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

I cannot remember the last time I read a theology book I so thoroughly enjoyed. Perhaps it is because of receiving training in philosophy or being overexposed to certain (overrepresented) segments of the literature, the fact remains: I have become picky if not an outright crank. But as I finished up Thomas H. McCall’s Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters I became reacquainted with that old feeling of excitement, passion, and most importantly, reverence for a discipline I used to immerse myself in without abandon. If you don’t know about McCall, you should. After reading this book it is easy to see why he is considered to be a rising star (hailing from the Arminian tradition no less) as he deftly weaves knowledge and insight from philosophical, historical, and biblical theology.

While it no doubt is derived from his more scholarly work on the Trinity, Forsaken appears to be the results of a course taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a course that surveyed contemporary issues in Christology. The central question he addresses is this: what does Jesus’ cry of dereliction mean? When Jesus said “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the perfect fellowship of the Trinity ‘broken’? Did God the Father express the full extent of his wrath on his Son by ‘separating’ him from the glory of God? Did God ‘kill his Son’ so that he could properly love us? McCall’s book is a serious attempt to answer these questions, and he comes to some surprising conclusions.

McCall contends that the fellowship between the Son and the Father was not broken on the cross. Part of his argument takes the form of a reductio: suppose it is the case that the Father truly “forsook” the Son. Then it appears the doctrine of the Trinity is false. If the Father ‘disowned’ his Son, then there was a time when the Father was not a father. Yet this renunciation of  paternity is not the sort of thing that is possible, at least on any classical (or modern) model of the Trinity. That is to say, if the Father made himself not a father and the Son became fatherless, they would cease to be. Nor is it the case that the Father forsook the Son’s humanity. If that were the case, then our salvation is undermined since he was not perfect in his humanity, and perhaps the heresy of Nestorianism is vindicated as there seems to be two personal subjects to which the Father relates on the cross (you can’t ‘forsake’ a substance). In any case, we should ask: why would the Father do this? If it is because “Christ was made a sinner,” then Christ would not have been a perfect sacrifice. Worse, yet Christ could not properly be called ‘God’ because he would not be holy.

This is not to say that Christ was not abandoned on the cross. The proper way to understand the cry of dereliction is through the lens of Psalm 22  which represents the cry of the afflicted, “Why, O God have you abandoned me to such cruelty, why are you allowing me to be destroyed by such evil people?” That is the heart of the question, and no doubt it is a very human question. But by virtue of their perfect fellowship, the Father hears the Son and raises Jesus from the dead. McCall takes time to show from Acts that this was understood by the apostles when they first began to preach the gospel. Peter says, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). The pattern of their preaching is this: God sent the Son, we killed him, and God raised him from the dead.

But didn’t God intend Jesus’ death? Don’t we read from Acts that “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23)? Doesn’t this mean that God causally brought about every event down to the last drop of blood that dripped from the cross? No. By virtue of their foreknowledge, each member of Godhead knew what we would do if the Father sent the Son, and yet he sent him anyway so as to make it possible for us to share in the love and fellowship of the triune God. God’s foreordained plan does not demand a commitment to determinism. If it did, McCall argues, then we would not be able to make sense of human obstinance (Acts 7:39, 51), human responsibility (no one is responsible for events that occur before one’s birth, events that eventually necessitate one’s present and future actions), or God’s good character (God apparently causes sin and evil).

Other topics addressed include a theology of the atonement and how it relates to the believer’s justification and sanctification. Nor should I forget to mention that the discussion of God’s simplicity and impassibility helpfully makes sense of the relationship between God’s attributes of love and justice, and his mercy and wrath.

In the end, McCall puts together a sound work of theology that is both accessible and (sufficiently) rigorous. I could not recommend it more to new believers, educated laypersons, seminarians, or members of the academy. One whose faith is Christian will be nurtured. Those committed to simplistic slogans will find no refuge in its pages, and that, of course, is a good thing.