Does Martin Luther Mislead Us Away from a “Theology of Glory”?

theology of gloryA local brother asked, “Doesn’t Martin Luther oppose a theology of honor and shame?”

Luther famously demurs a “theology of glory” and exalts a “theology of the cross.”[1] What’s more, his consistent emphasis on law also seems to the honor-shame theology I and other propose. Do the Reformers contradict such a theology?

Why Luther Rejects a “Theology of Glory”

In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, countless articles and books will celebrate the theology of Luther and other reformers. However, the plethora of options will doubtless lead to indolent reading.

So, we should ask, “How does Luther actually describe these two theologies?” He writes,

“A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers, works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people whom the apostle calls “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18), for they hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works. Thus they call the good of the cross evil and the evil of a deed good.” (Thesis #21)

As John Chan notes, “Luther himself seldom used the exact terms ‘theology of the cross’ and ‘theology of glory.’”[2] Succeeding generations of theologians have tried to tease out Luther’s meaning.

Chan summarizes Luther’s view of a “theology of glory”:

“The theology of glory insists upon salvation by human good works, while the theology of the cross relies only on the grace of God, a God who comes down to save human beings.” (24)

Clearly, this is not a “theology of glory” that I could endorse.

Does Luther Contradict the Bible?

Using Luther to oppose an honor-shame theology is based on a misunderstanding. Were it not that some people (like my friend) genuinely mistake Luther’s meaning, I would think this potential objection was a mere strawman argument.

Even a superficial reading of the above quotation makes it patently obvious that Luther’s “theology of glory” is unlike anything I and others support. Simply observe his contrasts:

works to suffering

glory to the cross

strength to weakness

wisdom to folly

good to evil

Of course, Luther does not reject a theology that espouses wisdom and goodness. Rather, he speaks with the same irony found in 1 Cor 1:20, where Paul writes, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

Luther speaks of a narrow sort of glory, i.e. vain-glory. Taken as a whole, he describes what contemporary Christians might call “prosperity” theology.

A More Biblical “Theology of Glory”

Luther has a far more positive and robust “theology of glory” that some might expect.

In Helmer’s helpful article “Luther’s Theology of Glory,” she clarifies his view of glory.[3] Luther, in fact, regards the Trinity––in essence and work–– manifests true glory. Thus, Helmer summarizes, “When Luther considers the ‘visible and manifest things of God’ in the trinitarian sense of persons and their works, he can be called a theologian of glory.”

In his Romans commentary, Luther writes,

“‘Glory of God’ is used in the same way as righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, that is, something which is given to us by God and because of which we can before Him glory in Him and about Him.” (Works, 25:248)

He does not ignore the glory-language that pervades the Bible.

“But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death…” (Heb 2:9)

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14)

Unfortunately, Luther’s wording can be misleading. Given the perfusion of honor-shame language in Scripture, Luther’s description “glory” (arguably) verges on the idiosyncratic. Consequently, he overdramatizes the distinction between a “theology of glory” and a “theology of the cross.”

This sharp contrast does not represent the Bible’s teaching as a whole; instead, his wording reflects a particular theological point. Beware of superficial readings of Luther and the Reformers.

 


 

[1] Heidelberg Disputation (1518). An online translation can be found at: http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php. Especially see theses #20–22.

[2] John Yan Yee Chan. Page 5, 20, 22 in “The Theology of Glory and The Theology of the Cross in Luther’s Postils.” Th.D. Dissertation. University of Toronto. 2017.

[3] C. Helmer, “Luther’s Theology of Glory.” Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 42 (2000): 237–45

 

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