The following is a reflection by Gerhard O. Forde on Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, and what it looks like to be a theologian of the cross versus a theologian of glory (and then I follow with my own reflection).
Thesis 22. That wisdom which perceives the invisible things of God by thinking in terms of works completely puffs up, blinds, and hardens.
Thesis 22 is, in effect, a statement about the religious effect of the theology of glory and the wisdom of law upon which it is based. Religious people in particular seem to have difficulty being theologians of the cross. That is because the theology of the cross is quite devastating for our usual religious aspirations under the wisdom of law. The indignation and resentment against God … is aroused not only — perhaps not even principally! — because of the strenuousness and rigor of the life proposed, but finally because in the cross God has literally taken away from us the possibility of doing anything of religious merit. In Jesus God has cut off all such possibility. God, as St. Paul could put it, has made foolish the wisdom of the wise. We are rendered passive over against God’s action. This is always galling for the old being. We adopt a very pious posture. It is, so the protests go, too easy, too cheap, it has no obvious ethical payoff, and so on and on. Religiously we like to look on ourselves as potential spiritual athletes desperately trying to make God’s team, having perhaps just a little problem or two with the training rules. We have a thirst for glory. We feel a certain uneasiness of conscience or even resentment within when the categorical totality of the action of God begins to dawn on us. We are always tempted to return to the safety and assurance of doing something anyway. Generally, it is to be suspected, that is all we planned to do, a little something. But to surrender the “wisdom” of law and works, or better, to have it taken away, is the first indication of what it means to be crucified with Christ. (Gerhard O. Forde, “On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518,” 91-93)
This seems quite paradoxical, even ‘foolish’, was it not the ‘Law’ (Mosaic), and the ‘doing of the Law’ (good works) that saved under the Old Covenant? This seems to be what the Pharisees had come to believe. This often times seems to be what people in general have come to believe, but being good and doing good are not possible apart from Christ—apart from being in the Life of God! So often people I work with (garden variety pagans, not to be mean) have this conception, that if they are ‘good’ they will get to go to heaven someday. But this certainly is the problem, and it is not plainly reserved for your ‘garden variety pagan’, but in fact it is at the basis of humanities’ very nature (ontological); thus it impacts all of us—whether a person is a theologian, atheist, Pharisee, religious, naturalist, etc. It is that, inherently, post-Fall, humanity is under the delusion that we are not really that bad, and in fact we think that we just might be good enough to have something to offer God (or maybe that we are ‘God’ ourselves). When this serves as the foundation for anything we do, even talk about God (‘theologise’), we are seeking ‘glory from men’; we are seeking to exalt ourselves—‘be like God’ (Luther called this ‘theology of glory’). Jesus calls the Pharisees out like this:
How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only? –John 5:44
We all suffer from this proclivity! We all suffer from, what Augustine called, concupiscence (self-love). The only remedy from this way-ward doomed trajectory is the cross of Christ! That is why Jesus said:
. . . The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. 24. Verily, verily, I say unto you except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. 25. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. 26. If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour. –John 12:23-26
So the problem is not that we are not ‘good’, when our standard is the praise of men; instead our problem is that when we stand before Christ, and His goodness, we are truly seen for what we are, not good (the problem is one of the ‘heart’, the ‘invisible’). Thus we ought to follow Christ, to where He took us, the cross. This is the only cure for our self-loving, self-adulating selves . . . death (and of course resurrection, and ascension).
This talk also has much to say, implicitly, about the incarnation, which maybe I will broach with my next post. I’m running long . . .