Moralism and Spiritualism: Theologies of Glory versus Theology of the Cross, Part One

Writer and art critic Robert Hofler of Variety magazine recently said that while American stage is primarily about expression, art and talent, American film is more or less really only about two things, as the title of the recent film Kiss Kiss Bang Bang seems to suggest: sexuality and violence. I was struck by this insight and began plucking out any film I could think of. And, more or less, it seemed accurate.

In the same way, it is my contention that wider Christendom, and particularly American Evangelicalism, has always been really only about two things: moralism and spiritualism. These two phenomenon seem to comport under what Luther called “theologies of glory,” over against what he deemed a “theology of the Cross.” Briefly, the former has man seeking God through glorious means that he invents and understands; in the latter, God seeks man through apparently foolish means that appear shameful and weak, means that man is hard pressed to understand or accept. The theology of glory seeks revelation, where that of the Cross teaches that God hides Himself. Corporately speaking, theologies of glory with regard to moralism have an especially cozy status in fueling a certain end of the so-called culture wars. “The triumphalism of revivalist (and Reformed) evangelicalism,” as Reformed theologian R. Scott Clark puts it, seeks a taking over of the cultural spheres. With raised fists and swords these theologies intend to “take the culture back” through means that man understands and in which he glories: politics, cultural values and morality. Pat Robertson wonderfully personifies this ham-fisted theology in many ways but most recently when he castigated the city of Dover, PA for “voting God out of their city” in the hotly debated Intelligent Design issue. They had better not be surprised if disaster strikes, Robertson claimed, because reward and punishment are doled out to either obedient or disobedient people—of course, what is obedient or disobedient will be decided by a narrow band of particular culture-value litmus tests. (I think Orlando, FL is still wanting for his promised terrorist bombs for allowing gay pride flags to be erected in 1998.) Taken another way, as we read the New Testament Gospels, these sorts of theologies of glory were the modus operandi for the Jewish authorities. One detects the same impulse in today’s Pharisees as yesterday’s also sought a mighty political Messiah to rescue them from the grip of the Romans, to look for a political strength to exact godly power—not one to toddle in on some pathetic donkey, feet awkwardly dragging in the Palestinian dust, and then hang from a cross. A theology of the Cross does well to rebuke that of glory when the latter rises in a display of self-will and cuts off the ear, so to speak.

To a more individualistic end, Lutheran theologian Don Matzat explains, “Martin Luther accurately defined sin as man turning in on himself. While a theology of glory continues to turn you to yourself as you measure your growth in holiness against a plethora of spiritual experiences, the theology of the Cross turns you away from yourself. As a result of the conviction of the Law, you forsake your own good works and spiritual experiences and cling to the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ.” I have italicized Mazat’s words here myself in order to emphasis how Luther’s theology of the Cross stands in stark contrast to the two strains of glory so rampant in wider Christendom today: moralism and spiritualism.

Perhaps a starting point might be to ask the question, “What is our chief problem?” The theologies of glory these days say overwhelmingly that our chief problems are either moral or spiritual or both. And they are either corporately understood (think culture wars) or individually understood (think spiritual disciplines or your garden variety Bible Study). One result is a wider Christendom that teems with activities designed to improve anything deemed as moral or spiritual. The theology of the Cross says our chief problem is our sin and the answer is God’s reconciliation of it through the Person and work of Christ alone, objectively and entirely outside our inward experience, be it moral or spiritual.

To make matters even more confusing there is a stew-like phenomenon, wherein theologies of glory are also mixed in with theologies of the Cross. Predictably, the theology of the Cross simply gets swallowed up in those of glory. That is, the rather simple understanding of our sin and its reconciliation gets eclipsed by those things man deems more important. The result is that ‘sin’ is either understood as ‘immorality’ or ‘unfulfillment’ and ‘reconciliation’ as ‘morality’ or ‘fulfillment.’

In Parts Two and Three, I will take up the topics of Moralism and Spiritualism more specifically…

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20 Responses to Moralism and Spiritualism: Theologies of Glory versus Theology of the Cross, Part One

  1. Echo_ohcE says:

    Imagine then, the perversity of Mel Gibson’s The Passion. It turns the cross into something glorious, turns shame itself into something glorious. How crazy is that?

    But don’t let me jack this thread…

  2. Rick says:

    But there is glory in the cross. Not one that lends itself to the theology of glory Zrim talks about here, but when you considers the Gospel of John you see the glory in the shame of the cross. I mean, that’s the beauty of our postion right? Power in weakness, glory in suffering?

    Consider that John writes: “…if I be lifted up from the earth I will draw all nations unto myself”

    There the cross is compared to the healing serpent raised in the wilderness. A sign of cursing provides deliverance.

    Also, “The Hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified”

    And consider that John is the only Gospel writer who doesn’t record the darkness that covered the land.

    Again, this doesn’t lend itself to the theology of glory, the moralism Zrim is comparing with the theology of the Cross – it’s a hidden glory behind the suffering.

  3. Zrim says:

    Echo,

    Yes, I think there is a reason the Scripture can be so boring to read: it assumes a theology of the Cross over glory. Putting the Gospel to film in such indulgent ways reveals just how bored we are with God’s mode of communicating. I think this is highly instructive.

    I recall before converting the Jesus freaks handing out little green Psalms/Gospel outside Pearce Hall. My quest during my college salad days was a very typical one for wisdom, etc. (read: a theology of glory). I eagerly took one. But I found The Gospel account so matter-of-fact, dry, historical and utterly useless to my quest.

    I think there is good reason for the mode of communication written down without any fanfare: there is a point to it and we are not to be bothered or distracted by what our flesh naturally seeks.

  4. Zrim says:

    Rick,

    Yes, good points and ones batted back and forth at DRD at one time.

    This seems also relevant to my discussions with Rube about the difference between sanctification and transformation: it isn’t that the words “glory” or “transformation” are per se four-letter words (to my mind, at least), it’s the meaning we bring to them. (Biblical) glory and (biblical) transformation are best expressed in terms like cross and sanctification because the meaning we often import to the former terms is from the house of the sarx. Funny how we work like mad to use the former terms…

  5. RubeRad says:

    Z, before you continue, I’m a little confused.

    You say ‘spiritualism’ and I think something like ‘mysticism’, or vague, new-agey ‘spirituality’. Is that what you mean?

    Then you align spiritualism with Theology of the Cross, and “God seeks man through apparently foolish means…”, so it seems you are setting up a discussion of “moralism bad, spiritualism good”.

    But then in the middle, you lump the both together in the bad pile: “two strains of glory so rampant in wider Christendom today: moralism and spiritualism”, and then equate spiritualism with pietism (“spiritual disciplines or your garden variety Bible Study”)

    I’m confused — what do you mean by the term ‘spiritualism’, and is it good or bad?

  6. RubeRad says:

    Putting the Gospel to film in such indulgent ways reveals just how bored we are with God’s mode of communicating. I think this is highly instructive.

    Z, I don’t know if paths had crossed when I wrote a series on Jacques Ellul’s Humiliation of the Word, where he brilliantly takes up this very concept of how the essence of idolatry is to forsake God’s ordained “mode of communicating” (i.e. Word), in favor of a mode in which we feel we have more control (i.e. Image).

  7. Zrim says:

    Rube,

    Good point, and one I thought of myself. Yes, I mean something more new-agey. At the risk of being way too Po-Mo, use that if it works for you.

    Oh, I see how confused you. You were using good reading method where I used a bad writing one.

    Sorry to have confused you. Moralism and spiritualism I mean to comport under the ToG. They are both bad.

  8. RubeRad says:

    I think i was thrown off by this close proximity:

    two things: moralism and spiritualism. These may be what Luther called “theologies of glory” versus “theologies of the Cross.”

    Maybe if you clean that up so it doesn’t look like a two-for-two pairing it will be clearer…

  9. Zrim says:

    Rube,

    Yes, that is the pairing we both had in mind…

    Done.

    Thanks.

  10. Echo_ohcE says:

    Rick

    Gibson’s Passion = Greek Tragedy.

    It has a theology of glory way of looking at the cross that reverses the paradox, reverses the reversal. It declares that which is shameful to be glorious, it declares that which is humble to be exalted.

    But the cross is still shameful, even though God the Father’s response to Christ was to raise him from the dead and give him a people. Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame”.

    The cross is shameful, deplorable, appalling. That God incarnate should, could, would suffer is the stumbling stone.

    Gibson wishes to take away the nature of the stumbling stone. He doesn’t want people to think that the cross is shameful and humble at all, but glorious and beautiful and wonderful – and yet at the same time to be mourned exquisitely.

    It is just like Greek Tragedy. It is just like the gaudiness of the opera, it is like Evangelical worship.

    The glory is in the excess of it.

    Gibson portrays the cross as something SO shameful and SO mournful that it becomes glorious, as if in traveling east far enough you eventually end up back in the west. This is what Gibson aims at.

    In other words, “It’s actually pretty cool to be naked and beaten in public, and it’s pretty cool to gaze upon that and ball your eyes out for 3 hours, you’ll feel better, and the whole effect will be glorious and wonderful.”

    No, what makes the cross glorious is what it accomplished, not what it was.

  11. Zrim says:

    That the movie theaters were packed to the gills with Roman Catholics and Evangelicals gives new (or not so new?) meaning to “ECT”!

    …pass the popcorn and raincoat (to keep the blood and tears off me).

  12. RubeRad says:

    But the cross is still shameful, even though God the Father’s response to Christ was to raise him from the dead and give him a people.

    The cross was shameful; glory lies only in the resurrection. Christ’s glorious vindication was after only days, but for us, glory is postponed.

    And there can be no resurrection glory without death first (else what are you resurrecting from?), so there is no possibility of shame-free-glory. No card that says “Go directly to Glory, do not pass death, do not collect $hame”. Which ties us back to the overarching thesis here in the Outhouse (?): that too many are in the Evangelical Party-House trying to have an all-glory, no-shame transformarathon.

  13. Bruce S. says:

    Quote: “When theologies of glory buckle under their own utopian weight, it is not surprising that theologies of despair and theologies of a/theology emerge”. (Horton Covenant and Eschatology pg. 44)

    This points out that ToG vs. ToC is not just some exercise in theoretical/theological ping-pong. Lives are at stake. Hence, zrim, take utmost care to clarify these categories. For most folks unfamiliar with these waters, this is just another place to put the book down and go watch TV.

  14. Echo_ohcE says:

    Bruce,

    Amen.

    Rube,

    Counterpoint: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.

    E

  15. RubeRad says:

    “In an instant”, which puts emphasizes sudden, consummate glorification.

    How about 2 Cor 3:18? Look how different translations give different flavors to a familiar phrase:

    ESV: “from one degree of glory to another”

    NIV: “ever-increasing glory”

    KJV: “from glory to glory”

    That progression looks like “from one degree of optimism to another”

  16. Zrim says:

    Hi Bruce.

    I am not sure I understand the quote’s relation to your comment. Could you maybe elaborate?

    I get your comment, though. I would say that I am writing with an assumption that those reading have a somewhat cursory understanding of the categories.

  17. Bruce S. says:

    zrim, I’ll respond privately in an email before the end of the day.

  18. Rick says:

    Echo,
    Yep, I agree. Don’t take my comment as an endorsement of Gibson’s film.

  19. Echo_ohcE says:

    Rube,

    I’m just saying not everyone dies to pass into glory. Those who are still alive when Christ returns…

    But you’re right, as a general principle, death then glory. Death to put the seed of Adam to death.

  20. Echo_ohcE says:

    Rick,

    I knew you would, and I didn’t.

    Look at me with the short posts!

    E

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