A super simple primer on the theology of the cross v. the theology of glory

Luther is the man.  Really.  But have you ever read his Heidelberg Disputation from 1518?  He wrote out various theses, to defend in debate.  And reading them is sometimes like reading a Zen Buddhist’s koans – as in, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”  Here’s a sample, Luther’s seventh thesis:  “The works of the righteous would be mortal sins if they would not be feared as mortal sins by the righteous themselves out of pious fear of God.”  Ow, brain cramp!

Gerhard Forde’s work, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Eerdmans), is a very helpful and edifying exposition of Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation.  And, by the way, if you want to be snooty about it, it’s about being a theologian of the cross or of glory.  So theological snobs will look down on you for speaking of the theology of … Kind of like whether you pronounce Augustine as “AW-gus-steen” (ignoramus!) or “Ahw-GUS-tin” (obviously, you’re well-read and finely bred).  Or if you alone know how to pronounce “Forde.”  But all such OCDism already betrays a theology of glory at work.

So, to radically simplify:  the theology of glory is bad.  The theology of the cross is good.  The theology of glory is about OUR ASCENT to God – to save ourselves.  The theology of the cross is about GOD’S DESCENT to us – to save us from our sin and ourselves.  Christ, the God-man crucified for us, is the heart of the theology of the cross.  The theology of glory is about our works for God (and, by the way, look at me and my piety – ain’t I somethin’, and humble too!).  The theology of the cross is about God’s work for us (and, by the way, look at my Savior and His dying love for me – isn’t He great, this rejected, cursed, God-forsaken Messiah!).  The theology of glory is innate to us, part of our inborn fleshly religion.  The theology of the cross is revealed by God only in the Gospel of His Son.

Some Lutherans I’ve listened to over the years have further simplified the three forms the theology of glory can take:  moralism, mysticism, and rationalism.  Moralism is the good ol’ version of our effort to ascend to God with our works, our piety, our faithfulness.  Mysticism is the snare of seeking religious experiences in order to ascend to God – you can just FEEL His presence, man.  (This is why high octane “worship experiences” are essentially the theology of glory in its mystical form.)  Rationalism is trying to ascend to God by way of speculative philosophy – as though we could rise up into God’s presence with our brains, apart from His Word.

Luther wasn’t making up these categories out of thin air.  He just helpfully labeled them.  You will find the theology of the cross contra the theology of glory everywhere in the New Testament.  In Paul’s writings, perhaps it is best epitomized in how he brought those Corinthian theologians of glory crashing back to earth, to deal once again with the incarnate, crucified Christ:  “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2, NKJV).

Paul explicitly contrasts the theology of glory (our vain efforts to ascend to God) and the theology of the cross (God’s descent to us in Christ incarnate, crucified, and risen) in Romans 10:1-13.  There, the entire enterprise of unbelieving Israel is exposed as the theology of glory over and against Paul’s theology of the cross:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. 5 For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, “The man who does those things shall live by them.” 6 But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down from above) 7 or, “ ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

And this brings home how the theology of the cross is conveyed:  by preaching the Gospel, “the word of faith.”  Christ has also appointed the sacraments as means of grace.  Christ descended to us in the flesh.  And He continues to descend to us – by the simple means of Word and Sacrament.  The Gospel proclaimed in Word, and made visible in water, bread, and wine.  Simple stuff.  Not too flashy.  No laser shows or mystical visions.  No rib-rattling bass lines, or highfalutin philosophy.  No pretentious “look at me” piety.  Just Christ and Him crucified, in Word, water, bread and wine – for you, a needy, helpless sinner.

Or as Luther wrote in Thesis 26:  “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done.  Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”  Ah, Daniel-san, you are not far from the kingdom of God.

Published by pastor tony phelps

Pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield, RI

6 replies on “A super simple primer on the theology of the cross v. the theology of glory”

  1. This topic is so important. Most of Ameringelicalism is a theology of glory and bringing these categories into focus would do some serious good. There is one thing about which you were not clear enough and about which there is to be no debate. It is pronounced “Ahw-GUS-tin”. There is no “AHW-gus-teen”. Geez, Tony. .


  2. I’ve heard it as “FUR-dee”, “FOR-dee,” and “Ford.” And now I can’t get the image of the Muppets’ Swedish Chef out of my head….


  3. It must be nice to have a one syllable surname. In the future, as people study the annals of what will then be church history, there will be no fighting, no splitting of denominations over how to pronounce “Phelps”.


  4. I have heard “FUR-dee” in some of those “Lutheran Mind” lectures. (Keep in mind that I’m a Luddite who still says “AHW-gus-teen” :-)


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