Did the second person of the Trinity die?
March 24, 2016
Who died on the Cross?
Did the Second Person of the Trinity die on the cross?
We affirm. (But not all of us)
I recently read an argument by R.C. Sproul that suggested we should not say the second person of the Trinity died because that would be a mutation within the very being of God. It was argued that "we should shrink in horror from the idea that God died on the cross." He added, "The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ."
In my opinion, the arguments above are wrong-headed. Ligonier Ministries recently re-posted this article, so evidently they are in approval of these sentiments. Far from re-thinking some of the flaws in their Christological documents, they have only exacerbated them.
First, we must keep in mind the distinction between essence-appropriate and persons-appropriate language, i.e., essential versus relative predication. We could say, then, that in relation to their persons, the Son and the Spirit are a Patre (from the Father), but in relation to their essence they are a se. Hence, Reformed theologians have by and large used this distinction to maintain a unity of essence but also affirm a relational order in terms of the three persons.
Therefore, persons-appropriate language explains why we can say that the Father did not die on the cross, but the Son did.
If we affirm, as we should, that God purchased the church with his blood (Acts 20:28) we are essentially saying that God purchased the church with his death. Why should we not be allowed to say (or sing) what the Scriptures explicitly teach? Could Luke's statement have been open to misunderstanding by his readers? Of course. But Christ said all sorts of things that could be open to misunderstanding (e.g., Jn. 6:53).
The mystery and glory of the gospel demands that we say things that can be possibly misunderstood (e.g., sola fide and the Roman Catholic response to that blessed doctrine).
Some worry that this means the deity suffered, so they shrink back from affirming the Son of God (the Second person) died on the cross. But, as I say above, this is wrong and not in keeping with classical Christology.
The form of speech is what must be acknowledged. We can say God died because of the communication of properties (WCF 8.7; "according to the human nature"; see also this fine piece - 1st point). So far so good. To say the deity suffered on the cross is wrong because it is spoken without a figure. The abstract (i.e., the deity) is the divine essence, which cannot die. But when we speak of the Son of God dying we are speaking about the concrete (the name of the person, who is the God-man).
We have to say the person died, not a nature. The person on the cross who died is Jesus, the Son of God.
This point of doctrine (i.e., the communicatio idiomatum) was a source of contention between Reformed theologians and various Roman Catholic writers, such as Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621), who held that Christ performed his acts of mediation only as a man. In response, Reformed theologians argued that if only Christ's human nature mediated, then another human could have mediated with equal efficacy before and after the incarnation. By anchoring the natures of Christ in the unity of his person, Reformed theologians refused to speak of Christ's mediatorial work as simply the work of a human. No: Christ's mediatorial work was the work of the Son of God, who died on the cross.
So we cannot say that "the atonement was made by the human nature of Christ." This is a Roman Catholic error. Natures don't do anything in the abstract. We are concerned about the concrete in all of Christ's acts of mediation: the Son did this or the Son did that. The atonement had to be made by the person because the atonement needed to be infinite in value.
Can we sing, then, "And Can it Be?" (especially the words, "How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?")?
Absolutely. We sing it in the concrete, of the Son of God who loved us and died for us (Gal. 2:20, "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me").
"He who fixed the heavens in place has been fixed in place.
He who laid the foundation of the universe has been laid on a tree.
The Master has been profaned.
God has been murdered." (Melito of Sardis)