A major issue facing Christian theology today is the question of power. On the wider cultural level, the postmodern critique of thinkers such as Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida and especially Michel Foucault contains the charge that all claims to truth, including the claims of theology, are merely secret bids for power. Christianity, it is claimed, dominated Western society for centuries not because it was more true, but because it was more powerful than its rivals. At the local level, too, similar issues face local churches today. Where does power lie? How are clergy and church leaders to use their power? What of the abuse of religious power evident in many religious movements, from the “Nine o’Clock Service” in Sheffield to American televangelists, even down to clerical domination in local churches today? These accusations have been strengthened by the sense that the church has often used theology to legitimate its claims to domination. Is theology merely an exercise in buttressing the power-claims of those in authority in the name of an all-powerful God? How can Christians claim to hold the truth when truth itself is seen as an oppressive assertion of power? These questions are crucial for the future of theology; as Anthony Thiselton puts it: “These perspectives constitute the most serious and urgent challenge to theology, in comparison with which the old-style attacks from ‘common-sense’ positivism appear relatively naïve.” The result of all this is that Christian theology today needs to search its own heart and past to discover whether it holds the resources to meet such challenges.
One theme in Western theology which can claim to do this is the theology of the cross. Sometimes forgotten, sometimes remembered, this “thin tradition”, which has functioned like an antiphon beneath the high triumph song of Christendom, has impressive credentials as a kind of theology possessing an in-built resistance to the abuse of power. It has shown itself on several significant occasions to be capable of mounting a serious critique of theologies which are used to legitimize claims to power, and to offer instead an alternative vision of both God’s use of power and that of those who claim to be his people. This article outlines three specific examples of theologians who have turned to theology which begins at the cross in order to address power-struggles within the church of their time.