Thursday, September 28, 2006

Forde’s “On Being a Theologian of the Cross”

This summer I read Gerhard O. Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, but have just now gotten around to blogging about it.

First, this is not exactly a book about Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation. Rather, as the subtitle has it, it is a book of Forde’s “Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation.” These are Forde's thoughts prompted or stimulated by Luther's disputation, not a study on what Luther thought he was advancing in the disputations. So I’m unsure how much of what Forde writes is Luther, and how much is Forde. This makes a difference, as when Forde, apparently, denies the substitutionary atonement of Christ’s death. (See below.) I actually wanted a book that exposited on what Luther meant in some of the perplexing affirmations of the Disputation. In that sense this book did not help me as much as I had hoped it would.

Still, Forde emphasizes two basic themes well worth emphasizing regarding “being a theologian of the Cross.” The first is an extended meditation on the breadth and depth of sin, particularly as it relates to what we think are our "good works." There is nothing (“religiously”) good in what humans do. “Our righteous acts are as filthy rags,” as Jeremiah has it. It is worth emphasizing that all that we do as good results from Christ’s grace, and not from any worthy inclination or merit of our own. Forde (following Luther, and Augustine, and Paul . . .) admirably spells out the broad implications of this for us. There is no room for boasting. Period.

Secondly, it seems to me that Forde is at his best in writing about what a “theologian of the Cross” says about suffering.

Luther’s 20th thesis is: “That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross.”

The 21st thesis of the Disputation is: “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”

Moderns effectively equate suffering with evil. Philosophy classes discuss “natural evil,” which is suffering caused by tornados, hurricanes and other “acts of God.”

Luther writes: “God can be found only in suffering and the cross, as has already been said. Therefore the friends of the cross say that the cross is good and works are evil, for through the cross works are dethroned and the Old Adam, who is especially edified by works, is crucified. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Tough stuff. To his credit, Forde is a discerning enough psychologist to cut off the back route of our temptation to then glory in our suffering. He writes sarcastically: “Jesus is set up as our model, ‘Misery loves company’ is the prime Christological motif. Christ humbled himself and descended into the world of suffering so we ought to too. If, on occasion, this causes a bit of pain or discomfort, we can tally it up on our ledger of good works.”

Forde, following Luther (such as I know Luther), never lets up on this, cutting off every self-deceiving means by which we seek to claim glory for ourselves instead of for God, and cutting off every human pretense that our works in any way merit any glory at all.

So it is a challenging and worthwhile book in that regard.

But Forde also hit some odd notes, in my judgment. Some really odd notes.

The first is his apparent rejection of the substitutionary atonement. Here’s Luther’s thesis:

“Thesis 19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things that have actually happened (or have been made, created).”

Luther provides only a brief explanation of what he means by this enigmatic thesis. Not one to tread lightly, Forde nonetheless barges in:

“Theologians of glory will claim not only to be able to see through creation but also to see through the cross to figure out the final ‘Why.’ Why did Jesus have to die? Apparently to pay for our failures and mistakes in the pursuit of ‘virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, and so forth.’ Thus, the cross is not really just what is visible. It becomes a launching pad for speculative flights into intellectual space, into the invisible things of God. 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 payment to God (whose justice one has supposedly peered into and figured out) in some celestial court transaction” (pp. 75-76).

This is, seemingly, some sort of hobbyhorse for Forde, and sits very oddly as an ostensible consequence of Luther’s 19th Thesis.

Ignoring the implication that Forde would have to dismiss any number of passages in the Scriptures that relate to the atonement as the suggestions of defective, if apostolic, “theologians of glory,” it is not at all clear that Forde is tracking with the intended target of Luther's 19th thesis.

Reading the 19th thesis simply as an interested laymen, I would think that Luther has Romans 1.18-21 in the background to this thesis, as it pertains to the claims of natural revelation (or perhaps even natural law).

Paul writes in verses Ro 1.20, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”

Note the echoing in Luther’s thesis of “invisible attributes/invisible things of God” and “clearly seen/clearly perceptible.”

Now, without more, it might seem as though Paul’s claim here flies in the face of Luther’s thesis. After all, in Ro 1.20, Paul says that the “invisible things of God” are “clearly seen . . . through what has been made.”

While all of this can be seen by the soul unaffected by sin, for the fallen man, we do not see what is in fact clearly there. Instead we “suppress the truth in [or by] unrighteousness” (Ro 1.18). So here, I would suggest that Luther takes aim at the pretensions of natural theology to deduce things about the invisible attributes of God through that which is seen. Yes, an unfallen humanity could deduce God's invisible attributes through that which is seen, but fallen man can do so no longer, being so in love with sin rather than God that we deny what is right before our faces. (The Preacher of Ecclesiastes seems to make the same connection, “the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives,” 9.3.)

This hypothesis tracks with what I take to be the overarching theme of the disputation (such as I understand it) – tracing the implications of the total depravity of man in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The remainder of Romans 1 then traces the implications of our self-deceiving denial of God's nature.

I have a few other quibbles as well. At one point, seemingly caught up in enthusiasm for his topic, Forde speaks of the believer being indifferent about doing good works (because Christ accomplished all for us, don’t you see). This is a claim that he cannot, and does not, sustain when he gets to chapter 4 and considers that the Christian does good works as a result of what Christ did for us. So, too, he takes a gratuitous swipe at the “third use of the law.” To do so he must intentionally misread it (although he's not alone among Lutherans in misreading it just so he can reject it.)

Finally, I had an expectation – and expectation that Forde isn’t responsible for my having – that the book left unfulfilled. For me, Christology leads to ecclesiology. As Christ took up the cross, so we, too, are to take up the cross and follow him. So I expected a more extended meditation on what it means for the church to “walk as Jesus walked” in regards to the cross, and a theology of the cross. His discussion here was, I thought, a bit perfunctory.


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