In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul calls the message of the cross foolishness. Other translations say:
“doesn’t make any sense”
Paul goes on to quote God from Isaiah, where He says:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.”
or in modern language:
“I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head.”
Rather than trying to make sense of the cross, it seems Luther simply accepted Paul’s view that it was foolish and went about the task of trying to figure out what made it so foolish.
In other words, how exactly does the cross turn conventional wisdom on its head?
According to Forde, Luther saw the cross as primarily God’s attack on human sin. Ultimately it is also our salvation from sin, but to grasp the foolishness of the cross, we must first see how it attacks us as sinners, not just as sinners in our bad works, but sinners in our good works.
This, to Luther, was the key to understanding the offensive illogic of the cross and lies at the root of how a theology of the cross differs from a theology of glory. As Forde puts it:
“The offense consists in the fact that unlike other theologies it attacks what we usually consider the best in our religion. Theologians of the cross do not worry so much about what is obviously bad in our religion, our bad works, as they do about the pretension that comes with our good works.”
- Gerhard Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross. p.2
It is not any particular doctrine of the atonement that made the cross nonsense for Luther. It was his understanding of what the cross says about our sinfulness, that such a radical act would be necessary.
In a nutshell, according to Luther’s offensive theology, all of our good works were actually sin - sin that needed to be destroyed at the cross along with our more obvious bad works. In fact, Luther seemed to claim that good works were humanity’s biggest problem. In a sense then, what appears to be the very best of us, is actually the worst of us.
If this is actually true, as Luther tried to prove with his Heidelberg Disputation, then God certainly has kept his promise to turn conventional wisdom on its head.