The Purest Theology

Martin Luther once said, “the cross of Christ is the only instruction in the Word of God there is, the purest theology.” For Luther, the cross was far more than a saving event though of course he affirmed that it was central to salvation. His argument went far deeper. He believed that the cross was the central event of theology, the definitive act of God’s revelation and self-identification.

Calvary was a game changer. The Triune God is now and forever the “God of the cross.” As Robert Kolb states, the cross is “where human beings can see what God’s experience, God’s disposition—even God’s essence— really are.” If we would find God, Kolb says we must look in the most unexpected places. We find him as a “child in a crib, as a criminal on a cross, and as a corpse in a crypt.”

Luther based these theological assertions on his reading of Paul, particularly the Corinthian correspondence. Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 1-2 that the cross destroys our perceptions of reality and redefines everything. Wisdom, power and glory are now foolishness, weakness and humility. The cross turns the world on its head.

If the cross becomes our center and we orbit about the Crucified God things will never be the same. We will see with a different lens. We will make decisions that won’t make sense to others. We will value things that are often despised. We will recognize God in places we’ve never seen him before. We will embrace a cruciform existence and in small ways reflect the heart of this humble God.

The Shocking Symbol of Christianity

The cross is about divine self-identification. Calvary is God’s chosen location for articulating his character, heart, and intentions to the world. This was a provocative choice for revealing himself. Paul calls the cross ‘folly’ and a ‘stumbling block.’ God intentionally chose a very difficult and shocking symbol. In this post, I want to share with you a small portion of an excellent book that captures the offensive nature of the cross. The following block of quotation comes from Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1977, 1-10).

In I Corinthians 1.18 Paul says that in the eyes of ‘those who are perishing’, the ‘word of the cross’ is ‘folly’. He goes on to emphasize the point further in v. 23 by saying that the crucified Christ is a ‘stumbling-block’ for the Jews and ‘folly’ for the Gentiles. The Greek word, which he uses here does not denote either a purely intellectual defect nor a lack of transcendental wisdom. Something more is involved.

Justin puts us on the right track when he describes the offence caused by the Christian message to the ancient world as madness, and sees the basis for this objection in Christian belief in the divine status of the crucified Jesus and his significance for salvation: ‘They say that our madness consists in the fact that we put a crucified man in second place after the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of the world’ {Apology 1,134).

Justin later concedes that demons have caused stories to be told about miraculous powers of the ‘sons of Zeus’ and of their ascensions to heaven, ‘but in no case…is there any imitation of the crucifixion.’ It is the crucifixion that distinguishes the new message from the mythologies of all other peoples.

The ‘folly’ and ‘madness’ of the crucifixion can be illustrated from the earliest pagan judgment on Christians. The younger Pliny, who calls the new sect a form of amentia (Epistulae 10.964-8), had heard from apostate Christians that Christians sang hymns to their Lord ‘as to a god, and went on to examine two slave girls under torture. Of course the result was disappointing: ‘I discovered nothing but a perverse and extravagant superstition.’

It must have been particularly offensive for a Roman governor that the one who was honored ‘as a god’ had been nailed to the cross by the Roman authorities as a state criminal. His friend Tacitus speaks no less harshly of a ‘pernicious superstition’ and knows of the shameful fate of the founder: Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate. The ‘evil’ which he instigated spread all too quickly to Rome, ‘where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.’

Augustine has preserved for us an oracle of Apollo recorded by Porphyry, given in answer to a man’s question what he can do to dissuade his wife from Christian belief.  The god holds out little hope: ‘Let her continue as she pleases, persisting in her vain delusions, and lamenting in song a god who died in delusions, who was condemned by judges whose verdict was just, and executed in the prime of life by the worst of deaths, a death bound with iron.’

This oracle, originally in Greek, admirably confirms the verdicts of Pliny, Tacitus and Caecilius. The one whom Christians claim as their God is a ‘dead God’—a contradiction in itself. And if that were not enough, he had been condemned justly, as a criminal, by his judges in the prime of life, i.e. before his time, to the worst form of death: he had to endure being fastened to the cross with iron nails.

All this evidence shows us the constantly varying forms of abhorrence at the [message of the cross]. In comparison with the religious ideals of the ancient world the Christian message had inevitably to be described in Suetonius’ words as a ‘new and pernicious superstition.’ These accounts, with their marked contemptuous characterizations, are no coincidence. The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’ ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the ideas of God held by educated people.

A crucified messiah, son of God or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish.

God’s Upside Down Mission Strategy

Paul once stated that the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world  (1 Cor 1:18-31). His point, God’s choice of strategy for enacting his saving plans makes no sense to the world. This foolish wisdom is seen clearly in the incarnation, the cross, and the selection of the twelve disciples. Last year, I spent some time working on the theme of the twelve disciples and God’s upside down mission strategy. Here is the document: The Choice of Twelve: God’s Strange Mission Strategy.

The Folly of the Cross

At the cross wisdom is forever redefined. It does not seem wise to place your trust in a weak bloody man on a tree dying a criminals death. It does not seem wise to worship a crucified God. It does not seem smart to place your hope in a message that seems like sheer madness. It seems ridiculous and foolish to devote your life to following a King who has a cross for a throne and thorns for a crown. It seems crazy to believe that the God of the universe would be found on a despicable tree of punishment. For a man to become truly wise from a biblical perspective he must become a fool. The wisdom of God is the folly of the cross. The cross simply obliterates every human definition of wisdom. To the onlooker the cross is madness and folly but to those on the inside it contains the riches of God’s wisdom. We shamelessly hang our entire lives upon the cross and empty tomb of the God-man. His wisdom is our wisdom. His folly is our folly. We strive to live lives of wisdom. These lives look ridiculous and they always entail a cross. It can be no other way for at the heart of the biblical definition of wisdom stands the hill of the skull.