Writing for The Guardian last Friday, the Revd Dr Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary's Newington in south London and the former canon chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, bewailed the present state of the Church of England. “Once again,” he said (though I’m not sure to which past time he is referring), “the evangelicals are in the ascendency in the Church of England.”
The cause of his anxiety was the installation of Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury — a man who, according to Fraser, comes from that branch of evangelicalism where people speak of ‘Cheesus’, rather than ‘Jesus’. And for Fraser, these Cheesus-loving evangelicals are not just everywhere, but utterly wrong in their understanding of the crucifixion:
... for the worst sort of Cheesus-loving evangelicals [he says] the cross of Good Friday is actually celebrated as a moment of triumph. This is theologically illiterate. (1)
Well, if that is true — if it is theologically illiterate to think of Jesus’ death as “a moment of triumph” — we might ask ourselves why we call this day ‘Good Friday’. But as I read this, I recalled the words of another Revd Dr, this time Martin Luther, written in challenge to the prevailing theology of his own day.
In April 1518, following the publication of the Ninety-five Theses, Luther took part in the regular theological disputation of his monastic order at Heidelberg. Luther was invited to contribute by putting forward some propositions for debate. Two of them were as follows:
19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.
20. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross. (2)
What are the invisible things of God? asks Luther. The answer is virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness. But don’t expect to understand God through seeing straightforward, visible, examples of virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice and goodness. To understand God as God truly is — to become a real theologian — you must look to the cross: The “visible things of God” seen there are “his human nature, weakness, foolishness.” (3)
When you look to the cross, therefore, what you see is not (quite) what you get. What the eye sees is weakness and foolishness. These things, which are the visible things of God (or as Luther says with reference to Exodus 33:23, the ‘back’ of God), “are placed in opposition to the invisible”. The cross doesn’t look much like wisdom, glory and power. But that is exactly what it is. As the Apostle Paul writes,
... we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Hence he can write elsewhere quite explicitly of the ‘triumph of the cross’:
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
The mistake we make with the cross is not in seeing it as a triumph. It is in failing to see the invisible things of God being manifested there — that this is God’s power, and that therefore the words of Christ to the Apostle in a time of test, “my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:10), means not ‘in spite of’ but literally what it says, ‘in’. This is the power of the cross, and points the way to our power to overcome in this world.
The modern mistake of evangelicalism is not to exalt the triumph of the cross, but to exalt the resurrection as the ‘solution’ to the cross, thereby making suffering merely a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’, rather than a solution to mankind’s besetting problem and therefore, at one level, the key to everything.
(2) Luther’s Works, Vol. 31:40, The Heidelberg Disputation
(3) LW 31:52Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: