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Who Suffered? Witsius on “Suffered Under Pontius Pilate”

8 April, 2009

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An excerpt from 17th-century Reformed theologian Herman Witsius’s explanation of the Apostles’ Creed.

Who suffered?

Christ the Mediator, God-man, made satisfaction by suffering, in his whole person; each nature contributing its own share. In strict propriety of speech, Christ suffered only in the human nature; since the adorable Divinity is equally incapable of the least increase or diminution of its glorious blessedness, and finds most amply in itself alone, and in the possession, knowledge, and enjoyment of its own perfections, all the treasures of that felicity which is worthy of the Supreme Being.

If thou sinnest, what dost thou against him? or if thy transgressions be multiplied, what dost thou unto him? If thou be righteous, what givest thou him, or what receiveth he of thine hand? (Job 35:6-7)

But that it is far from being true, that the Divinity contributed nothing at all towards this object, will appear from what is immediately to be said.

As the whole man, both in soul and body, owed obedience to God; and as the whole man, soul and body, sinned and thus became obnoxious to eternal punishment; so it was necessary that Christ should suffer at once in soul and body, that he might glorify God in both parts of human nature, expiate human guilt, and sustain the punishment due to sin. The whole history of the Gospel speaks at great length, of the sufferings of his body; of those of his soul, he himself complained in the garden, saying, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matt 26:38). That his sorrow was extremely vehement was sufficiently manifest, when “his sweat was, at it were, great drops of blood, falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). These expressions must not be so jejunely explained, as if the body were properly the subject of his suffering, and the soul suffered only by sympathy; for hitherto the body did not suffer, and the sufferings of the body constituted by far the least part of that punishment which it behoved the Surety of mankind to undergo.

The Divinity itself indeed suffered nothing; but it afforded strength to the suffering humanity, that it might be able to sustain the pressure of divine vengeance when afflicting it with the whole weight of its anger — not sinking under the load, but nobly overcoming it, and happily lifting up its glorious head. So great is the vehemence of the divine indignation when poured forth against sin in all its fierceness, that unless support is administered by more than human or any created strength, man must inevitably sink under it, and be everlastingly crushed by its power (Ps 90:11; Nahum 1:6). Hence it follows that none but “the mighty God,” strong and valiant (Is 9:6), was able to grapple at once with the infernal hosts, and with God himself avenging iniquity.

But the Divinity of Christ was of importance in another respect. It was owing to the Divinity, that the person suffering was God-man, “in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the godhead bodily” — not mystically, as in believers — not symbolically, as in the sacraments — not typically and figuratively, as in the temple and the ark — but “bodily,” that is, really or personally; as the body is either opposed to the shadow, or designates a person. To the Divinity, in consequence, it was owing, that the suffering of one so great, namely, a Divine and infinite Person, could not fail to be regarded as possessing infinite worth; so that the sufferings of Christ, though of short duration, were equivalent to the eternal sufferings of the damned; and the sufferings of a single person sufficed for the redemption of the many myriads of the elect. Hence the Scripture so often recalls our attention to the Divine dignity of Him who suffered, that we may recognise the boundless value of the satisfaction of Christ. It affirms, that “God hath purchased the church with his own blood” (Acts 20:28) — that “the Lord of glory was crucified” (1 Cor 2:8) — that “Christ through the eternal Spirit offered up himself unto God” (Heb 9:14) — that “the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

To impart this infinite worth to his sufferings, it was not necessary that the Divine nature itself, or that Christ as God should suffer. It was sufficient that he who is God, should suffer. All the actions and sufferings are the actions and sufferings of the person, and receive their value and denomination from the dignity of the person, as from the principium quod [the one from whom the actions arise], although with respect to their condition, they are to be attributed to the nature from which they take their rise, as the principium quo [the nature by which actions arise].

In vain, too, doth Socinus argue, that the dignity of the person contributes nothing towards the infinitude of the punishment, because “there is no respect of persons with God” (Rom 2:11); and that if this holds even when there is room for the exercise of his mercy, much more, when the infliction of punishment according to justice, or rather according to the dictates of the strictest severity, is in question. In reply to this cavil, we observe,

  1. That “the respect of persons” which God disclaims, is quite a different matter from the consideration of the worth of the person, in estimating his sufferings. The Greek term prosopon [as used in Rom 2:11] does not signify a man himself, whom we call a person; but the outward condition or quality of a person or thing, which is unconnected with the cause, and has no concern in its merits. But here the dignity of the person suffering is not an outward quality unconnected with the matter, but more than any thing else contributes essentially to the weight and merits of the cause; for the worth of the person who takes something on himself, is a consideration of great moment. In short, it is one thing to accept the prosopon [i.e. mere outward presentation] — which is contrary to justice, and is with great propriety represented as impossible with God; and it is a widely different thing to respect the person [hypostasis] properly so called — which is just, and is rightly attributed to God.
  2. The condition of a Surety must be distinguished from that of a sinner. Personal dignity might perhaps be of no avail to the guilty individual himself, when suffering the punishment of his own sins; because he possessed when sinning the same dignity which he possesses when suffering; and if it might be pleaded as a reason for diminution when viewed simply in relation to the punishment, it is, however, to be considered as an aggravation when viewed in relation to the offence. But personal dignity is available in a Surety, who makes satisfaction, not for his own transgressions, but for the transgressions of others.

From Sacred Dissertations on What is Commonly Called the Apostles’ Creed, trans. D. Fraser (Glasgow, 1823), vol. 2, diss. XV.

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