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

 

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