John G. Strelan on the "Theology of the Cross"

There is an article that was published some time ago in the Lutheran Theological Journal (unfortunately not on line–I will try to fix that tomorrow at work) by John G. Strelan, one time professor at Luther Seminary and Vice-President of the Lutheran Church of Australia. The article concerns the “Theology of the Cross” and at the time I first read it, it impressed me no end. Today, not surprisingly, I am less convinced.

It is still an impressive article, however. It begins as follows:

The theology of the cross and the theology of glory are not complementary theologies which we must keep in proper balance and tension. They are, rather, mutually exclusive, opposing, antithetical theologies. You are either a theologus crucis, that is, a true theologian, or you are a theologus gloriae, that is, no theologian at all.

It goes on:

What is the theology of the cross? It is that theology which speaks of God in theological terms (Deus theologicus), and therefore also speaks of human beings in theological terms (homo theologicus). Furthermore, when the theology of the cross speaks of God, it speaks of him as Deus crucifixus and absconditus (crucified and hidden). The concept of absconditus sub contrario is an essential feature of the theology of the cross. God’s righteousness, his glory, his wisdom, his strength, and his salvation are all revealed ‘hidden under their opposites’ — revealed and yet hidden under the opposites: the injustice, the shame, the weakness, the folly, and the condemnation of the cross. The theology of the cross insists that God always comes to us in ways which we do not expect and which to reason and the senses are disappointing, inappropriate, and unrecognisable. So the theology of the cross has to do with God, the crucified Christ, revelation in hiddenness, appearances under opposites, faith not sight, faith not reason, the Word of Scripture, not philosophy.

Today, I must confess, I am with him right up till that last sentence. And then he loses me. Lutherans today are not good philosophers. Name me one good Lutheran philosopher. I am not one, that’s for sure. But why should the theology of the cross be completely against reason? Why should it be completely against philosophy? To be sure, it would be against a great many philosophies–but how can one even express such a notion as the Deus revelatus who is nevertheless still absconditus without a philosophical language in which to express such a notion? And while it may be against a great deal of human reason, is human reason thus unable to grasp the theology of the cross? Really? What does Dr Strelan think he is using when he writes such an article? Is he writing only from faith? Or is he not using his noggin like he told us to when we were students in his seminary class?

The article goes on to enunciate five different points of the theologia crucis:

1. The thoologia crucis is a theology of revelation. Its antithesis is speculation on the created order, for example, or God’s being in itself. God has revealed himself in the crucified Christ; it is the task of theology to concern itself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself. All attempts to know God by way of philosophical speculation are doomed to failure.

2. God’s revelation of himself is indirect and concealed. This is a paradox: how can we speak of concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33:23 is the key for grasping this point: God does indeed reveal himself in the passion and death of Christ, but he is not immediately recognisable as God. What he makes visible is not his face, but his posteriora, his rearward parts.

In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and glory of God — but to others, this insight is denied (McGrath: 149,150).

3. This revelation is to be recognised in the sufferings and cross of Christ, not in human moral activity nor in the created order. Thus both the moralist’s and the rationalist’s search for God is to be rejected. True theology and true knowledge of God is found only in Christ crucified. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of reason to discern God by intelligent reflection upon the nature of human moral sense, or the pattern of created orders.

4. Revelation of the rearward parts of God is addressed to faith, which alone recognises it as a revelation of God. Through faith the theologian of the cross discerns the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ, his passion and cross. This concept of the hidden God lies at the centre of the theology of the cross. Any theology which attempts to find God apart from the suffering and crucified Christ is a theology of glory.

5. God is particularly known through suffering — both of Christ and of the Christian — and it is through suffering that God makes himself known. Notice: God is active in this matter, rather than passive, inasmuch as suffering and Anfechtungen are seen as means by which a person is brought to God…

In summary, then: the theology of the cross means that the cross conceals God and thus signals the end of all speculation about God on the part of the rationalist. The cross is the symbol of judgment over human beings, and so marks the end of all achieving of fellowship with God on the part of the moralist. The cross in the sense of Christ’s cross and our cross which we bear on account of him, is received and grasped only in faith (Althaus: 28).

Well, there is a lot there that one can assent to. And if you look through my presentation on the spirituality of Luther, you will see that there is much there that I have highlighted as being just so.

But again, there is the characteristic rejection of all things to do with reason and philosophy. I am quite ready to admit that most philosophical approaches to theology are skew-wiff, as we say, but nevertheless, it is hard to know how one can do any sort of theology without the use of the ol’ noggin in some form or other. Let us say that reason can be led by faith, and leave it at that. Of course the cross is folly to all conventional reason, but to those who have received the cross in faith, surely we can reasonably speak of it?

The article is a long one, and there is much to be critiqued, but what really draws my attention is the characteristic thumbing of the nose at Rome for her “theology of glory” in claiming an inerrant teaching magisterium. Strelan remarks:

The theology of glory says that reason is a trustworthy guide: by it we can find God apart from the cross. It says that Christian experience can be untainted by sin, and so by it we gain a certain knowledge of God and we can be assured of our standing before him. It says that since the church or a group of people in the church has declared that a passage of Scripture must be interpreted in such-and-such a way, therefore that interpretation is right, a priori, and cannot be questioned. It forgets that while we ascribe inerrancy to the Scriptures, we do not ascribe inerrancy to the interpreters of Scripture — at least, the theologian of the cross does not.

Well, a theology of glory may say these things. But a theology of the cross does not discount the possibility that if God could have endowned a written collection of scriptures with inerrancy then he could have easily endowed (and most certainly has) his Church with infallible teaching authority also. Here I believe Newman has a word or two to say (and this comes from Edward T. Oakes recent excellent blog on the Firs
t Things site entitled “Newman on Conversion“:

A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given… If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have. By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in scepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter, of the Revelation.

You see, sometimes it is necessary to use a bit of reason. Strelan concludes his paper by applying his “anti-reasonable” use of the theologia crucis to the question of the ordination of women. The result is that he elevates to the level of virtuousness what is in reality the plain and simple impossibility of Lutherans ever to come to a conclusive decision on this point. For those who claim that the teaching of scripture is “plain” are accused of being theologians of glory, just as are those who claim the “best proof” of the validity of female pastors is their efficacy in ministry. So Dr Strelan finds himself in a “cloud of unknowing”, revelling in the “hiddenness” at the expence of ever really being certain of the “revelatus”. For in his scheme certainty–even the certainty of faith–belongs always with a theology of glory, and only uncertainty deserves the name of “true theology”.

That way, my friends, lies ruin indeed.

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10 Responses to John G. Strelan on the "Theology of the Cross"

  1. William Weedon says:

    Thus it is blasphemy to search into divine things by our own reasonings. For what have human reasonings in common with them? – St. John Chrysostom, Homily 5 on 1 Timothy

  2. Past Elder says:

    Now, to make the first kind of divine truth known (natural religion; what can be known by human reason)we must proceed through demonstrative arguments, by which our adversary may become convinced. However, since such arguments are not available for the second kind of divine truth (revealed religion; what can be known only because God has revealed it), our intention should not be to convince our adversary by arguments. It should be to answer his arguments against the truth, for as we have shown the natural reason cannot be contrary to the truth of faith. The sole way to overcome an adversary of divine truth is from the authority of Scripture — an authority divinely confirmed by miracles. For that which is above human reason we believe only because God has revealed it. Nevertheless, there are certain likely arguments that should be brought forth to make divine truth known. This should be done for the training and consolation of the faithful, and not with any idea of refuting our adversaries. FOr the very inadequacy of the arguments would rather strengthen them in their error, since they would imagine that our acceptance of the truth of faith was based on such weak arguments.

    Thomas Aquinas, contra gentiles, book one, chapter nine, section two.

  3. Schütz says:

    It would indeed be folly and a theology of gloy to attempt to do theology by means of human philosophy or reason alone or to take human philosophy and reason as our starting point. It is against such an endeavour that both Aquinas and Chrysostom write, and which no doubt Tertullian had in mind when he said “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”.

    But it is folly of an even deeper kind–not simply folly but the end of all rational discourse in matters of faith and in fact the end of meaning itself–to assert that revealed religion cannot be and should not be reflected upon with the aid of reason and philosophy, or that the workings of God are in any way “irrational” or against reason.

    Our unaided reason indeed is unable to comprehend the thoughts and ways of God (“My ways are not your ways etc.”) but God’s ways are not irrational.

    The ability and duty to reflect reasonably upon God’s revelation is a part of our human reality and Christian calling. To shirk these “hard miles” is precisely to reject the cross and embrace a theology of glory.

    My assertion is that not all philosophical reflection upon the nature and articles of the Christian Faith are out of order in the Theology of the Cross. Rather such reflection is required by the Cross, and only the theologically lazy would shun it.

  4. Past Elder says:

    I am reminded of the passage in Rabelais where the guy has his page go out by his horse and curse for him for a half hour since he was too busy to do it himself.

    However, having neither page nor horse, but laundry to dry and a van to vacuum, I guess I’ll have to do it myself.

    Did Aquinas disagree with you in essence? As they say on the street, hell no. What you are missing is not the use of “likely arguments” but the limit and scope placed on them.

  5. Schütz says:

    What you are missing, PE, is that you are quoting Aquinas. To quote Aquinas against the use of reason in theology is in fact the most irrational thing I have ever heard.

    The very passage you quote says that “as we have shown the natural reason cannot be contrary to the truth of faith”.

  6. Past Elder says:

    You might take a look at the previous eight chapters in book one of contra gentiles.

    The statement, natural reason cannot be contrary to the truth of faith, in no way means that natural reason is incapable of error when dealing with the truth of faith nor proposes it as the way to deal with the truths of faith, nor is it against all use of reason in theology.

    Distinguishing Thomas from Thomism is as revealing as distinguishing catholic from Catholic, the latter in either case being loosely based at best on the former.

    However, yours is the rebuttal I expected even as I typed the passage.

  7. Schütz says:

    PE, Pastor Bill and I ascertained that what I am talking about is the “ministerial” use of reason, which is what Thomas was up to and what I am saying is not contrary to the theology of the cross.

  8. Past Elder says:

    Bless us and save us, Mrs O’Davis.

    I am not going to intrude in the discussion between you and Pastor in the other post. Also, having witnessed the introduction of the Roman “dialogue” from the beginning I will not fall into the trap it lays.

    Nowhere in what I wrote or quoted from Aquinas is there anything opposed to what Pastor calls the “ministerial” use of reason, nor is there anything against reason itself, but rather a recognition of the limits of its applicability.

    I assume by “two sources” you mean Scripture and Sacred Tradition (as distinct from tradition as customary usage).

    To the extent one moves away from that one ceases to be Catholic. These two sources are not contradictory either, but represent two streams of the same source, which is the revealed Word of God, some of which is contained in Scripture and some of which is handed down through the authentic teaching of the Church. In this way, it is all Tradition, some of it written and some oral, not unlike the distinction in Judaism between Written Law and Oral Law, which when used authoritatively one can say “It is as if Moses heard it at Sinai” — “written” meaning Scripture and “oral” being largely written too, in the Talmud for the one and the magisterial documents of the Church for the other.

    How else is one to know that driving to synagogue violates the Law, since igniting an internal combustion engine violates the command against starting a fire in one’s camp on Sabbath, zum B.

  9. Past Elder says:

    You might enjoy a paper by a classmate of mine on all this. Laundromat (as we called him then!) unlike myself went on to profess vows and be ordained at the Abbey, was Dean of its School of Theology and Rector of the Seminary, and continues as a professor in the Theology Department. Pelikan is cited too. He doesn’t, however, seem as impressed as you are that the “two streams” were put to rest at Vatican II. Oh well, Catholic is as Catholic does.

  10. Past Elder says:

    You might enjoy a paper by a classmate of mine on all this. Laundromat (as we called him then!) unlike myself went on to profess vows and be ordained at the Abbey, was Dean of its School of Theology and Rector of the Seminary, and continues as a professor in the Theology Department. Pelikan is cited too. He doesn’t, however, seem as impressed as you are that the “two streams” were put to rest at Vatican II. Oh well, Catholic is as Catholic does.

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