Saturday, July 24, 2010

On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on My Studies in Romanism

About two years ago I loaned the book On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 to a good friend. I haven't seen it since. I was pleased to see that Google books now has it available, and it appears to be back in print. This is one of my favorite Luther-related books. It isn't as dull as it sounds. In fact, I'd rather someone read this small book than an in-depth treatment of Reformation history. This book taught me one of the main arteries of Luther's theology: the distinction between glory and the cross, and those "theologians" that espouse one or the other.

The theology of the cross is a theology of foolishness. It denies man’s wisdom and works; it rests totally upon Christ’s work. Indeed, it really does sound silly to think that salvation is found only through faith alone. Shouldn't we have to do something? Hasn't God given us an innate ability to reach out to Him? Or, hasn't God poured out some sort of enabling grace through a sacrament that frees us to make a choice to serve him? The theologian of the cross says no. God doesn't need our help at all. He saves by grace alone through faith alone. God explained it in of all things, a book. Imagine that: God almighty explained Himself for us, not in a majestic show of power and grandeur, but in frail book. In that book, He explained how God himself, the most supreme power and creator of all things became a helpless baby in a crib. He grew up to be hung on a cross, naked, weak, and suffering. God almighty was killed as a common criminal. He then rose from the dead. The book then details that savingly believing in His perfect active and passive work, peace is made between the Holy God of the universe and the sin-burdened human being. This is the foolishness of the theology of the cross.

All the worlds’ religions reason that God can only be appeased by some work on our part. But a theologian of the cross finds it is only in God’s action where we find salvation. On the other hand, the theology of glory is founded on man’s wisdom and works. It is a worldview that seems “sensible and right” by worldly standards. Glory theologians have to "understand" by the use of reason, and they have to “do” by their own moral energy to be right with God. God's a fair guy, they "reason." A fair God would enable us to at least be able to do "something" to save ourselves. Wouldn't a smart God would want an infallible official to lead His people? I mean, simply leaving a book and an fallible person in charge of the church seems.... utterly foolish. People wouldn't be able to know anything certain with just a book and some fallible people running a local church. That's just stupid. A smart God would set something up like a small kingdom, governed by an infallible head. He'd probably send glorious signs and wonders to prove it's His set up. That would be the smart thing to do. In fact, one of those miracles could be something like the body of woman in a glass case that doesn't decay after 100 years, or perhaps a holy woman could appear here and there and give new signs. That would be wise, wouldn't it? Everyone needs more proof than just... what's stated in a book.

The late medieval church that Luther was confronted with was a church filled with “glory.” By “glory,” Luther meant that the emphasis was not on the achievements of Christ, but on the achievement of the Roman Church, and those achievements were accomplished by the churches’ own power. Luther encountered the theology of glory in three different ways (ht: Robert Kolb):

First he encountered the glory of “human reason” expressed in his earlier scholastic training. Scholastic theology had been strongly influenced by Aristotelian metaphysics, and this influence had misshaped the Biblical method. Think of the confusion caused by the Quadriga's fourfold interpretation of Scripture and it's ability to obscure the Gospel.

Secondly, Luther was confronted with the glory of human effort (works). He encountered this in his monastic order. Think of the counsels of the perfect. Imagine people believing that they could perform works to attain a standard of holiness that would allow them to stand before a Holy God, or that some such sacrifice in this life makes one "a saint" in the next.

Thirdly, he also rejected the “glory of the church” and said the church is a suffering church, rather than a church of beauty and splendor. The church is not supposed to be a “glory” of political power and luxury, which it was during Luther's lifetime.

The glory theologians of Rome are still with us. They glory in all three of these things.

Modern-day Romanists still apply their glory of reason to the Scriptures. I recently read a comment from a Romanist who admitted Mary's perpetual virginity isn't explicitly taught in Scripture. "Tradition" has to be hoisted upon the Bible so implicit implications can be drawn from the text. Another Romanist posits the Bible is materially sufficient, in that every true doctrine must be in harmony with it. What makes a doctrine "true"? Why it's none other than what the Roman church says.

There is of course still the Romanist glory of works. But wait, they say those works they do are prompted by Christ, or done with the help of the Holy Spirit. Hogwash. They are a denial of the perfect work of Christ. Only perfect works are those that can be presented before God. There are no works that can be added to Christ's perfect work.

There is also glory in the Romanist church. The multitude of conversion stories "prove" how glorious the "home" of Rome is. The conversion stories glory in their ability to find the promise land here on earth, and how great and wonderful this earthly kingdom is.

Rome's apologists and defenders are still theologians of glory. They stand opposed to the foolishness of the cross, and actively work against God's kingdom. However well-meaning, they are ultimately deniers of the perfect work of Christ. All their websites, blogs, discussion boards, seminars, books, tracts, etc., are examples of the theology of glory. That's a foolish thing to say, I know. Don't we just see thing a bit differently than the Romanists? Consider me a fool. I would rather be thought a fool than to deny Christ's perfect work.


Henry said...

I would rather be thought a fool than to deny Christ's perfect work.

Unluckily for you, you have it both ways.

Constantine said...

Beautifully written, James.

The response from some will be like Henry's, that this is foolishness. But Paul warned us about that in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25. To those who belong to groups who look for signs and wonders (i.e. Fatima, Lourdes, etc.)or exalt human wisdom (i.e. Magisterium) this is foolishness. That is the very nature of the case. In Paul's day it was the Jews and then the Greeks.

But glory be to God that He "was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe."

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Great stuff, James. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

That is a "great book". All his books are living epistles, though he has now, recently, gone on before us, as a lot of those Saints of the Cross have as well!

I highly recommend getting this book and in fact, all of Forde's writings!

We have some in my church who met him recently before his passing.

We have invited others of his closest friends and they have come and taught us. Pastor James Nestigen is one of those! He tells the story of coming over to his house when Forde was on his death bed and whispering in his ear just at the moments before he passed saying: "the next words you hear will be those of your Loving Savior!"

Here's a quote from the book:
Luther: In the kingdom of his humanity and his flesh, in which we live by faith, he makes us of the same form as himself and crucifies us by making us true humans instead of unhappy and proud gods: humans, that is, in their misery and their sin. Because in Adam we mounted up towards equality with God, he descended to be like us, to bring us back to knowledge of himself. That is the sacrament of the incarnation. That is the kingdom of faith in which the cross of Christ holds sway, which sets at naught the divinity for which we perversely strive and restores the despised weakness of the flesh which we have perversely abandoned. (On Being a Theologian of the Cross, p.14)

Andrew said...

Very well put. Good word, brother.

LPC said...

Triumphalism of Rome is perfect example of Theology of Glory.


John Stebbe said...

Interesting you mentioned Robert Kolb. He had been a mentor to my Lutheran campus pastor, back at Ball State in the 70s and 80s.

Several years ago I read "The Bondage Of The Will." I had grown up Lutheran (LCMS), but have been Calvinist for the past 25 years or so. After reading BOTW, I wanted to know why Lutherans were not more Reformed in their theology. BOTW seemed VERY Reformed.

So I searched for information to answer my question, and I found Robert Kolb's book, "Bound Choice, Election, And Wittenberg Theological Method: From Martin Luther To The Formula Of Concord."

Turns out there's not one easy simple answer to the question. Suffice to say that early Lutheranism went through a long process of theological development which resulted in the Formula of Concord.

But thanks to Robert Kolb for his excellent insights into this period of Lutheranism.

And I thank the Lord for all my Lutheran grade school and high school teachers, back in Fort Wayne. The Lord blessed me with some very godly teachers and pastors during my time in the LCMS.

My theology has become Reformed in the second half of my life, but growing up in the LCMS turned out to be an excellent preparation for becoming a Calvinist.

Sidney Bostian said...

One small quibble: God saves sinners by grace alone, through faith alone. Eph 2:8-10.



James Swan said...


Good catch. Fixed.

Stan Williams said...

Hmmm. So, you don't like the Roman Catholic Church, which through its magisterium (of faith plus reason) gave Protestants the canon of Holy Scriptures. If you trash the Catholic Church then please find it consistent to trash the Scriptures. You can't have the Bible with the Catholic Church's declaration of what it is and was... well, until the Protestants removed 7 books from the canon in the 1800s. Even Luther kept them in his translations. Duh! What's wrong with your picture.

James Swan said...

Hmmm. So, you don't like the Roman Catholic Church, which through its magisterium (of faith plus reason) gave Protestants the canon of Holy Scriptures.

Neither Luther nor myself are against "reason." What Luther fought against was scholastic theology, and hoisting Aristotle upon the Scriptures.

If you trash the Catholic Church then please find it consistent to trash the Scriptures.

Correction: I'm a member of the catholic church. Romanism though is not.

You can't have the Bible with the Catholic Church's declaration of what it is and was... well, until the Protestants removed 7 books from the canon in the 1800s. Even Luther kept them in his translations. Duh! What's wrong with your picture

A comment like this (including "Duh!") makes me very curious as to what your PH.D was in. It certainly wasn't in church history.