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

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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 thumbnail 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 phenomenons 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 or to gain the kind of cultural clout that comes along with being on the right side of righteousness—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 emphasize 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’ll take up moralism and spiritualism at more length.

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

  1. Brenden says:

    This is good. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Chris Sherman says:

    Yes, please continue. This comes at a good time for me.

    Have you ever read “Being Human” by Jerram Barrs and Ranald MacAuly?

  3. sean says:

    If you’ll forgive my observation of the obvious; moralism and spiritualism take hold in a theology and hermenuetic that sees the “law” in a uniquely acovenantal way. Even natural law devoid of it’s edenic or creator/creature moorings falls prey to this deistic and relativistic framing.

  4. Pingback: Kipling’s Theology of the Cross « The Confessional Outhouse

  5. Barron says:

    Nice work! Don Matzat was my professor awhile back. I love that man!

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