Dale Tuggy offers the following trilemma over at his excellent Trinities blog/podcast:
1. Jesus died.
2. Jesus was fully divine.
3. No fully divine being has ever died.
Tuggy explains that one cannot hold to all three, so at least one must go. But which one? As a unitarian, he thinks the Biblical data requires the affirmation of 1 and 3, and so rejects 2.
I am going to respond to this Trilemma by adopting a “Two Natures” view as expressed by the doctrine of the hypostatic union. So, I believe the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is a Divine hypostasis that has two natures. Those natures are not mixed or confused.
Proposition 1: Did Jesus die?
I accept that Jesus Christ died. This is affirmed throughout scripture. 1 Peter 3:18 tells us that he was “put to death in the flesh”, in Matthew 27:50 John 19:30 it is said that Jesus “gave up the ghost.” The death of Christ is a mystery of the Catholic faith, repeated at every Mass in both thr litergy and in the Nicene Creed.
So, I am inclined to accept (1). I will note, however, that the plain reading of scripture suggests that death involves the flesh and separation or loss of the soul or spirit. So, I would understand death as the separation of the soul from the body. Tuggy defines death as the loss of all or most living functions and does not limit life-functions to biological or natural life functions. The question might then be raised if, on the two-natures view, an individual hypostasis is dead if the life-functions of one of his natures are still fully operational even if the life-functions of the other nature become severally restricted. It seems to me that when orthodox Christians claim that Jesus died, they mean that the human substance that he assumed at the incarnation was destroyed by the separation of Christ’s human soul from his human body, but that he also has a divine nature in which he is consubstantial with the Father and Holy Spirit. That divine substance is essentially immortal.
So, would Tuggy say that I deny Proposition 1? I don’t know, but I think there is a literal sense in which Jesus died.
Proposition 2: Was Jesus fully divine?
Here, I think we need to tease out different ways of understanding “fully”. In one sense, a thing can be fully of a nature if that is the only nature it has. For example, I am fully human and this implies that I am not anything non-human. In this sense, it could not be said that Jesus is fully divine. Jesus is divine, but on the two natures view, we must reject the implication that he is not anything non-divine. He is human, and a human nature, even if assumed by a divine person, does not become a divine nature (lest we confuse the natures).
There is a sense in which I would say Jesus is fully divine though. I would say that something is fully some nature if it lacks nothing essentially had by things of that nature. So, again, I am fully human in this sense too, since I do not lack any of the essential attributes of a human. We might imagine some monster, like the Minotaur, who is half-man and half-bull. Such a creature may have some of the essential attributes of a human, and some of the attributes of a bull, but really could not be said to be fully human or fully bull. That is not Christ’s situation, however. He is not a monstrosity, but has a complete human nature and a complete divine nature. So according to his human nature, he has a human body, human organs, a human mind, a human will, and so forth. According to his divine nature, as I said above, Christ is of the very same substance as the Father and the Holy Spirit, and so according to that divine nature, shares in the Divine Essence and lacks nothing essential to the True God. In this sense Jesus is fully divine. That is, he is a hypostasis that has a divine nature identical to the divine ousia. Would Tuggy agree with me that I can affirm Proposition 2, in some sense? I am not sure.
Proposition 3: Can a fully divine being die?
Again, there is a sense in which I affirm 3 and a sense in which it could be said that I deny 3. As Aristotle tells, “being” is said in many ways. In fact, he thought the primary sense of “being” is “ousia” (see Meta IV.2). Another sense of “being” could be some individual x, which is how I understand the function of “hypostasis” or “supposite” in these debates. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are persons insofar as they are rational individuals. We could say that the Father is a rational being. In fact, the Father is essentially rational insofar as he cannot fail to have an intellect and will. However, he is not essentially rational insofar as he is an individual x, but insofar as his substance is essentially rational. Substances have essential attributes, and individual have essential attributes only with reference to their substances. They do not have essential attributes qua hypostasis or because they are an individual x.
So, I would say that essential immortality belongs to the divine substance (ousia). Divine Persons, or Divine Hypostases are essentially immortal only in reference to their substantial nature. It makes no sense to say that a Divine Person is essentially immortal because of the essential nature of being a hypostasis.
Can the Divine Ousia die? No, it is essentially immortal. Can a divine hypostasis die when referencing their divine nature? No. Can a divine hypostasis assume a mortal nature and die with respect to that nature. Yes, and Thomas Aquinas agrees that each of the divine hypostases could have assumed a moral nature (I mention this not to appeal to his authority, but as a marker to show that I am not far off the reservation of orthodoxy).
Conclusion: So, there is a sense in which I affirm all three propositions. I really affirm that Jesus died a human death, which is the separation of the human soul from the human body in which most of the living functions of the human substance ceased. I really affirm that Jesus is a fully divine hypostasis insofar as he has a nature that lacks none of the essential divine attributes. I really affirm that the fully divine ousia is essentially immortal. I think these are ways to affirm what orthodox Christians mean when they say such things, though they may not be what Tuggy means. So he might say that I reject all three propositions, even if I think I affirm them after making the distinctions I have made. But then we would just be quibbling, and I could grant that I reject one or more of the propositions as Tuggy defines them and still safely be in orthodoxy. Nonetheless, I see no contradiction in accepting the three propositions given my qualifications.
I was recently reading the Letter to the Hebrews and came upon an interesting passage:
Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession; He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house. For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end (Hebrews 3:1-6, NASB).
The logic of the passage jumped out at me, as I have been keen to find passages that affirm the divinity of Christ in light of my interactions with Biblical Unitarians. This passage is concerned with demonstrating that Christ is worthy of more glory than Moses. Thomas Aquinas dissects the passage in the following manner:
161. – But the Apostle’s reason is that more glory is due Him Who built the house, than to him that dwells in it. But Christ built the house: ‘You have made the morning light and the sun’ (Ps. 73:16); ‘Wisdom has built herself a house’, i.e., the Church (Pr. 9:1). For Christ by Whom grace and truth came, built the Church, as legislator; but Moses, as promulgator of the Law: therefore, it is only as promulgator that glory is due Moses. Hence, his face became bright: ‘So that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance’ (2 Cor. 3:7). Therefore, the sequence of thought is this: You say that Christ is faithful as Moses was. Why then overlook Him? Certainly this man was counted worthy of greater glory than Moses, by so much as he that has built the house has greater honor than the house. As if to say: Even though Moses deserves mention, Christ is more honorable, because He is the builder of the house and the chief lawgiver: ‘Behold, God is high in his strength, and none is like him among the lawgivers’ (Jb. 36:22). Therefore, if Moses is deserving of glory, Christ is more deserving: ‘For is the ministration of condemnation be in glory, much more the ministration of justice abounds in glory’ (2 Cor. 3:9).
162. – Then he proves the minor premise of his reason when he says: For every house is built by some man. But the minor is that Christ built that house. He proves this, first, because every house needs a builder; secondly, because the house of which he speaks was built by Christ, the builder of all things is God.
163. – First, therefore, he proves that this house, as any other, needs a builder, because its various parts are put together by someone. This is obvious in a structure in which the wood and stones, of which it is composed, are united by someone. But the assembly of the faithful, which is the Church and the house of God, is composed of various elements, namely, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free. Therefore, the church, as any other house, is put together by someone. He gives only the conclusion of this syllogism, supposing the truth of the premises as evident: ‘Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood’ (1 Pt. 2:5); ‘Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone’ (Eph. 2:20).
164. – Then (v. 4b) he proves that Christ is the builder of that house, for He is God, the builder of all things. And if this is understood of the whole world, it is plain: ‘He spoke and they were made; he commanded and they were created’ (Ps. 32:9) But there is another spiritual creation, which is made by the Spirit: ‘Send forth your spirit, and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth’ (Ps. 104:30). This is brought about by God through Christ: ‘Of his own will has he begotten us by the word of truth, that we might be some beginning of his creature’ (Jas. 1:18); ‘We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works’ (Eph. 2:10). Therefore, God created that house, namely, the Church, from nothing, namely, from the state of sin to the state of grace. Therefore, Christ, by Whom He made all things, ‘by whom also he made the world’ (Heb. 1:2), is more excellent (since He has the power to make) than Moses, who was only the announcer (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Hebrews).
If I understand Aquinas’s analysis of the passage correctly, the author of Hebrews is trying to prove:
C1: Christ is worthy of more glory than Moses
And the premises that support this conclusion are:
P1: For all persons p1 and p2, if p1 is the builder of the house that p2 dwells in, then p1 is worthy of more glory than p2.1
P2. Christ is the builder of the house that Moses dwells in.
Now, C does follow reasonably well from P1 and P2 (see the footnote below). Aquinas notes that further support is provided in verse 4 for the truth of the minor premise, i.e. P2. This sub-argument has massive Christological significance, and the argument looks like this:
P3: For all x, if x is a house, then there is some person who built x.
P4: For all x, if there is some person who built x, the person who built x is God.
From (P3) and (P4), we can draw the conclusion that God is the builder of all houses, or:
C2: For all x, if x is a house, the person who built x is God.
So, given that there is some house that Moses dwells in:
P5: There exists some x such that x is a house and Moses dwells in x.
We can conclude:
C3: There exists some x such that x is a house and Moses dwells in x, and the person who built x is God.
Or in more readable English: God is the builder of the house that Moses dwells in.
But wait a minute! C3 doesn’t say anything like P2. The only way that C3 could be taken to support P2 is if we add a premise, which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews has suppressed, namely:
P6: Christ is God.
The author invites the reader to reason through his enthymeme, and keep in mind the truth that Christ is God, and so the creator of all things, including the Church and all of the houses of Israel, including that of Moses. So from C3 and P6, we can draw out:
C4: There exists some x such that x is a house and Moses dwells in x, and the person who built x is Christ.
And C4 just is P2.
Now, we are also told that Jesus is the Son over the house, but that it is His house. So, we get both the idea that Jesus is the Son of God and God, the creator of all things.
Suppose, for a moment, that the author did not intend such an argument. Instead, he merely wanted to argue that Christ is the Son of the house, whereas Moses is the servant. If so, then his entire point about builders being more deserving of glory than members of the house would be wasted ink. For that entire passage would only prove that God is more worthy of glory than Moses, which is hardly in dispute. The passage only makes sense if it can lend support to the authors actual conclusion, and the only way to validly reach that conclusion is if we identify Christ as God.
1To be more precise, we should say something like, P1′: For all persons p1 and p2, if p1 is the builder of the house that p2 dwells in, and p1 is not identical to p2, then p1 is worthy of more glory than p2. We would also need to then add P3′: Christ is not identical to Moses, which is a reasonable assumption given the Transfiguration, for instance.