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Public Theology: Martin Luther's Theology of the Cross
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Martin Luther's Theology of the Cross
Luther's understanding of the cross functions as a critique of all 'theologies of glory' and as such is widely being retrieved to inform Christian formation.

By Ed Knudson

The phrase "theology of the cross" will often be found if one sits down to read some books on theology today, especially books which are informed by the traditions emerging from the Reformation period in the 16th century. Martin Luther was a key figure of the Reformation. In fact, his action of putting forward 95 critical theses of certain practices of the Roman Catholic Church in 1517 is considered the beginning of the Reformation, from which all of the various Protestant denominations trace their origins. This year, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of that event. And today, as I indicated, one of the theological themes that continues to be relevent to our own times is that known with the phrase "theology of the cross".

So on this webpage I am going to begin to place material I run into on this theme to demonstrate how it is being interpreted today. Notice that Luther speaks of the theology of the cross, perhaps most directly, in his "Heidelberg Disputation".


Jason A. Mahn who teaches religion at Augustana College has written an article in the journal Currents of Theology and Mission called Reforming Formation: The Practices of Protestantism in a Secular Age, the October, 2013, issue. In the article from which this passage is taken Mahn refers to Charles Taylor who wrote the book A Secular Age.
The “thin tradition” of Luther’s theology of the cross39 provides a corrective to this proclivity toward abstractions and the avoidance of the particularity and suffering of others. For Luther, the only true theologians are theologians of the cross—those who comprehend “the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”40 The alternative (enacted by “theologians of glory”) is the habit of looking upon “the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible,” but perceptible in abstractions such as “virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth.”41

Following our own inclinations—or even our desire as schooled within a system that values eternal forms over God’s particular (and peculiar) self-revelations—we remain almost bound to prefer “works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.”42 For Luther, any conception of God based on such abstractions is a thoroughly human conception and probably a projection of our own ambitions. Without knowing God through Christ and Christ through the bodily, crucified Jesus, one would project onto God what we think “divinity” should entail, calling “evil good and good evil.”43

Most gravely, we would overlook and fail to respond to the most vulnerable and seemingly God-forsaken among us, unaware that they reveal a God made manifest in weakness. Above I suggested that Taylor tends to overlook the very incarnational presence that he thinks secularity occludes to the degree that he pits transcendence against our immanent frame. Taylor can appear unaware that God might be found in, with, and under—and not simply “beyond”— our everyday “secular” world.

Moving from Luther’s sacramental logic to his theology of the cross, we starkly see also that the body of God given in the Eucharist is broken indeed. That same body is revealed in unlikely bodies as well—ones that are easily ignored, forgotten, displaced, abandoned, and tortured.

Luther underscores the scandal of a suffering God, convinced as he is that to be formed for participation in the life of God while bypassing the possibility of offense amounts to being malformed and ill-fitted to know the God of Jesus. We need to come to terms with our all-too-human proclivities to portray God in our own highest image. We need to submit that penchant to the ongoing reformation of our desires. Only then can we come to see and to love the Other and other others whom we would otherwise be inclined to ignore.

39. Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering of the World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 13. 40. Luther, “Heidelberg Disputation,” (Thesis 20) in Luther’s Works, American Edition, volume 31 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1957), 52.

41. Ibid. (Thesis 19).

42. Ibid., 53 (Thesis 21). 43. Ibid.

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Date Added: 7/11/2017 Date Revised: 7/11/2017 7:18:27 PM

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