Calvin, Keller and the Westminster Assembly

Scott Cook

Over at Derek Rishmway's blog Reformedish, Tim Keller has posted an excellent article on the reality of Christ's suffering on the cross. Relying on excerpts drawn from Calvin's interpretation of the descent of Christ into hell (Book II.16.8), Keller deals with the question of how Christ could have experienced forsakenness on the cross while never actually having lost the love of the Father. Keller follows Calvin in arguing that the line "He descended into hell"--as stated in the Apostles' Creed--"represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God's presence, would experience." Thus Keller affirms that Christ truly felt in his soul the pain of separation from the Father. However, any affirmation of Christ's suffering must not create an actual rift between the Father and the Son, on pain of destroying the doctrine of the Trinity. Keller helpfully offers a solution to this thorny theological issue: Christ ontologically (and hence objectively) did not lose the Father's love in any way, yet experientially (and hence subjectively), Christ's soul experienced all the feeling of anguish as if he had truly and really lost the Father's love. This model maintains the eternal bond of love between the Father and the Son while not selling short the real anguish that the Son experienced on the cross.

Keller is to be commended for his approach, particularly because of the doctrines at stake in the topic. This is no mere intellectual exercise for personal theological entertainment. The doctrines of salvation and the Trinity are at stake in this question. Minimizing the sufferings of Christ is dangerous for our salvation, because it is only in the sufferings of Christ that the wrath of God is propitiated. On the other hand, creating an ontological rift between the Father and the Son destroys the eternal blessedness of the divine nature of the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit, particularly if one follows Augustine's insight that the Spirit is the "Bond of Love" between the Father and the Son) and entails that the Father and Son have separate substances.

Some might still raise questions such as "How can Christ have an experience which does not line up with reality?" or "How can the Father's love be unfailing while Jesus feels forsaken on the cross?" This is where the eighth chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith further advances Keller's argument. In reflecting on the two natures of Christ the mediator, the members of the Assembly wrote:

"Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature" (WCF VIII.7).

The Chalcedonian logic here is straightforward: the hypostatic union, wherein both natures are united without any confusion, conversion, or composition requires that we predicate truths of the person, while strictly speaking the predicate applies to only one nature. There are numerous reasons why we must understand this to be so. When Jesus was thirsty on the cross (John 19:28), this thirst is attributed to his person because his divine and human natures have been truly united in a personal manner. However, no one would say that Jesus was thirsty in his divine nature. The divine nature is not a physical substance, and hence cannot need water. Moreover, thirst in the divine nature would imply a lack of perfect blessedness, and hence God would cease to be God. So, according to WCF VIII.7, the person of Jesus was thirsty, while strictly speaking only his human nature experienced thirst.

This logic helps to strengthen Keller's ontological-experiential model. When we say that Christ experienced a true sense of separation and dereliction by the Father, this was only true of his human nature. This feeling in Jesus' body--and particularly in his soul--was generated by the full weight of God's wrath coming upon him. While Calvin does not explicitly outline such an approach in his chapter on the descent into hell, it is clearly in his thinking. In Institutes II.14.3, Calvin lays out his understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties in the hypostatic union. He insisted that certain ascriptions such as "before Abraham was, I AM" apply only to his divine nature. And while Scripture speaks of "God's blood" or "crucifying the Lord of glory" we must understand that, "God certainly has no blood, suffers not (emphasis mine), cannot be touched with hands; but since that Christ, who was true God and true man, shed his blood on the cross for us, the acts which were performed in his human nature are transferred improperly, but not ceaselessly, to his divinity."

This emphasis that the human nature alone suffered on the cross is seen in the Reformed Tradition that followed Calvin, as can be seen in the Heidelberg Catechism Q 37: "What do you understand by the words, "He suffered"? Answer: That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind..." Additionally, the Westminster Divines' clear-cut Chalcedonian categories allow us to further appropriate Keller's ontological-experiential model with clarity and confidence. There was no objective, ontological break between the first and second Persons of the Godhead, even at the worst point of suffering on the cross. But as God's wrath was poured out on the human nature of Christ, He felt the full weight of that wrath. He experienced in those few hours on the cross what it would take us the rest of eternity in hell to experience. The mediator needed to be full God and fully man, so that the divine nature "might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God" (WLC 38). But even the divine nature could not spare the human nature from the anguish of this suffering, or else the human nature would cease to be truly human. No true man could experience this level of suffering and feel anything less than dereliction, and Christ had a true human nature. 

In all of this, the glory of the gospel is revealed: the immortal dies; God purchases us with His own blood; the Impassable suffers for us; the Son who is one with the Father experiences a sense of infinite loss and separation so that we will have perfect, unbroken communion with our Triune God.


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