The Systematic Theology of the Cross
The Systematic Theology of the CrossBy fatherstephen
“I once tried to explain ‘systematic theology’ to a Russian pastor of the Underground Church, who had never seen a whole New Testament. Systematically, I began to explain to him the teaching about the Godhead, about its unity in three Persons, the teaching about original sin, about the Fall, about salvation, about the Church, about the sacraments, about the Bible as infallible revelation.
“He listened attentively. When I had finished, he asked me a most surprising question: ‘Have those who thought out these theological systems and wrote them down in such perfect order ever carried a cross?’ He went on. ‘A man cannot think systematically even when he has a bad toothache. How can a man who is carrying a cross think systematically? But a Christian has to be more than the bearer of a heavy cross; he shares Christ’s crucifixion. The pains of Christ are his, and the pains of all creation. There is no grief and no suffering in the whole world which should not grieve him also. If a man is crucified with Christ, how can he think systematically? Can there be that kind of thought on a cross?
“’Jesus Himself thought unsystematically on the cross. He began with forgiveness; He spoke of a paradise in which even a robber had a place; then he despaired that perhaps there might be no place in paradise even for Him, the Son of God. He felt Himself forsaken. His thirst was so unbearable that He asked for water. Then He surrendered His spirit into His Father’s hand. But there followed no serenity, only a loud cry. Thank you for what you have been trying to teach me. I have the impression that you were only repeating, without much conviction, what others have taught you.’
This story illustrates the vast distance between theology as an intellectual construct, or even the s0-called ‘rational’ interpretation of Scripture and what the Elder Sophrony once dubbed ‘dogmatic consciousness.’ The Fathers of the Church did not offer us theology as their ‘best guess’ or as the fruit of superior reason. What we know in the Church as dogma, we know because it is know truly and experientially. It is known as the Scripture knows God and as the Church knows the Scripture.
Our struggle in Lent is the daily union of body and soul in the Spirit of Christ. Within such a union and the ascesis that is natural to it, it slowly becomes possible to know God and the things that pertain to God. ‘Take up your cross,’ is the commandment of Christ. Without this ‘taking up,’ we will know nothing.