21. The theologian of glory says bad is good and good is bad. The theologian of the cross calls them by their proper name.
This is really quite clear, for as long as a man does not know Christ he does not know God as hidden in sufferings. Such a man, therefore, prefers works to sufferings, and glory to a cross: he prefers powers to weakness, wisdom to foolishness…. These are they the Apostle calls enemies of the cross of Christ. Quite clearly, because they hate the cross and sufferings and certainly love works and the glory that goes with them. And thus they say that the good of the cross is evil, and call the evil of works good. But God is not to be found except in sufferings and in the cross as has been stated already…. It is impossible for a man not to be inflated by his own good works unless the experience of suffering and evil, having previously taken all the spirit out of him and broken him, has taught him that he is nothing and his works are not his own but God’s.
22. The sort of wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in known good works simply inflates a man, and renders him both blind and hard.
This has been said already. For since it is clear that they know nothing about the cross and even hate it, then of necessity they love the opposite, that is wisdom, glory, power and the like….
He who wishes to become wise should not go forward and seek wisdom but should become a fool, go back and seek foolishness. Thus, he who wants to become powerful and famous, to have a good time and enjoy all the good things of life, let him flee from power, fame, enjoyment and a sufficiency of everything and not seek after them. This is the wisdom we are talking about, the wisdom which is foolishness to the world.
The question Luther is addressing is this: How can we know God? There are some visible things humanity could look at: creation, spiritual experiences, miracles. But Luther says that they do not reveal God. Or, rather, they reveal something of God, but it is the kind of knowledge that puffs people up. As a result, people never get beyond their pride to know the real God. This knowledge could “never be enough for a man, nor could it benefit him” (20). People like this think they have knowledge, but they do not—they are fools.
Is God then unknowable? If we cannot know him through what is visible, then can we know him at all? Are we left trying to know God through what is invisible? That is not very promising, because we cannot see it! Luther’s answer is this: God is known through what is contrary. He is known in a hidden way. God’s invisible attributes are revealed in suffering and the cross: glory in shame, wisdom in folly, power in weakness, victory in defeat. God is known through the message of the cross.
So what Luther calls theologia crucis, “the theology of the cross,” is not so much an understanding of how the cross saves us (though, of course, that mattered to Luther). Even more, it is an approach to knowing God. It claims that knowing him starts with the cross. And this starting point turns all our notions of God and how he can be known upside down.
The theology of the cross stems from Luther’s understanding of righteousness and justification. Luther’s great realization was that God justified sinners. God declares to be just those who are unjust. Luther realized that if that is so, human notions of justice can never lead us to understand God’s justice. God’s justice is revealed in the opposite of justice: in the justification of the unjust. Alister McGrath says:
Luther’s discovery of the “wonderful new definition of righteousness” is essentially programmatic, and capable of being applied to other divine attributes… leading ultimately to the theologia crucis, the “theology of the cross”….
…For Luther, the “righteousness of God” is revealed exclusively in the cross, contradicting human preconceptions and expectations of the form that revelation should take.
If knowledge of God could be obtained from what is visible (creation, spiritual experiences, miracles), it would lead to pride. Imagine if we knew God through creation. The people who knew him best would be those with the brains to understand the science of the universe. Or imagine we knew God through spiritual experience. The people who knew God would be those wealthy enough to spend time in contemplation. People would be able to say, “I know God through my intelligence or my spirituality or my morality or my power.” It would lead to pride, and this pride would then obscure the glory and grace of God.
But God determined that he would be known through suffering so that he would be hidden from all those who exalt themselves. Here Luther is echoing the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:25-26: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
The opposite of the theology of the cross are theologies of glory. The theologians of glory pursue wisdom, experience, and miracles and say that suffering is bad. But the theologian of the cross values suffering as that through which God is revealed. Knowledge of God is not found through human wisdom, human powers, or human achievements. It is found in the foolishness of the cross.
The religious leaders at the cross are like theologians of glory. They think God will reveal himself in a powerful act in which Jesus comes down from the cross (Mark 15:29-32). But by faith the centurion sees God revealed in the suffering and abandonment of Jesus (Mark 15:39).
Luther talks about God’s “alien work,” opus alienum, his actions which are alien to his nature, but by which he achieves his “proper work,” opus proprium. Sometimes God assaults us in order to break us. In this light, suffering can be seen as a gracious divine gift.
Only someone who has had “all the spirit [taken] out of him and [been] broken” can know God. Often Luther is translated as saying that “humility” is the precondition for knowing God. But the word is really “humiliation.” Only someone who is humiliated before God can truly know him. In other words, Luther is not commending a certain type of piety that paves the way to a better understanding of God. He is saying that we have to come to the end of ourselves before we accept God’s gracious revelation. In another context Luther gave this advice to those who aspired to study theology:
I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself. . . . The method of which I am speaking is the one which the holy king David teaches in Psalm 119. . . . Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout the psalm and run thus: oratio, meditatio, tentatio [prayer, meditation, trials].
Trials are a key way in which we learn the truth about God. Luther had in mind verses like these:
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word. (Ps. 119:67)
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes. (Ps. 119:71)
I know, 0 LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (Ps. 119:75)
It is often trials that move knowledge from our heads and embed it in our hearts.
Luther was skeptical about the value of philosophy in theology. “Theology is heaven, yes even the kingdom of heaven; man however is earth and his speculations are smoke.” Luther, never knowingly understated, described “reason” as the Devil’s whore, a beast and the enemy of God. In fact Luther valued reason in matters of human society. He also valued reason as a tool to order biblical material. But we cannot discover the truth about God through human reason. Quite the opposite—reason leads us astray because the God revealed in the cross is contrary to human expectations.
Instead, to recognize God in the absence of God, to recognize victory in defeat, to recognize glory in shame requires faith. God is known only by faith. And because knowing him requires faith, this is an act of grace.
So God can be known only by those to whom he gives faith. Salvation is by grace alone. We are used to that idea. But it is the same for our knowledge of God. It is not just our salvation that is by faith alone and grace alone. We do not contribute to our knowledge of God. It is all God’s doing. Our knowledge of God is by grace alone. You do not know God because you were cleverer than other people or have greater spiritual insight or spend more time in contemplation. You know God because he has graciously revealed himself to you in the message of the cross. It is an act of grace. God reveals himself in a hidden way in order to safeguard the graciousness of revelation.
So the cross subverts all human notions of glory. The message we proclaim—the message of Christ crucified—is foolishness and weakness in the sight of the world. This is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians. Indeed, in many ways Luther’s theology of the cross often feels like an extended meditation of 1 Corinthians 1. In 1:23-25 we read:
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
And with this foolish, weak message of the cross goes a foolish, weak community of the cross.
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1:27-29)
So the cross leaves no scope for human boasting. Instead our one boast is in Christ Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Therefore, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:30-31).
Let us summarize the key features of Luther’s theology of the cross [McGrath again]:
5. God is particularly known through suffering. It is not just that God can be known through suffering, but that he uses suffering to make himself known. And for Luther this encompasses both the sufferings of Christ and the sufferings of the individual. God humiliates us so that we may know him.