While I’ve always loved Halloween, it was only until I was in college that I learned it was also Reformation Day. Reformation Day commemorates Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, in part to protest the sale of indulgences. This is often perceived as the start of the Protestant Reformation.[i]
The next spring, Martin Luther composed the Heidelberg Disputations, a series of statements and proofs which was argued among the Augustinian monks (of whom he was one) at Heidelberg in 1518. Following Augustine and Paul, Luther argues that humanity cannot do good works apart from the grace of God. If humanity attempts to do good works apart from knowing and trusting Christ crucified, humanity becomes susceptible to a theology of glory. One’s actions do not save; only God can save.
Luther proposes a theology of the cross that contests a theology of glory. Looking at the world through the lens of the cross, humanity can perceive things “as they really are.” He contrasts this with a theology of glory, which calls “evil good and good evil.” He states:
- 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; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
- [they] deserve to be called a theologian, however, who comprehend the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
- A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.[ii]
Jürgen Moltmann claims that Luther’s theologia crucis was developed not so much to attack “medieval catholic theology…but [to attack] [humanity’s] inhuman concern for self-deification through knowledge and works.”[iii] However, Moltmann rightly highlights that Luther did not take his theology of the cross and apply it to all areas of life. When Luther condemns the peasant uprising against tyrannical landowners in 1524 and 1525, Moltmann describes Luther as turning to the notion of “humble submission” rather than “calling the thing what it really is.”[iv] That is, the peasants had taken the theology of the cross and decided to act upon it through resisting the injustices of the landowners. Luther loses his prophetic edge when exhorting the peasants to submit. This same sort of tactic is repeated in the antebellum period of the United States, where pro-slavery advocates tell enslaved black persons to submit, while abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and Zilpha Elaw call out slavery for what it is.
A viewpoint, or theology, from the starting point of the cross upends what is perceived as common sense. As such, Luther’s words contain wisdom for us today, even if he himself did not apply them in all areas of his life. A theologia crucis relies upon God’s abundant grace as the only way of salvation.[v] Seeking after power, honor, or status is futile. If we were to apply it to today, deifying a political party or person as a means for salvation is idolatry.
A theologia crucis also demands truth telling. It looks through the lies and insists upon honesty. This truth is good news for the poor and bad news for the rich (think of the story of the rich young ruler!) It is prophetic: exposing hidden agendas and systematic sins. It calls white privilege a sin. It causes us to self-examine our failures to love and listen to our neighbor, especially our neighbor we do not recognize or claim. A theology of the cross convicts and saves.
This was certainly good news for early followers of Luther, and continues to be good news for us.
[i] It should be noted that religious figures prior to Martin Luther were critical of church abuses and the sale of indulgences, such as John Wycliffe.
[iii] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015, 103.
[iv] Ibid, 105. Moltmann turns to Paul Althaus here.
[v] Ibid, 103.