The God Who Does Not Suffer
Based on two different email threads, from my sent folder.
God did not suffer on the cross. A theme in Athanasius’ Oration Against the Arians is that God does not suffer. Jesus in his person suffered and according to his human nature suffered, but Jesus as the divine Word did not suffer. Khaled Anatolois in his work on Athanasius shows that the church father understood suffering in terms of passivity and activity rather than experience. Jesus in his humanity was subjected to suffering but in his divinity was the actor, not the one being acted upon (impassibility).
For example (Arians 3.56),
Wherefore of necessity when He was in a body suffering, and weeping, and toiling, these things which are proper to the flesh, are ascribed to Him together with the body. If then He wept and was troubled, it was not the Word, considered as the Word, who wept and was troubled, but it was proper to the flesh; and if too He besought that the cup might pass away, it was not the Godhead that was in terror, but this affection too was proper to the manhood. And that the words ‘Why have You forsaken Me?’ are His, according to the foregoing explanations (though He suffered nothing, for the Word was impassible), is notwithstanding declared by the Evangelists; since the Lord became man, and these things are done and said as from a man, that He might Himself lighten these very sufferings of the flesh, and free it from them. Whence neither can the Lord be forsaken by the Father, who is ever in the Father, both before He spoke, and when He uttered this cry.
Edward Shillito’s short poem “Jesus of the Scars” concludes with this stanza,
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Jesus is God, so we can speak of God dying on the cross, having scars. This attribute to the person (Jesus is God) what is true according to one of his natures (humanity) since the divine cannot be wounded or killed.
This is what Cyril of Alexandria means when he says, “He suffered impassibly, because he did not humble himself in such a way as to be merely like us, rather, as I have said before, he reserved to his own nature its superiority over all these things.” Since Christ is a unified person we can speak of him suffering. He suffered in his humanity so according to his divinity he might elevate humanity from our suffering. John Behr’s The Nicene Faith deals with this topic in more depth in vol. 1, pages 226-232.
J. Todd Billings in his Rejoicing in Lament shows how this doctrine of impassibility (God doesn’t suffer) related to Jesus on the cross as a foundation for the Christian’s comfort amidst sorrow. Because God cannot suffer, suffering is not the final word. Suffering is not something that God must overcome for himself, but something he conquered on our behalf by virtue of his impassibility according to his divine nature in the person of Christ.
Christ’s Descent Into Hell
A pastor friend of mine and I were discussing the meaning of this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, stimulated by Ligon Duncan’s recent article on the subject. Duncan helpfully lists out a number of options for its meaning:
- That it refers to the spiritual agony Christ felt on the cross. This is the meaning put forth by the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 44) and held by John Calvin (Institutes 2.16.8-10). Duncan rejects this as the historic intent of the phrase since it comes the after burial of Christ in the creed.
- That it refers to Christ descending into hell and freeing Old Testament saints from captivity and bringing them with him to heaven. The idea here is that Sheol/Hades/Abraham’s Bosom all refer in various ways to the abode of the dead in general, with the dead being sorted into hell and heaven only after the redemptive-historical work of Christ. Calvin strongly rejected this view, but modern Reformed thinkers like J. I. Packer and Sinclair Ferguson teach a modified version of it.
- That Christ was providing a second chance to the damned to repent, which Duncan, correctly, rejects.
- Duncan emphatically ruled out the possibility that Jesus was paying for sins by suffering in hell, a view common to the Word of Faith movement.
- That it refers to the fact that Jesus really, truly died and continued in the state of death. Duncan accurately states that this is both the intent of the creed, and also that it is the view that best fits with scripture. This is the view taught in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q&A 50).
Interestingly, Duncan doesn’t mention the historic Lutheran view that Christ descended into hell in victory, smashing the power of the devil (e.g. Formula of Concord, IX), though this view does overlap a bit with the idea that Christ in his death freed the Old Testament saints…
On the Incarnation of the Word and the End of the Oracles
Alan Jacobs posted a summary of Plutarch’s 2nd century essay on the cessation of the oracles.
It was widely recognized in Plutarch’s time (late first and early second century A.D.) that the great oracles of the ancient world — the most famous of them being the one at Delphi, of course — had largely ceased to provide useful guidance or had fallen silent altogether. Some of the once famous shrines had been abandoned and had fallen into ruin. But no one understood why this had happened. Plutarch’s “essay” is a fictional dialogue — narrated by one Lamprias, who also takes the leading role in the conversation and may well be Plutarch’s mouthpiece — in which a group of philosophically-inclined men debate the possible reasons for the oracles’ failure.
Jacobs goes on the describe the various reasons that Plutarch through Lamprias rejects and accepts for this silence, which he concludes is a result of shifting natural phenomena. I happened to read Jacobs’ post at the same time I was reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word. Writing in the 4th century, Athanasius addresses this subject as well, but from a much different perspective. Athanasius argues that the incarnation of Christ profoundly altered the world. His incarnation brought the divine into the created, and broke the power of spiritual blindness upon the world. Jesus as the conquering word is not only defeating spiritual evil in the present and future, but has defeated it already by his arrival…
2019 Reading Project: Athanasius of Alexandria and John Murray
I started a tradition this past year of selecting a theologian and attempting to read most of their works over the course of a year, as well as reading some biographies on them and commentaries on their work. I started with St. Anselm of Canterbury. It was incredibly enriching. I am continuing this new tradition into 2019, but am trying something a bit bolder: I am selecting two very different theologians to read. I discovered with Anselm that if I had tried just a bit harder I could have read all his work much faster than I did, without compromising depth of understanding. So to test that theory I am reading two people this year. Another difference is that this year I am actually creating a schedule in order to help that theory prove correct.
The first is Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 293-373), one of the great fathers of the church…