Forsaken: The Trinity and the Gospel

Thomas H. McCall


The Cry of Dereliction: Two (or More) Understandings

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Many devout Christians take these words – words from the lips of Jesus himself – as nothing less than a scream of total desperation, and they do not hesitate to take this cry as nothing less than an expression of a complete and total rupture in the life of the Triune God. Jürgen Moltmann thinks that we cannot overemphasize the degree of abandonment that Jesus suffered at the hands of his Father. The rejection of Jesus is “something which took place between God and God. The abandonment on the cross which separates the Son from the Father is something which takes place within God himself; it is stasis within God – ‘God against God’….” There is “enmity between God and God,” and it is “enmity to the utmost degree” (The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology [Fortress, 1993], 152). Indeed, not only is the Father-Son relation broken as Jesus is abandoned by the Father – the Father-Son relation must be broken for God really to be God. In other words, God’s very identity is constituted by this event (together with the resurrection). This means that without us – without our sin and the abandonment that it occasions – God would not be God.

Many biblical commentators and preachers hold this view as well. Thus it is easy to hear such statements as these:

  • The Father rejected the Son.
  • Exhausting his wrath on the Son, the Father completely abandoned him.
  • The Father hid his face from the Son.
  • God cursed Jesus with damnation.
  • The physical pain suffered in the passion of Christ was nothing in comparison to the spiritual and relational pain that Christ endured as he was separated from his Father.
  • The Father turned away from the Son.
  • The Trinity was broken.

Sometimes such a view is taken to be a historic or traditional view. But even a brief look at what some of the Fathers and Doctors of the church have said about this text shows something quite different. Many early church theologians understood Jesus to be identifying with fallen humanity when he uttered this cry. The view of John of Damascus is both representative and straightforward: “neither as God nor as man was he ever forsaken by the Father, nor did he become sin or a curse” (The Orthodox Faith, 18). Instead, Christ was “ranking himself with us.” Similarly, Peter Lombard’s view is representative of much medieval theology. He will have nothing whatsoever to do with any kind of “broken Trinity” view, and he denies that the humanity of Christ was abandoned on the cross. What are we to make of the cry of dereliction?

A proper understanding of the cry leads us to conclude that “God abandoned that man to death in some way, because for a time he exposed him to the power of his persecutors; God did not defend him by displaying his power so that he would not die. The Godhead severed itself because it took away its protection, but it did not dissolve the union; it separated outwardly so that it was not there to defend him, but it was not absent inwardly in regard to the union” between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (The Sentences: Book Three, On the Incarnation of the Word, 21). Similarly, Calvin (despite some important disagreements with Lombard and Aquinas) insists that “we do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him. How could he be angry with his beloved Son, with whom his soul was well pleased?” Instead of any notion of a “broken Trinity,” Calvin maintains that Christ felt, “as it were, forsaken of God,” but nonetheless “he did not cease in the slightest to confide in his goodness” (Institutes II.xvi.11-12).

On one hand we have a view – a view that is 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 the other hand we have something very different; the deeply traditional view is this: the Father forsook the Son to this death, and he did so for us and our salvation. But as he did so, the communion between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is unbroken.

A Closer Look: Reading the Text Canonically

What are we to make of such contrasting views? It is important to note that although both Matthew and Mark record the cry of Jesus (in both Aramaic or Hebrew), neither comments at all on the meaning of the cry. Both Gospels report the event, and they leave us with the echoes of the cry haunting us. But neither tells us exactly what it means, or just what we are to conclude from it regarding the interior life of the Triune God. Neither the Markan nor Matthean versions actually say that the Father turned his face away from the Son or that the Trinity was ruptured. Nor do they imply any such conclusion.

In fact, a careful reading of the texts actually pushes us in the direction of the traditional view. Both Matthew and Mark record a second “loud cry” that comes after the cry of forsakenness and just before his death (Matt 27:50/Mark 15:37). Neither Gospel writer tells us what Jesus said in that latter cry, but the canonical reader of Scripture is not left clueless. For John’s last recorded words of Jesus come as a triumphant cry from a man with his head held high: “It is finished” (John 19:30). Luke records the famous story of the dialogue between Jesus and the two criminals with whom he was crucified. When one criminal hurls abuse at Jesus, the other criminal responds by rebuking the abusive one. Then he cries out to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). To this desperate request Jesus responds with a clear and confident declaration. “Today,” he says, “you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Such a bold and powerful statement hardly fits the picture of a Jesus who is experiencing “spiritual separation” or who knows that he is completely rejected his Father. Perhaps more importantly, Luke tells us what Jesus cried just before he “breathed his last.” He called out loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). This is not a statement of despair. This is not a cry of utter and total abandonment. There is no hint here of a relationship that is severed or even strained. There is no sense here of a Father who has rejected his Son or turned his back on him. In fact, it is hard to see how such a “broken Trinity” view could even be compatible with Jesus’ last words. To the contrary, they are words of complete trust: “into your hands I commit my spirit.”

It is also important to remember that Jesus quotes the first verse of Ps 22, and a closer look at the Gospel accounts show that there are many clear echoes of the whole of Ps 22. Psalm 22 says “I am scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me… (vv. 6-8). Both Matthew and Mark repeat this scenario, and in doing so they detail those who mock and insult: the soldiers, those who passed by, the religious leaders, and even the criminals with him. The psalmist tells us that the tormenters gamble over his clothes, and again Matthew and Mark show this in detail. The psalmist even describes the condition of the oppressed as having his hands and feet pierced (22:16). Such clear and strong echoes show that Mark and Matthew intend for their readers to be drawn into the background of Ps 22 as an interpretive key to understanding the story of the death of Jesus.

When we look closely at Ps 22, we cannot miss the cry of lament. Yet in the midst of this apparent despair, the psalmist also recognizes that God is the “Holy One” (22:3), and he recounts the testimonies of those who have trusted in the Lord before him (22:4-5). He turns to Yahweh for help, he asks the Lord to bring deliverance, and his trust in the Lord is evident in this crescendo: “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” (22:24). For the psalmist, this is incomparably good news for rich and poor, young and old, Jew, and Gentile alike.

So we should take Jesus’ quotation of the first line of the psalm as a signpost to the whole psalm. It is his way of announcing once again the meaning and significance of his mission. Jesus is identifying with those who need salvation. But he is not announcing that the Father has utterly abandoned or forsaken him. Jesus is not saying that the eternal communion between the Father and the Son has been broken (however “mysteriously” such rupture might be said to occur). Instead, we should conclude that he “has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one”; it is, after all, the enemies of Jesus who do that (in both Ps 22 and the Gospel accounts). The contrast between his enemies and his Father is deliberate and clear. The Father “has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help.” Understood in the light of the broader canonical context, the cry of dereliction does not support the “broken Trinity” view. It does, however, cohere remarkably well with the more traditional approach. What the Father forsook the Son to was this death, at the hands of these sinful people, for us and our salvation.

Reading as Christians: Why the Doctrine of the Trinity Matters

For Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity is at the very heart of the faith. Far from being an ancillary or unimportant doctrine, it is vitally connected to the most crucial Christian claims. It is what is most distinctive about the Christian doctrine of God. It is the strand or cord that holds the Christian faith together; without it there is no truly Christian faith. It is central to the gospel itself. Famously, it claims that there is one God in three persons. It is monotheism, but it is Christian monotheism. It claims that one of those divine persons – one who is as fully divine as the others and one who is of the “same essence” with them – became human, lived and died as a human, and was crucified and then resurrected from the dead “for us and our salvation.” Given its centrality and importance, any and all claims that there is “spiritual separation” or a “rupture” in the relationship between the Father and the Son should be carefully evaluated.

Many contemporary theologians are “Social” Trinitarians; others are more traditional or “Latin” Trinitarians. Although there are important differences between them (for discussion see T.H. McCall’s Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology [Eerdmans, 2010]), both Latin and Social Trinitarians agree that it is the internal and necessary relations within the Triune life that separate Trinitarianism from either unitarianism or tritheism. The upshot of all this should be plain enough. If what makes the Trinity one God rather than three gods is their relatedness (as on Social Trinitarianism), and if this relationality is lost or destroyed, then we lose all claims to monotheism. And if this intra-trinitarian communion of self-giving and receiving holy love is essential to the very being of the Christian God, then without such relationship there simply is no Christian God. To make the point a different way, for Latin Trinitarianism there is no Trinity without the relations between the persons, whereas for Social Trinitarianism there is no monotheism without the relations between the persons. Either way, then, the Triune God of the Christian faith does not exist apart from the relations among the divine persons.

The Difference It Makes

But what about the view that is so popular in contemporary theology and preaching? Should we say that “the Father rejected the Son”? No, there is nothing in Scripture that says this. Did the Father “completely abandon the Son,” causing Jesus to lose trust in his Father? No, Jesus commits himself fully to his Father at the point of death. Did the Father “turn his face away from his Son?” No, the only scriptural text that can be taken to address this question directly says that the Father did not hide his face from his Son. To the contrary, he has “listened to his cry for help.” Was the eternal communion between the Father and the Son somehow ruptured on that terrible day? Was the Trinity broken? The answers to such questions should be resoundingly negative. Careful study of the biblical text makes such a view unnecessary, and orthodox Trinitarian theology makes it impossible.

But Jesus does utter this terrible cry. If we should avoid misleading and mistaken interpretations of it, how are we to understand it? The first thing to say is that we should affirm that the Son in fact was left to die. Jesus suffered and died. This much is obvious from the passion narratives themselves, and the subsequent NT witness to the gospel makes much of the death of Christ. He, indeed, was abandoned by his Father in this sense. His Father could have rescued him; Jesus could have been spared terrible humiliation, agony, and death. The Father could have done so, but he did not. Jesus was abandoned – the Father abandoned him to this death, at the hands of these sinful people, for us and our salvation.

The second point that we should affirm is this: throughout the passion and death of Jesus, his union with humanity was unbroken (as it was through the resurrection and ascension and indeed is today as well). He is united to us in our humanity, and he identifies with us in our state and condition of fallenness. It is we who have – as rebellious sinners – abandoned God. But rather than leave us in our state of abandonment, the Son has become human and has identified himself with us: “these are my people. I am here for them. I have come to redeem them from this abandonment and to bring them home.”

The third affirmation is also of crucial importance, and it has been the focus throughout much of this discussion: the Son’s relationship to the Father is unbroken. The works of God in creation and redemption (what the Christian tradition has termed the opera ad extra) are always undivided, and the Son’s communion with the Father is unblemished. If we understand the doctrine of the Trinity properly, we will be in a position to see that saying “the Trinity is broken” amounts to the same thing as saying “God does not exist.” Such a view is utterly antithetical to the Christian faith. There is every reason to believe that throughout Christ’s passion he remains the beloved Son in whom the Father is “well pleased.”

Properly understood, the cry of dereliction means that the Father abandoned the Son to this death at the hands of these sinful people, for us and our salvation. It means that the Triune God is for us – and he is for us in a way that goes beyond our wildest hopes or dreams. It means that by the power of the Spirit, the Son of God “emptied himself, [and] became obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). And it means that the Father has “exalted him to the highest place, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11). It means that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and that the God whose nature is holy love “so loved the world” (John 3:16) that he “spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all” (Rom 8:32). God – the God who is Triune – is for us.

Posted Mar 01, 2012