The Theology of the Cross: Reflections on His Cross and Ours, by Daniel M. Deutschlander. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 2008. 283 pp. Paperback. $21.99.
When you see a book called, “The Theology of the Cross,” you might expect it to begin with a discussion of Luther’s Heidelberg Theses, another author throwing his hat into the ring of Luther research. But Daniel Deutschlander does something much more Lutheran. Just like we should return to the words of institution when we begin to understand the teaching of the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and the Office of the Keys, Deutschlander begins his discussion on the theology of the cross by turning to our Lord’s words in Mark chapter 8: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” As in any good theological discourse, the words of Jesus set the foundation for his treatment of the theology of the cross.
To be sure, Deutschlander gives no shortage of quotes from Luther and other good teachers of the church. He discusses the Heidelberg Theses in the middle of the book, but he begins and ends with Scripture. Here the reader holds in his hand a truly biblical theology, reinforced by the sound teaching of the Small and Large Catechisms and other statements in the Lutheran Confessions. A biblical theology engages with the text of Scripture without getting caught in the weeds, keeping focused on the scope and goal of God’s Word.
This book is a reflection on the cross of Jesus and the cross of the Christian. These two crosses must remain distinct, lest we confuse God’s act of saving us by the crucifixion of Jesus with our own bearing of whatever cross he lays upon us. The Christian cross is a consequent cross, following the cross of our Lord Jesus. It is necessary for each Christian. And it is heavy and painful. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me,” not, “All who come after me.” He makes it personal: “he must deny himself.” This bearing of the cross marks each Christian. We learn it in the liturgy through the many chants of Kyrie, Christe Eleison “Lord, Christ, have mercy!” The cross of the Christian sends him again and again to the comfort of Christ, who alone made full satisfaction for sins. It sends the Christian back to the Word and sacraments, the true means of grace.
Deutschlander shows both that the cross is something the Christian wants and at the same time not something the Christian chooses for himself. He boils down the essence of cross-bearing to this point. It is Self-denial. The old Adam, whom Deutschlander continuously calls the old self, always wants to do his own will. This dynamic between the old man and the new man, or the old self and the new self, is at the heart of bearing the cross. Here he brings out the crucial difference between the worldly and the regenerated will of the Christian.
Deutschlander goes on to flesh out why it is so difficult to bear the cross. While the world places human will above the will of God, a do-gooder philosophy, which undermines and outright denies the reality of original sin, spirals into moral relativism and utter chaos. Yet, the author shows how we so easily breathe in the air all around us and slip into spiritual sloth. Here the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh are in league together. But Deutschlander is more than a mere cultural critic. He continually brings the discussion into the Table of Duties, mentioning the neighbor right in front of us who is often difficult to love. Drawing on 1 Corinthians 13, he beautifully writes of love bearing all things in the various stations in life, as well as how we deal with sin and its consequences both in ourselves and in our neighbors. Focusing on fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, children, teachers, and especially pastors, his ability to sift out the scuffles of the heart in both the young and the old is an art, which marks him as a skilled theologian. In other words, he’s clearly a pastor.
Anyone who is familiar with literature on the theology of the cross will immediately recognize such themes as paradox and the hidden God. The sinful self constantly fighting against the Christian’s new will presents a paradox, a conflict, a seeming contradiction. On the one hand, the cross is a dear gift of God. On the other hand, it is often stained with our own sin. This conflict is resolved only in the cross of Jesus, where all sin is borne and all wrath is turned away. With a crystal clear articulation of the atonement and the efficacy of the Word, Deutschlander shows how the theology of the cross, the means of grace, and justification are not three separate doctrines. Rather, they serve as a single doctrine. Holding to this conviction puts teachings such as providence and predestination in their proper context. Allow me to share this one snippet, which illustrates this well:
One thing alone is sufficient: grace! And only the bearing of the cross makes it clear that the meaning and essence of real life and everlasting life is grace! That is, God freely chooses to love me. And he chooses to love me for reasons of his own, reasons that have nothing to do with any good that I have done or ever will do. Even before the world began, when he knew already all of the reasons he would have not to love me, he nevertheless loved me. In such love and in Christ, he did everything, absolutely everything, that was necessary for my eternal salvation. He even ruled over all history, so that my hearing of the gospel and my trust in it would not be mere coincidence, much less the result of my will and choice; it would be altogether and alone his gracious doing in accordance with his gracious good will! (pp. 38-39)
What is revealed in the means of grace and in Christ’s work of salvation remains hidden as the Christian bears his cross. In fact, Deutschlander shows how the glory of Christ is hidden in every act of God. By the example of the saints who went before us, we see how the glory of God is hidden in the Word. The great wonders shown to Moses and Elijah, along with other prophets and saints, were handmaidens to the glory hidden under the Word of promise. Deutschlander casts a magnifying glass upon the text to show how miraculous every aspect of Jesus’ earthly life was, maintaining the great historical witness of his death and resurrection. Yet even in these wonders, the power to create faith was always in the Word. Rather than pitting the historical account and the Word against one another, Deutschlander uses the historical account to illumine all the more the great efficacy of God’s Word.
The last two chapters draw on Luther’s insights from the sixth petition on how trials come through different stages of life. With examples of how the young, middle aged, and elderly bear the cross, concluding with a focus particularly on pastors, Deutschlander’s book gives the reader words of great understanding and wisdom. Those who are familiar with the works of J.P. Koehler and Paul Hensel on the hardening of the heart will notice how Deutschlander comes to very similar observations about the calluses of the soul, which one experiences with age. I was especially struck by his keen insight into the cross borne by young Christians. I said, “This man is obviously a father.” However, from a subsequent conversation with a friend of mine, who serves in the Wisconsin Synod, I was amazed to learn that Deutschlander remained a bachelor his entire life. This man, who received his eternal reward in October of 2020, was truly blessed by God as a theologian. What other kind of theologian is there than this? If you desire to be a theologian, to apply God’s Word to yourself and to others under the cross, then this book will certainly not disappoint you.