The great refusal: against the theology of glory

I recently started reading Douglas John Hall’s The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World, which is an application of the “theology of the cross” (see previous post) to the main topics of Christian theology. Hall begins with an introductory chapter that tries to identify just what the theology of the cross–as understood by Luther and others–is.

Hall proposes to do this by means of the via negativa–the theology of the cross can be understood in light of what it rejects. This is the “theology of glory.” Hall identifies the theology of glory with the triumphalist attitude characteristic of Christendom (i.e., the established status–both formal and informal–that Christian churches have enjoyed for much of Western history).

He defines triumphalism as “the tendency in all strongly held worldviews, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality” (p. 17). It leads to a sense of certainty and of having mastered reality by apprehending it through a neatly delineated conceptual prism. In theological terms, it translates into the belief that we have a complete and accurate theological system that limns the nature of God and provides a ready-made answer to every question. Because of the closed nature of such a system, doubt and outside perspectives need not be entertained (or, in extremis, even tolerated).

The theologia gloriae confuses and distorts because it presents divine revelation in a straightforward, undialectical, and authoritarian manner that silences argument, silences doubt–silences, therefore, real humanity. It overwhelms the human with its brilliance, its incontestability, its certitude. Yet just in this it confuses and distorts because God’s object in the divine self-manifestation is precisely not to overwhelm but to befriend. (p. 20)

In contrast, Luther’s theology of the cross takes the fragility of humanity with the utmost seriousness:

Though he was trained in the humanist tradition, as were Phillip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin, [Luther] manifests a human and worldly orientation that is at least as profound as the humanists. I would even argue that it is more profound than most humanism, because it is grounded not in a vain boast of human potentiality but in a deep sympathy with human weakness and wretchedness….(p. 21)

“Because for Luther,” Hall continues, “human existence is a frail and uncertain business, divinity for him is not first of all sovereign omnipotence (as it was for Calvin) but astonishing compassion” (p. 22). God’s self-revelation is preeminently “in, with, and under” (to borrow terms Lutherans often apply to the Eucharist) human weakness and suffering. And God’s glory, in the perspective of the theology of the cross, is to effect the well-being and flourishing of God’s creatures. This is in sharp contrast to the triumphalism of Christendom, which tried to justify the claims of Christianity in terms of worldly power and glory.

Because of its dialectical nature, the theology of the cross is “anti-ideological.” That is, it is opposed to all closed intellectual schemes that try to fit reality into a set of a priori categories instead of facing it–with all its attendant evil and suffering–squarely. Theology must be submitted to the test of experience in that doctrine should not force us to lie about life. (Think, for example, of many popular theodicies.)

It is easy enough to devise theories in which everything has been “finished”–all sins forgiven, all evils banished, death itself victoriously overcome. But to believe such theories one has to pay a high price: the price of substituting credulity for faith, doctrine for truth, ideology for thought. (p. 29)

Hall concludes this chapter by proposing that we can understand the three classic theological virtues as each negating an aspect of the theology of glory. We walk by faith (not sight, that is certitude or straightforward knowledge), we hope for God’s final victory (but do not now experience that consummation in its fullness, either in our personal lives or in the world at large), and we love God, others, and creation (rather than exercising a dominating form of power).

The cross is the ongoing sign that God does not conquer through force majeure, but attracts through love and works to renew creation through participation in the world’s suffering. The theology of the cross calls disciples of Jesus “to follow the crucified God into the heart of the world’s darkness, into the very kingdom of death, and to look for the light that shines in the darkness, the life that is given beyond the baptismal brush with death–and only there” (p. 33).

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4 thoughts on “The great refusal: against the theology of glory

  1. ‘silences doubt-silences’?

    But seriously, I’m not sure why one would claim that in Luther’s understanding the theology of glory overwhelms humanity when it is in the theology of the cross that we must despair of our own abilities in order to accept the grace of Christ. It seems somewhat backwards. Am I just missing something?

  2. A bit awkward I grant, but that’s actually an em dash, not a hyphen, which makes it a bit clearer I think. So, in other words, silences argument, doubt, and real humanity.

    Regarding your comment, I think what Hall means is that the “hidden God” – the God who is not manifested in power, but in weakness and suffering – is the one who leaves room for faith (and for doubt). I think Pascal says something similar. John Hick too, come to think of it.

  3. The cross is the ongoing sign that God does not conquer through force majeure, but attracts through love and works to renew creation through participation in the world’s suffering

    This, I love. And “ongoing” is a really important (and sometimes unnoticed) point, I think….

  4. Pingback: Theology of the cross as incarnational theology « A Thinking Reed

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