Home > Uncategorized > Lutheran Mythbusting: The Theology of the Cross is Gospel and Essential to Luther’s Theology

Lutheran Mythbusting: The Theology of the Cross is Gospel and Essential to Luther’s Theology

June 26th, 2012
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I was listening in the other day to a fascinating discussion among colleagues here and one made an observation that I found quite helpful. It brought to mind the memory of the time I first heard something like this, from no less than Dr. Norman Nagel. Here is what one of my colleagues, Rev. Dr. Benjamin Mayes said:

Luther’s theology of the cross was discovered by researchers in the 20th century. Why? Because except for a few spots in his early writings, Luther didn’t speak of a “theology of the cross” . . . most notably we see it appearing in Luther’s early work, his discussions of the Heidelberg Disputation and in the still-not-translated Operationes in Psalmos, WA 5:176.32-33 . . Luther didn’t use crux sola est rostra theology [the cross alone is our theology] much, even though of course the cross (or rather, Christ’s work on the cross) is central to his theology. Luther’s use of “theology of the cross” at the time of these early writings was not quite Gospel. Dr. Norman Nagel is reported to have commented more than once that Luther’s theology of the cross in 1518 was still sublutheran because he hadn’t yet gotten salvation extra now [outside of us]. It was more along these lines: God saves us through putting us through suffering just as He put His Son through suffering; if you flee the suffering, you flee the saving work of God’s bulldozer plowing you down. So the cross is our only theology: God saves us by sending us suffering. At least that is how the discussion has been related to me.

I can definitely verify what Dr. Mayes reports. Dr. Nagel helpfully pointed out that “the theology of the cross” drops away from Luther’s writings as he matured.

So, be a bit careful when you hear people waxing rhapsodic about Luther’s alleged “theology of the cross.” As articulated by Luther himself in his earlier writings, the Gospel had not come entirely clear in his thinking.

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  1. ginnie renkel
    June 26th, 2012 at 07:28 | #1

    I’ve heard that he did use the term “theologian of the cross.”

  2. Jonathan Trost
    June 26th, 2012 at 09:43 | #2

    Many thanks for that informative post, Pastor!

    Perhaps, Luther’s earliest inderstanding of a “theology of the cross” reflected a remnant of Roman teaching of one’s effecting and participating in his own salvation not just by accepting and enduring suffering, but through self-deprevation and even flagelation, as well. How the Holy Spirit caused him to do such a “180″ on this issue.

    When I hear the term “theology of the cross” used today, it’s often in the context of being distinguished from a “theology of glory”. And yet, I don’t really understand what the latter term means or implies. What is a “theology of glory”, anyway. And, what are good definitions that distinguish the 2 terms from each other? No doubt, a “theology of glory” means something more that just “praise music”.


  3. June 26th, 2012 at 11:24 | #3

    Yeah, Luther was, as they say, “immer im Werden” – always in the process of becoming. So it’s important to look at the exact date of any of his texts. The theology of the cross was present in an incomplete form already in the “Heidelberg Disputation” of 1518 (sometimes published as Heidelberg Theses), but still lacked certain key components. Any Luther research must pay careful attention to dates.

  4. W. R. Vinovskis
    June 26th, 2012 at 11:48 | #4

    Peter Steinke’s little Lenten booklet on “Preaching the Theology of the Cross” has a great introduction to the distinction between the Theology of the Cross and a Theology of Glory. The first 10 or 15 pages of that volume are worth the price of the book. It is a clear, concise summary of the Gospel. That is, that God has hidden himself in the sufferings of Christ, where only faith can find him. A theology of glory begins from a human perspective, by what is seen, and from that draws conclusions about God. A theology of the Cross begins with the Word of God and walks in this world by faith, trusting in God’s gracious promises in Christ.

  5. Sean McCoy
    June 26th, 2012 at 14:17 | #5

    If I may suggest the following: “The Spirituality of the Cross” by Gene Veith – an EXCELLENT approach to not only the theology of cross/glory distinction – but on basic Lutheran theology in general: http://www.cph.org/p-2262-spirituality-of-the-cross-expanded-revised.aspx

  6. Sven Wagschal
    June 26th, 2012 at 16:08 | #6

    Luther used the term in his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. Bookofconcord.org has an English translation, but beware the errors there: Luther never used “theology of glory”, and only one time “theology of the cross”, but instead “theologian (!) of …”. I will give the text with the errors corrected (http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php; compare St. Louis Ed. XVIII, 36-71):

    21. A theolog[ian] of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theolog[ian] of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

    22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

    23. The »law brings the wrath« of God (Rom. 4:15), kills, reviles, accuses, judges, and condemns everything that is not in Christ.

    24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology [!] of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.

    21. A theolog[ian] of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theolog[ian] of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
    This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers ,works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls »enemies of the cross of Christ« (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the »old Adam«, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his »good works« unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.

    24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.
    Indeed »the law is holy« (Rom. 7:12), »every gift of God good« (1 Tim. 4:4), and »everything that is created exceedingly good«, as in Gen. 1:31. But, as stated above, 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. He thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.
    He, however, who has emptied himself (cf. Phil. 2:7) through suffering no longer does works but knows that God works and does all things in him. For this reason, whether God does works or not, it is all the same to him. He neither boasts if he does good works, nor is he disturbed if God does not do good works through him. He knows that it is sufficient if he suffers and is brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more. It is this that Christ says in John 3:7, »You must be born anew.« To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man. To die, I say, means to feel death at hand.

  7. Joshua Hayes
    June 26th, 2012 at 16:43 | #7

    That is very interesting because just today I was listening (critiquing) our local papist radio station as I was out performing my duties and the guy was explaining suffering in just these terms. We are saved through our sufferings. His words were to the effect that our sufferings complete what was lacking (!) in Christ’s sufferings and not only apply to save ourselves but also are a saving service to our fellow man.

    Another Gospel that is no gospel, indeed!

  8. Jerry
    June 26th, 2012 at 17:42 | #8

    A few points: you’re right in pointing out the theology of the cross is a mark of the young Luther which doesn’t feature as such in his later writings. However, the concept underlies much of the Lutheran Confessions as contributed to by Luther throughout his life.

    Dr. Nagel is incorrect to think the theology of the cross tells us that God saves us by sending suffering; this would confuse law and gospel. Instead suffering is a part of the Christian life of redemption, as stated in the Confessions.

    Stated better, the theology of the cross and the theology of glory are concepts in parallel with the distinction of law and gospel. The contrast of the theology of the cross with the theology of glory provides a way of detecting law trying to sneak back into the gospel. The recent interest in the theology of the cross stems from Lutherans searching as to why they are Lutherans. Where doctrine is too often downplayed, the theology of the cross become apparent as the underlying tone that separates Lutherans from everyone else.

  9. Bill
    June 26th, 2012 at 21:26 | #9

    Not enough info in this post. Let’s start with that last comment and quote Luther from the Heidelberg Disputation. He’s talking about knowledge of God, and especially critical of Catholic triumphalism and mysticism:

    Thesis #19: “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.”

    Thesis #20: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”

    Compare with “Bondage of the Will” (1525):

    “Faith has to do with things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Hence in order that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that everything which is believed should be hidden. It cannot, however, be more deeply hidden than under an object, perception, or experience which is contrary to it.”

    Sounds like Luther was consistent to me.

  10. June 27th, 2012 at 06:21 | #10

    “Dr. Nagel helpfully pointed out that “the theology of the cross” drops away from Luther’s writings as he matured” Can that be verified in writing or one of Dr. Nagel’s recorded sermons? (There ain’t enough of those available if you ask me) Not that I don’t believe you but I will myself be called misinformed at best if I try to repeat that in certain circles.

    • June 27th, 2012 at 07:38 | #11

      I was an eye/ear witness to these very comments by Dr. Nagel, so…unless you wish to say I’m lying…

  11. Jerry
    June 27th, 2012 at 10:46 | #12

    I don’t think the discussion should be at all whether the theology of the cross drops away from Luther’s writings as he matured. There is no question Luther changed his language as time progressed. The real question is whether the significance of the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 is more than historical, and should be considered a cornerstone of Lutheran theology. Many believe the theology of the cross is the spectacle through which we should be viewing our relationship to God and the Christian walk.

    At this time the primary reference is the late Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross. While Gene Veith popularized the term in his book, he offering does not compare with Forde. Whatever, the controversy is more about the status of Forde in modern Lutheran thought than the theology of the cross itself.

  12. Dr. Benjamin Mayes
    June 27th, 2012 at 11:17 | #13

    I didn’t say all of that. Someone else quoted Nagel. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to take classes from him. I would say that Christ’s work of suffering on the cross was always central to Luther’s theology. But the specific language of Nostra theologia est crux sola was early and was not a Lutheran slogan.

  13. Andrew Ruddell
    June 28th, 2012 at 03:30 | #14

    I think someone is calling ‘good evil’ and it’s not Luther. The theology of the cross as described in the Heidelberg Disputation may not articulate the Gospel in the manner that Luther would come to do later on, but I do believe it is clearly there in Christ crucified for our salvation which incidentally is ‘extra nos’ (not ‘extra now’). It clearly points to who Christ is and what He has done for us. It clearly sees our ‘good’ works as a hindrance to salvation. It is an extinguishing of the old Adam, our ego that wants to assert itself against the work of God.
    This is Luther’s contextual framework, it is similar to the Sermon on the Mount, in that there is absolutely nowhere else we can go but receive Jesus as our Saviour. It provides a historical and concrete point where we know that God and His work wishes to be known by faith alone. This is not an Augustinian ‘soaring’ to the heights of heaven, and its clear that Luther has broken with NeoPlatonism.
    In the Heidelberg Disputation (1518) Luther describes ‘true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ’ (LW 31:52). In 1532, Luther writes similarly: ‘true theology and teaches that when minds are terrified this way, then one part of theology is finished, the part that uses the Law and its threats. Thus the sinner begins to know himself and casts out the smugness in which we all naturally live before this revelation of wrath. We must not stop here, but go on to the knowledge of the other part of theology, the part that fulfills the whole of theological knowledge: that God gives grace to the humble’ (LW 12:316; Ps 51:1)
    The crucified Christ is here the pearl of great price hidden in the field. It’s about losing your life in order to save it. The ‘extinguishing’ is not done by any part of us as in Buddhism, but by Christ crucified. Here in the Heidelberg Disputation Luther does say that “the law of God … cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him” (HD, thesis 1). Only one year later Luther writes: ‘The proper definition of the gospel is that it is the promise of Christ, which frees us from the terrors of the law, sin, and death, and brings grace, forgiveness of sins, righteousness and eternal life’ (LW 27:145; Lectures on Galatians 1519).
    Nowhere does Luther’s theology of the cross as described in the HD (1518) allow us to manufacture our own righteousness, and I doubt that Norman Nagel would suggest that it does either (given his Good Friday sermon – London 1957 – does ‘late Nagel’ say anything different?). Of course there can be a misinterpretation of Luther’s theology of the cross – it this is what is actually being referred to?
    Hermann Sasses writes:
    The Christian world regards the preaching of the cross as greatly one-sided. The cross is just part of the Christian message beside others. The second article of the Creed is not the whole creed, and even in the second article the cross takes its place among the other facts of salvation. Thus Luther is guilty of a narrowing of Christian truth when he limits real Christian preaching to the theology of the cross. Even some Lutherans say the same thing today!. After all, is there not also a theology of the incarnation and a theology of the resurrection? Ought we not supplement what is taught about God in the second article with what is taught in the third article of the Creed about the theology of the Holy Spirit and his activity in the church? Luther did indeed have much to say about these matters too – for example in his teaching on incarnation and on the sacraments. He also understood the article of creation as few theologians before him did. How then shall we answer the charge of the one-sidededness of Luther’s theology of the cross, which is a criticism much heard? What do the critics mean by the alleged narrowing? Apparently it does not mean that the whole church year shrinks to Good Friday, but rather that one cannot understand Christmas, Easter, or Pentecost without Good Friday. Luther, like Irenaeus and Athanasius before him, was certainly one of the great theologians of the incarnation; yet he was so because he saw the cross behind the manger. While he understood the victory of Easter as well as any theologian of the Eastern Church, he understood it because he saw Easter as the victory of the Crucified One. The same can be said about his view of the Holy Spirit’s activity.
    According to Luther, then, all topics of theology are illuminated by the cross. Why? Because the deepest meaning of revelation lies hidden in the cross. For this reason Luther’s theology of the cross wants to be more than one of many theological theories which have appeared in the course of church history. In contrast to that other theology prevailing in Christendom, which Luther calls the theology of glory, the theology of the cross claims to be the correct scriptural theology by which Christ’s church stands or falls. The preaching of the cross alone, Luther contends, is the preaching of the Gospel.
    What then is the theology of the cross?
    [From Letters to Lutheran Pastors No. 18; cited by MHenderson at http://sassedotalist.blogspot.com.au/ ]

  14. June 28th, 2012 at 07:33 | #15

    “Salvation extra now” looks like the work of a spell-checker ignorant of Latin, but I like it!!!! And “rostra theology” is probably “nostra theologia,” no?

  15. July 2nd, 2012 at 08:15 | #16

    “I was an eye/ear witness to these very comments by Dr. Nagel, so…unless you wish to say I’m lying…” Nope, not saying that all! We have a mutual acquaintance that I don’t believe will accept the statement as fact…

    • July 2nd, 2012 at 18:11 | #17

      Frank, I sat in the classroom five feet away from Dr. Nagel and heard him say it. Your “mutual acquaintance” does not know what he is talking about and you should tell him to contact me. I’d be more than happy to share what I heard.

      This is ridiculous.

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