Tale of two stories

For background, read this post on Lutheran Paradoxes not “Lutheran Worldview”.

Today’s post digs a little deeper, but is critically important to spiritual growth. We use the terms theology of glory and theology of the cross. The theology of glory (which we oppose) focuses on our efforts to help us attain glory, even now. For us, the focus for our lives is on the theology of the cross. For us, glory is the ultimate when we are in heaven. The cross is not just a helping point to escape this life. Rather, the cross of Jesus is central, and it draws us into the cross which defines our lives.

Theology of Glory

The last post raised some fascinating, even disturbing questions about spiritual growth. In particular the question about where do we find spiritual growth often gets a quick answer—on the mountaintop. The mountaintop experiences are indeed wonderful. We would like to remain there. And if not, then at least build a memorial there.

This last Sunday we read about that as part of Transfiguration Sunday worship. On the mountain where Jesus was transfigured and was talking with Moses and Elijah, we read Peter’s response to this:

Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it’s good for us to be here! Let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Luke 9:33 HCSB)

Peter didn’t want it to end. “Here is the real deal!” Then Luke includes the comment after this: “not knowing what he said.”

The theology of glory wants the mountain top experience. The theology of glory is inviting, seductive, and deceiving but eventually destructive. Martin Luther grappled with this distinction throughout his life. The more he studied Scripture the more clearly he saw that it pointed to the truth of the theology of the cross and the challenge of fighting against the theology of glory. Gerhard Forde summarizes Luther’s writings, in his book On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputations, 1518 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997). He sets the stage for the conflict between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross:

The most common overarching story we tell about ourselves is what we will call the glory story. We came from glory and are bound for glory. Of course, in between we seem somehow to have gotten derailed —whether by design or by accident we don’t quite know—but that is only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort. What we need is to get back on “the glory road.”

The glory story, the myth of the exiled soul, is a powerful story. After all, the dream of the soul’s indestructibility is attractive and comforting. (Gerhard Forde, p. 5)

So where does the cross fit into this understanding? Forde continues:

Indeed, so seductive has the exiled soul myth been throughout history that the biblical story itself has been taken into captivity by it…. The cross, of course, can be quite neatly assimilated into the story as the reparation that makes the return possible. And there we have the tightly woven theology of glory! (Forde, p. 6)

It would seem almost right. And yet the cross is the very point of contention. Forde expands on this tension:

This fateful amalgamation of the glory story with the cross story is the hidden presupposition for the deadly combat between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. Indeed, one of the difficulties in the attempt to set the theology of the cross apart from the theology of glory is that the differences are often very subtle. Obviously they use much the same language in Christian theological circles. (Forde, 6-7)

Those subtle differences and the same language can confuse us, lead us astray. And so we turn to the theology of the cross to get a better grasp of what it entails.

Theology of the Cross

That last quote will be the challenge for us as we examine what the theology of the cross is and why we struggle with spiritual growth when we are seduced by the theology of glory.

Cranach and the Theology of the Cross

Cranach and the Theology of the Cross

The theology of the cross arises out of the realization that it is simply disastrous to dissolve the cross in the story of glory… The cross insists on being its own story. It does not allow us to stand by and watch. It does not ask us to probe endlessly for a meaning behind or above everything that would finally awaken, enlighten, and attract the exiled, slumbering soul. The cross draws us into itself so that we become participants in the story. As Paul put it in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Just as Jesus was crucified so we also are crucified with him. The cross makes us part of its story. The cross becomes our story. That is what means to say, as Luther did, “The cross alone is our theology.” (Forde, p. 7)

The theology of the cross turns our world upside down. Whereas we wanted to stay with Peter on the mountaintop, Jesus invites us into the valley, the life of the cross, where we are crucified with Christ. We want to elevate ourselves (theology of glory), God wants to make us in Christ’s image through the cross. The mountaintop is so appealing, so inviting, so serene…

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. (1 Corinthians 1:18 HCSB)


How often do we think that “if only this hadn’t happened, then I could be useful in God’s work”? Or “as soon as I can get back on my feet, then I can serve God”? Probably more than we want to admit.

But notice how those are questions of the theology of glory, what we can do to help on the way. Note the desire to help can be good, but the questions above presuppose that we can be the ones who help ourselves and others to spiritual maturity, rather than Jesus as the one who does it. In the Bible the one who is weak is the one that God uses.

Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29 HCSB)

Paul uses himself as an example in his second letter to the Corinthians. In the eyes of the “super apostles” Paul was not too much to brag about (2 Corinthians 11:11-20). But then he lists his “credentials,” beginning with these words: “I say this to our shame: We have been weak.” ( 2 Corinthians 11:21). His credentials include every kind of harassmeant, punishment, points of despair—in other words, his credentials are evidence of the cross in his life.

The amazing thing is that at our weakest point, perhaps when we are still recovering from wounds, that is the point where God is working and will work and use you. When others who are hurting, they can’t even look to the mountaintop, but they can see something different in our lives, the struggles, the weakness, the challenges.

In other words, the theology of the cross.

Some questions then arise: So is my suffering meritorious? What does the cross have to do with my suffering (if he’s paid for my sins, why do I have to suffer)? Maybe you have your own questions.

(Special thanks to Emily Cook for reviewing this post and offering the last two questions)


About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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