The Cross Against Human Glory, by David Engelsma
On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Eerdmans, 1997).
In the book, Lutheran theologian Gerhard O. Forde gives a brief commentary on the 28 theological theses that Luther presented and defended at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. In addition to the commentary, the work is valuable simply in that it makes available Luther’s 28 marvelous doctrinal propositions, in full.
The Heidelberg Disputation was convened on April 26, 1518, a mere six months after Luther’s posting of the 95 theses. The Disputation was a direct result of the posting of the 95 theses. The pope had instructed the head of Luther’s Augustinian order to silence the monk. vonStaupitz instead asked Luther to acquaint the Augustinians with his new, evangelical theology by means of a disputation on certain theses which Luther was to draw up.
Luther came to the meeting with 28 theological and 12 philosophical theses, or propositions. Each of the theological theses was followed by a brief explanation and defense. To the theses, Luther appended an “explanation” of the question, “Is the will of man outside the state of grace free or rather in bondage and captive?” This amounted to an important treatment of the fundamental theological issue of the freedom or bondage of the will of the natural man.
The complete text of the theological and philosophical theses, of Luther’s own explanation of the theological theses, and of the appendix on the bondage of the will is found in Luther’s Works, vol. 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1957), pp. 39-70. It was at the Heidelberg Disputation that Martin Bucer was won to the cause of the Reformation, and captivated by Luther.
Gerhard Forde comments on the theological theses. These theses set forth Luther’s beliefs concerning sin, the bondage of the human will, the inability of the unsaved man outside of Christ to perform any good work, and salvation by grace alone in the cross of Christ.
In these theses, Luther spoke explicitly of the “theology of the cross,” which he explicitly contrasted with the “theology of glory.” Thesis 21 reads: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” The theology of the cross is the biblical gospel of God’s salvation of dead sinners out of mere grace only through the suffering and death of the cross of Jesus Christ. The theology of the cross not only rules out, but also curses all human worth, will, and working that would accomplish or account for the salvation of sinners, in whole or in part. Thesis 16 reads: “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him ADDS SIN TO SIN so that he becomes doubly guilty.”
the theology of glory is the corruption of the biblical gospel, consisting of attributing to man some “little bit” (to use Forde’s description) of cooperation with God in salvation. The glory that the theology of glory is concerned to preserve and promote is the natural glory of man. The theologians of glory are offended by the cross’ exposure of man as utterly helpless in his own salvation and utterly hostile to the God who saves him. The theology of (man’s) glory is pitted against the theology of (God’s) grace.
Forde writes: A theology of glory … operates on the assumption that what we need is optimistic encouragement, some flattery, some positive thinking, some support to build our self-esteem. Theologically speaking it operates on the assumption that we are not seriously addicted to sin, and that our improvement is both necessary and possible. We need a little boost in our desire to do good works. Of course our theologian of glory may well grant that we NEED THE HELP OF GRACE. The only dispute, usually, will be about the degree of grace needed. If we are a “liberal,” we will opt for less grace and tend to define it as some kind of moral persuasion or spiritual encouragement. If we are more “conservative” and speak even of the depth of human sin, we will tend to escalate the degree of grace needed to the utmost. But the hallmark of a theology of glory is that it will always consider grace as something of a supplement to whatever is left of human will and power. It will always, in the end, hold out for some free will (p. 16; emphasis added).
Luther opposed the Roman Catholic form of the theology of glory: “Do what is in you, and God will reward you with grace and salvation.” Basic to Rome’s theology of glory was (and is) their doctrine of the freedom of the human will: the sinner has of himself the ability to choose God and salvation. Against the Roman Catholic theology of glory, therefore, Luther (in 1518!) laid down Thesis 13: “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.”
Forde comments on Thesis 13: This thesis was perhaps the most offensive of all to the papal party in Luther’s day. That is indicated by the fact that it was the only one from this Disputation actually attacked in the bull “Exsurge Domine” threatening Luther with excommunication. Luther’s reply to the bull indicates how important he considered this thesis to be. He said it was “the highest and most important issue of our cause” (p. 53).
Central to Luther’s theology of the cross was justification by faith alone. Luther expressed this doctrine in Thesis 25: “He is not righteous who works much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”
Very definitely and prominently “looming in the background,” as Forde puts it, “always is the troublesome question of predestination.” In its repudiation of free will, Forde points out, the theology of the cross unmistakably proclaims that “we are saved by divine election.” “The cross itself is the evidence that we did not choose him but that he, nevertheless, chose us (John 15:16)” (pp. 50, 51). The protest is always raised, “We aren’t puppets, are we? If everything happens by divine will, how can we be held responsible? We just can’t accept such a God! There must be some freedom of choice!” As Forde observes, “This is evidence of theologians of glory at work defending themselves to the end. They actually admit that they cannot and will not will God to be God (p. 51).
A theologian of the cross, according to Luther in Theses 9 and 10, judges all works done “without Christ” as “dead” and as “mortal sin.” In his own defense of the theology of the cross, Luther condemned as sin, and nothing but sin, every work done by unbelievers:
“Every one who commits sin is a slave of sin” (John 8:34). How is it possible that a slave of the devil and a captive of the sin he serves can do anything else but sin? How can he do a work of light who is in darkness? How can he do the work of a wise man who is a fool? How can he do the work of a healthy person who is ill? … Therefore all things which he does are works of the devil, works of sin, works of darkness, works of folly…. Everything that does not proceed from faith is a mortal and damnable sin (Luther’s Works, vol. 31, pp. 65, 67).
This exposes the “common grace” theologians in Calvinist churches, who approve the works of unbelievers as good and righteous. Outside of Christ, according to the flattering theory of ‘common grace”, is something, even much, that is not accused, judged, and condemned by the law of God, contrary to the confession of Luther in Thesis 23.
“To defend themselves,” says Forde, ‘theologians of glory are always driven to claim at least some freedom of choice and to play theological games, bargaining for little bits. In one way or another the claim is made that the will must have at least a small part to play (pp. 49, 50).
The theological game that many play today, exactly as in Luther’s day, is to concede that “without grace the will (can) do nothing to merit eternal salvation” and to acknowledge that we are saved by grace. But immediately they add that “the will must at least desire and prepare for grace” (p. 50).
In his appendix to the theses that he brought to Heidelberg in 1518, Luther himself passed a devastating judgment upon the theology of the preachers who make the grace of God depend on anything at all in the sinner. “Such teachers attribute nothing to the grace of God except a certain embellishment of our works.’ (Luther’s Works, vol. 31, pp. 67).
Those who believe and confess the theology of the cross are a mere remnant, a little flock. As soon as a a denomination of churches show that they take divine predestination seriously as the source and foundation of all salvation, the churches are surrounded in protests and judgments— “You make us puppets! You make God the author of sin! You deny human responsibility! Hyper-Calvinists!”