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Posted by on Jun 27, 2016 | 13 comments

The Nicene Creed: “…Crucified for us…”

**This post is part of a series reflecting on the Nicene Creed**

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And was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried.

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To follow Ryan’s line of questioning from his post in the series, can we actually make relevant the substance of the Nicene Creed in the life of the modern Christian? Ryan cites Wolfhart Pannenberg on the essential criteria for navigating whether contemporary Christians might appropriate a creed. First, Pannenberg asserts that understanding the historical context and original intent of the creed is essential and that we must judge those theological claims with contemporary biblical scholarship. Given those two things, Pannenberg wonders if the creed can be meaningful to the Christian with the “problems and convictions of the present understanding of reality.”[1]

And so, the question is set: Can Christ’s crucifixion and suffering under Pontius Pilate be imported into the lives of contemporary Christians? Into their current “problems and convictions of the present understanding of reality?” Can the theological implications of Christ suffering and crucifixion have value to the modern mind?

It is hard for me to imagine that most Christians are thinking about vast theological implications of the texts when they recite the Nicene Creed. In the section I am dealing with today, I do not think I have ever considered the various theories of atonement in midst of reciting the small sentence on Christ’s crucifixion and suffering under Pilot. I admit that most of us are not actively thinking of the thought-world of those who scribed the original creed.

To deal with actual text for a moment:

Atonement theories were not the topic discussed at Nicaea. Yet, how we interpret Christ’s divinity directly affects our understanding of the cross. While the crucifixion is given few words in the Nicene Creed, it is the chief cornerstone of the incarnation’s identity. One can imagine how different views of the divinity of Christ might change the function of the crucifixion. The Arian rejection of Christ’s divinity would imply that his work on the cross would be ineffective; it is the Son’s being consubstantial with the Father that makes the crucifixion such a distinctive moment in history. Anything less than God dying on the cross makes the crucifixion nothing more than a tragedy.

Athansius saw the Arian heresy as asking the wrong question, which happened to be the same ones Christ’s opponents and mockers asked. “Why do you, a human being, make yourself to be God?” For Athanasius, the proper question would be: “why did you, being God, become a human being?”[2] It is precisely the issue of Christ’s suffering on the cross as God that is the issue for Athanasius. What is so important to understand for Athanasius and other patristic theologians is that God does not cease to be God when entering into human suffering.[3] It is, in fact, the particularity of Jesus as the God-man that allows him to suffer in the way he does. Jesus’ life is directed toward the cross and toward the suffering he endured on our behalf.

The scene of the crucifixion is set by the last supper and the experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the garden Christ asks his Father to pass the cup he must drink—a cup that represents the eschatological wrath of God. Christ’s “yes” to the wrath is consistent with his eternal relationship to the Father; but incarnate, it reverberates through the whole of human existence. Christ’s “yes” is spoken louder than humanity’s “no.”

From his suffering prayer and his being surrendered over to the soldiers, Jesus fully accepts his fate of suffering—not just the cross, but the beating he will take well before he sees the nail and hammer. The crucifixion is above all else, “the full achievement of the divine judgement on ‘sin’ summed up, dragged into the daylight and suffered through in the Son. Moreover, the sending of the son in ‘sinful flesh’ took place only so as to make it possible to ‘condemn sin in the flesh.’”[4] Thus, Christ as both fully human and fully divine is the mechanism that allows God to simultaneously be the object and subject of the wrath upon sin. Recognizing Christ as the “way, the truth, and the life” means to accept that divine act of the cross.

Christians today live in the wake of the full movement of the incarnation’s life, crucifixion, and resurrection. There is no other foundation from which to make sense of the Christian narrative. And this bring us back to our original question: Can Christ’s crucifixion and suffering under Pontius Pilate be imported into the lives of contemporary Christians?

Yes.

Will most Christian understand the complex history of council of Nicaea? Will they have an intellectual grasp of the important thinkers that clarified the central tenants of the faith through the creed they recite? The point is not that Christians immerse themselves in the thought-world of the 4th century theologians, but rather, immerse themselves in what those theologians were protecting: a coherent salvation narrative that deals with personal suffering, sin, and participation in God’s salvific plan. If one cannot sensibly deal with the motifs of sin, salvation, wrath, and atonement, then we are talking about a conflict of paradigms and worldviews, not a usurpation of truth by “present understandings of reality.”

__________

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, The Apostles’ Creed in the Light of Today Questions, vii.

[2] Athanasius, On the Council of Nicaea, I.

[3] Paul Gavrilyuk, “God’s Impassible Suffering in the Flesh,” in Divine Impassability and the Mystery of Human Suffering. 143.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, 119.

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Freedom is found in the mountains or on a bicycle- combining the two creates a holy sacrament. I love depressing music and beer as libation. It is my contention that theology is queen of the sciences.
  • Lance, I wonder if your post retrojects too much of Moltmann’s crucified God back into the fourth century with the claim, “God does not cease to be God when entering into human suffering.” I think that for many patristic theologians there is a sense that God’s deity is not fully present to human suffering. I find that Nicene theologians often posit a two-stage understanding to the incarnation in order to prevent anything inappropriate (ἄτοπος) from being applied to the Godhead. Consider Gregory of Nazianzus’s advice for those who are confused by the seemingly all-too-human characteristics of the supposedly divine Christ:

    To give you the explanation in one sentence. What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead [ὑψηλότερα πρόσαγε τῇ θεότητι], and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal [τῇ κρείττονι ψύσει παθῶν καὶ σώματος]; but all that is lowly to the composite condition [τὰ δὲ ταπεινότερα τῷ συνθέτῳ] of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate [σαρκωθέντι]—yes, for it is no worse thing to say, was made Man, and afterwards was also exalted. The result will be that you will abandon these carnal and grovelling doctrines [i.e., those expressions found in Scripture that seem to attribute to Christ things that would be irreverent to apply to God], and learn to be more sublime, and to ascend with His Godhead, and you will not remain permanently among the things of sight, but will rise up with Him into the world of thought [μὴ τοῖς ὁρωμένοις ἐναπομένοις, ἀλλά συνεπαίρῃ τοῖς νοουμένοις], and come to know which passages refer to His Nature [φύσεως λόγος], and which to His assumption of Human Nature [λόγος οἰκονομίας] (Orat. 29.17).

    For Nazianzen, ignorance, subjection, prayer, sleeping, hunger, agony, fear, and even the crucifixion, are all things that cannot be attributed to the Godhead in a straightforward sense, but they have to be applied to the human nature—i.e., not the divine nature—of the one who became incarnate. Suffering and crucifixion are, as the Apostle Paul makes quite clear, not to be counted among the superior things. I don’t know if Athanasius makes things as clear as Gregory does here, but I’m fairly confident that the latter is not alone in his thinking on this matter. In fact, Nazianzen’s point hinges on the familiar patristic distinction between the essence and economy of God—what is important in relation to your post is that in the above paragraph, Gregory finds the incarnation to be part of the economy but specifically not the essence of the Godhead. So it seems to me that God does cease to be God in a crucial sense with respect to human suffering and the crucifixion.

    If the crucifixion then is only attributable to the assumed human nature of Christ, then I am unsure as to whether it can function, in the phrase of von Balthasar, as the “full achievement of divine judgment on ‘sin.'” I think it remains a mere tragedy.

    • Alexander Arden

      Ryan,

      If your premise is accepted does the substance and the character of God change/evolve in the incarnation? Does the economy of the incarnation bring about a newness in God that had not existed up to that point, or is it an aspect of the revelation of God revealing Godself in the nature of man?

      To further elucidate my question I will offer this Gabriel Marcel quote:

      “The striking thing about the Precious Blood is the bond it establishes between love and suffering in our experience, a bond that has become so close that we have come to think of suffering accepted with joy as the most authentic sign of love with any depth at all.”

      Thus, it would seem that the fullness of God’s love was revealed through the incarnation and the suffering of Christ. Therefore, the suffering of Christ is a part of the Godhead inasmuch as it is a revelation of the fullness of God. If suffering, pain, empathy were not a part of the Godhead in the beginning then wouldn’t it point to a development/evolution of the Godhead in Christ? Wouldn’t that then change the substance and role of the Son in relation to the Father, wouldn’t it diminish the deity of the Son in the incarnation, because you are essentially saying that the character and being of the Son were not fully formed in eternity but needed a creaturely experience to assume the fullness of Godhead?

      • Alex, I wasn’t actually contesting the place of suffering in the life of God per se; what I was trying to say is that the argument Lance sets forth in his post (via patristic thought) might not allow him to make the case that suffering has its place within the Godhead. There is definitely warrant to think so on other grounds, but, by and large, I don’t think that Nicene theologians allow for such possibilities. That’s why they develop distinctions to allow them to have both a divine Christ while retaining an impassible Deity. This is a classic case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it, too.

        I am, of course, open to the possibility that there are fourth-century Christians who maintain an understanding of God that allows for divine suffering, but I, as ever, will await the evidence.

    • LA Green

      Indeed, some clarification is needed.
      First, Moltmann attributes suffering into the Godhead because it’s part of the eternal revealing of God’s nature as love, a venture in freedom and self-revelation. The suffering God of Moltmann’s theology, in an attempt to do theology after Auschwitz, is its metaphysical grounding.
      Thus, you’re absolutely right to say that the Father’s wouldn’t agree with the quote through a Moltmannian lens. But “God does not cease to be God when entering into human suffering” is to say God is not defeated or defined by these things. Cyril affirms this, I think. Though he and the other father’s are careful to note the new Adam is an essential representation of humanity, but it’s still God giving himself up ‘to God.’ The co-mingling in the Five Tomes Against Nestorian clear.
      But in later theologians, like John of Damascus, we see this start to take even clearer shape with delineating between hypostasis and enhypostasis. The human nature of Christ subsists within the eternal nature of the Son. This same kind of logic can be used with themes like suffering, which seems to be the path that Balthasar takes it.
      So I suppose I’ll give you this: 4th century christology has not navigated the various contours required to adequately deal with God’s suffering… there is a lot of back and forth on mingling and distinction. But clarification certainly is certainly beginning to take shape.

      A question to your question: is this an attempt to show that creed doesn’t have the required substance for the modern person/christian or is our debating the coherence of the hypostatic union simply a conflict of paradigms?

      • Until I see the textual evidence, I remain unconvinced of any position that claims that NIcene theology allows God qua God to enter into human suffering or God to be simultaneously the object and subject of divine wrath. To say such things, in the context of the fourth century, would be inappropriate [ἄτοπος] as well as an act of irreverence [ἀσέβεια]. Thus, I find it simply incredible to take a statement such as yours, “[a]nything less tha[n] God dying on the cross makes the crucifixion nothing more than a tragedy,” to be something that would be consonant with fourth-century Christian thought.

        If it is important to believe in a God who suffers—a separate issue that I have judiciously not taken up in any of my discussions here—then it must be recognized that Nicene theology stands in the way of such belief. When Nazianzen asserts that the divine nature [θεότης] is “superior to sufferings and incorporeal,” I understand him to speak for all his contemporaries. (This is the crux of the issue. In order to move the discussion forward, evidence to the contrary must be supplied.) One who suffers—and a fortiori certainly one who dies—is, in essence, not God. If the modern mind requires a crucified God, it should not look to the fourth century to find one.

      • Alexander Arden

        Ryan,
        Isn’t the answer in the Creed itself? Christ who is very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” Did not remove his diety but “who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man” It would seem that by stating this the council would not deem it an impossibility for God qua God to enter into our suffering IF it was for our salvation, meaning IF it were in line with the character and immutable nature of God.

      • Alexander Arden

        Ryan,

        Here is a quote from Nazianzen’s “Critique of Apollinarius and Apollinarianism” that seems to back you up:

        “Who in these last days has assumed Manhood also for our salvation; passible in His Flesh, impassible in His Godhead; circumscript in the body, uncircumscript in the Spirit; at once earthly and heavenly, tangible and intangible, comprehensible and incomprehensible; that by One and the Same Person, Who was perfect Man and also God, the entire humanity fallen through sin might be created anew….
        But if it was that He might destroy the condemnation by sanctifying like by like, then as He needed flesh for the sake of the flesh which had incurred condemnation, and soul for the sake of our soul, so, too, He needed mind for the sake of mind, which not only fell in Adam, but was the first to be affected, as the doctors say of illnesses. For that which received the command was that which failed to keep the command, and that which failed to keep it was that also which dared to transgress; and that which transgressed was that which stood most in need of salvation; and that which needed salvation was that which also He took upon Him. Therefore, Mind was taken upon Him.”

      • I am certainly not saying that it is impossible to find in the creed a suffering, crucified God. You’re exactly right to observe that the essence of God may indeed permit suffering, even death, and there is nothing in the plain language of the creed that stands in the way of that belief.

        What I am saying is that those fourth-century Christian thinkers who supported the promulgation of the Nicene Creed did not read it that way. The reasons, as best as I can adduce them, are thus: (1) Nicene theologians held to a strong though rarely defined notion of divinity [θεότης] that essentially did not permit suffering, but (2) their piety also entailed the worship of a Christ who suffered and died on the cross. These two factors are what lead to the special pleading and tortured explanations like those in the orations of Gregory of Nazianzus where the economy of Christ’s humiliation is severed from the essence of the Godhead.

        Minds (modern or otherwise) that do not share one or both of those assumptions need not take recourse to such lines of reasoning or the logical troubles they entail.

      • Alexander Arden

        Here is a quote from Nazianzen from the same critique I quoted earlier:

        “Further let us see what is their account of the assumption of Manhood, or the assumption of Flesh, as they call it. If it was in order that God, otherwise incomprehensible, might be comprehended, and might converse with men through His Flesh as through a veil, their mask and the drama which they represent is a pretty one, not to say that it was open to Him to converse with us in other ways, as of old, in the burning bush and in the appearance of a man. But if it was that He might destroy the condemnation by sanctifying like by like, then as He needed flesh for the sake of the flesh which had incurred condemnation, and soul for the sake of our soul, so, too, He needed mind for the sake of mind, which not only fell in Adam, but was the first to be affected, as the doctors say of illnesses. For that which received the command was that which failed to keep the command, and that which failed to keep it was that also which dared to transgress; and that which transgressed was that which stood most in need of salvation; and that which needed salvation was that which also He took upon Him. Therefore, Mind was taken upon Him.”

        What I think Gregory is saying in the whole “Critique of Apollinarius” is that the incarnation, and the suffering and death of God, is completely in line with the impassability of the Godhead because it is within the context and economy of our salvation.

      • Alexander Arden

        What I don’t think he, or Nyssen for that matter, would say is that God died in the same way that the flesh died. But, they would be quick to clarify that the economy of salvation cannot be achieved if the deity is separate from the human. I think they would argue that the fully human and fully God aspects of Christ are working in union with one another for our salvation.

      • LA Green

        “The Arian rejection of Christ’s divinity would imply that his work on the cross would be ineffective; it is the Son’s being consubstantial with the Father that makes the crucifixion such a distinctive moment in history. Anything less than God dying on the cross makes the crucifixion nothing more than a tragedy.”

        My point with the above quote is not theopaschism, but that the death of Christ, as the first adam, is only effective in that the new adam is co-mingled with the Divine.

        I am sure there are a number of Fathers that are as strict as Nazianzus (or as strict as his quote) on God’s interaction with suffering. I’ll return when I have the time to show those quotes that are more okay with the mingling, though they still won’t go as far as Moltmann or even Balthasar. I am happy, however, to concede to this point: 4th century christology has not clearly enough dealt with the idea of God crucified. The distinctions and co-mingling language does not make for a clear picture. But not everyone is so interested in delineating between the human and divine sides of Christ. In a way, I am disagreeing and agree with your final statement. My attempt in this post was to be a bit more constructive

        I am not particularly keen in resourcing 4th century theology without all the other work that’s been done to build on it (including other creeds). I will not find a christology that I really want accept completely–I’m too indebted to Luther and what not–but I’ve not assumed the creed is stagnant. I suppose it’s my habit to read the creeds along side each other and with contemporary thinkers as well.

        Either way, I’ll do some digging when I have some time. I’ll find some of the quotes I was thinking of concerning co-mingling and God’s suffering on the cross. Pester in a week or two if I haven’t responded.

      • “4th century christology has not clearly enough dealt with the idea of God crucified.”

        Agreed.

      • Alexander Arden

        By separated from the Godhead are you implying that the 4th century theologians thought that the Godhead had nothing to do with the suffering of Christ, or are you saying the deity detatched itself and Was absent while the flesh was dying?