Just dug out one of my favourite books: Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross. I’ve posted on a number of occasions about the theology of the cross, in particular the table in this post which contrasts the theology of the cross with the theology of glory.
The theology of the cross can be a difficult concept to grasp, partly because it is a very subtle and easily misunderstood concept, and partly because the theology of glory comes far more naturally to us. Forde provides a useful explanation in terms of the two stories we can tell ourselves about our lives: the glory story and the cross story.
The glory story
Forde describes this as “the most common overarching story we tell about ourselves”:
We came from glory and are bound for glory. Of course, in between we seem somehow to have gotten derailed – whether by design or accident we don’t quite know – but that is only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort. What we need is to get back on the “glory road”.
This has a number of variants, of which one of the most common is “the myth of the exiled soul”, in which the soul must seek knowledge, gnosis to escape from its exile, trapped in our bodies, and attain its true destiny.
As Forde observes, the glory story “is a powerful story”, one which we find “attractive and comforting”. Indeed, Christianity itself has frequently proclaimed a form of the glory story, in which the cross becomes a means by which the fallen human soul can attain to the glory for which it was created.
The cross story
By contrast, the theology of the cross refuses to see the cross as merely the means to a glorious end. As Forde puts it:
The theology of the cross arises out of the realization that it is simply disastrous to dissolve the cross in the story of glory.
The cross is not merely one element of another story, the glory story. It “insists on being its own story”; one which “does not allow us to stand by and watch”, but instead “makes us part of its story” so that “the cross becomes our story”.
It should be noted also that the “cross story” is not simply about Jesus’ crucifixion taken in isolation, but is “a shorthand way of intending the entire story culminating in cross and resurrection”.
The cross is “the key to unlocking” that story. It is to become the way by which we understand both God and creation. In Luther’s words, we are brought to look at all things “through suffering and the cross”.
But at the same time we see that “God vindicated the crucified Jesus by raising him from the dead”:
So the question and the hope comes to us. “If we die with him shall we not also live with him?”
Hence the theology of the cross is, in the end, a theology of hope rather than of despair. But it is a hope that sees suffering and the cross as the only means by which we can know God in this life, rather than as an unwelcome interruption to the “real story” of human and divine glory.
To put it another way: the theology of glory sees glory as the key to understanding the cross (if it takes any account of the cross at all). The theology of the cross sees the cross as the key to understanding glory.