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.

The Seventh Word of the Cross

At this point, it was about noon, and a darkness fell over the whole region. The darkness persisted until about three in the afternoon, and at some point during this darkness, the curtain in the temple was torn in two.

Jesus (shouting out loudly): Father, I entrust My spirit into Your hands!

And with those words, He exhaled—and breathed no more.

The Centurion—one of the soldiers who performed the execution—saw all this, and he praised God.

Centurion: No doubt, this man must have been innocent.~Luke 34:44-47-The Voice

The words from the cross reveal to us of who this man/God is. We stood at the foot of the cross and heard Jesus extend forgiveness to his oppressors, promise salvation to a condemned man, express care for his loved ones, cry in anguish over his feelings of God-forsakenness, croak out thirsty complaint, shout victory and and now loudly proclaim his trust.

After all that Jesus suffered, physically and mentally, on the cross he was confident that he was in the care of God. The man who cried out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me!” would shortly thereafter, with confidence say, “Father, I entrust my life into your hands” and die in peace. The one who was stretched out, broken on a cross, had not broken down. He had been severly beaten, but he was not beat. His last words betray nothing but confidence that his Heavenly Father would care for him.

It was this confidence in God’s care and sovereign plan which set his face like a flint toward Jerusalem. It is this confidence that carried him through the whole ordeal. When he died, he did not die in a state of despair and despondency. He didn’t feel for a moment that he had somehow miscalculated and that all this was in vain.

He died confident that the cross, somehow in the wisdom of God, would reconcile the world to Himself.

Jesus’ total trust in the Father exceeds the trust in God that we are capable of, but there is something instructive here for us. Despite all physical evidence to the contrary, the cross was God’s victory. The cross is how they killed failed messiahs, but this symbol of failure would become a sign of God’s ultimate victory over sin and the powers that bind humanity. Any onlooker would see total failure and tragedy in this death, but this death began to make new life possible. If we were there when they crucified him we would have maybe balked, jeered, cried, despaired but Jesus suffered it and he trusted.

All of us who have walked the way of the cross, and have entered into the pain and suffering of others know, that if we trust the physical evidence around us, it does not always seem that God is winning. The addict who ‘cleans up’ and resolves to surrender her life sells all his belongings buy drugs the next week. The mother who is picking up the pieces of a broken life, lets an abusive spouse return home for another round of destruction. We look and we cry, “How Long O Lord?”

Jesus suffers and dies with the weight of human sinfulness upon him and dies with trust on his lips.

Lord give us your confidence, that despite appearances, you are the victory and we can trust your good work in even the most horrifying of circumstances. Lead us into what it means for us to trust our lives into your hands.

The Sixth Word from the Cross

When Jesus drank, He spoke:

Jesus:It is Finished!

In that moment, His head fell; and He gave up the spirit. (John 19:30, the Voice)

Not a death whine,
or pensive reflections on a life well lived,
Not words of resignation and defeat.
No, these words declare victory.
Triumphantly these words shout:
All is accomplished!

On the cross, sin was defeated,
demonic strongholds were destroyed.
Our vain attempts to be our own God,
revealed for what they are.
On the cross Jesus recapitulated humanity–
the new Adam being and
doing what the old Adam could not.
The hopes of Israel
bound to the cross,
nailed there with Him.
Israel reconstituted in Christ,
he fulfilled law and prophets.
On the cross we were bought,
redeemed, reconciled to God,
the power of sin is broken in our lives.
Because of the cross, we are free.
Free indeed!

It is finished.

It is finished.

It is finished!

Finished but not done. . .

The Fifth Word from the Cross

Jesus knew that His work had been accomplished, and the Hebrew Scriptures were being fulfilled.

Jesus:I am thirsty

A jar of sour wine [vinegar] had been left there, so they took a hyssop branch with a sponge soaked in the vinegar and put it to his mouth (John 19:28-29)


If one of the sayings of Jesus on the cross sounds out of place in my ears, this is it. The stress of his coming passion had him sweating blood in the Garden. Then Jesus was arrested, beaten, mocked, flogged and crucified. Crucifixion itself was a long, slow death by blood loss and asphyxiation. The pain was unbearable (the word ‘excruciating’ was coined to describe the pain of the cross).

But the only complaint we hear from Christ through the whole ordeal is, “I am thirsty.” This is underwhelming. I know, these words tell us about Christ’s suffering and his identification with us in our humanity, but of all the suffering that he felt, why emphasize this? Why thirst?

Jesus was thirsty; hours of blood loss will do that to you. But there is more for us to consider. These words come to us in John’s gospel, where ‘thirst’ is a major literary motif. In Jesus’ first sign he turned water to wine (John 2). When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, he said, “You do not know the gift of God or who is asking you for a drink of this water from Jacob’s well. Because if you did, you would have asked Him for something greater; and He would have given you the living water (John 4:10).” To the crowds clamoring for a sign, Jesus said, “I am the bread that gives life. If you come to my table you will never go hungry. Believe in me you will never be thirsty.” And to the people of Jerusalem he had said, “If any of you is thirsty, come to Me and drink. If you believe in Me, the Hebrew Scriptures say that rivers of living water will flow from within you”  (John 7:37b-8).

Jesus had promised to slake the thirst of all who came to him, to satisfy them and give them living water. Had living waters failed him? The Father had not let the cup pass from Jesus and he drank it in full but his thirst was not quenched.

It was when he knew the work was accomplished he said “I am thirsty.” He had suffered what needed suffering. He was moments before death and he knew that the Hebrew Scriptures, the hope of Israel were being fulfilled and so he expressed his thirst. Psalm 69:21 says, “they gave me vinegar for my thirst.” Vinegar is little help, but it is even lousier thirst quencher when you consider that Christ’s thirst was more than the physical discomfort of a dying man. He knew the work was done, and was thirsty for the fruits of his labor. He thirsted for you and for me to find our life and sustenance in God.

Stanley Hauerwas writes, “The work of the Son, the thirst of the Son through the Spirit, is nothing less than the Father’s thirst for us. God desires us to desire God. (Cross-Shattered Christ, 77). And so behold, the crucified one–our thirsty God who has accomplished the salvation of his people and desires, longs, thirsts for us to find our way home.

The Fourth Word from the Cross

And then starting at noon, the entire land became dark. It was dark for three hours. In the middle of the dark afternoon, Jesus cried in a loud voice.

DerelictionJesus:Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani–My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Bystanders: He cries out for Elijah (Matthew 27:45-47, the Voice)

The word of the crucified Christ are wrapped in mysteries that defy easy explanations. What does the cry of dereliction mean? How are we to understand Jesus’ abandonment–his God-forsakenness?

One version of these events tells us that the Father in heaven, ever just, cannot stomach sin, His wrath demands satisfaction. When Jesus bore the full weight of our sin, God could not even look at Him. Although this version takes seriously our sin and Christ’s identification with us, it caricatures the Father. Our Father in Heaven is just, but he is not the angry God, that Jesus, the God of love, needs to appease. Rather God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19).

Only a few hours earlier Jesus said to his disciple Philip:

Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. (John 14:9-11, NIV)

Jesus’ death on the cross did not simply appease God, it revealed God. All that Jesus did and said reveals to us the character of the Father. Jesus is the incarnation of God, as much on his cross, as he was in his crib.

We hear Jesus’ cry of abandonment and the intense feeling of alienation from God and know instinctively what he felt. This is the existential reality of we who are sinners. We sin and alienate ourselves from God, from others, from all creation, from ourselves. But this cry, mystery of mysteries, also viscerally demonstrates to us the heart of the Triune God who would experience the dregs of human experience to show us the depths of his Love and effect for us our salvation. That God would feel abandoned for us, shows us the kind of God we have. Mystery of mysteries, this is the God who loved the world so much that he gave his Son so that all who believe would not die, but gain eternal life! This is the God who did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but save it through him (John 3:16-17)!

The words that Jesus utters comes from the Jewish and Christian prayer book, the Psalms. Psalm 22 in its entirety provides a window into all Jesus suffered for us as well as his ultimate vindication and the victory of Yahweh. Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe his understanding?

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.[b]

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.[c]
4 In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the LORD,” they say,
“let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
10 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
13 Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
15 My mouth[d] is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16 Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce[e] my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
18 They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

19 But you, LORD, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
20 Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you[f] I will fulfill my vows.
26 The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the LORD will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations.

29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!