Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters

Thomas H. McCall IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL March 16, 2012
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In this book Thomas McCall, associate professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, addresses central questions of the Christian faith in four chapters, each of which ends with summary sections titled “To Be Avoided” and “To Be Affirmed.”

In chapter 1 “Was the Trinity Broken?” McCall opposes the popular notion that God the Father abandoned God the Son on the cross, a position he deems alien to most church fathers. Rather, Jesus’ cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46; cf. Ps. 22:1) should be taken as a reference to all of Psalm 22 in which David affirmed trust in God amidst extreme adversity. McCall grounds his argument against a divided Trinity on the oneness of the divine nature: God is of one mind not three minds and one will not three wills. Jesus’ cry to God the Father, “Why have You forsaken Me?” is a statement of Jesus’ identification with sinful man. The God-Man was not “forsaken,” nor was His fellowship with the Father “broken.”

To suggest that the eternal Father-Son relationship was severed would be to render the Father no longer the Father and the Son no longer the Son (pp. 34–35). “If what makes the Trinity one God rather than three gods is their relatedness (as [i]n social trinitarianism) and if this relationality is lost or destroyed, then we lose all claims to monotheism. And if this intratrinitarian communion of self-giving and receiving of holy love is essential to the very being of the Christian God, then without such relationship there simply is no Christian God” (p. 36). He concludes that “the cry of dereliction means that the Father abandoned the Son to this death at the hands of these sinful people” (p. 47); that is, the Father simply allowed Jesus to die.

Chapter 2 asks, “Did the Death of Jesus Make It Possible for God to Love Me?” Since “the Trinity is not broken” and since “God is one in being and act,” then intratrinitarian love is the same love extended to the world. The author affirms an observation by T. F. Torrance, who wrote, “As one Being, three Persons, the Being of God is to be understood as an eternal movement of Love, both in himself as the Love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit for one Another, and in his loving Self-giving to others beyond himself” (pp. 58–59). The mystery of God as three persons willfully loving each other stands together with the one God as love.

McCall insists that God has no internal contradiction between justice and love. In part he does so by making a case for the classical doctrines of divine impassibility and divine simplicity. The work wends through various objections to and interpretations of the term “impassibility,” concluding that “when considering the suffering of Christ, we must maintain a distinction between the humanity and the divinity of Christ. His divinity was not subject to suffering as was his humanity, so there is a way in which his divinity is impassible while his humanity suffers” (p. 69). The persons of the Trinity are “completely and utterly passionate in their self-giving to one another” (p. 71).

McCall rejects the popular notion that at the cross the Father poured out His wrath on the Son. Instead the cross demonstrates God’s wrath against sin. God does not love humankind because Christ died for everyone, but Christ died for humankind because God loves everyone.

Chapter 3 is titled “Was the Death of Jesus a Meaningless Tragedy?” If the Son was not separated from the Father and if the cross was not a means to rectify tensions between divine justice and love, then what happened in the death of Christ? McCall traces in Scripture the salvific plan of God, commenting on determinism and human responsibility. As a Wesleyan McCall rejects all determinism (compatibilism and neomolinism notwithstanding) and asserts human freedom together with divine foreknowledge. Apparently his point in this discussion is that God did not directly cause the crucifixion of His Son but foresaw it and allowed it.

McCall affirms Jesus as the believer’s representative and substitute. Jesus died “in our place.” “The substitutionary element of the work of Christ is central to the gospel itself” (p. 112). McCall then discusses other dimensions of the cross and resurrection: Christus Victor, the moral-influence theory of Abelard and Schleiermacher, and several other views of the atonement. In the end McCall affirms that the atonement reveals the beauty of the triune life of God rather than a “broken” Trinity.

Chapter 4 asks, “Does It Make a Difference?” That is, what are the effects of the cross for believers today? First, the believer is legally justified. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, as the believer’s guilt is imputed to Him. The author follows Wolterstorff’s distinction between secondary justice and primary justice—the former referring to the just judgment regarding humanity offered through the Cross, and the latter referring to intrinsic intraTrinitarian justice that always treats the other with “due respect for who and what they are” (p. 130). God’s justification of the believer (secondary justice) envisions God’s larger purpose (primary justice) of “complete renovation of the human person until we can really and actually be rightly related to God” (p. 132).

A second accomplishment of the cross and resurrection is that Christians need no longer suffer defeat. The believer has everything needed for sanctification. McCall emphasizes separation from sin through the abundant provision of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the end, we see in McCall’s Forsaken a theology driven by considerable historical and philosophical theology, with effort to rectify certain doctrines with Scripture. The author’s writing is generally lucid and edifying, even if a little hazy in the book’s overall coherence. Much rightly gives the reader pause regarding contemporary popular views. Various points bring balance and perspective on the Trinity and soteriology.

However, one major premise of the book does not satisfy. All agree that the Holy Trinity is both three Persons and one essence, and the essence is not divided. Likewise, almost all affirm the unity of the Godhead in accomplishing redemption. But what does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is the believer’s substitute on the cross? McCall wants to affirm real substitution but his definition is evasive—all the more so when he defends Christ’s impassible divine nature—even on the Cross. But is the atonement merely a matter of the Father letting the cross happen to the human nature of the incarnate Son? If the consequence of the fall is spiritual separation from God, then would not the Last Adam have to experience that very judgment to be humankind’s substitute? The doctrine of the Trinity must be held together with the Incarnation’s greatest moment when Jesus paid in full the price for sin (Isa. 53:3–10; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 4:10; Rev. 1:5). Many readers may concur with D. A. Carson (cited by McCall) that at the cross believers can see God the Father’s “judicial frown” as they contemplate the Trinitarian mystery (p. 20). 

—J. Scott Horrell

January 1, 2014
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2014 vol. 171 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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