A Controversial Doctrine

This is the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation. One of Martin Luther’s most controversial Reformation teachings was a doctrine he called the “theology of the cross”—hardly a controversial sounding name. What could be more everyday Christian than a doctrine about the cross of Christ?

Why was it so controversial? It said that some of the major authorities in the Church could not possibly lead people to know God since they used a method of reasoning that could not, in principle, lead to God! You can’t get there from here! There will always be a veil over the eyes of those who seek God in the same way the Scholastics did because God hides himself from them!

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church offers this definition of theologia crucis (Latin, ‘theology of the cross’): “The name given by Martin Luther to the theological principle that our knowledge of the Being of God must be derived from the study of Christ in his humiliation and the sufferings he underwent on the cross. He opposed it to a theologia gloriae (‘theology of glory’) which would maintain with the Scholastic theologians that a true knowledge of God can be obtained from the study of nature.”1

But this definition can only describe the theology of the cross at a distance. The theology of the cross is a truth that demonstrates itself as people are led to know God by coming to terms with their own sin, which cuts them off from knowing God!

This isn’t a theological game, although it can sound like it. It is about the narrow gate that leads to knowing God. You only come to know God by studying the “Christ in his humiliation and sufferings,” but this study is not an academic study. It is more like the allegorical character Christian, in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, who came finally to a hill called Calvary, bearing his heavy burden of sin on his back. As he stood contemplating the meaning of the cross, he was suddenly aware that his burden had fallen away, and was tumbling down the hill behind him!

As Luther grew in this understanding of the message of the cross and how you could come to know God through the theology of the cross, he did so in terms of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There Paul clarified the very issue Luther had with the Scholastics (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:8).  He saw them as trusting in their own wisdom to know the invisible through the visible, that is, through their philosophical understanding of God in nature, in visible things. They believed they could infer things about the very essence of God, his goodness, his purity, how he treated sins, and then rationalize out to everyday policies and doctrines, including how God forgives sins. This unholy alliance between Aristotle and the Scriptures interpreted by the Church could not lead to God in principle. Why? Because, since the Fall, mankind’s knowledge of God is limited to seeing him at a distance in his creation. God has raised a wall of separation. God is hidden from the wisdom of men. He only removes the wall through the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Colossians 1:20 says, “and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

When Luther talks about our sufferings, he is really talking about our being led to repentance, although in some of his early debate language he still shows signs of seeing suffering as a way to God. Luther at that point had not yet fully understood that Indulgences simply could not be harmonized with the Gospel. He was still trying to reform them. But he recognized that the humbling of repentance was the proper setting for this discussion.

When one considers how the Holy Spirit leads us to repentance, it is not only Christ who suffers and dies. We are called to die to our self-righteousness and our bent to going our own way. The Spirit kindly focuses on the sin that separates us from God (John 16:8). Why is this necessary? Because since Jesus opened a way for forgiveness, it means we must have sins needing forgiveness. If we are to walk together with God, sin that separates us must be cleared up. Yes, it is atoned for on the cross, but it needs to be talked about between us and God. He insists on leading us to take responsibility for our sins. There is no merit in this for us. Rather our refusal to hear the voice of the Spirit through the Word means we are refusing to be led to the cross.

Luther called this painful confrontation with sin the “alien” message of the Gospel. When God expresses his will in the Law we see how we fall short or how we have stepped over the line. His Law, like a mirror, shows us ourselves in the light of his presence. We begin to suffer the pain and guilt of facing up to sin. 

God’s solution for us is opened by way of the substitutionary suffering and death of Christ on the cross. When we see our sin removed we find that we actually know God as our heavenly Father. We are alive in him and he makes our hearts his home. We walk in the light with him, receiving his daily cleansing—open and in the light with him about all of our needs.

By the time Luther published his Small Catechism in 1529, he had moved fully into his understanding of the message of the cross and the theology of the cross. He didn’t use the term “theology of the cross” in his writings after those earliest years, but he built the truth into all of his teaching. In the Small Catechism his teaching on repentance, and his teaching on how we can (or cannot) come to God, is down to earth and personal. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength come to him, but the Holy Spirit calls me through the gospel…” It is foolishness, an offense and just plain frustrating to people who have not come this way, but it is experienced as the power of God by those who have been led to faith.

Rev. Robert Overgaard, Sr., served as president of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren of America from 1986-2001.

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