By: Rick Serina
This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
For Lutheran pastors, one of the greatest opportunities to expose people to Lutheran theology comes in adult instruction—a new members’ class. We take a few months to walk through the principal doctrines of Lutheranism with them in a way that will give them a clearer understanding of what Lutheran churches believe, teach, and confess. Yet, rather than the Small Catechism, which has traditionally been the touchstone for Lutheran catechesis, we often begin with some differently categorized course materials. Quite often, those course materials begin not with the things Lutherans have in common, say, with other Lutherans, but rather with what makes us distinct from them. The list is familiar: the distinction between law and gospel, the two kinds of righteousness, the two realms or kingdoms, the doctrine of vocation, and, as much as any, the theology of cross versus the theology of glory. We seem intent on trying to point out how we as Lutherans are different so that we can convince the Roman Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist to join our congregation, as if theology were little more than a sales pitch for recruitment of new members.
The so-called theology of the cross gives us a perfect example of how we can turn such a theological idea into a definitive Lutheran concept without understanding exactly how it relates to our core theological identity. The notion of a theology of the cross over against a theology of glory emerged from Luther’s theses presented for an April 1518 debate in Heidelberg. It is worth noting that very little attention was paid to this debate or to its argument prior to the twentieth century, and it was only with the late ELCA theologian Gerhard Forde that its popularity grew among American Lutherans. Forde, without any substantial reference to the history or interpretation of the Heidelberg Theses, laid out the theology of the cross as a method for doing theology, focusing primarily on theses 19-24, where Luther contrasts theologians of the cross with theologians of glory. For Forde, this approach became a new way of making sense of the world through the lens of the cross and suffering rather than, say, science or philosophy or our self-help culture or even dogmatic theology (think Pieper’s dogmatics). He used it to show how the cross shook up all of our neat, tidy views of creation and humanity, of life and faith and doctrine.
While there is much to say for the cross unsettling our categories, is that what Luther intended at Heidelberg? What do we actually know about Heidelberg and Luther’s notion of a theology of the cross? Relatively little, in fact. First, because he had already been cited for his errors in Rome, Luther was ordered by his superiors in his religious order not to debate publicly over indulgences. Second, Luther drafted two sets of theses for debate—one theological, one philosophical, each with its own set of “proofs,” which were essentially supporting materials such as Scripture references or citations of church fathers. Third, Luther composed the theses for an Augustinian student, Leonhard Beier, who was to defend them publicly. We don’t know, however, whether Luther spoke in defense of them or whether they were intended to reflect his own theology or even whether Beier agreed with them or not.
All that to say this: when we talk about the theology of the cross, and when we refer back to the Heidelberg Theses as basis for that, our knowledge of the argument and scope of the theses is limited to the 28 basic theses we have in print, and those have to do almost exclusively with the way in which the theology of the day had frequently strayed from Christ’s suffering and death as a basis for our salvation. Theologians had put increasing emphasis upon the human ability to please God through works, such as obedience to the law, rather than what Christ had done. That’s the gist of Luther’s very first thesis (which caught the attention of then-Dominican student and later Reformed theologian, Martin Bucer): “The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.” This was the argument Luther had begun making in his lectures on Romans (1515-1516), Galatians (1516-1517), and Hebrews (1517-1518). The law could not save, and when we depend upon the law for salvation, we detract from faith in the Christ who does save. But it is thesis sixteen that reveals the target of his criticism: “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.” The phrase “obtain grace by doing what is in him” refers to a common late medieval argument Luther himself had learned during theological study in Erfurt. Theologians said that “to those who do what is in them God will not deny grace” (Facientibus quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam). The point was that God had endowed our human wills with the capacity to obey him through good works, and when we did “the best we could” he would give us grace to complete the job—we could obey him until we merit eternal life.
You can see the fundamental problem here. The opposing view flies directly in the face of the Pauline understanding of justification Luther was learning, most especially from Romans and Galatians, where righteousness is something we receive from God on account of Christ, not something we attain by obedience to God’s law through the exercise of our free will. It was in this context, and only in this context, that Luther cautions in theses 19 and 20 against clinging to human will, reason, or strength rather than what has been revealed in Scripture about Jesus’s suffering and death: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened…He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” As thesis 21 confirms, a theologian of the cross who looks at the Christian life through the lens of Christ’s suffering and death sees that human virtues cannot save and that dependence upon those works rather than upon Christ is fundamentally evil—yes, evil. And that’s why, as he brings his argument to a conclusion in theses 25-26, Luther puts an exclamation mark upon our access to salvation through faith rather than through works: “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ. The law says, ‘do this’, and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’, and everything is already done.”
When we understand Luther’s theses in their theological and historical context, it should be clear that he isn’t advocating a new way of doing theology. Instead, he is targeting the same exact foe he had begun targeting several years earlier and which would come more sharply into focus in the succeeding years: any attempt to explain our righteousness in terms of moral effort or human ability apart from Christ’s suffering and death. That’s your theology of glory. What Luther articulates is something quite different: the proclamation of righteousness on the basis of Christ’s suffering and death, which offers us salvation from our sin. That’s your theology of the cross. It is simply another of talking about justification—justification by grace through faith alone apart from works for Christ’s sake, as Augsburg 4 says. That’s what we as Lutherans are about. If we have a Lutheran theology of the cross, it isn’t some clever way to sanctify someone’s suffering or a different method for doing theology. Rather, it is clinging to the cross of Christ, to his suffering, death, and resurrection, as the sole basis and means for our justification. No, that isn’t terribly sexy or trendy, it won’t make a book cover look better or the book sell more, and it may seem old hat to Lutherans who have heard about it their entire lives. Yet it is exactly what Lutherans have always taught and believed, what Luther’s Smalcald Articles refer to as the “chief article” (Hauptartikel) and what Lutherans have since called the “article upon which the church stands or falls” (Articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae). Simply put, if the theology of the cross as expressed in the Heidelberg Theses is of any use to us, it is so simply as another way to talk about the Gospel as Lutherans understand it.
If we in fact do understand justification rightly, as Luther learned it from the writings of St. Paul, again in Romans and Galatians, then this is what we must hold out for our people. When we understand justification rightly, it has a domino effect on so many other doctrines: the church, baptism, confession and absolution, the Sacrament of the Altar, the pastoral ministry, free will, good works, and just about anything else we consider a fundamental biblical teaching. Its tentacles reach every corner of our faith and life. But it is not easy. The path of least resistance is to be clever, trendy, creative. The harder part is the routine labor of teaching justification and how it must shape and reshape the way we understand our entire Christian lives. This brings us back to our approach to the adult instruction class. Are we using ideas like the theology of the cross, distinction between law and gospel, two kinds of righteousness, two kingdoms, vocation, etc., as a way to make ourselves different or compelling? And if so, why do we feel the need to promote ourselves in this way? How can we talk about justification to people who have known it all their lives, especially in a heavily Roman Catholic region like New Jersey, since it seems like a broadside against Catholic theology? How can we explain clearly, yet persuasively that justification can and should and must have some corresponding impact on all areas of our theology, our Christian faith and how we lead our lives? That’s how Luther viewed it, that’s how the confessions viewed it, and that’s how the greater preponderance of Lutherans historically have viewed it.