A Theology of the Cross

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Colorful paintings of fierce lions and supersonic jets adorn the wooden frames of lumbering Nigerian trucks. Religious symbols are also common: some trucks have been painted with the cross of Jesus, often in red. Others depict two crossed swords and a palm tree standing next to a mosque. Both the cross and the sword can be considered instruments of execution. But while the founder of Christianity died on a cross, the founder of Islam wielded the sword.

In Africa—as in North America—the “big man complex” is a huge problem. The big man is a person who uses all the resources of the state or the institution to perpetuate his own rule and glory. He puts his own well-being above that of his subjects.

Another big problem in many African—and North American—churches is prosperity theology, which claims that those who are faithful will also be prosperous. Subscribers to this theology teach the importance of giving so that the giver might be blessed. Those who give little will receive little; those who give much will receive much. Ultimately, then, the purpose of going to church is to become rich.

Both of these are examples of what Martin Luther called a theology of glory—a theology based on pride.

Theology of Glory
During Luther’s time, the Roman Catholic Church was in a state of crisis. The great scholastic theological system of Thomas Aquinas was crumbling. The institutional church was promoting personal advancement and glory. Six months after posting his famous 95 theses, Luther presented additional theses in Heidelberg, the “Heidelberg Disputation,” criticizing the scholastic theology of the church as a theology of glory.

The theology of glory suggests a way of knowing God. It claims that we can know God through creation as well as through special revelation. But Luther warned that such theology speaks only of the power and glory of God and not of God’s suffering. He suggested that God is “hidden in suffering.” He wrote, “It does one no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty unless one recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross.”

The theology of glory also suggests a way of life. “Because people do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory [and] power,” Luther wrote. This love is all-consuming: The “desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise.” In the Roman Catholic Church, this love of power and wealth was evident in the papacy and in the sellers of indulgences of Luther’s day.

Finally, the theology of glory suggests a way of salvation. According to Roman Catholic theology of the time, salvation is gained in part by human works. But Luther believed that relying on works for salvation was a form of pride. “Human works appear attractive outwardly, but within they are filthy,” he said. This was the theology that lay behind John Tetzel’s sale of indulgences, suggesting that release from purgatory could be bought for a silver coin.

Luther’s Theology of the Cross
In contrast to the theology of glory, Luther posited a theology of the cross, suggesting a radical, Christocentric way of knowing God, of living the Christian life, and of salvation.

Luther believed that we can know God only through Jesus and his cross. “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering,” wrote Luther. “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.” This is a bold theology. The cross of Jesus reveals the deep love of God. The cross of Jesus tells us that God suffers. Luther’s theology rejects natural theology; he believes that God cannot be known from creation outside of the cross.

Luther’s theology of the cross also indicated a way of life. If God is loving and suffering, then God’s people too should be loving and suffering. “The love of God which lives in a person loves sinners, evil persons, fools, and weaklings in order to make them righteous, good, wise and strong,” he wrote. “This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which . . . confers good upon the bad and needy.”

With respect to salvation, Luther’s theology of the cross emphasized that we are saved by the death of Jesus on the cross. “The righteousness of God . . . is imparted by faith,” said Luther; “works contribute nothing to justification.”

A Reformed Theology of the Cross
John Calvin, a second-generation Reformer who was strongly influenced by Luther, was the father of our Reformed theology. Central to Calvin’s theology is Jesus’ saving work on the cross. We are justified by faith without any human works, Calvin said. “Righteousness according to grace is owed to faith. Therefore it does not arise from the merit of works.” In this Calvin closely follows Luther.

But Calvin says that we can know God from both the creation and the Bible. Both reveal the goodness and majesty of God, said Calvin, and thus the knowledge of God is not restricted to the cross. My experience in Africa confirms this. Almost all Africans have a general knowledge of God because they have seen God in creation before hearing the good news of the gospel.

Calvin’s creational, biblical theology concludes that God cannot suffer. “Surely God does not have blood, does not suffer, cannot be touched by human hands,” wrote Calvin in his Institutes (2.14.2). For Calvin it is Jesus’ human nature that suffered, not his divine nature.

Calvin’s view of the Christian life is governed more by the lordship of Jesus than by the cross. A Christian should permit “every part of his life to be governed by God’s will” (3.7.10). According to Calvin’s radical theology of the Christian life, we are not our own; we belong to God. “Let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours. . . . Let us therefore live for him and die for him” (3.7.1). Self-denial is central to Calvin’s view of the Christian life. “Unless you give up all thought of self . . . you can accomplish nothing here” (3.7.5).

In the end, both Calvin and Luther taught a radical Christianity. But the cross is central to Luther’s theology while the lordship of God and Jesus Christ is central to Calvin’s theology. Both theologies reject prosperity theology and the big man complex as instances of human pride; instead, they point us to love and humility as the central themes of the Christian life.

 

Sources

All quotes in this article are from the following resources:
Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. T. Lull (Fortress Press, 2005).
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Westminster Press, 1960).
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About the Author

Timothy P. Palmer is a CRC missionary teaching at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria.

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