, advocated a theology of glory.

“We should…allow Scripture to rule and master us, and we ourselves should not be the masters, according to our own mad heads, setting ourselves above Scripture.” Luther’s passionate emphasis on Scripture comes through in this statement prior to a sermon on Matthew 11:2-10:

Rightly to worship our Lord God on this Sunday and holy day in keeping with his express will of how we are to serve him, we need to sanctify this holy day by hearing Christ’s Word, the Word that sanctifies everything. For it alone is holy, and for that reason we speak it, preach it, and give heed to it.

Phrases like these are quite common in Luther’s preaching. He constantly emphasized his dependence on the Word, and exhorted his congregation to regard it highly. Why? Because nowhere else can a man find God; nowhere else does God speak words of life to us.
The theologia crucis is a theology centered on the Word of God. Yes, it is foolishness for God to speak salvation through the preaching of a God hidden on the cross—in Jesus Christ. But it is all we have, so we must cling to it, and see God in it. A discussion of Luther’s theologia crucis without a section on Scripture would be incomplete, because where else do we learn about Christ on the cross? Where else can we turn to find God? This essential: the theologian of the cross is a theologian of the Word. Such was Luther. His understanding of the theology of the cross and the theology of glory was accurate because it was rooted in Scripture itself.

Law and Gospel: Glory or the Cross?

To bring together Luther’s law/gospel distinction and the theology of the cross and of glory may seem like a stretch. What do glory and the cross have to do with law and gospel? By way of reminder, Luther often pointed out the difference between the law and the gospel in Scripture. With the demands of the law God makes us answerable; with the promise of the gospel He makes Himself answerable. The law says, “do this or die,” while the gospel says, “Jesus has done it all; you will live.” Luther preached on this distinction repeatedly because the Roman church actually mixed them: Christ was a judge (law) who could be appeased by works (gospel).

No doubt the theologian of glory did not make the proper law/gospel distinction. The theologian of glory, in attempting to find God, does so on his own terms. This is law, that a man says he can discover who God is on his own through works, meditation, philosophy, speculation, or nature. But what the theologian of glory finds apart from the gospel is, as mentioned above, God without a mediator. God outside of Christ is not loving and kind; He is a consuming fire.

Luther put this fact clearly in Thesis 24 of the Heidelberg Disputation: “He who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God” (emphasis added). The theologian of glory is proud, self-glorying, and takes credit for good works, as if the works of sinful man can merit anything with God. Clearly, the man who prefers works to suffering prefers anything but the cross, anything but salvation through suffering rather than works.

In contrast, the theologian of the cross is a theologian of Jesus Christ, a theologian of the good news of salvation proclaimed in Scripture. The theologian of the cross knows that the law condemns and kills while the gospel promises and gives life. The gospel is what Jesus has done to save his people completely. The gospel preached seems like weakness and foolishness to unbelievers, while it is God’s power and glory to the Christian.

The distinction is clear: the theologian of glory makes the law the gospel and the gospel the law while the theologian of the cross does not confuse the two. Once more, we see how fundamental the theology of the cross is, how it even deeply affected Luther’s correct distinction between law and gospel. The cross alone was Luther’s theology—not glory and law, but suffering and gospel.

Conclusion

An interpretation of Luther’s theology with no explanation of his distinction between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross is incomplete. The statements concerning the theology of the cross versus the theology of glory in the Heidelberg disputation “actually encapsulate the heart of Luther’s theology.” The theology of the cross permeated his theology in three areas: the use of reason, the authority of Scripture and the law/ gospel distinction. How accurate would an evaluation or discussion of Luther be if one would approach him without knowing about the theology of glory verses the theology of the cross? Again, we must remember this: the distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory was so essential to Luther that it pervaded all of his theology. Luther preached Christ on the cross—the cross alone truly was his theology! “The center of Luther’s understanding of Christianity is the proclamation of a God who is both hidden and revealed.” The center of understanding Luther’s theology is the cross. Indeed, you rightly understand Luther when you stay at the cross, acknowledge the authority of Scripture, know that reason serves faith, and that the gospel (not the law!) is the good news of Christ bleeding and dying in shame on the cross.

Rev. Shane Lems is a church planter in Sunnyside Washington. He is under the supervision of the Grace United Reformed Church in Kennewick, Washington.

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