Humble debate

by Prof. Tim Huffman (John H. F. Kuder Professor of Christian Mission, Trinity Seminary)

March 19, 2004

For the second time in three years I have assigned Gerhard Forde’s wonderful little book “On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518” for a class to read during Lent. Although the theological power of this book, and of Luther’s work behind it, is striking, the book also is a wonderful Lenten devotional, and that is the spirit of the assignment.

As I re-read my highlighted and dog-eared Forde for the umpteenth time, I am challenged by its implications for our current theological struggles and debates. Luther’s 28 theological theses for the Heidelberg Disputation were delivered six months after the more famous 95 Theses, and are a classic statement of the theology of the cross. The setting was the triennial gathering of the Augustinian eremites [religious hermits], a rigorous order. Luther’s development of the theology of the cross, which he contrasted with the theology of glory, was addressed primarily to this most “religious” and committed group one might hope to find.

For Luther, the enemy of the grace of God was not irreligion but religion itself, not one’s distance from God but a confidence in one’s nearness to God. The cross, as Forde puts it, “reveals that the real seat of sin is not in the flesh but in our spiritual aspirations, in our ‘theology of glory’.” (p. 1) The “theology of the cross…attacks what we usually consider the best in our religion.” (p.2) “The delicate thing about it is that it attacks the best we have to offer, not the worst.” (p.3) It is the most religious, the most pious, the most virtuous of Christians for whom the message and impact of the theology of the cross are hardest to hear and to appropriate. Its message is that our devotion, our piety, our deep religious commitment are the hardest barriers of all for the message of the cross of Christ to break through.

Yet, our only hope is not to rely at all on what we do, not even the best we do; nor on what we avoid doing, not even the hardest work of self-denial; nor on how much we conform ourselves to what we take to be God’s will—because all of these finally constitute works of self-righteousness, and their effect is to wall us off from the true righteousness that comes only from Christ, the Christ of the cross. The “better” we are, the harder it is for us to acknowledge our total depravity, and our total need for God’s utterly undeserved acceptance. This is a painful but necessary Lenten reminder that every one of us comes before God and the Christian assembly as a sinful and helpless person, full of gratitude for God’s love in Christ.

To drink deeply of this reminder of the center of our faith and trust in God is to be sobered and humbled. Luther’s explanation of Thesis 16 speaks of the theological importance of humility. As Forde puts it,

This is Luther’s answer to the incessant question in the Disputation about how one obtains grace: by humility. In other words, grace is acquired not by “doing what is in one.” It is acquired when we are so completely humbled by God’s alien work in law and wrath that we see how completely we are caught in the web of sin and turn to Christ as the only hope. “God gives grace to the humble” was a watchword of Augustinian—and Lutheran—theology. (p.61)

This humility is not a human work, and is definitely not the false humility seen too often in church circles. It is a clear and honest recognition of the degree to which we have fallen short even of our own standards, let alone God’s. A product of the law, this humility is actually a gift of grace.

But where is theological humility in our churchly debates and struggles?

Far too often the debates reveal what are really personal ambition or a defense of cherished personal positions. The theological and confessional debates on the ecumenical proposals were used more to showcase the intellectual or academic achievements of the debaters, or to advance other agendas, than to ask humbly what God’s mission called us to do in a particular moment. Positions often were propounded in a spirit and tone the reverse of humility.

The current excruciating debate about homosexuality in the U.S. denominations would be less painful if it were conducted with the humility appropriate to forgiven sinners who know they possess no merit save that of Christ.

What could happen if we began our discussions and debates with the confession of our own sinfulness and our own lack of worthiness before God?

What if we granted to others the grace that comes from acknowledging that we, like they, stand judged by the Law; and that they, like we, are redeemed by the cross of Christ?

What if all parties set aside their confident assertions that they are right, and they alone?

Would this issue develop differently if it were approached in the spirit of Luther’s theology of the cross, rather than in a theology of glory, in which each debater were confident of his or her own goodness?