Inveterate Theologians of Glory

The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther insisted that there were only two ways of being a theologian: One would either be a theologian of glory or a theologian of the cross. In his book On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, theologian Gerhard O. Forde, offers a short commentary on each of the 28 theses propounded by Luther in his Disputation. In what follows, I’ll lay out for your consideration the four characteristics of a theologian of glory:

First, a theologian of glory trusts in his works (even the smallest work!) to save him. Left to ourselves, we will try and earn our salvation. By nature, we don’t believe salvation is solely by the grace of God. We have a penchant for believing we must do something to earn our salvation. This is the way of the theologian of glory. As fallen human beings, when we hear the law of God (the Ten Commandments), our first impulse might be, “I’m doing okay at this. I think I’ll make it.” As Luther would have us recognize, however, “[Estimating the value of our works is by no means just a neutral enterprise. . . . Since it can’t be neutral, the will of the sinner is bound to favor its own works.” This is why the theologian of glory must see and feel that God demands perfection (Matt. 5:48). Works do not earn God’s favor. None! Thus, “Every loophole is closed. Humans must confess not only that their best works are sinful, but also that in the very fact that they resist such judgment and pride themselves in their works, their works are actually dead (mortal) sin.”

Second, a theologian of glory always leaves the will in control. This in some way is linked to the previous point, for as Forde notes, “The theologian of glory seeks by hook or crook to find a place for such deeds in the cause of our righteousness before God.” As Luther stated in his The Bondage of the Will, our wills are not free. Forde explains: “Sin makes it impossible for the will really to be called free because sin means enslavement and bondage from which it is impossible for the will to escape.” Because our wills are not free (certainly not in a libertarian sense) regeneration must precede faith. (To see my thoughts on God’s sovereignty and human freedom, go here.) For Luther, this was why predestination was necessary. Yet, because we are inveterate theologians of glory, we can’t stand the idea of an electing God.

Luther was a wise theologian. He knew that as soon as human beings realized that God is absolutely sovereign, rather than putting our hands over our mouths and bowing before God in humility, we instead try to reconcile God’s sovereignty with human responsibility. Of course! More philosophical speculation! Anything that will allow us not to have to focus on our relationship with God. Luther’s advice: Rather than trying to resolve this theological conundrum, look to the cross and behold your bleeding Savior. It’s there where you’re able to see who your God is. He is the one who came in human flesh to save you. Look to him. Trust in him.

Third, a theologian of glory wants to know things the way God knows them. Once again, you can see how this is connected to the previous point. Theologians of glory aren’t content with the revelation God has given to us in Scripture. We want to see God “naked,” we want to know things the way God knows them. (For some specific examples see R. Scott Clarks book Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice.) As Forde helpfully comments, “If God immutably elects ‘before all time,’ how can there be freedom? So what do theologians do? They go to work with philosophical presuppositions to solve, remove, or in some way explain away the problem of objectionable attributes. They think, that is, that they are able to see into the invisible things of God.” We fail to see that God didn’t reveal himself to us to satisfy the curiosity of man. In this fallen world, God has designed that we experience him through his ordained means of grace: Word, prayer, and ordinances (sacraments).

Fourth, a theologian of glory thinks the law can accomplish what only God’s grace and love can. Luther stated his 26th thesis as follows: “The law says, ‘do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” Fundamental to Luther’s entire argument is the idea that while the law commands us to do many things; it doesn’t actually give us the ability to do anything. For example, right after the Shema in Deut. 6:4, we read: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (V. 5). However, God issuing the command doesn’t produce the ability to obey the command. Yet, because we’re inveterate theologians of glory, and because we’ve been influenced by Immanuel Kant, we incorrectly assume that “Ought implies can.” Further, we need to remember that when God commands us to do something, he’s not simply calling for us to obey, but to love to obey, and to obey from the heart. And this requires a work of God (Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:26; Jn. 6:44, 65).

Here’s a practical way of understanding this point. My wife didn’t fall in love with me because I approached her in high school and said to her, “Love me!” Similarly, the law doesn’t beget love; love begets love. And isn’t that what the Apostle John told us? “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

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