Theology of Glory or the Cross – Stephen Fry and the Heidelberg Disputation

We have written about this a while back in German and in reaction to this once popular interview with Stephen Fry. By the way: I love a lot of the man’s work. And even in this interview he takes a slightly silly question and turns it gracefully into a battering ram.

Of course, it is not mere lashing out or vitriol if you start by seeming slightly embarrassed and incredulous at being posed the question what you, avowed atheist, would say to God when approaching the “pearly gates” and the start your answer with the theological term “theodicy”. Fry then brings a strong accusation against this cruel, stupid God.

But what has this to do with “theology of glory” and the Heidelberg Disputaion? Well, Thesis 19 + 20 read (I have adjusted the usual english translation in view of the common German one):

19 He is not worthy of being called a theologian who understands the attributes of God ,which are »invisible«, »from what has been made« (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25).


20 He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends those attributes of God, which are visible and manifest in the world, as being made visible and manifest in suffering and cross.

The theologian of glory abuses the natural revelation of God to speculate on account of these and using his reason about God’s invisible attributes. The theologian worthy of being called that name, i.e. the theologian of the cross, “calls things what they are” (Thesis 21). He seeks God in the place he has most surely revealed himself: in his Son. And thus he knows he must also contemplate his “his human nature, weakness, foolishness” (defense of Thesis 20) as divine attributes which God has undoubtedly, “visibly”, revealed and thus how godly they are and worthy.

Returning to Steven Fry we can now understand a bit more: this, admittedly slightly stale, argument of new atheism engages in a reverse theology of glory. For it is important to note: everyone has a theology! Atheists also do, namely a theology of absence proved by a lack of self-revelation. A man without a theology would have no words to speak of God. Thus it is clear: Atheists have quite developed theologies. But to continue: This argument also seeks to develop from the visible things a knowledge of the invisible attributes of God while ignoring the questions posed and answers revealed by God’s self-revelation in his own suffering. But instead of a theologia gloriae it is a theologia horribile. And it is quite perfectly reasonable, perhaps more “true to nature”, as a theology of glory tends to ignore “bone cancer in children”.

In “De Servo Arbitrio” Luther writes:

“But Diatribe (by Erasmus) beguiles herself through her ignorance, making no distinction between the proclaimed God, and the hidden God; that is, between the word of God, and God himself. God does many things which he has not shown us in his word. He also wills many things which he has not shown us that he wills, in his word. For instance, he does not will the death of a sinner — according to his word — but he wills it according to that inscrutable will of his. Now, our business is to look at his word, and to leave that inscrutable will of his to itself: for we must be directed in our path by that word, and not by that inscrutable will.”

We have, without God’s supernatural self-revelation, no reason to know whether God is good or whether he is an evil fiend. In fact, history tends to the latter interpretation much more than the former. Be ist Stoicism (bearing the suffering), Epicureism (avoiding the suffering), Buddhism, which finds suffering to be the lynch pin of human existence, or, it’s western version, Schopenhauer and pessimism.

Thus we can find a new epistemological dimension to John 3, 16: ““For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” In Christ and his suffering and death on the cross God finally revealed himself as being truly a good and loving God. We can now be sure of that and cling to this promise even amid, and as the way to come to terms with, all the suffering we encounter here.


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