Review: Transfiguring a Theologia Crucis through James Cone by Brach S. Jennings

Book: Transfiguring a theologia crucis through James Cone (Dogmatik in der Moderne, 48)

Publisher: Mohr Siebeck, 2023

Overview: Brach S. Jennings traces a theologia crucis from its origin in Martin Luther through its radicalization in Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Jürgen Moltmann, to culminate in a fascinating reading of James Cone’s Black Liberation Theology as a transfigured theology of the cross. The book is an insightful and well-argued study, and it is a potent resource for unlocking the liberative dimensions of a theology of the cross today.

Disclosure: I am close friends with the author of this book, Dr. Brach Jennings. I read and commented on an early version of chapter five and have frequently discussed the project with the author. I am also thanked personally in the acknowledgments. So, by no means am I an unbiased reviewer of this book, and the following should be read as such. Nonetheless, the reflections I have presented here are my best attempt at an honest look at this volume. 

This book is a careful and methodologically rigorous study of the theme of theologia crucis—theology of the cross—from Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Moltmann, leading up to James Cone. Along the way, Jennings’ interpretation sheds fascinating light on each theologian and uncovers the constructive potential of Cone’s transfiguration of theologia crucis for liberation theologies.

In the first part, Jennings unpacks Luther’s distinction between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross by examining Luther’s early works. Indeed, the basic research question guiding this book asks, “How is the theme of theologia crucis in the early Martin Luther transfigured through James Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation” (15)? I am far less familiar with Luther than the other authors studied in this book, so for me, part one was a lot of new information. But it was presented in a clear, accessible, and scholarly manner. I have often joked with Jennings that he is a true (if secret) Luther scholar at heart, and the incredible depth of insight he brings in these short pages to explain the various interpretations of Luther and contemporary debates demonstrated this clearly. The first one hundred pages of this book contains a close reading of primary texts from Luther, including the Heidelberg Disputation, two sermons, Freedom of a Christian, and On Bound Choice. Jennings outlines the meaning of a theology of the cross to set up a foundation for what follows.

Part two then turns to twentieth-century theologians, beginning with Karl Barth in chapter five. Jennings offers an original reading of Barth’s doctrine of election, interpreting it along the lines of a theologia crucis, paying close attention to Barth’s language about the “exchange” that takes place in God’s election of Jesus Christ. Jennings argues that “The Yes and No of Barth’s Erwählungslehre [doctrine of election] can be read as a transformation of Thesis 28 from the early Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation (1518)…” (115). The gospel as consolation for “terrified conscience” is another shared theme with Barth’s doctrine of election, which contains the famous remark that election is the “sum of the Gospel” (CD II/2). Jennings also discusses Barth and universalism in this connection. Overall, the chapter argues that Barth expands the theme of a theologia crucis with his doctrine of election, which, interestingly, implies “an implicit mystical undercurrent” to Barth’s doctrine (131). Barth’s use of Luther and theologia crucis has been acknowledged previously by scholarship, but what is new with Jennings’ reading is locating the theme in Barth’s doctrine of election. As such, it is a unique interpretation that hopefully will lead to more research into the links between Barth’s doctrine of election and Martin Luther’s concept of a theology of the cross and to what it might mean for Barth’s later theology, such as his doctrine of reconciliation in CD IV.

Chapter six turns to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, particularly his later theology. Jennings builds upon Reggie Williams’ Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus (Williams also writes the foreword to Jennings’ book), which argues that Bonhoeffer’s time in Harlem “provided what he needed to see the world differently and to imagine a different way of being Christian within it” (cited 134). Jennings then focuses on Bonhoeffer’s notion of Christ as Stellvertretung (vicarious representative action). Other themes in Bonhoeffer with traces of a theologia crucis include his lectures on Christology, pastoral-ethical writings, and Bonhoeffer’s concept of a “religionless Christianity” from his prison papers. The result is a compelling interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s theology of the cross and its political consequences. The ultimate effect demonstrated through this study of Bonhoeffer is how his later theology “serves as an impetus for turning theologia crucis toward the victims of sin” (166). This paves the way for Moltmann’s political theology of the crucified God.

Jürgen Moltmann was Jennings’ doktorvater when this book began as a doctoral dissertation. In chapter seven, Jennings traces how Moltmann radicalizes the theme of theologia crucis with his reception of Luther, Barth, and Bonhoeffer. This radicalization leads to Moltmann’s famous claim that “all sin, as well as suffering, shame, death, abandonment, and hell, is taken into the being of the Triune God because of Golgotha” (180). On this basis, Moltmann critiques Luther, even while he radicalizes Luther, for overlooking the victims of sin and injustice by focusing justification solely on the salvation of perpetrators. As such, theology and the church overlook the victims of sin with its doctrine of justification by grace. A universalist eschatology then offers hope to the victims of history, not merely for the perpetrators of sin. This turns a theologia crucis toward an eschatologia crucis which offers hope for the victims of history.

Part three concludes with a powerful and innovative reading of James Cone’s Black Liberation Theology as a transfiguration of theologia crucis. Jennings argues that a theologia crucis “finds new validity for the twenty-first century as transfigured through Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation” (258). Jennings’ concluding paragraph summarizes well the arguments of this chapter, and, accordingly, of the book:

Through Cone’s Black Theology of Liberation, then, a sapiential theologia crucis is transfigured to God’s suffering solidarity with oppressed black people in the United States in particular, and oppressed persons of color worldwide in general to show how the crucified Christ is the liberator of the oppressed. Cone’s theology thus shows how the theme of theologia crucis can have ongoing relevance in relation to situations of global oppression. Therefore, when this theme originating in texts from the early Luther is transformed through Karl Barth’s Erwählungslehre, and then further developed and critiqued through the theologies of Dirtrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen Moltmann, it can then be transfigured by Cone’s theology through Cone’s particular emphasis on oppressed black people in the United States, and oppressed people of color worldwide in general, for a contemporary theologia crucis that connects sapiential theology with political-prophetic theology (259).

Overall, this study is carefully argued by building upon close readings of primary texts to shed new light on each theologian and their contribution, and it has the potential for solidifying a liberative interpretation of a theology of the cross. As such, it is a noteworthy work of scholarship that demonstrates the best type of scholarly work—not merely academic for academia’s sake but rigorous and methodologically sophisticated in service of uncovering theology’s liberative potential for the oppressed. Anyone with interest in the theme of theologia crucis or in the theologians considered by Jennings will benefit from this book. It is also a masterclass in how to argue for one’s position with nuance, care, and methodological clarity.

I want to thank Mohr Siebeck for a review copy of this book. I was not obligated to offer a positive review and have presented my honest reflections here.