Friday, June 6, 2014


I was asked recently if I preferred the use of a cross or that of a crucifix. The way the question was asked led me to believe the answer was needed more to confirm someone’s position than to really find out what I preferred and why.

The cross is an upright post with a crossbeam in the shape of a “T”. A crucifix is an image of Jesus on the cross, as distinct from a bare cross. The representation of Jesus himself attached to the cross is referred to as the corpus (Latin for "body").

At the time of the Reformation, there was a movement that believed the ‘moderate reforms” of Martin Luther and the Evangelicals (later commonly called ‘Lutherans’), did not go far enough in distancing themselves from the Catholic Church. Rather, they wanted to throw off the “yoke of Rome” and jettison anything that reminded them of the Catholic Church. Lead by Andreas Karlstadt and Ulrich Zwingli, and known later as the Radical Reformation, those reformers believed that since the Catholic Church used images and objects to foster superstitious religious beliefs among the people, they needed to be suspicious of all images and religious objects—they were iconoclasts of varying degree. Many of the radical reformers thought this was related to the way the Catholic Church understood and emphasized the visible and material parts of the Church. So, for example, they could be suspicious of statues and paintings, holy water, relics, crossing oneself, genuflecting and so on. You will recognize that some of these abuses were also done away with in the Lutheran churches. However, as an example of how the radical reformers, and later John Calvin among others, could (and would) take things too far, many of them also saw the doctrine of the Real Presence as part of the superstitious belief of the Catholic Church.

While the Lutherans retained the use of the crucifix, many of the abuses surrounding it were reformed. For example, the Catholic Church’s mandated devotion and prayer before the crucifix (which is seen as sacramental) is abolished. Crucifixes, not plain crosses, are seen everywhere in Lutheran churches throughout the world. Only in America, where Lutheranism came under the influence of Calvinism, is the plain cross seen as preferred.

American Protestants object to the crucifix because it is Roman Catholic and to condone or display the crucifix is to make a statement in favor of Catholicism. For many, the issue of cross vs. crucifix now simply distinguishes between Catholic and Protestant. No American Protestant would want to be identified as a Catholic. I think most Lutherans have historical amnesia and don’t know why they do or don’t many things, this issue among them. 

The reality is that historically, the use of the empty cross alone is simply not part of Lutheran practice.