Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Necessary Relationship Between Poetic and Technical Theological Language

[Does technical theological language lead to dead orthodoxy? Does poetic theological language lead to intellectual sloppiness? Fred Sanders helpfully addresses these issues in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective. The following blogpost is quoted from pages 14-16 of that work.]

The difference between saying "Jesus is Lord" and saying "the two natures of Christ are hypostatically united without confusion, change, division, or separation" is striking. The transition, however, is not only necessary, but also tremendously helpful, fruitful, and nourishing for Christian faith and understanding.

Consider, for example, how Chalcedonian categories helped a Christian poet express himself. In one of his hymns, Charles Wesley wrote: "O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God hath died for me!" This is a bold thing to say, because it claims so much: "God... died." The Bible itself says it that bluntly in a few places, such as Acts 20:28, "God purchased the church with his own blood." This is how the voice of faith speaks when it confesses what God has done. This is a good Christian sentence. When theologians get hold of stark, paradoxical statements like "God died," they have an instinct to clarify what is being said. They do not want to remove the shock or the force (that would be very bad theology), but they do want to make sure that the true paradox rather than something else is being communicated. They want to rule out misunderstandings that either take away the shock, or substitute for it the fake shock of logical incoherence.

For example, it is possible to think "God died" means something like, "just as there is a human death for humans to die, there is apparently a divine death for God to die, and that is what happened at Calvary." But the analogy is nonsense. Death is a concept that only works inside the context of a creation. You need a finite, contingent existence to have its eclipse or dissolution in death. "Divine death" as an analogue of "human death" is probably not even a coherent idea. It seems to belong to the category of "neat tricks you can do with language," by combining any adjective with any noun: square circle, blue height, quiet toddler, cold heat, divine death. When you remove the chimera of a properly divine death, you can see that "God died" means that God experienced the only kind of death there is to experience, and that is creaturely death. How could that have happened? This is precisely where Chalcedonian categories come into play, and rather than stripping away the poetic power of Wesley's words, the incarnational theology of Chalcedon, so to speak, put the poetry into the poetry. According to the Chalcedonian explication of the incarnation, the Son of God took into personal union with himself a complete human nature, and thus existed as one theanthropic (divine and human) person. He did not cease to be God, but he took up human nature into hypostatic (personal) union with himself. He made that humanity his own, and in that appropriated humanity he appropriated real human death. He died the only death there is to die, our death.
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So with all the elaborate distinctions in place, the sentence "God died" can also be said in this longer form: "The eternal second person of the Trinity, God the Son, took into personal [and perpetual] union with himself, without confusing it, changing it, dividing it or separating it from his eternal divine nature, a complete human nature through which he experienced death." It is no surprise that Charles Wesley did not set that longer sentence to music. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the longer sentence is precisely what he meant by the shorter one. To the suggestion that he could have meant anything else by it, Charles Wesley would have replied that, being an orthodox Christian and no heretic, he could not possibly have intended anything else. Furthermore, there is no trickery and no sleight of hand in that expanded paraphrase of "God died." The longer sentence is what the shorter sentence means, and both sentences are true precisely insofar as they mean each other.
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God died on the cross! Charles Wesley certainly knew the value of the incarnational and trinitarian framework, because when he sang "O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God died for me!" he immediately paraphrased it in terms of the second person of the Trinity's vicarious action on our behalf: "The Father's coeternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree."

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