Jerry Fallwell Jr. is a theologian of glory.
I thought this after reading his revelatory interview with the Washington Post. He is not the first, or the last, theologian of glory. He is one of many. Christian history is full of examples of people finding God on their side when articulating their theology, even, and especially when, their theology concretely harms people. The medieval crusades, the colonization of the Americas and enslavement of African peoples are among just a few examples.
The notion of a “theology of glory” comes from the German Reformer Martin Luther. He compared a theology of glory with a theology of the cross. (See Alan Bean’s column for a helpful discussion of the “two kingdoms” doctrine of Falwell and Luther.) Luther, angry with the abuses of the church (particularly the collection of indulgences), was asked to defend his views in Leipzig, Germany, two years after he nailed the 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg that sparked the beginning of the Reformation. Collecting indulgences meant the priests became wealthy. Contrary to Falwell’s assessment, Luther did not see the money of the wealthy trickle down to layfolk with regard to jobs or a better life. The priests selling indulgences were theologians of glory.
In the “Heidelberg Disputations,” Luther articulated the distinction between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross with these powerful statements:
[A person] does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened…. [One] deserves to be called a theologian, however, [one] comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross…. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is (emphasis mine).
For Luther, a theologian of the cross tells the truth, even when the truth is ugly, even when the truth depicts a suffering savior killed by the Roman government. A theologian of glory attempts to make theological statements about God to shore up a position of power, privilege and wealth. If we were to apply that template today, Falwell would be a theologian of glory. His theology does not allow his Christian faith to permeate his entire life, and it conveniently supports his political actions.
“A theologian of the cross tells the truth, even when the costs are high and losses loom large.”
In reality, Luther himself didn’t fully abide by his theology of the cross. When he perceived that his theology could disrupt economic and social classes, instead of advocating for the poor, he sided with the wealthy instead. He too became a theologian of glory.
What should we make of Falwell, and what should we think of Luther? As Christians, we sometimes lose the scandalous, ugly nature of the cross – that the divine does suffer as an outcast. When we forget that, we attempt to make God in our own image, justifying our behavior in the process. We realize that to be a theologian of the cross requires ongoing self-reflection and repentance – in essence, humility. We discover our journey is long, our mistakes many. When we are seduced by the promise of power, wealth or protection, we turn against our own beliefs. We can too easily call evil good and good evil.
But we also learn from a theology of the cross that humility is not just self-reflection or repentance, but also a proclamation. Luther’s theology of the cross – to call the thing what it is – serves as a prophetic truth telling. Repentance and self-reflection mean nothing if they do not lead to a deeper understanding and work toward the truth. A theologian of the cross tells the truth, even when the costs are high and losses loom large. Luther became a theologian of glory in his alliance with the nobility against the peasants, as he watered down the gospel’s message of freedom.
So, what does a theologian of the cross look like?
“What does a theologian of the cross look like?”
A theologian of the cross looks like Sojourner Truth, who pointed out both racism and sexism in her sermon “Aren’t I a woman?” She exposes the truth for what it is in front of a white audience. She keeps speaking the truth, her truth, when white people wanted to manipulate her for their own purpose.
A theologian of the cross looks like James Cone, the black liberationist theologian who died in 2018. He proclaimed that God, who was on the side of the Hebrew slaves suffering in Egypt, was also on the side of black people, who suffer at the hands of white people in the United States. As Jesus was crucified, so black people have been lynched. God, Cone asserts, is black, in that God chooses to become incarnate as an oppressed person, with oppressed people.
How do we expose and challenge theologies of glory? When are we called and compelled to tell the truth? Let us pray to have the mindset of Jesus, whose truth-telling both led him into trouble and set people free.