Martin Luther was a lover of binary alternatives in theology. One set of binary alternatives is set forth in his Heidelberg Disputations, in which he drew the distinction between the Theology of the Cross (Theologia Crucis) and the Theology of Glory (Theologia Gloriae). In Martin Luther’s mind, you could be either one or the other. However, he failed to recognize the existence of other dimensions to theology and, in his failure, pointed the Protestant Reformation in the wrong direction.
The Heidelberg Disputations are a set of 28 theological theses and 12 philosophical theses defended before the Augustinian Brotherhood, of which he was a member. While the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses to the Wittenburg door is thought to be the event that sparked the Protestant Reformation, a case could be made that Luther’s Heidelberg Disputations had the more far-reaching theological implications. The key to understanding Luther’s theology is found in theses 19 – 22.
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 which have actually happened [Rom. 1.20].
20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.
Luther begins by arguing that we cannot know God in His essence through the created order. The theologian who claims to perceive and know the mind of God is what Luther calls the theologian of glory and is making a god for himself in his own image. This is most certainly true. However, Luther then states that God can only be known through suffering and the cross, totally ignoring Christ’s bodily resurrection as the first fruits of the general resurrection.
Luther’s faulty argument for Thesis 20 is unconvincing.
He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
The “back” and visible things of God are placed in opposition to the invisible, namely, his human nature, weakness, foolishness. The Apostle in 1 Cor. 1[:25] calls them the weakness and folly of God. Because men misused the knowledge of God through works, God wished again to be recognized in suffering, and to condemn wisdom concerning invisible things by means of wisdom concerning visible things, so that those who did not honor God as manifested in his works should honor him as he is hidden in his suffering. As the Apostle says in 1 Cor. 1 [:21], “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isa. [45:15] says, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself.”
So, also, in John 14[:8], where Philip spoke according to the theology of glory: “Show us the Father.” Christ forthwith set aside his flighty thought about seeing God elsewhere and led him to himself, saying, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” [John 14:9]. For this reason true theology and recognition of God are in the crucified Christ, as it is also stated in John [14:6 and] 10[:9] “No one comes to the Father, but by me.” “I am the door,” and so forth.
Do you see what Luther did there? He uses passages of Scripture to proof-text his point, although the passages in question don’t say what he implies. Let us look at 1 Cor 1:21. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” Luther then argues that this passage teaches we can only know God “in the humility and shame of the cross.” But this passage says nothing of the kind. Perhaps Luther presumed his hearers would automatically consider the immediate context, in which Paul states: “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23a). Or shortly thereafter, when Paul states: “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2) But the cross is not the highest good (summum bonum) in Paul’s theology, as he makes clear later in this epistle.
12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: 14 And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. 16 For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: 17 And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. 18 Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. 20 ¶ But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. 21 For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. (1 Cor 15:12-23)
The point of the Cross was not the death of Christ, but rather that the Christ was united to our humanity in everything, including death, but because the Christ was also God Almighty, His humanity could not be held by the grave. Through His rising from the dead, Jesus Christ opened the doors to Hades, led captivity captive, and is become the proof of our bodily resurrection. The Cross was not the highest good, but merely a means to an end — not the salvation of our souls, but the resurrection of our fleshly and ensouled bodies.