By Ben Swift
Theology or the study of God, has in modern times become so diverse, so shaped and distorted by external influences that it barely resembles at times the heritage upon which it was built. While it’s true that we shouldn’t find ourselves stuck in the 1500’s for example, unable to grow beyond the great works of the church reformers, it is also true that some of the greatest, most helpful theological insights grew out of this era.
In current times, where heartache and disillusionment seem to be an ever-present part of our lives, we need a theology that meets us where we are at, a theology capable of taking us gently by the hand, bringing real comfort in the face of all that life has in stall. It’s here that looking back can provide us with an effective way to look forward in what is known as Luther’s Theology of the Cross; theologia crucis, a theology for those willing to acknowledge their own weakness and vulnerability in order to rely on the grace of God, one might even say a well-needed crutch for those who limp.
In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, ‘The heart is aroused in the love of your mercy and the sweetness of your grace, by which every weak person is given power, while dependence on grace produces awareness of one’s own weakness’.
If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that humanity is fragile. We are weak and vulnerable despite the seemingly incredible technological advances we make as a species. Just when we feel in total control, in the driver’s seat on the road to achieving our personal dreams, our planet is infiltrated by a microscopic virus turning the world’s plans to chaos, revealing once again that we are all just vulnerable creatures trying to survive on spaceship earth.
At this point a theology of glory, one that affirms our personal hopes and dreams, seems a little shallow and incapable of comforting the broken, people in need of real hope. Alternatively, Christ is better found at the cross. Here, Luther’s Theology of the Cross provides a theology of comfort and grace, a theology that offers to take you by the hand, promising to walk with you through the inevitable tough times.
Interestingly, while the Latin word crucis is translated in English as ‘cross’, it also relates to the word ‘crucial’ which describes something as being of central and utmost importance. The centrality of the cross of Christ is crucial to the way we perceive and interpret everything. It is central to all hope.
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gal 6:14 NRSV).
The Apostle Paul also recognised the paradox that lay at the heart of the cross in terms of the world’s way of thinking.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’ (1 Cor 1:18-19).
Isaiah 55:8 also suggests that the foolishness of God is wiser than any form of human wisdom.
Theologia crucis is therefore, the lens through which all theological thought is focused on what Christ achieved on the cross. While God often remains hidden in mystery, he reveals himself most fully to us as God for us in the cross, from his incarnation to his death and finally in his resurrection which all reveal his love for people. Here, God is revealed to us in his humility as a weak man living among sinful people, a baby born in a lowly manger, a broken man nailed to a Roman cross. The cross unveils a God who comes to us in the harsh realities of life. It is the only place where the people of Christ are equipped to follow his lead in entering the struggles and joys of others as we take up opportunities to reflect our saviour into the world.
Paul, a man familiar with pain and suffering, pleaded with God to take away the thorn that tormented him, but God’s response was not to take it away but rather to walk with him, revealing his power through Paul’s weakness.
But he [Christ] 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. (2 Cor 12:8-9).
Living in these times is hard, but a quick dive into any period of history will show that suffering and hardship have always been with us. The question is, do we cling to a theology capable of helping us to make sense of it all? Luther’s Theology of the Cross is certainly a good place to start. Here, in the face of anything life dishes up we encounter Christ, God with us and for us, always wanting to work in and through our weaknesses, work done in apparent contradiction to the world’s constant struggle to eliminate the very things through which God works.