Radical Theology and the Theology of the Cross: A Christian Tradition of Subversion


Martin Luther’s theology of the cross though central to the German Reformation did not manage to remain a big influence in the Protestant tradition. Traditions other than Lutheranism sprang up: Calvinism, Anglicanism and soon after that Puritans, Baptists, Methodists and an entire slew of revivalist, holiness and Pentecostal groups joined the choir of the Protestant faith. Luther’s central insight of justification by faith was not lost, but every time a new layer of interpretation was created that obscured its power and dangerous simplicity. Notably, it was detached from its framework of the theology of the cross.

In spite of this forgetfulness, the theology of the cross continued to maintain a marginalized but nonetheless important voice in the bewildering plethora of post-Reformation expressions of religion. But not just religion. Some of the most famous philosophers of our Western tradition have been decisively influenced by Luther’s ideas.

It is a pity that the decrease of importance of the theology of the cross was inversely proportional to the spread of the Reformation faith. Especially when one realizes that the theology of the cross, or theologia crucis, as it is also known, has an impressive pedigree. Indeed Luther’s thought can be traced back to the apostle Paul in addition to being deeply resonant with innovative approaches to theology and spirituality in the medieval period.

Too tough to handle

One reason why the theology of the cross never got much tracking was that this theology, in addition to mounting a spiritual challenge to the individual, sits uneasy with the political establishment. It is too subversive. It functions as an ongoing deconstruction of human pride and the human system of ordering reality and meaning-making. It thwarts all attempts of human beings to be in control or gain power. In this regard the theology of the cross was burden rather than blessing.

Already in Luther’s time people overlooked the fact that the sola fide, i.e. justification by faith alone, can only properly be understood when set within the context of the theologia crucis. Soon after Luther’s death, Lutheran theology took a scholastic turn until Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard each in their own way retrieved important aspects of the theology of the cross thus paving the way for a retrieval of this theology in the early 20th century under Karl Holl–the so-called Luther Renaissance–and, notably, by Karl Barth and the dialectical theologians.

In its deconstructive aspect the theologia crucis seems to have been a forerunner of this other subversive tradition, Radical Theology. The death of God theology of Altizer, Hamilton, Robinson, and others, later known as Radical Theology, did not simply fall out of the sky as a complete novelty. Indeed, early death of God theologians claimed inspiration from Bonhoeffer, who had coined the term religionless Christianity as necessary in a world come of age. Incidentally, Bonhoeffer was a theologian of the cross, coming of age theologically precisely in the interplay of the Luther Renaissance and dialectical theology. Bonhoeffer scholars in the 1970s were quick to make short thrift of the claim by death of God theologians, not entirely without reason. But the link simply is there. And, at the very least by association, so is the link between Radical Theology and the theology of the cross.


On closer inspection there are more connections between the theology of the cross and Radical Theology. Tillich (and even Barth) are, in their own ways, godfathers of Radical Theology. Both of them are self-professed theologians of the cross, precisely in their involvement in dialectical theology. The entire notion of the death of God, a theme so prevalent in Thomas Altizer’s work, is taken straight from Hegel who in turn got it from Luther. Altizer’s work also has a deep affinity with atheist philosopher Zizek’s work who in turn draws from Hegel’s concept of negation. Is it any wonder then that at the Lutheran seminary where I studied toward my PhD I simply stopped marveling at how my Radical Theology-inclined PhD colleagues seemed to seamlessly integrate Zizek into their Lutheran theology.

Both the theology of the cross and Radical Theology seem to inhabit a liminal space where any construction, whether that be the idea of God, the idea of salvation, or the idea of justice, is constantly under threat of being subverted. In this essay, I will attempt to examine the similarities between the two. I will seek to establish a historical link between them, that, if successful, will, on the one hand, legitimize Radical Theology as a genuine theological tradition with actual roots in the Christian tradition and, on the other hand, recover and emphasize the radical nature of Luther’s theology of the cross. Perhaps we will find that Radical Theology stands closer to the heart of the Reformation than so many of the actual confessional traditions and denominations that profess allegiance to the Reformation’s central message.

As a preamble I should make clear that my representation of Luther’s theology of the cross is at the same time influenced by later reworkings and reinterpretations of it. There is no simple original theology of the cross as Luther never worked it out systematically (which of course is the entire point of that particular kind of theology). Besides, speaking of the theology of the cross today is talking about its retrieval through Hegel and Kierkegaard and its rediscovery for theology in the Luther Renaissance and dialectical theology. In all of this, I will approach the subject matter from the vantage point of the theology of the cross since it is closer to my expertise. I have to admit, though, to be increasingly drawn into the creative space that Radical Theology affords to theologians of the cross to work toward renewal in theology and society.

The Theology of the Cross and its Structural Features

When Luther made his discovery of justification by faith, the grand idea that in Jesus Christ God reveals justice in the form of forgiveness that is extended freely to all whose hope is in Christ, the structure of his theology had to change likewise. For justification by faith implied that God is the complete antithesis to the scholastic construction of God. Of course, in Luther’s time talking about God was not merely a matter of talking about constructs. There was no differentiation between the cultural idea of God and God in se.

Regardless, Luther deconstructed theology avant la lettre so to speak. His deconstruction was, given the religious imagination of his time, no less thorough than today or even more radical than the most radical theology voiced today. Indeed, when Luther’s new ideas got traction they did not only form a huge threat for the religious establishment. Rather, the entire conglomerate of state and Church was ruptured, the power of the German emperor diminished, and the Roman Catholic Church no longer ruled over Europe.

To understand what Luther did, we need to place Luther’s notion of divine righteousness within the structural innovations Luther brought to theology. In other words, we need to see how justification by faith is related to two structural features of the theology of the cross on the soteriological and the epistemological level.

Soteriologically salvation (which in Luther’s imagination meant receiving forgiveness for sin and to be restored in relationship with God) is a free gift. As such it is the reversal of the expectation that one needs to earn one’s salvation or at least contribute to it. The basic idea that one has to do penance or pay for one’s transgression is obliterated. This does two things: (a) it brings to light that freedom is a gift, (b) is empties the forgiven subject of self-suffiency. Both are reversals of basic human intuitions. Nothing is truly free and nobody wants to admit they haven’t got it in them.

Connected to this soteriological reversal is a cognitive one. Salvation doesn’t work the way we think it works. Even though the soteriological reversal is acknowledged the old or natural way of thinking is so deeply rooted and this new idea about salvation so radically offensive that most if not all traditions coming out of the Reformation have subdued this insight in new formulae and doctrine that on the surface profess allegiance but at a deeper level resist the free grace offered in Christ precisely by keeping the cognitive barriers in place.

The only way to counter this cognitive bend is to construct a theology that is perennially set against any construction. In other words, theology and especially theology proper (the imagination and construction of the idea of God) must be antithetically constructed. Not only is salvation different from what we expect, Godself is radically different than our theological ideas about the divine. Both soteriologically and epistemologically the theology of the cross represents a break, causes a subversion , necessitates a deconstruction of what we assume God to be like.

Both soteriology and epistemology (i.e. religious epistemology, method, or constructive theology) are subsumed in the theology of the cross under what Luther calls sub contrario. God reveals under God’s opposite, or at least the opposite of what we expect God to be and do. God reveals under God’s opposite, i.e. in suffering, sickness, and death. God’s self revelation in Christ is weakness, powerlessness. And oddly it is in this powerlessness that God conquers sin and the devil.

The sub contrario refers to the revealed God, the Deus Revelatus while the remainder, the unrevealed, is the hidden God or the Deus Absconditus.” The interplay of the sub contrario and the hiddenness is where things get extremely interesting. It is also where Luther’s genius shows itself.

The Hidden god – deus absconditus

Luther brings up the hidden God not to invoke this God as a figure with actual content. Precisely because this Deus is Absconditus, i.e. hidden, there is no role for the Deity with regard to their hiddenness. With this every attempt to base any spiritual or political system on power is cut off from the start. This was the only way in which Luther could address the ecclesiastical and political situation of his time. A rival claim in opposition to scholastic theology on Luther’s part would have merely resulted in a rival claim but would not have dealt with the domestication and systemization of God while this was precisely what had happened in the medieval imagination. Instead Luther only talks about the Deus Revelatus the self-revelation of the self-giving God in the person of Christ in the form of powerlessness.

With the hidden God all talk of divine election, predestination, damnation, wrath, and divine sovereignty recede to the background. All speculation about such matters leaves room for human speculation and thus reduces the emphasis on the divine promise in Christ. Such speculation is always human speculation and thus leads away from God’s self-revelation as well as to the incorporation of God in human systems. Instead of these we get a God who comes in suffering, sickness, and death. And thus, in an entirely new way, and yet grounded in traditions going back to Paul, the death of God is foregrounded in theology. Death, so contrary to human thinking, is presented as the very essence of divinity.

One corollary of the hiddenness of God is that metaphysical speculation about God is discouraged. While Luther by no means wanted to suggest that God does not elect or is not sovereign, in short, that the the hidden God is not real, the hiddenness of God was taken up in various ways in the history of thought. It proved to be amenable to post-metaphysical approaches. Kant’s philosophy, for instance, is an Enlightenment attempt to preserve the notion of God precisely by making God unavailable, i.e. hidden for consciousness. The phenomena, the observations of consciousness, are analogous to the Deus Revelatus while the hidden God is only intuited and postulated as necessary under practical reason. Heidegger’s phenomenology in “Being and Time,” on the basis of his methodological atheism with its attention to the givenness of being is likewise analogous to Luther’s “bracketing” of revelation to what is given with Christ. (I’m not trying to downplay the huge influence of the (Jewish) Hüsserl who was Heidegger’s teacher and the one to develop phenomenology.)

For an observant reader it is not difficult to see how such an attitude that reduces talk of God to the weakness of Christ and leaves the idea of God and its concomitant metaphysical and systematic structuring aside, opens the door not only to a post-metaphysical sensitivity but finds it relatively easy to become conversant with atheism. Luther’s stance vis a vis the hidden God can easily be radicalized to a point where all notions of hiddenness fade out of sight. If you deny the hidden God any epistemological status you are never far from denying the hidden God an ontological status. If at first the hidden God is not talked about, at one point the hidden God loses its sting.

What is often forgotten or overlooked is that untethering the hidden God from theological discourse is a move that is utterly charged in a political sense. As pointed out above, for Luther it was precisely that: an attempt to cut off any use of God to extend apostolic succession or argue for divinely sanctioned and legitimized human rule on earth. Insofar Radical Theology makes the same move of arguing for the death of God it is deeply political, not just metaphysical, esoteric, or theologically (de)constructive. Radical Theology wold do well to pick up on and elaborate this political aspect of its theological labor as such impact is deeply needed in the West. Such work may bring Radical Theology in dialogue with liberation theologies around the world that are struggling for human freedom under the weight of capitalism.

The given god – deus revelatus

But what of Luther’s revealed God? If there is no hidden God, there’s nothing left to be named revelation, or is there? Interestingly, talking of Jesus as the revelation of God works well both under the perspective of the hidden God as non-existent and as the hidden God merely hidden from discourse. Both carry a lot of promise and both are related to each other (and indeed both modes of discourse are found in Radical Theology). This, incidentally, is the point in the essay where Radical Theology takes centerstage, or it must be a very radical re-interpretation of the theology of the cross.

Christ approached through atheism

If we take atheism vis-a-vis the hidden God seriously, there are a number of ways in which this works itself out. For Altizer the death of Christ marks the cosmic and ontological death of God ushering in humanity’s freedom. Indeed, there is no more God since God is dead. Chester O’Gorman just recently wrote a book in which he applies Zizek’s theories to Bultmann’s project of demythologization. The last thing Bultmann failed to demythologize, argues O’Gorman, is revelation itself. Christ is the anomaly that appears within the system such that it ruptures and subverts the system. A third atheistic approach, then, could be to say that the current experience of absence of God is indeed the revelation of God. This is the ultimate sub contrario, i.e. God reveals as non-existence, ergo, God is not. Revelation is then uncovering the myth of the divine. It is linked to the person of Christ in that at the ultimate hour Christ exclaimed: “My God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?” Indeed, we are utterly forsaken and to have that truth revealed to us is the ultimate revelation.

In these examples it is clear that Christ is extremely important, as reference point for the original historical and prototypical anomaly, as the ontological point of reference for the end of God, or as the uncovering, i.e. revelation, of our own hidden knowledge about ourselves.

Christ Approached as Revelation

But we can also take the other strain of thought in Radical Theology as our approach to the Deus Revelatus in which case Christ indeed reveals something from beyond ourselves: God, or God behind God. What is revealed in Christ is then not a radiant power that shines from above to which Christ is the gateway. Christ is then that revelation. Christ is the self-revelation of God. Or, in therms of the theology of the cross, Christ is all the revelation from God there is; he is all we get to know from God; he is all the God we’ll ever know in this life; he is all the God that matters. And this is revealed without remainder. That is to say, beyond this Christ there is nothing to speculate; there is nothing left. Talking about God should focus with increasing intensity and singular focus on Christ on the cross. Metaphysics should be left for what it is as long as we speak of God.

This Christ on the cross reveals us a God with divine marginalized powerlessness. There is no God than this God in the margin who speaks truth to power, truth to lie, love to hate. There is no divine entity away from this revealed God for this is God whose body hangs mangled on a cross. As much as God is not an entity so revelation is not information. Rather with Christ a new ontology of self-giving breaks in that human beings can participate in to the extent that they abandon all self-sufficiency and self-reliance, i.e. their own way of being in this world. This revelation does not provide an encounter with a divine entity that can be approached or approximated through epistemological or metaphysical constructs. Rather it encounters us on an ethical plain that is at the same time beyond our own ethics as Christ is the gift beyond our means that exhausts our imagination and efforts; it shows up as self-giving that is recognized only to the extent we participate in it without thereby implying that such participation is religious in nature. Its characteristic is freedom from self and freedom for the other.

A strong emphasis in the theology of the cross is that whatever it is that is revealed with Jesus Christ, it is always extra nos, i.e. from outside ourselves, that is to say, revelation brings, gives, reveals, does, that which is beyond our capabilities. This is, of course, entirely in line with the notion of justification by faith. Salvation is not ours; it is found in God’s self-giving in Christ, which is the freedom of God. It is for this reason that a most fruitful Radical Theological approach to the theology of the cross will somehow sublate and/or synthesize Christ as the absence of God and Christ as the presence of God.

The dialectic of givenness and hiddenness

There is a certain interplay between presence and absence, givenness and hiddenness. What other is the presence than the body of Jesus both in its literal and metaphorical manifestation, i.e. both as flesh nailed on the cross given for humanity and self-giving community as the present body of Christ? This presence is given with the body of God and thus without remainder. No idea of God is left, no metaphysical imagination is needed because all that God is is given with the body. It is this presence that shatters all constructs of God and forces the hidden God to recede into background. The body is all that is given and it dies.

Whatever it is that is given with the body we do not know because we cannot fathom it. At the same time however it is all we need to know in order to be what we must. With it the hiddenness is no longer of interest since the given body blinds our eyesight and fills our imagination. The hiddenness only leads astray and obscures the purity of the gift. This is so because the gift is total self-giving; there is no remained to be talked about. And yet, the body is mystery. And yet, the gift is not our means. And yet, the freedom is not at our disposal. There is a remainder. The question lingers: Who is this man? There is a certain concreteness to what is absent.

This leads to the insight that Christ is both the presence and absence of God. Presence, because the body is given as the dying body on the cross and the community of the cross that is today the present body. Absence, because the hidden God is not only hidden but also recedes out of sight as the body fills our gaze; an absence that speaks precisely because of the sight. Absence too, because the body is given and completes its giving in the death on the cross. Absence too, because the community of the cross is always a community on its way to death.

Thus Christ fulfills the dialectic of presence and absence. Indeed, Christ is the synthesis of the presence and absence of God. It is at this point where a new Christian discourse might be constructed, inspired by Radical Theology and aided by the structural features of the theology of the cross, beyond theism and atheism.

Four Aspects of the Theology of the Cross relevant for Radical Theology

Drawing things together we can say that there are four distinct features of the the theology of the cross that are relevant for Radical Theology:

  1. First there is the antithetical nature of the theology of the cross. It is closely linked to the postmodern technique of deconstruction so cunningly wielded by Radical Theology. Indeed the theology of the cross is deconstruction before the term was invented. The theology of the cross states that God is other than anything human cognition could come up with. There is no simple epistemological access to the ultimate truth of God. What is more, it comes to us in plain sight and we either don’t recognize it or, when we do, we desire to subdue it.
  2. Then there is the subversive nature of the theology of the cross. Once Luther’s ideas got some traction, earthly authorities that had enshrined their power with reference to the divine, starting losing control. The medieval world turned up side down; the balance of power was changed for good. Wherever human systems lose their grip on the gods and are no longer able to domesticate them or integrate them in their pyramidal structures of power, there edifices crumble too.
  3. The hidden God motif of the theology of the cross opens up on a post-metaphysical horizon that has no need of angels, demons, cherubs, or heavenly realms. These things are obsolete with the givenness of God in the body on the cross. After heaven has passed away there is still something to be talked about.
  4. In the theology of the cross the death of God takes centerstage as the one incomprehensible mode of self-revelation that gives us the gift of God. This death is not merely an event; it both brings us God and takes the imagined God away. And then God dies. There is so much surplus of meaning here and Radical Theology has already made good use of it.

Both the theology of the cross and Radical Theology are structurally theologies of the margin since they have taken God out of the human system and nobody likes that. Both speak truth to the center of power be it political or religious. Both, because of their deconstructive and subversive nature, are deeply transformational both on a social and a personal level. Both occupy the liminal space of the given that is impossible and the impossibility that is given. Both complete their movement in giving and death.

Two areas where the Theology of the Cross and Radical Theology might be at odds with each other

There are two points on which Radical Theology and the theology of the cross might potentially part ways. One is that Radical Theology often dispends too easily with God. It is a typical Western feature of the Radical Theology to have no need of God. Only people who live in an affluent society can contemplate God’s death. Only they can afford the luxury of playing with the idea of God. In that regard the theology of the cross stands closer to those in the margin. It seems to have more affinity with Liberation Theology. The downtrodden and exploited of this earth cannot afford the luxury of doubting God since God is their last hope and stronghold. Radical Theology would make the right move by identifying capitalism as the God of this age and go after it with their entire arsenal.

Secondly, the theology of the cross insists on an extra nos, an outside ourselves. The central insight of the Reformation was that salvation (whatever that is) is something that lies outside our abilities. We do not have the means to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. As humanity we are curved into ourselves and are blind and lost. When Radical Theology completely discards the notion of God, the extra nos is gone too. It would be Radical Theology’s loss to lose this central claim as it holds promise for human transformation and keeps up open to the unknown.


Radical Theology is, of course, first and foremost a phenomenon of the post-World War II cultural milieu. It is an explicit acknowledgment of the fact that in a secular age the concept of God as a huge invisible entity has been eclipsed. The movement’s continuation runs in sync to developments in Continental philosophy today. It is probably safe to say that without widespread disbelief in the West, Radical Theology would have never come into development. In this regard, Radical Theology answers the prophetic call of Nietzsche and even fulfills it.

Yet, reducing Radical Theology to merely a contemporary phenomenon would do it great disservice. Radical Theology has a long lineage that goes back to the theology of the cross and through it back to Paul of Tarsus and Jesus of Nazareth. The cross of divine foolishness and marginalized weakness has been the most subversive and deconstructive symbol of Western history regardless of the many ways in which it has been domesticated.

And this is good news because it means that ultimately Radical Theology is deeply Christian. It is rooted in a tradition of subversion and carries it forward. In that sense the theology of the cross provides support for Radical Theology making clear that the marginalization of the latter in academic circles is far from justified. On the other hand, Radical Theology can also be of help to the theology of the cross in that it helps theologians belonging to the latter camp to return to their original mode of radical deconstruction. And both theologies can help each other to think through what it means to do theology in the middle of the capitalist empire.

When Luther differentiated between the hidden and the revealed God, he untethered the Gospel from the use of God as the grounding foundation for human civilization, culture, and politics. By breaking Gospel and system, Christ and sovereign God, apart from each other, he was one of the very first to open the door to atheism. After all, a civilization that can no longer call on God to ontologically ground its power structure, soon has no need for God. Such a civilization will seek to find another grounding and has indeed found it in the free market economy.

A positive corollary of this is that the Gospel is freed from constraints of domestication. It can truly speak of freedom and truly speak truth to power. In the end, the Gospel lies beyond the use of (hidden) God to ground systems and ontological constructions of reality. Any such use is ontotheology (a term coined by Heidegger) and leads invariably to the domestication of God and the subjugation of others. And so, in a very deep sense, the Gospel has something in common both with atheism (contra the grounding ontotheological God) and faith (pro the revelation of freedom and self-giving in Christ). And in maintaining this the theology of the cross has always already been a kind of Radical Theology well before the term was invented.

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