Ask A Pastor: How can the infinite Son of God die?
We are studying “God is” by Mark Jones in our young’s people’s group. In chapter 4 “God is infinite” we have come across something difficult to understand. Page 47 paragraph 3. “ we have to say that the person, not a nature, died. Jesus, the God-man, died on the cross. It was not simply the humanity of the God man that died, for that would divide his person. Our question is. If God is infinite how do we understand Jesus death on the cross? If God is infinite then how can one piece of the trinity die?
Thank you for this excellent question. I greatly appreciate Dr. Jones’ ministry and am glad to hear that your group was studying the doctrine of God.
The last part of your question (“how can one piece of the trinity die?”) raises an important point. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not pieces of the Trinity because God has no pieces. Our churches confess in article 1 of the Belgic Confession that God is “a single and simple spiritual being.”
When we confess that God is “simple” are we saying that everything about God is easy to understand? No, instead the statement “God is simple” means that everything about God is so radically harmonious that it is wrong to think of God as a set of different things or qualities combined together. The Trinity cannot be separated like that because the Trinity is one God (Deut 6:4). That means that anything “in God” is completely identical to God’s single undivided Being. As classical Christian theologians like to say: “All that is in God is God.”
Created things are not like that. When we observe humans, animals and trees we notice that it is one thing for a creature to be wise, a different thing for a creature to be powerful, and still another thing for a creature to be good. But when we ascribe words like “wise,” “powerful” or “good” to God something different is happening. All these different qualities in creation are just dim reflections of the infinitely greater perfections of God, and in God they are actually One perfection. This means that all our thoughts and language are imperfectly grasping for ways to express Jehovah’s gloriously mysterious Being according to His self revelation to us (1 Tim. 6:16).
The implications of this doctrine of Divine simplicity are important for thinking and speaking well about the Trinity. The Persons of the Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) are not different gods or different beings. They share an identical existence as the single and solitary Jehovah who is infinite (1 Kings 8:27), eternal (Psalm 90:2) and unchangeable (James 1:17). Therefore it is wrong to think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as having different minds or wills as though the one God somehow “contained” three distinct centers of consciousness. This would be a form of tritheism, or the belief in three gods. Such a doctrine would be contrary to monotheism, or the belief in one God.
In fact, classical Christian theology uses the language of “distinct” Persons rather than “different” Persons to guard against such tritheist errors. The Divine Persons equally share the single mind, will and being of God because they are essentially identical, or One in essence. The only reason that we know that there are really distinct Persons in God is because the Bible reveals to us the distinct relationships of eternal paternity and generation whereby God the Father begets God the Son (John 1:1, 1:18, 3:16) and eternal spiration whereby the Father and Son breath forth the Holy Spirit (John 15:26, Gal 4:6). The doctrine of simplicity entails that these relations of paternity, generation and spiration are each identical to a Divine Person and the only distinction in God which can constitute distinct Persons. This is what article 8 of the Belgic Confession means when it says: “we believe in one only God, who is one single essence, in which there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct, according to their incommunicable properties; namely, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
The first part of your question (“how do we understand Jesus death on the cross?”) is also very important. Properly speaking, God cannot die. In fact, any being that could die would not be God. How therefore do we understand verses that speak as though the Divine Son died (Acts 3:15; 20:28)? The answer is that these verses are speaking about the death of the eternal Divine Person of the Son in His human nature. Since becoming incarnate, the Divine Person Jesus Christ truly acts both through His Divine nature and through His human nature. As a Divine Person He is the sole agent of all His actions, whether that is creating the universe in His Deity or dying on the cross in his humanity (Col. 1:15-20). This is why a Divine Person did truly die even though death is impossible for the Divine nature.
If you want to read further about the doctrine of God I recommend Dr. James Dolezal’s book “All That is In God” and Dr. Fred Sanders book “The Deep Things of God.”