Theologian of Glory vs. Theologian of the Cross

The following is a Facebook Messenger conversation that has every possibility of being a real exchange between myself and one of my former colleagues from Crean Lutheran High School in the Theology Department.  This conversation describes and assesses the situation of dispute that often arises in Bible studies over Paul’s election language found in Romans 9.  This mock exchange also interprets it theologically before ending with a recommendation of a course for action.

Again – this is a made-up exchange, though it is grounded in some reality.  For instance, most of my input comes from notes I took from a Professor Biermann lecture that was given at Concordia Seminary on November 1st, 2018.

Wes:  Hey, Andy.  We decided to read Romans for our Friday men’s Bible Study this year at Crean, and guess what? The department punted to me to take over for Romans 9-11.

Andy: You’re the man for it, since you came out of Calvinism.

Wes:  Sure, but with only thirty minutes for our time together it’s hard to get much traction.  We did what we traditionally do and read through the whole of chapter 9 to start, and immediately, it was like a bomb went off.

Andy: I can only imagine.  Weeping and gnashing of teeth; I’m sure.  I can guess the usual suspects from our Calvinists and Arminian brethren on staff .  It’s one of the downsides I guess to not having a Lutheran only hiring policy in order to get the best math, science, and English teachers.

Wes: For sure.  Yet, as you know, even many of the Lutheran teachers from outside the Theology department don’t get election (vs. 11), ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’ (v. 13), and God hardening whomever he wills. (v. 18)

Andy:  I doubt that’s a problem for you though, because like I said you are the man for this chapter.  You came out of Calvinism and you got all the great Middendorf answers memorized verbatim from that MA class you took recently.  It was great stuff you shared with me that you picked up from our Synod’s bowtie professor.

Wes: I’m telling you; a bomb went off.  There were so many questions and objections and answers from others going around that I didn’t even get to wind up on showing how this isn’t Paul making a case for double-predestination.  The Calvinists in the bunch were touting that this is exactly what Paul is teaching in this passage, and our outspoken Arminian teacher was correctly abhorring the notion that from before time God had predestined many to hell, yet he was denying total depravity and pushing free-will in the process.

Andy:  I recall that he doesn’t even support original sin.  So what’s on the docket for next week?  A repeat of chapter 9?

Wes:  I could give all the pat, pat correct answers, but I think the root of the problem needs to be addressed.  They’re smart people.  They know how to read.  I feel like it’s more than just poor exegesis at play.  Any thoughts on what is at the heart of the matter?

Andy:  I do have an idea of where you could start.  Do you remember Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation?

Wes:  Yeah, what about it…

Andy:  Unlike you, I’m not a big Church history buff – nor reader.  I didn’t even know what was in it or even when it was written or why until this week.  Professor Biermann used it as his key text for laying out the distinction between being a theologian of glory or a theologian of the cross. I asked him after class if Luther had coined those terms and he said that to his knowledge he had, and the way Dr. Biermann presented these two types of theologians was unlike what I had ever heard or conceived concerning these two types of theology.  I think it could be helpful as a starting off point next week.

Wes:  How so?

Andy: We all (Calvinists, Roman Catholics, Arminian, Lutherans, etc.) say that we are saved by grace through faith, since Paul plainly said so, but we understand this salvation differently.  The theologian of glory “wants to matter” in his approach to salvation, whereas the theologian of the cross “wants God to count!”  The theologian of the cross recognizes that God is the Creator and we are but his creation.  We are contingent on him.  It’s actually going to be the next shirt I add to my website: “I am a dependent being.”  It flies in the face of our American individualism and our sense of independence and unrestrained freedom to “do what thou wilt” (the charge of LaVeyan Satanism by the way).  Our dependency on God so hits at the heart of our glory seeking sinful nature, that even as Christians we fight it, still wanting to operate with the understanding that life and salvation are still in some way in our court.  We want to matter.

Wes: “Who of you can add an hour to your life?” We are dependent on God not only for our physical life, but also our spiritual life.

Andy: Exactly.

Wes:  So what do I do with this distinction precisely?

Andy: Dr. Biermann ran most of this through a “Stairway to Heaven” depiction, which Stairway to Heaven 4you know I loved!

Wes:  Yeah, some students miss your “Jesus is the Stairway to Heaven”, Led Zeppelin, poster in Room 209.

Andy:  I miss Room 209 and you guys too.

Wes: So what did Biermann do with the “Stairway to Heaven”?

Andy:  Same thing as me except he couched it in the terminology of theologian of glory vs. theologian of the cross.  He actually drew a stairway on the board and depicted the theologian of glory viewing salvation as his work going up the steps to God. As you know, there are various takes on this and they all still claim grace from God as the way “they” make the climb.

Wes: Rome would say God is the initiator of such work through his grace that enables us to earn this merit.

Andy: You got it.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part 3, Chapter 3, Article 2 in Brief on Justification states: “No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.”

Wes: Our Arminian friends are the same involving their own merit, though not quite as bad off as Rome, I’d say.

Andy: Since faith is their work, their decision, their works are involved.  Even if it is just one work, the work of faith, the door has been opened just a hair for our works to play a role in our salvation.  Once that door is cracked, the tendency is for the door to swing further open.  Enter the stereotypical Footloose Christianity that I know so well from growing up in Baptistville, TN.

Wes:  Footloose, that’s funny.  My uncle who lives in Dandridge, TN, is in a dry county!  I guess they are pointing to their works to prove or verify the validity of their decision to follow Jesus, or in the case of the Footloose breed of Christians, they create laws around God’s laws to ensure they don’t sin.

Andy: When they doubt if they really believe or if they have truly accepted Jesus, all those adverbs that Professor Rod Rosenbladt despised, where do they turn for assurance?  Inward on themselves.  Even if they don’t “want to matter” in salvation; they do, and they must for their assurance.  Theology of glory.

Wes: The Calvinists are no different.  Even though they claim divine monergism, they believe Jesus didn’t die for everyone, so how do they know that they are one of the elect?  They can’t just look to the promises found in the Gospel or in the waters of baptism.  They like the Arminian turn inward.  Remember, we did a podcast episode on that talking about The Gospel Coalition’s article, “How Do I Know I’m A Christian?” by Kevin DeYoung.  For the person asking this question, maybe from a position of doubt even, he points them first to their personal confidence in Christ.  Well, why would they be asking this question if they were confident in their belief? Then DeYoung pointed them to have confidence that they are a Christian by looking at their righteous life and love for other Christians, citing Scripture all along, but not pointing the people to Christ for their assurance.

Andy: I do remember that episode very fondly.  I think it was the first one we did together.   Dr. Biermann pointed out a different reason however for why Calvinists are theologians of glory.  You’ll like this one!  Because Calvinists make it all make sense.  He says the same for the Arminians too.

Wes:  That’s hilarious… because their system is lock-tight reasonable and they are consistent with it through and through.  But how does that make them theologians of glory?

Andy: You just said it.  It’s in their reasoning.  By putting their reason above Scripture, by making it all make sense, by having their special Calvinist decoder ring to know that “all” doesn’t mean everyone; it means all the elect.  Or, their fancy working of what the word “world” means to show that God wasn’t reconciling everyone to himself in Christ.

Wes:  That makes sense – no pun intended.  They have a magisterial use of reason and by their erasure of the paradox of election with God’s desire that all be saved, they have “made themselves matter” over and above God’s Word.  Their reason is the key to the Scriptures – to getting things right.

Andy:  For the Arminian, and I haven’t seen anyone say this before, I would argue that instead of putting their reason above Scripture, they are putting their emotions above Scripture.  They are using their reason to run to double-predestination when they hear that God elects people by grace alone apart from any individual merit, but then their emotions, their feelings, kick-in, and they go “that’s not fair!”  “That’s not loving!”

Wes:  That’s right.  The question of fairness was raised by the non-Calvinist objectors to election.

Andy:  See, they want to be involved in salvation, have some sort of part in the process – theologians of glory.

Wes:  But then they do get that salvation by grace through faith isn’t fair since Jesus did die for their sins.  The happy exchange is in play.  Our sins are imputed to Christ and his righteousness is imputed to us through faith.  They get that that move of double-imputation is not fair and yet it is necessary to be that way since we can’t justify ourselves, but they still want it to be fair.

Andy:  It’s because they are operating based on their experience, reason, and emotions.  Nothing in this world is free for us.  It’s one of the first things Jessica hammered out of me.  Every time I’d see something for free, she’d say I was so gullible.  She’d say nothing is free.  And every time she was right.  There was some string attached.  Are you familiar with the Rush song, “Something for Nothing”?

Wes:  You know I’m not.

Andy: Of course you don’t know it.  It’s electric. The song’s chorus says, “You don’t get something for nothing.  You don’t get freedom for free.”  Their lyricist, Neil Peart, is correct, but only in the kingdom of man (he’s an atheist by the way).  In God’s economy, we do get grace for free.  Free for us. Not free for God.

Wes:  So you’re thinking this paradigm between theologians of glory and theologians of the cross will show that when we reject God’s election as revealed in Scripture will help them see that they are operating under their own sin tainted reason and experiences of this fallen world and not living in submission to the work of Christ on the cross that says, “Your works do not matter.  Mine are all that count for your salvation.”?

Andy:  That is correct.  I’d recommend starting the next men’s Bible study laying out these two types of theologians, even drawing it out on the board.  Then I’d show them the doctrinal statements from Scripture that form the doctrine of election.

Wes:  Are you referring to these five statements from PPT you made for the “Conversion” chapter from Called to Believe?

  1. We are saved by grace through faith.

John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 4:5

  1. Faith is not our work but the work of the Holy Spirit.

Titus 3:5, 1 Corinthians 12:3, John 1:13, Ephesians 2:8-9, Ephesians 2:5, Romans 9:16, and John 6:29

  1. We are incapable of deciding to have faith.

1 Corinthians 12:3, Ephesians 2:1, John 1:13, John 6:44, and 1 Corinthians 2:14

  1. God elects/predestines to salvation!

Ephesians 1:3-13, 4:3-5, John 1:13, Romans 8:29-30, 2 Timothy 1:8-9

  1. It is the will of God that no man should perish!

1 Timothy 1:3-4, 2 Peter 3:8-9

Andy:  Those are the ones.  Stress that it is never written anywhere in scripture that God predestines people to Hell!  If someone goes to Hell it is because of their sin and their rejection of God.  We do not have the ability to accept God, but we have the ability to reject Him!

Explain to them that if we say that faith is not solely a work of the Spirit, but that we play an active role in our conversion we would ignore points 2-4, eliminating Scripture.

Wes: Then if we are to say that faith in conversion is solely a work of the Holy Spirit and thus God predestines some to heaven and others to hell, we would be eliminating point 5 from Scripture.
Andy:  And anytime we are removing Scripture to have things make sense, or to be fair to our reasoning of what fair is, we’re putting ourselves above God and his Word and making ourselves matter in the scheme of God’s salvation.  Anytime someone in the group brings up a statement that goes against one of those teachings of Scripture, you can simply point it out.

Wes: I also added two additional points to that list you put together with the verses from which they are derived.  One on the resistibility of grace and another on the general (universal) atonement of sins through the work of Christ.  Those are key for refuting Calvin’s TULIP theology of glory.

Andy: Nice. Finally, be sure to proclaim the good news of God’s election.  In Christ, God has chosen them to be his children.  As unsettling as it may be to not matter in the scheme of their salvation, God’s election is to comfort them, knowing that that he chose them unconditionally before they were even born, before the foundations of the world.  Nothing can separate them from the love God has for them in Christ Jesus.

Wes:  Amen.  I’ll let you know how it goes next Friday.