Superhuman theologies of human achievement and graceless religion are a drag. Then along comes Gerhard Forde and puts a finger on what we already know, but couldn’t quite articulate. Happy Forde Friday!

Glory vs. Cross Part I

Does anyone remember those awful (or at least incredibly cheesy) Christian T-shirts of the 80s and 90s? Budweiser logos re-appropriated to say “This Blood’s For You”? Or how about Jesus, face down in a push-up pose with the cross on his back: “Bench Press This!” Don’t tell anybody, but I may have been guilty of wearing those types of T-shirts in my high school days. It only took a couple years of post-high school religious failure for me to realize those T-shirts didn’t belong in my closet anymore.

Since then, pop T-Shirt Evangelicalism has never sat right with me. Some say the Christian faith is supposed to help you actualize your best life NOW, but for me, the more deeply I understand the gospel, the more deeply I understand the depth of my own need and sin. This realization is a little more bittersweet than it is fist-pumping triumphant. Fortunately, God comes through the back doors of life when we least expect it: in our weaknesses, and failure not our self-assured strengths. Gerhard Forde understood these truths on a profound level, and was able to put them into words with rare power.

In this installment and the next, we’ll highlight Forde’s take on Martin Luther’s theology of glory vs. a theology of the cross.

The Glory Road

The most common overarching story we tell about ourselves is what we will call the glory story. We came from glory and are bound for glory. Of course, in between we seem somehow to have gotten derailed, whether by design or accident we don’t quite know‹but that is only a temporary inconvenience to be fixed by proper religious effort. What we need is to get back on “the glory road.” The story is told in countless variations. Usually the subject of the story is “the soul”; Philosophers speak of the soul being trapped in the world of matter, decay, and death through some cosmic misadventure on the part of either the gods or mortals. The basic scheme is what Paul Ricoeur has called “the myth of the exiled soul.” The soul is exiled from its home. It is slumbering or has forgotten its way. Its true destiny is to return. The way of return is by knowledge, gnosis, the awakening of the soul to its immortal destiny and, consequently, behavior appropriate thereto–which usually means a purging or shucking off of the flesh and its lusts. But through all its variations the scheme remains pretty much the same: the exile of the soul from the “one” and its return. — On Being a Theologian of the Cross (Eerdmans, 1997), p5

The Way of the Cross

Theologians of the cross, however, “say what a thing is.” That is, a characteristic mark of theologians of the cross is that they learn to call a spade a spade. Since the cross story alone is their story, they are not driven by the attempt to see through it, but are drawn into the story. They know that faith means to live in the Christ of the story. Likewise they do not believe that we come to proper knowledge of God by attempting to see through the created world to the “invisible things of God.” So theologians of the cross look on all things “through suffering and the cross.” They, in other words, are led by the cross to look at the trials, the sufferings, the pangs of conscience, the troubles, and joys of daily life as God’s doing and do not try to see through them as mere accidental problems to be solved by metaphysical adjustment. They are not driven to simplistic theodicies because with St. Paul they believe that God justifies himself precisely in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. They know that, dying to the old, the believer lives in Christ and looks forward to being raised with him.

The cross draws us into itself so that we become participants in the story. As Paul could put it in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Just as Jesus was crucified so we also are crucified with him. The cross makes us part of its story. – ibid, p7