In the council of Ephesus (431 A.D.) the question of whether or not Jesus' mother Mary should be referred to as the "Mother of God" or the "Mother of Christ" was debated. On the orthodox (Mother of God) side, they argued that Jesus' two natures were undivided in his person. On the Nestorian (mother of Christ) side they argued that Mary gave birth to the human nature of Jesus specifically and so it would be misleading to talk about her as the mother of God.

In neither case did they believe that Jesus was not God and in neither case did they believe that God derived his eternal existence from Mary. It was essentially a roundabout way to talk about the hypostatic union and the relationship of Christ's two natures to his person.

In light of this dispute, I wonder what an orthodox subscriber to the Council of Ephesus would say about the statement, "God died on the cross." Jesus is God and he did, in fact, die on the cross. Yet something feels off about it like it is suggesting something that happened to the other persons of the Trinity, rather than Jesus only.

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Can we say God died? Just as much as we can say God was born and called God with us...

The Nestorian Heresy

The Nestorian heresy did not only amount to "essentially a roundabout way to talk about the hypostatic union and the relationship of Christ's two natures to his person," but rather, as the Council in question itself stated, divided Jesus Christ into two persons, not only two natures (God; man) united in the one divine Person. This is an inescapable conclusion of the misplaced concern about calling Mary 'Mother of God.'

When Elizabeth said that Mary was mother of her "Lord," (Lk 1:43) regardless of whether she understood lord or Lord, only persons are lords. Therefore, since the Word was made flesh, since the Word is this Lord, she is the mother of God. Unless we deny that "the Word was God."

It's that simple.

As Constantinople II said,

The holy synod of Ephesus… has pronounced sentence against the heresy of Nestorius… and all those who might later ... adopt the same opinions as he held ... They express these falsehoods against the true dogmas of the Church, offering worship to two Sons, trying to divide that which cannot be divided, and introducing to both heaven and earth the offense of worship of man. But the sacred band of heavenly spirits worship along with us only one Lord Jesus Christ.

—Second Council of Constantinople, Sentence against the Three Chapters of Nestorius, A.D. 553, sect. 9

The first two canons of Ephesus I, I think, capture the essence of the Nestorian heresy quite well, because their truth, in contradistinction to the heresy of Nestorius, is so obvious and incontravertable (emphasis mine):

Canon I. If anyone does not confess that God is truly Immanuel, and that consequently the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (inasmuch as according to the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh), let him be anathema.

Canon II. If anyone does not confess that the Word of God the Father is united, by bond of [His] Person, to flesh—so that Christ, being one with his own flesh, is thus at once both God and man—let him be anathema.

It's crystal clear:

  • "The Word [is] God" (Jn 1:1)
  • "The Word was made flesh" (Jn 1:14) in Mary (Gal 4:4; Lk 1:35)
  • Therefore Mary, mother of the Word who is God, is the mother of God (Lk 1:43)

Mothers give birth to persons, not 'whats.' Else we claim that 'sons' are things and not people—who would dare to say this of God's Son (Gal 4:4)?

Implications of the Orthodox Position

This means that the one Person, the Word, or Son, or Jesus Christ—the same Person with two natures—can be said to have proper to Him both that which is proper to men and that which is proper to God.

In other words, what is said of Christ can be said of either His divine or human nature, but always as belonging directly to the same, one, divine Person (to whom these two natures belong).

Thus Scripture can say (1 Cor 2:8) of those who crucified Jesus, that if they knew of the secret of God's plan:

..they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory

Or more strikingly, Jesus Himself can say (Rev 1:17-18):

Do not fear. I am the First and the Last, and the Living One: and I was before dead, and behold: I live forever ...

Or again, if Jesus, Mary's Son, were not at all times God, it would be false for Him to claim something like:

John 8:58 Jesus said to them, Amen, Amen I say to you: before Abraham was born, I am.

John 17:5 And now Father, glorify me, with yourself, with that glory I had with you before the world was.

And of course everyone is aware that Jesus thirsted and ate, whereas in His divine nature, He has no need of such: His human nature, which is real and not fake, did.

People can claim the Father or the Holy Spirit died on the cross when they become incarnate like the Word did!

Until then, the Word is God and He became flesh and died for us. Not the Father. Not the Holy Spirit.

It's worrying, theologically, if one thinks that each Person of the Trinity is not fully God without being the other Persons, as was suggested. The Trinity isn't a group of Gods. It is the one God. Such is to deny the Trinity. The Word became flesh, not the Father, or the Spirit, yet the Word wasn't 'not God because He isn't the Trinity.' He was "God." And thus the mother He chose is the Mother of God whether it's comfortable or not.

  • The primary reason this whole scheme makes me feel weird is that if I were to simply say, "God died on the cross" it leaves open the possibility that I have said that the Father died on the cross or that the Holy Spirit died on the cross, which are both errors. My concern is patripassionism/implied modalism rather than Nestorianism. Feb 20, 2018 at 15:27
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    "it leaves open the possibility that I have said that the Father died on the cross" Only if by 'God' you were ever referring to the Trinity, and not the Word specifically, who is nonetheless God. You would have committed an error before you were scandalized at any supposed Patripassionism. Orthodox Christians must affirm that each Person of the Trinity is fully God. Not only God when 'added together.' As if God is composed. Thus the Son, the Word is "with God [i.e. the Father]" and "was God [i.e. Himself fully God, but was not every Person of the Trinity]." Feb 20, 2018 at 18:11
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    Open for interpretation by heretics? That's not who the title is for or was made by. The Church knows what it means by what it says, and has clearly defined it in the above canons, among other things. 'Mother of God > because > mother of one who is God.' It's excruciatingly simple, and that's where the temptation by heretics to see it as a faulty syllogism comes from. We only ever meant by mother of God that her Son is truly, and has been from conception, true God. Do you not believe Jesus is God/"the Word [is] God"? Feb 21, 2018 at 11:45
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    Mother of God is meant in the mother of God the Word sense. Not mother of the Trinity. Never has been meant or understood that way. May 23, 2020 at 15:13
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    Actually, St. Paul does say that when he said, "If they had know [the mystery] they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory." That's a pretty clear reference to God. And on the contrary, the term Theotokos is a great tool for expressing orthodox Christology, since it says that her Son is God, not a mere man, while at the same time teaching that Christ only has one, divine, person, not two persons, which is precisely why Mary is rightly called the mother of God. People could be scandalized when we say that Jesus is God, but it doesn't mean we should stop saying it. Just explain it. May 24, 2020 at 14:45

This question is about the doctrine called the communicatio idiomatum, the communion of properties.

Lutheran scholars identified three kinds of communion:

  • genus idiomaticum, where properties of one nature are spoken of as applying to the whole person. Chemnitz writes "that which is proper to one nature is predicated of the person concretely." So for example, we read in 1 Peter 3:18 that "Christ suffered", the suffering of the human nature being predicated to the person of Christ concretely.

  • genus apotelesmaticum, where the redemptive functions of the person are predicated to only one nature. So in 1 Tim 2:5-6, Paul says we have one mediator, the man Christ Jesus, though the function of the mediator belongs to the person and needs both natures to be possible.

  • genus auchematicum or maiestaticum, where the human nature is clothed with attributes of the divine nature. This was the source of a debate between Lutheran and Reformed theologians.

It is from the first kind that we can know it is right to say that God died on the cross. The Formula of Concord (also authored by Chemnitz) says:

41] And shortly afterwards: If the old weather-witch, Dame Reason, the grandmother of the alloeosis, would say, Yea, divinity cannot suffer nor die; you shall reply, That is true; yet, because in Christ divinity and humanity are one person, Scripture, on account of this personal union, ascribes also to divinity everything that happens to the humanity, and vice versa. 42] And it is so in reality; for you must certainly answer this, that the person (meaning Christ) suffers and dies. Now the person is true God; therefore it is rightly said: The Son of God suffers. For although the one part (to speak thus), namely, the divinity, does not suffer, yet the person, which is God, suffers in the other part, namely, in His humanity; for in truth God's Son has been crucified for us, that is, the person which is God. For the person, the person, I say, was crucified according to the humanity.

44] Dr. Luther says also in his book Of the Councils and the Church: We Christians must know that if God is not also in the balance, and gives the weight, we sink to the bottom with our scale. By this I mean: If it were not to be said [if these things were not true], God has died for us, but only a man, we would be lost. But if "God's death" and "God died" lie in the scale of the balance, then He sinks down, and we rise up as a light, empty scale. But indeed He can also rise again or leap out of the scale; yet He could not sit in the scale unless He became a man like us, so that it could be said: "God died," "God's passion," "God's blood," "God's death." For in His nature God cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is correctly called God's death, when the man dies who is one thing or one person with God. Thus far Luther.

45] Hence it is manifest that it is incorrect to say or write that the above-mentioned expressions (God suffered, God died) are only praedicationes verbales (verbal assertions), that is, mere words, and that it is not so in fact. For our simple Christian faith proves that the Son of God, who became man, suffered for us, died for us and redeemed us with His blood.

And to prove the ancient pedigree of the doctrine of communicatio idiomatum, here is what the Tome of Leo says, which was endorsed in the Chalcedonian definition:

To pay off the debt of our state, invulnerable nature was united to a nature that could suffer; so that in a way that corresponded to the remedies we needed, one and the same mediator between God and humanity the man Christ Jesus, could both on the one hand die and on the other be incapable of death. Thus was true God born in the undiminished and perfect nature of a true man, complete in what is his and complete in what is ours. ... Each nature kept its proper character without loss; and just as the form of God does not take away the form of a servant, so the form of a servant does not detract from the form of God.

... The God who knew no suffering did not despise becoming a suffering man, and, deathless as he is, to be subject to the laws of death.

  • This is a great answer showing how a Christological concept (communicatio idiomatum) can describe a complex issue, and how that concept explains the relationship between various positions throughout history. May 22, 2020 at 22:49

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