Examining “Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” by Hermann Sasse

crucifixionWhenever the Church points to her Lord’s bloody agony at Calvary as the revelation of God’s faithful, loving kindness, the old man in Adam is repulsed. Sinners want to see God, but not there. Not beaten. Not bloodied. Not screaming in agony. The old sinner wants to see God for who He really is in all His glory. This thorn-crowned Nazarite, they complain, can’t possibly be what Moses was thinking when he implored God to see his glory. (Exodus 33:18)

Moses demanded of the LORD, “Show me your glory.” But God said, “You cannot see my face and live, because no one may see me and live.” (v.18) Instead, since he’d insisted, God said that He would pass by Moses and allow him to see “his back,” that is, Moses was allowed to see God’s glory from the backside (posteriori Dei). “You will see my backside, but my face must not be seen.” (v.22) But the old man in Adam won’t settle for just a peak at God’s glory. He wants the full monty. And when he doesn’t get what he wants the old man in Adam searches the world over for an open widow, a place where he can catch a glimpse of what God is really up to behind the scenes.

Here we discover the root of the sinner’s contempt for God. That is, Hermann Sasse noted, “As men, we cannot see the face of God in its unveiled glory, however strongly we may desire it and strive for it. The attempt to perceive God as he is, whether from observing the world, by mystical experience or by philosophic speculation, is the theology of glory. It is the theology of natural man, of the heathen, of the philosophers, and, most unfortunately, also of the professors of theology.” (Hermann Sasse, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, p.5)

Being Christians, especially theologians, Lutheran pastors ought to know better. But we don’t. The old man in Adam persists against the new man in Christ, even in the heart of pastors, attacking faith where it is most vulnerable. We dispute the truth of God’s revelation. We dispute about where the Word of God reveals itself to sinners. We make God to sit in the defendant’s chair, so we can sit on the divine judgment seat. That is, “God becomes an object, a thing about which one talks.” (p.5)

For (what they think is) an unobstructed glimpse at God’s glory men will gladly trade the Church’s preaching about the cross for a theology of God’s glory. And, so that we are not confused, these are not two sides of the same theology, which compliment each other. They are not, “like the natural and the revealed perception of God in those systems of Catholic and Protestant theology determined by Aristotle. Rather they mutually and irreconcilably exclude one another, as false and true theology.” (p.6)

Yes, one can perceive God in His works in creation. One can comprehend God’s power, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and the like from studying the world and cosmos. Yet, this is not of any use for seeing God’s revealed glory in Jesus Christ, other than to make sinful men unworthy and unwise in their relation to God. That is, as Luther writes in Thesis 20 of the Heidelberg Disputation, “They have become fools. The perception of God by his words has not hindered anybody from falling away from God and from becoming an idol-worshipper.”

Glory theologians see God’s invisible glory in the works of creation. Theologians of the cross, on the other hand, perceive God’s glory where He makes it visible (posteriori) to us, through suffering and the cross. Glory theologians look at the world and creation. For them, God is perceived in His omnipotence, wisdom, and goodness. They do not see that God remains invisible to them.

sasse01The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, looks at the crucified Jesus alone. True, on Golgotha, “there is nothing great, beautiful, or sublime as in the splendid works of creation. Here there is nothing but humility, shame, weakness, suffering, and painful death. But this frightening and depressing aspect shows the visible and posterior things of God, those things which God lets us see of himself. Here God, who in the works of creation remains invisible, becomes visible. That means he becomes visible as far as he can possibly become visible to mortal men, as he became visible to Moses when he was allowed to look after him to see the back parts of God. What is visible of God is what can be seen from behind, the backside of God.” (p.6)

We do not see God revealed in creation, because He does not want to be revealed, preached, and worshipped there. The cross is the revelation of God. That is where He wants to be revealed, preached, and worshipped. The cross is God’s revelation. The cross is where one must go to learn true Christian theology. That is, “when according to John 14 Philip just like a theologian of glory spoke, ‘Show us the Father,’ Christ at once set aside his flighty thoughts about wanting to see God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying: ‘Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father.’ For this reason true theology and perception of God are in the crucified Christ.” This is repeated in the following thesis by the sentence: “He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering and the cross.” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 20)

A theologian of the cross, as opposed to a theologian of glory, looks nowhere else than the cross of Christ, because he knows there is no other theology. Something else, some other theology, is only a pseudo-theology. For the Church preaches one thing, the wisdom of the cross!









Examining “Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” by Hermann Sasse — 4 Comments

  1. “They have become fools. The perception of God by his words has not hindered anybody from falling away from God and from becoming an idol-worshipper.”

    Luther argued in opposition to medieval Scholastic Apologetics which stressed rational argumentation for the existence of God since it was deemed necessary to demonstrate the existence of God first in order to argue for the resurrection of Jesus.

    Scholastics started with a Cosmological Argument to prove God exists by showing that there cannot be an infinite number of regressions of causes to things that exist. It stated that there must be a final uncaused-cause of all things. This uncaused-cause was asserted to be God. Thomas Aquinas’s version called the “Argument from Motion” stated that things in motion could not have brought by themselves into motion but must be caused to move. There cannot be an infinite regression of movers. Therefore, there must be an “Unmoved Mover.” This Unmoved Mover is God.

    The weaknesses of their argument was that if all things needed a cause to exist, then God Himself must also, by definition, need a cause to exist. But this only pushes causation back and implied that there must be an infinite number of causes, which cannot be. (Source: http://carm.org/cosmological-argument).

    Thus, Luther (whom Sasse powerful summarizes) in contrasr turned to the cross. “The cross is the revelation of God. That is where He wants to be revealed, preached, and worshipped. The cross is God’s revelation. The cross is where one must go to learn true Christian theology.”

    Luther’s argumentation was so powerful, that as many as a dozen future reformers (including Martin Bucer, Johann Brenz, and Theobald Billikan) and several key opponents (including Johann Eck) were to react to him!

    Their reactions are reminiscent of Acts 17:32-34, “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.”

  2. Luther and Sasse, like all faithful theologians, are simply faithful readers of the Scriptures. Here they are reflecting the Apostle Paul. This post reminds me of a great quote from Anthony Thiselton’s gigantic commentary on 1 Corinthians, here summarizing on 1:18-25:

    “It [the word of the cross] does not rest on human calculations about the signs of the times, nor upon manipulative devices which entice belief, nor does it rest on self-defeating strategies to master life by techniques of human wisdom. . . [It] becomes effective and operative (has power) in God’s own way, for it corresponds with God’s own nature as revealed in Christ and in the cross. Any version of the Gospel which substitutes a message of personal success for the cross is a manipulative counterfeit.” (Thiselton, p. 172)

    What was wrong in Corinth in 56 is often eerily similar to what is wrong in the West in 2013.

  3. @Jeff Kloha #3

    Thank you for that great quote! I will have to use it on Trinity 5 when that text comes up.

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