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From my limited understanding of this matter, some people believe that Jesus was in some sense separated from the Father. This has come up in the context of discussions of the indivisibility of the Trinity, so this seems to me like a very unorthodox view at best, perhaps even a heresy at worst, since it seems to contradict the Athanasian Creed:

... we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is all One, the Glory Equal, the Majesty Co-Eternal.

And the writings of Lactantius (Divine Institutes, 4:28–29):

when we speak of God the Father and God the Son, we do not speak of them as different, nor do we separate each, because the Father cannot exist without the Son, nor can the Son be separated from the Father

Perhaps there is no contradiction. For example, I understand the first two of the following senses of "separation" to be perfectly orthodox:

  1. The Persons are distinct, in that the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father. So in that sense, the Son and Father are "separate".
  2. The Father was not conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. The Father did not die on the cross, but the Son died on the cross. So in that sense, the Father and Son are "separate".

  3. The persons were separated: not "in a sense", but actually separated in such a way that the indivisible Trinity was, without qualification, separated.

  4. The Trinity is not indivisible, but is instead divisible, and was separated.
  5. The substance was divided.
  6. The Father was God, and Jesus was God, but they were, without qualification, separated.
  7. The Son and Father were divided in Spirit: the Spirit of the Son was separated from the Spirit of the Father.

I do not think that these first two senses of separation are what is meant, though I could be wrong. However, I suspect that the last five senses (3-7) are also not meant. Though again, I could be wrong. I do not actually know, and I don't see where to place this view among the views that I am familiar with.

  • What exactly is this view? Have I listed it above, in one of the numbered lines? What is meant by "separated"? Would those who profess this view deny the Athanasian Creed and the Divine Institutes, and certain other works?
  • What is the origin and basis of this view among those who hold it? If the source of this view is the fact that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 when he died, how did this interpretation arise? Do those who hold this view claim that Jesus was professing separation, and reject the idea that Jesus was confirming the fulfillment of prophesy? If possible, which denominations actually hold this view? And why and how did the word "separation" end up being used for this?

In particular, I am in this case looking for an answer that is well-sourced: not an explanation of personal views, nor a personal interpretation of scripture, but something "relatively well established", according to our best standards of "relatively well established".

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Good question. I have not personally encountered of any view that considers Jesus to be truly separated. Usually with Math 27:46 where Jesus became sin (2 Cor 5:2) God's wrath was poured out and Jesus feels forsaken, people might say his humanity was in a sense separated from a Holy God as he became sin, but this is a limited separation. The Son was one with the Father at all times and his human nature could not be separated from his divine. Actual separation would be heresy, someone has probably asserted it in history. This is probably be an early church historical heresy question. –  Mike Apr 15 '13 at 5:17
I read the link. The way Caleb describes it is the way I have often encountered it and have no objection. It is not to be understood as an absolute separation but some kind of experience of death and separation that is implied by putting sin and death on him. I understand Caleb as meaning something along that line, a mystical separation that supports the indivisibility of the Trinity and indivisibility of the God-Man. That is how I understand Caleb's post. However it would not surprise me if you saw more careless language somewhere else. Cheers. –  Mike Apr 15 '13 at 6:28
@Mawia Personal interpretation is fine on a personal level. And it's fine for insertion into and development in conversation. But, in addition to lacking the foundation of well-established beliefs, it's not the topic of this site. –  svidgen Apr 15 '13 at 17:19
@svidgen: I did a lot more than semi-half-think putting that answer together! I deliberately chose words to convey the seriousness of what was going on without using language that any major tradition could lodge a doctrinal complaint with. I linked to the definition of death because it was theologically significant, but I specifically said "experienced" in such away that it did not introduce potential logical contradictions and did not get into details about the Trinity because it wasn't significant to the question and couldn't be done without making the answering disagreeable to somebody. –  Caleb Apr 15 '13 at 20:18
@Caleb I may be mistaken (or getting hung up on the phrasing), but it does seem like many, if not most, denominations would have a doctrinal complaint with the notion that death, in the capacity that Jesus experienced it, is a separation from God. –  svidgen Apr 15 '13 at 20:29
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2 Answers

tl;dr> If Jesus isn't separated from the Father on the Cross, then the heresy of patripassianism is true, and more importantly, the notion that God does not change is not.

1. Scripture sets up cases that separate the Father from the Son

Scripturally the idea that Jesus was separated from the Father is typically supported from when Jesus cries out in Matthew 27:46

"Father, Why have you forsaken me?" (a reference to Psalm 22).

To be forsaken implies that indeed, the Father is absent from Jesus in a very real way.

Additionally, 2 Corinthians 5:21 says:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

We know that sin cannot abide in the presence of God ([Jude](For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.)), and therefore there must have been a separation.

Of this forsaking, the church fathers wrote:

ORIGEN. But it must be asked, What means this, that Christ is forsaken of God? Some, unable to explain how Christ could be forsaken of God, say that this was spoken out of humility. But you will be able clearly to comprehend His meaning if you make a comparison of the glory which He had with the Father with the shame which He despised when He endured the cross.

HILARY. (de Trin. x. 50 &c.) From these words heretical spirits contend either that God the Word was entirely absorbed into the soul at the time it discharged the function of a soul in quickening the body; or that Christ could not have been born man, because the Divine Word dwelt in Him after the manner of a prophetical spirit. As though Jesus Christ was a man of ordinary soul and body, having His beginning then when He began to be man, and thus now deserted upon the withdrawal of the protection of God’s word cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Or at least that the nature of the Word being transmuted into soul, Christ, who had depended in all things upon His Father’s support, now deserted and left to death, mourns over this desertion, and pleads with Him departing. But amidst these impious and feeble opinions, the faith of the Church imbued with Apostolic teaching does not sever Christ that He should be considered as Son of God and not as Son of Man. The complaint of His being deserted is the weakness of the dying man; the promise of Paradise is the kingdom of the living God. You have Him complaining that He is left to death, and thus He is Man; you have Him as He is dying declaring that He reigns in Paradise; and thus He is God. Wonder not then at the humility of these words, when you know the form of a servant, and see the offence of the cross

DAMASCENE. (de Fid. Orth. iii. 27.) Although He died as man, and His holy soul was separated from His unstained body, yet His Godhead remained inseparate from either body or soul. Yet was not the one Person divided into two; for as both body and soul had from the beginning an existence in the Person of the Word, so also had they in death. For neither soul nor body had ever a Person of their own, besides the Person of the Word.

Thomas Aquinas, S., & Newman, J. H. (1841). Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers, Volume 1: St. Matthew (958–959). Oxford: John Henry Parker.

2. If Jesus did not separate from the Father, then you are stuck with Modalism or Nestoriansism

2a. Modalism

Theologically, the idea that Jesus was separated from the Father whilst dying on the cross is necessary if one is to avoid the heresy of Patripassianism. Patripassianism states that the Son literally was the Father, so whatever the Son suffered, the Father suffered also. However, the problem with this is that when Jesus dies, it is important that God the Father does not die with Him. If he does, then God has changed state - from live to dead - and is therefore "passable" meaning that he can change. If he can change, the thinking goes, then he cannot be fully 'perfect' because change implies going from a less perfect to more perfect state.

Most directly, Hippolytus wrote against Noetus who held this view.

Patripassianism is sometimes called "Monarchical Modalism," because it is inherently modal in its underpinning. If as Sabelius believed, God is modal, then patripassianism is tautological. If Jesus is God the Father incarnate, then the death of Jesus = the death of the Father. As it is essential that Jesus actually died (and did not just appear to die as the Muslims believe) and if it is equally essential that God the Father not die, since he is perfect, then by definition, Jesus and the Father must have been separated at this point.

Since modalism was rejected as heresy, it was natural to make heretical the idea of patripassiansm.

The book "No one Like Him" explains it well:

Modalism, if adopted, has the further consequence that the Father literally suffered on the cross with Christ. This notion is called “patripassianism,” and initially it may seem innocuous, for all Christians would say that the Father’s heart broke and he empathized and sympathized with Jesus while he was on the cross. But that is not what patripassianism means. It means that the Father, in playing the “Son role” while Christ was on earth, actually suffered and died on the cross. This conclusion seemed inescapably to follow from belief in only one divine nature and in the three “persons” as nothing more than different names that designate different roles or activities played at one time and another. But patripassianism met with strong resistance for a very simple reason. Typically, early Christians believed that God is atemporally eternal. As such, he is absolutely immutable, for change comes with time but is absent from an atemporal being. Moreover, if God is absolutely immutable, he cannot experience changes of any sort, including changes in his emotional and physical state (if he is at all physical). Therefore, patripassianism was clearly objectionable. It destroyed atemporal eternity and divine immutability and impassibility. God could suffer, he could undergo change; and if the divine nature was thoroughly resident in Jesus, then God was subject to time, or so it seemed

Pope Leo the Great, in the Post-Nicene Fathers, directly connects this patripassianism to the essence of the Trinity:

This species of blasphemy they borrowed from Sabellius, whose followers were rightly called Patripassians also: because if the Son is identical with the Father, the Son’s cross is the Father’s passion (patris-passio): and the Father took on Himself all that the Son took in the form of a slave, and in obedience to the Father. Which without doubt is contrary to the catholic faith, which acknowledges the Trinity of the Godhead to be of one essence (ὁμοούσιον) in such a way that it believes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost indivisible without confusion, eternal without time, equal without difference: because it is not the same person but the same essence which fills the Unity in Trinity

2b. Nestorianism

It is possible to make an argument that says only the human nature of Jesus died on the cross - the nature of God did not. This maintains passability, but it presents, in my mind, an even worse problem. It turns God into a monster and doesn't actually involve sacrifice.

Imagine, for a moment that this was "God's plan." First and foremost, it inherently presumes a Nestorian understanding of the hypostatic union - also condemned as heresy. In over-emphasizing Jesus' humanity, it turns him into a dual-natured person. It exalts the created human (who was not, as it says in John 1, with God in the beginning, for it was created)

Leaving that aside, for a moment though, if the Divine nature of God the Son were to have left his human side, we have two unfortunate outcomes.

  1. God himself never actually sacrifices himself in this scenario. He sacrifices a created thing - it's like he tore off a soiled suit, rather than actually descending into Hell.

  2. In this scenario, God creates a human being for the sole purpose of being tortured and abandoned. At the moment of greatest pain and suffering, God abandons him. If only the human is crying out, "Father, why hast thou forsaken me!" then God has turned his back on the best human ever made. Talk about sadistic! Would you follow that vengeful, cruel, and hateful God? I certainly wouldn't!

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Why the downvote? –  Affable Geek Apr 15 '13 at 21:58
Indicating worries over uncertainty. I don't think this can be right -- at least, not in any denomination I am familiar with. We can avoid the heresy of Patripassianism here by confessing the Hypostatic Union. Are these sources really suggesting that we need to separate Jesus from the Father so that Jesus could die, without affecting the Father? Jesus is True God, God unchanging. All that is required for the death of Jesus is that, in the human nature of the hypostasis (not the Divine nature), the body and soul come apart. The "No one Like Him" seems to be asserting #2 in the question, no? –  Alypius Apr 15 '13 at 22:08
I'll refrain from voting here, because there's more information here than I was aware of. But, I don't see the discussion on shared or not-shared suffering between the Father and Son as have meaningful relevance to their unity and whether God could have at any point been divided in matter -- or if divided in some "non-material" way by the death of the Son, in what way. –  svidgen Apr 15 '13 at 22:31
I guess in a related objection to the relevance, we're also told that "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever." (Hebrews 13:8) So, the non-modality is not a distinct characteristic of the Father. It also, somewhat confusingly, applies to Christ -- the same Christ who apparently changed state. –  svidgen Apr 15 '13 at 22:39
@svidgen Jesus cried during His life, but we would not need to posit that He separated for this to happen. I think that whole issue is something apart, because "separation" is being invoked specifically at death, not in general (which is simply #2 in the question). My main worry here is not the content, but the fact that it needs a source or several that actually says "Patripassianism is the reason for this doctrine of separation", and a comment on why this does or does not contradict the Divine Institutes/Athanasian Creed etc. –  Alypius Apr 15 '13 at 22:49
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A warning

We must be very careful when defending the honor of Jesus that we do not contradict the sort of glory that He claimed for Himself:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”—Mark 8:31-33 (ESV)

The cross

On the cross, Jesus certainly seems to be separated from the other two Persons of the the Trinity:

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.—Matthew 27:45-50 (ESV)

First, Jesus quotes Psalm 22, which was David's cry of distress at the hands of some enemy (which, we don't know). It shows his utter despair nearly to the point of death. The psalm was later interpreted as a word of judgment and redemption of sinful people. Just as God allowed David to be overwhelmed by his enemies, He also allowed the people of Israel to be separated from Him at the hands of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. In Jesus' day, the Romans occupied the land of Judaea, thereby preventing full worship of their God. THose same Romans divided the Father from the Son.

We also read that he "yielded up his spirit". On the one hand, this seems to be an expression meaning that he died. Mark and Luke instead report that Jesus "breathed his last". But Luke, John, and Matthew emphasise that Jesus' spirit left him. A reasonable interpretation is that Jesus was, at that moment, separated from both the Father and the Holy Spirit. Jesus alone died that dreadful, wonderful, momentous day.

Purpose of a temporary separation

The author of Hebrews comments on the cross:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.—Hebrews 2:9-10 (ESV)

We find ourselves in deep waters, but it seems that Jesus ("the founder of their salvation") was made "perfect through suffering" by the Father ("for whom and by whom all things exist"). Over and over Hebrews tells us that Jesus can rescue his people because he went first. Here's how Paul puts it:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?—Romans 8:31-35 (ESV)

The paradox at the center of the cross is that by descending as low as any man can go (and David calls himself "a worm and not a man"), Jesus was able to rise to a height of glory that no other can hope to obtain without His leading. And then He pulls us (undeserved) up with Him. We dare not limit the cost that Jesus paid for us lest we limit the depth of God's love for us.


To the extent that any man can be separated from God, we know that Jesus went before us. However abandoned David felt, Jesus lost more. We do not fear temptation if we put our trust in Jesus who was tempted beyond what we could bear and did not curse his Father.

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