Luther’s Theology of the Cross and Metaphysics

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ. Calvin, similarly, allows a glorious revelation of God in creation that ought to be understood by reason—but argues that human beings are so corrupted by sin that apart from salvation in Christ and the saving form of revelation given in Scripture, knowledge of God remains inaccessible to them. Calvin also distinguishes between the eternal Word and Wisdom of God and the revealing Word given forth in the words of the prophets, the latter being accommodated to human ways of knowing.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 223–224). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

8 replies on “Luther’s Theology of the Cross and Metaphysics”

  1. John, I don’t think that Muller is correct about Calvin for two reasons.

    1. It seems that Calvin’s view is not “similar” to Luther’s. In the first few chapters of his Institutes, he seems to affirm that there is analogy between God and man revealed in nature (or creation) itself. Unless Muller is using analogy is a certain technical way, I think he is wrong here. Calvin writes, “His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse…”[it is the] elegant structure of the world serving us as a king of mirror, in which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible” (1.5.1). Benjamin Warfield, commenting on Calvin, says, “Calvin is perfectly clear as to the objective adequacy of the general revelation of God.” Creation does not reveal God’s essence, but it reveals God adequately nonetheless. This suggests that creation is an analogy of God.

    2. Muller writes: “Calvin also distinguishes between the eternal Word and Wisdom of God and the revealing Word given forth in the words of the prophets, the latter being accommodated to human ways of knowing.” Scripture, for Calvin, is an accommodation to human fallenness, not “human ways of knowing.” General revelation, prior to the Fall, was sufficient to produce human knowledge of God. Warfield on Calvin “Were man in his normal state, he could not under this double revelation, internal and external, fail to know God as God would wish to be known.” He continues: “Had there been no sin, there would have been no need of even special revelation” (pg. 70)

    More from Warfield on the relationship between general and special revelation: “In the presence of Scripture, general revelation is not set aside, but rather brought back to its proper validity. The real relation between general and special revelation, as the matter lay in Calvin’s mind, thus proves to be, not that the one supersedes the other, but that special revelation supplements general revelation indeed, but in the first instance rather repeats and by repeating vivifies and vitalizes general revelation, and flows confluently in with it to the one end of both, the knowledge of God. What special revelation is, therefore–and the Scriptures as its documentation–is very precisely represented by the figure of the spectacles. It is aid to the dulled vision of sinful man, to enable it to see God.” (Warfield, Works, Vol. 5, pg. 69)

    Given this, it seems to me that Calvin is not “similar” to Luther in this regard, and I think there is more nuance than what Muller has presented. Perhaps the context of Muller’s words affirms all this.


    1. Stephen, I don’t know that Muller’s “similarly” is intended to place Calvin’s views as “similar” to Luther’s views, but rather, to point out their reference to two-fold types of revelation, distinguishing what God knows God (himself) and what he reveals of himself. This is in the context of a discussion of a distinction between theologia archetypa, God’s knowledge of himself and his works, and theologia ectypa, creaturely knowledge of God and his works.

      This concept was first introduced (and became widely used) with this archetypa/ectypa nomenclature in the “Reformed Orthodox” writings in the 1590’s, but such a distinction was used in earlier times by Luther and Calvin.

      For Luther, much of what is known of God is “inaccessible” to us and argued that we may not know certain things (theologia gloriae) of God, only that what we may know of God is only known through a theologia crucis, and for Calvin, there is also an “inaccessible”

      Here is Muller’s next paragraph, which characterizes how this distinction cashes out in “early Orthodoxy”:

      After Junius’ use of the distinction, it passes into the doctrinal system in the works of such theologians as Polanus, Scharpius, Walaeus, and Heidanus. In these systems a definite limit is set upon human inquiry into the Godhead and a principle of accommodation is utilized to explain the relationship between the true theology known to man and the divine self-knowledge. Thus, the distinction is adapted to an insight present from the very beginning in Reformed theology—that the finite (and sinful) mind of man is incapable of grasping the fullness of divine truth.

      A similar epistemology characterizes the other Reformed systems of the period, although many—Perkins, Ames, Hommius, Trelcatius, Downham—do not utilize these scholastic terms. The theology of Lutheran orthodoxy, similarly, developed massive and carefully enunciated prolegomena. Beginning with the great Loci theologici of Johann Gerhard (1610), the classification of theology provided by Junius carries over into the Lutheran scholastic systems, paralleling the development of the Reformed.

      We find here, moreover, a substantial agreement concerning the forms of theology and their relationships, the sole exception being the content and extent of the theology of Christ, the so-called theologia unionis, where christological concerns raised a major point of debate between the Reformed and the Lutherans.

      Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., p. 224). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

      Of course, he has been tracing this distinction to earlier times, and he traces it to Scotus. I’ll try to pull out that connection for another blog post. But in the meanwhile, it doesn’t appear as if he’s trying so much to point out the actual similarity between Calvin’s and Luther’s view of revelation, as to show that there is a consistency of method. Does this clarify somewhat?


    2. By the way Stephen, I picked up on this particular paragraph about the Theology of the Cross as opposing “a rational metaphysic concerning God”. I’m not sure precisely where the borderline should be (“what we can know about God” vs “what we can’t know about God”). Luther drew it pretty sharply. The early Reformed Orthodox writers drew it sharply as well. And within the category of theologia ectypa (revelation that we may know), they made a further three-fold distinction: the theologia unionis, visionis, and viatorum.


  2. John,
    That clarifies things a bit. But what initially struck me was this connection with nominalism. The first five chapters of Calvin’s Institutes cannot be nominalist. It isn’t strictly platonic realism (divine essences behind objects), but it isn’t nominalism either. It make much more sense to call it analogical than anything else.

    Calvin’s metaphor of the “spectacles” is telling. Special revelation points us back to the Creator revealed in creation, and creation is adequate to reveal God. Calvin even said that one can say “nature is God” (when “piously” used). Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” does seem to account for all of this. Their method does not appear to be the same. Does Luther ever call scripture the spectacles by which we see God in creation? Muller seems to suggest otherwise. Of course, I could be missing something. I just cannot see how Calvin is a nominalist and follows Luther in method.


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