Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, and Karl Barth on the Theology of the Cross and its Marginalization of Human Reason

I just finished, for the second time in thirteen years, Alister McGrath’s wonderful book Luther’s Theology Of The Cross. As the title indicates, the book is about developing the historical and theological context in which Luther had his theological and reformational breakthrough; a breakthrough that theologically led to his theologia crucis, or ‘theology of the cross.’ I have found this “breakthrough” intriguing, ever since I was first exposed to it by my historical theology professor in seminary, Ron Frost. Indeed, this topic spurred me on in my Master’s thesis research as
luthercranachI ended up writing an exegetical analysis of I Corinthians 1:17–25; precisely because of Martin Luther’s theology of the cross. For those of you who haven’t been fortunate enough to be exposed to its tenets, I thought I would put this post together to fill in that lacuna for you. Of interest, particularly to me, and maybe to you, is that the various loci or theological contours that make up Luther’s theology of the cross correlate very well with what we will find funding both Thomas Torrance’s and Karl Barth’s theological impulses, respectively. To that end we will look at a quote from Torrance that coheres very well with the emphases of Luther’s theology of the cross, and then we will hear from McGrath as he provides five points that help detail and unpack what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about (we will actually look at McGrath’s fifth point in a separate post from this one since it is long and quite detailed). We will close with a look at Barth’s resonances with Luther’s theologia crucis.

Thomas Torrance’s Theology of the Cross

Here Thomas Torrance is commenting on the type of  rationalist thinking that he thinks is necessary for arriving at the conclusion that the atonement is limited or particular to specially elect individuals (commonly understood as ‘limited atonement’). And then we also have Torrance commenting, in this same little quote, on the inescapable reality of the universal range of the atonement, but not the universal salvation that a rationalist approach must reduce to; which Torrance is, of course, as am I, against! Torrance writes:

The rationalism of both universalism and limited atonement

Here we see that man’s proud reason insists in pushing through its own partial insight into the death of the cross to its logical conclusion, and so the great mystery of the atonement is subjected to the rationalism of human thought. That is just as true of the universalist as it is of those who hold limited atonement for in both cases they have not yet bowed their reason before the cross of Christ.[1]

Not wanting to get mired down in discussion about the merits or demerits of universalism and/or limited atonement, what I want this quote to do is illustrate how Torrance sees human ‘reason’ being put to death, and given occasion to be resurrected by the cross and death of Jesus Christ; again, something endemic to the theology of the cross in the theology of Martin Luther. To that end, here is McGrath offering four loci or ‘places’ that help us understand what Luther’s theologia crucis is all about:

(1) The theologia crucis is a theology of revelation, which stands in sharp contrast to speculation. Those who speculate on the created order (ea quae facta sunt) have, in effect, forfeited their right to be called ‘theologians’. God has revealed himself, and it is the task of the theologian to concern himself with God as he has chosen to reveal himself, instead of constructing preconceived notions of God which ultimately must be destroyed.

(2)This revelation must be regarded as indirect and concealed. This is one of the most difficult aspects of the theologia crucis to grasp: how can one speak of a concealed revelation? Luther’s allusion to Exodus 33.23 in Thesis 20 is the key to understanding this fundamental point: although it is indeed God who is revealed in the passion and the cross of Christ, he is not immediately recongisable as God. Those who expect a direct revelation of the face of God are unable to discern him in his revelation, precisely because it is the posteriora Dei which are made visible in this revelation. In that it is God who is made known in the passion and cross of Christ, it is revelation; in that this revelation can only be discerned by the eye of faith, it is concealed. The ‘friends of the cross’ know that beneath the humility and shame of the cross lie concealed the power and the glory of God — but to others, this insight is denied.

(3) This revelation is to be recognised in the sufferings and the cross of Christ, rather than in human moral activity or the created order. Both the moralist and the rationalist expect to find God through intelligent reflection upon the nature of man’s moral sense or the pattern of the created order: for Luther, ‘true theology and knowledge of God are found in Christ crucified’. The cross shatters human illusions concerning the capacity of human reason to discern God in this manner.

(4) This knowledge of God who is hidden in his revelation is a matter of faith. Revelation of the posteriora Dei is addressed to faith, which alone recognises it as a revelation of God. Luther illustrates this point with reference to John 14.8. Philip here asks Jesus to show him the Father — which, according to Luther, makes him a ‘theologian of glory’, in that he considers that God may be found and known apart from Christ. Jesus then explains to him that there is no knowledge of God other than that which may be found in his own person: ‘Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father’ (John 14.9). For Luther, the ‘theologian of the cross’ is he who, through faith, discerns the presence of the hidden God in his revelation in Christ and his passion and cross — and who is thus able to acknowledge the truth of Isaiah’s dictum: ‘Truly you are a hidden God!’ The concept of a hidden God (absconditus Deus) lies at the centre of the theology of the cross: vivimus in abscondito Dei, id est, in nuda fiducia misericordiae eius. For Luther, Philip represents the tendency of the theologia gloriae to seek for God apart from Christ, unaware that God is revealed in him, although concealed in that revelation.[2]

For Luther, according to McGrath’s explication, as for Torrance, the cross of Jesus Christ and what is accomplished therein, ontologically, in the hypostasized life of God in Christ, accomplishes the putting to death of the fleshy mind, and provides for the occasion of the mind of Christ to be the ground of all thought of God as revealed ‘hiddenly’ in the crucified God. So not only does the cross-work have impact upon all of humanity through the vicarious humanity of Christ ontologically, as applied by the Holy Spirit, but Christ on the cross himself reveals who God is as the humiliated God who so loves his creatures that he is willing to become man, and suffer the consequences of what that means even to the point of being put to death on the cross.

Barth’s Theology of the Cross

In closing I think it would be interesting to look at Karl Barth’s theology in this regard, and observe how well, just as with Torrance, Luther’s theology of the cross coalesces with the emphases of Barth’s own type of incarnational theology and theologia crucis. One thing that is ironic about Barth’s critics is that because of his focus on the ‘hiddeness of God’ and the requirement of ‘faith’ in order to see God in the man from Nazareth, they often reduce his theology to working through the categories of Immanuel Kant and his noumenal/phenomenal paradigm for engaging with reality. It is true that Barth was a modern theologian working in a theological playground committed to a Kantian world of pure reason; but Barth was intent on exploding that playground of the theologians by correcting it with a theology of the Word. More ironically is that Barth’s most quoted theologian in his Church Dogmatics is none other than Martin Luther; I can’t help but think that Barth had Luther’s theology of the cross in mind when he was flipping Kantian “metaphysics” and “analytics” on its head. Bruce McCormack offers insight on Barth’s Kantian context and what in fact Barth was doing contrariwise to it (you will notice the themes of ‘hiddeness of God’ absconditus Deus and ‘revealed God’ revelatus Deus underwriting Barth’s thinking as McCormack describes it in Barth’s modern and Kantian context):

Alas, I thought I had the quote I wanted to use here from McCormack, but I don’t. It is given in Bruce McCormack’s Afterword in his edited book with Clifford B. Anderson Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism. The title of the Afterword is: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth. You will just have to take my word for it, at the moment, that what you will find described therein correlates well with the contours of thought we have been looking at in Luther’s theology of the cross.

So What!

For Luther, for Torrance, for Barth in their own respective ways they all were theologians of the cross; they all believed that human reason and rationality needed to be put to death in order to truly see God. The spectacle (to use Calvin’s imagery) necessary to see God in Christ; to see the hidden God hanging on a tree; was the faith of Christ. How that gets detailed and developed in our theologians is distinct one from the other, but the principle is there. The bottom line is that for all of them, and I would contend for the Apostle Paul himself, human thought on its own cannot conceive of God; particularly of a God who would become human, die on a cross, and rise again from the dead. It is this specter that was so inimical for Luther’s theology as he criticized, in his day, the Aristotelianized theology that placed such a high priority on the human intellect as the place where theological reasoning could peek-out, as it were. Torrance, in his own time, took aim at Newtonian metaphysics, among other intellectualizing modes for knowing God (including Aristotle’s closed system of thought). And Barth, for his part, offered critique of the intellectualized theology offered by Kant, Schleiermacher, and other moderns. For each of them, to one degree or another, the cross of Jesus Christ provided the central way forward, and the necessary move of God, in order for humanity to have the capacity to actually know and see God (encapsulated in this, particularly for Barth and Torrance, was the importance of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ).

So what? I think if we follow the lead of Luther, Torrance, and Barth much of what counts as Christian theology today, given its informing theology found in the Aristotelianized Post Reformation Reformed orthodoxy, will be marginalized, as it should be, by the cross of Jesus Christ and the theologia crucis.

 

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, 187-88.

[2] Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology Of The Cross (Oxford/New York: Basil Blackwell, 1985), 149-50.

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One Response to Martin Luther, Thomas Torrance, and Karl Barth on the Theology of the Cross and its Marginalization of Human Reason

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