Wecome our guest blogger Timothy Dalrymple who heads up the Evangelical Portal at Patheos.com.
The Reformation is often said to have begun when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg on the 31st of October, 1517. Yet, as their title suggests, the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences was actually quite narrowly focused on the matter of indulgences. Luther was furious when his parishioners claimed no need to repent for their sins because they had purchased indulgences from a Roman Church eager to finance renovations to Saint Peter’s Basilica. If God’s forgiveness was up for sale, if a right relationship with God could be purchased, then there was no need for compunction and repentance, no need to confront the eternal debt we could never repay, and thus no occasion for a right reception of the extraordinary grace of God that eliminates our debt nonetheless. If a copper coin buys absolution, then sin is a matter of small account and salvation is a minor accounting adjustment.
The Ninety-Five Theses are important less for what they said regarding indulgences than for the process they set in motion. The Augustinian order (to which Luther belonged) was generally supportive of Luther’s position, and Johannes Staupitz invited Luther to explain himself to a meeting of the order in Heidelberg on April 26th, 1518. If Luther had not used this opportunity to articulate a more expansive vision of the cosmic drama of grace and forgiveness, and had not set forth a theological method that turned scholastic theology on its head, then he would have been the leader of a minor corrective movement within the Catholic Church and not of the “Great Reformation” as we know it now. It was in the Heidelberg Disputation that Luther began to explain a way of being in relationship with God, and a way of coming to the knowledge of God, that was fundamentally at odds with the prevailing tendencies in the Roman Catholic Church of his time. It was in consequence of the disputation at Heidelberg that Martin Bucer (who attended the disputation and would come to be another leader of the Reformation) drew near to Luther’s side, and Johannes Eck challenged Luther to the famous Leipzig debate.
The Heidelberg Disputation is one of the most brilliant and consequential pieces of theological reflection in the history of the Christian faith. As with the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther enunciated a set of “theses” he was prepared to defend at a medieval-style disputation. Together they construct a revolutionary argument that I will examine in the later installments of this series. They convey a “theology of the cross,” a theologia crucis, a way of relating to God first and primarily “through suffering and the cross.” Lamentably, this is often forgotten: while the Reformers proclaimed sola scriptura and sola gratia, they also proclaimed the imitatio passionis Christi, that all Christians are called to share in the sufferings of Christ and to know Christ and know God through the suffering of the cross—his cross, and ours.
Yet for all its brilliance, the Heidelberg Disputation is often overlooked in the modern world, where the way of the cross is decidedly not in fashion. We would rather find God in the hallowed halls of academe or in the lofty palaces of princely mega-churches—yet God revealed himself, as Luther argues, most exhaustively and definitively in a man who was rejected and beaten and put to death in humiliation and suffering. God chose to reveal Himself to us on the cross, so that only those will (truly) find him who take up their crosses and follow him daily.
As an appetizer, I offer a quotation from Hermann Sasse’s “The Theology of the Cross: Theologia Crucis,” in We Confess Jesus Christ, pp. 47-48, 50, 52:
The theologian of glory observes the world, the works of creation. With his intellect he perceives behind these the visible things of God, His power, wisdom, and generosity. But God remains invisible to him. The theologian of the cross looks to the Crucified One. Here there is nothing great or beautiful or exalted as in the splendid works of creation. Here there is humiliation, shame, weakness, suffering, and agonizing death…[That] “God can be found only in suffering and the cross”…is a bedrock statement of Luther’s theology and that of the Lutheran Church. Theology is theology of the cross, nothing else. A theology that would be something else is a false theology… Measured by everything the world calls wisdom, as Paul already saw, the word of the cross is the greatest foolishness, the most ridiculous doctrine that can confront a philosopher. That the death of one man should be the salvation of all, that this death on Golgotha should be this atoning sacrifice for all the sins of the world, that the suffering of an innocent one should turn away the wrath of God—these are assertions that fly in the face of every ethical and religious notion of man as he is by nature…God Himself has sent us into the hard school of the cross. There, on the battlefields, in the prison camps, under the hail of bombs, and among the shattered sick and wounded, there the theology of the cross may be learned “by dying”…To those whose illusions about the world and about man, and the happiness built on these, have been shattered, the message of the cross may come as profoundly good news.
You can read the theological theses and their proofs here. Although it deals in subtle philosophical and theological distinctions, its basic concerns lay at the heart of the Christian life. What Luther advances is not a new body of theological knowledge, nor even a new theological method, but a dramatically different way of being a “theologian,” meaning anyone who wishes to relate to God and learn from Him. The “theologian of glory” seeks God in the things the world admires, in his own “good works” or in the wondrous creative works of God. In this way the sinful man is puffed up, he trusts more in himself—and falls further from God. The “theologian of the cross,” however, seeks the God who is hidden in suffering, and along this way he is humbled and made ready to receive God’s gracious self-giving in Christ.
The theologia crucis also offers a piercing critique of Christendom that is no less relevant in our own age than it was in Luther’s. That God made Himself known upon the cross, not to the powerful and wise but to the weak and foolish, not in grandeur and popularity but in humiliation and persecution, bears implications not only for how we might know and relate to God, but also for how we might truly give witness to God as followers of Jesus Christ. In the weeks to come, then, I will explore what Luther’s theology of the cross means in itself and what it means for us in modern America. The Heidelberg Disputation challenges us to reform our relationship with God, reorient our basic ways of thinking about what is true and false, good and evil, and reshape the church and the way it makes God present in the world.