An Unmined Gem in James Cone’s Theology – Brach Jennings, PhD student LSTC

black and white dr thomasA recently-admitted PhD student here at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Brach Jennings, has written a rather marvelous post for this week – and one you might not expect from such a dedicated Lutheran as they. Particularly moving, is the fact that they chat a bit not only about how Dr. James Cone was quite familiar with Doktor Luther’s theology, but also make a strong case that if any Lutheran pastor, lay person, or theologian is searching for a contemporary example of what it means to be a theologian of the cross, James Cone is the best example: rooted in human suffering, tied to community and time and place, and with a prophetic voice that leans powerfully on the power of the cross of Jesus. Please read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”


As the founder of Black liberation theology, James Cone radicalized the best of 20th century European systematic theology by doing constructive theological work centered on Jesus Christ’s radical solidarity with and liberation of suffering black bodies.  As a committed theologian of the cross, Cone turned European systematic theology on its head to address radical activism for and on behalf of suffering black bodies, while still drawing from the best aspects of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, and Jürgen Moltmann.  Cone’s radicalization of the theological tradition he inherited through the cross of Jesus Christ is the core of his constructive theology.  What is often missed in Cone, though, is his connection to the sixteenth-century radical theologian of the cross, Martin Luther.  To my knowledge, Cone’s connection to Luther has never been addressed explicitly.  We will briefly explore that connection here.

Discovering God in God’s Opposite in Martin Luther’s Theology of the Cross

I described James Cone as a theologian of the cross above.  The phrase “theologian of the cross” is actually synonymous with Martin Luther’s name and central to his understanding of the Gospel.  Luther rarely uses the phrase “theology of the cross” or “theologian of the cross” explicitly in his writings, but it is nevertheless the key to the Reformer’s theological work as a whole. [1] Hans-Martin Barth notes “Luther’s whole theology is, we might say, colored by and soaked in the blood of the Crucified and the suffering of the world.” [2] Therefore, being a theologian of the cross as defined by Luther means being a particular kind of theologian who is willing to face suffering head on from the standpoint of Golgotha’s incarnate, crucifie—-d, and risen Lord.  According to Luther’s hermeneutic, one speaks rightly of the Triune God by centering in the crucified and godforsaken Christ of Golgotha.  As the Reformer wrote, crux probat omnia. [3]


Luther’s staurocentric hermeneutic means theology should be concrete and rooted in the world.  When we speak of Luther as a theologian of the cross, we are speaking of someone who re-inaugurated a theological hermeneutic (originating with the Apostle Paul) within which the church that bears Luther’s name still stands (or, at least, should stand) today. Luther used this hermeneutic for doing theology as a whole, rather than primarily using the cross as an abstract idea.

Being a theologian of the cross, therefore, involves doing theology in the world.  Luther eschews philosophical, abstract speculations about God, and confesses God to be decisively found where God is most hidden, on Golgotha in the crucified Christ.

The theology of the cross stands in stark contrast to what Luther termed the theology of glory, which seeks God in every place but suffering, shame, death, abandonment, and godlessness.  In the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, Luther contrasts the mystery and majesty of the invisible God of the theology of glory with the suffering and shame of the cross.


According to Luther, it is a mistake for a theologian to attempt to comprehend God’s hiddenness through perceptible events, or to probe into God’s majesty, power, and sovereignty.  Such abstract, philosophical probing is the error of the theology of glory and is extremely common throughout Christian history and in our present time.  However, Luther writes, “that person deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God as seen through suffering and the cross.” [4]  In other words, God’s visibility is comprehended best in the most unexpected way – the suffering and dead Christ on Golgotha.  This belief flies in the face of worldly wisdom, because worldly wisdom cannot comprehend the suffering and hanging God as seen in Jesus Christ on the cross.

The theologian of the cross sees God revealed in God’s opposite, and in the last place human reason would look for God.  There is no majesty, might, or sovereignty here.  There is no invincible Superman who swoops in to save the day.  At Golgotha, there is only the crucified, hanging, naked, and dead God.  Paradoxically, for the eyes of faith, this place of death and abandonment is the decisive root for faith in God, vindication of oppressed and exploited bodies, and neighbor love in the world.

Bringing Luther and Cone Together

James Cone incorporated Luther’s staurocentric hermeneutic into his constructive theology.  I had the honor of hearing this firsthand when I spoke by phone with Dr. Cone in October 2016 (whose work had changed my life as a young theology student).

“I read a lot of Luther in graduate school because of my teacher Philip Watson!  Luther was so radical they tried to kill him!,” Cone said enthusiastically.  Toward the end of our conversation, he said “you can’t do good theology without fighting for it!” I realized Prof. Cone never abandoned his formation in Luther’s radical theology of the cross.

This can be seen most recently in his 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

to peruse, click here

Cone’s theology of the cross is explicit in this work, and he makes clear that his personal experience in the A.M.E. church is his foundation for trusting in the God of the cross despite the prevailing racism and white supremacy of the United States.

Cone draws from a variety of prominent black activists to show the connection between faith in Christ’s cross and work for social change.  He refuses to let white Americans forget about the horror of lynching or cover it up, noting, “Just as the Germans should never forget the Holocaust, Americans should never forget slavery, segregation, and the lynching tree.  As a nation, we are in danger of forgetting our history.” [5] Cone’s symbolic connection between Christ’s cross and the lynching of innocent black bodies is a brilliant move, and he links his work briefly to the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther by saying, “Great preachers preach the cross as the heart of the Christian message.  The Apostle Paul preached the cross and transformed a Jewish sect into a faith for the world.  Martin Luther preached the cross and started the Protestant Reformation.” [6] The Cross and the Lynching Tree is a powerful testimony to the power of the Crucified God for the liberation of the oppressed. [7]


Christ’s Cross as the Church’s Seedbed for Radical Action in the World

Cone shows Christian faith in the Crucified God is the courage to be for oppressed bodies, and an encounter with God that is a decisive “no!” to enslavement and oppression.  The theology of the cross can speak to oppressed black bodies because Jesus Christ is the Oppressed One who fights for the full humanity of oppressed black bodies.  Jesus Christ shows a preferential option for the oppressed, [8] in order that oppressed and exploited bodies may find new life and wholeness through claiming their full humanity.

The theology of the cross, in James Cone and Martin Luther, challenges the church to take seriously the radicality of God’s liberating enfleshment in the world.  As Cone observes, “Participation in divine liberation places the church squarely in the world.  Its existence is inseparable from worldly involvement.” [9]

May the church be empowered to follow the radicality of the Crucified God, seen in both James Cone and Martin Luther.

18757_648863675135_3426124_nBrach Jennings (he/him/his) is a Ph. D. student in Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. They hold a Master of Theology with distinction from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, and a Master of Divinity from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA. They specialize in contemporary appropriations of Martin Luther’s theology, and teach frequently in church and academic settings.


[1] Danish theologian Regin Prenter believed that the first explicit use of the term “theology of the cross” in Luther’s writings occurs in his Lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews from 1517-1518.  See Regin Prenter, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 1-2.

[2] Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 79.

[3] “The cross puts everything to the test.” WA 179, 31, as cited in Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: the Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, 1st ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 7.

[4] Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, 1518, in Luther’s Works 31: Career of the Reformer I (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1957), 40.  Hereafter cited as LW.  Slightly edited for gender inclusivity.

[5] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (New York: Orbis Books, 2011), 165.

[6] Ibid., 157.

[7] Cone explicitly uses the phrase “Crucified God” (in connection with Moltmann, but the phrase originated with Luther) in his autobiography/faith testimony.  See James H. Cone, My Soul Looks Back (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1986), 105.

[8] I am intentionally reframing Gustavo Gutiérrez’ famous phrase “preferential option for the poor,” in order to speak theologically to the reality of rampant racism in the United States today.

[9] James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010), 140.

One thought on “An Unmined Gem in James Cone’s Theology – Brach Jennings, PhD student LSTC

  1. Marc H. Ellis

    Because of Luther’s writing on Jews – how virulent! – I cannot approach him in any way. But through Cone, whom I knew, I can approach from a distance. And through this essay by Brach Jennings, I am encouraged that the task of theology continues.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s