Theology of the Cross

Christianity’s defining symbol is the cross where Jesus Christ was crucified at the climax of his ministry. At the center of a religion of hope, joy, and love is an image representing death, failure, and pain, and this paradox is central to the meaning of the Christian religion. Most broadly, a ‘theology of the cross’ is simply a theology that takes the image of the cross, and the event that took place upon it, extremely seriously. It also means viewing Christ’s death on behalf of sinners – what in theology is called the atonement – as the climax and center of his work in the world.

Martin Luther took the implications of this emphasis on the cross one step further, with profound effect. He understood the image of Jesus’ death on the cross to reveal not just the mechanism of salvation but a fundamental principle about life and about God. He came to believe that God always works ‘under his opposite’ (sub contrario), and that we see this in the crucifixion, where God’s victory was in his defeat and life came about precisely through death. As Luther puts it, it is the principle that:

God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead… He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. (Luther, Weimar Ausgabe 1, p. 183f)

A ‘theology of the cross’ (theologia crucis) in this sense contradicts the assumptions we normally have about life. It says that God is most reliably present not in our strengths or our successes or the things we like best about ourselves. Rather, God is present and working in the world exactly in the place where a person is falling apart, where they are discovering the limits of their power instead of its possibilities. It also means that God is always involved with people and situations exactly as they currently are, instead of as they could be or might be or used to be.

The New Testament is shot through with the theme of ‘theology of the cross’. In addition to the crucifixion itself, we see it in Jesus’ preference for sinners, outcasts, and hypocrites, in his humble and unexpected origins, and in his teaching that the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matt. 20:16; Luke 13:30). It is also present particularly in St. Paul’s reflections on wisdom, and foolishness, and the message of ‘Christ crucified’ in 1 Cor. 1, and his insight that God’s power ‘is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12:9).

Gerhard Forde has pointed out that Luther prefers to speak not of ‘theology of the cross’ but of people being ‘theologians of the cross’. His point is that when we make a principle out of the cross it can become a new way of trying to have control over God and our lives, and this illusion of control is actually the opposite of a theology of the cross. Another way of putting this is that it is a theological truth that is truly understood only through life experience.