An Introduction to Luther's Theology of the Cross
The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Theology of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation written by Steve Paulson and edited by Kelsi Klembara and Caleb Keith (1517 Publishing, 2018).
Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation astounded its hearers in 1518 and has not ceased shaking the world’s foundations since. By rights, this should have been one more in a series of dull theological lectures among other routine business at the Augustinian Order’s General Chapter meeting. The one notable thing going in was that Luther was expected to take the opportunity in his lecture to recant some of his wilder of the 95 Theses and come to heel like an obedient friar. But Luther was now not only a friar but a teacher of the whole church, and instead of splitting hairs and walking back, as theologians are accustomed to do, Luther opened both barrels and delivered an astounding set of “provocations” that were meant to “root out completely the Canon Law, scholastic theology, philosophy and logic as they are now taught.” No small task! Why merely drain the swamp when you can flood the thing? So when his time came, Luther didn’t even bother mentioning “indulgences” but instead laid into Aristotle, Thomas, Ockham and the whole kit and caboodle of university teachers, canon lawyers, and church leaders. Yet he did it so calmly and kindly, and showed such great patience with his stupefied brothers, that people could hardly grasp what had happened to them.
Many who were present that day were hearing Luther for the first time, and when he unleashed his “paradoxes” their jaws dropped to the ground at the opening line: the Law does not advance anyone on their way, but hinders them! Goodbye monasticism! Goodbye Christian life! Goodbye world order! Afterward, Luther said he left his poor brother hermits, “pensive and dazed.” He wasn’t sure anyone quite understood the blow he had just dealt. Still, many would never again let go of Luther because of these paradoxes, like Martin Bucer and Johannes Brenz. The elated Bucer, who never did quite “get it” even as a later magisterial “reformer,” wrote back to a friend declaring that he had just found, “one who has got so far away from the bonds of the sophists and the trifling of Aristotle, one who is so devoted to the Bible, and is so suspicious of antiquated theologians of our school…that he appears to be diametrically opposed to our teachers…(H)e is Martin Luther, that abuser of indulgences…” Bucer went on to say that this indulgence abuser “propounded some paradoxes, which not only went farther than most could follow him, but appeared to some heretical.” Indeed, Luther recounted that while most participants were bantering back and forth in curiosity about the theses (as theologians do), one young doctor finally blurted out: “If the peasants heard this they would stone you to death!” This broke the tension, and everyone had a good gallows laugh at Luther’s expense. Dead man walking! But Bucer went away having memorized three of the theses—the first regarding the end of the Law, the second saying that it was “probable” that all good works are sins, and the third—that free will was “a mere name”! No free will? Who says that?
Luther figured the old hermit codgers in Heidelberg would never absorb this, and like any man before his time, thought his provocations would have to be left to a younger generation to unpack. But that was not at all what happened. In order to do his provoking, Luther created a genre of theology straight out of Scripture that has been associated with Lutherans ever since (for good or ill): the paradox. “The Law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and all things are already done” (Thesis 26). No teaching is clearer and no education proceeds more quickly to the heart of its students than the stark black and white (binary) contrast of polar opposites: “A theologian of glory says that evil is good and good is evil. A theologian of the cross says that a thing is what it actually is” (Thesis 21). As a result, Luther gave us our Lutheran bona fides. It is the cross, not glory that is our theology. It was not Kierkegaard or even Hamann who discovered this contrary communication, this panoply of opposites, by which paradox reveals our foolishness, hypocrisy and sheer opposition to God. It was Luther who created theological paradox in this Heidelberg Disputation. Of course, Luther learned it from the masters of paradox themselves, the sarcastic prophets of God: “Hear O Deaf, look you blind” (Is. 42:18), and the unsurpassed irony, mockery, cynicism, acerbity, disdain and scorn of Jeremiah: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, `Peace, peace,' when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). No wonder Lutherans luxuriate in negation, conflict, and especially self-hatred just as Augustine taught it. What a sense of humor they have, knowing that to God, our futility is funny.
So it is that the major paradox is cross—not glory. The cross is disorienting because it will not give us what we want. It will not measure righteousness by the Law, and then reward it accordingly. Churches, states, and individuals all set up systems of merit, and then apply their legal judgment—and look! We inevitably find ourselves to be good according to our own system and aim to prove that God agrees. Most especially, faith is understood to be a work in process—it is never complete until one reaches the vision of God in glory. Faith is then tempered with doubt lest the spiritual in us loses motivation to keep plodding along. Attacking this glory meant Luther was dismantling the heart of monasticism’s system of managed doubt. Some found it so awe-inspiring that it changed their entire lives and careers, indeed, some would go on to die for it. So what is worth dying for in these little provocations?
The collection of interpretations that follow in this book will help you to understand the impact of the theses. But let’s take a first glimpse at the counter-intuitive, contrary, offensive, and thrilling paradoxes, starting with the first and most astounding of them all: “The Law of God, which is the most beneficial doctrine of life, is not able to advance man toward righteousness but rather stands against him.” God’s Law is the best things we have for preserving life - but this divine Law not only fails to elevate peoples’ righteousness but actually hinders their rise. Of course, Paul was familiar with the paradox: the Law does not remedy sin, it makes sin greater (Rom. 5:20). Why then would God give the Law? Luther labels the offense of this question our inbred yearning for the “theology of glory.”
Glory theology assumes a set of things that we sinners think are “common sense.” First, that I, as a human being, once had glory like God’s (imago dei). When God gave a command my immortal soul would respond with joy and dutiful obedience as to a beloved Father or King. However, secondly, while God liked obedience, He supposedly did not want robots or puppets so He gave souls their highest power—a free will. Third, unfortunately, my soul followed the sad procession of souls that freely chose disobedience and so fell out of heaven into the physical world with its bodily desires. Finally, my whole life since has been an arduous journey back to the glory I lost. But, because my body is laden with lowly desires, this return to my soul’s original state cannot happen without much help in the form of grace. I can access this grace from Christ both from following his example of perfect obedience, and by partaking of his sacramental infusion of merit that empowers me to climb the ladder back to my former glory. In that great day, I will once again have the choice of doing or not doing the Law but will get it right this time.
Glory is simple and infectious. It has everything I need: the Law, my free will, and the struggle to climb back into heaven. But in the middle of my dream, starting 500 years ago, the little Friar Luther took my dream away. Not only did he remove it, but then proceeded to heap dung upon my dream by saying that if the Law cannot help you, good works are even more useless. Giving alms to the poor and making use of the sacrament of repentance—everything you call “good”—is really a mortal sin, and the very thing we call evil is God’s real, true work—an eternal merit. In fact, up to this point in the paradoxes, Luther was preaching to the choir, since hermits and fanatics all love negation, guilt, self-hatred, and humility. But here is where Luther gets really interesting. What is the thing in this life that we have, up to now, called evil, but which is, paradoxically, God’s own holy work—an eternal merit? What is it that we hate more than anything in life? Is it people being selfish? Is it people being greedy? Is it people who do not really try to resist bodily desires like we Christians do? No. We think evil is God up and forgiving a sinner without anything asked of them before or after. In all their efforts at pleasing God, glory seekers think that God’s Gospel is the one truly evil thing in life! What about striving? Forgiveness cuts out our whole spiritual purpose in life and calls it evil.