26 April 2018 marks an undervalued milestone in Reformation history. We are familiar with Luther’s ninety-five theses posted in October 1517, and his passionate defence at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that his conscience was captive to the Word of God. However, the Heidelberg Disputation, which took place on April 26 1518, is less well known, though its significance could not be more relevant. Allow me to fill in the background.
Luther was growing in fame (or notoriety) as a preacher following the events of October 1517, and Pope Leo X wanted him disciplined by the Augustinian order to which he belonged. The man tasked with this challenge was his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, who famously had already heard Luther’s endless confessions of numerous sins, and who had guided him along his spiritual journey. Staupitz wanted Luther’s discipline to take the form of a public disputation. So the Augustinians gathered in Heidelberg to hear Luther present forty-two theses. (This was the age of the list!) Two theses in particular set out the key principles of what has come to be known as Luther’s ‘theology of the cross’:
- He is not worth calling a theologian who seeks to interpret the invisible things of God on the basis of the things that have been created.
- But he is worth calling a theologian who understands the visible and rearward parts of God to mean suffering and the cross.
The reference to the ‘rearward’ parts of God is an allusion to Exodus 33-34 where Moses hid in the cleft in the rock and glimpsed just the rearward parts of God as he passed by in all his glory. There is so much of God that cannot be comprehended merely on the basis of human reason. For Luther, medieval theology was a theology of glory, but it did not comprehend what God had done for us in Christ at the cross. The church buildings of the medieval Catholic Church still stand across Europe. Whether it is the Duomo in Florence, Notre Dame in Paris or St Peter’s in Rome, they stand as a testimony to Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on the glory of worship. These great structures are human achievements, the epitome of human glory and effort offered up to God. Yet their glory is at variance with the way of the cross, where God reveals himself in his Son, through suffering, rejection and death.
The Renaissance period, that preceded the Reformation, placed a high value on human reason. In scholarship their watchword was ‘back to the sources’, going back to the original Latin, Greek and Hebrew classical texts, and in art they studied form closely in a more realistic way (e.g. Leonardo da Vinci). They called their movement humanism, because it was about valuing human reason, and believing that human reason could in the end study, understand and explain anything. Does that sound familiar? Although Renaissance thought was not atheistic, it marked the beginning of the intellectual process, traced through the eighteenth century Enlightenment, which has led to the cold certainties based entirely on human reason that we see in the New Atheism today.
In Heidelberg, Luther contended that when you come to the cross of Jesus, reason fails. There is a hidden revelation of God in the cross, and you can only grasp it by faith. God told Moses to hide in the rock, because he could not see his face and live; he would just glimpse his back as he passed. Luther said that the cross is likewise a glimpse of the ‘rearward’ parts of God that can only be seen by faith, which itself is given by God. The cross is the biggest, most glorious revelation of God, the heart of human history and the centre of all theology, and yet at first sight its glory is veiled. ‘The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God’ (1 Cor 1:18). If you look at the cross with only human reason to guide you, it will offend you. Why would God send his own Son to die? Why would be punish his own Son? Isn’t that child abuse? How can God possibly be revealing himself in this dreadful event, this shambolic slaughterhouse? These are the questions that our secular world throws at us for believing in Jesus. They put us on the back foot, because we think we ought to give some intellectually respectable answer that will satisfy the proud demands of human reason, but the cross defies human reason. God’s purpose in the cross of Christ was to expose the limits of human reason. We expect God to reveal himself in some vision of glory, power and majesty, but he humbles himself even to death on a cross, in shame and weakness. Why? Because he has to teach proud human beings to be humble, and admit our weakness and sinfulness. Luther knew well the life of the medieval academy, where they valued human reason so highly, but he could see how man-centred it was. The scholastics had argued about so many things in theory in their ivory towers. Catholicism was built on human reason, and its whole theological system put its trust in human ability and merit. All of that has to die when we come to the cross. At the cross we realise that our wisdom is folly, and we must learn from Christ.
But Luther was also undermining another great theme in medieval theology: mysticism. The cross teaches us not to trust human experience. There was a strong strand of mysticism in Catholic belief. You could trust experience, and my spiritual experience is valid for me just as yours is for you. The disciples all had their experience of Jesus, and they thought they knew who he was. They had seen his miracles, listened to the Sermon on the Mount and talked with him while walking in the region of Caesarea Philippi, but then they had to face this terrible day when their master was betrayed and crucified. Even Jesus himself, in his great cry of dereliction on the cross, cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ (Mark 15:34 CSB). Similarly, we can look at our own experience of suffering and conclude that God has abandoned us. So many people have logical reasons for not believing in God, because in their desperate experiences they cannot find him when they want him. The cross tells us not to place our confidence in our experience, but to trust God in the darkness, for the abandonment of that bitter day, when Jesus bore our sins and carried our sorrows, is gloriously answered by the resurrection. Suddenly on Easter morning the meaning becomes clear. God has accepted the sacrifice of his Son, and vindicated him by raising him for our justification. Reason fails at the cross, and experience fails as well. Both of them are shown up in this much bigger revelation of God in Christ, dying and rising. If we will come and surrender to the crucified God, our Lord Jesus Christ, then we will put reason in its place, and experience in its place, and worship Christ, and begin to find the meaning and purpose of our lives in his world.
Luther’s theology of the cross is essential for every Christian, and should get much more attention than it does. It also speaks to two pressing issues in our generation. First, the cross-currents of contemporary biblical scholarship among evangelicals are in danger of leading to a new age of scholasticism, in which extra-biblical sources carry almost more weight than the text of Scripture itself. We think we know what Scripture means because we have analysed the writings of other authors of the period, we have inhabited their world, seen how the phrases and genres of Scripture were used elsewhere, and then allowed the extra-biblical material to have a greater validity than Scripture itself. On this basis, evangelicalism is in danger of slowly placing itself above Holy Scripture, and failing to sit under its complete authority.
Second, in an age of prosperity and individualism, Christians have succumbed to the guidance of their own experience. Society says that we have a right to be healthy and wealthy, and that above all we should do what feels right. The prosperity gospel is simply offering back to society its own expectations and experiences. The whole drive of the church gathering is to provide an experience that feels good, and that people go away moved, though that feeling is based entirely on individual experience (and may have a lot to do with the lights, the music and the coffee!). It is also worrying to consider how often, when churches have to make great decisions, it can be that what feels right wins the day. We are far more led by experience than we are by Scripture itself.
This Easter, remember the great anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation at the end of April, and the way in which Luther called the world back to the theology of the cross. Ask yourself how much your understanding of God is based on your own human reason, and how much it is surrendered to the Christ of Scripture and is humbled at the foot of the cross. Ask yourself how much you lean on your own subjective experience, and how often you find the limits of your own understanding. Then step beyond them to the glory shrouded in shame that is the revelation of God in Christ at the cross, and there you will begin to grasp the depths of Christian theology.
Image: Memorial Plaque for Luther Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 in University Place, Heidelberg, Germany. Anneyh/Wikipedia.