Who died on the Cross?

Oberland's picture

Hi all,

At our mid week bible study the Pastor said that God (as in the second person of the Trinity) died on the Cross. Instinctively I believed that to be wrong, and so I checked it out, first from the Word and then from trusted sources, I ended up with R.C.Sproul saying that it was impossible for God (the second person of the Trinity) to die, and John Macarthur said that God did die on the cross.I'm hoping that someone could shed some light on the subject.

Thank you


question #2

I like the immanent/transcendent duality you describe. I think that it can reconcile a lot of the difficult questions about God in general.

At this present moment I'm inclined to accept your invitation to pursue this line of thinking. There are several avenues we could go down--"How we interpret the Bible" is a major one, and familiar to both of us. In the past the conversation has not gone well, because we have very different views on how and why scripture is relevant. But we both agree, I believe, that scripture IS relevant, and that we would both say that it is vitally relevant to Christian spirituality, religion, or faith (however we could or might choose to phrase it). While this thread is aimed at discovering the character or nature of Jesus, specifically as he died on the cross, and further aimed at uncovering the theological consequences of our potential Christological conclusions, it is important, in my mind, to at least acknowledge, if not resolve, the different perspectives from which we view the world; it makes a significant difference in how the conversation might go.

If you were to say that God's transcendent nature negates the possibility that humans could fully comprehend His nature, I think I could agree with you. But when it comes to 'revelation,' it seems unnatural to conclude that human beings are not supposed to understand it fully. Admittedly, some people are not equipped with the experience, interest, or ability to dissect/interpret/rightly divide the word without accepting from other authorities certain necessary assumptions or conclusions. But to me, that doesn't necessarily mean that a particular concept IS impenetrable.

However, I did speak in relation to a particular doctrine, that of hypostatic union--and I think the larger question here is clear to both of us. The question which the doctrine of hypostatic union seeks to resolve is, "HOW can Jesus be fully human and fully divine at the same time?" Hypostatic union is built on the earlier conclusion that Jesus WAS INDEED fully human and fully divine, and that seems to me to be the problem. There are two different questions here, and each one is used to resolve the other. That's how it appears to me, at least. I'm really not well-versed in the nuances of hypostatic doctrine :) And both of these questions are part of the larger question, "What is/was the nature of Jesus' character?" This question is where the rubber hits the road; it has the most obvious and farthest-reaching consequences for theological development.

Question: What was Jesus like?

Problem # 1: We can't accept that he was only human, because that would contradict his sinless nature, which underpins our doctrine of atonement, which is fairly central to Christian theology. Also threatened, but not fully at risk, are corollary doctrines like original sin, total depravity, sanctification, and a host of other denominational concerns. (side note): Further, some people don't like the idea of a fully human Jesus because that would make him "fallible," capable of making mistakes, which means his teachings might be unreliable. However, this is inconsistent with the Biblical view of divine revelation; no one insists that Isaiah was infallible, or godlike, and yet we trust the revelation which came from him; Jesus' potential non-omniscience is not at stake, although deciding he might be "only" human does him appear> more vulnerable to historical criticism.

Problem #2: We can't accept that he was only God. That would support unorthodox theologies, like gnosticism--perhaps Jesus only appeared human, but was only a spirit. Further, as full and only God it would be impossible for him, in this case, to die (being eternal) or to suffer as we have suffered, in contradiction with the way we read certain typological or prophetic scriptures. At stake here is atonement theology again, but from a different angle. Whereas his humanity could diminish the universality of his atonement, his divinity could elevate that atonement to a plane above human participation. We also risk particular hermeneutical frameworks--we would have to rethink prophecy.

Problem #3: We can't accept a mixture of either natures, because it is argued that his human nature would corrupt his divine nature, or could not sustain a divine nature (like trying to jam a nuclear reactor into a Chevy Pinto). Different potential ratios of human-to-divine leave a lot of room for dissension in the Christian ranks, and leads to competing christologies; if we accepted some mixture of the two, we could suggest that Jesus' humanity was precisely what he escaped on the cross, or alternatively that his divinity was only imparted--"adoptionism," in some form or other. While problem #3 represents several attempts at dealing with #1 and #2, everything which the first two problems risked is still at risk, while exposing orthodoxy to a host of new threats as well.

THEREFORE, it is necessary, it would seem, to conclude, at least for the sake of protecting or fortifying our central doctrines of atonement and redemption, that Jesus fully God and fully man.

It is unnecessary to spell out the impossibilities of this situation; the church wrestled with it for centuries before borrowing from philosophical trends the term 'hypostasis,' which is literally to say (in "hypostatic union") that the essential nature of humanity and the essential nature of divinity were fully joined without being diminished in any capacity.

The problem? Hypostatic union is a tautologous answer to the question of how Jesus can be fully God and fully man, a fancy-sounding but hollow answer to a very real theological dilemma.

Q: How can Jesus be fully God and fully man?
A: Because he is.

My problem?

Q#2: Okay. But how?

This is an unanswerable (or at least unanswered) question. The only evidence for hypostatic union is the other doctrines of othordoxy which subsequently demand a "hypostatic" conclusion. Therefore, when we independently (and successfully) challenge the way "The Atonement" is understood, or when we reframe "redemption" by challenging the notion of inherited spiritual debt ("original sin") or 100 other things, hypostatic union falls away.

It would seem to me, then, that hypostatic union is not a doctrine, but a dogma; not a teaching to be understood but a declaration to be accepted without explanation. It is a necessary component of a systematic theology derived from a culturally-determined institutional agenda to preserve uniform and sustainable religious authority; "hypostatic union" was a demand of a catholic organization as a means of preserving catholic (universal) orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It is not a biblical doctrine; it is part of a set of biblical interpretations.

The fundamental Protestant position is that authority does not determine truth, that existing modalities of socio-religious structures are not self-justified. For Protestants, truth-claims exist to be challenged. Truth exists, but what people tell you is true is not necessarily so, no matter what orthodoxy or authority those truths preserve.

For most Protestants I know, challenging human authority is not a problem, though some Protestants eagerly elevate particular charismatic or theological characters beyond merely "human"--Calvin's doctrines, for example, hold a special authority in the hearts of many Christians precisely because they provide a systematic way of interpreting divine authority. And here is the rub--what is divine authority? That the fundamental, basic, essential question of the Bible, and because, in part, this theme of authority in revelation is so central to the Bible, many Christians have assumed, often subconsciously, that the Bible teaches that divine authority is that the Bible is divinely authoritative.

Some people call the Bible a living document. I would rather argue that the Bible is an "animated document." The Bible is static, like a body frozen in time. The Bible represents God's revelation to A world, an ancient world which existed 2000 years ago; but without reapplication (in distinction from an over-literal "reinterpretation") the Bible is, uncouthly, dead. I would like to propose that the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit unleashed on the world by the truth of Jesus' resurrection, is the Animator of the scriptures--the analogy of the judges reinterpreting the constitution falls short here, because ...

... more later :)