XIII: The Crucifix

Q: Why do some Lutheran Churches use crucifixes rather than plain crosses?

A:   To begin, the crucifix is a model of the cross bearing an image of the crucified Lord. Crucifixes are widely used in the Western Church by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. In the Eastern Church, the crucifix has been replaced by crosses with a flat likeness of Christ, a form of an icon. Crucifixes came into general use in the 6th Century, and since the 15th have been used as the central ornament of the altar.

Unlike a plain or empty cross, the Crucifix emphasizes the incarnation of Christ, His atoning sacrifice, and, as the Formula of Concord reminds us, that “apart from this man there is no God.” For Lutherans, also, the crucifix reminds us that Christ is still present among us according to His human nature through His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.

A plain cross lacks these important emphases. At the time of the Reformation, Carlstadt and other radical reformers removed crucifixes and other images from Evangelical churches. In his treatise “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” Luther wrote against Carlstadt saying that “crucifixes and images of the saints ... are not only to be tolerated, but for the sake of memorial and witness they are praiseworthy and honorable...” And, in his sermons on the Gospel of St. John Luther said: “The custom of holding a crucifix before a dying person has kept many in the Christian faith and has enabled them to die with a confident faith in the crucified Lord.”

Crucifixes are of two major types. One portrays the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary; the other represents our Lord in the vestments of His prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices reigning from the cross. Both types are suitable for an altar cross.

Adapted from About Being Lutheran © Lutheran Liturgical Renewal 1991. Used by permission.