Review: Forsaken by Tom McCall

In his hour of agony on the cross, Christ cried out to his Father, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). What did he mean? Did the Father reject the Son in such a way that the Triune God was temporarily broken? Does the Son suffer the rejection of his Father as the Son or is Christ forsaken in an entirely different way? Tom McCall argues that the forsakenness of Christ does not mean a rupture in the unity of the Trinity, but that the Father forsakes the Son to his death at the hand of sinners for the purpose of our salvation.[1] McCall contends that the godhead is not at odds with itself, love is not opposed to wrath, and that Christ’s death was part of the plan of God for our salvation.

McCall rejects the “rupture view,” the view that the Father breaks a once close and loving union by intentionally rejecting his Son. On rupture view, the Father forsakes the Son through relational enmity. The Father abandons, rejects, hides and separates himself from his Son. McCall argues that the rupture view should be rejected for three reasons. It is a novel view with no historical precedent, is not entailed by scripture, and, if adopted, falsifies the doctrine of the Trinity.

First, McCall argues that the rupture view has no historical precedent. Although a view should not be discounted merely because it is new, it should give us pause before adopting it. Furthermore, McCall suggests that many older theologians ruled out anything like the rupture view. Patristic writers such as Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria and John of Damascus argued that there is no rupture in the Trinity; rather, the Gospel writer records the experience of Christ in order to emphasize the unity of Christ with sinners not the rejection of the Son by the Father. According to McCall, there is a distinction between the subjective experience of Christ on the cross and the objective reality of the union within the Trinity. The focus is not, then, on the act of abandonment by the Father, but the experience of Jesus on the cross. Medieval and protestant theologians also reject the rupture view. Peter Lombard and Aquinas both argue that forsaken means that God permits his Son to be killed by sinful men. Calvin and Turretin deny God was hostile to his Son. Rather, Christ felt the weight of sin as if his Father had forsaken him.

Second, McCall argues that the Bible does not oblige us to believe the rupture view.[2] Neither Matthew nor Mark suggests that the Father rejected the Son. They leave the nature of forsaken unexplained. McCall argues that both narrators are using the background of Psalm 22. Indeed, he suggests that we should treat the whole passion narrative as having its background in Psalm 22. Both Matthew and Mark’s gospels use texts and echo the psalm in their passion accounts. According to the psalm, and in contrast to the rupture view, the Lord has not rejected the afflicted one. Instead, the afflicted one stands in relationship with those he is afflicted for – his people.

Third, according to McCall, a robust Trinitarian theology rules out the rupture view. There are two major views of the Trinity in Christian thought. A Latin model begins with the oneness of God and then considers the three persons. On this view God is Father in virtue of the Son eternally proceeding from him. Consequently, if there is no relationship between the persons of the Trinity then there is no Trinity. The Eastern or Social model begins with the persons and then considers unity in terms of communion. God’s oneness is interpreted as an essential community. On this view, if there is no community there can be no oneness.

If one holds to a Latin view of the Trinity, a relational rupture entails that the doctrine of the Trinity is false. It is not possible that the Son be the Son without the Father being the Father. Necessarily, if the Son is the Son, then the Father is the Father to the Son and vice versa. If the Father rejects the Son as the Son, then the Son ceases to be the Son and the Father ceases to be the Father. On this view, McCall argues, if it is possible that there are no relations between the persons of the Trinity then there is no Trinity.

If one holds to a Social view of the Trinity, on the other hand, the rupture view entails that monotheism is false. If it is possible that there is no communion between the persons then there is not one God because, on this view, the persons of the Godhead are necessarily in communion. On this view, McCall argues, if it is possible that there is no community among the persons of the Trinity then monotheism is false.

If the rupture view is false, as McCall claims, how should we view Christ being forsaken? McCall argues that the Father forsakes his Son by handing him over to be killed by sinful human beings. Consequently, though God foreknew that Christ would die on the cross, he is not responsible for his Son’s death. What, then, of the wrath of God? Surely the Father pours out his wrath on the Son? Isn’t that what we mean by “propitiation” (Rom 3:24-25)? Doesn’t that entail the rupture view? God’s wrath, on McCall’s account, is contingent personal opposition to human sin. It is contingent upon there being sin and rather than an essential attribute of the divine nature. Instead, wrath is an expression of God’s holiness. McCall suggests that many contemporary theologians have abandoned related doctrines that support this definition of divine wrath. Some have discarded impeccability and others simplicity. McCall suggests that those doctrines help support the view that God is consistently holy and consistently opposed to sin. Yet God’s wrath, according to McCall, should not be considered in opposition to God’s love. In fact, God’s wrath is actually an expression of God’s love. How so? The wrath of God turns out to assure us that God stands in personal relationship with his creation; he stands opposed to what damages it the most. We can be assured of God’s love for us by the knowledge that he loves us enough to be personally and consistently opposed to what destroys us – sin. If the Father’s love is safeguarded even in his wrath then there is no reason to suppose that the atonement causes the love between the Father and the Son to cease.

While it is true that God foreknew that Christ would be killed, McCall argues that this does not entail that God is responsible for his Son’s death. Neither is it true that Christ’s death was a tragic accident, a side effect of the incarnation. McCall thinks that scripture is clear on the matter – sinful humans killed Christ and God raised him from the dead. Indeed, the book of Acts contains many statements to this effect (Acts 2:23; 2:13-15; 4:10; 10:39-40). God is not responsible for the death of Christ, McCall argues, because God did not cause the death of his Son. McCall suggests that Calvinists are mistaken to believe that God determined the death of the Son. According to McCall, Calvinism entails the view that the Father causes his Son’s death. If the Father causes the death of the Son, then it is hard to see how would not be a rupture in the Trinity.

Calvinism generally entails a view of divine sovereignty that is deterministic. Determinism is the view that for every event there are antecedent conditions such that, given those conditions, nothing else could occur. Divine Determinism (DD) is the view that the relevant antecedent condition is the will of God. McCall gives four reasons to reject DD. First, it does not follow from the fact that God foreknows an event that the event is determined. Second, if DD is true then the reason that people resist God is that God has made it impossible for them not to resist him and resisting God would be the same as co-operating with God. Third, DD is incompatible with moral responsibility of human beings for their actions. Fourth, if God makes it impossible for the killers of Jesus not to kill Jesus, then God is responsible for killing Jesus. But if God is responsible for killing Jesus, God is not good or holy. The effect of McCall’s argument is that God is not responsible for the death of the Son even while he knows it will happen. This lends credence to McCall’s denial of the rupture view. Since God is not responsible he cannot be accused of acting against himself. On Calvinism, on the other hand, God predetermines the Son’s death and can be said to be responsible for it.

What then of justice? Does Christ receive the punishment due to sinful people? And if so surely he receives the wrath of the Father that sinful people deserve. McCall argues that there is a distinction between the kind of justice that repays an act and one that accords what is due to a person. Justice is commonly thought to involve a judgment of the moral standing of an act carried out by a person followed by an appropriate response. McCall points out that it is very difficult to see how this definition captures the sense in which God is intrinsically just. Rather, McCall suggests, following Wolterstorff, justice is primarily the treatment of other persons according to who they are. The former kind of justice follows secondarily from the latter primary kind. Sure, God will mete out justice in the secondary sense, but without breaching his primary justice within the Trinity.

Especially persuasive is McCall’s argument that the rupture view entails a denial of either the doctrine of the Trinity or monotheism. The former argument draws upon Aquinas’ view of the necessary relationships between the persons of the Trinity. McCall is right to suggest that if a view entails the denial of any of these relationships even if temporarily (since that entails that there is a possibility that the relationships do not obtain), then it is false. It might, however, be possible to appeal to the two natures of Christ to make a case for a rupture that happened between Father and Son that only occurred between the Son according to his human nature and not according to his divine nature.

However, before thinking about what that might look like there is another argument McCall makes that is worth analyzing. McCall argues that divine determinism is incompatible with a non-rupture view, something like the following:
(1) If divine determinism is true, then there was a rupture in the Trinity
(2) There was not a rupture in the Trinity
(3) Therefore, divine determinism is not true
If McCall is right then DD is false and human beings are morally responsible for their actions if and only if they have the ability to do otherwise and those actions are not determined by antecedent conditions outside the control of the agent. What I would like to argue is that (1) is false. DD is compatible with the non-rupture view that McCall wants because DD does not entail that God is morally responsible for the death of the Son. Furthermore, if DD is false and indeterminism is true then McCall commits himself to an inconsistency with regard to Christ’s impeccability and moral responsibility.

First, DD is compatible with a non-rupture view. McCall argues that if DD is true, then God is morally responsible for the death of the Son. If God is morally responsible for the death of the Son then there has been a rupture within the Trinity. McCall argues that it is the group of people who put Jesus to death who are morally responsible for the killing of the Son. They, and not the Father, are morally culpable because they freely chose to kill Jesus and what makes them morally responsible is that they could have done otherwise. If they could not have done otherwise then they cannot be held responsible and since on DD God determines their actions they non-culpably co-operate with God who, in turn, is morally responsible for the killing of the Son.

As McCall comments in a footnote, DD proponents are often compatibilists about free will. On this view, DD is compatible with free will. On compatibilism, an agent is morally culpable for an action if and only if he or she desires to do the action and is not coerced into doing the action against his or her will. If compatibilism is true then the group of people who killed Jesus is morally responsible for their actions and God the Father is not.

McCall’s worry is that DD entails that God morally culpable for evil and therefore not holy or good. However, this misses the point the compatibilist wants to make: sinful men want to commit evil and are responsible for those volitions and their ensuing actions even when those actions are determined by God. God is not morally responsible for the evil volition of human beings even while he determines their actions.

Does the compatibilist view entail a contradiction? Not necessarily. McCall equivocates between God’s decree, according to which God determines all that happens, and God’s desire, according to which God desires all people to worship him and live morally upright lives. Those who resist God could not have done otherwise since God decreed that they would resist him. Yet, at the same time, they do not co-operate with God’s desire because they do not worship him. If this is right then (1) is false and DD is compatible with a non-rupture view.

Let’s consider the second problem. What McCall is right about moral responsibility and DD is false? Let’s say that people are responsible for actions iff they could have done otherwise. What would follow? What I would like to suggest is that such a view is inconsistent with another doctrine McCall holds to: divine impeccability.

McCall argues that Jesus stands in our place on the cross as our representative and substitute. To be a substitute in this case is to take a punishment that another person deserves. What makes the person deserve the punishment is an evil action carried out freely. For the action to be free, on McCall’s view, there must have been a “live” possibility to do otherwise. Jesus is qualified to be our representative because Jesus is morally responsible for his actions, all of which are good. If Jesus were not morally responsible for his actions then he would not qualify as a human moral agent. If, on the other hand, he were not morally pure then Jesus would not be anything like the spotless lamb talked about in scripture and he would not qualify to be a substitute for us. Rather, it would be Jesus who deserved to die. If Jesus is morally responsible for his actions then, like every other human being, what makes him morally responsible is his ability to do otherwise. But in this case he could not have done otherwise. Because he is God, McCall argues, he is “necessarily good.”[3] This leaves McCall with a dilemma. Christ, on McCall’s view, is either not necessarily good or not morally responsible for his actions.[4] Neither of those options are theologically viable and suggests that the principle of alternative possibilities is false. If, on the other hand, DD is true and compatibilistic freedom does not entail that God is morally culpable for the death of the Son, then DD is actually more consistent with McCall’s argument against the rupture view.

Let’s return to a possible line of defense for the rupture view. On the face of it McCall’s argument is merely the attempt to restrain some more extreme views. However, as he proceeds his arguments leave us with the distinct impression that McCall wants to say something stronger. Rather than suggesting that the abandonment is not quite as complete or as far reaching as the relational rupture view supposes, McCall appears to suggest that the Father in no sense rejects the Son on the cross. Instead McCall argues that God gives up the Son to be subject to his killers. The Father has no active part in the killing. Instead God’s only act is to give the Son over to other actors for our sake.

It is surprising to see that McCall omits any lengthy discussion of the hypostatic union. The doctrine of the hypostatic union states that Jesus Christ is the incarnated second person of the Trinity and is one person with two natures - human and divine. Christ is both fully divine, having lost none of his divine properties, and fully human, lacking in no essential property of a human being. Consequently, it may open to the rupture proponent to suggest that though there is no rupture according to the divine nature of Christ there is a rupture according to the human nature of Christ. The Father turns away from the Son according to the Son’s human nature while remaining in union with the Son according to the Son’s divine nature.

It might be objected that according to the text the subject of rejection is the person and not a nature of Christ. If the subject of rejection is the person then it is not only one nature of Christ since the person of Christ is composed of two natures that are indivisible. Furthermore, persons are the kinds of entities that have experiences of rejection; natures are not.

There are two possible replies open to the rupture proponent. First, Thomas Morris argues that Christ having two natures allows us to posit that he also has two minds.[5] If Christ’s two centers of consciousness could have differing experiences then Christ could have both experienced the continued unity of the Trinity and the rejection of the Father. Still, it does sound a trifle odd to suggest that the Father acts to give one mind of Christ the experience of rejection while he assures that other mind that his love is undiminished.

Still, it might be possible to argue that the person of Christ experiences rejection in virtue of his human nature. This solution works to supply the conditions under which “God the Father rejects the Son” and “God the Father does not reject the Son” are both true. A truth maker theory could be used to suggest that “God the Father rejects the Son” is true in virtue of the Son’s human nature while at the same time suggesting that “God the Father does not reject the Son” is true in virtue of the Son’s divine nature. Whether such a suggestion is intelligible is another matter or even if it follows the rules of a truth maker theory.

[1] Tom McCall, Forsaken (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012).
[2] Ibid., 29-42.
[3] McCall, 111.
[4] James Anderson, “A Christological Argument Against the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” Analogical Thoughts, February 25, 2012, accessed September 24, 2015, http://www.proginosko.com/2012/02/a-christological-argument-against-the-principle-of-alternate-possibilities/
[5] Thomas Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001).

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