“God suffered, God died”

“God suffered, God died” April 18, 2014

Some of the deepest waters of Lutheran theology and where it makes some of its greatest contributions are in the realm of Christology.  For Lent I have been reading The Two Natures in Christ by Martin Chemnitz, that master of Biblical, Medieval, and Patristic (not only Latin but also Greek) sources and the principal author of the Formula of Concord.

Studying all of this has given me some new understanding and appreciation for the magnitude of what happened on that first Good Friday.   Article VIII of the Formula of Concord turns an assertion that was highly controversial at the time into a matter of confessional subscription:  That we are to understand the Incarnation and the Atonement in such a way that we can affirm that “God suffered” and “God died.”

According to the ancient theologians of Chalcedon and the Athanasian Creed, Jesus Christ has both a human nature and a divine nature, but they are united in one person.

At the time of the Reformation, Zwingli argued that since God, being “impassible”–that is, incapable of passions as Aristotle taught–cannot suffer, only the human nature of Christ suffered on the Cross.

The Lutherans said that the person of Jesus Christ suffered and died on the Cross, which affected both His human and His divine natures.

The Zwinglians then accused the Lutherans of being Monophysites, like the Copts in Egypt, a charge of heresy still used in some Reformed circles against Lutherans.  You are mingling the two natures, so that Jesus in effect has one hybrid nature, something that Chalcedon says we must not do!

No we’re not!, replied the Lutherans.  It was a person who died, not a “nature.”  You are committing the Nestorian heresy in dividing those natures and minimizing the Incarnation.  No, God the Father didn’t suffer, but God the Son did.  He did so by assuming a human nature, which made it possible for Him to suffer and to die.  But the divine nature thus experienced those things.

Chemnitz in the Two Natures explains it this way:  Human beings also have two natures.  We have a physical nature and a spiritual nature, a body and a soul.  What we experience physically we also experience spiritually.  When our body suffers, our soul feels that.  This is because we are one person.

Not that Jesus was only human in His body, with his deity taking the place of his soul.  Chemnitz said something that I had never thought of before, that Jesus had both a human body and a human soul.  But the relationship between those two is a helpful explanatory analogy for the Lutheran doctrine of “the communication of attributes.”  In Christ, the divine and the human natures “communicate” with each other.  The transcendent immutable God can thus be said to have suffered and died on the Cross.

If only an individual man died on the Cross, whatever his great sanctity, that would hardly have helped the rest of us.  But  this was a death divine as well as human, which made possible the great miracle of God taking into Himself not only all of the sins but also  all the sufferings of the world (Isaiah 53:3-5), atoning for them in an act of self-immolation, an act of redemption that also, I would argue, resolves the Problem of Evil.

Here is an excerpt about all of this from the Lutheran Confessions.  From  Article VIII, The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord – Book of Concord:

If the old weather-witch, Dame Reason, the grandmother of the alloeosis, would say, Yea, divinity cannot suffer nor die; you shall reply, That is true; yet, because in Christ divinity and humanity are one person, Scripture, on account of this personal union, ascribes also to divinity everything that happens to the humanity, and vice versa. 42] And it is so in reality; for you must certainly answer this, that the person (meaning Christ) suffers and dies. Now the person is true God; therefore it is rightly said: The Son of God suffers. For although the one part (to speak thus), namely, the divinity, does not suffer, yet the person, which is God, suffers in the other part, namely, in His humanity; for in truth God’s Son has been crucified for us, that is, the person which is God. For the person, the person, I say, was crucified according to the humanity.

43] And again, shortly afterwards: If the alloeosis is to stand as Zwingli teaches it, then Christ will have to be two persons, one divine and one human, because Zwingli applies the passages concerning suffering to the human nature alone, and diverts them entirely from the divinity. For if the works be parted and separated, the person must also be divided, since all the works or sufferings are ascribed not to the natures, but to the person. For it is the person that does and suffers everything, one thing according to one nature, and another according to the other nature, all of which the learned know well. Therefore we regard our Lord Christ as God and man in one person, non confundendo naturas nec dividendo personam, so that we neither confound the natures nor divide the person.

44] Dr. Luther says also in his book Of the Councils and the Church: We Christians must know that if God is not also in the balance, and gives the weight, we sink to the bottom with our scale. By this I mean: If it were not to be said [if these things were not true], God has died for us, but only a man, we would be lost. But if “God’s death” and “God died” lie in the scale of the balance, then He sinks down, and we rise up as a light, empty scale. But indeed He can also rise again or leap out of the scale; yet He could not sit in the scale unless He became a man like us, so that it could be said: “God died,” “God’s passion,” “God’s blood,” “God’s death.” For in His nature God cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is correctly called God’s death, when the man dies who is one thing or one person with God. Thus far Luther.

45] Hence it is manifest that it is incorrect to say or write that the above-mentioned expressions (God suffered, God died) are only praedicationes verbales (verbal assertions), that is, mere words, and that it is not so in fact. For our simple Christian faith proves that the Son of God, who became man, suffered for us, died for us and redeemed us with His blood.


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