The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity in America

Bryan Christman:

My final post for my other site which I reblogged here as an invitation to all Manifest Propensity followers. I am cutting back on Manifest posts and investing more time in this endeavor. I hope to perhaps meet some of you there.

Originally posted on Now & Then:

crisis

This may be the last post for “Now and Then” but to the few followers of this blog I would like to point out the following things:

I continue to share posts on my main blog called “Manifest Propensity.” If you want to keep in touch maybe you will want to follow that.

The things that I hoped to do with this blog, “Now and Then,” have not really succeeded in achieving what I envisioned.  I have therefore shifted to a facebook group where I hope to continue to work at facilitating dialogue around the current crises of evangelicalism. The address of the group is: https://www.facebook.com/groups/rhegma/

So please come visit to see what the “group” is trying to be about, and by all means do not hesitate to join in.

Many thanks, and I bid you Godspeed!

Bryan Christman

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U2’s “Sleep Like a Baby Tonight” and the Deep Crisis in the Church

Hope is where the door is
When the church is where the war is
Where no one can feel no one else’s pain

When I first heard this song I was humbled inasmuch as I have been an uncaring and unsympathetic Christian. Of course that lack is also a basic human shortcoming, but it is especially tragic when the Church is meant to shine hope before all the world as it lives within the greatest things of “faith, hope, and love.”

There has been much decline in the churches of all stripes, for many different reasons, but what U2 has said about hope being “where the door is” explains perhaps the most important reason. Certainly the churches have portrayed hope, but when we also know that there is much truth and many lives effected by failures to portray hope, we are called not to re-assuring ourselves or congratulating on ourselves wherein we have been faithful. Instead we are always called to look at our communities, our neighbors, and yes, our enemies and consider whether they see hope.

I think that the difficulty the churches face today, namely to be witnesses to the particular hope that is specifically Christian, is because of past instances where we have acted in specifically unchristian ways. So there is some “payback” going on, some of which may be motivated by similar uncharitableness, but some of which is also the reaction of those that have been hurt. So we actually ought to assume that even in this, Christ is trying to tell something to the churches that show him to the world.

It should be obvious, when we look at Jesus in the Gospel accounts, that he always “felt someone else’s pain” and in the end went to the cross to die for the sake of their pain.

Would you care to discuss this? I am hoping to do so here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/rhegma/permalink/446259668864995/

Thanks, BMC @ Manifest Propensity, 2015

“Miles Away” by Fleetwood Mac – Some Thoughts On The Flight From Disillusionment While “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”

 

Fleetwood-Mac_Mystery-to-Me_rear

 

Fleetwood-Mac_Mystery-to-Me

 

Part 1: A brief autobiography: 1975-1978

In 1975 I graduated college with my AAS degree. Like many in my generation, and like many young of all generations, I was seeking for a life-meaning and a life-direction. I was disillusioned with the society I lived in and the “Christianity” I thought I had grown up with (I hadn’t actually “gotten it” and for the most part it was a “watered down” Christianity).

So, driven partly by “spiritual” experiences I thought I had, I would go to the mall bookstores and peruse their sacred shelves hoping to find the key to become attuned to whatever the ultimate truth of the universe was. One exception to my method was when a book came to me through encountering a representative of the “Hare Krishna” movement in front of the record store in the mall. The airwaves had been flooded for some time with “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, and this gentle soul was sure to let me know that the album he offered me (for a great price) was endorsed by George himself, and also by John Fahey. He also offered a very nice hardcover edition of “The Bhagavad Gita” so I walked away with some very ancient writings, “spiritual” music, and only $5 less cash in my pocket. In my search that often felt rather desperate, I counted the cost as insubstantial.

This began my encounter with hinduism which proved short lived, although pantheism itself became my basic worldview for a number of years. I simply made no progress in meditation, and didn’t really want to adopt vegetarianism or any other drastic lifestyle change that the Hare Krishna’s recommended.

So back to the bookstore narrative. I found and read many interesting books, but some less so for various reasons. One book though, spurred a several year quest. It was “The Teachings of Don Juan –  A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.” I was immediately fascinated and hooked, eventually reading the first five books that narrated the apprenticeship in Mexico of Carlos Castaneda under “Don Juan Matus,” a Yaqui Indian Sorcerer and “man of knowledge.” This series had begun under the auspices of Castaneda’s dissertation for anthropology at the University of California. My quest thus became to become a “man of knowledge.”

don juan

Little did I know at the time (due to the fact that Al Gore had not yet invented the internet and therefore finding news of things such as this required more attention than I exercised) the historicity of the books had been officially debunked in 1976 and had been under much scrutiny from as early as 1969. The five books I read came out from 1968 through 1977, and I read them mostly from 1976 through 1978. Some today still find value in them even as fiction, and think that perhaps Castaneda had valid reasons for his “cover up” as a sort of critique of typical anthropology studies. But for me their factuality was important and I think I believed they were historical probably until at least 1979. On the other hand it was not actually their non-historical basis that led me to abandon my quest to become a “man of knowledge” style sorcerer. The truth is that while I was in the midst of my quest, I found a different way, or perhaps more accurately it found me.

Had I known sooner, perhaps I would have given up that specific quest earlier. Alas, as early 1973 Fleetwood Mac had said that Don Juan went up “in a cloud of smoke,” but even though I was an avid early listener to the Mac, I didn’t hear “Mystery to Me” until probably 1978.

This brief autobiography is merely to provide a picture of what life was like for one, indeed for many in that era and to also provide some context for the song “Miles Away.” That song is an apt summation of how “man’s search for meaning” led many to eventually seek “flight” from the disillusionment a generation encountered in failed movements and false messiahs. The flowery optimism of the 1960’s had led to the hedonistic disillusionment of the 1970’s.

Miles Away 
by Fleetwood Mac
Written by Bob Welch

The swamp is getting deeper all the time
And the faces that I see don’t seem to shine
Now there’s too much warhol hanging off the wall
And the mystery that there used to be is gone

Let me go
Miles away
Let me ride
Just miles away
Don’t wanna know
I’m not gonna miss it much
Gonna be drivin’ once again

Don juan goes up in a cloud of smoke
And all those hare krishnas turned out to be a joke
And it’s restless, restless, restless all the time
Slidin’ up and down the surface of this life
Now I know that I can’t say what’s black and white
But if I could fly I think I’d try tonight

(From MetroLyrics.com)

Part 2: What follows disillusionment, endless flight?

Fleetwood Mac had proposed “flight” as an answer back in 1973. By 1977 Steve Miller’s enormous FM hit “Fly Like an Eagle” arguably confirmed “flight” as the answer for the generation. Alvin Lee’s ‘Ten Years After” had pointed the way back in 1971 saying “I’d  love to change the world, but I don’t know what to do…, so I’ll leave it up to you.” By 1977 the 60’s revolution had become flight with Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.”

Feed the babies
Who don’t have enough to eat
Shoe the children
With no shoes on their feet
House the people
Livin’ in the street
Oh, oh, there’s a solution

I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Till I’m free
Fly through the revolution

(From MetroLyrics.com)

The question to ask today is whether our life is now become one of endless flight. Have we become a generation that unknowingly are ironically and perversely living the ancient biblical mandate of being “strangers and pilgrims” in the earth? For the point of that biblical “lifestyle” was not that it is good to be homeless and on endless “flight”, but to be on “pilgrimage” to an “alternative city” from the city of the kingdom’s of the world. In other words, there is a reality greater than the kingdom of humanity that has invaded, and the only “escape” from the old reality is to be found in this new “invading” reality.

This is the controversial truth of Christianity, so controversial that many Christians aren’t even familiar with it, namely that rightly understood Christianity is not about escape at all! It is about people becoming part of God’s new reality here and now. In more scriptural language in about becoming part of the inaugurated “kingdom of God.” In theological language it is about people becoming part of “the presence of the future,” meaning that God’s other-dimensional “future” for the world has invaded the present.

Now admittedly this may all sound strange and perhaps even stranger than Castaneda’s second book “A Separate Reality” did to those that read it. But this is scriptural Christian doctrine, which should be evident in this simple parable told by Jesus, the person in whom God’s invasion of the world was inaugurated in potency.

Matthew 13:33 He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”

N. T. Wright, on of today’s foremost scholars of the New Testament wrote this:

We who live after Calvary and Easter know that God did indeed act suddenly and dramatically at that moment. When today we long for God to act, to put the world to rights, we must remind ourselves that he has already done so, and that what we are now awaiting is the full outworking of those events. We wait with patience, not like people in a dark room wondering if anyone will ever come with a lighted candle, but like people in early morning who know that the sun has arisen and are now waiting for the full brightness of midday. (Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, p. 170)

In short, through Christ, God’s “kingdom of heaven” has been hidden in the world to “leaven” the whole world. How this works is admittedly somewhat controversial, and not merely because at times various bodies of “the Church” have sought to facilitate this providentially “secret” process of God through questionable “public” means. This historical scenario has left fear in the minds of many that an unbridled  future movement could make the communistic attempted  “leavenings” of the world pale by comparison. But the only scripturally legitimate power of God’s kingdom must be centered in the dynamic exhibited by Jesus in his ministry. And that dynamic was diametrically opposed to the power that is operative in the kingdoms of mankind. The dynamic of Jesus was the exercise of a different sort of power, that has been notably absent in human governments and organized religions of all stripes.

Mark 10:42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The dynamic of Jesus was even a different sort of love, one that is conspicuously absent in the intolerance in the name of “tolerance” in America today.

Matthew 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

But in the end am I not espousing some measure of Christianity as “organized religion”? I would have to answer yes, but it would have to be a “matured” Christianity such as we have not yet seen broadly in the world. I readily admit that “organized religion” is scary, especially to “conspiracy theory” prone Americans. The reality is that some human “organization” is inevitable. The question then is what will it’s ethic be? Does even the American tradition of liberal democracy foster the ethical dynamic of Jesus? Do the disillusioned Americans that are permanently “in flight” have a dynamic that fosters the shalom of God for humanity? In the end, Bob Welch’s “Miles Away” is the only solution for postmodernism’s  no “black or white” epistemological dogma.

And it’s restless, restless, restless all the time
Slidin’ up and down the surface of this life
Now I know that I can’t say what’s black and white
But if I could fly I think I’d try tonight

The true alternative is that God has already inaugurated the solution in which the reality of God’s alternate city can “leaven” the world. Postmoderns can only confess with Alvin Lee “I don’t know what to do”?

Revelation 21:2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The responsibility of all people then, is not to seek endless flight from the world, but to be part of the city that is to come. God has already prepared everything, but as Bob Dylan (who else) has pointed out, “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar.”

West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar,
I see the burning of the stage,
Curtain risin’ on a new age,
See the groom still waitin’ at the altar.

Note that throughout the chorus Dylan has several second lines:

  • I see the burning of the page (1 x)
  • I see the burning of the stage (3x)
  • I see the burning of the cage (1x)

He also has an alternate to the third line one time where he sings:

  • Curtain rising on a new stage…

I would love to hear any thoughts you may have about my thoughts.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2015. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

C. S. Lewis on Prayer as Monologue

Malcom

 

Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person.

(From “The World’s Last Night and Other Essays“, p. 8)

Poem

They tell me, Lord that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since you make no replies, it’s all a dream
– One talker aping two.

The are half right, but not as they
Falsely believe. For I
Seek in myself the things I meant to say,
And lo!, the well’s are dry.

Then, seeing me empty, You forsake
The listener’s part, and through
My dumb limps breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.

Therefore You neither need reply
Nor can; for while we seem
Two talking, Thou art one forever; and I
No dreamer, but thy dream.

– C.S. Lewis; 4 April 1934

(From “Yours Jack“, p.44)

Note on the word “limps” above: 

There are apparently different editions of this poem, with an earlier one published in 1964 reading “lips” instead of “limps.” How to resolve this I do not know, but it is interesting that in 1933 Lewis wrote:

Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord in thy great,

Unbroken speech, our limping metaphor translate.

It is also interesting that Lewis says in his letter from 1934 that he had written the poem “over a year ago.” I also note that at the time Lewis wrote the poem it was only about 2 1/2 years following his “second conversion,” to Christianity. About a year prior he experienced his “first conversion,” to theism.

Thanks for reading…

Bryan @ Manifest Propensity, 2015.

The Parable of the Townspeople

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Parable of the Sower, 1557.

There was a town in a distant land, far removed from civilization, isolated by deserts, forests, rivers and mountains. The townspeople had legends of others, but being busy and content they didn’t search for them. Their own primal history was lost, but legend also said that the entire world was created by a great and mysterious but generally good Townskeeper.

For their town, near a deep glacial lake surrounded by fertile forests, provided all they needed. They simply received…

“from heaven rains and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness.”

This does not mean their lives were easy. Although nature provided them with all they needed, sometimes it burst forth with more, bringing floods, or blizzards. Disease and infirmity also visited, but all in all the fruitful seasons yielded life against the wildness of nature.

Problems came from their own nature also, by laziness and selfishness. Lying, stealing, the taking of life all became too well known. Even those that kept themselves from such acts were tempted toward evils. Thus they found that all seemed to be cut from the same cloth, and therefore the townspeople tried to balance necessary justice with the need for forgiveness.

So they found that they were thankful to be alive, and enjoyed the fruits of their labors. Most felt so thankful that they wondered if there was some unseen benefactor they should give thanks to. Their early wise ones had said that perhaps someone was good and great enough to have created all things, and so they made an altar devoted to their unknown “Townskeeper” lest they be ungrateful.

One day a mysterious stranger suddenly appeared in their town square. He had been first found by a group of young children. It seemed they thought of him as some favorite uncle, rather than being the first stranger they had ever met. What the adults first saw was the stranger seated and surrounded by the children, several upon his knee, eagerly listening as his kind voice told them stories.

The adults, being more cautionary, began to ask him who he was, where he came from and why he was there. He said that he was sent to them to bring good news and that he was the only son of the Townskeeper who,

“…himself giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; and he made of one every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed seasons, and the bounds of their habitation; that they should seek him, if haply they might feel after him and find him.”

The Townskeeper had always sown their lives with many blessings, and now desired for them to know and trust him fully for all their needs, so that they could enjoy life even more abundantly. So the stranger stayed with them for several months and spoke of many mysterious things. He also did many miraculous signs.

He healed those that were sick or had been born with infirmities. He even welcomed those that had been caught lying or stealing, and visited with one that had taken a life. He seemed to have some special bond with the most needy, and with the children. Thus with many such wonderful words and deeds he blessed all the people, and many found it easy to believe he was the son of their absentee Townskeeper.

Eventually he departed saying he was sent to all the towns in the world. They wondered how, being a man, he could travel the whole and seemingly now larger world.

Once he said he must do something that would overcome all evils and death itself, and that his deed was from the very beginning the necessary foundation of creation. They were all puzzled by this!

Not long after he left someone else arrived. The whole town had been hearing noises such as they never heard before. In a few days what appeared was a parade, led by huge metallic machines that leveled a path through the wilderness like a herd of gigantic wild boars. Following were men marching in formation as trumpets sounded. In the center was a man seated on a throne held aloft by other men. The procession came to rest in the center of the square.

The man solemnly rose as children rushed forward to see the destruction machines. The marching men barricaded them back. He bellowed loudly with a superior tone while announcing himself and speaking.

He said that he embodied the culmination of the scientific aspirations of humankind, which had primarily discovered that there was no evidence for any Townskeeper. They were following the trail of the stranger to undo his delusional lies. He reported that that they had finally rid the world of him, but that some followers believed he rose from the dead and were spreading his lies everywhere they went.

Scientists had concluded that dead strangers do not rise from the dead and the world existed by chance. Feeling thankful is due to biochemical brain reactions because of a full stomach, harem, barn or temple.

Some wondered why many felt thankful even in great hardships, but how could simple folk disagree with the wisdom of “humanity?” He said he must depart to fulfill his chosen mission, but would benevolently appoint marching men as “advisors” to guide their democracy. Besides, they would have many weapons suitable for dealing with superstitions.

The parody pompously departed and the townspeople mainly settled into a “new normal.” Some still felt thankful and remembered the stranger. The more they remembered him the more thankful they felt. Why shouldn’t feeling thankful mean there must be someone to thank? Feeling thirsty means that that water exists. And justice, forgiveness, and love are real yet can’t be proven under the microscope.

Many believed the news of the scientist, who had become their high priest. Life was mostly the same, since nature was still wild and “not yet” overcome by technology. Floods and sicknesses were less often, but when they came they were even worse. Sometimes they still felt thankful, but tried to avoid thinking about it. Eventually many lost their sense of being thankful, because “everyone” knew that there is no reason to thank an accident that eventually produced biochemical reactions in gray matter.

“For there is nothing hid, save that it should be manifested; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light. If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear.

And he said unto them, Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete it shall be measured unto you; and more shall be given unto you. For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

Written by Bryan M. Christman, Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

Joni Mitchell’s “River” and the “Christmas movement” of God

Joni Mitchell has long been my favorite female singer-songwriter. Her early song “River” from 1971 is undoubtedly one of her masterpieces. It is also a fitting song for a meditation on the meaning of Christmas.

The song begins and ends with Joni’s solo piano strains almost struggling in a minor rather than major key to play “Jingle Bells,” portending the dissonance between the season with songs of joy and the perennial sorrows of life. The sadness in her voice and the beautifully haunting music and lyrics immediately draw the listener into the melancholy that the advent of Christmas has created for her through its seeming inability to give her “joy and peace.”

It’s coming on Christmas

They’re cutting down trees

They’re putting up reindeer

And singing songs of joy and peace

Oh I wish I had a river

I could skate away on

Joni Mitchell has so beautifully juxtaposed joy and sorrow, peace and pain, that she simply melts the soul of the most hardened of us. The festive joys of the Christmas season have been annulled for her by the frozen winter that would provide hope, if only she could skate away on its cold hard ice. Christmas was lost for her as it was for all Narnia in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” by C. S. Lewis, where it was “always winter, but never Christmas.”

She does not provide any critique though, of the biblical meaning of Christmas, but rather describes the dissonance in her own soul that the “traditional” season of joy brings to her. But is the fact that Christmas is simply, perhaps in the main the uncritically accepted “season of joy” the real problem? In other words, is Christmas actually “meant” to provide an easy solution to the perplexities and problems of life?

So the question, simply put is, what does Christmas mean? Is Christmas meant to remove all our problems and replace them with unending “joy and peace?” I think that to suppose so, is to mistake what Christmas is, at least in its initial interaction with the world.

Christmas is called the advent, the beginning of God’s movement toward the world in a new and unprecedented way. But Christmas did not annul, but rather fully entered the perplexities and sufferings of life. A young couple, the wife very pregnant, having to undergo severe inconvenience to comply with a governmental census for taxes. Sages traveling from distant lands following “signs” in their insatiable search for a viable hope for humanity. A King that so feared the loss of his power that he sent soldiers to slaughter the innocents, the contemporaries of the child who would be king and threaten his reign. The couple also then driven to become refugees in another country to escape Herod’s plan.

The mother herself was caught in difficulties and perplexities she could not begin to understand. For the child conceived in her womb was the beginning of a mysterious movement of God not only toward, but into the deepest parts of the world by “becoming flesh and dwelling among us,” and eventually to be “betrayed (to death) by the kiss” of a dear friend; to be abandoned in the end by all his disciples except the women; to “surrender” to the murderous political machinations of the “religious” authorities; to suffer the pains of torture and horrible execution at the hands of the Romans; and to seemingly have been abandoned and cursed by God himself.

So God become flesh in the infant Jesus was God’s movement toward and into the crucible of all human experience. Certainly there were simple pleasures, and the children came to Jesus because he was joyful, not austere! But there was also much suffering common to humanity just as “the sparks fly upward.”

But this is not to say that it is not perfectly natural for us to want to “skate away” from all the suffering. In Gethsemane with the prospect of the cross before him, Jesus agonized and sweat “great drops of blood,” desiring to escape the cup of suffering placed before him. For in this first Christmas movement of God into the world, the cup of suffering was to be fully drank to the bottom.

The proximate cause of Joni Mitchell’s sorrow in “River” is given in the narration, and can be summarized in a few lines:

I made my baby cry…

I made my baby say goodbye

Much of the sorrow we experience in life is due to our own failures, often inexplicable even to ourselves as we seem to be quite adept as saboteurs of even our own joy and peace. Joni Mitchell laments that

I’m so hard to handle

I’m selfish and I’m sad

Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby

That I ever had

Oh I wish I had a river…

These sorrows too, are part of the suffering that the Christmas movement has taken to the cross of Christ, bearing the guilt and shame of the manifold sins of humankind. There is no “river so long” that we could “skate away on,” that would enable us to escape not only from what we have done but who we are. For wherever we go, there we are. But part of the mystery of the suffering of Christ on the cross is that for those that believe it is the power of God that brings to us the very “righteousness, holiness and redemption” of God.

So Christmas is not annulled because it has not removed our sufferings or because we don’t have a river long or frozen enough to skate away on. Christmas is fulfilled because it is the river of God that flows to us and even within us if we believe. That river is what enables the people of the community it has created to “count it all joy” in trials,  and to have a “peace that passes understanding” because it is a community born into “fellowship with his sufferings.” Yet it is also the Christmas river whose lively water flows with songs of “joy and peace.”

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (from Psalm 46, ESV)

Christmas joy and peace to all!

Bryan @ Manifest Propensity

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” and God’s “little, near face”

484px-Albrecht_Dürer_-_Christ_on_the_Cross_(NGA_1943.3.3681)

Albrecht Durer – Christ on the Cross

 

Heinrich Bornkamm was another theologian who has helped to explain Luther’s “theology of the cross.” The following rather lengthy excerpt provides a more thorough look at his theology in order to “flesh out” the message of the cross that was the subject of the previous two posts.

            The theology of the cross is not a theology which is contrived by the process of thinking. If we followed our ideas of the nature of the divine, we would probably imagine a quite different God: a great, mighty, victorious, indubitably loving, ingenious cosmic architect. . But certainly not a God who allows his messenger, whom he sends for the salvation of the world, to go down to ignominious defeat, to suffer and die innocently. It is a theology that one can derive only from an actual event, or better, that one can believe only on the basis of the passion and the cross of Christ. This was why Luther portrayed the suffering of Christ with such tremendous force. This suffering was not only a horrible physical suffering, as it was chiefly represented in medieval devotional literature in order to arouse our pity. Rather Luther took far more earnestly and consistently than did all previous theology the humanity of Jesus Christ, who suffered on the cross, not only physical pain, but also utter forsakenness and desolation. Augustine and medieval theology and mysticism fought shy of accepting the cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as a real cry of the dying Christ; they construed it merely as the intercession of Christ for his suffering body, the church. For Luther, however, it was the simple bitter truth that Christ had to endure on the cross the consciousness of being forsaken by God. He was spared none of the trial and temptation, none of the remoteness and absence of God that may be imposed upon men. Indeed, for him who came from the heart of the Gather and brought nothing but love to men, it was a more dreadful thing to bear this abandonment than for any other man. For Luther this fact that Christ had to fall into the abyss of God forsakenness and loneliness, was expressed in the Creed: “He descended into hell.” He interpreted this to mean, not an event in space, but rather this experience of utter dereliction of the soul. Nor is this experience confined to the cross; the passion is rather only the awful aggravation and consistent conclusion of the loneliness and desolation that Jesus suffered in his whole life through the deafness and opposition of men and often the misunderstanding of his own disciples. Only occasionally do the gospels mention this, and Luther commented that “if everything about Christ had been written down, we would read of many a severe affliction. He was a man who from his youth was tormented by many afflictions.” Actually he had already died in the garden of Gethsemane before he was crucified, for there he had already suffered death and desolation to the depths. On the cross all of the cross of his life was summarized.

But therefore the meaning of his life for us is also summed up in the cross. Christ’s dereliction means something deeper than the desolation of any human being could ever mean. In that dereliction he became the brother of the loneliest and most derelict of men. This is the seal upon the love of God. No starry heaven, no marvel of creation, can make us so sure of it as the fact that Christ by the will of the Father took upon himself this uttermost affliction of soul. But while he was obliged to plunge into forsakenness, he was not forsaken, but rather led by God’s strong, irresistible hand to the only place where he could become the Savior of the world, right next to all who are desolate in the bottomless hell where man left alone inevitably falls into despair.

Christ’s cross and dereliction can help us to overcome our cross and dereliction. If God’s love is hidden in the cross, then it is also our cross. There is where God seeks us most intensely, there he desires to speak to us and assure us that his power is revealed at its mightiest in our weakness. The person who has found God’s love here, on the cross, will also find it elsewhere , in the cosmos, in human love. But he who looks first for it somewhere else and not in this hidden center of divine help for the world will founder and come to grief upon the suffering and meaninglessness of life. We cannot see the face of God, but in Christ, said Luther, God gave himself a “little, near face” which we can look upon. It is a human suffering face, the face of the Crucified. But in it dwells the majesty of the love of God. (The Heart of Reformation Faith, Henirich Bornkamm, 1963, pp. 49-51)

Heinrich Bornkamm

Heinrich Bornkamm

For further study on Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” here is a link to a good 2005 article by Carl R. Trueman.

As always comments and questions are welcomed! Thanks,

Bryan @ Manifest Propensity