Patripassianism and the Death of God
Oneness Pentecostals believe God is one in both essence and person, and that Jesus is the incarnation of this single divine person. On this view, the deity of Jesus is numerically and personally identical to the deity of the Father. The Father and Son differ, not in their person, but in their mode of existence.
A common Trinitarian objection to Oneness theology is that it entails the idea that the Father suffered, and even died on the cross. The ancients called this view “Patripassianism” (Latin for “the Father suffers”) and deemed it heretical. But why?
It is to be expected that Trinitarians would object to the claim that the Father suffered in Christ since they believe God is three persons, of whom only the second (God the Son) became incarnate. The Trinitarian objection to Patripassianism, however, was not limited to the identity of the one who experienced the suffering, but extended to the very metaphysical possibility of the Father experiencing suffering. On their view, it was more than just a factual/historical error to think God the Father was the divine person who experienced suffering in Christ; it was metaphysically impossible for Him to do so. Only God the Son was capable of such.
Arguably, the notion that the Son is, but the Father is not passable was derived from Greek philosophy rather than Scripture. Even Trinitarian theologian Millard Erickson recognized this, noting that “it may well be that the chief reason for the repudiation of patripassianism was not its conflict with the biblical revelation, but with the Greek philosophical conception of impassiblity.”1 In the popular Greek philosophy of the day, neo-Platonism, there was thought to be one ultimate Deity (“the One”) from whom emanated numerous lower deities. The nature of the ultimate deity was perfect, and one of those perfections was the impossibility of experiencing suffering. In their adoption of divine impassibility, Trinitarians did not apply it to God’s nature as we might expect, but specifically to one of the divine persons: God the Father.
This move is significant because it reveals the tendency of these theologians to see God the Father in some sense as “more god” than the other two persons, despite their claim that the three persons are co-equal. God the Father was often spoken of in terms that implied His superiority to God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. God the Father was the ultimate deity – the Source – while God the Son and God the Holy Spirit were derivative2 of the Father (which is why God the Son is capable of experiencing suffering). Here I have in mind the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. This is reflected in the writings of the Fathers as well as in the catholic creeds. Athanasius wrote, “The Son has His being not of Himself but of the Father”.3 Likewise Hilary says of the Son, “He is not the source of His own being. … It is from His [Father’s] abiding nature that the Son draws His existence through birth.”4 Finally, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed describes the Son as derivative of the Father when it speaks of Him as being “begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God.” I agree with Trinitarian philosopher William Lane Craig’s assessment of this theological viewpoint: “This doctrine of the generation of the Logos from the Father cannot, despite assurances to the contrary, but diminish the status of the Son because He becomes an effect contingent upon the Father. Even if this eternal procession takes place necessarily and apart from the Father’s will, the Son is less than the Father because the Father alone exists a se, whereas the Son exists through another (ab alio).”5
Despite the theological difficulties involved in applying the property of impassibility to the Father alone, this move was necessary if the church wished to consistently affirm the following propositions: (1) God is impassible; (2) Jesus is a single person; (3) Jesus experienced suffering. Trinitarians recognized that if the property of impassibility belonged to God’s nature, the property would apply to all three persons in virtue of their shared participation in the divine nature. That would render Jesus incapable of experiencing suffering, and yet Scripture is clear that He did experience suffering. One way of solving this problem would be to affirm two persons in Christ—one divine and one human—of whom only the human person experienced the suffering. This was unacceptable, however, because it split Christ in two. The only way to affirm the singularity of Christ’s person, the reality of Jesus’ suffering, and the impassibility of God was to apply the property of divine passibility to the Father alone.
While the church fathers limited the property of impeccability to the Father to solve a theological conundrum, arguably, if impeccability applied to God at all it would apply to His nature since natures are composites of properties that define what kind of thing a substance is. As previously noted, this would render Jesus incapable of experiencing suffering and death. Given the lack of Biblical justification for the doctrine of divine impassibility, as well as the theological and philosophical problems associated with claiming the Father is but the Son is not impassible, it is best to jettison divine impassibility as an argument against Oneness theology.
While I think these considerations exonerate Patripassianism of heresy prima facie, the question remains as to whether Oneness adherents should confess that the Father suffered and died on the cross. The answer to this question is partially entailed in the answer to another, namely, who was the subject of Christ’s suffering and death? To whom did that experience belong?
Many would identify Jesus’ human nature as the subject of suffering and death, but this cannot be. Natures are just a set of properties that demarcate what kind of thing something is. Natures are not conscious, do not think, and do not act. In short, they do not experience anything. They are objects, not subjects. Only persons are subjects, capable of conscious experience. It should be obvious that death is an experience. If experiences belong to persons, and death is an experience, then who experienced the suffering and death of the cross? If Jesus is a single person, and if we believe the divine person became incarnate, then it follows that the person who experienced the suffering and death of the cross is none other than God Himself.6
Some will object, “God cannot die! He is an eternal being, and the nature of eternal beings is such that they neither come into nor go out of existence.” But this objection falsely presumes that death is the cessation of existence. The Biblical portrayal of death is the separation of the spirit from the body, not the cessation of existence. When you die, you will not cease to exist. You (your spirit) will continue to exist, but in a disembodied state. And that experience—the separation of your spirit from your body—is one that you will experience. The same is true of the divine person in Christ. God experienced a separation of His spirit from His body, and thus it is entirely appropriate to ascribe the experience of death to God. In Christ, God experienced the suffering and death of the cross. That is why Luke could write that God purchased the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28).
Having established that the divine person experienced suffering and death, would it be just as appropriate to say the “Father” suffered and died on the cross as it is to say the “Son” or “Jesus” suffered and died on the cross? After all, according to Oneness theology the divine person in Jesus is numerically and personally identical to the Father. If Jesus suffered and died, in virtue of His ontological identity with the Father, wouldn’t it be accurate to say the Father suffered and died as well? No, for two reasons. First, this falsely assumes that because the person who is Father is the same person who is Son, both Father and Son share the same conscious experiences. Such is not the case. Let me explain.
God became man by bringing human nature into union with His person. The properties of that nature allow God to function as a human in every way, including psychological functioning. In Jesus, then, God is conscious of Himself as man in a truly human way, and yet because God continues to exist beyond the incarnation (and because He retained His divine nature) He continues to be conscious of Himself as God as well. So we have a unique situation in which a single person is conscious of Himself in two distinct ways simultaneously, in two distinct modes of existence. As Father, the single person is conscious of Himself as God, and as Son, the same divine person is conscious of Himself as man. A distinction in consciousness necessitates a distinction in experience as well. As Father, YHWH experiences everything in a divine way via His divine nature; as Son, YHWH experiences everything in a human way via His human nature. While YHWH is the subject of both modes of consciousness—and hence both modes of experience—because death is a human experience, YHWH only experienced suffering and death in and through His human mode of existence as Son.
The second reason we should not say the Father suffered and died is because this is a misuse of Biblical terminology. Scripture uses the appellation “Son” to designate YHWH’s human mode of existence, and “Father” to designate YHWH’s cosmic mode of existence. Since “Father” has no reference to the incarnation, it is misleading to employ that appellation in connection with the suffering and death of God incarnate. Is the divine person in Christ the same person as the Father? Yes, but that does not warrant using Biblical terms in unbiblical ways. Given the modal distinction between Father and Son, it is more appropriate to describe the death of God incarnate by saying “Jesus” or “the Son” suffered and died on the cross since these appellations refer to God’s human existence.
1. Millard J. Erickson, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 335.
2. They did not understand “source” and “derivation” in a temporal sense, but in a logical and metaphysical sense.
3. Athanasius On the Opinion of Dionysius 15.
4. On the Trinity 9.53; 6.14.
5. William Lane Craig, “A Formulation and Defense of the Doctrine of the Trinity”; excerpted from chapter 29 of Philosophical Foundation of a Christian Worldview (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003); available from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5909; accessed 10 January 2010.
6. While natures are not capable of conscious experience, persons utilize the properties inherent in their nature to experience reality. Natures define the kind of experiences persons are capable of. In Christ, God utilized the properties of His human nature to experience the physical world in a human way, including death. God experienced death through His human nature.
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