Gospel Preachers Are Theologians Of The Cross

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things (1 Cor 4:8–13; ESV).

Among the many spiritual ills that afflicted the Corinthian congregation was a class of leaders, self-appointed, “Super Apostles” (2 Cor 11:5, 12). These so-called “Super Apostles” compared themselves to the Apostle Paul and claimed to be superior to him. Where Paul’s speech as imperfect, theirs was polished. Where he was arrested for the sake of Christ, they had suffered no such shame. Reading between the lines, their message seems to have been not very different from what we hear from the likes of Joel Osteen or the so-called “health and wealth” preachers who take this-worldly prosperity as a sign of divine favor and suffering for Christ as a sign of divine disfavor. Remarkably, we know from the writings of the early post-apostolic Fathers, e.g., 1 Clement, who also wrote to the same congregation, that these same problems continued to plague them for decades. Indeed, as far as I know, they never went away.

In the Reformation Martin Luther called these sorts of teachers “theologians of glory.” Later scholars would go on to speak about a “theology of glory” as distinct from the “theology of the cross.”  Luther contrasted the theologian of glory” with  “theologian of the cross” as part of a 1518 academic event known as the Heidelberg Disputation. He 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.

Luther was responding to a kind of natural theology and to a kind of rationalism that places human reason and human sense experience over divine revelation. In contrast to the theology of glory, Luther argued, we look at Christ. If we want to know God savingly we do not find him where he has not revealed himself but where he has: in Christ. Moses, of course, asked to see God and the Lord permitted him only to see his “backside,” as it were, as he passed through the cleft of the rock. Luther was saying that if you would know God, if you would see him as he has revealed himself to us, you must look to Christ and especially, in this case, to God the Son incarnate who allowed himself to be humiliated and crucified at Golgotha.

The cross is a great rebuke to the theologians of glory because they have no place for it in their theology, piety, and practice. Osteen is peddling his methods for living your best life now. The health and wealth hucksters are selling this worldly prosperity and success. What they are really offering people is a way to turn, were it possible, God into a pagan deity whom they can manipulate to their own ends.

Do we really think that were the theologians of glory preaching Christ and him crucified and that believers must, as a consequence, take up their cross, mortify their sins and seek to be made alive (vivification) daily, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone they would have the following they do?

We know the answer to the question simply by meditating on this remarkable passage from the Apostle Paul. Faced with mockery from the Corinthians did he try to match the claims of the “Super Apostles”? He did not. He responded to their claims to power by pointing out his weakness. How is that for a church growth and church leadership strategy? One may be sure that no church-growth wizard will be teaching that at his next seminar.

They boasted of reigning and winning but Paul boasted of being conquered and losing for Christ’s sake.  They boasted of their riches but Paul boasted of his poverty for Christ’s sake. They boasted of their “wisdom” but Paul of his foolishness for Christ’s sake.

The same drama that played out in Jerusalem during Jesus’ arrest was playing out in Corinth. The congregation was essentially calling out for Bar-Abbas (Matt 27:21), someone powerful who could deliver them from the Romans. They were crucifying Christ all over again (Heb 6:6).

Verse 9 is particularly arresting: “I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.”

We might paraphrase this verse thus: “I am all you powerful Corinthians get: the dregs of the ministry, the last of the Apostles, dead men walking, paraded in the Roman circus and ready to be thrown to the animals.” His mention of “angels” is fascinating. The theologians of glory are always going on about angels. The Pharisees were great ones for theorizing about angels. The medieval church was fascinated with angels. The evangelicals love angels. The Colossians were being tempted with a syncretistic religion that featured angels.

The imagery is quite compelling: Paul characterizes himself as being humiliated before men and angels. Of all of them, however, only Paul, like the Old Testament prophets, had been taken up to the “third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2). The Super Apostles were really just fakers and frauds. It was Paul’s Christlike suffering for Christ that validated his ministry. It was not prosperity, health, wealth, rhetorical power or cultural influence that validated his ministry.

Remember that when you hear the “big ministries” boast about their numbers and their influence. That was Mark Driscoll’s sales point: never mind the abuse. Just pay attention to the numerical growth. It is the theologian of the cross who preaches Christ and him crucified for sinners. It is a theology of the cross that subordinates human wisdom to the divine wisdom. Gospel preachers are theologians of the cross, abased before the angels, fools before the world for the sake of Christ.

Come to think of it, what were the names of the Super Apostles anyway?

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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