Martin Luther said there were two kinds of theologians - by which he meant two kinds of people. One kind is a theologian of glory, and “does not deserve to be called a theologian.” The other is a theologian of the cross, and “deserves to be called a theologian.” That is, someone who knows God. Though both look to the visible and perceptible “things which have actually happened,” only a theologian of the cross “calls a thing what it actually is.”
In saying this, Luther was taking aim at the speculative theology that dominated the academy of his day, as well as the worldliness and avarice that so thoroughly corrupted his beloved Church. In looking at the perceptible world, whether by empirical observation or rational reflection, theologians of glory inevitably draw the wrong conclusions about God and themselves. This is why the Apostle Paul declares them fools in his epistle to the Romans (1:20-23; see also 1Corinthians 1:21-25).
Why? Because in locating “the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man,” these theologians exchange the glory of the immortal God with the glory and vitality of creation, according to their own imaginations.
One example of this kind of theology was the bold claim of a certain Eunomius in the 4th century, who through his philosophy claimed to know God as God knows Himself (namely, as Unbegotten substance). Gregory of Nyssa’s response is classic. Reflecting on Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain in Exodus 33:18-34:7, Gregory writes:
I was running to comprehend God, and so I went up into the mountain and came through the cloud and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. Then when I looked up, I barely saw the back parts of God [Ex.33:23]; and in this I was sheltered by the rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. When I looked a little closer I saw, not the first and pure nature, which is known to itself … but only that part of it that is posterior and comes down to us.
In short, Gregory of Nyssa says the best we can hope for is God’s posterior, which, in divine condescension, “comes down to us.” That means we do not rise up to it. And what are God’s posterior parts? Exodus 34:4-7 describes God’s hindquarters in these famous words: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty…” (see also 33:19-22). We must eventually tire of our philosophical speculations about the divine essence, and grasp the moral train of His robe in the Temple – that is, in the chosen place of His revelation. This is the “fear of the Lord, the beginning of knowledge.”
But even when theologians of glory discern rightly the invisible character of God – namely, “virtue, godliness, wisdom, justice, goodness, etc.” – nevertheless, Luther writes, “the recognition of all these things does not make one worthy or wise.” It only renders our bad behavior “without excuse” (Rom.1:20). This leads such theologians not to repentance, but to pretense and false pride. As Luther writes, “he who has not been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering, takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God. He thus misuses and defiles the gifts of God.”
According to his 95 Theses, “the true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.” It is naturally odious to a theology of glory.
In contrast to this approach, the theologian of the cross comprehends “the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” The Latin reads, Sed qui visibilia et posteriora Dei per passiones et crucem conspecta intellgit. Theologians of the cross see God’s visible and posterior self-revelation in the passion of Christ. In other words, they perceive His “back parts” from the vantage of Gregory’s rock: “the Word that was made flesh for us,” and suffered for us.
What do I mean? Luther argues that theologians of glory only become theologians of the cross through the cross – via crucis. God in Christ suffered in the flesh, he explains, to this end:
“[that] those who did not honor God as manifested in his works should honor him as he is hidden in his suffering … Now it is not sufficient for anyone, and it does him no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless he recognizes him in the humility and shame of the cross.”
Not only must a theologian of the cross see God in the suffering and crucified Christ, she must undergo the way of the cross with Him. In other words, she has “been brought low, reduced to nothing through the cross and suffering.” Luther called this excruciating path to life, Anfechtungen. He gives us this vivid description from his own experience:
God works by contraries so that a man feels himself to be lost in the very moment when he is on the point of being saved. When God is about to justify a man, he damns him. Whom he would make alive he must first kill. God’s favor is so communicated in the form of wrath that it seems farthest when it is at hand. Man must cry out that there is no health in him. He must be consumed with horror. This is the pain of purgatory. I do not know where it is located, but I do know that it can be experienced in this life. I know a man who has gone through such pains that had they lasted for one tenth of an hour he would have been reduced to ashes. In this disturbance salvation begins. When a man believes himself to be utterly lost, light breaks. Peace comes in the word of Christ through faith. … Christians should be encouraged to bear the cross. He who is baptized into Christ must be as a sheep for the slaughter.
Here is, if you like, Luther's Dark Night of the Soul. Since “God works by contraries,” it is paradoxically through this suffering of the soul - a kind of Gethsemane - that we escape the horrors of Calvary. Hence he concludes his 95 Theses:
92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Peace, peace,” and there is no peace! (Jer 6:14)
93. Blessed be all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, “Cross, cross,” and there is no cross!
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell.
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22).
So the theologian of the cross, in contrast to the one who “takes credit for works and wisdom and does not give credit to God, … has emptied himself (cf. Phil.2:7) through suffering [and] no longer does works but knows that God works and does all things in him. … He knows that it is sufficient if he suffers and is brought low by the cross in order to be annihilated all the more.”
But of course she is not left there in the ashes and dust of death. She is raised to new life through this death. As Luther continues, “It is this that Christ says in John 3:7, ‘You must be born anew.’ To be born anew, one must consequently first die and then be raised up with the Son of Man.” And in this new life we abound with “good works.” As we experience God’s good works toward us in Christ, we find ourselves inclined to respond in kind (see Titus 3:4-8). Our hearts are changed. Luther writes,
If we look at [the works of Christ for us] we are moved to imitate them. For this reason the Apostle says, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” (Eph. 5:1). Thus deeds of mercy are aroused by the works through which he has saved us, as St. Gregory says: “Every act of Christ is instruction for us, indeed, a stimulant.” If his action is in us it lives through faith, for it is exceedingly attractive…
Speaking of Gregory the Great, the pontiff made a profound comment in his Life of Benedict along these same lines:
[Christ] promised His enemies that he would give them the sign of Jonah: He was willing to die in the presence of the proud and rise again in the presence of the humble with the result that the former saw in Him something to despise and the latter saw something they had to love and venerate. As a result of this mystery it happened that while the proud see the contempt of death, the humble on the other hand receive the glory of power over death.
To the theologian of glory, Christ’s cross is all doom and gloom. She cannot receive it; it is the stench of death. But to the theologian of the cross, it is glory and power over death. To her it is the aroma of life.
Which kind of theologian are you?
Of course, if we’re honest, sometimes we can be both.
Gregory writes, of even the most venerable saints, “they are still oppressed by the weight of corruptible flesh [with the result that in this manner] they are not with God.” Surprising? Even the best among us can shrink back from “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.”
And we shouldn’t think of Luther’s Anfechtungen as a solitary experience, as merely the crisis before conversion. It is a repeated and not infrequent anguish of soul by which the saint is driven closer in her heart and mind to God. Luther once remarked, “I didn't learn my theology all at once. I had to ponder over it ever more deeply, and my spiritual trials [Anfechtungen] were of help to me in this, for one doesn't learn anything without practice.” Elsewhere, commenting on Psalm 119:66-72, he cites our suffering and trials (tentatio) as the touchstone of theology. It is these painful experiences that make true theologians of us - theologians worthy of the title. For through this dark night we come to a deeper knowledge of God, so that we might run in the daylight. And the deeper our experience, the faster we run (cf. Phil.3:12-16).
So, what kind of theologian will you be today?
Where does the way of the cross lie before you now?
You can have the courage to take the next step. By faith, we have confidence that our dying will mean our life - the life that enlightens men.
Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.
 A good example of Luther’s understanding of God’s revelation “hidden” in the suffering Christ is in his comments on the mystery of divine sovereignty in salvation in his Bondage of the Will (1525), 4.12: “We say, as we have said before, that the secret will of the Divine Majesty is not a matter for debate, and the human temerity which with continual perversity is always neglecting necessary things in its eagerness to probe this one, must be called off and restrained from busying itself with the investigation of these secrets of God’s majesty, which it is impossible to penetrate because he dwells in light inaccessible, as Paul testifies [1 Tim. 6:16]. Let it occupy itself instead with God incarnate, or as Paul puts it, with Jesus crucified, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, though in a hidden manner [Col. 2:3]; for through him it is furnished abundantly with what it ought to know and ought not to know. It is God incarnate, moreover, who is speaking here: “I would . . . you would not”—God incarnate, I say, who has been sent into the world for the very purpose of willing, speaking, doing, suffering, and offering to all men everything necessary for salvation. . . . It is likewise the part of this incarnate God to weep, wail, and groan over the perdition of the ungodly, when the will of the Divine Majesty purposely abandons and reprobates some to perish. And it is not for us to ask why he does so, but to stand in awe of God who both can do and wills to do such things.”
 While studying Psalm 22 in preparation for his first set of lectures on the Book of Psalms, Luther marveled at Jesus’ taking upon his lips the cry of dereliction. Biographer Roland Bainton writes, “What could be the meaning of this? Christ evidently felt himself forsaken, abandoned by God, deserted. Christ too had Anfechtungen. The utter desolation which Luther said he could not endure for more than a tenth of an hour and live had been experienced by Christ himself as he died. Rejected of men, he was rejected also of God. How much worse this must have been than the scourging, the thorns, the nails! In the garden he sweat blood as he did not upon the cross. Christ’s descent into hell was nothing other than this sense of alienation from God. Christ had suffered what Luther suffered, or rather Luther was finding himself in what Christ had suffered, even as Albrecht Dürer painted himself as the Man of Sorrows.”