I’ve had a couple of different types of response to my “Did God die on the cross?” post. Not a lot, but enough to justify a follow-up, I think. There is a biblical response based on the view that the New Testament directly equates or identifies Jesus with YHWH as kyrios; and there is a more deductive theological argument grounded in atonement theory.
The kyrios argument
As regards the identification of Jesus with YHWH by means of the transfer of Greek Old Testament kyrios texts, I see no reason to change my view that in the eschatological Jesus-narrative he is given the authority that goes with kyrios in response to his faithful obedience to the point of death on a Roman cross.
Romans 10:9-13 was proposed. Joel says that everybody who calls on the name of the Lord God will be saved; Paul says that everybody who calls on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved; therefore, Jesus is God; therefore, we can say that God’s blood was shed on the cross.
But if the narrative says that Jesus became Lord or “Son of God in power” by his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God (eg., Acts 2:32-36; Rom. 1:3-4; Phil. 2:9-11), it seems more reasonable to conclude that the Old Testament texts have been re-applied to him on that basis. The authority to act as only YHWH acted in the Old Testament has been devolved on to Jesus.
Besides, the salvation in view in this passage is eschatological; there is no reference to Jesus’ death as an act of propitiation. The thought is: Jesus has been raised from the dead (Rom. 9:9); he has been made Lord; when the wrath of God comes, he will save those Jews and Gentiles who call upon his name. The thought is the same as 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10: “ you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come”.
When Paul says that the “rulers of this age” failed to understand the wisdom of God and so “crucified the Lord of glory”, kyrios is not a reference to God (1 Cor. 2:8)—another suggestoin made. The “Lord of glory” is also eschatological. The phrase brings into view the earlier statement about waiting “for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7–8). On this day, the old world will pass away, and those who have called upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:2) will be vindicated; those who have trusted in the counterintuitive wisdom of God will be glorified (1 Cor. 2:7). James speaks of “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1).
The death-of-an-infinite-person argument
The second line of reply was that if this wasn’t God on the cross, then “we have nothing that changes anything”. The death of a mere man wouldn’t do the heavy lifting of salvation.
Jason Helopolous makes this point in his sermon:
The Son of God, eternally God, appropriates to himself humanity…. The Son of God, who appropriated human flesh, appropriated our humanity, appropriated our death. Real human death. His real human blood was shed, and he truly died for us, the God-man. The Son, the second person of the triune godhead suffered in his human nature. The infinite person of God, we can say, in his human nature suffered in our place; and his suffering was of infinite efficacy and infinite value because of his infinite divine nature.
There are two parts to the argument: first, that it was the eternal Son of God who died on the cross; and secondly, that only the suffering of an “infinite person” could have produced infinite benefits. I think this argument can be challenged on both points.
1. The identification of Jesus as “Son of God” in the New Testament is not a statement about his divine pre-existence. In biblical terms it is wrong to say, as Helopolous does, that the Son of God “appropriated human flesh, appropriated our humanity, appropriated our death”. There are “sons of God” in the Jewish scriptures who are divine, but they appear to be angelic figures (Gen. 6:2, 4; Deut. 32:8; Job. 1:6; 2:1; 38:7); they do not appropriate human flesh. The singular son of God, otherwise, is either Israel or Israel’s king—human by definition, not by appropriation.
The problem with the theological method is that it has taken the language of sonship, emptied it of its biblical content, refilled it with a Trinitarian conceptuality, and then reinserted it into the New Testament, hoping that no one would notice the sleight of hand.
We can defend the theological rationalisation as theological rationalisation, taking into account an emerging Wisdom christology and the demands of the Hellenistic worldview. But we deceive ourselves (and the truth is not in us) when we argue that this is the logic that shaped the central story about Jesus in the New Testament.
As I read things, at least, there is a core eschatological-kyrios narrative, according to which Jesus is elevated to a position of derived authority at the right hand of God; added to this is a Wisdom-Logos narrative, which makes him the agent of creation and/or new creation; these biblical narratives became fodder for the intellectual meat grinder of the Church Fathers, out of which came the highly rationalised, a-historical, narrative-free metaphysics of Trinitarian orthodoxy. I’m not saying that the Fathers were wrong, just that we need to understand the historical process.
2. The other part of Helopolous’ argument is that the person who suffered on the cross had to be divine in order for his death to have “infinite efficacy”. A finite human death would have only finite saving value and therefore could not be the means by which the sins of the whole world are atoned for.
Underlying the argument is a logic of proportionality. This perhaps makes sense theoretically, to the rational theological mind, but it is hard to find support or justification for it in the New Testament. If anything, it runs counter to the “logic” of the New Testament narrative, which is that God brings about his purposes through what is weak and ineffectual, through the least rather than the greatest.
The logic of the New Testament is one of disproportionality.
Nothing suggests that a sacrifice was needed on the same metaphysical scale as the sin of all humanity. It is not the magnitude of the sacrifice that counts but the magnitude of the grace of God in response to Jesus’ simple human faithfulness unto death.
This is what we find in the classic atonement passage in Romans 3.
God put Christ Jesus forward “as a propitiation by his blood” in order to demonstrate his righteousness or rightness, “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Rom. 3:25-26). Paul shows no interest in superimposing the identity of God on Jesus. The death of the Son at the instigation of the wicked tenants of the vineyard is put forward as an act of propitiation for the sins of Israel, by God, who is prepared to overlook the long history of rebellion and defiance that had brought things to this head. It is by this divine act of “grace as a gift” ( the putting forward and passing over) that both Jews and Gentiles are justified (3:24). It is what God does in response to Jesus’ death that makes a difference, not the death itself as a cosmic metaphysical event.
The same point can be made from Romans 5. Jesus’ death is of value “for many” not because God himself died on the cross but because many were justified by the abundant grace of God for believing in Jesus even though he had appeared to Israel “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 5:15-17 ; 8:3). It is the grace of God, the “free gift”, justifying those who believe, that exceeds the sinfulness introduced by Adam. Jesus’ death is never any more than a human death.