Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Chalcedon Conundrum

From the May 2010 E-Block.


"If Jesus was God, then how could he have died on the cross? God isn't supposed to be able to die as a necessary being."
"If Jesus was God, how could he not be omnsicient?"

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man... -- Chalcedonian Creed, 451 AD

The objections noted above may come from an atheist, a cultist, or even a concerned Christian; the creedal statement cited is sometimes referred to in such contexts, and is frequently criticized as not solving the problem, but merely deepening it. Apologists like Craig offer detailed responses like the one here discussing the human vs divine nature of Christ.

I will not here be denying the usefulness of such explanations, nor critiquing them. However, I would like to suggest that there are even simpler solutions at hand.

Two important factors need to be considered, which I have yet to see incorporated into any answer given to this conundrum:
  1. "God" is not a proper name. As N. T. Wright has noted, theos in the New Testament is not a proper name. Too often, "God" is read as meaning the person of the Father. Instead, it needs to be understood that "God" here is more like an abstract noun -- like the word "deity".
  2. The reckoning of identity was not by the same standard then as it is now. As we have noted from sources like Malina and Neyrey's Portraits of Paul, a person's identity in the Biblical world was reckoned by external factors -- such as what village one came from, or what family. (One application of this is Point 2 of "The Impossible Faith".)
With this in mind, any questions offered in relation to the deity of Christ must be judged in their contexts, and it becomes possible to answer these questions and objections without even needing to resort to questions of "human vs divine nature". Indeed, we will also find that it greatly simplifies our answers.

    "Deity" does not automatically mean possession of "omni-attributes" -- being all-knowing, all-powerful, and so on. Understand this fully: We are not, of course, here denying that God as we know and worship Him possesses the "omni-attributes". What we are saying is that the confusion of "God" with a proper name above has led objectors to wrongly assume that Jesus cannot be "God" because he does not display those attributes, or seems to lack them. The word translated "God" in the New Testament (theos) is a more abstract noun that was applied more broadly to other beings who were not reckoned to possess omni-attributes -- figures like Zeus and Hermes were also theos. The Jews regarded their own theos as in possession of the omni-attributes, but that too was established by the context of His identity as YHWH, not by his designation as a theos. (The same point can be made of the Hebrew word elohim.)
    So clearly, theos does not semantically imply by itself that the being to which it is applied is omniscient, omnipotent, etc. Such a being may well have been regarded as such, but we are not told of that by the designation theos.
    Jesus is properly designated both man and theos because of "externals" -- specifically, his origins. Being born human was enough for Jesus to be reckoned "man". His origins as the Eternal Wisdom of YHWH were sufficient for him to be designated theos.
And so it is that we can see that the questions themselves are entirely out of order. Being theos does not semantically equate with "being omniscient".

Indeed it does not even equate with "cannot die" in that respect. Even apart from any other solutions that call upon the difference between the human and divine nature, the question is shown to be misplaced: It is, again, assuming that "God" is here a proper name of a person, namely, the Father.

Of course, we aver that the Father cannot die. Nor can eternal Wisdom. But the Son -- incarnate Wisdom, in a human body -- certainly can, and did.

Nevertheless, because theos does not have in its semantic domain, "cannot die," the Son can indeed die and still retain the definition of theos.

Furthermore: The Father, and eternal Wisdom, cannot die, but the reason they cannot die is not because they are theos, but because of their nature as necessary, imperishable, eternal, invincible persons. Incarnate Wisdom -- Jesus -- could indeed die (meaning, his spirit separated from his body -- the body can die, but not the spirit) because of his nature as a thenathropic person, both deity and human.

Thus it is that we can maintain that a divine person died on the cross -- without any contradiction to the notion that, "God cannot die because He is a necessary being." Viewing the creed through the lens of ancient categories of identity -- as well as being clear about what theos actually implies -- cuts off the objections at their roots.

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