God Died on the Cross

by Fred Sanders; THE SCRIPTORIUM;  April 9, 2017

In the days leading up to Good Friday, I’m going to post a few theological answers to questions I get every year around this time. The answers will be unblushingly doctrinal, so prepare to put your thinking caps on.

This little series isn’t mainly about getting the theology right for its own sake (though I’m strongly inclined to do that, because who wants to get the theology wrong?). It’s mainly to clear a few theological questions out of the way before the Good-Friday-to-Easter church sequence arrives.

My dream is that we could think hard about theology online during the first part of the week, and then have our thoughts in order before we experience the annual remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ in the last part of the week in church. These posts are intended to clear away some theological confusions that might prevent intelligent participation in the life of the church.

The first one is what it means to say that God died on the cross. My answer is an excerpt from a book I edited about ten years ago:

In one of his hymns, Charles Wesley wrote: “O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God hath died for me!” This is a bold thing to say, because it claims so much: “God . . . died.” The Bible itself says it that bluntly in a few places, such as Acts 20:28, “God purchased the church with his own blood.” This is how the voice of faith speaks when it confesses what God has done. This is a good Christian sentence. When theologians get hold of stark, paradoxical statements like “God died,” they have an instinct to clarify what is being said. They do not want to remove the shock or the force (that would be very bad theology), but they do want to make sure that the true paradox rather than something else is being communicated. They want to rule out misunderstandings that either take away the shock, or substitute for it the fake shock of logical incoherence.

For example, it is possible to think “God died” means something like, “just as there is a human death for humans to die, there is apparently a divine death for God to die, and that is what happened at Calvary.” But the analogy is nonsense. Death is a concept that only works inside of the context of a creation. You need finite, contingent existence to have its eclipse or dissolution in death. “Divine death” as the analogue of “human death” is probably not even a coherent idea. It seems to belong to the category of “neat tricks you can do with language,” by combining any adjective with any noun: square circle, blue height, quiet toddler, cold heat, divine death. When you remove the chimera of a properly divine death, you can see that “God died” means that God experienced the only kind of death there is to experience, and that is creaturely death. How could that have happened?

This is precisely where Chalcedonian categories come into play, and rather than stripping away the poetic power of Wesley’s words, the incarnational theology of Chalcedon, so to speak, put the poetry into the poetry. According to the Chalcedonian explication of the incarnation, the Son of God took into personal union with himself a complete human nature, and thus existed as one theanthropic (divine and human) person. He did not cease to be God, but he took up human nature into hypostatic (personal) union with himself. He made that humanity his own, and in that appropriated humanity he appropriated real human death. He died the only death there is to die, our death.

It is worth noticing, by the way, that in stating the incarnation in this way we have implied one of its presuppositions, the doctrine of the Trinity. In the sentence “God died,” the subject, “God,” has to mean “the second person of the Trinity, God the Son.” Each of the three persons is God, but they are distinct persons standing in interpersonal relationship to one another. The Son is not one third of God, or the Son part of God, or the nice version of God, but just God. God (the Father) so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and thus God (the Son, one of the Trinity) died on the cross. Chalcedon already provides us with Christology in trinitarian perspective, and makes no sense without presupposing the Trinity.

So with all the elaborate distinctions in place, the sentence “God died” can also be said in this longer form: “The eternal second person of the Trinity, God the Son, took into personal union with himself, without confusing it, changing it, dividing it or separating it from his eternal divine nature, a complete human nature through which he experienced death.” It is no surprise that Charles Wesley did not set that longer sentence to music. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the longer sentence is precisely what he meant by the shorter one. To the suggestion that he could have meant anything else by it, Charles Wesley would have replied that, being an orthodox Christian and no heretic, he could not possibly have intended anything else. Furthermore, there is no trickery and no sleight of hand in that expanded paraphrase of “God died.” The longer sentence is what the shorter sentence means, and both sentences are true precisely insofar as they mean each other.

Still, a temptation does lurk here. The temptation is to feel disappointed by the longer, Chalcedonian sentence, as if something has been taken away, dissolved into too many distinctions, or spun into insubstantial refinement. The danger lies in hearing the longer sentence as if it meant, “Half of a third of God had a bad weekend.” But that is not what it means. It means that God died, and it means it in the only way that Christian theology can possibly mean it. The trick is to hear the longer sentence as meaning the same thing as the shorter sentence, and not to feel cheated by it. The trick is never to hear that third sentence (“half of a third of God . . .”) echoing behind the others in your mind. Only the conceptual categories of Chalcedonianism, taken together with their proper trinitarian context, can banish such unworthy notions from Christian theology and doxology. This set of distinctions have always functioned within Christian thought to enable it to retain the power and precision of the longer and shorter sentences, the immediate utterance of the believing heart and the accuracy of the catechized understanding.

God did not take the easy way out, or save us in a way that leaves him untouched by the depth of human suffering. We can be confident that the Almighty One went to the uttermost limits to accomplish our rescue.

God died on the cross! Charles Wesley certainly knew the value of the incarnational and trinitarian conceptual framework, because when he sang “O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God hath died for me!” he immediately paraphrased it in terms of the second person of the Trinity’s vicarious action on our behalf: “The Father’s coeternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree.”

This is an excerpt from my essay “Chalcedonian Categories for the Gospel Narrative,” from Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective (B&H Academic, 2007)


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