On the theology of the cross

Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall is well known for his exposition and advocacy of a “theology of the cross”–that “thin tradition” (as he calls it) that was first named by Martin Luther, but which represents a minority report throughout Christian history. In short, it’s an anti-triumphalist ethos that serves to puncture the pretensions of the church whenever it tries to secure its being or worth through anything other than the radical grace of God manifested and enacted in the cross of Jesus.

In this lecture–“The Theology of the Cross: A Usable Past“–Hall provides a helpful overview of the theologia crucis as he understands it. It is, he says, “not a specific and objectifiable set of teachings or dogmas; not ‘a theology’–it is, rather, a spirit and a method that one brings to all one’s reflections on all the various areas and facets of Christian faith and life” (p. 2). He does nevertheless identify a set of “informing or overarching principles” that characterize the theology of the cross, which I’ll set down in abbreviated form:

1. The compassion and solidarity of God. This means taking seriously the biblical and christological affirmation that God was in Christ. God is present with God’s creatures and suffers with them; and this is exemplified preeminently in the cross of Jesus. This view denies that classic position that God is “absolute in power and transcendence, and therefore free of contamination by earthly involvements and passions” (p. 3).

2. The cross as world-commitment. The cross shows that God is implacably determined to be for the world. “The cross is at once, for Christians, the ultimate statement of humankind’s movement away from God and of God’s gracious movement towards fallen mankind” (p. 4). Far from offering a path of “ascent” out of the world to some eternal hereafter, Christianity speaks of God’s descent into the very depths of created being. And this precisely because “God so loved the world.”

3. Honesty about experience (Christian Realism). As Luther says in his Heidelberg Disputation theses, the theologian of the cross is one “who calls things by their proper name.” In other words, she takes a frank and stark look at the evil and suffering in the world and does not pretend that they’re really good. Even the cross is not good in itself, but only as a sign of “God’s concealed presence and determination to mend the creation from within” (p. 5). Christians aren’t supposed be happy shiny people who never dwell on evil or suffering; that sort of forced cheerfulness often manifests itself as insensitivity to suffering and injustice.

4. The contextual character of theology. A theology of the cross, Hall argues, is always alive to the particular context in which it is situated. This is in part a consequence of a historical consciousness that recognizes the conditioned and partial nature of all our speculations. It also grows out of a theological impetus for practicality. “It is not interested in pure theory. It is inherently critical of ideology. It drives always towards incarnation, towards enactment” (p. 6).

5. The refusal of finality. In contrast to a “theology of glory,” a theology of the cross recognizes that final redemption is still a future reality and that we as yet see through a glass darkly. Cognitively, this means we live without certainty; ethically, it means that we should beware of perfectionism or a sense of having arrived at our destination. Further, it issues in “human and ethical solidarity with all who suffer,” (p. 7) because the entire creation yet groans in anticipation of its liberation from bondage.

It may seem, says Hall, that those who stand in this tradition are too pessimistic or that they deny the reality or the power of the Resurrection. He responds:

Contrary to many critics of the theology of the cross, this theology does not overlook or downplay the victory of the third day; what it critiques is the use, or rather the misuse, of the resurrection in order to render the cross null and void. And that misuse is by no means a minor thing. Especially in North American popular Christianity the resurrection–or what I call resurrection-ism–functions to turn the religious away from the cross as a thing well and truly overcome. And that means not only the cross of Jesus, but the cross of reality; so that the religion thus mythically bolstered becomes a primary factor in the deadening of otherwise sensitive people to the pain of God in the world. I suspect there is no greater theological task in North America today than to refuse and redirect this false and dangerous functioning of Easter in this society. Rightly to grasp the meaning of Christ’s resurrection is to be turned towards the cross, with understanding, not away from it. (p. 7)

This kind of ethos represents what I think is the Lutheran tradition (broadly conceived, which means it’s not the property of officially “Lutheran” churches) at its best, and a big part of why I find it a compelling interpretation of Christianity and human experience. I just ordered Hall’s book, The Cross in Our Context, and will likely blog more about this.

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5 thoughts on “On the theology of the cross

  1. I’ll be looking forward to your posts on this topic, Lee. This is the theology I gravitate towards, and I didn’t even know it existed as a “thing” till recently.

    Perhaps a bit ironically, since it’s from Luther, to me it’s got the feel of something on the boundary between Catholic and Reformed – I see he quotes Rahner! – which is just where I feel most comfortable.

    Thanks for the PDF link, too.

  2. Thanks, bls. I’m with you on the “boundary between Catholic and Reformed” thing. It’s a big part of what attracted me to Lutheranism. (It’s also something that Anglicanism has in its own way, I think.)

  3. We do. It’s often more than not rooted in the Incarnation. God become human in Jesus Christ means that nothing of creation is beyond God’s concern. It’s not unrelated btw to Benedict’s ladder of humility.

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