In the Heidelburg disputation, Martin Luther systematically kicks away the legs from under the Theology of Glory, that theology which articulates that there is some way to apprehend and understand God apart from the cross of Jesus Christ.
The theologian of the cross understands the desperate state of the human condition and that, even in our best efforts, we cannot will ourselves to embrace the Good that is God. Our will is entirely captive to sin. Insofar as the things of God are concerned, “free will” does not exist. The natural man can do none other than sin because he is a slave to sin. Only in the cross of Christ can one be set free.
The last avenue for the Theologian of Glory is to appeal to reason and the human intellect as a way of apprehending the hidden things of God. This approach seeks to apprehend the mysteries of the Divine through study of the natural world and the events of history. This is essentially human philosophy. The ancient Greeks were masters of looking at the world and theorizing on the spiritual significance of it all. In theses 19, 20 and 21 Luther shuts the door on this last avenue by insisting that it is impossible to learn anything about the invisible things of God by observing nature or world events.
What is one to learn about God by watching a Bengal tiger attack and devour an antelope or by watching a squirrel eat nuts? Similarly, it is impossible to read anything of the hidden things of God through observing world events. In 1759, the British defeated the French at the battle of the plains of Abraham. What are we going to conclude about God from that? That God prefers the English? That He was punishing the French?
Luther dismisses all such effort and in doing so stakes out the great divide between the theology of Glory and the Theology of the cross. Moreover, he now moves to define who truly is a real theologian. (Theses 19 & 20)
That person does not deserve to be called a theologian, who claims to see into the invisible things of God, by seeing through earthly things.But that person deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends what is visible and revealed of God, through suffering and the cross.
Luther identifies the differences in these two theologians by how they operate. The theologian of Glory tries to look for “the meaning of it all” in the world through his philosophical musings. He operates on the assumption that creation and history are transparent to the human intellect, so that one can peer through what is made and what happens so as to peer into the “invisible things of God”.
The Apostle Paul dismisses this approach outright by warning the Colossian believers “not to be made captive by philosophy and empty deceit according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ.” Col 2:8
The claim to be able to see into the things of God through the created order and history is a quest to figure out a way up to God. The person who philosophizes his way to the mysteries of God ends up dissolving the cross of Jesus Christ into a world of abstract philosophical ponderings, which have an appearance of logic and wisdom but are, in reality, completely foolish.
The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, looks at what God has made visible, namely Jesus Christ crucified and understands God’s manifest alien work through suffering and the cross. In the cross, he sees that God operates by putting to death and then resurrecting a new kind of life. There can be no such death without the anguish of a smitten conscience and an utter despairing of self. The sinner confronted with the cross despairs of all and falls down, casting himself on the naked mercy of God. This is how God demands that we come to Him and experience Him. There is no other way. Jesus alone is “the door”. (John 10:9) Crucifixion is the only way in. As a person dies to self, and is regenerated from above, he is united with the crucified and resurrected One and filled with the fullness of God, moving from death to life (Col. 2:13-14)
This is the symbolism of Baptism “having been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God” (Col. 2:12)
And so Paul proclaims his letter that we who were dead are now alive in Christ, have forgiveness of sins, and released from the law of sin and death that held us captive. The legal demands of the law are set aside and nailed to the cross. The powers and principalities are disarmed and put to open shame. And we now have within us, all the fullness of God. And all this comes with our identification through faith with the suffering, crucified and risen One.
So, the suffering and anguish of brokenness that brings us to the cross are good because they force us to cry out for mercy. Luther called this spiritual anguish Anfechtungen. This term means the sufferings of the spirit, the pangs of conscience, the terrors of temptation and the persecutions of the world. An equivalent English word might be affliction. It is the anguish of the tax collector who stand afar off from the temple, and will not even lift up his eyes to heaven crying “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner”.
Now the theologian of glory scoffs at such “grovelling” before the cross, because he wants no part of it. “Let us get past the cross or go around it”, he says and “move upwards to encounter the Divine”. And so he calls this suffering “evil. The cross is seen as foolishness, an embarrassment.
And so the theologian of glory ends up calling good evil and evil good. In contrast, the theologian of the cross recognizes what a thing really is and calls it such.
The theologian of the cross recognizes that the Christian life consist of a daily dying to self and simultaneously a resurrection and union with Christ. There is the affliction (Anfechtungen) of being appointed a cross, a denial of self, combined with the joy of resurrection and an anticipation of the promises of God. The Christian is “simul gimitus simul raptus” that is Luther’s Latin expression for simultaneously groaning and ecstatic, simultaneously afflicted and filled with joy.
In the midst of our groaning and affliction, we are comforted by the crucified One, who alone knows who we are. Our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3), but are not outwardly perceived to the world or even to myself. My identity in Christ is mirrored back to me as I gaze upon Him. He alone perceives that identity that He himself has formed in me.
And so I rejoice, in the midst of affliction of my groanings and brokenness. For “my hope is set on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.”
Such is the Christian life. It is the way of the cross. It is the only way.