By Jeff Mallinson –
This week, I have the privilege of speaking at the Christ Hold Fast Conference in Orlando, Florida. I’ll be talking about the ways in which Luther’s call is for us all to become theologians of the cross. This is no mere academic concept. It is a revolution in the way we think about religion and theology itself. Theologians of glory seek to reach God through their own effort. Theologians of the cross receive the grace of God, accomplished by Christ alone. All of this is outside of us, and insists that there is no good speculative theology: we must approach the divine only through the Incarnate One who was crucified for our sake.
Good Protestants know that this means we can’t earn our salvation through meritorious acts. But the cross confronts more than just our trust in our good works. The cross lays us low and slays idols we might not immediately realize are idols. Sometimes, we can even idolize excellent things like dogmatic theology and liturgy (aspects of Christianity that are both dear to my heart and the focus of much of my life).
In an ongoing effort to be self-reflective, and not just rest easy pointing out the glory theologies in others, I submit to you the following theses regarding ways in which we are susceptible to theology of glory without realizing it. I’ll be exploring these in depth at the conference. As you read, instead of resisting too quickly (especially if one of the theses hits close to home), try to conduct a thought experiment. First ask whether and how this might hold true for you or your tribe’s way of thinking. Then, if you are convinced what I suggest is untrue, please feel free to weigh in.
- Theologians of glory don’t laugh.
A gracious ethos flows from a gracious theology. Don’t fail to seek divine joy, and avoid taking minor theological disputes too seriously that you lose a sense of humor.
- Theologians of glory are afraid to cry.
In Christ we have all we need. In Christ we know that everything is going to be okay. Therefore, we are free to experience and express appropriate emotions when we face trauma and tragedy. We need not try to defend God by inventing contorted explanations of how his providence is at work. We may sit in sackcloth and ashes at the foot of the Cross, because we trust in an ultimate hope. Glory Christians always need to appear spiritually successful and happy. Theologians of the cross call things what they are, and sometimes they are rotten.
- Theologians of glory are afraid to experience spirituality.
I’ve seen enough of spiritually bizarre manipulation and New Age attempts to channel and summon the divine to be wary about religious experience. But this doesn’t mean we need to pretend to have no emotion or experience whatsoever. This may come in various ways. I’ve had what I might call profound spiritual experiences chanting the psalms, listening to music, walking through the forest, and witnessing a dear friend get baptized. I seek God in a unique and vital way through the Word and Sacraments. But this doesn’t mean I must be callous to other glimpses of the sublime.
- Theologians of glory want spiritual power that they can wield like magicians.
Like Simon Magus, some want to possess spiritual power so they can use it for their own glory, wealth, or personal power. Check out a Benny Hinn video like this spoof, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
- Theologians of glory like narcissistic worship.
If you must appropriate secular pop music for your church services, I recommend incorporating Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” … you probably think this song is about you, don’t you?
- Theologians of glory fetishize liturgy and impose it through power.
Some of you were on my side with thesis five, and then I did this. Trust me when I assure you that I dig a high liturgy more than most. If you invite me to a four-hour psalm chant in an old stone building I might be with you. I believe that liturgy protects from theology of glory more than most guide rails. But the liturgy is beautiful and good because it reliably delivers Christ. But the liturgy doesn’t justify us, it connects us to the Christ who justifies us. This subtle distinction can become confused when we assume that “liturgical” is a perfect synonym for “Christ-centered” or “confessional.” Sometimes, the liturgy can be used as a bludgeon against other Christians rather than a nice feast set out for hungry friends to enjoy after they get tired of spiritual candy.
- Theologians of glory seek cultural and political dominance.
It is tempting to try to regain social relevance by seizing the reigns of society. But that won’t do. We Christians are a peculiar people. We must recognize the ways in which the two kingdoms relate but remain distinct in our penultimate world. The temptation to regain Constantinian power has never worked well for us Christians. Today, it usually ends up looking like a watered down parody of Christianity. What’s worse, Christian utopianism has led to horrific violence, such as the Münster Rebellion rebellion of 1534-5.
- Theologians of glory choose the route of cultural avoidance and fail to offer a prophetic voice.
This is the analog to an old playground move: “If I can’t have my way, I’ll take my soccer ball and go home.” It rightly flees unrighteousness and the wisdom of the world, but it fails in the Christian calling to engage the world through daily vocations, evangelism and apologetics.
- Theologians of glory fail to challenge the implicit foreign, secular assumptions of scholarship.
People like to be liked. This goes for laity, professors, and pastors. One way we fit in is by adopting methods and assumptions that seem to be neutral, but are in fact ways of excluding God, miracles, and hope from any investigation. In so doing, theologians of glory who take this approach try to become relevant by correlating Christian theology to some other way of thinking. They end up irrelevant because they have nothing to offer.
9.5 Theologians of glory need to ask, where might there be a blind spot in my theological vision?
For this last one, I invite you to weigh in below, and suggest other subtle ways in which we Christians might be accidentally operating as theologians of glory. The good news is that Christ’s blood is sufficient even for our theological blunders. So never give up hope, dear reader.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
Written while sipping a Guinness black and tan at the Orlando Sheraton’s Irish pub, between poems by W. H. Auden.