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Death of Man, Death of God

April 6, 2012

Good Friday poses questions that assault Christian sensibilities. Who is it that is hanging there, on the cross? Is Jesus a man suffering in my stead, as my brother and representative? Or is that God who is there dying? How does one who is God call out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34)?

The whole of Christology — the way in which Jesus Christ is both God and human — comes into the sharpest relief at the cross. For believers this is a moment of deep reflection, of silent repentance and gratitude.  But it is also a theological powder keg.

It seems to me that, when it comes to the foot of the cross, the conflict over the doctrine of divine impassibility reaches an impasse when we begin to ask very different questions of one another.  One side wants to ask, Who is this man who has suffered and died? Do we confess him to be vere Deus, or not?”  But the question ringing from the other side is quite different: How did this man, who is vere Deus, actually die? Is it not because he is human?”

At least when the discussion takes place among orthodox Christians, both sides in the debate over impassibility wish to affirm that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  Generally, both will want to affirm that both natures are involved, in some sense, even in his suffering and death (the doctrine of the communication of operations).  The Reformed scholastics, for example, suggested that to one and the same act the human nature contributes the death and the divine nature the great worth of that death.  Generally, as well, both sides will want to affirm that feeling pain (at least physical pain) and dying are distinctly creaturely activities.  If God can experience them, it is not because they are proper to divine existence but because God has taken up a creaturely nature and made it His own.  But that death is improper to His being as God, and so can be located wholly on one side of Jesus’ hypostatic make-up.

How do these two ways of asking after Jesus’ death come to cross purposes, then? Speaking in terms of Chalcedon’s formula of Jesus as “two natures in one person,” one inquires into the person who is suffering, and the other the nature(s) by which he is doing so.  In the case of the former, we certainly must affirm that the person who suffers is very God and very human, the incarnate Son of God. Speaking simpliciter, then, it must be right to say that “God has died.” We know that this is a true but loaded affirmation: God the Son died, as One who is incarnate and fully human, and this death did not bring an end to God but rather an end to death.  To say that “God has died” in the death of Jesus is not to suggest any end brought to God Himself, but to reaffirm Jesus’ full divinity (like calling Mary Theotokos) while also observing that when God enters into the state of being dead … He brings life.

By contrast, the latter line of inquiry tends to skip over the affirmation that One who is God has died (perhaps because we fear it is misleading) and make use of the doctrine of the two natures in order to jump straight to the necessary qualifications.  And so we say that Jesus died according to his human nature or in the flesh or qua human, in order to make it clear that suffering and death are proper only to one of the natures that comprise his incarnate being. (See this post on predication and the strategy of reduplication.) We thus preserve the true impassibility of God: One who is God “dies” in the sense that He has appropriated as His own a nature that is passible and mortal.

There is a great deal more to say.  Both positions are vulnerable to critique — as are the very metaphysical grounds on which their debate takes place.  My purpose is simply to point out that those who participate in the impassibility debate, when they reach the crucifixion of Jesus, often talk past one another by placing their own priorities in control. But the one side will admit that “God has died” should be properly qualified; and the other, after they have prepared the ground with sufficient qualifications, will confess that the person who died is God.

On this Good Friday, may God comfort you in your uncertainly and afflict you in your theological complacency.

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