Theologians of the Cross vs. Theologians of Glory

In preparing to teach on leadership, I’ve been studying Luther’s contrast of theologians of the cross and theologians of glory. Here are some great books and blog posts I have been reading.


 On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 by Gerhard Forde

This book is a “must have” if you want to understand the implications of being a theologian of the cross. It is a brilliant theological and pastoral reflection on the Heidelberg Catechism.

The cross is itself in the first instance the attack of God on the old sinner and the sinner’s theology. The cross is the doing of God to us. But that same cross itself, and only the cross, at the same time opens a new and unheard-of possibility over against the sinner’s old self and its theology. That means that a theology of the cross is inevitably quite polemical. It constantly seeks to uncover and expose the ways in which sinners hide their perfidy behind pious facades. The delicate thing about it is that it attacks the best we have to offer, not the worst. This explains why the theology of the cross is generally spoken of in contrast to atheology of glory. The two theologies are always locked in mortal combat. Wherever there is mention of a theology of the cross without indication of this combat, it is not truly the theology of the cross that is being expressed.


“Luther’s Theology of the Cross” by Carl Trueman

Luther does not restrict the theology of the cross to an objective revelation of God. He also sees it as the key to understanding Christian ethics and experience. Foundational to both is the role of faith: to the eyes of unbelief, the cross is nonsense; it is what it seems to be—the crushing, filthy death of a man cursed by God. That is how the unbelieving mind interprets the cross—foolishness to Greeks and an offence to Jews, depending on whether your chosen sin is intellectual arrogance or moral self-righteousness. To the eyes opened by faith, however, the cross is seen as it really is. God is revealed in the hiddenness of the external form. And faith is understood to be a gift of God, not a power inherent in the human mind itself.

This principle of faith then allows the believer to understand how he or she is to behave. United to Christ, the great king and priest, the believer too is both a king and a priest. But these offices are not excuses for lording it over others. In fact, kingship and priesthood are to be enacted in the believer as they are in Christ—through suffering and self-sacrifice in the service of others. The believer is king of everything by being a servant of everyone; the believer is completely free by being subject to all. As Christ demonstrated his kingship and power by death on the cross, so the believer does so by giving himself or herself unconditionally to the aid of others. We are to be, as Luther puts it, little Christs to our neighbors, for in so doing we find our true identity as children of God.

This argument is explosive, giving a whole new understanding of Christian authority. Elders, for example, are not to be those renowned for throwing their weight around, for badgering others, and for using their position or wealth or credentials to enforce their own opinions. No, the truly Christian elder is the one who devotes his whole life to the painful, inconvenient, and humiliating service of others, for in so doing he demonstrates Christlike authority, the kind of authority that Christ himself demonstrated throughout his incarnate life and supremely on the cross at Calvary.


“The Forgotten Insight” by Carl Trueman

At this Reformation season, we should not reduce the insights of Luther simply to justification by grace through faith.  In fact, this insight is itself inseparable from the notion of that of the theologians of the cross.   Sad to say, it is often hard to discern where these theologians of the cross are to be found.  Yes, many talk about the cross, but the cultural norms of many churches seem no different to the cultural norms of — well, the culture.  They often indicate an attitude to power and influence that sees these things as directly related to size, market share, consumerist packaging, aesthetics, youth culture, media appearances, swagger and the all-round noise and pyrotechnics we associate with modern cinema rather than New Testament Christianity. These are surely more akin to what Luther would have regarded as symptomatic of the presence and influence of theologians of glory rather than the cross.  An abstract theology of the cross can quite easily be packaged and marketed by a theologian of glory. And this is not to point the finger at `them’: in fact, if we are honest, most if not all of us feel the attraction of being theologians of glory.  Not surprising, given that being a theologian of glory is the default position for fallen human nature.

The way to move from being a theologian of glory to a theologian of the cross is not an easy one, not simply a question of mastering techniques, reading books or learning a new vocabulary.  It is repentance.


“The God of the Cross” by Carl Trueman

Our temptation to be preoccupied with those that our celebrity-aesthetic society finds lovely – the young, the artistic, the talented, the famous, the trendy, the brash, the bold, the beautiful, the cool, the self-promoting and the hip – does not reflect the priorities of the God of the cross. He is more likely to build his church with precisely those that this world considers weak and despised.   Indeed, he delights so to do; and our attitude, our self-understanding, our theology, our proclamation of who God is and how he acts, must all reflect that fact if we are to be true theologians of the cross rather than theologians of glory.

The love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it.  And such were some — no, such were all — of us.


Luther’s Theology of the Cross by Alister McGrath

An excellent historical guide to Luther’s theology of the cross.

A fundamental contention of the theologia crucis [theology of the cross] is not  merely that God is known through suffering (whether that of Christ or of the individual), but that God makes himself known through suffering. For Luther, God is active in this matter, rather than passive, in that suffering and temptation are seen as means by which man is brought to God.

This brings us to the dialectic between the opus proprium Dei [God’s proper work] and the opus alienum Dei [God’s alien or ‘strange’ work], which Luther introduces in his explanation of Thesis 16 [of the Heidelberg Disputation]. The basic paradox involved is illustrated with reference to the justification of an individual. In order that a man may be justified, he must first recognize that he is a sinner, and humble himself before God. Before man can be justified, he must be utterly humiliated – and it is God who both humiliates and justifies. ‘Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature (opus proprium Dei): God makes a person a sinner in order that he may make him righteous.’ The opus alienum [strange work] is a means to the end of the opus proprium [God’s proper work]. The significance of suffering, whether this is understood as passions Christi [the suffering of Christ] or Anfechtung [spiritual assaults of the Christian], is that it represents the opus alienum through which God works out his opus proprium.