Indeed, Martin Luther, the great reformer was well known for nailing his 95 theses on the Wittenberg castle’s door or his famous confession before the Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, I can do no other!” However, there is another important legacy of Luther which is not so well-known: the Heidelberg Disputation. Pope Leo X wanted Luther disciplined so he ordered Johann Staupitz, the head of the Augustinian Order to do it. But instead of disciplining Luther, Staupitz invited him to present his thoughts to the gathering at Heidelberg. Luther produced forty-two theses for that occasion.
The main question Luther addressed was: How can we know God? The most natural response is to look at creation, spiritual experiences or miracles i.e. through what is visible. Imagine if we know God through creation, the people who knew him best would be those who understand the science of the universe. Or imagine we knew God through spiritual experience then we would boast, “I know God through my intelligence or my spirituality or my morality or my power etc.” It would lead to pride and this pride would then obscure the glory and grace of God.
If we cannot know him through what is visible, then can we know him at all? Luther’s answer is this: God is known through what is contrary or in a hidden way. God’s invisible attributes are revealed in suffering and the cross: glory in shame, wisdom in folly, power in weakness, victory in defeat. In short, God is known through the message or the theology of the cross. This theology contrasts the theology of glory which, when divorced from the cross, belittles suffering, and results in the empty pursuit of wisdom, experience and miracles. Like the religious leaders at the cross, mistaken theologians of glory think that God’s power should be displayed the same way that human power is displayed: in a powerful act in which Jesus comes down from the cross (Mark 15:29-32). But it was the Roman centurion who, by faith, was able to see God’s glory revealed in the suffering and abandonment of Jesus (Mark 15:39).
So, the cross upsets all human ideas of glory. The message we proclaim is foolishness and weakness in the sight of the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
Does the theology of the cross still matter to us today? To Luther it is the foundation of knowing God. We know him not primarily through mystical insight, theological wisdom or supernatural visions etc. We know God through the message of the cross. How do we know the power of God? Answer: through the message of the cross and not through healing miracles or managerial skill or megachurches or inspirational leaders or sociological theories. We need to dump our worldly ideas of success, our preoccupation with numbers and size and embrace the theology of the cross. The Cross still matters, and not just for theology’s sake; the whole of the Christian life here on earth is to be cruciform or cross-shaped (Galatians 2:20)
May God help us to hold on to this precious legacy of the Reformation.
Rev. Mark Tay