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