Recently someone asked me about the difference between a theology of the cross and a theology of glory. Let me briefly explain. The theology of the cross has its roots in St. Paul who in his 1st Epistle to the Corinthians spoke about the cross of Christ as foolishness to the philosophers and an affront to religion.
The theology of the cross really started, however, with Martin Luther, who, opposing the scholastic theology of his day with its mastery of the known universe and philosophical analysis of the being of God, developed the theology of the cross as that which renders human reason mute (when self-confident) while at the same time creating space for the real presence of God in Christ. For Luther, God is the hidden God, who reveals Godself under God’s opposite: suffering, human flesh, sickness, torture, death. God is known as Christ on the cross. The Christian life, too, is marked by this hiddenness. God often feels absent from the affairs of every day. Suffering comes to all, especially, or so it often seems, to those who belong to Christ. This is how Luther made sense of revelation, the Christian life, but also justification by faith. Grace is not something earned or something that is reasonable. It’s operation is beyond human grasp. That’s what grace means. The righteous are justified by grace through faith.
Calvin, on the other hand, was much more focused on God’s glory. Calvin’s (and especially the Calvinists’) emphasis on the predestining God is an attempt to penetrate behind the mystery of God. There is an implicit claim that it is possible for the human mind to think through the nature and works of God. God is glorious, sovereign, Lord of all, etc. for Calvin, whereas Luther was content to speak of God as the One who present in the suffering Jesus. Speaking of God as glorious is one thing, of course, but thinking to be able to analyze what this means is altogether another matter.
The theology of the cross and the theology of glory are two ways of approaching revelation, God, and the Christian life. Throughout history and even in our day, you can observe this difference. Karl Barth, for instance, in his attempt to thwart the self-sufficiency of modernist reason in the form of 19th-century theological liberalism, used a philosophical model in which the glorious God is so wholly other that there is no way we can ever fathom who God is or grasp revelation. God reveals only indirectly. Behind everything that we label revelation or an act of God, God turns out to be gone, vanished. Indirect for Barth means that God is never tangible present in our reality. It is ironic that Barth attempts to go against reason by means of a glorious God (hidden behind a hidden One). The presentation of God as Wholly Other doesn’t sit easily with his insistence that God really reveals. Hence, his theology is marked by a certain irrationalism.
Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, revived a true theology of the cross. He too resisted liberalism’s attempt to reduce revelation to a human possibility but did so by making Christ the center of the tangible and real presence of God among humanity. Bonhoeffer gave priority to revelation not by making an irrational move (“you just gotta believe it, there is no reasonable way to get there”) but by making Christ the center of an encounter that needs to be accepted on its own terms. There is reason involved, but it is chastised reason. As for Luther, for Bonhoeffer God is simply present in Christ and Christ is simply present in the Church. In Christ, God is tangibly present. We cannot and should not say more about God than is given to us in Christ. You get to God by participating in the community of faith through which you encounter the living Christ. In Christ, God is “haveable” and graspable. Bonhoeffer also gave a new twist to the theology of the cross. It did not merely indicate the hiddenness of God or the hiddenness of the Christian life. For Bonhoeffer it also meant, joining with Christ in existing for the other, even, and especially, when this entails suffering. We express God’s hiddenness as expressed in Christ through our own lives and bodies.
The theology of the cross continues to captivate people’s imagination, as it does mine. But the theology of glory is never far away. Think of evangelicalism in North America with its self-sufficient knowledge concerning all things doctrinal. Biblical inerrancy is the trick that is performed to gain access and dominion to absolute divine truth. One can also think of Christian Apologetics that considers itself able to prove the existence of God. For all its good intentions, its approach is just that of human reason against human reason. It uses the supposed “thinkability” of God to think God after human thought. It usually doesn’t convince people of the truth in Christ and falls itself always short of that truth without recognizing this.
The theology of the cross continues to be relevant today as it shows an affinity with the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment project and modernity. It only doesn’t stop where postmodernity stops. The theology of the cross is also consonant with the honest existential experience of many people in our society today who experience the absence rather than the presence of God. A theologian of the cross will say that this experience of absence might well be an indication of the hidden presence of God, for after all God is hidden in God’s opposite.