Friday, May 01, 2020

Jesus on the cross. What are we to say?

When it comes to the death of Jesus Christ, there is, I think,  a lack of definiteness in how people describe it. Of course we must respect Paul’s emphasis that ‘great is the mystery of godliness’. (I Tim.3.16). Yet  it is one thing to respect the unfathomableness of the Incarnation, but quite another,for example, to allow ourselves to makethe claim that God died on Good Friday, presumably experiencing  resurrection on the third day. Death of God? Resurrection of God? The oddity and incoherence of these expressions should alert us that somewhere, someone has made an unwise inference.

First clarity, Jesus Christ is God incarnate

Here is Calvin on the Incarnation,

Certainly when Paul says of the princes of this world that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), he means not that he suffered anything, in his divinity, but that Christ, who was rejected and despised, and suffered in the flesh, was likewise God and the Lord of glory. In this way, both the Son of man was in heaven because he was also Christ; and he who, according to the flesh,dwelt as the Son of man on earth, was also God in heaven. For this reason,he is said to have descended from heaven in respect of his divinity, not that his divinity quitted heaven to conceal itself in the prison of the body,but because, although he filled all things, it yet resided in the humanity ofChrist corporeally, that is, naturally, and in an ineffable manner. There is a trite distinction in the schools which I hesitate not to quote. Although the whole Christ is everywhere, yet everything, which is in him is not everywhere. I wish the Schoolmen had duly weighed the force of this sentence, as it would have obviated their absurd fiction of the corporeal presence of Christ. (Inst . IV.17.30)

It has to be borne in mind that the Incarnation, comprised of the divine and the human natures of Jesus Christ, was not a case of fifty-fifty. The human nature was subordinate to his divine nature as befits the creature to his Creator.  In loving grace God the Son, the eternal Logos, very God of very God, took on human nature, the natural progeny of the Holy Spirit and the lineage of Mary. He was ‘clothed in our flesh’ as Calvin puts it more than once. It was not at all a case of the human nature also taking on divine nature. So there was an asymmetry. This is central to his condescension and of his humiliation. When the word become flesh (John 1.14), neither his full deity nor his full humanity were compromised or changed in their natures. He, the Logos,  was  taken of a new relation. He was related to ‘flesh’ at a precise time, the date of the change in  Mary’s life. Eternally he was purely spirit and in the person of the Son took on 'flesh', a instance of human nature. In ‘became flesh ‘ the ‘became’ is not to be understood as the transformation of the Logos into something that was not the Logos, nor of humanity that was not fully that, but of the acquiring of a new relation to something that is the Logos, but was also united to ‘flesh’, human nature.

If evangelical preachers are excited by the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the extent that they allow themselves to talk of the ‘death of God’, this is an exaggeration that they should not allow themselves, but rather discipline their thinking.  

The Incarnation and the three offices

Consider, from another strand of Christendom, the idea of the death and resurrection of Christ as a sign of hope, or of the coming of Spring (though not so in the Southern hemisphere), or of the triumph of love over adversity and death, of human life over death. It is a symbol new life. Hence bunnies and daffiodils and chocolate eggs are intrinsic to such a view of Easter.  

Such wide varieties of interpreting Christ’s resurrection suggests that these momentous events, on which the history of the race pivots, are not so much a deep mystery, as a conundrum, a blank, in which we can use their imagination to paint or colour, as we see fit. The person of the God – man is forgotten. What happened on the death of Jesus, was not  the humiliation or the death of the God – man, but the triumph of human nature over death, without any details, or perhaps, more confusedly, of the triumph of God over death.  

Each extreme view that we have sketched also ignores the place of the  offices of the Incarnate Saviour in the events of the Cross. He is the Messiah. He is prophet, priest and king, of which the fundamental office is that of priesthood. The drama of the death and resurrection were actions of the economic trinity, the trinity not in itself  but in its arrangements in respect of the redemption of the church by Jesus Christ.  And it is evidence of the ‘calvinistic’ character of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms that these documents adopt John Calvin’s emphasis. In Chapter VIII ‘Of Christ the Mediator’,  the character of his Mediatorship is that he is, ‘the Prophet, Priest, and King;  the Head and Saviour of his church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the World…’ (VIII.1). And the Larger Catechism explains it from question 42 onwards, with emphasis on the practical application of these offices of Christ in the Christian life.

All this was to in order for him do the Father’s ‘work’ that he gave his Son to do. (Jn. 17.4) And it is a relationship that, having been made, has no end, for the Logos bears that nature, human nature, as eternally glorified. That these are mysterious matters no one can doubt, for they are intimate and unique relations of the Creator and the seed of the woman. Although Calvin’s three-foldness is that of a prophet, priest and king, yet there is biblical evidence as the office of priest that is the basic, primary office. The duties are the most basic.

Hugh Martin says,

The Divine Spirit does not affirm that His appointment either to his prophetic or His kingly office “glorified” him. But the affirmation is expressly made of His appointment to the sacerdotal office: “God glorified Him to be made an high priest." (Heb. v.5). To inaugurate Him into the office of prophet or of king we read not that the dread solemnity of the Divine oath was had recourse to. “But the Lord  hath sworn and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec’ (Psa. cx.4). Four times is this remarkable oracle quoted in terms [i.e. explicitly] in the  New Testament.’ (Heb. vi. 16 – 17,  vii 20-21, 28., vii.17, vii.21) (Hugh Martin, The Atonement, Knox Press, Edinburgh, 1976, 54.

These titles and offices, as Martin insists, are not literary devices to embellish the Incarnate One,   not vague expressions of mere adornment. The are literally true of the Logos, what he became. Indeed we may say that he is the paradigm and perfect example of each office. His offices define his character, selling out his identity. He was truly a prophet, priest and king, particularly a priest who made a real sacrifice, and who was himself the offering. The great high priest  was as a prophet….. and as a king.

The moral is that the work of Christ is essential to his identity, expressed as his  character of prophet, priest and king. The character of Christ as a substitute, offering etc. are intrinsically  related to his character, and not to be a vehicle of human imagination and inventiveness, nor to be forgotten, or re-modelled as the work of Christ the remembrancer of the coming of Spring.

So if we bring together his humanness and his deity, and enumerate  the offices, these marvellous changes fill in the essential detail of the work of Christ on the cross, and so determine what it means and why it matters. We are not to shun detail when we think of the cross and Christ on it. This act was not a blank outline waiting for descriptions from ‘religious writers’ using their imaginations. He was really a priest, as well as being a king and a prophet and real himself the offering. As a prophet he expressed in revealed language the character of his priesthood. (55) And as  king he rules his kingdom. (Eph.5.5)

NOTE, Hugh  Martin, (1822 – 85)  from whom I have borrowed some of the material used above, was a nineteenth-century Scottish theologian, who left the ministry due to ill health. Besides The Atonement, among the other books he  wrote  were The Prophet Jonah (1866), The Shadow of Calvary (1865), and Christ’s Presence in the Gospel History,(1865) and was the author of articles in The British and Foreign Evangelical  Review.

See also