This week I have been giving some examples to show how concerns I have had over the years about evangelicalism are answered by the traditional teachings of historic Lutheranism. We will finish this series up with two final posts.
In the first, I want to discuss an emphasis that Martin Luther and his heirs have stressed, which I think is one of their greatest contributions to Christian theology.
In the last post, I will talk a bit about Luther himself.
Today’s subject is introduced by an important quote from Luther, which came early in the Reformer’s career.
He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
The manifest and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Cor. 1:25 calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because men misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering, and to condemn “wisdom concerning invisible things” by means of “wisdom concerning visible things”, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in his works should honor him as he is hidden in his suffering (absconditum in passionibus). As the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isa. 45:15 says, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself.”
So, also, in John 14:8, where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeing God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). For this reason true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ, as it is also stated in John 10 (John 14:6), “No one comes to the Father, but by me;” “I am the door” (John 10:9), and so forth.
• Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation (1518), Thesis 20
This is one of points Luther debated in a meeting of the Augustinian Order in 1518, the year after he had posted his 95 Theses. In the editor’s introduction to this disputation in the Book of Concord it is noted that these points represent an important development in Luther’s thought and show his “growing realization that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology.”
At the heart of his argument was that the Church had been overtaken by a “Theology of Glory,” whereas God has revealed himself and brought us salvation through a “Theology of the Cross.”
I met with a Lutheran pastor recently, and we discussed some of the unique contributions the tradition has to offer to contemporary American Christianity. The one he felt was most important was the theology of the cross. He spoke eloquently about how much that passes for “faith” today is in reality little more than “positive thinking.” People are attracted to this upbeat message, but when things start going wrong, when the bottom drops out of their lives, suddenly they discover that clichés and platitudes are not enough to sustain them.
The theology of the cross, in contrast to teaching that continually promotes a “victorious Christian life,” proclaims that God hides himself in the most unlikely disguises.
Martin Luther loved the Christmas story for this reason. In a most unexpected manner, God took on human flesh and was born in an obscure village to an unwed mother, laid in a manger among farm animals, and acknowledged only by rough and simple shepherds.
Then there was Jesus’ life and ministry. Throughout its course, the words of the prophet Isaiah characterized him: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” (53:2-3)
Jesus did not live a “successful” life in worldly terms. Riches, power, luxury, wide influence — he knew none of these. He had nowhere to lay his head. He walked on dusty paths in forsaken regions of the empire, far from the halls of power. Even the parochial leaders in Palestine — the big fish in the small pond of Israel — dismissed Jesus as a small-time pretender from the sticks.
We know the ending of the story. Betrayed by one of his closest followers, convicted through a mockery of a trial, tortured, abused, and publicly shamed by his captors, he was executed as a criminal on a Roman gibbet.
And this is our God.
Those who follow Christ most faithfully know that the cross is also the key to the Jesus-shaped life for his people.
The Apostle Paul, for example, testified, “[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.'” (2Cor 12:9-10)
Through these words, Paul was trying to provide his Corinthian friends an antidote for the deadly triumphalistic teaching being promoted in their midst by certain “super-apostles” in Corinth. These leaders were always “boasting” about their spiritual credentials, experiences, and victories, promoting a “power religion” that despised weakness and humility. This was faith for winners, with no room for losers.
Paul, however, determined only to boast in those things that revealed his weakness (2Cor 11:30), for those were the experiences in which he believed God was present, though hidden.
Do I need to set forth evidence that a similar “power religion” which unabashedly calls people to a “faith” that seeks spiritual enthusiasm, spectacle, ecstatic experiences, “abundance,” “victory,” “prosperity,” and “deliverance” from sin and suffering, and which despises weakness, struggles, doubts, and helplessness characterizes much of what we see in American cultural Christianity today?
What happens when enthusiasm fades? When spectacle no longer titillates? When you “crash” and can’t find that spiritual “high” anymore? When prayers for deliverance aren’t answered? When poverty replaces abundance? When Christian “answers” no longer ring true? When healing doesn’t come? When your marriage falls apart or your children go astray? When all the principles and steps and methods and programs you were counting on to bring success turn out to be ineffectual? When your “faith” and your “confession” and your “decision” don’t seem to make a difference?
Where is God in all of that? Is he in any of that?
Yes, that is exactly where he is. This is the life in which God is present and active, for this is the God who hides himself. This is the God of the cross.
This is the One who meets us in our sorrow, our pain, our weakness, as well as in every experience of our ordinary, human lives. He may be hidden so that we cannot see him, but he is present and active. As Jesus said yes to the cross as the way God had for him, so must we. Baptized into Christ, we reject the way of glory — the way of human power, wisdom, technique, control, and manipulation — and we embrace the way of the cross — the way of trust, receptiveness, and the freedom to be human, weak, and vulnerable.