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 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‚Äôt 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, ‚ÄėShow us the Father‚Äô? Don‚Äôt 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 ‚ÄúHe trusts in the LORD,‚ÄĚ they say,
“let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.‚ÄĚ

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‚ÄĒ
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‚ÄĒ
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!