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

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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

 

U2 – Theologians of the Cross?

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Crux sola est nostra theologia.

(The cross alone is our theology.)

Martin Luther

Luther

I have very much enjoyed listening to the new U2 Album “Songs of Innocence” that was made available for free by ITunes to me and multitudes of others. I had not been, listening much to U2 in the past decade or two, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it. I was also intrigued that they were also still writing songs that not only reflected “Christian” themes, but that this collection seemed to contain a common and “most important” theological thread. Moreover, that thread happened to be one which I have been interested in for many years, but have been studying more intensively for about a year. It is also considered by those that believe in it, to be the only “theology” true to the name “Christian.” It is called the “theology of the cross.” My own introduction to it came several years back through Alister McGrath, and the catalyst for my re-introduction and current studies was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Through Bonhoeffer I went “back” to Luther, and then “forward” to Douglas John HallGerhard O. Forde, and Michael P. Knowles. I mention all of these potentially boring details in case the reader may want to pursue the “theology of the cross” more fully (follow the links).

What is the “theology of the cross?” A brief excerpt from the four years shy of 500 yr. old document published in 1518 by Martin Luther called the “Heidelberg Disputation” will introduce it for us:

Thesis 19

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 that have actually happened (or have been made, created).

Thesis 20

That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross.

Thesis 21

A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

So why do I think that U2 are “theologians of the cross” in this new album? (Disclaimer: This theory of mine is driven solely by the lyrical content of these songs, not by any knowledge of their personal or even public lives.) I think so because of the common theological “thread” running through the songs that I can only summarize as exhibiting a “theology of the cross.” At this point, rather than belabor my theory, I’ll let brief excerpts from each song be the witnesses for the theory. In the process perhaps the content of these excerpts will further fill in what a “theology of the cross” looks like. This perhaps is a proper way to understand it, because Gerhard O. Forde says it is more precisely not a theology “about the cross” but rather a theology “of the cross.”

The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)

I was young

Not dumb

Just wishing to be blinded

By you

Brand new

And we were pilgrims on our way

 

Every Breaking Wave

Every sailor knows that the sea

Is a friend made enemy

 

California (There is No End to Love)

There’s no end to grief

That’s how I know

That’s how I know

And why I need to know that there is no end to love

 

Song for Someone

You’ve got a face not spoiled by beauty

I have some scars from where I’ve been

You’ve got eyes that see right through me

You’re not afraid of anything they’ve seen

 

Iris (Hold Me Close)

Hold me close, hold me close and don’t let me go

Hold me close like I’m someone that you might know

Hold me close, the darkness just lets us see

Who we are

I’ve got your life inside of me

 

Volcano

Your eyes were like landing lights

They used to be clearest blue

Now you don’t see so well

The future’s gonna fall on you

 

Raised by Wolves

Boy sees his father crushed under the weight

Of a cross in a passion where the passion is hate

 

Cedarwood Road

Sleepwalking down the road

Not waking from these dreams

‘Cause it’s never dead it’s still in my head

 

Sleep Like a Baby Tonight

Hope is where the door is

When the church is where the war is

 

This is Where You Can Reach Me Now

Soldier soldier

We signed our lives away

Complete surrender

The only weapon we know

 

The Troubles

God knows it’s not easy

Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain

God now you can see me

I’m naked and I’m not afraid

My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed

In conclusion, I believe  that a lyric in “Song For Someone” provides an integrative key to the thread, subsiding all the songs under the “theology of the cross.” The song also speaks to my disclaimer at the outset regarding the status of their “real” lives. For taken at face value, this seems to be a sincere confession of faith, showing U2 does not claim to have “arrived” at some type of “perfection” (which is a theology of glory anyway) but instead merely hope that whatever their light God won’t “let it go out.”

And I’m a long long way from your Hill of Calvary

And I’m a long way from where I was and where I need to be

If there is a light you can’t always see

And there is a world we can’t always be

If there is a kiss I stole from your mouth

And there is a light, don’t let it go out

I have tried in this post to in an introductory fashion merely introduce the “theology of the cross” and the relation of U2 to it. As always, and especially if I have “left you hanging” in any way,  would happily welcome any questions or comments regarding any of the songs, other excerpts, theologians/links, or anything else related to the post. Remember, nothing ventured – nothing gained!

I am adding this edit because since the time I wrote this post I started a facebook group wherein I plan in time to discuss some important issues that U2 raises for the Christian Church. In fact I have already posted a little bit about the last verses in “Cedars of Lebanon.”  Another post that explains more is here.

Thank you

Bryan @ Manifest Propensity