Heidelberg and Hobbiton: Theology of the Cross in Middle-earth
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.
1 Corinthians 1:27
What does Martin Luther have in common with Frodo, and Samwise? I assure you, it’s more than enjoying the company of friends and family, joyous hospitality, and of course, a good ale.
On April 26th, 1518 Martin Luther delivered his famous Heidelberg Disputation before the General Chapter of the Augustinian order.
On December 25th, 3018 (Shire reckoning) four hobbits, two men, one elf, one dwarf, and one wizard left Rivendell to destroy the Ring of Power in the fire of Mt. Doom.
To be sure, these are two different events from two different worlds, one history and the other epic fantasy. Yet, something fundamental to the Christian faith ties both stories together.
For Luther, Heidelberg was still at the beginning of his journey. In 1518 he was not yet the mature theologian who would later craft the Small and Large Catechisms. Still, the trailhead was set. The Reformation journey that began with the famous Wittenberg post of October 31st, 1517 continued on through Heidelberg. In Luther’s articulation of a theologian of the cross we see the very heart of the Christian Gospel he relentlessly taught, wrote, and preached:
That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross. [1 ]And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5)
Like St. Paul, Luther learned to rejoice in weakness rather than boast the confidence of human works. For in our weakness we see the great strength of God displayed in Jesus who though he was strong, yet for our sakes became weak. Jesus entered Jerusalem, not on a conquering warhorse like the Caesars of Rome, but on a humble donkey as a suffering servant. For Luther, the theology of glory and the theology of the cross was as different as death and life, blindness and sight, boasting in man’s glory and boasting in the glory of Christ Crucified for sinners.
Like Luther, Frodo and Samwise were also on a journey. Their departure from Rivendell (and the Shire before) marked the beginning of the long road to Mordor, a journey in which we see the hobbits grow in wisdom and stature before men and elves.
As the story unfolds we see Luther’s Heidelberg theses on display, even before the Fellowship leaves Rivendell. Gimli’s axe cannot destroy the One Ring. And Boromir’s desire to wield it against the dark lord, Sauron is foolish and ruinous. Tolkien’s point is clear. The brute strength of dwarfs and the stout hearts of men are no match for evil. Something smaller and unexpected is needed, a humble hobbit.
“I will take the Ring, Frodo said, “though I do not know the way.”
Here Heidelberg meets Hobbiton. A theology of glory is turned aside by a hobbit, small in stature, and unnoticed by the men of Middle-earth and even Sauron himself. Frodo reveals himself to be a theologian of the cross, choosing to bear the One Ring with all its seething, restless evil, and take it to its destruction at great cost to himself and his companions.
Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. [2 ]
For Frodo and the Company, one simply could not be a theologian of glory and walk into Mordor. In Tolkien’s genius, power and glory could not destroy the One Ring. Rather, the Ring of Power was carried to its destruction by two seemingly weak and unknown hobbits, Frodo and Samwise. Through the strength of loyalty, friendship, and sacrifice cloaked in weakness, they brought hope and rescue to Middle-earth. How beautiful are the hairy feet that bring good news to Middle-earth. It was not a theology of glory triumphed in The Lord of the Rings; it was the theology of the cross.
And in this, we have more in common with the hobbits than friendship, food, and ale. As Luther discovered and taught at Heidelberg, we are saved by the theology of the cross. The weakness and foolishness of Jesus’ crucifixion is our rescue. The wheels of our world turn by Christ crucified for you. The cross of Christ is where all our journeys end and begin. For the cross of Christ alone is our theology.
[1 ] Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation. Quoted by Gerhard Forde in On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, p. 77.
[2 ] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. ed. Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. p.149.