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 moral 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.