A Review of On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 By: Jordan Cooper MTh Gerhard Forde

's work On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, is the late ELCA theologian's most popular and accessible work. In this volume, Forde expounds upon Luther's Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, which Forde contends is more influential in the development of Luther's theology than the famous 95 Theses. This is not an attempt at a commentary on the disputation, giving background to Luther's debates, an placing the theses in the context of the development of the reformers thought; rather, Forde takes Luther's observations and applies them to contemporary theological concerns and practical ministry.1 Throughout the work, Forde distinguishes between a theologian of the cross, and a theologian of glory. He writes that, “the basic question of the Disputation is stated in this and the following thesis: What advances sinners on the way to righteousness before God? Is it the way of glory of the way of the cross?”(23). As with most of Forde's works, he focuses on the doctrine of justification and how the two diverging theological approaches formulate the righteousness which avails before God. The difference is between religion which attempts to approach God based on merit, or one's internal disposition, and salvation extra nos.2 Human religion is based upon good works, especially those which appear to be honorable to the broader world. True religion, however, is based upon God's work for sinners, and God's works often seem foolish to the culture. Works which appear good are often mortal sins, while works which appear to be evil
1 “[T]he Heidelberg Disputation has never received the sort of comprehensive commentary it deserves. What I attempt here can by no means pretend to be such. At best it might be considered as some reflections on the text of the Disputation.”, 20 2 “Indeed, we can say that there are two fundamentally different types of 'religion.' To use our analogy, there is the religion based on optimistic appeal to the addict's internal resources and that based on the recognition of the need for in 'intervention' from without.”, 30

may be truly good. Forde points to the fact that Luther turns the mortal/venial sin distinction on its head. The decisive factor, for Luther, is not the external nature of a work, but the presence of faith behind one's works. Without faith, all works are mortal sins. With the presence of faith, there are no mortal sins.3 Where Forde's work is extraordinarily helpful is in his critique of various contemporary atonement theologies. In particular, he critiques Moltmann's interpretation of the theology of the cross (though without naming Moltmann himself) as simply an inverted theology of glory.4 He writes, “'Misery loves company' is the prime Christological motif. Christ humbled himself and descended into the world of suffering so we ought to too.”(83). Various liberation theologies have attempted to give an answer to the theodicy problem by altering the doctrine of divine impassibility. In an attempt to give an explanation to human suffering by proposing that God suffers along with his creation. Forde rightly observes that this does no good in answering the theodicy problem. God himself suffering does not make the reality of human suffering any less profound or problematic. This is an instance where the hidden/revealed God dialectic comes into play. The theologian of the cross accepts things as they are, without peering into God's own motives and intentions. “Theologians of glory operate on the assumption that creation and history are transparent to the human intellect, that one can see through what is made and what happens so as to peer into the 'invisible things of God.'”(72) Theologians are guilty of this when they seek to explain God's eternal decree, or give a reason behind God's actions in history. Forde proposes that the answer to suffering is not found in explanations of God's motives, or by altering one's doctrine of God so as to make divinity more sympathetic to the human condition by denying the
3 “Thus the distinction between mortal and venial sin is effectively undercut. What matters is not the degree of sin but whether there is true fear of God.”, 43 4 Moltmann, Jurgen. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993)

doctrine of impassibility; the answer is found in proclamation. “The only refuge is the word of the cross in the here and now. Through the preaching of the cross in the living present, not through theological explanations, we are defended from the terror of the divine majesty.”(75) Forde utilizes his distinction between proclamation and teaching to demonstrate that the solution to the problem of suffering is in proclamation rather than in explanation. In otherwords, “The 'solution' to the problem of God, that is, is not in the classroom but in church.”(75) Though Forde is correct in his assertion that explanations of suffering ultimately do not solve the problem one is faced with, his solution is not adequate. Forde divorces theology from proclamation in a manner that is incommensurate with Luther's own theology, as well as that of Paul and the historic church. Along with Bultmann, Forde prefers to speak of the cross as an “event” to the exclusion of any objective explanation of the purpose and meaning of that historical occurance.5 He critiques the traditional doctrine of penal substitution writing, “It is not simply that a man sent from God is suffering, forsaken, and dying at our hands—as if that were not enough!—but he is a payment to God...in some celestial court transaction.”(76) It is not that Forde is rejecting the doctrine of penal substitution in favor of Christus Victor or another atonement theory, but is in fact rejecting atonement theories—or models—altogether. “Basically all theologies about the cross turn out to be theologies of glory.” He is even willing to say that writing a “definitive theology of the cross [is] impossible.”(3) What is problematic in Forde's argument is that it is essentially an abandonment of the catholicity of the church. Explanations of the atonement are a consistent discussion throughout the history of the church, from Irenaeus to Athanasius to Anselm. Forde dismisses this as an unnecessary part of the theological task, identifying it with being a theologian of glory. Forde

5 On Bultmann's theology of the cross, see: Kay, James F. Christus Praesens: A Reconsideration of Rudolph Bultmann's Christology. (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 1994), 111-117

assumes this position to be Luther's own without reflecting on all of the work that has been done on Luther's own atonement theology, which goes beyond what Forde labels as “proclamation.” This demonstrates a departure from the philosophical convictions of the early church; Forde prioritizes act over being. If the cross is simply “the doing of God to us”(4) the objective metaphysical content behind the cross is lost. There is a false dichotomy at work in this text; one either emphasizes the “event of the cross” as a theologian of the cross, or speaks “about the cross” and is a theologian of glory. I purport that there is no “event” without content behind it, and proclaiming the cross without any explanation as to the why and how is ineffective and useless to its hearers. I am not even convinced that proclaiming an event devoid of content is possible; simply the phrase “for our sins” presupposes an explanation of the atonement, as minimal as that explanation may be. This volume is correct in its critique of modern liberation theology, and the attempt to explain God's motives and character as a means of avoiding the reality of God's wrath and human sin. Forde rightly proposes that the solution to suffering is proclamation carried out through word and sacrament. His interpretation of Luther is at times accurate and insightful, but is often reflective of Forde's own theological convictions rather than Luther's. This is particularly true in regard to the fact that he prioritizes act over being; there is no evidence that such a conviction is held by Luther. The reformers did not reject atonement theories, or pit proclamation against exposition. If one is looking to understand Forde, this book is an essential read; if one is looking to understand Luther's heidelberg disputation, I would suggest looking elsewhere.

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