Luther's Theology of the Cross pt 2 abscondita sub contrariis

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)



At 2:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the time you've invested in explaining your views to me. I still disagree strongly, as you no doubt concluded from some of my comments, but I've pretty much dropped out of the discussion here.

I just wanted to tell you that I wrote a brief rebuttal of your theory of the atonement for my blogs, and -- just in case you wanted to look through and make sure I am representing you fairly. Also, feel free to interact on either site.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Andy Kaylor said...

I never get tired of hearing Luther's theology of the cross.

And here I would note that the thought of God's alien work leads us back to Isaiah (28:21). In fact, Luther's theology of the cross and Isaiah's theology go hand-in-hand.

Isaiah has this amazing vision of God's wrath and God's deliverance. Christopher Seitz asks how people pre-Christian Isrealites could have heard the overflowing messianic promises in Isaiah and not denounce him as a false prophet. The answer he offers is that Isaiah's announcements of judgment came to pass and that in Isaiah's words the judgment and the blessing are inextricably bound together. The one brings the other, Isaiah tells us.

In the chapter where Isaiah speaks of God's alien work, he offers this surprising insight into the wrath of God:

Give ear, and hear my voice;
give attention, and hear my speech.
Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
does he continually open and harrow his ground?
When he has leveled its surface,
does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
and barley in its proper place,
and emmer as the border?
For he is rightly instructed;
his God teaches him.

Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin,
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
and cumin with a rod.
Does one crush grain for bread?
No, he does not thresh it forever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it
with his horses, he does not crush it.
This also comes from the Lord of hosts;
he is wonderful in counsel
and excellent in wisdom.
-Isaiah 28:23-29 (ESV)

Luther, likewise, has this vision. He never seems to get tired of quoting 1 Samuel 2:6: "The Lord kills and brings to life."

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Hey well thanks for all your input here, I value the chance to dialog with intelligent people who disagree with me :)

I posted my response over on your blog.

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was fascinated in any earlier post by your explanations of the differences between Lutheranism and Calvinism. Could your expand a bit on that?

At 4:41 PM, Blogger Andy Kaylor said...

As a caveat, I haven't read Calvin, and I don't know to what extent he can really be identified with subsequent Calvinism, which I will paint with a fairly broad brush. Having said that, when I speak of the difference between Calvinism and Lutheranism, I intend mainly to refer to these streams of Christianity near their roots and in the distinctly confessional branches of Calvinism today.

For instance, Douglass John Hall and Jurgen Moltman are in the "Reformed" tradition that would broadly be called Calvinism, but they see Luther in a Lutheran way. That is, they truly understand the theology of the cross.

But going back into the 16th and 17th century and continuing in more conservative Calvinists today (R.C. Sproul, for instance), I don't think this is true. And when they speak of Luther, they speak as though the theology of the cross were a disposable part of his theology, which it isn't.

Very broadly speaking, Calvinism is centered on the holiness of God the Father, whereas Lutheranism is centered the steadfast love ("hesed", in its full Biblcal sense) of God in Jesus Christ. Calvinism certainly has a special place for God in Christ, but it seems to me that they set up camp in the heavens, trying to see things from the eternal perspective of God. By contrast, Lutherans insist that God always comes down to us. As such, we set up camp at the cross. Luther says somewhere, "The cross alone is our theology."

This Christ-orientation of Luther may be seen in the following quotation (which is just one of many I could produce):

I have often advised and still advise younger theologians today that they must so study the Holy Scriptures that they refrain from investigating the Divine Majesty and His terrible works. God does not want us to learn to know Him in this way. You cannot nakedly associate with His naked Godhead. But Christ is our way to God. Those who speculate about the majesty are crushed and led to despair by Satan. The reason for this is that they are looking for answers of a kind that they cannot know, such as for the question: Why did God condemn Judas but spare Peter? And such a speculator argues with God as if with some potter. To keep us from striving to observe God in Himself in this matter, He came into the flesh, presenting the flesh to us, in which we might behold God dwelling bodily, as He answered Philip when the latter gazed at Him: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). From this, then, you see the madness of those who say that the flesh avails them nothing (cf. John 6:63), though on the contrary God is of no avail without the flesh. Indeed no God will avail for you except the God of Him who sucked the virgin’s breasts. On Him fix your eyes. For you cannot grasp God in Himself, unless perchance you want a consuming fire. But in Christ you see nothing but all sweetness, humanity, gentleness, clemency—in short, the forgiveness of sins and every mercy, etc. ... The incarnation of Christ powerfully calls us away from speculating about the divinity.
(Luther's Works vol. 16, p. 55)

I broad terms I find Calvinism to be a very rational, systematic faith while Lutheranism is based much more in proclamation. Things can be deduced in Calvinism. In Lutheranism, they can only be received.

In "Baptized We Live" (which can be found in part here), Daniel Erlander contrasts three ways of viewing the Bible. In one view, God dictates the Bible from which using human reason we can deduce true propositions. In a second view, humans write the Bible but using human reason we can deduce from it eternal truths. Against both of these, Erlander suggest that Lutherans see the Bible as a "living Word" which breaks into our lives and confronts us with a personal Truth. That is, God addresses us in the Bible.

This is central to a Lutheran way of seeing things.

At 5:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm not familiar with Douglass John Hall. What has he written?

Also, I've noticed that many Lutheran churches are called "Christus Victor" (google "Christus Victor" and most of the hits are for Lutheran churches). How does that fit in? Does that mean that These churches have adopted that view of the Atonement?

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Andy Kaylor said...

The things I would recommend from Hall are The Cross in Our Context (which is a condensed version of a three volume work) and God and Human Suffering.

The Christus Victor view of the atonement is pretty commonly accepted among ELCA Lutheran churches (and I think within the global Lutheran community), so I would guess the churches so named are named for this reason. In LCMS circles Christus Victor is viewed much more suspiciously.

At 3:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Andy, I ordered both books from the library. I'm especially interested in "God and Human Suffering" since I think this is the direction that Luther needed to be taken in to address a wider range of what separates people from God.


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