Did “God” Die on the Cross?

Yesterday, I engaged in some friendly-fire over twitter with the honorable Dr. Jim West.

The issue: is it precise enough to say that ‘God died on the cross’ or must Christians add the qualifier ‘God the Son died on the cross’?

First, I agree with Jim’s initial concern: the Father did not die on the cross. I also agree that the phrase “God the Son died on the cross” is correct. However, I think an equally strong (and precise) point is made when one states that on the cross “God died.”

As a student of Cyril, I take issue with hedging our bets on Jesus’ divinity: Mary is the Theotokos, not the Christokos. Whatever is true of Jesus is true of God, without qualification, for he is fully and completely divine.

I think there are dangers and temptations lurking around both preferences. I worry that such “precision” in terms leads to tritheism and that folks hear “a third of God had a really bad weekend.”* Jim worries that without the qualifier I’m open to be heard as suggesting either that the Father died or a complete denial of the Trinity.

What do you think?

* Fred Sanders has a brief, but well-written, section on this issue while discussing one of Charles Wesley’s hymns in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective.


3 thoughts on “Did “God” Die on the Cross?

  1. You could get as specific as saying, “The man Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Trinity, comprised of the very essence of which God the Father and God the Spirit are also comprised, died on the cross” and be completely correct.
    God is one essence, three persons. The second person, Christ, is comprised of both God and man. You could also say, “God died,” if by that you are speaking to people who know that the same essence of God that comprises the Father also comprises the Son. But therein lies the problem. The essence of God is the same throughout. If you simply say, “God died,” well, there are three persons that make up God, although comprised of the same stuff; of which person do you speak? The ultimate problem would be the identification of “God” in the statement “God died” as representing all three persons (we know this not to be true, but others may not). And all three persons most certainly did not die, but only one person of the Trinity whose essence was the same as that of the Father.
    “God died” sounds nearly too generic, and might be misconstrued as meaning all persons within the Godhead. The specification of the person which died upon the cross most likely comes from that concern. The essence of God did die, yes, the very same which comprises the Father and the Son and the Spirit; but the second person was the only one to die that day.
    … But, then again, not sure that orthodoxy would be so certain about precise boundaries in the first place, Mikey. Trying to condense the resurrection down to a point statement, whether a generic or specific point statement, is kind of … pardon the pun … pointless.
    Altogether, that’s my two bits on this. But, then again, I probably don’t know what I’m talking about…
    If you read this far, Mikey, thanks. Keep posting. You’re doing well.


  2. I have to admit, trying to figure out exactly how the Trinity works always gives me a headache. I remember from my studies of the early Church that some creeds inserted the Greek word homoousios (one substance) to make sure everyone was clear that both the Father and Son were one and the same (substance). The important implication for the day being to combat Arianism, which asserted that Jesus was not fully divine. While I’ve always agreed with this position, I’ve always found it hard to explain. How can one “substance” be two distinct persons (well, okay, actually three, but the Holy Spirit didn’t seem to stir up the substance controversy as much!)? So while I think that “God” did indeed die on the cross, it was most definitely the second person of the Trinity. So if someone asks “Did God die on the cross, or did just Jesus die?”, I’d say, “yes!”

    I just accept that on faith that some things will be beyond my limited understanding. Maybe that’s a cop-out, but I think the bigger implication that God (in the person of Jesus) went willingly to his death to defeat death once and for all is more important than trying to figure out exactly how this played out in regards to the Trinity.


    1. I should clarify that by “I’ve always agreed with this position”, I’m meaning, I’ve always agreed with the one substance/three persons concept, not Arianism! Not sure if that was clear.


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