What’s Wrong With A Theology Of Glory? (1)

At the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation (academic presentation), Martin Luther (1483–1546), the father of the Protestant Reformation, as he was coming to his Protestant convictions, argued: “One is not worthy to be called a theologian who looks upon the ‘invisible things of God’ [Rom. 1:20] as though they were clearly ‘perceptible in those things which have actually happened’ [1 Cor 1:21–25] But the one who knows the visible things and the backside [Ex 33:23] of God seen through the passions and the cross [is a theologian]. The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. The theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.” These are some of the most important words that any theologian in the Christian tradition have ever written. Sadly, they are mostly unknown to contemporary Christianity largely because many Christian leaders have decided that Luther was wrong. Many Christian laity, however, have never been exposed to these words nor to the ideas they mean to teach.

Luther explicitly mentioned theologians but he was implicitly addressing a doctrine, the theology of glory. This is not a reference to a 1989 film, of course. It is not a denial of the existence of heavenly glory. Luther certainly believed in heaven and in glory. By these short statements, Luther was criticizing three things that still need to be criticized:

Rationalism: What My Net Cannot Catch Is Not A Butterfy

The first aspect of a theology of glory is rationalism. The rationalist thinks that his mind (intellect) is the measure of all things. He might think too that God agrees with him, that he knows what God knows, the way God knows it. By contrast, even the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–74) taught that we are analogues to God and that our understanding of things is like God’s but it is not God’s. He argued that we cannot know what God knows, the way he knows it, because we are not God. This is what the Dutch Reformed theologian, Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) called the Creator/creature distinction. To be sure, Thomas was not always consistent in this theology with this distinction and that created serious problems that had to be remedied by the Reformation.

In the Modern period, the rationalist has said that the human intellect is the measure of all things. It is a law unto itself (autonomous). For the rationalist, God, if he exists, must conform to our understanding of things. The rationalist thinks he knows how the world works. He knows what can be and what cannot be. He has tried to put God in box.

The theologian of glory places his intellect over divine revelation in Scripture. It judges scripture. The rationalist, when he is consistent, has no difficulty saying that Scripture errs when it says this or that. The Christian, on the other hand, submits his intellect to Scripture. The Christian knows that God cannot be put in a box and that, indeed, God is incomprehensible. Any God who could but put in that figurative box is nothing but an idol. The God who is has, from nothing, spoken the world into existence and by the same sort of power whereby he creates and governs all things, the God who is saves his people.

Moralism: I Am Good Enough

The theologian of glory is also a moralist. He thinks that he is or can become good enough to satisfy God’s righteous law. Typically, such moralists are cheaters. They downplay the righteousness and holiness of God’s law in order to justify themselves. They also downplay sin and/or its effects. The theologian of glory does not think that he is truly helpless and desperately needy of God’s free favor in Christ. The moralist admits that he has a slight problem, a wound or an illness, but he insists that with just a bit of help (what he calls grace), he can do his part to contribute toward salvation.

Though, when confronted with the most naked form of moralism in the late 4th century, the Ancient Church and all the church thereafter rejected the notion that we are able to save ourselves, a form of moralism became the dominant view of salvation in the medieval church. It is the dominant view of salvation today. Liberal theologians (who are theologians of glory) think that we are good enough to make the world a better place and even achieve a kind of utopia on earth if we will just point all our enemies in the same direction at the same time. The liberal theologians are constantly coming up with new laws whereby good people can save the world (because, of course, for the liberal theologian, it is “the world,” not we, that must be saved. According to him, humans are basically good and do not need salvation from God. For him, God is not judge. He is just a friendly force in the cosmos.

Many so-called evangelical pastors and theologians, though they may not be outwardly liberal, agree with the liberal theologian. They might admit that we are a little more sinful than the liberal thinks and that God is a little more dangerous than the liberal thinks, but he agrees that the problem is largely “out there” and that we can do something about it. The moralist thinks he is good enough to do what justice requires.

Triumphalism: Winning!

The last aspect of theology of glory is the notion that, if we follow the law established by the liberal theologian (no more plastic straws!) or keep the “evangelical” law of the quiet time, we can improve the world to a utopia (liberal) or become entirely sanctified (“evangelical”). The theologian of glory is a legal theologian. He boasts in the law but he does not understand what the law does. He does not fear the law because he thinks that he can keep the law. He does not know that the law is killing him. He is like the drug addict who thinks all is well just before he keels over.

The optimistic liberals at the turn of the 20th century were the product of the age of optimism. Modern science had figured out how the world works and we were going to usher in a glorious age. Some had come to think that the gospel would spread across the earth and that most humans would be converted and that would usher in a glory age on the earth. Both the optimistic Moderns and the optimistic evangelicals had their optimism shaken by World War I, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. Since, then, of course, we have had the Long War on Terror (18 years and counting). At their best, Reformation Christians have never had much sympathy with the idea of earthly utopias, whether cosmic or personal.

It is useful to aware of these two types of theologians and theologies. The theologian of glory is attractive because he offers seven steps for a successful life or three steps to overcoming a persistent sin. The liberal theologian of glory is attractive because he promises a bright new future that we can see, touch, and taste. We like that.

Ask yourself these questions:  Was our Lord a theologian of glory or a theologian of the cross? Did he promise an earthly utopia where all social ills are remedied? Did he promise perfection in this life? Did he promise 7 steps for anything, ever? Was Paul a theologian of glory or a theologian of the cross? To ask the question is to answer it.

Part 2.

R. Scott Clark
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  1. I’ve observed all three in myself and am by nature a theologian of glory. God’s grace in the love of Christ is truly amazing.

    • Actually, I also observe all three in myself. Perhaps if one isn’t seeing sin then one isn’t mortified by it.

  2. Dr. Clark,
    As I study Romans 1-3, I see the futility of mans’ opposition to and rejection of God. Your work to distinguish these rebellious camps: rationalism, moralism, and triumphalism, and to identify the ‘lost’ ones, who hold these world views, clarifies the depths of our depravity without the Grace of God. Our status before God, without Christ’s completed work on the Cross applied to us, is darkness, folly, blindness, and destruction. Thank you for exposing the theology of glory.

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