A Theologian of Suffering Names Things Properly

If we name something improperly, and then talk about it, we will cause confusion and harm to ourselves and those who name it rightly. In theology, this is relevant in discussions about justification. If we name justification what others name sanctification, then arguments, sorrow and charges follow. How we name our doctrines and how we classify the elements of religion are matters of chief concern (likewise in the lesser fields of science and humanities).

Peter Lombard (d. AD 1160), significantly started his first of four books, The Sentences, with a discussion of naming. He appeals to Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, chapter 2, as corroborating thought. Augustine and Lombard are both relevant authors in the study of historical theology, and their ideas about naming merit our attention.

Taking examples from nature, Augustine notes how smoke points to fire. It signs something behind it or under it. A footprint in the snow points to an animal of a certain kind. If physical signs signify reality, then we creatures of words need our words to correspond to reality. That is, what we name a thing must be done rightly. In fact, words are more profound in their function (relating, as they do, to our religion) than even a footprint is to an animal.

Martin Luther got this. In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 he charged theologians of glory with the error of naming things improperly. Namely, they name evil good and good evil. They see a thing, and the naming of the thing reveals their broken vision. This is evident in Job’s counselors (theologians of glory) who name Job’s condition wrongly. They look at the footprints of suffering, or the smoke of his life, and they draw wrong conclusions.

Luther contrasts this to Christians who name things according to the cross. A theologian of the cross names a thing what it is. He or she sees suffering and does not name it evil. Suffering is not to be escaped so that we find God behind it, but in the cross and suffering there is solidarity with Christ and identification with the Gospel (2 Thes 1:2-4). A theologian of the cross — which we can name a true disciple of Jesus (John 8:31), a disciple indeed! — does not find God behind the cross (looking around suffering), but finds God working exactly where theologians of glory miss Him.

Ironically, later commentators who read Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (which stands for me as an emblem of the best of Luther), misname his work. They understand him to be dealing with a Theology of Glory vs. a Theology of the Cross. For example, Alister McGrath wrote, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough. But he misnamed it. Luther was not dealing with “theologies” but “Theologians.” Indeed, there is no theology except it is embodied. To name a thing as a theology safely removes it (that is, it is not a person who is at stake, but their idea). But when it is a theologian (a real human), the the person is under a real curse and a real judging God. Theologians of glory would rather imagine theologies as opposed to theologians, as they are safe from the judgement of God (so they imagine) in their theological flights of fancy.

However, when one is a theologian of the cross, one must daily live it. It is not safe. One must bear the cross, and not simply be theologically accurate about the cross. Theological accuracy goes hand in hand with cross bearing, so that we then count it all joy when we face trials of various kinds (James 1:1-4).

Indeed, there is no theological accuracy about the cross except one live and embrace Christ crucified. A theologian of glory would let a person (himself) have one without the other. But it can never be, as God has wedded himself to the cross so that, “We preach Christ and him crucified.”

At the cross, we find God where he is most concealed. Where God is most concealed he is most revealed (accurately, and certainly). But where he is most revealed, he is most concealed — that is, the theologian of glory does not see God where he revealed himself (they glory in their claims that God cannot be certainly known).

But we know that God more than cloaked himself in flesh. His cloaking included his exposing. In suffering and the cross he was exposed to our visible inspection. And there we look upon God. Seeing Christ on the cross, we behold our creator. We don’t see the sample man among men, we see the God-Man, and we see that death is no impediment to deity.

This naked exposure of God, in the flesh, on a cross, was not for the raw experience of shame but was for worship and revelation, and the cross and suffering prove to be the divine paradigm for naming. Hence Paul in 2 Thes 1:4-5 and Philippians 1:28:

and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God.

Paul thus speaks about false theologians. The theologian of glory (a religious person who imagined that he contemplated God) saw proof of God’s perdition in the opposition brought against the saints. His vision was broken, and so his naming was faulty. He named good evil and evil good.

It turns out that these kinds of theologians of glory are not theologians at all, for they are not really studying God but idols. They are explaining the god who thinks their thoughts. In this way, they do not even merit the title theologian (I am arriving at Luther’s conclusion), for a Theo-Logian is one who studies God — Theos is the Greek word for God. There is only One God, and any study that is not of Christ, but of something else, is misnamed. Those who are not true disciples of Jesus cannot be called theologians, for they do not know God, nor can they study him. They only speak of themselves when they speak of a thing they call “G o d.”

This article was published under Naming, of the Cross, Suffering.

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