The Cross, Death in God, and the Trinity

April 8, 1966 Time Magazine Cover (Image Source: Wikipedia)

This post is a part of my ongoing (slow and steady) blog series on The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann (CG). You can view the other posts in this series here.

Long familiar religious notions have been shattered, and many people feel disoriented when faced with the slogans ‘God is dead’ and ‘God cannot die’…. Behind the political and social crisis of the church, behind the growing crisis over the credibility of its public declarations and its institutional form, there lurks the christological question: Who really is Christ for us today? With this christological crisis we have already entered into the political crisis of the church. And rooted in the christological question about Jesus is ultimately the question about God. Which God motivates Christian faith: the crucified God or the gods of religion, race and class?
The Crucified God, p. 200-201

Whenever I heard talk about the recent Christian film “God’s Not Dead” (which I still haven’t seen – and probably won’t!), I couldn’t help but think of The Crucified God (CG). Isn’t it odd for a group of people whose definition of God is bound to the crucified Jesus, to respond to the statement “God is dead”, with a flippant retort that “God’s not dead”? God may not be “dead”, but (if we are going to maintain an orthodox Christology) God did die; and the affirmation of this is the starting point of Christian theology. As we find in Chapter 6 of CG, Moltmann’s answer to the “death of God” is to articulate “death in God”, that is, to explore what the death of Jesus Christ means in the life of the Trinity.

With the translation and publication of Theology of Hope in English, Moltmann made a bit of a splash in the American theological world, soon making this headline on the front page of the New York Times: “God Is Dead Doctrine Losing Ground to ‘Theology of Hope’” (March 24, 1968).”  Moltmann’s eschatologically-driven hope theology is grounded in resurrection, putting it in obvious contrast to the then-popular death of God theology, which is based on the cross. But now that Moltmann has turned his attention to the centrality of the cross in CG, how would he respond to the alternate cruciform christology offered by death of God theologians?

Most modern Christians have inherited a picture of God that comes not from Jesus, but from Greek philosophy (this is a point that Moltmann and Volf discussed recently). This God is immutable (he doesn’t change) and impassible (unable to suffer / feel pain); this God is untouched by this world; this God cannot die. A theology of the cross does indeed put to death this picture of God. Paul Althaus put it this way:  “Christology must be done in light of the cross: the full and undiminished deity of God is to be found in the complete helplessness, in the final agony of the crucified Jesus, at the point where no ‘divine nature’ is to be seen…Of course the old idea of the immutability of God shatters on this recognition.” (as cited by Moltmann in CG, p. 206)

If Jesus was “fully God and fully man”, as the Christian creeds attest, this must even be true of Christ on the cross. Jesus does not become less divine on the cross. As Barth put it, “the crucified Jesus is the ‘image of the invisible God’ [Col. 1:15]” (as cited by Moltmann in CG, p. 202). We must rework our picture of God in light of the crucified Christ, rather than try to make Jesus fit into our existing God-picture. To quote Moltmann at length:

The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology. It is not the only theme of theology, but it is in effect the entry to its problems and answers on earth. All Christian statements about God, about creation, about sin and death have their focal point in the crucified Christ. All Christian statements about history, about the church, about faith and sanctification, about the future and about hope stem from the crucified Christ. The multiplicity of the New Testament comes together in the event of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and flows out again from it. It is one event and one person. The addition of ‘cross and resurrection’ represents only the inevitable temporality which is a part of language; it is not a sequence of facts. For cross and resurrection are not facts on the same level; the first expression denotes a historical happening to Jesus, the second an eschatological event. Thus the centre is occupied not by ‘cross and resurrection’, but by the resurrection of the crucified Christ, which qualifies his death as something that has happened for us, and the cross of the risen Christ, which reveals and makes accessible to those who are dying his resurrection from the dead.

In coming to terms with this Christ event, the christological tradition closely followed the Christ hymn in Phil. 2. It therefore understood the incarnation of the Son of God as his course towards the humiliation on the cross. The incarnation of the Logos is completed on the cross. Jesus is born to face his passion. His mission is fulfilled once he has been abandoned on the cross. So it is impossible to speak of an incarnation of God without keeping this conclusion in view. There can be no theology of the incarnation which does not become a theology of the cross. ‘As soon as you say incarnation, you say cross.’ [von Balthasar] God did not become man according to the measure of our conceptions of being a man. He became the kind of man we do not want to be: an outcast, accursed, crucified. Ecce homo! Behold the man! is not a statement which arises from the confirmation of our humanity and is made on the basis of ‘like is known by like’; it is a confession of faith which recognizes God’s humanity in the dehumanized Christ on the cross. At the same time the confession says Ecce deus! Behold God on the cross! Thus God’s incarnation ‘even unto the death on the cross’ is not in the last resort a matter of concealment; this is his utter humiliation, in which he is completely with himself and completely with the other, the man who is dehumanized. Humiliation to the point of death on the cross corresponds to God’s nature in the contradiction of abandonment. When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being.
The Crucified God, p. 204-205

Jesus does not become “less divine” on the cross; nor can we say that the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross is completely limited to the experience of the Son (so that somehow the Father can retain the old philosophical theistic view of the impassible God).   The theology of the cross must cause a “revolution in our concept of God” (p. 204), which –  for Moltmann at least – must lead to a stronger emphasis on the Trinity. Understanding the death of Jesus as “death in God” (not death of God) helps us to think through the relationships of the Father, Son and Spirit:

What happens on the cross manifests the relationships of Jesus, the Son to the Father, and vice versa. The cross and its liberating effect makes possible the movement of the Spirit from the Father to us. The cross stands at the heart of the trinitarian being of God; it divides and conjoins the persons in their relationships to each other and portrays them in a specific way. For as we said, the theological dimension of the death of Jesus on the cross is what happens between Jesus and his father in the spirit of abandonment and surrender. In these relationships the person of Jesus comes to the fore in its totality as the Son, and the relationship of the Godhead and the manhood in his person fall into the background. Anyone who really talks of the Trinity talks of the cross of Jesus, and does not speculate in heavenly riddles.
The Crucified God, p. 206-207

From there Moltmann dives into Martin Luther’s “Theology of the Cross“, as a critique of traditional theism, which we will explore in my next post.

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