Book Review: On Being a Theologian of the Cross

20 April 2011 by Wes Bredenhof

On Being a Theologian of the Cross:  Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, Gerhard O. Forde, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.  Paperback, 121 pages, $11.95.

When referring to various teachings about salvation which involve man cooperating with God (synergism), we often use the term “Arminianism.”  If we’re a little more sophisticated, we might use terms like Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism.  This book re-introduces an old distinction formulated by Martin Luther:  a theology of glory versus a theology of the cross.  All the various synergistic ideas of salvation can be placed under the heading of a “theology of glory.”  This book may persuade you that these old categories of Luther are more helpful than the ones we often use today.  Moreover, it may surprise you how often we ourselves are drawn to a “theology of glory” which “calls evil good and good evil.”

The author, Gerhard Forde (1927-2005), was professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota until his retirement in 1998.  The book is his commentary on a set of theses that Martin Luther presented to the German Congregation of the Augustinian order in Heidelberg in 1518.  Even though the 95 Theses of 1517 caused a bigger stir politically and ecclesiastically, the 28 theses presented at Heidelberg have been more theologically influential.

This is an amazing little book and reading it may well turn your thinking upside down.  The theology of the cross is, of course, concerned with the cross of Jesus Christ, which Forde reminds us is “shorthand for the entire narrative of the crucified and risen Jesus.” (1).  It also includes the Old Testament preparation for that narrative.  But this is not abstract theology – what is brilliantly laid out here is the gospel whereby God alone saves sinners through Christ alone:  “Grace says ‘believe it’ and everything – EVERYTHING! – is already done.” (110).  Perhaps not surprisingly, there are numerous similarities between the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 and the Catechism that was produced in Heidelberg in 1563.

Every now and then you come across a book that delivers theology in a devotional format – you read it and it propels you further on the journey of spiritual growth.  This is one of those books.  Read it and see what happens!  I have but one complaint and it is the image of Christ on the cross on the cover.  However, a post-it note with some tape quickly deals with that problem.  Aside from that, this book is highly recommended.