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

June 15, 2012 — Leave a comment

ForsakenCoverA couple months ago, our city group (our lingo for small group) had the almost inevitable discussion that comes up toward the end of the Gospel of Mark:

How could Jesus, who was one with God the Father, be forsaken, and the Trinity not somehow be “broken”?

It might not have been worded exactly this way, but on the surface Mark 15:34 does present a problem for anyone with a rudimentary grasp of Trinitarian relations. “Was the eternal communion between Father and Son ruptured on the cross?” and other similar questions naturally arise in connection with this text. Thankfully, Thomas McCall’s latest book, Forsaken, adds some biblical clarity to the discussion.

Overview

Given the subject matter, McCall’s book is relatively short: just an introduction, 4 chapters, and an anecdotal conclusion. While it would not be out of the question to read through the book on a long Saturday afternoon (preferably on an outside patio with an iced beverage), it would take more time than a weekend offers to really absorb the book.

McCall hits the ground running after taking a mere two pages to introduce his book. The first chapter strikes right at the big question: “Was the Trinity broken?” In short, the answer is “No.” Or as McCall helpfully puts it: “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 saying ‘God does not exist'” (44). To see how we get here, McCall first surveys the cry of dereliction (Jesus quoting Psalm 22 while on the cross)  in modern thought, before turning to what the commentators have to say. He then digs back into the patristic and medieval traditions to see how those thinkers handled the issue. McCall then offers a constructive way forward, and ends the chapter with statements and ideas “to be avoided,” “to be affirmed,” and “why it matters.” These three categories will appear at the end of each chapter and readers who want a sketch of the whole book up front could simply read each of the sections first.

With the second chapter comes a second question: “Did the death of Jesus make it possible for God to love me?” To give the short answer again, no, because God’s love is the source of the atonement not its consequence, and we should avoid any characterization of attributes of God in conflict that needed resolution on the cross (sorry that’s not very short). In this chapter, rather than a historic survey, McCall embarks on an investigation into the attributes of God, starting with the relationship between righteous wrath and holy love. He then moves into more complex terrain and takes into account the theological context. This brings up issues related to divine impassibility and divine simplicity. The clarity he brings is worth the effort and the conclusion to the chapter draws it all together.

Chapter 3 is framed around the question of whether or not Jesus death was a meaningless tragedy. Here we get into even more philosophical theology, this time focusing on the God’s foreknowledge, or how God’s plans unfold in history. As to the chapter’s question, no, Jesus’ death was not a meaningless tragedy, but according to McCall, “we should refrain from saying that God killed Jesus” (122). He also argues strongly against Calvinistic determinism (or what he thinks that is) and so says we should also not say that “God somehow determined all of these events so as to make them inevitable or unavoidable,” but can still affirm “the death of Christ was according to the ‘plan and foreknowledge of God'” (122, 123). This seems to be a contradiction, but I’ll come back to it the next section.

The final question provides a fitting conclusion: “Does it make a difference?” Here McCall connects the doctrinal accounts of the work of the Triune God with our ongoing sanctification. He digs in slightly to the justification debates, and more or less argues that a change in our legal status should not be the only way we look at our salvation. For McCall, this means not reducing salvation to justification. After a few more clarifiers, McCall closes out the book with a short personal testimony of how he navigated his father’s death in light of some of the truths he shared in the book.

Strengths/Weaknesses

On the whole, this is the kind of book that serves the church well. It takes up weighty questions and deals with them in a clear and biblically informed manner. As far as structure and style go, I think more books should be written this way, especially the way McCall formulated his concluding section in each chapter. It provides the benefit, as I mentioned above, of being able to see just what the author thinks we need to affirm, as well as avoid, and why it all matters. As someone leading a small group of college students who might not take the time to read the whole argument, it gives me the ability to give them the takeaway, and if they have further questions, flesh out the argument in more detail (or strongly suggest they read the book).

As far as weaknesses, there is really just one for me, and its conceptual. I did not find McCall’s treatment of the the issues surrounding God’s foreknowledge and plan helpful, and still think a much better account can be found in Paul Helm’s The Providence of God. As for the specific issues in McCall’s treatment, rather than go into detail here, I’d suggest reading this much more thorough treatment (HT: Nick Norelli). In short, McCall uses the subject matter in Forsaken as a kind of springboard to explain his objections to the Calvinistic account of divine determinism. I don’t think McCall gives a helpful explanation for how God did not determine the death of Christ so that it was inevitable, yet it was also part of his eternal plan. I suppose there will be a tension in any account, but I think the Calvinistic account is more sound (and to see why, read the above PDF).

All that being said, I wish I had this book a couple of months back and had read it prior to Easter rather than several weeks later. Weaknesses in dealing with determinism aside, I would heartily recommend this book as an answer to the questions that arise about the Trinity, the cross, and why it matters.

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Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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