Home > Lutheranism > Lutheran Mythbusting: The Empty Cross is Lutheran. The Crucifix is Roman Catholic.

Lutheran Mythbusting: The Empty Cross is Lutheran. The Crucifix is Roman Catholic.

September 14th, 2011
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I was reading some comments a person made about what represents Christ’s love best in Lutheranism. He said: “Christ’s love in Lutheranism is represented by the empty Cross…” Ah, no. There’s nothing wrong with a plain cross symbol, but the plain or “empty” cross is not somehow a “Lutheran” symbol, as opposed to the crucifix. In fact, the crucifix enjoys a very long use in Lutheranism. Here’s more information from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s web site.

Q.  Question: Is the use of crucifixes a Roman Catholic practice? Doesn’t the empty cross provide a better symbol for Lutherans? How does the LCMS feel about using a crucifix in church? [Note: A crucifix is a cross with a statue of the crucified Christ on it].

A.  A common misunderstanding among some some Lutherans is the opinion that a crucifix, or the use of a crucifix, is a “Roman Catholic” practice. The history of Lutheranism demonstrates that the crucifix was a regular and routine feature of Lutheran worship and devotional life during Luther’s lifetime and during the period of Lutheran Orthdoxy. It was also the case among the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. If you were to visit most of the original congregations of the LCMS here in the United States you would find lovely crucifixes adorning their altars, and in addition, beautiful statues on the altar of Christ and the four evangelists, or other such scenes. There is nothing uniquely Roman Catholic about this.  Many Lutherans and Lutheran congregations use crucifixes. Crucifixes are used in the chapels of both of our seminaries.

Lutheranism has always considered the crucifix to be a powerful reminder of the sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us and our salvation, on the cross. A crucifix vividly brings to mind the Apostle Paul’s divinely inspired words, “We preach Christ and Him crucified”  (1 Cor. 1:23).

Interestingly enough, while there is certainly nothing “wrong” with an “empty” cross, the practice of using an “empty cross” on a Lutheran congregation’s altar comes more from non-Lutheran sources. At the time of the Reformation there was conflict between Lutherans and Reformed Christians over the proper place of pictures, images, statues and the like in the church. Lutherans stood with historic Christendom in realizing that such art in the church was not wrong, and was a great aid for helping to focus devotional thoughts on the truths of the Word of God, no greater truth can be found that the death of Jesus Christ our Lord for the world’s salvation.

The “empty cross” is not a symbol of Christ’s resurrection, as some say, for the fact is that the cross would have been empty regardless of whether or not Christ had risen from the grave. The point to be kept clear here is that both an “empty cross” and a crucifix, symbolize the same thing: the death of Christ our Lord for the salvation of the world. Many feel that the crucifix symbolizes this truth more clearly and strikingly. That has been the traditional opinion of historic Lutheranism, until the last fifty years ago, due to the influence we will now mention.

Some Lutherans began to move away from crucifixes during the age of Lutheran Pietism, which rejected much of Lutheran doctrine and consequently many Lutheran worship practices. At the time, Lutheran Pietists, contrary to the clear postion of Luther and the earlier Lutherns, held that symbols such as the crucifix were wrong. This was never the view of historic Lutheranism.  Here in America, Lutherans have always felt a certain pressure to “fit in” with the Reformed Christianity that predominates much of the Protestant church here. Thus, for some Lutherans this meant doing away with things such as crucifixes, and vestments, and other traditional forms of Lutheran worship and piety. It is sad when some Lutherans are made to feel embarrassed about their Lutheranism by members of churches that teach the Word of God in error and who do not share Lutheanism’s clear confession and practice of the full truth of the Word of God.

Lutheranism has always recognized that the use of any symbol (even the empty cross) can become an idolatrous practice, if in any way people are led to believe there is “power in the cross” or that a picture or representation of a cross has some sort of ability, in itself, to bring us into relationship with Christ and His Gospel. Any of God’s good gifts can be turned against Him in this life and become an end in themselves.

Lutherans have never believed that banning or limiting proper artwork in the church is the way to prevent its improper use. Rather, we believe that proper teaching and right use is the best way, and the way that is in keeping with the gift of freedom we have in Christ to use all things to the glory and honor of God. Thus, many Lutherans use and enjoy the crucifix as a meaningful reminder of our Lord’s suffering and death. It might interest you to know that our Synod’s president has a beautiful crucifix adorning the wall of his office, constantly reminding him and visitors to his office of the great love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In short, and this is the most important point of all: there is nothing contrary to God’s Holy Word, or our Lutheran Confessions, about the proper use of the crucifix, just as there is nothing wrong with the proper use of an empty cross, or any other church symbol by which we are reminded of the great things God has done for us. We need to guard against quickly dismissing out of hand practices that we believe are “too Roman Catholic” before we more adequately explore their use and history in our own church.

In Christian freedom, we use either the crucifix or an empty cross and should not judge or condemn one another for using either nor not using either symbol of our Lord’s sacrifice for our sins.

Here are quotes from Martin Luther on crucifixes, images and making the sign of the cross:

The custom of holding a crucifix before a dying person has kept many in the Christian faith and has enabled them to die with a confident faith in the crucified Christ.

(Sermons on John, Chapters 1-4, 1539; LW, Vol. XXII, 147)

It was a good practice to hold a wooden crucifix before the eyes of the dying or to press it into their hands. This brought the suffering and death of Christ to mind and comforted the dying. But the others, who haughtily relied on their good works, entered a heaven that contained a sizzling fire. For they were drawn away from Christ and failed to impress His life-giving passion and death upon their hearts.

(Sermons on John, Chapters 6-8, 1532; LW, Vol. XXIII, 360)

[W]hen I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have an image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?

(Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW, Vol. 40, 99-100)


Now we do not request more than that one permit us to regard a crucifix or a saint’s image as a witness, for remembrance, as a sign as that image of Caesar was. Should it not be as possible for us without sin to have a crucifix or an image of Mary, as it was for the Jews and Christ himself to have an image of Caesar who, pagan and now dead, belonged to the devil? Indeed the Caesar had coined his image to glorify himself. However, we seek neither to receive nor give honor in this matter, and are yet so strongly condemned, while Christ’s possession of such an abominable and shameful image remains uncondemned.

(Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW, Vol. 40, 96)

And I say at the outset that according to the law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden.

(Ibid., 85-86)

Where however images or statues are made without idolatry, then such making of them is not forbidden.

[M]y image breakers must also let me keep, wear, and look at a crucifix or a Madonna . . . as long as I do not worship them, but only have them as memorials.

(Ibid., 86, 88)

But images for memorial and witness, such as crucifixes and images of saints, are to be tolerated . . . And they are not only to be tolerated, but for the sake of the memorial and the witness they are praiseworthy and honorable . . .

(Ibid., 91)


Morning Prayer

In the morning, when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen . . .

In the evening, when you go to bed, make the sign of the holy cross and say:

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

(Small Catechism, 1529, Section II: How the Head of the Family Should Teach His Household to Pray Morning and Evening, 22-23)

Thus has originated and continued among us the custom of saying grace and returning thanks at meals, and other prayers for both morning and evening. From the same source came the practice with children of crossing themselves in sight or hearing of terrifying occurrences . . . .

(Large Catechism, 1529, The Second Commandment, section 31, p. 57)

If the devil puts it into your head that you lack the holiness, piety, and worthiness of David and for this reason cannot be sure that God will hear you, make the sign of the cross, and say to yourself: “Let those be pious and worthy who will! I know for a certainty that I am a creature of the same God who made David. And David, regardless of his holiness, has no better or greater God than I have.”

(Psalm 118, LW, Vol. XIV, 61)

If you should have a poltergeist and tapping spirit in your house, do not go and discuss it here and there, but know that it is not a good spirit which has not come from God. Cross yourself quietly and trust in your faith.

(Sermon for the Festival of the Epiphany, LW, Vol. 52, 178-79)

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Large Catechism, 1529, translated by John Nicholas Lenker, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1935.

Luther’s Works (LW), American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (volumes 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (volumes 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (volumes 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (volumes 31-55), 1955.

Small Catechism, 1529, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1943.

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. May 25th, 2010 at 06:14 | #1

    If baby Jesus can be in a crèche, crucified Jesus can be on the cross.

  2. Norman Teigen
    May 25th, 2010 at 08:12 | #2

    Good point. Thank you for posting this.

  3. Timothy
    May 26th, 2010 at 16:10 | #3

    The only thing that frustrates me more than people misconceiving the Sacraments as our own righteous works is the misunderstanding about the crucifix. But then, as Lutherans, we are always finding ourselves between Rome and the Protestants, defending what we believe and why we believe it.
    Even though it’s a matter of adiaophra, I prefer the crucifix. A Lutheran pastor and dear friend of mine once pointed out that a cross without Jesus on it is meaningless. Without the death of our Savior, there is no forgiveness of sins, eternal life, or salvation.
    As Walther said, we can’t allow our traditions to be influenced by those who are offended by them.

  4. Michael Mohr
    May 26th, 2010 at 17:28 | #4

    Where can I find that Walther quote? That is great way of putting it.

  5. Richard
    May 26th, 2010 at 18:20 | #5

    Archbishop Fulton Sheen had a neat quote: “Keep your eyes on the crucifix, for Jesus without the Cross is a man without a mission, and the Cross without Jesus is a burden without the reliever.”

  6. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    May 26th, 2010 at 23:03 | #6

    “We refuse to be guided by those who are offended by our church customs. We adhere to them all the more firmly when someone wants to cause us to have a guilty conscience on account of them.”

    C.F.W. Walther, Explanation of Thesis XVIII, D, Adiaphora, of the book The True Visible Church, delivered at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, beginning August 9, 1871, at the 16th Central District Convention, translated by Fred Kramer, printed in Essays for the Church [CPH: 1992], I:193-194)

    You can find it on the 7 May post on Past Elder, but Past Elder found it on Cyberbrethren!

  7. Michael Mohr
    May 27th, 2010 at 08:52 | #7

    @Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    Thank you for the citation.

  8. Kathleen
    May 28th, 2010 at 00:03 | #8

    I love the FAQ page on the LC-MS website, and use it often. It is a great resource on all kinds of “practical” questions.

  9. May 28th, 2010 at 22:04 | #9

    Remember that painting by Mathias Grunewald! Perhaps the best work of visual art ever made.

  10. Bob Gruener
    September 14th, 2010 at 16:49 | #10

    Historical tidbit (from http://www.romancatholicinfo.com/catholic-crucifix/): The use of the crucifix was not widely used until the Council of Constantinople in 629 A.D. ordered that the crucifix replace the symbol of the Lamb of God.

    Personal anecdote: For as along as I can remember, the crucifix as been a comforting symbol for me. But a friend supporting mission work in a Spanish-speaking country (in South or Central America, I forget which) once advised that among the Roman Catholics there, images of the suffering Christ induce a deep sense of guilt: the crucifix recalls the responsibility of the individual for the agony of Jesus and indicates that the Christian must work toward making amends. (See “Acts of Reparation.”) I gather that is one environment in which an empty cross can shine as a symbol of the end to Christ’s suffering as well as ours.

  11. Russel Taylor
    September 15th, 2010 at 09:21 | #11

    Since becoming a Lutheran, I have wanted a crucifix for my home. Here in Oklahoma, it is difficult to find a crucifix, even in the Christian bookstores (which are mostly Baptist). I ended up going to a Catholic bookstore in Oklahoma City about 2 hours away to get one. I suppose I could have bought one online (and paid less!), but I wanted to see it before I bought it!

  12. Gabriel Borlean
    September 16th, 2010 at 12:47 | #12

    Great exposition on the use of a wonderful and comforting Christian article in Church Art.

  13. John Maxfield
    September 14th, 2011 at 13:55 | #13

    @Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    A great response, but do note that Walther is talking about offense from those who are not Lutheran, not within the congregation. This past year I have heard of two separate instances where a pastor (in one instance quite new to the congregation) caused offense within the congregation when a crucifix was given/received without consent of the congregation, not because the people believed a crucifix was “Roman Catholic” but just because they didn’t really like the particular one at issue (looked odd with the architecture and other decoration of the building). Needless division.

    One should note that Eastern traditions have Christ glorified rather than suffering on the cross. Cf. the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valpo (even with its rather confused semiotics).
    The suffering Christ crucifix was really a late medieval development. That’s not to say that it’s wrong, but it’s not the only way. It appears that in the LCMS the crucifix was more common in new church architecture of the 19th century than in the mid-20th century. Perhaps not a great development but the synod of our fathers (even the more recent ones) should not be maligned needlessly.

    Actually an early (Holy Cross Day 1522) Luther sermon says some things about the crucifix and its use that might really surprise the readers of this blog and comment. See WA 10/III:332-341 (cf. St. Louis 11:2374-2381). An original print is viewable online: http://digitale.bibliothek.uni-halle.de/vd16/content/titleinfo/999692

    • September 14th, 2011 at 14:09 | #14

      John, there will always be mistakes in implementing good things, and yes, we can all point to “horror stories” but…

      abusus non tollit usum

      Luther advocated the use of images in our worship services and in our congregations. Your reference to his Holy Cross Day sermon from 1522 does not negate what he said so forcefully elsewhere that supports the use of a crucifix. There would be no “surprise” for “readers of this blog.”

      The “needless division” is often caused by those who refuse to learn, to be educated and choose to remain willfully ignorant about their heritage as Lutherans and simply are recalcitrant in their unfounded and uninformed opinion on this issue, or in the issue of weekly communion.

      Finally, there comes a point where we must say, “Your sense of ‘being offended’ is not justification to deprive ourselves of what is completely appropriate and in keeping with our Lutheran confession.”

  14. Jonathan Trost
    September 14th, 2011 at 14:34 | #15

    Why would anyone say that the empty cross is a symbol of the Resurrection?

    The crosses of the thieves who hung on either side of Christ became empty, too. For that matter, so, too, did the crosses of hundreds who were crucified in those days by the Romans become empty.

    A real symbol of the Resurrection would be one of the Empty Tomb.

  15. John Maxfield
    September 14th, 2011 at 15:14 | #16

    I agree in general, though you only replied to one part of my post.

    As to surprises, do have a look at the Holy Cross Day sermon sometime. I have not found it discussed in the literature, except in Pinomaa on Luther and the Heiligen. I have an article coming out on the sermon next year.

    • September 14th, 2011 at 17:49 | #17

      John, actually, I think I replied to both. Are you saying that the Holy Cross sermon negates what Luther said elsewhere about the use of a crucifix? Maybe you’ll have to break down and reveal what you’ve found!

  16. C. M. Phillips
    September 14th, 2011 at 21:48 | #18

    I have read the 1522 sermon in German and English. Luther’s concern revolved around the idolatrous veneration of relics of the True Cross, that is, pieces of wood usually contained in nice reliquaries. One could pray before them to receive indulgences and as an act of satisfaction. Luther was no iconoclast, as Rev. McCain’s numerous references demonstrate. While Luther also stated in 1523 that he’d prefer that Holy Cross days should be discontinued, I believe we have thoroughly removed the focus away from dubious relics of the True Cross to the triumph of Christ on the cross over sin, death, and the devil. Of course, Luther’s early Reformation theology of the cross, when properly understood, is a brilliant focus for this day too. A proper use and understanding of the crucifix or any other image only increases our love and devotion for our crucified and risen Savior. In many ways Luther’s criticism of the outward veneration of dubious relics reflected earlier medieval preachers’ focus on inner crucifixion and mortification of the flesh. The 1522 sermon reflects this too. The crucifix (with the dead body of Christ portrayed) became more common in Western Christian devotion in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This devotional shift coincided with an increased theological study of the Incarnation and humanity of Christ. Yes, I know a lot about this subject.

  17. John Maxfield
    September 15th, 2011 at 09:39 | #19

    Not at all (that the Holy Cross sermon negates what Luther says elsewhere). My point is that Luther does speak about misuse and preoccupations with the physical cross where the real meaning of the cross for Christians is not that we should be preoccupied with Christ’s cross as an object, but that we should “take up our cross” of discipleship (for Luther in this sermon, this means a focus on the poor rather than on “endowing” [a practice common in his time] and expensively decorating objects such as the cross of Christ. C. M. Phillips has a very helpful and knowledgeable reply but I do think there is more to Luther’s concerns than his clear rejection of relics-veneration.

    In the present conversation about the crucifix among Lutherans (or every Sunday communion, or common-cup vs. individual glasses, etc) I think the most important, central theological concern that Luther raised with Karlstadt and other iconoclasts is not just that Luther emphasized that many traditional practices were not inherently idolatrous and therefore were to be left free (our “adiaphora”), but that Karlstadt was making new laws out of everything (communion in both kinds and taking the bread in the hand; abolishing images, etc.).

    I have heard repeatedly the subject of the crucifix, common cup (why no concern about individual wafers, then?), and even every Sunday communion treated in legal terms, that is, these are things that we must do in order to be genuinely Lutheran. I support all these practices. But even the clearly confessional, gospel-centered (evangelical), and traditional practice of every Sunday communion becomes a confusion of law and gospel when it is treated as a requirement and when pastors seek to establish a new practice without the consent of the congregation and/or when such a new practice becomes needlessly divisive.

    • September 15th, 2011 at 12:41 | #20

      I’d have to say, John, that the “legalism” on the crucifix issue is far more apparent from those who deny others the freedom to use one or who would impose their weaknesses on the rest and make others feel guilty about using them, or accusing others of being “too catholic.” We have far too many in the Lutheran Church today, who, in spite of being carefully taught, would rather cling stubbornly to their false understandings of our own heritage and practices that support and enhance confessional Lutheran understandings and identity. That is the highest form of legalism, in my book.

  18. John Maxfield
    September 15th, 2011 at 09:42 | #21

    @John Maxfield
    Paul, maybe could close my parenthesis in the first paragraph when you moderate this post. Thanks!

  19. Paul Beisel
    September 16th, 2011 at 08:17 | #22

    Good post Rev. McCain!

  20. Guillaume
    September 16th, 2011 at 09:10 | #23

    Up until the renaissance all church art was in iconography. There were no 3d crucifixes unless the corpus was cut out from the same piece of granite and could not be seen from behind (which I don’t there was any), according to the rules of St. John of Damascus. But there were plenty of icons with Christ crucified. In fact the only image of an empty cross iconography I can think of is pictures of Jesus having been just taken down from the cross.

    • September 16th, 2011 at 11:26 | #24

      Guillaume, I may not understand what you are saying, but … there are many examples of statuary and “3D” representations of our Lord’s suffering and death from the early Middle ages forward.

  21. Rev. Paul Gramit
    September 18th, 2011 at 16:54 | #25

    What timing! As we speak, I’m introducing — slowly — the processional crucifix to our congregation. Many of the people are looking forward to getting it, but there are still points which need to be made about the subject first.

    Dan at Necessary Roughness, great point! I happen to have made that same comparison THIS MORNING in the sermon, about how Christ is no longer on the cross, true, but He’s no longer in the manger either.

    This selection is the ideal one to print out for our bulletin. Rev. McCain, may I? May I also include the photo?

  22. Chris Griffith
    September 21st, 2011 at 08:01 | #27

    Well said sir. I appreciate this post.

  23. MarlaZ
    October 1st, 2011 at 16:48 | #28

    Having grown up in a small very Roman Catholic small town in New England, and attending what many have claimed was the most conservative of Lutheran churches in this district, I always viewed the empty cross as more of a symbol of NOT being “one of those Roman Catholics.” In fact, our little church did participate in the Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ program in the 1970s – imagine going door to door asking Roman Catholics how they know will get to heaven!? You cannot imagine the rudeness and nasty comments we got, and we were young teens… Back to the cross – Yes, our Pastor is enlightening us about the folly of thinking that the crucifix is “Roman Catholic” and not Christian.

    I just wanted to add this comment as a lay person, so that you might understand that in some contexts, there are reasons Lutherans may not wear or want to have a crucifix. Had I grown up in the midwest where Lutheran churches and schools abound, I would have had a different point of view growing up. But with only 200 Lutherans out of a population of 13,000 (99% Roman Catholic), it’s all we could do to not be lumped in automatically with either the RCs OR the “Protestants” who don’t even know what their own denomination is… which always bothered me – how can someone go to a church but not know which one it is?!

    Thanks for letting me go on.

    • October 1st, 2011 at 16:54 | #29

      Thanks for your thoughtful, and helpful remarks. You have proven, once again, that context is King!!

  24. MarlaZ
    October 1st, 2011 at 18:01 | #30

    Thank you.

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