The Cross of Jesus as Critique of Theism

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This post is a part of my ongoing (slow and steady) blog series on The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann (CG). You can view the other posts in this series here.

“So it is not enough and no use for anyone to know God in his glory and his majesty if at the same time he does not know him in the lowliness and shame of his cross… Thus true theology and true knowledge of God lie in Christ the crucified one.” (Martin Luther, as quoted by Moltmann on p. 211 of CG)

For Luther, “every Christian is a theologian, i.e. one who knows God.” And we know God through the cross of Jesus. To be a believer means to be a theologian of the cross. While on some level it may seem like we are wading into deep theological waters when we consider a book like The Crucified God (it’s not for the faint of heart!), at the same time, the theology of the cross must be fundamentally simple and not merely an exercise in philosophical abstraction. Whatever else we have to say about God, he is concretely revealed in the incarnation of Jesus, and “as soon as you say incarnation, you say cross” (von Balthasar, as quoted by Moltmann on p. 205).

In my previous post, we explored how suffering and death are not outside of God, but are taken up in God (i.e. into the Trinity) on the cross: “The Cross, Death in God and the Trinity” (c.f. “Atheism and Theism Are Outside of the Trinity“). We’ve observed that modern Christianity has in many ways inherited a picture of God that comes not from Jesus, but from the classical theism of the philosophers. This God does not look like Jesus, and is not identical with the God Jesus called Abba Dear Father.

Moltmann builds his critique of traditional theism on Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, since Luther uses the theology of the cross as “a new principle of theological epistemology.” The cross of the “outcast and forsaken Christ” is the “visible revelation of God’s being for man in the reality of his world.” And so the theology of the cross is foundational to Martin Luther’s “decision for reformation”. This is no small matter:

For Luther understands the cross of Christ in a quite unmystical way as God’s protest against the misuse of his name for the purpose of a religious consummation of human wisdom, human works and the Christian imperialism of medieval ecclesiastical society. It is a protest for the freedom of faith. With the theologia crucis there begins the Reformation struggle over the true or the false church, over the liberation of man enslaved under the compulsion of works and achievements. With it, indeed, begins a new relationship to reality itself.
CG, p. 208

This “new relationship” with reality doesn’t begin with a God discovered through rational arguments and proofs regarding God’s existence (as in popular apologetics and natural theology), but with the cross of Jesus. The cross puts to death everything we think we already know about God.

Natural knowledge of God is potentially open to men, but in fact they misuse it in the interest of their self-exaltation and their self-divinization. Just as man misuses his works to justify himself, to conceal his anxiety from God and from himself, so too his misuses the knowledge of God to serve his hybris. In this situation,, this knowledge of God is useless; it merely does him damage, because it ‘puff him up’ and gives him illusions about his true situation. On the other hand, the knowledge of God in the suffering and death of Christ takes this perverse situation of man seriously. It is not an ascending, exalting knowledge, but a descending, convincing knowledge. God is not in heaven here, but wants something on earth. In revealing himself in the crucified Christ he contradicts the God-man who exalts himself, shatters his hybris, kills his gods and brings back to him his despised and abandoned humaness….To know God in the cross of Christ is a crucifying form of knowledge, because it shatters everything to which a man can hold and on which he can build, both his works and his knowledge of reality, and precisely in so doing sets him free.
CG, p. 211-212

Finding God in the face of the crucified Christ means the destruction of our idolatrous self-glorifying pictures of God. Religious man imagines a God who loves that which is like himself. But God is revealed in the Crucified One as a lover of that which is different and other – who dies for all who are far from God and have rebelled against God. This puts to death our idolatry and self-righteousness:

“The ‘theologian of glory’ of the invisible being of God secretly creates for himself free room for actiity in his own interest which will allow him ‘to love what is like’. For his theology needs equatioins and confirmations. But the ‘theologian of the cross’ is led by the visible nature of God in the cross. He is freed to love that which is different and other. This has far-reaching consequences: religious desire for praise and might and self-affirmation are blind to suffering – their own and that of others – because they are in love with success. Their love is eros for the beautiful, which is to make the one who loves beautiful himself. But in the cross and passion of Christ faith experiences a quite different love of God, which loves what is quite different. It loves ‘what is sinful, bad, foolish, weak and hateful, in order to make it beautiful and good and wise and righteous. For sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.’ [Luther, Explanation of Thesis 28]
CG, p. 213-214

Moltmann continunes by exploring this question: Is the theistic concept of God applicable to Christian belief in the crucified God? (Spoiler: No)

For metaphysics, the nature of divine being is determined by its unity and indivisibility, its lack of beginning and end, its immovability and immutability. As the nature of divine being is conceived of for the sake of finite being, it must embrace all the determinations of finite being and exclude those determinations which are directed against being. Otherwise finite being could not find a support and stay against the threatening nothingness of death, suffering and chaos in the divine being. Death, suffering and mortality must therefore be excluded from the divine being. Christian theology has adopted this concept of God from philosophical theology down to the present day, because in practice down to the present day Christian faith has taken into itself the religious need of finite, threatened and mortal man for security in a higher omnipotence and authority.
CG, p. 214

The theology of the cross corrects this:

As a theology of the cross, Christian theology is the criticism of and liberation from philosophical and political monotheism. God cannot suffer, God cannot die, says theism, in order to bring suffering, mortal being under his protection. God suffered in the suffering of Jesus, God died on the cross of Christ, says Christian faith, so that we might live and rise again in his future.
CG, p. 215-216

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