The Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

‘The theology of the cross’ is not only about the cross of Jesus, it is a wider matter. There are two standpoints: ‘the theology of glory’ and ‘the theology of the cross’.
 In ‘the theology of glory‘, God’s power is obvious to all, and we want it to be so.
 In ‘the theology of the cross‘, God conceals his power and hides it in weakness. The best expression of this is on Golgotha where the weak and suffering Christ, hiding his glory, gained the greatest victory. It is because of this that it is called the theology of the cross. It was particularly dear to Luther and comes up throughout the Bible and shows the way our beloved God works.

Paul boasting about his weakness

The second chapter of 1 Corinthians takes the reader to a very human apostle. The start of Paul’s first European tour was by no means comfortable. In Philippi, he was beaten and thrown into prison. From Thessalonica he had to flee for his life. In Athens, he was only laughed at. The man journeying to Corinth was not a super apostle, a hero of faith with nerves of steel, but a man who was simply afraid. It was, however, exactly in the notorious Corinth that the apostle was able to work in peace for as long as one and a half years, and an active and strong church was founded there.

The initial phase of this work is described in 1 Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes to his haughty adversaries and boasts about his weakness. It is just for this reason that the epistles to the Corinthians are excellent in teaching an important biblical truth, the theology of the Cross.

Abraham – a poor man loved by God

The first chapters of the Bible (Genesis 1-11) contain many accounts – particularly of the lives of Abel and Noah – that shed light on the theology of the cross. Right after that, the Bible begins to speak about how God will form a people, a nation through whom he would bring his message to the entire world. He will not establish for himself a people that is ready and strong, but chooses a poor nomad, Abraham. After difficult and painful phases, first a childless couple becomes a family, which is then extended and becomes a tribe and finally a people – a multitude like the stars of heaven and the sand of the sea. Before that, Abraham wanders as a stranger here and there, in other people’s places, looking back on God’s promises, fearing pharaoh’s wrath in Egypt and grieving over the shame of childlessness. The lesson on the mountain of God is particularly tough, as Abraham receives the task of giving his only son Isaac as an offering to God. Power and calm wisdom are often far away, when the poor man is tossed about in the storms of life. But it was in the middle of such tumults that there was born a people in which God’s great plans were fulfilled.

Why did God give Abraham such a difficult road? Why could he not bring forth his people in such an impressive way that it could have been proudly showcased to everybody? God knows, we do not. But eventually Abraham did not only become the father of a great nation but also the father of faith and the guide to all the nations of the world.

Moses – a man of God and a great loner

When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, God called Moses to lead his people to freedom. Moses grew up as pharaoh’s son, but seeing the slavery of his people, he chose to side with his own people. Consequently, he had to flee into the wilderness, where he lived with the Midianites for forty years. Only after this was the time ripe; at the burning bush, Moses received God’s call, and he went to carry out his task of confronting the most powerful ruler of the world. In human terms, the resources Moses had with him were rather meagre: his wife, two sons, a donkey, and a staff. After many hardships, he led the people out of Egypt into the wilderness, where they wandered for forty years and constantly rebelled against Moses.

The theology of the cross is clearly apparent with Moses. He is born into mortal danger, and only miraculous help from God saves his life. Being a hot-tempered man, he kills an Egyptian, who is beating an Israeli, and so Moses must flee alone. What happens next? Nothing. For forty years, he herds sheeps in the desert, and Israel toils in slavery. God hides his power. And sending Moses to free his people without human resources, God hides his power in weakness. But this is how the people received God’s help.

It is worth pointing out here that the theology of the glory is not necessarily wrong in its entirety. The plagues sent by God through Moses got the pharaoh to sink on his knees and forced him to set Israel free. Also, God’s power will be apparent at the last judgment, and it is good to be reminded of this. It is just good to remember the theology of the cross, especially where Christians are tempted to puff themselves up and magnify themselves.

Hannah and Mary – two blessed women

For thousands of years, Bible readers have been nurtured by the touching fates of women in the Bible. One of those accounts is the story of Hannah, the mother of the great prophet Samuel (1 Sam 1-2). Hannah was childless, which in her culture meant that she was bearing a heavy burden of shame. The love of her husband, which is described in a remarkably beautiful way, did not ease her deep grief. In the temple of the Lord, the distressed woman pours out all her anxiety and anguish in prayer. It was this woman, and no one else, who became the happy mother of the great Samuel. Hannah’s song of praise (1 Sam. 2) is a magnificent read.

Hannah in the Old Testament is clearly a type of Virgin Mary (Luke 1-2). It was not some admired daughter of a rich noble family who was chosen to be the Lord’s mother, but a poor girl who had to bear the shame of doubt. Maria’s lovely song of praise makes it clear how God brings down the mighty and the rich from their thrones and exalts the poor and the hungry. God’s people feel at home where the small, the weak, and the downtrodden are. The rich and the wise do not ask for nor receive very much from him.

David – a little boy and an anointed king

A good example of how God hides his power in weakness is how he chose a king to replace Saul who had gone astray. The prophet Samuel was sent to a remote village, to Jesse, who introduced his sons to Samuel. One son after another stepped forward, but not one of them was the one chosen by the Lord. Only the little shepherd boy was the one to ascend to the throne.

But before David ended up there, he had a long and rocky road ahead of him: first he was the king’s friend and then his enemy, as a guerrilla leader and a wretched refugee. When he finally came into power, he fell into grievous sin. Nevertheless, he always remained a little boy at heart before God; he confessed his sins, wanted to turn from them, and returned to God. To such a man as this, God made a promise of eternal kingship (2 Sam 7).

It came true amazingly, even in the human way of thinking, when the same family line ruled in Jerusalem for 450 years. But above all it came true in a hidden and inconceivable way: hundreds of years after the house of David had lost its power, the eternal promises came true, and Jesus Christ, Son of David, sat on his Father’s throne.

The uneducated fishers

When Christ began his ministry on earth, there would have been wise philosophers or skilful politicians available into his inner circle. They were not taken, and the Lord chose as his disciples a bunch of uneducated fishers on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. None of them were fit to be his advisers, and none of them were without flaws. At the crucial moment, every one of them let down their Lord and fled. But it was these ignorant backsliders that the Lord chose and sent to all the world. Saul, the most zealous persecutor of Christians, who became Paul and who could never forget his past, was then also added to the group.

It was not an all-star team that was chosen but the small, the weak, and the poor. But with this, it was not by the human wisdom that the gospel was to be proclaimed but by the unfathomable power of God. God was strong in the weak – when Peter the denier bravely stepped in front of the people at Pentecost, and when Paul, knees shaking, went to Corinth.

Jesus in Gethsemane

Perhaps we now know how to look at the life of Christ from a new angle. From the beginning, his life was the way of the cross. He who was in the likeness of God, emptied himself and took the form of a servant. He was born into a manger in a stable and was claimed to be Mary’s son, in other words, an illegitimate child. His whole life was marked by deep loneliness, both among big crowds and with those nearest to him. Mark’s Gospel chapter 3 shows that his own family thought he was out of his mind, and chapter 8 tells us how his nearest disciple tried to make him turn away from his way of the cross. His loneliness was at its peak during the last moments of his life. In Gethsemane, the Son of God prays to his Father and, in agony, is sweating blood. On the cross, the Lord was as lonely as man can be.

God’s power was carefully hidden in the life of the Son of God. Nonetheless, some people recognized it – not the wise or the rich but the small, the poor, and the sinners. The blind called on their only helper, crying for help, the poor followed him, and the extremely wealthy tax collectors, seeing him, understood that they themselves were very poor. And when his friends, who had laid him in his grave, saw the Risen One, God’s power was no longer hidden.

The theology of the cross and us

What can the theology of the cross mean to us?
The same phenomenon keeps repeating itself in the church of Christ: the poor, the weak, and the sinners find Christ and the hidden power of God. As time goes on, there arises a temptation to display the power of God in a way that the church ceases to be the sinners’ hospital where Christ cares for the weak. Congregation becomes a group of the strong and the steadfast believers, a group in which no one dares to reveal their weakness anymore. The faith, which once opened heaven for the sinner and was a wonderful miracle of God, becomes a rational philosophy, and Christianity turns into a wise lifestyle. The weak people and the teachers as well as others around them become heroes of faith. The deep mystery of the cross is gradually forgotten. Only an empty shell remains of the magnificent gift of faith. What was thought to be more is, in fact, less.

The theology of the cross, greatly emphasized by Luther, is different. Again and again it discovers in the holy Bible examples of how God passes the wise, the rich, and the saints and helps the poor weak sinners. It is for this reason that the theology of the cross opens the whole Bible from a new perspective.