The Christian’s most precious treasure

John Calvin famously began his Institutes of the Christian Religion stating, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” Before Calvin wrote these words, Martin Luther wrestled with the first of those concepts, “the knowledge of God”.

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

And the LORD said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the LORD said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen” (Exodus 33:18-23).

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For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

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For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor 2:2-5).

Yesterday I noted that while Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses is the traditional and probably the best known event as the start of the Protestant Reformation, they didn’t contain the bulk of his theology. Rather, “Luther came gradually to understand the great themes and doctrines of the Reformation between 1513-21, as he taught the Scriptures.” And he introduced the heart of his theology, his theologia crucis, his “Theology of the Cross” at an event known as the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518.

I started looking at this Theology of the Cross because I thought it might have something to say to my wife and me in the light of her current suffering. But I found as I studied it that it was really Luther’s response to the Medieval Church. It contained the heart and soul of his message. I’ve written about it in bits and pieces over the last month or so. Beginning today, and over the next several days, as we get closer to the “anniversary” of the Reformation, I’d like to go into a bit of detail about it more directly:

For Luther, the sole authentic locus of man’s knowledge of God is the cross of Christ, in which God is to be found revealed, and yet paradoxically hidden in that revelation.…

God is revealed in the passions et crucem – and yet he is hidden in this very revelation. In the very things which human wisdom regards as the antithesis of deity – such as weakness, foolishness, and humility, God stands revealed in the ‘humility and shame of the cross’. We may summarise the leading features of the theologia crucis as follows:

(1) The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. Those who speculate on the created order have, in effect, forfeited their right to be called ‘theologians’. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.

(2) This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia crucis to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33:23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recognizable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei (“back of God”) which [is] made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God – but to others, this insight is denied.

(3) This revelation is to be recognized in the sufferings of the cross of Christ, rather than in human moral activity or the created order. Both the moralist and the rationalist expect to find God through intelligent reflection upon the nature of man’s moral sense or the pattern of the created order: for Luther, ‘true theology and knowledge of God are found in Christ crucified’. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of human reason to discern God in this manner.

(4) This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith. Revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, which alone recognizes it as a revelation of God Luther illustrates this point with reference to John 14:8. Philip here asks Jesus to show him the Father – which, according to Luther, makes him a ‘theologian of glory’, in that he considers that God may be found and known apart from Christ. Jesus then explains to him that there is no knowledge of God other than that which may be found in his own person: ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’ (John 14:9). For the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ and his passion and cross – and who is thus able to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah’s dictum: ‘Truly you are a hidden God!’ The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the center of the theology of the cross. For Luther, Philip represents the tendency of the theologia gloriae to seek for God apart from Christ, unaware that God is revealed in him, although concealed in that revelation.

(5) God is particularly known through suffering. Although this is essentially a reference to the passiones Christi, a far deeper spiritual truth is involved: a fundamental contention of the theologia crucis is not merely that God is known through suffering (whether that of Christ or of the individual), but that God makes himself known through suffering. For Luther, God is active in this manner, rather than passive, in that suffering and temptation are seen as means by which man is brought to God. This brings us to the dialectic between the opus proprium Dei [“the proper work of God”] and the opus alienum Dei [“the work alien to God”], which Luther introduces in his explanation of Thesis 16 [from the Heidelberg Disputation].

The basic paradox involved is illustrated with reference to the justification of an individual. In order that a man may be justified, he must first recognise that he is a sinner, and humble himself before God. Before man can be justified, he must be utterly humiliated – and it is God who both humiliates and justifies. ‘Thus an action which is alien to God’s nature (opus alienum Dei) results in an action which belongs to his very nature (opus proprium Dei): God makes a person a sinner in order that he may make him righteous.’ The opus alienum is a means to the end of the opus proprium. The significance of suffering, whether this is understood as passiones Christi or human Anfechtung [“challenge” or “temptation”], is that it represents the opus alienum through which God works out his opus proprium. In his important study on Anfechtung, Beintker demonstrated that Luther regards God himself as the source of Anfechtung: God assaults man in order to break him down and thus to justify him. Similarly, studies on Luther’s understanding of the role of the Devil in the Christian life have demonstrated that he regarded the Devil as God’s instrument, who performs the opus alienum Dei on his behalf in order that the opus proprium may be realized.

Far from regarding suffering or evil as a nonsensical intrusion into the world (which Luther regards as the opinion of a ‘theologian of glory’), the “theologian of the cross’ regards such suffering as his most precious treasure, for revealed and yet hidden in precisely such suffering is none other that the living God working out the salvation of those whom he loves.

Alister E. McGrath, “Luther’s Theology of the Cross,” Oxford, UK: and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, ©1985, 1990, pgs 149-151 (bold face emphasis supplied).

Note this statement, for it shows well the God that I have come to know and love: “Similarly, studies on Luther’s understanding of the role of the Devil in the Christian life have demonstrated that he regarded the Devil as God’s instrument, who performs the opus alienum Dei on his behalf in order that the opus proprium may be realized.”

The Devil works on God’s behalf. God has created a universe such that, the more that the Devil “devils”, the harder he works on God’s behalf. He is caught in his own net. He works his own mischief in a mighty way, [and he certainly has the free will to do this], but this very mischief is turned to God’s service. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

“If God is for us, who can be against us? In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”