the practical realities of living into a theology of the cross...

"A theology of the Cross stands in opposition to a theology of Glory" writes Belden Lane in his stunning albeit dense book, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality.  

Calvin, like Luther, was ever wary of a theology of glory, one that tries to grasp God's splendor through an immediate apprehension of theoretical insight. A theology of the Cross, in contrast, discerns God's presence hidden in the little things of the world, revealed most perfectly in the broken body of Christ on a hill outside Jerusalem.
The great Reformers confessed to living into the foolishness of the Cross, following and even celebrating a Crucified God, as the key to God's wisdom.  For those willing to embrace the depths of life's vulnerability, this is the only kind of Savior that makes sense, although making sense isn't quite accurate. It is more like ringing true or resonating beyond the fluff and the bullshit that passes for truth. The lectionary texts from the Hebrew Bible for the past few Sundays have been saturated with just this type of hopeful imagination:  in the midst of despair, broken and frightened people find a measure of new life as they share from their souls and create community in the Spirit of God's grace. This week the Elijah story cycle takes center stage:

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying,“Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 

I am moved, shaken and energized by the tales of the prophet recorded in I Kings. For reasons greater than I can comprehend, I both need this jarring call to God's faithfulness beyond all evidence at this moment in my ministry and am ready to embrace it. Hope, vision and love are clearly hiding in my world right now; they will be revealed in God's own time, but I am truly looking as through a glass darkly. So my task is to stay the course, keep as silent as I can and trust that there is more to be revealed.

Douglas John Hall, one of the great lights of the contemporary Reformed Church, articulated what it means to stay the course theologically in his penetrating book: The Cross in Context. His extended summary of how to live into the foolish wisdom of the Cross is worth sharing at length:

The best way that I have found of conveying what I think this theological method and spirit is all about is by considering these so-called virtues in the light of what they are each negating. Unless the negation of each is understood, the positive statement (the “virtue”) of each is cheapened and made into a cliché. We do not have to speculate about what these virtues negate, for in each case the negation is clearly present in the collected works of Paul; and as the New Testament’s chief exemplar of this “thin tradition” Paul speaks, I believe, not only for Luther but for all who have been grasped by the principles of this tradition.

Faith. What does this term negate? The metaphor that crops up time and again in Paul’s writings is “sight.” Faith, which “comes by hearing” and is precisely a not-seeing. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,”—one of Luther’s favourite texts. The eschatological element—especially the “not yet” side of Christian eschatology—is here strongly present. The theology of the cross is a theology of faith, and while faith is certainly a positive term for Luther it must not be elevated beyond its proper limit. In the act of trusting, the One trusted is glimpsed—as through a glass darkly; but not seen. Faith that is not sight is thus a faith warned against presumption. It is also a faith that is able to live with its antithesis, doubt, and that is in fact dead faith (as Unamuno said) when doubt is no longer allowed a hearing.

Hope. Hope is at once an orientation to the future and a recognition that the present is
still lacking its promised fulfillment. Hope realized is no longer hope. The stance that we call hope is one constantly made conscious of the fact that the present, the hic et nunc, is a falling-short of what is most to be desired. So the hope that is faith’s future dimension is always “hope against hope” (Rom 4:18). As faith must live with doubt, so hope must live with its antithesis, hopelessness, despair. What is hoped for must not be taken for granted, as though it were already experienced reality, already “seen”—for here too Paul resorts to the metaphor of sight: “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24-25).

Love. Love negates many things, as Paul makes plain in the famous hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13. But I think that what must receive priority where this discussion is concerned is power. “Love does not insist on its own way (1 Cor 13:5). “The crux of the cross,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, “is its revelation of the fact that the final power of God over man is derived from the self-imposed weakness of his love.” 

This, I think, is of the essence of this theology, and it is hard for all to accept who think of deity chiefly in terms of power—omnipotence, almighty-ness. But if God is love, then the divine power must accommodate itself to divine love, and not vice versa. And that, for the theology of the cross, is basic.

Such is the foolishness of the Cross for those who follow Jesus:  it appears as folly to those paying homage to the metrics of the bottom line. Hell, it appears as folly to me most days, too. And yet according to the via negativa that Hall applies, it gives shape, form and meaning to this quest, as well. Psalm 30 articulates the challenge of such holy foolishness - and I trust it with my heart even when my head is filled with questions.

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.

1.  Carrying the Cross @
2. Head of Christ @
3. Meditation on Christian Art @


Elmer E. Ewing said…
YES to your posting. YES to Douglas John Hall. YES to my favorite portrait of Christ (by Rouault, one of my favorite artists), which I was able to see once in Cleveland. YES to the image of divine power accommodating to divine love. Yes, yes, and thank you!

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