David Murray recently offered provocative blog post asking, “Was Jesus Still God in the Tomb?”
He opens it in this way:
Was Jesus God in the womb? Was Jesus God in the tomb? You probably answered yes to the first question, but hesitated to do so over the second, didn’t you? Although it’s brain-bursting to think of God as an embryo, it’s brain-numbing to think of God as a corpse.
You can read the whole thing here as David sets forth his reflections on this.
It seems to me, however, that the piece could use some tightening and nuancing as we experience iron sharpening iron over this crucial—but at times confusing—issue of Christology. The point is not criticism as an end in itself but a means of growing together in our knowledge of Christ and his work and how to best express these glorious truths.
Toward that end I enlisted the assistance of Stephen Wellum, professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and that author of a forthcoming Christology in Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series (which I expect to become a standard work). His reflections on David’s piece are as follows:
Reflecting on the incarnation and how God the Son adds to himself a human nature, and making sense of the metaphysics of the incarnation, is not an easy task. Great minds have reflected on these truths, and in the end our doing so is the glorious task of faith seeking understanding. We must carefully remain within the biblical givens and the theological reflections of the church, especially as reflected in the Church’s confession as represented by the Chalcedonian Definition. Even though Confessions are secondary standards they helps set the parameters by which we carry out our theologizing of such important truths. Dr. David Murray is to be commended for helping us once again reflect upon and wrestle with the incredible and glorious truth of the incarnation, and anything said in response and disagreement must not be taken as not appreciating what he has sought to write in this post. However, in light of Scripture and the Chalcedon Confession, I find a number of points confusing and it is to these points I now turn.
1. The Language of God in the Incarnation
Dr. Murray’s use of language regarding the incarnation, though legitimate in most places, needs more precision in order to avoid misunderstanding.
For example, he asks: “Was Jesus God in the womb? Was Jesus God in the tomb?” (my emphasis).
Later he says, “Although it’s brain-bursting to think of God as an embryo, it’s brain-numbing to think of God as a corpse” (my emphasis).
In another place he says, as we think of Jesus in the womb we struggle with such truths and think to ourselves, “God cannot become a microscopic collection of cells.”
My problem with how Dr. Murray has made these statements is that they are misleading if there are not some careful distinctions made. Even though Scripture can talk in a similar way to Dr. Murray—e.g., Acts 20:28 affirms that God bought the church with his own blood, referring to the blood of Christ—one must be careful in the use of God without qualification. Let me explain further. When we use the word God we mostly think of God in his entire being. Thus when we read Dr. Murray write, “God is a corpse,” it is easy to think that he is saying that somehow in the death of Christ, God in his entire being has died, which I don’t think he is saying. In order to be more precise in (1) how we speak of the incarnation, (2) how we use the word God, and then (3) how we apply this language to Christ’s death, it is better to say that God the Son was in the womb, God the Son died—not God without qualification. In the incarnation it is God the Son who becomes incarnate (not the Father and Spirit) and in the death of Christ, it is God the Son who dies (not God without qualification). Once again, I have no doubt that Dr. Murray would agree with this, yet in his provocative language, he opens the door to a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding.
2. The Language of Hypostatic Union
Another example of confusion in Dr. Murray’s language is how he talks about the hypostatic union.
Classical Christology, grounded in such a statement as John 1:14, makes it clear that it is the Word or the person of the Son who adds to himself a human nature which consists of a body and soul. As a result, the Son, not the divine nature of the Son, subsists now in two natures: (1) his divine nature which he shares with the Father and Spirit, and (2) his human nature, which is his own.
In a couple of places, I read Dr. Murray as saying that the human nature of Christ was united to his divine nature, yet later on he says the opposite, which is confusing. For example, he says, “His [Jesus'] human soul still united to His divine nature” (my emphasis) or in another place, “While His [Jesus'] human soul was separated from His body, His divine nature was separated from neither and never will be. His divine nature was as united to His lifeless body on earth as it was to His glorified soul in heaven.” It is on this basis that he says that as we go into the tomb and see Jesus’ body in the grave, we are to say “God is a corpse” and “That dead body was still God and therefore deserving of our worship.”
However, this way of stating the hypostatic union is incorrect. The divine nature of the Son did not add to himself or unite himself to a human nature; instead it was the person of the Son who forever subsists in the divine nature and who now adds to himself a human nature. In this latter understanding, which is the confession of the Church, how we view Christ’s body in the tomb will be slightly different than Dr. Murray suggests, but before I turn to that point, I do want to note that later in his blog, he rightly quotes the Westminster Confession which correctly notes that Christ’s two distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person. What this tells me is that Dr. Murray’s statement of the incarnation and particularly the hypostatic union needs more clarification and precision.
3. The Pre-Glorified Body of Christ
We now come to the issue of how we are to think of Christ’s body in the tomb prior to his glorious resurrection. Do we say that as we gaze on Christ’s lifeless body that “God was a corpse” or “God was in the tomb” or that we should bow down and worship the dead body of Christ?
Obviously these are not easy issues, but I would not state it just as Dr. Murray has stated it. Instead, I would say the following. On the cross, God the Son incarnate died. How do I say such a thing? On the basis of the communicatio idiomatum: whatever is true of the natures may be predicated of the person and since it is the person, not the natures, which lives and acts, it is legitimate to say that on the cross God the Son died. But what exactly does this entail metaphysically speaking? I do not think it entails that the person of the Son or the divine nature dies in the sense that the Son does not continue to act, live, and rule. What it does mean is that the Son experiences death in and through his human nature so that the person of the Son experiences a separation of his human body and soul. As a result, Christ’s human body is now temporarily separated from him and put in the grave, while he, as the person of the Son, continues to subsist in his human soul and his divine nature. If we think about our death, assuming a duality to our nature, when we die we as persons continue to exist in and through our souls, but our human bodies are placed in the grave and there is an abnormal separation in our human nature of body from soul. In a similar way, in and through his human nature, this is what God the Son experiences. During this time, God the Son is still fully human because he continues to subsist in his human soul, yet he experiences for this intermediate period a separation in his human nature as he awaits the full union of his body and soul at the resurrection.
Is it legitimate then to say that when we enter the tomb, “God is a corpse” or “God is in the tomb”? I would not state it this way. What I would say is that the human body of God the Son is in the tomb even though he, as the Son, continues to live, rule, and sustain the universe. One has to be careful, as noted above, not to give the impression that somehow God is dead (when he is not) nor even that God the Son is now a corpse (which he is not). What is dead is the human body of Christ which has been temporarily separated from his human soul and which in less than three days will be reunited so that our Lord Jesus Christ, in his glorified human nature, will be seen.
No doubt these issues are difficult and ultimately they should lead us to worship and adoration. However, one must be careful how we speak of such glorious realities. I appreciate Dr. Murray’s reflections on the incarnation and Easter, but I disagree with how he has stated it and some of the confusions inherent in his discussion.
May we all be led to a greater appreciation and love of our great Savior, who not only took on our humanity but also in love and obedience to his Father’s will, and in love for us, experienced the horror of death in and through his humanity, in order to become our glorious all-sufficient Savior and the great high priest of the new covenant.