21.5.12

Luther's Theology of the Cross 2: The Cross in the Ancient Church


The church had to traverse a long distance before it could fully clarify its understanding of the cross of Christ in Luther's theology of the cross. It has often been observed how small was the role played by the theology of the cross in the ancient church. It is true that the church in the first centuries along with the church throughout the ages has lived by Christ's death and has recognized this fact. The death of the Lord is a present reality every Lord's Day and at every celebration of the Lord's Supper (there has never been another Supper!). The Fathers hardly quoted any Old Testament passage as often as they did Isaiah 53. The sign of the cross was already an established Christian custom by the second century, and yet Christian art of the time represented our redemption by portraying types from the Old Testament rather than scenes of Christ's passion. Only by the fourth century does Christian sculpture begin reluctantly to depict the passion as one of the gospel stories. Even early theology is not able to say much about the death of Christ.
When, at a later date, the great question was asked: Why then did God become man? It is not directed to Christ's death but to the reason for his incarnation. In this way the cross is taught in connection with the incarnation and not yet as a doctrine on its own. The cross is also included in the mystery of the resurrection (what we call Good Friday and Easter were celebrated by the oldest church simultaneously in the festival of Pascha or Passover). But even so, the actual event of our salvation remained the incarnation, as Irenaeus said: "On account of His infinite love He became what we are in order that we might become what He is"
Thus for the ancient church, as for the Eastern church even today, the cross is hidden in the miracles of Christmas and Easter. The darkness of Good Friday vanishes in the splendour of these festivals in which the cross is outshone by the divine glory of Christ the Incarnate and the Risen Lord. Even long after the church had begun to represent Christ Crucified in its art, the glory outshone the cross. When, at the end of antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, the crucified Christ replaced Christ the Victor (Christos Pantocrator) in the triumphal arch of the church above the altar, he is still portrayed as kind and triumphant. The Christ represented in the ancient church and in the Romanesque churches of the Middle Ages does not suffer; he remains triumphant even on the cross, and the cross itself always appears as the sign of victory rather than of suffering and death: "In this sign you will conquer" or "The royal banners forward go; the cross shines forth in mystic glow." The  resurrection of our Lord, then, marked the beginning of our redemption and of our resurrection.
Why was this the case? How are we to explain the limitations of the theology of ancient Christianity? To be sure, we must not forget that the divine revelation in the Holy Scriptures is so rich that whole centuries are needed to clarify its contents. We cannot expect that the church of the first Ecumenical Councils would already have solved the questions of the medieval Western world. Their problems were determined by the horizon of their time and its thought. Thus, for example, it would have been in bad taste for a Greek to portray artistically the scene of crucifixion - after all, would you hang a picture of a criminal on the gallows in your dining room?
As for understanding the redemption, the Greek Fathers could not escape their idealistic conception of man. Even the great Athanasius never considered "by what measure one weighed a sin." They were all Pelagians; for them, as for Dostoevsky and the Russians, the sinner is at bottom a poor, sick person who needs to be healed by patient love and the heavenly medicine and not, as was the case for the Romans, a criminal and lawbreaker who needed correction and justification. How is it possible for a person to understand the cross if he does not know who and what sent Christ to the cross? How can he understand the cross if he does not know with Paul Gerhardt that "I caused Thy grief and sighing by evils multiplying as countless as the sands. I caused the woes unnumbered with which Thy soul is cumbered, Thy sorrows raised by wicked hands"! Lacking an understanding of the full dimensions of sin, the ancient church and the Eastern church never attained a theology of the cross.

Letters to Lutheran Pastors No. 18; October, 1951.

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