Thomas H. McCall. Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why it Matters. Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press, 2012. 171 pp., $20. ISBN 978-0-8308-3958-2.
[A shorter version of this review is upcoming in the ‘Evangelical Review of Theology’]
This book poses the following questions with respect to the cry of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, which Jesus made upon the cross: Did God the Father kill his Son? What happened to the Trinity on the Cross? Was the Trinity broken or ruptured at that moment?
Thomas H. McCall, Associate Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, seeks to justify the traditional view that reigned until the beginning of the 20th century. That view said that the Trinity was never interrupted and that the separation from God only had to do with the human nature of Christ. Furthermore, he seeks to defend this view over against the predominant understanding held at the present time.
Above all, he investigates Jürgen Moltmann’s view which has strongly influenced the theology of all denominations. According to Moltmann’s view, everything can only be understood in light of his idea of contradiction, such that God is only revealed as God when God’s forsakenness reveals what happened on the cross (pp. 15-18). God becomes the enemy of God, and God’s fatherhood and Jesus’ state of being a son temporarily die. The Trinitarian relationship has to be broken for God to truly be God. This is simultaneously the heart of so-called ‘Social Trinitarianism.’
McCall demonstrates that this view is quite naturally found in most of the commentaries on Mark 15:34, although the text and the context itself do not actually give any explanation for the cry of Jesus. Most commentaries give no exegetical justification for this view. McCall shows that theologians throughout all eras have traditionally held to another understanding, from the early church up to the Reformers and their students (pp. 22-29).
Matthew 27:45 and Mark 15:34 say nothing about the meaning of the cry. However, Mark and Matthew do report that thereafter there were additional cries made by Jesus. Other gospels provide such additional words or cries from Jesus on the cross, according to McCall (pp.37-39). John 19:30 delivers the concluding words: “It is finished.” Luke 23:42-43 is also important: “. . . today you will be with me in paradise,” since that, according to McCall, does not at all sound like a separation from the Father. According to Luke 23:46, however, Jesus’ last words were: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” That speaks firmly against the idea that the Father and the Son were essentially separated and that the fatherhood and sonship were set aside.
According to McCall, this is completely consonant with Psalm 22, from which Jesus quotes verse 22 (pp. 39-42). Psalm 22:3-5 has to do with fathers who cry for deliverance as Jesus does. This is followed by Psalm 22:6-8, in which testimony to trust in God’s salvation is given at the same time, i.e., trust that the Lord will provide rescue. The cry of forsakenness in Psalm 22:2: leads directly to Psalm 22.24: “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
McCall thus believes that Jesus was never separated from the Father in terms of his divinity. However, with respect to his humanity he experienced alienation from God coming from sin, and whereby one can not literally interpret his cry, as Moltmann does, but rather understand it as part of what was quoted from Psalm 22.
In the second chapter, McCall turns to the doctrine of ‘impassability.’ This is traditionally rendered as the ‘Leidensunfähigkeit Gottes’ in German (literal translation: God’s inability to suffer), which is quite inappropriate. The teaching of the ancient church is morally objectionable for Moltmann and his successors. In his defense of the classical view (pp. 67-73), McCall emphasizes with the words of Richard A. Muller that the exclusion of suffering never meant an exclusion of feelings in themselves (“the exclusion of ‘passions‘ from the divine being never implied the absence of affections,” p. 68) What is not involved is the stoic ’apatheia.’ To be sure, it is a question of God’s care, love, goodness, compassion, etc. Perfect loves demands, however, that God not be subject to emotional swings such as we experience as people and according to which he would love us more at certain times and less at other times. Rather, God’s emotions remain the same and are reliable.
Additionally, McCall differentiates, along the lines of St. Thomas Aquinas, that Jesus suffered with respect to his human nature and not with respect to his divine nature.
What should one think of the book? McCall’s defense of the classical view is welcomed, since it is arguably still held by the silent majority and yet seldom soundly justified. This classical view has been lost more ecclesio-politically than exegetically and doctrinally. What McCall says about Jesus’ cry from the cross is very conclusive and well documented. McCall also repeatedly goes into the complementarity of God’s love and anger and sees the two jointly. Love, however, is superordinate.
One could have wished for a better exegetical foundation for his view of ‘impassability,’ such as for instance provided by Norman Geisler in his Systematic Theology (Vol. 2, Chapter 5, pp. 112-136) with the utmost simplicity. Indeed, McCall quotes the important defenses of the classical position, for instance Paul L. Gavrilyuk’s The Suffering of the Impassible God, in a presentation of the view held by the Church Fathers, Richard E. Creel’s Divine Impassibility from a philosophical viewpoint, and Thomas G. Weinandy’s Does God suffer? from the theological viewpoint. The enormous spectrum of opinions can be seen there, whereby there is naturally still plenty of room available for contributions to be made.
Where McCall is very successful is in clearly setting forth the idea that the question he addresses from Mark 15:34 counts as one of the central and basic decisions to be made with respect to doctrine. Moreover, it is much too often deemed to have already been completely sorted out.
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