Friday, August 18, 2006
While both proponents of Penal Substitution and Christus Victor would like to claim Luther as an advocate of each theory, in fact Luther's theology of the cross takes both to such new levels that one would have to say that Luther developed his own theology of the cross. Paul Fiddes has suggested that instead of calling it a "Theology of the Cross" it should be thought of as a "Theology from the Cross" because rather than beginning with a natural understanding of justice as Satisfaction theory does with Anselm and reasoning from there what God's values must be, a "Theology from the Cross" begins with the scandal and failure of the cross as God's own self-revelation. As terrible as this may at first seem - "a stumbling block" and "foolishness" Paul calls it - this is where we must begin.
While most people think of the 95 Theses of Luther as being his most pivotal writing, in fact while this was perhaps the catalyst to the Reformation, Luther's Heidelberg Dispute is much more formative to the pillars of Reform teaching. In there he again lists a series of theses, there Luther writes:
19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1.20].
20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross
Alistar Mcgrath points out (along with many others) that the phrase "visible and manifest things of God" is a severe mistranslation. The Latin (the original language) is "visibilia et posteriora Dei" which means literally "the visible posterior things of God" or if you will "God's butt". This is a reference to how Moses could not see God's face and live but instead saw His backside. Luther's understanding is that God's revelation is "hidden under its opposite" (abscondita sub contrariis) so that God's glory is revealed in the shame and humiliation of the cross; God's justice comes through (and despite) the injustice of the cross; God's victory comes though the failure of the cross. Life comes through death. Winning through losing.
As Christians we often forget that the Roman cross is not outwardly a symbol of hope, but of death, oppression, injustice, and accursedness. There is a reason that the disciples all fled the cross, and as Juergen Moltmann (who has more than any other in the 20th century expanded on the "Theology from the Cross") has said
"Christians who do not have the feeling that they must flee the crucified Christ have not yet understood him in a sufficiently radical way"
Luther speaks of the "opus alienum" and the "opus proprium", actions that are alien to God such as wrath over against actions that belong to his nature such as mercy. Again in the Heidelberg Disputation he writes,
"Thus an action which is alien to God's nature results in an action which belongs to his nature: God makes a person a sinner in order to make him righteous" (HD, proof 16)
Wrath is not an end in itself, nor is it God's primary concern. It is in fact alien to his nature Luther says, but through wrath God brings about salvation.
There is I think a lot of profound insight in this theology from the scandal of the cross. The task would be how to appropriate this so as to on the one hand not water it down, but on the other hand to have it not advocate self-hatred or abuse leding to death but to lead us to life through the valley of the shadow of death. When we have the courage to face our own darkness and ugliness we can meet Jesus at the foot of the cross, because as Luther says, God loves
“Sinners are beautiful because they are loved, they are not loved because they are beautiful.” (HD, proof 28)