What Makes a Theologian of the Cross?

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Christ isn’t preached in his glory but in his ignominy, his utter shame, degradation, and desolation.

A friend sent me a query asking what makes a theologian, a theologian of the cross. The short answer I sent him was that it’s a matter of vocation. But I also gave him a much-longer-by-far answer than he bargained for:

Martin Luther, who gave us the term in 1518, speaks of theologians of the cross rather than of a theology of the cross. The latter is a mere idea, a sort of hypothetical, that human minds have rendered. But a theologian of the cross exists in flesh and blood, for God operates relationally, with actual human beings. Even so, this theologian always has to be held in contrast to its dark Doppelgänger, the theologian of glory. We can’t ask about a theologian of the cross without inquiring of the theologian of glory.

So theologians of glory, first. Theologians of glory come into existence via active righteousness. They are inveterate believers in Newtonian physics: all of creation is a realm of causation. If the present has been caused by the past, then the future is also subject to our present actions. Using the tools at hand, we can exert our efforts to achieve a desired future. When it comes to salvation, the seemingly logical tool to pull out of the box on our workbench is the law.

The law works well as a way to bring about visible, worldly righteousness. But as the aphorism says, everything’s a nail when you have a hammer in your hands. Theologians of glory apply their tool where there is no nail. Thus, as Luther argued in the Heidelberg Disputation, a theologian sees something and calls it what it is not: religion, piety, morality, ethics, technology, buff abs, and voting for a certain candidate can somehow make you righteous and worthy of God’s beneficence.

All this works because we’re under the illusion that we have a so-called free will that can choose to pick up the hammer and pound the future into existence. That’s why in Heidelberg, Luther spent so much ink on disabusing his fellow Augustinians monks of the precious will. Theologians of glory inherently believe their will can do the deed.

To be a theologian of the cross is to have another’s will exerted on you to make you what you are.

But theologians of the cross are a different sort of creature. They don’t arise from some internal choice to do better, act more justly, or at least have noble intentions. To be a theologian of the cross is to have another’s will exerted on you to make you what you are. The will that theologians of the cross generally come under is that of the world, the neighbor, and the devil. The theologian of the cross suffers the slings and arrows of their legal and righteous demands. Or, as Heidelberg Thesis 18 puts it, “Unless we completely despair of ourselves, we cannot merit the grace of Christ.” It’s our not being able to fulfill those demands (including the last one that will ever be made on us: “Breathe!”) that’s the first piece of the puzzle.

As long as we function by aiming at glory, success, mindfulness, justice, beauty, and the like, we’ll never gain those things. It’s like T-Bone Burnett’s song “Trap Door” says: “The funny thing about humility is that, as soon as you think you’re humble, you’re no longer humble.” As soon as you go for glory, you’ll never have glory. Or anything else on the list. The only way into that desired future is through its opposite: ignominy, failure, accusation, ugliness, loss, and death.

This is why Luther countered his statement on the theologian of glory by saying, “a theologian of the cross sees something and calls it what it is.” The theologian of the cross calls a hammer a hammer. It says what a thing is useful for. The law is good for this world and for living with our fellow creatures. It’s not the tool for gaining saving righteousness. The tool for that is Anfechtung, that notoriously untranslatable German word Luther pointed to that is the trouble and turmoil, the accusations and fatal illnesses that bring us to the moment of despairing of ourselves. (This, by the way, is why antinomianism, the desire to abandon the law, is unhelpful and, indeed, damning. Short of this judgment, salvation can’t happen.)

In a way, a theologian of the cross can only see how it was made through Anfechtung by hindsight. No true theologian of the cross would ever have predicted that’s how it would have happened, because it was at that moment of failure and self-despair that God sent a preacher to deliver an external word that changed everything. On the road to Damascus, Paul lay on the ground in a Thesis 18 state of affairs, blind and judged by the risen Christ’s judgment. It wasn’t until he got to the house of Ananias in Damascus that he heard a preacher of the gospel. He heard someone speak in the same way Jesus spoke to Cleopas and his friend on I-10 heading into Emmaus. Their hearts burned within them and scales fell from Paul’s eyes at hearing this preaching.

Thus, the second thing that makes a theologian of the cross is Christ preached, and him crucified. Christ isn’t preached in his glory but in his ignominy, his utter shame, degradation, and desolation. Theologians of the cross hear Jesus‘ cry of dereliction from Psalm 22 as God coming into their own Thesis 18 moment of despair. If a theologian of the cross sees a thing and calls it what it is, then the thing is this: The cross, Christ’s and yours, is where, like some mafioso, you are “made.”

This means that, when we ask what makes theologians of the cross, it’s omertà, the solemn mafia code of secrecy. Being made Christians, we are bound to the hidden God: the deus absconditus, the God who only lets Moses glimpse his rearward parts. It’s ironic that, unlike our fellow sinners in the cosa nostra, theologians of the cross now have a will to go public with this unexpected, undoubtedly uncalled for, event. We have no problem blabbing. The theologian of the cross, thus, is called into a new vocation.

Christ isn’t preached in his glory but in his ignominy, his utter shame, degradation, and desolation.

The theologian of the cross is no longer a purveyor of legal remedies or hands-on programs for success in the justification game. They can seek out other sinners with troubled consciences and delivering to them the very thing that changed them and gave them life. As the old-timey hymn says, “How can I keep from singing?” “I Love to Tell the Story” sings the experience of the theologian of the cross every bit as much as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.”

In short, what makes a theologian of glory is a toxic mix of free will, causation, and self-continuity. What makes a theologian of the cross is nothing short of death and resurrection. The good news is that you don’t get to vote on which one you want to become. It’s been planned from the foundation of the world and is being done to you in this very moment as thousands of your cells are dying and you’re advancing to your grave. At this same moment, Christ is carrying you to the font, the watery house of Ananias, so the scales can fall, and you can see your new vocation.

We’re all theologians. Nobody lacks an opinion about God and their own justification. But a theologian of the cross is the person you want as your preacher. You can count on them giving you the goods that will change your vocation and raise you from the dead.