Glory vs the cross

That person deserves to be called a theologian … who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

– Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, thesis 20.

I’ve just started reading Richard Eyer’s book Pastoral Care Under the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering. Pr Eyer is a hospital chaplain in Wisconsin, and his book seeks to apply Luther’s theology of the cross to the question of pastoral care. I’m only a few pages in, and it’s already so good – so powerful, profound and moving – that it’s reduced me to something approaching a state of shock.

The theology of the cross stops me in my tracks every time. I seriously believe it to be one of the most important theological insights of the last thousand years. Back in 2004, I posted a table summarising the contrast between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross, and this is now repeated after the fold (with [fixed] links to some great reading by Michael Horton and Don Matzat).

Though as Gerhard Forde reminds us in his book On Being a Theologian of the Cross, what Luther spoke of in the Heidelberg Disputation was not a “theology of the cross” (as in just another set of neatly-arranged theological propositions used as a mirror for our own self-admiration), but the call to be a theologian of the cross, living out Luther’s dictum that “the cross alone is our theology”.

Theology of Glory

Theology of the Cross

Key principles

Human beings (though flawed and sinful) are fundamentally capable of doing good and knowing God

Human beings are intrinsically and radically sinful, incapable of doing good or truly knowing God

God is to be sought by ascending ladders of mystical experiences, religious or philosophical speculation or moral achievement (“mysticism, speculation or merit”)

God is to be sought only in the Cross of Christ, with knowledge and communion him being given as a gift, received by faith

God is the Deus Revelatus – he can be known through all things and events

God is the Deus Absconditus – he can be known only through the Cross of Christ and the witness to that of the Word

Seeks direct, unmediated knowledge of & encounter with “the naked God” (and sees such a direct encounter as an unqualified “good thing”)

Recognises that (for sinners such as ourselves) the “naked God” at the end of the ascent is not salvation, but the “consuming fire”. One day there will be glory, but for now, the Cross – the Cross is both the basis of our righteous status before God and the model of how we are to live for God

Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation

“Looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened”

“Comprehends the invisible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross

“Calls evil good and good evil”

“Calls the thing what it actually is”

Observations by Don Matzat

The gospel is what gets you saved – then other things take you forward in the Christian life. “Once saved, always saved”

The preaching of sin and grace, Law and Gospel, produces sanctification as well as justification

Repentance = sorrow for sin and determination to sin no more

Repentance = sorrow for sin coupled with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation

Christian living is detached from the gospel – reduced to a set of do’s and don’ts, with “rededication” the proper remedy for backsliding

Never gets past the Cross – good works are the fruit of faith

Testimonies focus on the change in the individual’s life

Testimonies focus on the work of Christ in history for us

Sermons lead you to try to live a better life

Sermons lead you to rejoice in forgiveness

Christian life seen as an ascent through different stages (conversion, “entire sanctification”, “baptism in the Spirit” etc)

You’re never “better” than anyone else – a growing appreciation for Christ’s work

“Every day in every way I’m getting better and better”

“Every day in every way I’m not getting better and better” – growing awareness of sin

Encourages inward focus (which is the essence of sin – homo incurvatus)

Turns us away from ourselves, forsaking our own good works and spiritual experiences and clinging to Christ’s blood and righteousness

Other observations

Can contemplate God’s omnipresence and majesty without fear

Recognises our sin, deserving of God’s condemnation. The testimonies of nature etc to God’s glory only confirm in our conscience the verdict against us (The God we see in nature is “One who is angry with us, and threatens evil” [Newman]).

Content with God’s general revelation in nature

Recognises our need of a promise of forgiveness and acceptance


“What we see as glorious, God sees as shameful; what we see as shameful, God sees as glorious”

Worship as celebration, seeking to ascend to God through our worship

Worship as receiving the mercies of God in Christ, through the means of grace (Word, sacraments, prayer)

Seeks to strike a bargain with God, tendency towards a moralistic works-righteousness

Permits God to do everything to effect and preserve his salvation

Feels it knows God immediately through his expressions of divine wisdom, power and glory

Recognises God in the place he has hidden himself – the Cross and its suffering

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17 Responses to Glory vs the cross

  1. Chris Jones says:

    “the most important theological insight of the last thousand years”

    Really? I must be missing something. Plus, that raises the question “what were they thinking about in the first thousand years?”

    Seriously, based on your chart it would seem that a theologian of the Cross is simply someone who does not believe in sanctification. I am sure that that is not a fair thing to say; but it is hardly more unfair than some of the characterizations in the left-hand column of your chart.

    I probably put in a snarky comment or two the first time you published this chart, too.

  2. John H says:

    Chris: OK, slight edit to row back from what was perhaps an exaggerated claim.

    But to come back on a couple of points:

    1. I drew up the chart as a means of getting to grips with the theology of the cross as a concept. As such it represents a personal “train of thought” rather than The Definitive Guide To The Theology Of The Cross. As my post indicated, I re-posted this with a certain discomfort at the idea of a “theology of the cross” as opposed to the process of being a “theologian of the cross”.

    2. When getting to grips with what was (at that time) a radical, unfamiliar and mind-bending idea for me, I found it most helpful to draw out contrasting propositions from the linked articles. So the left-hand column does represent something of an extreme/caricatured position, but that is because it is intended to contrast with the right-hand column for the purpose of clarifying what the right-hand column is saying. I am not saying, and do not believe, that there are churches or Christians who fall entirely within the left-hand column (though some lean more to the left than others). And I’m certainly not saying that the right-hand column represents “Lutherans” and the left-hand column represents “everyone else”.

    3. What was the church doing in the first thousand years? Living under the cross, preaching the cross, with greater or lesser fidelity and clarity. I don’t know whether anyone articulated the theology of the cross as Luther did prior to Luther, but I don’t think that is a problem – especially since this is theology rather than dogma; an insight into or articulation of existing truth, rather than something “new” to be believed as necessary for salvation.

  3. Phil Walker says:

    ‘Recognises that (for sinners such as ourselves) the “naked God” at the end of the ascent is not salvation, but the “consuming fire”.’

    I remember reading (somewhere out there in the wilds of the Internet) a musing on the two pictures of hell: that the fire represents the fate of those who try to approach God apart from through Christ, while the outer darkness is for those who turn their back on the Light. It struck me as a very apt way of explaining the end of those who reject Christ.

    ‘Worship as receiving the mercies of God in Christ’

    This one’s always good fun to press in our circles, because the idea of “worship as giving” is so common. In one Bible study, a friend very helpfully explained what I was trying to say by asking, “Who should be thankful at the end of a service: God, or us?”

    I have to explain to a group of ten-year olds why we can’t see God on Tuesday. This was a helpful reminder of why not, and yet where we do.

  4. John H says:

    I have to explain to a group of ten-year olds why we can’t see God on Tuesday.

    I had to read that twice before I realised you were giving the explanation on Tuesday, not singling out Tuesday as a day on which it is particularly difficult to see God. 😉

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  10. Phil Merten says:

    I deal with a lot of people whose lives have become hellish through their own addictions and criminal behavior. They are desperate for hope: “Can my life ever get better?” Theology of the Cross must have something to say to these people. I believe it does, but frequently theologians of the cross are so busy explaining how the cosmic scales of justice are rebalanced by the cross that they don’t bring it around to here and now.

    I think theologians of the cross (and that’s what I aspire to be, anyway) sometimes make our gospel completely other-worldly. But people live in this world, and that’s why a Theology of Glory is so attractive. I think our challenge is to use Theology of the Cross to present a God who is in this world here and now, and has hope for people here and now, as well as on judgment day.

  11. dennis says:

    Good summary of competing theologies. I find great comfort in the Theology of the Cross while my tendencies are always toward the Theology of Glory.

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  14. Pastor Matt says:

    Great posting…

    Here is the Theology of Glory and the Cross fleshed out in the Apostles Creed and other various doctrines:

    Viewing the Apostle’s Creed Two Ways

    Two Ways of Viewing Christianity:

  15. So … popular Christian music: only good for God if it is the fruit of suffering?

  16. Bonnie Wilcox says:

    Helpful reflection, particularly as I work with worship planning teams about contemporary music. So much is decision-theology, ladder-ascending, me-and-Jesus. Your language will help us seek music that recognizes the cross as suffering-with, and the hope of the resurrection FOR ALL.
    Dr. Deanna Thompson also has a good piece on feminist theology and the theology of the cross.

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