“We need an incarnate God, a God put to death, so that we might live, and we were put to death with him.” (Or. 45.28)
Before there was Jurgen Moltmann, there was St Gregory the Theologian. Of the early Church Fathers none spoke more directly of the death of the eternal Son. The gospel is nothing less than the proclamation of “God crucified” (Or. 45:29).
Unlike some of the other early Church Fathers, such as even the great Athanasius, Gregory does not shrink from asserting the suffering and death of the Creator:
God passible for our sake over against sin. (Or. 30.1)
To whom was the blood poured out for us, and why was it poured out, that great and renowned blood of God, who is both high priest and victim? (Or. 45.22)
God even died for us. (Or. 33.14)
For this reason unmingled realities are mingled, not only God with generation, or mind with flesh, or the atemporal with time, or the uncircumscribed with measure, but also childbirth with virginity, and dishonor with what is above all honor, and suffering with the impassible, and the immortal with the corruptible. (Or. 39.13)
On what principle would the blood of the Only-begotten delight the Father? (Or. 45.22)
Whoever does not worship the Crucified is to be anathema and ranked with the God-slaughterers. (Ep. 101.5)
In his Third Theological Oration, Gregory sets forth the hermeneutical principle that guides his interpretation of Holy Scripture: “In sum: you must predicate the more sublime expressions of the Godhead, of the nature which transcends bodily experiences, and the lowlier ones of the compound, of him who because of you was emptied, became incarnate and (to use equally valid language) was ‘made man'” (Or. 29.18). John Behr describes this sentence as “the clearest statement of the principle of partitive exegesis from the fourth century: some things said of Christ pertain to his divine nature, while other things express what he has done for us in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation” (The Nicene Faith, II:349).
Gregory’s hermeneutical rule can, however, be interpreted, and employed, along dualistic lines. One can imagine an Antiochene exegete adopting it to express the separation of the divine nature and the human nature in order to protect the divine impassibility. As Nestorius asked, “Who could think deity susceptible to beastly hands?” (Sermon X, 271). Thus the formula proposed by St Leo the Great, reluctantly approved by the Council of Chalcedon: “The activity of each form is what is proper to it in communion with the other: that is, the Word performs what belongs to the Word, and the flesh accomplishes what belongs to the flesh. One of these performs brilliant miracles; the other sustains acts of violence” (Tome of Leo)—or as Robert Jenson pointedly translates the Latin of the first sentence: “Each nature does its own thing, in cooperation with the other” (Unbaptized God, p. 123). The supporters of St Cyril of Alexandria found this passage alarming, as it does not clearly affirm that the divine Son is the subject of the human activities of Christ (see John McGuckin, Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, p. 234). Perhaps contrary to Leo’s intention, it appears to allow, if not suggest, the positing of two agents in Christ. Nor did Chalcedon help matters when it asserted that the properties of the divine and human natures come together “into one person and hypostasis.” The christological dualist identifies two sets of attributes and activities, divine and human, both of which are joined together only verbally, as it were, in the historical person Jesus of Nazareth.
But Christopher Beeley argues that Gregory’s hermeneutical rule must be interpreted in light of his unitive christology:
With reference to Christ, Gregory uses terms of mixture and interpenetration (or commingling, perichoresis) to denote the mysteriously intimate relationship between the Son and his human existence, as well as to signal how biblical statements about Christ should be interpreted. The cross-referencing of divine and human statements about Christ in Scripture is not a merely verbal convention—and certainly not something that needs to be explained away—but rather a realistic indication of who Christ is. For Gregory, the communicatio idiomatum is true at the level of Christ’s being. … Gregory’s understanding of the unity of Christ thus reflects a particular method of biblical interpretation. … The key to interpreting both humble and exalted references to Christ is to understand that both kinds refer to the same Son of God, only in different ways. Lofty, or divine, statements refer to the Son in his proper, divine nature (his divinity)—both apart from and in the incarnation, since the incarnate Christ remains divine—while lowly, or human, statements refer to the Son inasmuch as he is composite, or incarnate, that is, to Christ’s “economy.” … Passages such as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1), or the titles “only-begotten Son” (John 1:18), “light” (John 8:12), “Wisdom,” “power” (1 Cor 1:24), and “image of goodness” (Wis 7:26), convey Christ’s identity as the divine Son of God and his eternal relationship with God the Father; whereas human expressions such as “slave” (Phil 2:7) and “he wept” (John 11:35), and especially the story of his death on the cross, refer to the Son’s human existence as Jesus of Nazareth. (The Unity of Christ, pp. 189-190)
The attribution of passion and death to God is not, for Gregory, a fiction or verbal trick. Though Gregory is certainly capable of reflecting on both the Trinity and the Incarnation in abstract, philosophical terms, he is above all a theologian of the biblical narrative. And at the heart and center of the drama of salvation is the God-man. The glory of the Christian faith, Gregory declares, is “to see God crucified” (Or. 43.64).
St Gregory’s theopaschism would be developed in the writings of Cyril and ultimately vindicated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council: “If anyone does not confess that our Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified in the flesh is true God and the Lord of Glory and one of the Holy Trinity; let him be anathema.”