Forsaken but not completely abandoned: a book review

The cross is the Triune God’s way of addressing human sinfulness and reconciling the world to Godself. Yet theologians and popular preachers make certain inferences which undermine a robust doctrine of the Trinity. In Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why it Matters, Thomas McCall (associate professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) aims at answering some of the thorny questions people ask when they consider the cross and the Trinity. The title comes in reference to Christ’s cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and is the subject of the first chapter. McCall asks what can we and should we infer from this cry and how do we understand this in light of contemporary scholarship, patristic and historical theology and attention to the actual text.

I really like McCall’s approach of taking popular questions which we’ve all encountered (or asked!)  and addressing them theologically. Although this may make this a somewhat lengthy post, let me walk you through each chapter  before concluding with some general reflections on the book:

  • Chapter 1- “Was the Trinity Broken? -The Father, the Son and Their Cross- How are we to understand Christ’s cry of dereliciton? Does it mean total desperation and desertion of the Son by the Father? Was the Trinity completely ruptured?  McCall points to contemporary theologians and biblical scholars which conclude that Christ was completely abandoned by the Father. But McCall reads these contemporary conclusions  against traditional readings (Patristic and Medieval sources) and observes that traditionally, these words have been understood, not as a broken relationship within the Trinity, but as the ‘Father forsaking the Son to this death for us and for our salvation.  McCall  also  invites readers to  reread the passion narratives in light of  the allusion to Psalm 22 (the cry of dereliction is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1)  and a Christian understanding of the Trinity. He reviews the Social Trinity and Latin Models of the Trinity and concludes that for either model, the Father’s complete abandoment of the son is impossible (For the Latin model, if the Father abandons the son entirely, he also forsakes his own fatherliness and the unity of God is broken; for the Social trinitarians a broken relationship within the Trinity brings God into an ontological crisis (following Zizuoulas, God’s being  is bound up with his ‘ being in communion’). He also argues that the biblical evidence does not warrant a complete break within the Trinity, and that we ought to read Christ’s cry with the stunning reversal in mind that is implied by it’s allusion to Psalm 22.  Finally he concludes that we should avoid any position which says Jesus did not suffer and was not ‘really abandoned’ but also reject any approach which asserts God’s abandonment of the Son’s humanity during crucifixion. We should affirm that the Father did abandon the Son (to death on the cross) but that this no way implies a break in Jesus’ union with either humanity or in the Son’s relationship with God.
  • Chapter 2 Did the Death of Jesus Make it Possible for God to Love Me? “Righteous Wrath, Holy Love and the Heart of the Triune God” McCall begins by observing that the God of scripture is revealed as a God of wrath, which is directed againt human sinfulness; however wrath is not presented in opposition to God’s love but both are affirmed in scripture.  He reviews the ways contemporary theologians sometimes ignore , minimizing and depersonalizing God’s wrath, or place them in opposition to God’s love. Yet McCallseeks to place God’s love and wrath within the context of the doctrine of God.  He argues that Divine impassibility does not imply  that God does not love, but it does point to his eternal trustworthiness and solidity of divine love. He also points at the doctrine of Divine simplicity to frame the discussion of what we mean when we refer to divine attributes and the unity of God’s character.  He concludes that God’s righteous wrath is a contingent expression of what is essential or necessary to him against sin, and a contigent expression of the holy love of the Trinity. Furthermore, God’s wrath is an expression of his holy impassible love.  From this discussion, McCall concludes that we should avoid downplaying, depersonalizing, or anthropomorphizing God’s wrath, or any explanation which posits tension or ‘strife of attributes’ within God but we need to affirm that God’s wrath is real and personal and that it finds it source God’s holy love.  McCall claims that this is important because if we ignore God’s wrath we ultimately trivialize his love and if we put God’s love in opposition to God’s wrath, we malign the character of the Trinity. Furthermore, by clarifying our thinking we see that the atonement ‘did not procure grace, but flowed from it.”
  • Chapter 3-Was the Death of Jesus a Meaningless Tragedy? “Foreknowledge, Fulfillment and the Plan of the Trinity–  This chapter addresses the meaning of the cross. McCall first points to how it was foreknown by God and foretold in scripture (though he is careful to frame how this is different from determinism). He then discusses the nature of Christ’s work. He discusses the substitutionary dimension of the cross, but also how it achieves Christ’s victory (Christus Victor) and sets an example for us (Moral influence). He concludes by saying we should avoid understanding Christ’s death as just a tragic accident or meaningless tragedy, avoid saying God killed his Son, avoid determinism, and avoid pagan notions of substitutionary atonement or one-sided affirmations of Christus Victor or moral-influence themes.  Instead, we should affirm that  Christ’s death was according toGod’s plan, and that through it Christ makes satisfcation for our sin and guilt, wins us a decisive victory over the powers through his death and resurrection and shows us how to lead lives pleasing to God.
  • Chapter 4- Does It Make A Difference? “The Brokenness of Humanity and the Unbroken Work of the Trinity?” – In chapter 4, McCall  ties together the themes of this book to discuss what it means to understand the cross as the work of the Trinity. He places the concept of Justification under the category of ‘primary justice,’ referencing a rightly ordered social whole, rather than ‘secondary justice’ (rendering judgment). This doesn’t alter the traditional view of justification, but it places it on a ‘broader soteriological canvas.” Thus forensic judgment (important as it is) describes God’s secondary justice, while primarily the cross is about ‘God bringing us home.’ McCall also moves beyond the doctrine of justification to discuss the process of sanctification as flowing out of our justification (and involving the Spirit’s work in our salvation). He concludes that we should avoid understanding our salvation, only in legal terms, and that we need to reflect on the relationship between justification and sanctification. We also need to affirm the proper order of salvation (we can’t sanctify ourselves into justification by the cross) and  realize that justification entitles more than where you go when you die, but also how you live now.
  • Conclusion- “A Personal Theological Testimony” McCall closes with a moving tale of his father’s final day and how the Triune God’s work through the cross brings him hope.

As the above summary should indicate, McCall’s reflections are theologically rich and he draws from variety of sources (philosophical, historical and biblical theol0gy). I really appreciate the way he is able to affirm the substitutionary and forensic character of the atonement while avoiding the popular (and tritheistic) caricature of penal substitution which paints the father as the angry father and Jesus as the God of love. To my mind McCall is judicious in his conclusions and is able to demonstrate both biblical and theologically the ways in which the cross was the work of the entire trinity for our salvation.

There were a couple of places I wish he unpacked certain scriptures because I have heard them used as proof texts for alternative positions (i.e. He claims that the Bible never teaches that God killed Jesus, but I have heard preachers point to Isa. 53:4 as evidence that God did). But this is a short book (171 pages) and you can’t address everything. McCall really does a solid job untangling many of the issues surrounding the implications of the trinity and the cross.

I recieved a copy of this book from IVP Academic  in exchange for this review. The views above are my own.

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