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date: 28 March 2017

The Cross and the Theologia Crucis

Summary and Keywords

While the term theologia crucis itself is most prominent in Luther’s early works, the later texts bear up the scholarly contention that the fundamental contrast between “cross” and “glory,” with its various methodological and theological implications, remains and is in fact amplified throughout Luther’s later writings. Indeed, considered topically, Luther’s treatment of virtually every significant theological locus throughout his canon—e.g., revelation, ecclesiology, and ethics is impacted by his understanding of the cross.

“Theology of the cross” in Luther does not refer to a bound set of theological statements but rather a methodological stance in which epistemological fidelity to the modes in which God chooses to reveal himself—in suffering, death, and contradiction to expectation—marks the whole of the theologian’s orientation to knowledge of God and the world. While the theology of the cross in Luther’s deployment certainly touches on sociopolitical and ecclesial realities within his time, it is crucial for readers of Luther to understand that for him the motif was bound up within the total “thickness” of Christian life—the sacraments, prayer, discipleship, etc. In contrast to the temptation to treat the notion as a critical principle that can be detached from this total picture of Christian existence, scholarly attention to Luther must take seriously the ecclesiastically embedded character of theologia crucis—with all of the interweaving strands of inquiry that such embeddedness necessitates—in order to get the full picture of how Luther understood the cross’s impact on theology and the Christian life.

The cross is also crucial theologically for Luther because it gets at the core of what he sees the theological project being able to do—deal with God in God’s self-revelation, under the confusing and sometimes seemingly paradoxical terms by which God chooses to engage humanity. Theologia crucis thus stands as the theological putting to death of the Old Adam—who is aligned, for Luther, with theologies of glory—so as to allow the theologian to hear and proclaim the gospel apart from pretension or undue speculation.

Keywords: cross, epistemology, Christology, revelation, God’s hiddenness, suffering, theologia crucis

Theologia Crucis and Reading Luther

Theologia crucis is a signature motif within both Luther’s theology itself and its subsequent legacy upon theology, philosophy, and ecclesial life. As such, it is heavily contested ground, particularly for contemporary theologians wishing to make use of the theme for modern/postmodern theological projects. Since even in Luther’s time his deployment of the phrase implied a critique of the dominant epistemological and soteriological models of his era, the theology of the cross has been a particularly fruitful area of exploration for post-Enlightenment theologians seeking to recover a pre-Enlightenment critique of dominant modes of theologizing (particularly to the extent that they overestimate the capacity for human reason to theologize in disinterested and fully “rational” fashion about God and God’s actions in the world). Moreover, because Luther did not separate his own articulation of theologia crucis from the sociopolitical setting and material economies at stake in the Reformation, a number of studies have sought to apply his insights to the task of articulating a theological basis for resisting exploitation and promoting resistance to unjust political arrangements. This scholarly and popular interest has been abetted by the fact that some of Luther’s most beloved axioms—e.g., “Crux sola est nostra theologia,” “Crux probat omnia”—are direct outcomes of this area.

Indeed, this interest is exceptional given that, for the most part, even in the immediate aftermath of Luther’s writing career, the theme of theologia crucis (as distinct from debates over atonement and the mechanics of justification) is fairly muted in the subsequent tradition. Neither the confessional documents nor the subsequent period of Lutheran orthodoxy emphasizes the theme. Ironically, for modern theology, it was the philosopher Hegel’s incorporation of Luther into his schema of the “speculative Good Friday” that helped to pave the way for constructive theological appropriation of the cross and its potential as a fecund theological locus.

The interest that theologia crucis generates in contemporary theologians has both positive and potentially problematic aspects. Positively, it has stimulated ongoing interest in the constructive (as opposed to merely historical) potential of Luther’s theology. More problematically, the topic has become akin to a Rorschach test whereby theologians seeking to articulate their own convictions on matters both theological and political have done so under the banner of “calling a thing what it really is,” and doing so in Luther’s name without necessarily paying due diligence to the total context in which Luther’s articulation of the principle would have coherence within the broader sweep of his theology. This is not to say that any appropriation of a theological theme from a given author must be inextricable from every facet of that author’s context; however, there is a danger that the widespread glossing of theologia crucis as simple “truth-telling” might occlude the ways in which, for Luther, the theologian of the cross is embedded in a thick web of ecclesial practices and theological commitments oriented toward proclamation of the gospel that are as constructive of baptismal subjectivity (to use Paul Hinlicky’s felicitous phrase1) as they are deconstructive of theologies that obscure God’s promises to justified sinners. In other words, theologia crucis for Luther is a not a free-floating theme applicable to any given theological or political project; rather, it is best thought of as a specific theological orientation that allows the ordinary Christian as well as the theologian to live into the fullness of the Christian life in a manner that frees her to engage church tradition, ecclesial structures, and God’s word in a manner that maintains primacy upon God’s revelation of grace precisely in the brokenness and dejection of the cross.

Likewise, it is necessary for contemporary interpreters of Luther to understand that, as is the case with all aspects of his mature theology, with theologic crucis Luther understood both the salvific work of Christ on the cross and the theologian’s vocation of bearing witness to this salvation in similarly cruciform fashion to be enmeshed within the cosmic drama of antagonism between God and the forces of the devil. It is the enduring merit of Heiko Obermann’s biography Luther: Man Between God and the Devil2 to remind post-Enlightenment readers that Luther’s apocalyptic discourse concerning the beleaguered true church and its theology of the cross in opposition to the theology of glory that upholds the false testimony of God’s enemies (including, ultimately, the Antichrist as manifest for Luther in the papacy and the demonic ravings of Luther’s other ecclesial/political enemies) is neither metaphorical nor a stand-in for some more “demytholygize-able” reality. In the battle between the truth of the cross and the lies of the cross’s enemies, Luther understood nothing less than eternal salvation to be at stake, and the stakes remained high for him throughout his life.

This thick ecclesial setting within the cosmic drama of judgment, damnation, and salvation helps us to understand the fact that, as Gerhard Forde and others have emphasized, Luther’s tendency was to talk less about a given “theology of the cross” and more about a particular kind of epistemological stance toward theology as a whole. The theological author herself, as much as the texts authored, is at the center of the discussion. Indeed, the famed theses 19 and 20 of the Heidelberg Disputation (the locus classicus within Luther’s writings for this topic) discuss not “theology of the cross” per se, but rather the framework within which the theologian of the cross engages both the world and God’s revelation:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things that have actually happened. [Rom. 1:20]

20. He deserves to be called a theologian, though, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.3

This focus upon the person of the theologian and the optics by which she engages the things of God and the things of the world, as opposed to a series of discrete analytic propositions that might be said to make up a “theology of the cross,” supports the idea that for Luther the theologia crucis is a kind of hermeneutical lens. Through this lens theologians can engage in the tasks of exegesis, theology, and proclamation with an eye toward the speculative impulse inherent in all these activities being chastened by the epistemological and existential limits imposed by the fact that God chooses to be known to the world under the realities of pain, brokenness, and weakness. In other words, there is no one set of tenets of propositions that makes up theologia crucis, either in Luther’s oeuvre or in subsequent reception of the theme; it is more a kind of methodological bearing centered on the theologian’s positioning vis-à-vis the scandal of God’s choosing to reveal saving truth in the form of brokenness and scandal.

To be sure, the medieval church in which Luther carried on his work was saturated at both the popular and theological levels with crucifixion imagery (one thinks not only of the medieval passion plays but also the extended meditations on Christ’s blood present in the works of theologians like Catherine of Siena).4 However, Luther’s great contribution was to flesh out with unparalleled vigor the notion that the cross must be a formative influence not only upon the content but also the form of thinking about God, and to apply this stricture with rigor and creativity to virtually every facet of ecclesial life. As a number of historians have pointed out, the term “theology of the cross” as used by the early Luther, e.g., in the Heidelberg Disputation, later drops out of his lexicon; however, as argued especially by the pioneering studies of Walther von Loewenich in the early 20th century, Luther retained and even expanded the substance of the term throughout the remainder of his life and writing career. In fact, careful reading demonstrates that no important locus of theology within Luther’s writings on exegesis and theology remains untouched by consideration of God’s self-revelation through the cross. While theologians should be careful not to reduce the Reformer’s theological legacy to theologia crucis as a kind of shorthand for the whole of Luther’s thought (as sometimes happens in non-Lutheran theological scholarship especially), it is fair to see the doctrine as a kind of leitmotif that unifies otherwise disparate loci within his canon.

Theologia Crucis and the Formation of the Theologian

While the aforementioned Heidelberg Disputation is the signature early text for Luther’s theologia crucis, the centrality of the cross was present as a theme even in the monk’s pre-Reformation thinking; his sermons between June 1516 and February 1517 contain exhortations to “Unum praidica: sapientam crucis!”5 Later, his “Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses” (completed in February 1518, amidst Luther’s preparation for Heidelberg) makes it clear that the contrast between theologia crucis and theologia gloriae was not a one-off but rather a fully entrenched aspect of Luther’s thinking about the nature of theology and its enactment within ecclesial practices:

Yet in the meantime [the theologians] have opened the floodgates of heaven and flooded the treasury of induldgences and the merits of Christ so that by this deluge almost the whole Christian world is ruined . . . A theologian of glory does not recognize, along with the Apostle, the crucified and hidden God alone [1 Cor. 22]. He sees and speaks of God’s glorious manifestation among the heathen, how the invisible nature can be known from the things which are visible, and how he is present and powerful in all things everywhere. This theologian of glory, however, learns from Aristotle that the object of the will is the good and that the good is worthy to be loved, while the evil, on the other hand, is worthy of hate. He learns that God is the highest good and exceedingly loveable. Disagreeing with the theologian of the cross, he defines the treasury of Christ as the removing and remitting of punishments, things which are most evil and worthy of hate. In opposition to this the theologian of the cross defines the treasury of Christ as the impositions and obligations of punishments, things which are best and most worthy of love. Yet the theologian of glory still receives money for his treasury, while the theologian of the cross, on the other hand, offers the merits of Christ freely. Yet people do not consider the theologian of the cross worthy of consideration, but finally even persecute him.6

Strikingly, this passage contains in nuce most of the major motifs around theologia crucis that would come to fruition throughout Luther’s oeuvre:

  1. 1. The target of theologia crucis’s critical edge, as wielded by Luther, was the theo-political edifice comprised of the mutually reinforcing achievements of scholastic theology and the economic/political power of the Roman church. For Luther the theologian, the church’s abuses of power were inextricable from what he took to be the ideological underpinnings of the exercises of speculative inquiry and Aristotelian logic found in scholasticism; nowhere does the Reformer’s favored exegetical strategy of playing Aristotle off of “the Apostle” (Paul) have more bite than here.7 According to Luther, both the church in its sale of indulgences and scholastic theology in its indebtedness to philosophical categories foreign to the gospel located the things of God in the true, the good, and beautiful in such a way as to privilege that which is powerful and successful on earth. In so doing, they erase what Luther took to be the most fundamental reversal of human wisdom perpetrated by the gospel: “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”8Theologia crucis, then, is a mode of comprehending the world and God’s actions within it, but this comprehension has a critical edge aimed at resisting and dismantling the confluence of two kinds of arrogance: theology unchastened by the cross and a church that has located obedience to God’s will in earthly success rather than fidelity to the crucified Messiah (as exemplified in this case by the indulgence controversy).

  2. 2. More broadly, here and elsewhere Luther points toward theologia crucis as representing an entire epistemological orientation for the theologian, in which accurate knowledge of God’s work in the world takes the incarnation as both the starting point and, to a certain extent, the boundary for speculative inquiry. As Gerhard Ebeling points out:

    The knowledge of God which is given in Jesus Christ does not therefore constitute a particular item of doctrine which supplements a general knowledge of God, but is the beginning of all true knowledge of God and man. It is the complete opposite of speculation concerning God in his nakedness, God in his majesty, and points us toward God who came in the flesh and was therefore clothed in promises, who came close to us, imparted himself to us, and was thereby revealed.9

The theologian of the cross clings to God’s revelation as opposed to speculating (or declaiming) about that which remains hidden in God (see below), but this methodological stricture implies that the theologian herself must be subject to persecution. This is both because her resolute focus on seeing God’s presence in that which the world despises will subject her to ridicule and because (as noted above) the gospel proclamation that stems from theologia crucis threatens the interests of the powers which Luther ultimately understood to be in thrall to demonic forces oppressing the true church.

Indeed, Luther famously argued that, in addition to oratio and meditatio, the true theologian also must suffer the attacks of tentatio: while the immediate context of this Anfechtung is attacks upon the believer’s existential being by the devil, in the broader context of Luther’s ecclesiology it is clear that the persecution suffered by the true theologian is itself part of the formation by which correct perception and proclamation of the gospel can happen. 10 As von Loewenich writes,

“Cross” and “suffering” refer, in the first place, to Christ’s suffering and cross. But Luther is thinking at the same time about the cross of the Christian. For Luther the cross of Christ and the cross of the Christian belong together. For him the cross of Christ is not an isolated historical fact to which the life of the Christian stands only in a causal relationship, but in the cross of Christ the relationship between God and man has become evident . . . To know God “through suffering and the cross” means that the knowledge of God comes into being at the cross of Christ, the significance of which becomes evident only to one who himself stands in cross and suffering.11

The writings of a theological author who herself has not undergone “the cross” in the form of tentatio/Anfechtung are suspect precisely because engagement with God’s truth as God reveals it is both hostile to the principalities and powers of “glory” and because God chooses for truth itself to be found in that which the world despises.

This, too, is why theology of the cross cannot finally be separated from the total life of the Christian: for Luther, the only way for the believer (including the theologian!) to stave off despair and to see gospel in that which is abject from the world’s perspective is for the Christian to be sustained on a continual basis by sound preaching, the sacraments rightly administered, immersion in God’s word, prayer, etc. The Christian life properly practiced brings the believer to the cross repeatedly, but it also sustains the soul battered by tentatio such that the sweetness of the gospel can provide courage for the task of theology, and indeed Christian living as a whole.

  1. 3. And as in so many places in Luther’s corpus, the core import of the epistemological transformation wrought by the cross upon the theologian centers on justification. Just as Luther’s emphasis upon the doctrine of creation ex nihilo pertains less to speculation about protology and more to the theologian’s task of preaching a God who can unilaterally create the “something” of righteousness out of the “nothing” of sin, so too for Luther theology of glory necessarily funds the demands of works righteousness. If God’s grace is to be found in the beautiful, successful, and powerful things of this world—and indeed, even in the justice and virtues of this world—then correspondingly the sinner will be expected to bring good works to the cooperative venture of salvation; however, if theologia crucis reverses the world’s expectations of what righteousness looks like and teaches the sinner to look for God’s salvific action precisely in the most abject places of death within the gospel narratives and within the world itself, then the cross stands at the center of proper preaching about justification. As Luther puts it, “This is the love of the cross, born of the cross, which turns in the direction where it does not find good which it may enjoy, but where it may confer good upon the bad and needy person.”12 It is the abject sinner that God chooses to justify through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why Luther regarded any sort of cooperative “semi-Pelagian” soteriological schema as nullifying the cross—because it presumes a partial rather than thoroughgoing transformation of the Old Adam’s attempts to self-justify. As Luther would put it:

    This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good. God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.13

Ultimately, the cross is about God’s resurrecting of Jesus creating righteousness where it is least likely to be found—the Golgotha of Jesus’s day and the corpse of the sinner dead in the old Adam. The tie between Good Friday and Easter, then, is not the latter entirely dispensing with the former but rather the cross giving shape to the mode of God’s creating life in the face of death. In other words, the cross is how God acts in the world as much as it is humanity’s attempted rejection of that action. That this rejection does not stymie God’s redemptive work is the crux of the Lutheran tradition’s insistence upon the nonsynergistic, unilateral modes by which God justifies the believer.

Live Topics in Theology of the Cross

To be sure, both within Luther’s works and in subsequent Lutheran theology, various hermeneutical strategies related to theologia crucis have been brought to bear upon a variety of traditional theological loci. Indeed, as much as any other locus within Luther’s thought, theological interest in the theology of the cross has grown unabated since the early 20th century. The following is a brief survey of some key trajectories of theologia crucis within contemporary scholarship. In all cases, the groundwork laid thus far raises as many questions for future scholarship as it answers; thus, it seems fair to speculate that interest in theologia crucis both within Luther and beyond will remain strong in future theological scholarship.

Hiddenness and Revelation

As mentioned above, central to any consideration of how Luther’s theologia crucis affected his view of God is another key motif, God’s hiddenness. As Brian Gerrish argued in a seminal essay,14 for Luther God’s hiddenness has two forms, correlated to God as revealed in history (as well as in the biblical texts and sacraments) and the divine nature in and of itself. This latter is the “majesty” or “uncovered God” (Deus nudus), hidden outside of history and revelation. The former, however, has to do with God’s hiddenness even within God’s revelations to human beings, that is, the condition whereby God relates to humanity in a manner that seems utterly irrational and even contradictory. While Luther would often use this theme to emphasize the way in which God’s mercy and righteousness are alien to the epistemological capacities of the Old Adam, it also points to the centrality of the cross in the Christian’s ability to comprehend the location of such grace: the Lord of history must be sought, not in the grandeur implied by the scholastic/metaphysical systems which Luther understood to be dominant in his day, but rather in the last place that theologians of glory would think to look for God’s action in the world—the crucified Christ. Thus, as described above, the cross is an offense to reason in the same manner as is God’s justification of the sinner by grace through faith apart from works; thus, Luther’s theology of divine hiddenness and his soteriology find synthesis in the theologia crucis.

It is well known that Luther’s theology of divine hiddenness came under significant criticism in 20th-century theology especially (from the Reformed side by such figures as Karl Barth and from the Roman Catholic side by Catherine Mowry Lacugna, among others). Lutheran theologians who draw heavily on the cross as a theme in their constructive/systematic theology will thus need to continue to make the case that this methodological staurocentrism can provide a platform from which to provide sufficiently robust theological accounts of other aspects of God’s being and economy: Trinity, election, etc.15

Ecclesiology After Christendom

Meanwhile, to an even more explicit degree, Luther’s ecclesiology reflected his emphasis on the cross. Strikingly, since the nature of the true church was at issue in the Reformation from the beginning, Luther intentionally incorporated “cross” into his ecclesiology as a shorthand, not only for suffering, but for the church truly perceiving itself as God’s work. As Vítor Westhelle explains:

When Luther wrote On the Councils and the Church (1538) he listed 7 marks of the church, among others that apply to standards of sanctification . . . [In the first six] the Reformer restricts himself to the definition of the church as being made up by Word and sacrament adding only the necessary means for their dispensation (which implies absolution, ministry and worship). These define the esse of the church. However, there is a further external sign, which had not appeared explicitly before neither in his nor in Melachthon’s writings about the church: cross and suffering. This seventh sign reveals the church as this community that, even when confessed to be one and holy, still lives under the sign of the cross, in transience, in trial, in weakness, in infamy, in vulnerability, in doubt and even forsakenness, attesting that in these realities, as in the Cross of Christ itself, there is God.16

Because, as becomes clear particularly in his Genesis lectures, Luther understood the true church to be an entity in history similarly hidden under the realities of weakness (as opposed to lust for earthly power and domination) and persecution for holding steadfast to the gospel, he could only conceive of ecclesial fidelity in terms of believers undergoing the same sort of suffering that characterized Christ’s own fidelity to God’s promises in the face of opposition. For Luther, no less than the early church, ecclesial existence thus necessitated the possibility of martyrdom, and this reality (both conceptually and historically) informs his theologia crucis.

It should be noted that, in the Genesis lectures, Luther draws upon precisely this theme to crystallize a contrast that is operative throughout his theology: the idea that the true church is, throughout history, a minority and indeed often invisible assembly (the church of Abel) that is placed within the milieu of the larger, more worldly successful church of Cain. “Moreover, here the church begins to be divided into two churches: the one which is the church in name but in reality is nothing but a hypocritical and bloodthirsty church; and the other one, which is without influence, forsaken, and exposed to suffering and the cross, and in the sight of that hypocritical church is truly Abel, that is, vanity and nothing.”17 This allows Luther to establish a key ecclesiological strategy of the Reformation: in an era in continuity with the prior Christian suspicion of novelty and innovation, Luther tracing the “true church” of Cain and Abel into his own day allowed him to argue that it was the medieval church’s embrace of such innovations as veneration of saints, purgatory, the papacy, and other structures synonymous with “theology of glory” that in fact left the medieval church guilty of innovation. This argument would become influential as the Reformation spread.18

Douglas John Hall, whose work on theology of the cross has helped to popularize it as a theme of 20th-century theology, has emphasized this ecclesial dimension by arguing consistently that Luther’s theology of the cross should serve as a resource for churches in European and North American contexts who face the end of de facto Christendom and full cultural disestablishment; if Luther’s ecclesiology of the cross suggests that the true church will always be somewhat at the margins of what the world calls powerful, then churches should embrace the cross as a bulwark against false prosperity.19 As various contexts in North American and elsewhere continue to see the rise of “prosperity gospel” and other success-oriented theological movements, it remains to be seen the extent to which ecclesiologies drawn from a cross-centered perspective can gain and retain traction on the ecclesial landscape.

Divine Suffering

Because Luther was inclined to stress the theological potential of the communicatio idiomatum introduced into the Christian tradition by the Tome of Leo,20 and because he was drawn to poetic expressions of the deep identification of God with the suffering Jesus of Nazareth on the cross,21 Luther has often been read as representing a significant departure from a prior consensus against patripassionism; while it remains a matter of debate whether Luther truly believed that God in Godself suffers in the crucified Christ, it is certainly the case that—in contrast to the strong reading of impassibility found in most patristic and medieval authors—Luther’s disavowal of speculation about God’s attribute apart from the revealed Christ combined with his favoring of the communicatio as informing both Christology and proclamation of God’s action in the world gives the strong impression that he is willing to entertain the notion that Christ’s suffering impacts God’s being to a greater degree than the mainstream of the prior tradition may have affirmed.

That said, it remains the case that Luther was an occasional (if not inconsistent) enough metaphysician that it is inevitable that scholarship will be divided as to whether Luther’s rhetoric concerning God’s suffering in Christ was meant to be understood literally/ontologically or whether such rhetoric was ultimately underpinned by a more traditional metaphysic that resists imputing suffering to God the Father.22 Whether or not Luther’s writings support any sort of final resolution to this question at the level of ontology and continuity with tradition remains for scholarship to determine and will likely be impacted by the further reception history of Luther’s writings into ongoing theological debates about divine impassibility overall.

Feminist Theology

In the later part of the 20th century, feminist theological critiques of subsitutionary atonement targeted staurocentrism as detrimental to women. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s influential text Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us23 advanced the argument that too often glorification of the cross of Christ has had the effect of encouraging women especially to endure unjust suffering in the name of piety.

Lutheran feminist theologians, while taking the potential for this abuse seriously, have also sought to retrieve those aspects of Luther’s theologia crucis that promote liberation and the flourishing of women under patriarchy. Lutheran feminist theologians such as Mary Solberg and Deanna Thompson have argued that, while the cross certainly lends itself to being abused by patriarchy in ways that justify women’s subordination, the theo-political dimensions of truth-telling and taking on the principalities and powers that are intrinsic to the theology of the cross (in Luther’s context and in our own) provide a resource for prophetic speech against the evils of patriarchy, racism, etc.24

Assessment of this theological literature has been, and likely will continue to be, bound up with the question of how theologians navigate the rise of so-called “genitive theologies” (liberation, feminist, black, queer, etc.) and also how to conceptualize the location of the critical principles of theologia crucis within different understandings of the Christian life and its attendant disciplines.

New Pauline Work

Following publications such as Krister Stendahl’s “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscious of the West,”25 the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul has targeted Luther’s Pauline hermeneutics especially as being a distortion of Paul’s original intent. Luther, according to this line of scholarship, misread Paul’s focus on justification as being concerned with the existential state of one’s conscience before God, even while Paul was more concerned with reconciliation between Gentiles and Jews.26

Ironically, though, it is precisely theologia crucis that many biblical scholars, as well as philosophers and theologians, have seized upon in order to describe the nature of the sort of communities that Paul envisioned. Precisely because theologia crucis as present in Paul deals with God’s preference for that which is marginal under dominant political arrangements as well as sociopolitical critique of exploitative spiritual and material economies, scholars such as Neil Elliott,27 Theodore Jennings,28 and and Elsa Tamez29 have drawn upon the communal dimensions of theologia crucis in order to articulate more radically communal and countercultural vision of ecclesial life. These trajectories have even been taken up notably within the last several decades by philosophers associated with more atheistic traditions, including Alain Badiou,30 Giorgio Agamben,31 and Slavoj Zizek.32

Should these trajectories continue to draw the interest of scholars and philosophers, then it may be that a key element of future interest in Luther’s hermeneutics centers upon the sociopolitical dimensions of theologia crucis and their implications for community. To the extent that these philosophical visions draw heavily upon the fact that, as is evident in the Pauline letters, Paul drew significant theopolitical consequences from the link between the “stumbling block” of “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23) and the fact that the communities were largely composed of abject populations within Roman society (1 Cor. 1:26), then it may be that a more robust philosophical consideration of theologia crucis will be a significant step forward for establishing such links in our own era.

Global/Liberation Theology

As the vital centers of global Christianity have shifted away from Europe and the United States, interest in Luther’s theologia crucis has not abated; indeed, implications of theologia crucis for global contexts has injected significant interest in Luther studies in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. In Japan, Kazoh Kitamori’s seminal Theology of the Pain of God drew heavily upon Luther’s theology of the cross in order to articulate the soteriology in terms more organic to Asian contexts; C. S. Song and Andrew Sung Park have offered similar efforts.33 As with black, feminist, and womanist theologians, theologians from non-Western contexts have generally been concerned to recover the theological advantages of theologia crucis while also acknowledging the ways in which legacies of European colonialism, along with soteriologies that disempower rather than empower marginalized peoples, must be extricated from the theology of the cross if it is to be a part of vital Christian theology in the 21st-century global context.

As such trends as the demographic explosion of global Pentacostalism and the shift of ecclesial vitality from Europe to the Global South continue, theological scholarship will need to continually assess how Christian movements indigenous to soils very different than the ones that birthed Luther and his writings receive, modify, and amplify the currents of theologia crucis that speak to their mission contexts. This issue will presumably have impact upon the global Christian scene far beyond specifically Lutheran churches.

Review of the Literature

Virtually no significant overview of Luther’s thought can dispense with at least basic discussion of the theology of the cross; thus, this overview will focus on significant texts that have advanced the discussion along the lines suggested above. That said, the more general treatments of Luther’s overall theology—particularly Bayer, Althaus, and Ebeling—have strong discussions of the cross in Luther.

Broadly speaking, theologia crucis as a distinct topic within Luther studies was largely the product of the late-19th- to early-20th-century “Luther renaissance.” A key text generated in the wake of that revival of interest in Luther’s theology was Walther von Loewenich’s Luther’s Theology of the Cross, first published in German in 1929; in English is it is available most recently as Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 5th ed. Toward the middle of the century, Hans Joachim Iwand’s essay “Theologia crucis” in Nachgelassene Werke II has also been influential. A good survey of historical developments of the reception of Luther’s theologia crucis is available in Kolb’s Lutheran Quarterly article.

A useful overview of theology of the cross in the modern period, meanwhile, can be found in Michael Korthaus, Kreuzestheologie: Geschichte und Gehalt eines Programmbegriffs in der evangelischen Theologie. The key trajectory in the mid- to late 20th century that incorporated Luther’s theologia crucis into broader theological currents was inaugurated by such figures as Jürgen Moltmann, Eberhard Jungel, and Douglas John Hall.

For contemporary treatments of theology of the cross (Lutheran and otherwise), the Trelstad volume Cross Examinations provides a series of essays from a wide swath of contemporary voices (and with differing critical assessments of the fruitfulness of the cross as a theological emphasis moving forward). Also useful in this regard are the volumes by Cone, Thompson, Solberg, Westhelle, and Taylor.

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. “Die Bedeutung des Kreuzes im Denken Luthers.” Vierteljahrsschrift der Luthergellschaft 4 (1926): 97–107.Find this resource:

Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Translated by Robert C. Shultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.Find this resource:

Anthony, Neal J. Cross Narratives: Martin Luther’s Christology and the Location of Redemption. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010.Find this resource:

Bayer, Oswald. Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation. Translated by Thomas H. Trapp. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.Find this resource:

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013.Find this resource:

Ebeling, Gerhard. Luther: An Introduction to His Thought. Translated by R. S. Wilson. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.Find this resource:

Forde, Gerhard. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.Find this resource:

Gerrish, B. A. “‘To the Unknown God’: Luther and Calvin on the Hiddenness of God.” The Journal of Religion 53.3 (July 1973): 263–292.Find this resource:

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Hinlicky, Paul. Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology After Christendom. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.Find this resource:

Iwand, Hans Joachim. “Theologia crucis.” In Nachgelassene Werke, Vol. 2, 381–398. Munich: Kaiser, 1966.Find this resource:

Jüngel, Eberhard. God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism. Translated by Darrell L. Guder. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 1977, reprint 2014.Find this resource:

Kolb, Robert. “Luther on the Theology of the Cross.” Lutheran Quarterly 16 (2002): 443–466.Find this resource:

Korthaus, Michael. Kreuzestheologie: Geschichte und Gehalt eines Programmbegriffs in der evangelischen Theologie. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007.Find this resource:

Luy, David. Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014.Find this resource:

Madsen, Anna M. The Theology of the Cross in Historical Perspective. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007.Find this resource:

Miyamoto, Arata. Embodied Cross: Intercontextual Reading of Theologia Crucis. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010.Find this resource:

Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. Translated by R. A. Wilson and John Bowden. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Ngien, Dennis. The Suffering of God According to Martin Luther’s Theologia Crucis. Vancouver: Regent, 1995.Find this resource:

Root, Andrew. The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church. New York: Abingdon, 2010.Find this resource:

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008.Find this resource:

Solberg, Mary M. Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross. New York: State University of New York Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Taylor, Mark Lewis. The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. 2d ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015.Find this resource:

Thompson, Deanna A. Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004.Find this resource:

Treltstad, Marit, ed. Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006.Find this resource:

Von Loewenich, Walther. Luther’s Theology of the Cross; 5th ed. Translated by H. J. A. Bouman. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976.Find this resource:

Westhelle, Vítor. The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.Find this resource:


(1.) Paul Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology After Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

(2.) Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982).

(3.) “Heidelberg Disputation,” LW 31:40. It should be noted that the LW translation here is contested.

(4.) Cf. especially Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Susan Noffke (Minneapolis: Paulist Press, 1980).

(5.) “Early Sermons,” LW 51:15, 17ff.

(6.) “Explanations of the 95 Theses,” LW 31:227.

(7.) Cf. Philip Ruge-Jones, Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2008).

(8.) “Heidelberg Disputation,” LW 31:53.

(9.) Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought, trans. R. S. Wilson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970). As Gerhard Forde points out, it is important to recognize that, for Luther, the “cross” refers not simply to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth but to the entire shape of the incarnation: Jesus’ entire life, death, and resurrection, including its prefigurement in God’s dealings with Israel in the Old Testament. Cf. Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (Grand Rapids, MI: Being a Theologian of the Cross, 1997), esp. 8–9.

(10.) “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” LW 34:285ff.

(11.) Walther von Loewenich, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, 5th ed., trans. H. J. A. Bouman (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), 20.

(12.) “Heidelberg Disputation,” LW 31:57.

(13.) “Heidelberg Disputation,” LW 31: 53.

(14.) B. A. Gerrish, “‘To the Unknown God’: Luther and Calvin on the Hiddenness of God,” The Journal of Religion 53.3 (July 1973): 263–292.

(15.) Significant efforts in this regard are Paul Hinlicky’s Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics After Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015); and Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

(16.) Westhelle, “Communio Ecclesiology and the Cross: Limits and Possibilities”, Cf. also his Church Event: Call and Challenge of the Church Protestant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009).

(17.) “Genesis Lectures,” LW 1:252.

(18.) Cf. Robert Saler, Between Magisterium and Marketplace: A Constructive Account of Theology and the Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014).

(19.) Cf. Douglas John Hall, Waiting for Gospel: An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant “Establishment” (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012); and Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

(20.) Cf. especially his “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper,” LW 37:161–372, with its discussion of the three modes of Christ’s presence. In this regard cf. also Neil Anthony, Cross Narratives: Martin Luther’s Christology and the Location of Redemption (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010).

(21.) Cf. the discussion in Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World: On the Foundation of the Theology of the Crucified One in the Dispute Between Theism and Atheism, trans. Darrell L. Guder (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark; 2014), 93.

(22.) A careful defense of the notion that Luther’s theology of the cross does challenge divine impassibility in the classical sense can be found in Dennis Ngien’s The Suffering of God According to Martin Luther’s Theologia Crucis (Vancouver: Regent, 1995); meanwhile, David Luy has argued that such understandings make the mistake of importing Luther’s rhetoric of divine suffering onto his metaphysics, which remain more in line with classic impassibility. Cf. Luy, Dominus Mortis: Martin Luther on the Incorruptibility of God in Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

(23.) Parker and Brock, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon, 2002).

(24.) Cf. Deanna A. Thompson, Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004); Mary M. Solberg, Compelling Knowledge: A Feminist Proposal for an Epistemology of the Cross (New York: State University of New York Press, 1997); and the essays in Marit Trelstad, Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2006).

(25.) Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” The Harvard Theological Review 56.3 (July 1963): 199–215.

(26.) For a defense of Luther against this reading, cf. Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).

(27.) Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010).

(28.) Theodore Jennings, Reading Derrida/Thinking Paul: On Justice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).

(29.) Elsa Tamez, The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective (New York: Abingdon, 1993).

(30.) Alain Badiou, St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

(31.) Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005).

(32.) A useful summary and treatment can be found in Theodore W. Jennings Jr., Outlaw Politics: The Messianic Politics of Paul (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).

(33.) Cf. Arata Miyamoto, Embodied Cross: Intercontextual Reading of Theologia Crucis (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010), for a useful summary.