Saturday, February 10, 2007

Luther's Theology of the Cross, from H.A. Preus (the younger)

[This is from my battered old copy of A Theology to Live By written by H. A. Preus, a grandson of the Norwegian Synod founder by the same name. The quotation is from pp. 45-47 and concerns Luther's Theology of the Cross. My copy is a 1977 edition from CPH. My wife just got us a new copy. Happily, CPH has republished this valuable book in 2005. The pagination for this new edition is different. In the new edition the following quotations are from pages 55-58. --Joe]

[T]he true knowledge of God is not found through Romans 1 but through 1 Corinthians 1. The preaching of the cross is "foolishness." The theology of the cross means: "God lets Himself be known in that which according to natural judgment is the opposite to the Divine; His wisdom appears in foolishness, His glory in ignominy. His revelation is for natural man sheer hiddenness."

Here Luther is confronting us again with his idea of the Deus absconditus (hidden God) and the Deus revelatus (revealed God). God hides Himself behind forms or signs or masks, which appear foolish to man. Yet man will learn to know God only if he seeks Him under these forms, particularly the Word and the sacraments. In the Old Testament God appeared to fallen Adam "in a gentle breeze as though enveloped in a covering." Later He manifested Himself in the tabernacle by the mercy seat. Moses speaks of the "faces of God" through which God showed Himself. No more can we recognize God without a covering. Therefore "God envelops Himself in His works in certain forms, as today He wraps Himself up in Baptism, in absolution, etc....Whoever desires to be saved and to be safe when he deals with such great matters, let him simply hold to the form, the signs, and the coverings of the Godhead, such as His Word and His works. For in His Word and in His works He shows Himself to us." This theology of the cross, of Word and Sacrament, Luther opposes to the theology of glory of the scholastic theologians. "But those who want to reach God apart from these coverings exert themselves to ascend to heaven without ladders (that is, without the Word). Overwhelmed by His majesty, which they seek to comprehend without a covering, they fall to their destruction....Therefore, if we want to walk in safety, let us accept what the Word submits for our reflection and what God Himself wants us to know."

This theology i no vague theory with Luther. It is a theology to live by. It is the theology of Christian experience. An adult comes to conversion and faith like St. Paul on the Damascus road. The apostle is brought to his knees in fear before the Lord he has been persecuting. But he is lifted up to faith by the wounded hands and the forgiving Word of the risen Lord, who sends him on to be baptized and to be commissioned for His service. This is the way men are brought to faith. Luther says, "Faith is born in the agony of conscience."

This is not the kind of theology that is palatable to natural man. Nor is it palatable to many who sit in the pews of our churches. Even a good Christian must confess that even Jesus' "Take up the cross and follow Me" is a hard saying. Though the cross to the crown is not the way we like to go. Must we really go through the agony of conscience to reach mature faith? We like to hear about the love of God. But who wants to hear about His wrath or even His righteousness? We love to hear about God's grace, but we are impatient when the preacher tells us about our sin. The hope of heaven is palatable preaching, but don't threaten me with the possibility of hell.

But is this cozy theology really a theology to live by? Has it anything to do with the Way to which Jesus calls us? Is it the Way the apostles laid out for the Christians of the early church, saying, "We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God." (Acts 14:22 KJV)

Luther's theology of the cross presents a life lived in tension between the Law and the Gospel, between what Luther calls the foreign work and the proper work of God. A sinner who is to be brought to repentance and faith must hear the law of God which tells him that he is a lost sinner, that he is "by nature sinful and unclean," that he has sinned against God "in thought, word, and deed," and that all his "righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Is. 64:6 KJV) This is what Luther calls the foreign work of God, which He must perform before He can accomplish His proper work, which is to save man through faith in Jesus Christ. This latter must be accomplished by the Gospel of God's grace in Christ. "Man, driven into fear and anxiety by the preaching of the Law, hears this Gospel message, which, instead of reminding him of God's demands, tells him what God has done for him. It points not to man's works, but to the works of Christ, and bids him confidently believe that for the sake of his Son God will forgive his sins and accept him as his Child. And this message, when received in faith, immediately cheers and comforts the heart. The heart will no longer flee from God; rather it turns to him. Finding grace with God and experiencing his mercy, the heart feels drawn to him. It commences to call upon him and to treat and revere him as its beloved God. In proportion as such faith and solace grow, also love for the commandments will grow and obedience to them will be man's delight"

.... [then later on p. 50 (1977 ed); p. 61 (2005 edition)]

This kind of theology is puzzling to the average Christian, who is apt to think that as he increases in Christian maturity his spiritual struggles and doubts will diminish. But we need only look at the saints of God to see that the greatest saints are the ones who experience the greatest intensity in their struggle with sin and temptation and the "flesh." We remember the agony of David in Psalm 51. Isaiah cries, "Woe is me, for I am undone!" St. Paul sighs, "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate....Wretched man that I am!"