The day that God suffered and died

The day that God suffered and died April 14, 2017

Crucifixion_GrunewaldA powerful Good Friday devotion would be to read Article VIII of the Formula of Concord: “The Person of Christ.”  It will help you to appreciate even more the magnitude of what happened on the Cross.

Luther’s dispute with Zwingli went beyond their disagreement over Holy Communion and whether “this is my body” is a fact or a figure of speech.  They had different understandings of Christ.

This question arose:  Can we say that on the Cross “God suffered” or “God died”?  No, said Zwingli.  God is “impassible.”  He cannot suffer or die.  Christ has both a divine and a human nature.  So on the Cross only His human nature suffered.  Zwingli dismissed scriptural language to the contrary as, again, a figure of speech.

Luther said that while it is true that God, in Himself, does not suffer or die, in Christ something else is going on.  In taking on human nature, God the Son could experience what human beings experience.  By virtue of the incarnation, the unity of the Trinity, the communication of the attributes, and the personal union of Christ’s two natures, we can say that God suffered and died.

Later, Chemnitz would explain it using this analogy (and it is only an imperfect analogy, since the Son of God was not simply a deity in a human body, but rather took on a human soul as well):  A human being has a spiritual and a physical nature.  If you cut your finger, it isn’t just your body that suffers.  You suffer because your two natures come together in your person.

After the jump, read how this is treated in one of the key confessional documents of Lutheran theology.  I know I trot this out every few years around this time, but it bears repeating.

For one thing, to believe that God suffered and God died helps us to understand the atonement more deeply.  It isn’t God punishing his kid for what other people did, as mockers and some liberals are saying today.  In the atonement, the Second Person of the Trinity sacrificed Himself for sinful human beings.  And in doing so, He took into Himself, by His omnipotence, the world’s evil and the world’s suffering, our “iniquities” and “transgressions” and our “griefs” and “sorrows” (Isaiah 53, a major passage of Scripture to read for today).  And this has a bearing on the problem of evil and the problem of pain, since we know that, far from looking down on the evils and sufferings of the world and doing nothing, God took them into Himself in His redemption of the world.

Illustration:  The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.  Originally at the Hospital of St. Anthony, where plague victims could contemplate Christ, depicted as bearing their disease.

From The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord – Book of Concord, Article VIII:

20] On account of this personal union, which cannot be thought of nor exist without such a true communion of the natures, not the mere human nature, whose property it is to suffer and die, has suffered for the sins of the world, but the Son of God Himself truly suffered, however, according to the assumed human nature, and (in accordance with our simple Christian faith) [as our Apostles’ Creed testifies] truly died, although the divine nature can neither suffer nor die. This Dr. Luther has fully explained in his Large Confession concerning the Holy Supper in opposition to the blasphemous alloeosis of Zwingli, who taught that one nature should be taken and understood for the other, which Dr. Luther committed, as a devil’s mask, to the abyss of hell. . . .

38] However, since beneath the words, when it is said that what is peculiar to one nature is ascribed to the entire person, secret and open Sacramentarians conceal their pernicious error, by naming indeed the entire person, but understanding thereby nevertheless only the one nature, and entirely excluding the other nature, as though the mere human nature had suffered for us, as Dr. Luther in his Large Confession concerning the Holy Supper has written concerning the alloeosis of Zwingli, we will here set down Luther’s own words, in order that the Church of God may be guarded in the best way against this error. His words are as follows:

39] Zwingli calls that an alloeosis when something is said of the divinity of Christ which really belongs to the humanity, or vice versa. As Luke 24:26: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory?” Here Zwingli juggles, asserting that [the word] Christ is understood of the human nature. 40] Beware, beware, I say, of the alloeosis! For it is a devil’s mask, for at last it manufactures such a Christ after whom I certainly would not be a Christian; namely, that henceforth Christ should be no more and do no more with His sufferings and life than any other mere saint. For if I believe this [permit myself to be persuaded] that only the human nature has suffered for me, then Christ is to me a poor Savior, then He Himself indeed needs a Savior. In a word, it is unspeakable what the devil seeks by the alloeosis.

41] And shortly afterwards: 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.

From The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord – Book of Concord:

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  • Gene Veith

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