Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Scandal of the Cross

The Cross has been a scandal in every age.  It subverts our dreams and overturns our idealisms.  Human nobility and spirituality die upon this Cross.[1]  It stands in opposition to the values of the world, the values summed up in the expression ‘theology of glory’.   Because, as Luther says, “Crux sola est nostra theologia” (“the cross alone is our theology”), it follows that the Cross is opposed to all theologies of glory.[2]  But what is a theology of glory, and how does it compare to the theology of the Cross?

The question brings us to other questions.  What is the best of man?   What is it that makes human beings noble?  We might start with the following catalog of virtues: 

Human beings:

·      have an eternal soul
·      are bearers of reason
·      have free will and inhabit a moral order
·      can actualize their potentiality
·      have a taste for the infinite
·      can know the truth, do the good, and appreciate beauty
·      understand justice and law as their highest good
·      know God to be the foundation of truth, goodness and beauty 

Theologies of glory understand that human and divine being stand on a continuum with human being either participating in divine being, or instantiating properties of the divine.  Theologies of glory can be stronger or weaker to the degree to which they instantiate divine being or divine attributes.   My favorite expression of a theology of glory comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson who quipped:

Draw, if thou canst, the mystic line,
Severing rightly his from thine,
Which is human, which divine.

Human beings are the embodiment of the highest aim of God, and God is the projection of the highest sentiments of humanity.  It is difficult to know where the one leaves off and the other begins.  

Human beings are created in imago dei and, although that divine image is now tarnished by the waywardness of sin, it still shines forth weakly, and human beings, through greater or lesser degrees of effort and divine succor, pilgrimage to polish up that which is now tarnished.     

An historically important theology of glory was bequeathed to us by a philosopher living over 400 years before Christ. The Greek philosopher Plato argued that the human soul bears the marks of the divine world from which it fell:  indestructibility, simplicity and eternity.   This soul, whose essence is to be without body, has unfortunately been joined to matter in the veil of tears of life.   At death the sickness of the soul is healed as it sheds its body forever and lives in eternity beyond time.    In vast areas of the ancient world, the Greek idea of the immortal soul formed the intellectual backdrop on which Christ’s death and resurrection were understood. 

While time does not permit me to spell out all the theologies of glory in the western tradition, one must at least sketch the dominant one: Neo-Platonism.  This philosophy held that all things are ultimately ONE and that this ONE in the course of history flows out of itself into the alienated world of matter. Salvation demands that material men and women become more spiritual as they are freed from the corruption of the flesh and returned to the ONE from which they sprang.  Christian variations emphasized that God sends grace which is infused in believers so that they might become more spiritual.   

By the sixteenth century, Neo-Platonism had waned, but the impulse of the theologian of glory remained.  The idea was that God gives human beings particular laws and that humans must act in accordance with those laws.  To act in accordance is to be just; to not act in accordance is to be unjust.  In Luther’s time it was widely thought that just as a person is just when he acts in accordance with divine law, so is God just when he rewards likes for likes.  God’s justice demands He punish sin and save sinless. 

However, because humanity is not sinless, God had to give grace that either makes the believer sinless enough for God not to punish, or which “covers” him such that if he makes some small effort towards God (‘fac quod in se ipsum’), God does not deny His grace (‘facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam’).  God justly acts to reward the sinner who has worked merit congruent with his ability (meritum de congruo) as if he or she has actually worked a merit worthy of salvation (meritum de condigno). Because of Christ, the wretched faltering steps towards God the believer makes in his life are regarded as if the were worthy of salvation.    

It is not important that we follow all the specifics here.   The theological tradition is rich in reflection on the nature of justification.  Suffice it to say that a person’s justification and salvation are coninstantiated.  Conceptually, it is impossible for one to be justified and not saved, or for one to be saved and not justified.   Accordingly, it is a necessary truth that ‘x is justified just in case x is saved’.

A theology of glory understands that proximity to God is a function of the worldly instantiation of properties that perfectly and properly apply to God.  


What then is a theology of the Cross?  While a theology of glory understands the presence of God as a worldly manifestation of properties like those of God, a theology of the cross finds the divine presented sub specie contrario (underneath its contrary).  Thus, a theology of the Cross finds God where you least expect to find God: in weakness, in suffering, in death, in finitude.  Whereas the theologian of glory locates God in the divine apathei of detachment, peace and impassibility, the theologian of the cross finds God in despair, suffering, and emotional turmoil.  

In 1518, 35 year-old Martin Luther gave a presentation at the Augustinian monastery in Heidelberg in which he provided a classic distinction between a theologian of glory and a theologian of the cross.    

(19) Non ille digne theologus dicitur, qui invisibilia Dei per ea, quae facta sunt, intellecta conspicit.  (20) Sed qui visibilia et posteriori Dei per passionses et crucem conspecta intelligit.   [(19) That person is not worthy to be called a theologian who looks to the invisible things of God as understood through those things that have happened.  (20) But who understands the visible and “back side” of God through having looked at his passion and cross.] 

The theologian of glory in thesis 19 is one who looks at how the world is to get a clue about how God is.  Since God is like the world in that both are measured by goodness, the better the world is, the better or closer the divine source and goal of existence is. This theologian expects to find God where there is maximum goodness.   Luther says that this theologian of glory is not worthy to be called a theologian. 
The one worthy to be called a theologian is he or she who understands that what can be known of God is available only by looking at the cross.  The theologian of the cross finds God precisely where one would not expect Him to be found: in His ignoble suffering and death on the cross.   

The ancient notion of the anologia entis claims that there is an analogy between the being of God and the being of the world.  When the world is a particular way, then God must be a particular way.  But the one who searches for God in this way always misses Him, says Luther.  Instead of moving from how the world is to how God is, the theologian of the cross finds God in how the world is not.  She finds God in how Christ is!  God is not discerned by looking lovingly at the world, but by looking at the One who Himself looks lovingly at us.  God is found in Jesus Christ and only there, and this is precisely not where we would expect to find him. 
Luther says it clearly in thesis 21:

 (21) Theologus gloriae dicit malum bonum et bonum malum, Theologus crucis dicit id quod res est.  [The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil; the theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.]   
While the theologian of glory sees through creation and finds God at the ground or source of it, the theologian of the Cross finds God revealed in the desolation of the Cross.  While the theologian of glory uses analogy to reason to what God is like, the theologian of the Cross admits that God remains hidden in his worldly actions, and that He reveals Himself only when and where he wills it: on the Cross and in the proclamation of that Cross.  The theologian of the Cross proclaims God’s presence in the midst of His apparent absence.  

Instead of the soul being liberated by divine grace to fly closer to God, the theologian of the Cross declares the death of the soul and the dissolution of the self.  While the theologian of glory assumes some continuity between the divine and human, the theologian of the Cross exploits their discontinuity.  The old being dies and the new rises and takes its place.  It is not that the eternal essence of a man needs readjustment, it is rather that the old Adam in us is put to death and the New man in Christ is constituted in his stead.   There is no perdurance of individual substance across the domains of the old and new.  


So we have now sketched a difference between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.   What is the problem?   Why is there a “crisis of the cross” in our time?   Is it that we no longer understand the distinction between the theology of the cross and theologies of glory?

I don’t believe that the crisis is found in our not seeming to understand it. Lutherans from many different theological trajectories seem to get it.  The problem, I shall argue, is that certain moves within Lutheran theology have made it difficult to state meaningfully the distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory.  How is this possible? 

Theology is a discourse, and like other kinds of discourses, it is concerned with meaning and truth, the realm of semantics.  Classically, the semantics of theological propositions was more or less realist. Terms like ‘God’ were thought to refer to a determinate being, while relational terms like ‘creates’ would refer to a relation between that divine determinate being and the ‘world’, a term which itself referred to that which is outside of God.   Prima facie, to say that a person does not deserve to be called a theologian who “looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were perceptible in those things that have actually happened," is to deny the statement claiming that there is some divine being such that humans perceive something of the existence and properties of that being by perceiving some set of events within the universe.  

At this point it is necessary to make things very precise.  The theologian of the glory apparently holds: 

There is a divine being and there is a universe that is not divine but created by that divine being, and there are sentient human beings such that these beings can perceive some set of events in the universe, and their perception of this class of events within the universe rationally justifies these human beings to hold that a particular set of properties is instantiated by that divine being.

This way of saying this I term the epistemic formulation because it refers both to events and the perception or the knowing of those events.   Let us see if we can make this more perspicuous: 

(1)  There is some x such that x is God, and some y such that y is the universe and x is not y, and there are some z such that z perceived events in y, and z is rationally justified to hold that x has property set S on the basis of z’s perception of events in y.   

Those holding to (1) are theologians of glory; those denying (1) are theologians of the cross.  This epistemological formulation concerns states of knowing and is a weaker formulation of the theology of glory than the following: 

There is a divine being and a universe distinct from that being, such that a particular class of events within the universe is manifest if and only if a particular cluster of properties is present within the divine being. 

This ontological formulation of the theology of glory can be clarified as follows: 

(2)  There is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

It is this stronger ontological formulation of which I am most interested.  Notice that the theologian of the cross can deny (2) in either of two ways I will call (3) and (3’). 

(3)  It is not the case that there is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

(3') There is an x such that x is God and a y such that y is the universe and x is not y, such that it is not the case that property set P obtains in y if and only if property set S obtains in x.  

This formulation does not simply deny the entire ontological formulation, but rather a part of it.  Accordingly, he or she would claim: 
There is a divine being and a universe distinct from that being, such that it is false that a particular class of events within the universe is manifest if and only if a particular cluster of properties is present within divine being. 
Now at this point a dizzying variety of senses of the epistemological and ontological formulations can be investigated as to their meaning in order to make possible precise senses undergirding Luther’s thesis 19.  However, this is not the issue about which I am concerned.  What I am concerned with is that my semantic formulation here presupposes a particular ontological contour, a contour that much of Lutheran theology no longer claims to be true. 


Since the time of Kant academic theology on Lutheran soil has denied the epistemological formulations (and almost always the ontological ones as well) because it has held that God is not a substance that in principle can possess properties or be engaged in relevant kinds of relations: causality is the most important.  If God is not a being having properties, then what is He? 

Schleiermacher famously claimed that God was the whence of the feeling of absolute dependence.  Fichte talked of God as the infinite striving of the ego in positing the non-ego.  Hegel understood God to be the Absolute Spirit coming to consciousness of Himself in time through human consciousness: God is God in Spirit coming to consciousness of itself through relating to what is seemingly other to it.  Ritschl and his school downplayed metaphysical assertions about God and spoke only of the effect of that which is other than the world.  Barth, though strongly opposed to the liberal theology of Ritschl, Harnack and company, spoke of God as the totaliter aliter, the “wholly other” in human experience.   God is thus “wholly other” than being, just as He is “wholly other” than nonbeing.  Other theologians have spoken of God in such ways as the infinite fore-grasp of the illimitability of Being in every act of thinking particular being (Rahner), or as a type of being of God when God is not being God (Scharleman), or as a primal matrix (Reuther).  

The problem here is that even if one could clarify what it is that one is meaning by ”God being God only when God is not being God” or God as Henry Nelson Wieman’s  “primal event,” it is not clear why such diverse referents should be called by the same name, nor is it clear what exactly could be meant by Luther’s thesis 19 when the referent of ‘God’ changes so radically under different interpretations. 

The problem here is that theologians have not paid sufficient attention to the “depth grammar” of their statements.   ‘Julie fishes from a bank’ means quite different things when ‘bank’ means ‘an institution allowing the deposit of money’ on the one hand, and ‘that which abuts a creek’ on the other hand.   While the surface grammar of ‘God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself’ can be held constant in various languages in which the locution is used, the depth grammar, the propositions actually expressed or the states of affairs actually named vary greatly across theological schools. 


Imagine a Bultmannian view of things where there is no being having divine properties or attributes and no being that is the second person of the Trinity that actually has the properties of divinity and humanity.  Imagine the Bultmannian view of things in which the proclamation of certain locutions is itself a performative use of language in which existential empowerment can occur in the listener.  On this view of things, the semantics of ‘Christ is raised from the dead’ is not a state of affairs in which there is a particular being such that this being had the property of death then afterward life.  The semantics instead would have meaning on the basis of transformed existential horizons in its hearing.  While Bultmann could speak of a theology of the cross here, and could even accept Luther’s thesis 19, he would not be meaning by that either the epistemic or ontological formulations given above.  He would be meaning by it something quite complicated pertaining to horizons of expectation and empowerment in a succession of historical beings having particular existential constitutions.  

Time does not permit me to work all of this out here, but the point should be clear enough. In the absence of a traditional, realist semantics of theological language it is very difficult to state clearly the distinction between the theologian of the cross and the theologian of glory.  However, the last 200 years of academic theology has tended not to work with a realist semantics for theological language.  It has indeed tacitly rejected semantic realism, the assertion that theological statements have truth values even when we are in no position evidentially to ascertain their truth.  Semantic realism is a strong criterion of theological meaning: a theological proposition is true if and only if it correctly states what is the case.  Notice that truth here does not connect to epistemology at all.  

Much more needs to be said, but maybe this can get the ball rolling.  My contention is that the distinction between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory cannot be sustained if a realist semantics is not presupposed.  However, for almost 200 years a realist semantics has not been presupposed.  Therefore, the distinction is no longer clear.  This is the scandal of the theology of the cross.  It is a formal, not a material scandal.  The necessary condition for the former scandal is for the latter scandal to be assuaged.  It is my hope to do the latter.   

[1] ‘Cross’ here means the entire narrative of the crucified and risen Jesus.   See Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), 1.  
[2] WA 5, 176:32 (Operationes).  

No comments:

Post a Comment