free web stats Lost in the Eternity of the Here and Now: <i>On Being a Theologian of the Cross</i> by Gerhard Forde
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Monday, February 15, 2010

On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde

Forde, Gerhard O. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Kindle Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

It is rare that I come across a book which is so well written and complete that I find it difficult to offer valid criticism. Forde’s book elicited non-stop cheers from cover to cover. Much of this can be attributed to Martin Luther’s argument which is the springboard from which Forde leaps. Herein I will evaluate Forde’s success in relation to his stated goals and purposes for writing this book. As with any book, Forde says that there was a void that his work would fill. Where other works exist that examine the Heidelberg Confession, all are deeply couched in the language and the controversy of Luther’s day such that without a deep knowledge of both, the reader would likely be lost. Forde has certainly fulfilled this primary goal. His work is wonderfully brief and uses language easily understandable to Western laymen while remaining true to the Confession’s content and purpose. He considers this an introduction to Luther’s ideas, though if the reader is so inclined, he offers other, more in-depth works for the reader to pursue (78). Every author certainly believes he fills a certain void, otherwise he would not write in the first place. It is the nature of that void upon which I will spend the rest of this review.

One of Forde’s primary reasons for writing is to solidify the language of Theology (48). The “theologian of glory,” the antagonist throughout, is required to modify language in order to make Christianity more palatable, easier to swallow. He calls what is good bad, and what is bad good. In essence, he refuses to say what a thing is. Forde shows how Luther’s argument, using carefully chosen words, destroys the sentimental language of victimization and sentimentalization (44). The heart of the language debate centers on this idea of calling a thing what it is, which is Thesis 21 of the Confession. The clarification in language becomes apparent quickly. In speaking of the works of men, Forde rightly points out that a dead work is much worse than a deadly work (555). Though a subtle point, this concept is important for teachers to consider. Offering men a road to God paved with works implies that works are good, whereas the Bible makes clear that men are saved from their dead works (Titus 3:5). The theologian of glory tells men that their works are deadly, but not dead. Luther destroys this idea by calling all works by mortal men evil, and thus mortal. Their works are not merely deadly, but fully dead. Coming to the cross as the means by which to accomplish works merely continues the false idea that works can be good and meritorious. This is a very helpful reminder for us to not turn the cross into a means to an end, that is, the means by which we are enabled to keep the Law unto salvation (830). However, there are times when Luther’s language seems to get confusing, which goes counter to Forde’s goal; but he is not remiss to address the problem.

Forde explains what Luther means when he speaks of “despair” negatively in Thesis 17, but as positive, indeed necessary, in Thesis 18. His distinction is helpful wherein the former “despair” speaks of that which a person feels when he constantly tries to measure up, making himself acceptable in God’s eyes by his actions. This leads to ultimate despair, for the sinner is never able, even after regeneration, to uphold the perfect Law of God (786). However, the believer must come to utter despair of his own ability to merit the favor of God, which then points him to the grace of Christ (788). Forde acknowledges this is a very subtle distinction, but one that highlights the great divide between the theology of glory versus that of the cross. Ultimate despair, which leads to death, is firmly rooted in the theologian of glory insisting that evil is in fact good.

Forde believes that the “problem of evil” as discussed in modern philosophical debates is firmly rooted in the language of the theology of glory (951). By equating suffering with evil they inevitably group all suffering together. Again, the point is subtle, but Forde rightly argues that not all suffering is evil. The chief example of which is the work of Jesus on the cross; however, he is quick to offer other sources of suffering which are not evil, including love, beauty, children, and everyday life (957-970). Thus, the theologian of glory in his attempt to absolve God as the cause of any suffering denies the very act by which men can be saved, namely the God-wrought suffering of the Christ. Such an observation is quite damning and reminds us to keep a careful reign on our language when discussing God, man, and the cross. In addition to Christ’s suffering, it is through suffering that men are able to know and speak the truth (994). Not all suffering is evil. However, even Forde is not above reproach in his own use of language.

This slight infraction is the only inconsistency in language I noted, but given his explicit goal of being a guardian of language, it is necessary that it be highlighted. Early on Forde calls the “Fall” an unbiblical notion, wherein he defines the “Fall” as the myth of the exiled soul, trapped in the decaying world of physicality, seeking its return to glory (148-153). However, later in reflection on the bondage of the will he says that such reflection allows us to “see into the depths of fallenness,” (626). It seems that Forde rejects the “Fall” as being one of the “holy,” spiritual soul trapped in the “wicked” flesh (seemingly a form of Gnosticism), but rightly affirms the bondage of the will of men in their natural state. He could certainly be more consistent with his stated goal by offering an explicit definition of fallenness, rather than leaving the reader to infer his meaning. Regardless of this singular omission, Forde makes an excellent point that the careful usage of language is key to a right understanding of the Gospel and conveyance of that understanding to others.

Forde is quite insistent, as Luther certainly was in the Confession, that one’s language is of utmost importance. That language allows the theologian of the cross to speak correctly concerning the work of God in salvation. This brings to light the most important of Forde’s goals, that of conveying the truths of the Confession to modern Christians. Forde uses the illustration of two great pillars: on the left the Law of God, and on the right, the love of God (307). For the theologian of glory, such a separation is unthinkable, for he surely thinks that the Law was given to man as a means by which to attain the favor of God by his faithful obedience thereto. However, as Luther moves through the disputation, it becomes exceedingly clear that the two are as far from one another as can possibly be, and that only God can move men from one side to the other. This is of paramount consequence for modern Christians. There are countless churches where pastors preach this demonic doctrine of grace plus works. If accused and pressed, they surely deny it, for they deny the theology of glory. However, Forde astutely observes that by shifting the focus onto abstract concepts like “theology,” those who hold to grace plus works are able to shift blame from themselves, away from their own hearts of death, and accuse an ephemeral enemy (921). However, it is the man, the teacher, the theologian that is ultimately the problem. Thus, Forde provides a sober reminder to his readers, teachers and preachers many of them, that they must always be on alert against becoming theologians of glory. It is a plague, a cancer that originates within the dead hearts of men that seeks to justify oneself by his own works. It has always been the case, though, when man is confronted with his sin. Adam, when confronted by God justified himself in his own eyes, diverting blame to woman, and worse, to God himself. That is one place this book is relentless. It does not allow us to look away from our sin. Instead of the cross being a means by which we attain to perfection, and thereby becoming a mere means to an end; rather, we are forced to look at the very best we have to offer, all our works of supposed goodness, and confess before the broken body of the Christ, broken by God for us, that it was our works that brought Him there. And that work on the cross, though terrible, gut-wrenching, and awful to behold, was a good and gracious act of God. The cross was not evil, but rather it is the mirror by which we see the evil that dwells within. There is no coming to the cross in pride that I have done a mighty thing, even in my belief in its ability to save me, but rather I am rightly broken, cut down and destroyed before the blatant fact that I am death; or rather, that Christ took on my death that I might live, and even that life that I now live, it is entirely by faith in Him who gave himself up for me (Gal. 2:20).

Luther’s disputation seems flawless in its exacting and brutal destruction of the last vestiges of self justification within a heart suffused with sin. Forde does an excellent job bringing to light a great and much needed message for the modern believer. It is very easy for me to look at my works and stand with chest puffed out, head held high, proclaiming that, even by the power of God, I have run the race and proved myself true. Forde, and indeed all theologians of the cross, utterly reject such claims of hubris and instead, with grips of iron logic and the conviction of God, drag us before the cross and force us to gaze upon that which our hubris has ultimately wrought. If only we as teachers and preachers of God’s Word could ever keep before us the horror of our sin, the theology of glory might once and for all be put to death, that Christ might be glorified all in all.

1 Comments:

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