At the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation (academic presentation), Martin Luther (1483–1546), the father of the Protestant Reformation, as he was coming to his Protestant convictions, argued: “One is not worthy to be called a theologian who looks upon the ‘invisible things of God’ [Rom. 1:20] as though they were clearly ‘perceptible in those things which have actually happened’ [1 Cor 1:21–25] But the one who knows the visible things and the backside [Ex 33:23] of God seen through the passions and the cross [is a theologian]. The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. The theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.” These are some of the most important words that any theologian in the Christian tradition have ever written. Sadly, they are mostly unknown to contemporary Christianity largely because many Christian leaders have decided that Luther was wrong. Many Christian laity, however, have never been exposed to these words nor to the ideas they mean to teach.
Luther explicitly mentioned theologians but he was implicitly addressing a doctrine, the theology of glory. This is not a reference to a 1989 film, of course. It is not a denial of the existence of heavenly glory. Luther certainly believed in heaven and in glory. By these short statements, Luther was criticizing three things that still need to be criticized:
Rationalism: What My Net Cannot Catch Is Not A Butterfly
The first aspect of a theology of glory is rationalism. The rationalist thinks that his mind (intellect) is the measure of all things. He might think too that God agrees with him, that he knows what God knows, the way God knows it. By contrast, even the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) taught that we are analogues to God and that our understanding of things is like God’s but it is not God’s. He argued that we cannot know what God knows, the way he knows it, because we are not God. This is what the Dutch Reformed theologian, Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) called the Creator/creature distinction. To be sure, Thomas was not always consistent in this theology with this distinction and that created serious problems that had to be remedied by the Reformation.
In the Modern period, the rationalist has said that the human intellect is the measure of all things. It is a law unto itself (autonomous). For the rationalist, God, if he exists, must conform to our understanding of things. The rationalist thinks he knows how the world works. He knows what can be and what cannot be. He has tried to put God in box.
The theologian of glory places his intellect over divine revelation in Scripture. It judges scripture. The rationalist, when he is consistent, has no difficulty saying that Scripture errs when it says this or that. The Christian, on the other hand, submits his intellect to Scripture. The Christian knows that God cannot be put in a box and that, indeed, God is incomprehensible. Any God who could but put in that figurative box is nothing but an idol. The God who is has, from nothing, spoken the world into existence and by the same sort of power whereby he creates and governs all things, the God who is saves his people.
Moralism: I Am Good Enough
The theologian of glory is also a moralist. He thinks that he is or can become good enough to satisfy God’s righteous law. Typically, such moralists are cheaters. They downplay the righteousness and holiness of God’s law in order to justify themselves. They also downplay sin and/or its effects. The theologian of glory does not think that he is truly helpless and desperately needy of God’s free favor in Christ. The moralist admits that he has a slight problem, a wound or an illness, but he insists that with just a bit of help (what he calls grace), he can do his part to contribute toward salvation.
Though, when confronted with the most naked form of moralism in the late 4th century, the Ancient Church and all the church thereafter rejected the notion that we are able to save ourselves, a form of moralism became the dominant view of salvation in the medieval church. It is the dominant view of salvation today. Liberal theologians (who are theologians of glory) think that we are good enough to make the world a better place and even achieve a kind of utopia on earth if we will just point all our enemies in the same direction at the same time. The liberal theologians are constantly coming up with new laws whereby good people can save the world (because, of course, for the liberal theologian, it is “the world,” not we, that must be saved. According to him, humans are basically good and do not need salvation from God. For him, God is not judge. He is just a friendly force in the cosmos.
Many so-called evangelical pastors and theologians, though they may not be outwardly liberal, agree with the liberal theologian. They might admit that we are a little more sinful than the liberal thinks and that God is a little more dangerous than the liberal thinks, but he agrees that the problem is largely “out there” and that we can do something about it. The moralist thinks he is good enough to do what justice requires.
The last aspect of theology of glory is the notion that, if we follow the law established by the liberal theologian (no more plastic straws!) or keep the “evangelical” law of the quiet time, we can improve the world to a utopia (liberal) or become entirely sanctified (“evangelical”). The theologian of glory is a legal theologian. He boasts in the law but he does not understand what the law does. He does not fear the law because he thinks that he can keep the law. He does not know that the law is killing him. He is like the drug addict who thinks all is well just before he keels over.
The optimistic liberals at the turn of the 20th century were the product of the age of optimism. Modern science had figured out how the world works and we were going to usher in a glorious age. Some had come to think that the gospel would spread across the earth and that most humans would be converted and that would usher in a glory age on the earth. Both the optimistic Moderns and the optimistic evangelicals had their optimism shaken by World War I, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. Since, then, of course, we have had the Long War on Terror (18 years and counting). At their best, Reformation Christians have never had much sympathy with the idea of earthly utopias, whether cosmic or personal.
It is useful to aware of these two types of theologians and theologies. The theologian of glory is attractive because he offers seven steps for a successful life or three steps to overcoming a persistent sin. The liberal theologian of glory is attractive because he promises a bright new future that we can see, touch, and taste. We like that.
Ask yourself these questions: Was our Lord a theologian of glory or a theologian of the cross? Did he promise an earthly utopia where all social ills are remedied? Did he promise perfection in this life? Did he promise 7 steps for anything, ever? Was Paul a theologian of glory or a theologian of the cross? To ask the question is to answer it.
The theologian of glory will be popular in this life. This is easy to prove. When the Israelites chose a king, they did not choose a man known for wisdom, piety, or faith. They chose the biggest guy they could find (1 Sam 9). When Israel had to choose between Saviors, she cried out for Bar-Abbas rather than Jesus of Nazareth (Matt 27:20–21). The theologian of glory offers to God’s people what, by nature, they are prone to want: what makes sense to them (rationalism), how they can earn God’s favor (moralism), and how they can be successful in this life (triumphalism).
I suppose all people groups have been given to these temptations but these three qualities describe Modern American religion very well. Look at the “successful” churches. Consider that I just used the adjective “successful” to describe a church. Jesus said, “take up your instrument of social marginalization, ritual public humiliation, and death and follow me.” That is a paraphrase, of course, but that is the effect of what he said but, for a fee, self-described experts counsel pastors how to be “successful” leaders of organizations (a course that Jesus apparently failed to take since, at his death he had none). They counsel pastors how to have “successful” (i.e., fast-growing) congregations.
The counsel they offer is never: preach the law in all its terror and the gospel in all its wondrous beauty. Their advice can just about always be reduced to some variation of the theology of glory: rationalism (their advice works for all kinds of churches, Christian churches and cults alike), moralism (three steps to…), and triumphalism (God will bless you today if…). The theologian of glory always has a plan for “taking back America” or some such.
Look at the largest congregations in America: Lakewood Church is the home of Joel Osteen, the poster-boy for everything that is wrong with American Christianity. His doctrine is so bad it inspired a book by my colleague Mike Horton: Christless Christianity. Osteen is a prosperity preacher whose theology is so impoverished he makes Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker look like Thomas Aquinas by comparison. At last count, 43,000 souls attend to that preaching on a regular basis. The second largest is North Point Community Church, pastored by the son of Charles Stanley, Andy. The son is perhaps best known for advising people to leave behind the Old Testament. Such sentiment is common in American evangelicalism but few have been as openly Marcionite (an ancient heretic denounced but the church for rejecting the Old Testament as God’s Word) as Stanley, who feeds his people on a steady diet of self-help messages. 30,000 peoples attend weekly on average. The fourth largest congregation in the USA is led by the health and wealth preacher Robert Morris and is attended by 28,000 people weekly on average.
The theology of the cross is a different animal altogether.
Now you may have seen this word fideism used to mean, “defends the faith without giving reasons for faith.” This is what this word usually means but it is not what I mean by it here. What I mean by it is here is that, where the theologian of glory begins with reason (what makes sense to us is the final authority), the theologian of the cross begins with God’s Word. The Scriptures begin with God, not with us. God spoke creation into existence. We are merely his image bearers. We are not the final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life.
People like rationalism, i.e., beginning with reason rather than God’s Word because it makes sense to them. I cannot count the number of times people have proposed analogiesfor the Holy Trinity. People like them because they seem to make sense of a great mystery. The only problem is that they are all heretical, every single one of them. I know what you are thinking: “But what about…?” Yes, even that one. The theologian of glory wants to build a ladder to God but the Christian faith is that God the Son has come down to us. Paul writes:
But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the Word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Rom 10:6–9; ESV modified slightly).
Notice Paul’s alternative to our ladder climbing: “The Word is near you.” God has come to us in Christ, the Word incarnate (John 1:1, 14, 18) but he also comes to us through his Word written, through the preached Gospel, and through the gospel made visible in the holy sacraments. Natural religion is a religion of getting to God and heaven through good works. This is why the false doctrine of so-called “final salvation through works” is apparently so popular in some circles. It carves out a place for us to “do our part” (and to diminish the finish work of Christ and to make him but half a Savior, as we confess in the Belgic Confession art. 22).
Faith submits to God’s Word. It does not look for analogies to the Trinity nor to the incarnation but accepts them as saving mysteries. Faith accepts and submits to the teaching of Scripture that God is sovereign and that we humans are morally responsible for our free choices. It accepts that God uses means. It does not seek to around God’s Word (by looking for secret knowledge or direct revelation). It trusts God’s Word and does not sit in judgment over it (e.g., “Well, my God would never do/say x”).
Of course “gospelism” is not a real word but you get the idea. The theologian of glory often talks about God’s grace but he adds to it whether by making baptism absolutely necessary to salvation, or by adding sacraments not instituted by our Lord, or by re-defining faith as obedience, or, as mentioned above, by distinguishing two stages of justification or two stages of salvation, the first by grace alone, through faith alone and the second through or on the basis of works.
The theologian of the cross is a gospelist. He is a gospel preacher because the theology of glory is not good news. Gospel means “good news” and the good news is that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, that he came to obey in the place of sinners, that he accomplished that obedience perfectly, that he died, that he was raised, that he ascended and rules all things at the right hand of the Father. The good news is that all that Jesus did for us is credited to all those who trust him.
This is “gospelism.” The theologian of the glory might even mention Jesus or the word gospel but he does not announce it purely because the moment he does he loses control of the message and the flock. The one thing the theologian of glory wants is control. Judas turned on Jesus, in part, because Jesus disappointed him. He came to bring a different kind of a Kingdom than Judas wanted. Judas was an idolater and he hated Jesus because Jesus was God the Son in the flesh who came to save sinners but Judas did not see himself as a sinner but as a man with a plan but Jesus refused to go along with the plan and so Judas sold him out.
Judas was a triumphalist. He wanted power and glory in this life. Because he loved earthly power and glory, because he did not know the greatness of his sin and misery, because he was a reprobate he could not hear the gospel with faith. Judas is not alone is wanting power and glory in this life. The Scriptures are replete with figures who wanted the same thing. Church history is replete with figures who cut deals with the power of this age, who muted the gospel, for the sake of power and glory in this life.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? (Mark 8:34–37; ESV).
We do not take up our crosses in order to be saved but because we have been saved. The one who knows himself to be a sinner, knows Jesus to be the only Savior. The one to whom the Spirit of God has given new life and true faith knows that this is a fallen world and that its glory, however spectacular it might seem at the moment, is temporary.
Satan constantly asks us to trade our souls for false knowledge and momentary glory. He took Jesus to the high places and to show him all the kingdoms of this world. Jesus refuse him but Adam did not. By nature we are Adam’s children. This is why Osteen, Morris, and the rest the health and wealth preachers are so attractive. They have confused Satan’s message for Jesus’ message. Jesus offered salvation and cross, i.e., suffering. They offer this world’s vision of prosperity and power but no salvation and they do it in Jesus’ name. The Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:5) shall deal with the false shepherds and other theologians of glory when he returns.
What is wrong with a theology of glory? It is moralism, not the gospel. It is rationalism, not faith. It is triumphalism, not the sober-eyed realism of the Scriptures about life in this fallen world.
The good news is that one need not remain trapped in a theology of glory or under the control of a theologian of glory. Walk away and into the light of the gospel. It is not yet too late.
This essay appeared originally on Abounding Grace Radio in September, 2019.