My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

This post begins a series exploring the book Forsaken (The Trinity and the Cross, and Why it Matters) by Thomas McCall. For other posts in the series, click a number: 2345678. For a related post that looks at this topic through the eyes of multiple theologians, click here.

Several years ago, I took Dr. McCall's class on the doctrine of God at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The primary focus was the doctrine of the Trinity, and a primary text was The Christian Doctrine of God (One Being, Three Persons) by Thomas F. Torrance. The class included thought-provoking discussions concerning various (and sometimes competing) theological perspectives on the Trinity. These discussions reinforced in my mind the importance of understanding the historic (Nicaean) roots of the Trinity doctrine - roots reflected in the aforementioned book and unpacked by Torrance in The Trinitarian Faith (for an article summarizing Torrance's view of the Creed, click here).

In Forsaken, Professor McCall brings these historic Trinitarian insights into his analysis of Jesus' famous (but often misunderstood) words of dereliction on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mat 27:46 and Mark 15:34).

Some commentators, preachers and recording artists interpret this cry of Jesus to mean that God his Father, at that moment, turned his back on his Son. According to McCall, were that the case, it would mean the breaking apart (rupturing) of the Holy Trinity, and that cannot be, even for a moment. McCall writes on page 14:
It is very common, especially among conservative evangelical Christians who strongly defend the necessity and sufficiency of Christ's atoning work, to hear statements such as the following:
  • The Father rejected the Son.
  • As he exhausted his wrath upon the Son, the Father completely abandoned the Son.
  • The Father hid his face from the Son.
  • Jesus "became sin." Therefore the Father's wrath was poured out on Jesus.
  • The Father turned away from the Son.
  • The physical pain Christ suffered in his passion was nothing in comparison to the spiritual and relational pain that Christ endured as he was separated from his Father.
  • God cursed Jesus with damnation.
  • The eternal communion between the Father and the Son was ruptured on that fateful day.
  • The Trinity was broken.
McCall suggests that such statements are inconsistent with the gospel and the historic understanding of the Trinity doctrine, and shows why that is so in an analysis of various historic approaches to the subject. In his analysis, McCall notes the "many differences of opinion" on this passage (p27), then offers his own understanding, which is informed by the viewpoint of the Patristic Fathers (such as Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers):
We should not understand it [Jesus' cry to God on the cross] to mean any abandonment of the humanity that Christ came to take on himself and to save. And we should not understand it to mean that the communion between the Father and the Son was disrupted or that the Trinity was any way "broken." We should, however, take the cry of dereliction as a powerful expression of the identification of the Son of God with us and our predicament. And we should understand it to mean that what the Father abandoned the Son to was death at the hands of sinful people. So while the abandonment is real, it in no way implies a loss of contact or relationship between the Father and the Son (p27).
McCall then offers this summary:
...On the one hand we have a view - very common in contemporary Christian thinking - according to which the Father is against the Son; the relationship of mutual communion, love, and trust between the Father and Son is ruptured; and the Trinity is broken. On this view, the Father turns his face away from and utterly rejects the Son. This utter rejection, these contemporary theologians tell us, is good news. On the other hand, we have something very different; the deeply traditional view [of the Church fathers, and extending into certain medieval theologies] is this: the Father forsook the Son to his death, and he did so for us and our salvation. But even so, the communion of Father and Son is unbroken. And this too, the tradition tell us, is good news (p29).
McCall challenges us to read again Jesus' words, and to find there the fullness of the gospel, which speaks of the union of God as Trinity, and our inclusion in that divine communion in and through Jesus' vicarious humanity through which he bears our shame and dies our death. He does this in communion with his Father, not in separation.