Allow me to begin this review where the author ends his book. Thomas McCall, assistant professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, closes his new work, Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters, with the moving account of his father’s death in 2009. McCall’s dialogue with his own grieving son, Josiah, places the subject matter of this book in its proper context:
“Si, this is not the end. Gramps loved Jesus, he loved Jesus with everything in him. He loved Jesus because Jesus loved him and died for his sins. Jesus rose again from death, and he promises that everyone who belongs to him will be with him forever. Gramps is gone now, with Jesus. Someday he’ll get this body back, and someday we’ll see him again.” Josiah looked at me, with young eyes full of sincere belief, and said, “I know, Dad, I know, but we miss him now, don’t we?” Again I was struck—so forcefully—by the difference that is made by the trinitarian gospel (164).
In Forsaken, McCall deals with some weighty theological matters: the Trinity, the Incarnation, divine impassibility and simplicity, the nature of the atonement, and the relationship between justification and sanctification. But the pastoral concern expressed in his closing testimony is never far from view. In many ways, this book represents the best kind of “theological interpretation” of Scripture. McCall brings the categories of systematic theology to bear upon his reading of the gospel, giving careful consideration to the Christian tradition—all with a view to the faith and practice of the contemporary church.
The book is divided into four chapters, each of which explores a different aspect of the Christian gospel viewed through a trinitarian lens. In chapter one, McCall examines Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and considers the question, “Was the Trinity broken?” McCall takes aim here at several recent commentators who have interpreted Jesus’ cry of dereliction in literal terms; that is, on the cross, the Son was literally abandoned by the Father so that the Trinity was in some sense severed for a time. McCall argues this view is out of step with the Christian tradition, which has normally interpreted Jesus’ words either as identifying with our sense of abandonment or merely as Jesus’ human feeling of abandonment on the cross. McCall maintains that no matter what general approach one takes with regard to the Trinity (either social trinitarianism or “Latin” trinitarianism), the broken-Trinity view threatens the very idea of the Christian God. The Trinity quite simply cannot be broken, and such a view is not demanded by the gospel narratives.
In the second chapter, McCall poses the question, “Did the death of Jesus make it possible for God to love me?” McCall argues that we should avoid pitting God’s wrath against God’s love, since Scripture clearly affirms both divine attributes. After a brief biblical defense of each attribute, McCall then brings two important theological concepts to bear upon the issue. First, McCall argues for a classic approach to God’s impassibility. God does not lack an emotional life, but he experiences his emotions in a manner unique to his unchanging divine nature. God’s emotions are pure act; that is, they possess no room for potential growth or diminution. Because of God’s impassibility, we should avoid thinking of God’s wrath in univocally human terms; God does not experience fits of anger or shifts in mood as humans do.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” How should a Christian interpret this passage? What implications does the cross have for the trinitarian theology? Did the Father kill the Son? Theologian Thomas McCall presents a trinitarian reading of Christ’s darkest moment—the moment of his prayer to his heavenly Father from the cross. McCall revisits the biblical texts and surveys the various interpretations of Jesus’s cry, ranging from early church theologians to the Reformation to contemporary theologians. Along the way, he explains the terms of the scholarly debate and clearly marks out what he believes to be the historically orthodox point of view.
Second, McCall also maintains the classic doctrine of divine simplicity. According to this doctrine, God is metaphysically simple; he is not made up of parts, which would make his existence dependent on some other entity. If God is simple, we cannot conceive of his love and wrath as two competing parts in his nature. Instead, they are two expressions of the one, unified nature of God. Indeed, according to McCall, God’s wrath is an expression of his love; his love demands his opposition to sin. Ultimately, God’s love was expressed in the cross of Christ, which dealt decisively with the wrath of God against sin. So, for McCall, the problem of forgiveness is not an “internal” problem for God; his love and wrath are never pitted against one another.
Chapter three addresses the question, “Was the death of Jesus a meaningless tragedy?” Here, McCall seeks to chart a course between the senseless-tragedy view, on the one hand, and a more deterministic view, on the other. The heart of his argument, however, lies in his opposition to any kind of determinism—including the “soft” determinism of compatibilism. According to McCall, we should avoid claiming that “God killed Jesus.” God gave his Son over to death, but only the free and responsible humans involved in the crucifixion actually killed Jesus. In McCall’s view, God uses his foreknowledge of free human acts in order to enact his plan, but he doesn’t determine those acts themselves. McCall fears that determinism of any sort threatens the freedom and, therefore, the responsibility of the agents involved. According to McCall, “we should avoid the view that God somehow determined all of these events so as to make them inevitable or unavoidable” (122).
In the final chapter, McCall asks the question, “Does it make a difference?” He rightly argues that the work of Christ is applied our lives in two distinct but inseparable ways: it changes our legal status (justification), and it changes us (sanctification). We should avoid conceiving of salvation in merely legal terms, but at the same time we should also avoid confusing the legal and the transformative aspects of salvation. Further, even our sanctification ought to be viewed as a work of the triune God, not a matter of mere moral effort on our part.
Practical and Theological
McCall’s book has several noteworthy strengths. First, his work is unquestionably evangelical. McCall clearly articulates the core doctrines of the gospel in this work. He affirms both God’s unbounded love for his creatures and God’s personal wrath against sin. He affirms penal substitution (along with the other biblical portraits of the atonement), justification by faith alone, and the necessity of Spirit-wrought sanctification. While some of his positions will not be shared by all evangelicals (e.g., his libertarian critique of compatibilism), McCall’s unambiguous defense of these key gospel truths ought to be celebrated by all.
Second, McCall’s work offers a laudable defense of what might be called classic Christian theism. Cutting against the grain of much contemporary theology, McCall defends more traditional views on the inseparability of trinitarian operations, divine impassibility, divine simplicity, and the suffering of Christ vis-à-vis his two natures. Such respect for the reflections of the Christian past is commendable in our age of theological iconoclasm.
Third, McCall’s book provides an exemplary model for how systematic theologians might bring their academic expertise to bear upon the spiritual formation of the contemporary church. Though the book is short and aimed at a non-academic audience, Forsaken offers insightful and succinct explanations of several important theological concepts. For instance, McCall helpfully provides descriptions of the two main trinitarian approaches in contemporary analytic theology: social trinitarianism and Latin trinitarianism. But this theological analysis does not stand alone; instead, McCall presses it into the service of the faith and practice of the people of God in a suffering world. This practical-theological concern is especially evident in the author’s concluding “theological testimony.”
Despite these strengths, however, not all of McCall’s conclusions are equally sound. Two issues are especially noteworthy.
First, some of McCall’s criticisms run the risk of overreaching. He is surely correct to critique some of the unhelpful ways the atonement is presented, especially in popular preaching but also in some biblical commentaries. He rightly shows that the Trinity cannot be broken in the strict sense and that it is less than accurate to claim that “God killed Jesus.” But we might also ask whether or not these careless expressions of the gospel capture something true and worth preserving, albeit in more careful terms. For example, while it is true that the Son as divine cannot be torn apart from the Father and Spirit, it is also true—by virtue of the Incarnation and the communicatio idiomatum (communication of properties)—that the Son did indeed experience divine abandonment in his humanity in a real sense as he bore the divine wrath for sin. We should be cautious about describing this experience in too much detail, but it seems insufficient to describe it merely in terms of his being permitted to die or his human perception of abandonment.
Additionally, while “God killed Jesus” is a biblically flatfooted approach to the trinitarian work of atonement (John Stott’s “self-satisfaction through self-substitution” is more helpful), it is nonetheless true that some biblical passages describe the Father’s wrath being satisfied in the cross. Isaiah 53:10 is especially instructive on this point. “The Lord” (which could be a reference to the Triune God without distinction, but, in canonical context, given the identity of the Servant, is probably better understood as a reference to the Father) is said to “crush” the Suffering Servant and to “put him to grief.” So while it is true, by virtue of the inseparability of trinitarian operations, that the whole Godhead accomplishes redemption through the cross, it is also true, by virtue of the doctrine of appropriation, that the Father is the one who crushes the Son, and the Son is the one who is crushed. According to the doctrine of appropriation, certain acts of the Trinity terminate on or are appropriated to certain persons of the Trinity. So with regard to the cross, it is appropriate to acknowledge the Father’s economic role in delivering up the Son to death and the Son’s economic role in being made “an offering for guilt.”
Another example of overreach is evident in McCall’s critique of the idea that Christ’s death makes it possible for God to love the world. Certainly McCall is correct to point out that God’s love motivated the cross of Christ in the first place. In love the Father gave his Son, and in love the Son gave his life. But at the same time, the death of Jesus did make certain things possible that would not have been so otherwise. The satisfaction of God’s justice on the cross was a necessary condition, not for God’s love, but for God’s forgiving mercy.
To be fair, McCall seems to acknowledge this point when he writes, “God’s wrath must be dealt with, and the Bible teaches us that it is dealt with by the death of Christ” (82). But McCall denies that forgiveness creates an “internal struggle” for God (81). Perhaps “internal struggle” is not the best term to use, but Scripture does seem to teach that God’s forgiveness creates a problem for God’s justice for which propitiation is the only solution (Rom. 3:25-26). In short, one wonders how McCall could affirm the necessity of the atonement for forgiveness without also affirming that this necessity springs from a tension (but not a final conflict) in the very nature of God, as it is expressed on the stage of redemptive history. Affirming divine simplicity does not eliminate this tension, since the issue at hand is not the divine nature as such, but the divine nature as it is contingently expressed in retributive justice and forgiving mercy. There can be no real tension between God’s essential attributes (hence divine simplicity), but there can be tension between contingent expressions of his attributes (hence the necessity of a “just” way to “justify,” Rom. 3:25–26).
Second, McCall’s defense of a non-deterministic approach to the cross will obviously be unsatisfying to readers of a more Reformed/Calvinistic persuasion. This review is not the place to hash out the centuries-old debate concerning predestination and free will, but a few salient points will suffice to demonstrate the disagreement.
McCall claims that “divine determinism” (perhaps not the most helpful term) necessarily entails the conclusion that “God made it impossible for [those involved in the crucifixion] to respond appropriately” (101) and that “they were cooperating with the Holy Spirit in committing these heinous sins” (102). But this is a non sequitur. Reformed theologians have always been careful to distinguish between primary and secondary causation, the asymmetry between God’s relationship to good and his relationship to evil, and the compatibility between God’s sovereign decree and human responsibility. McCall seems to think that divine determinism would make God the only cause in the equation and that human responsibility would therefore be diminished. But Reformed theologians would obviously demur. God’s predetermination of the cross does not eliminate meaningful human freedom (compatibilitistically construed, to be sure) and genuine human responsibility.
Indeed, Peter teaches precisely this point in Acts 2:23: “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” The apostolic church affirms the same point in Acts 4:28, when they confess to God that the Jewish and Roman leaders did “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Divine predestination and human responsibility stand side-by-side in these texts and in many other places in Scripture. To affirm that the events of the cross were, in the plan of God, “inevitable and unavoidable” does not diminish the responsibility of those involved in the horror of Christ’s crucifixion.
These theological disagreements notwithstanding, McCall’s book provides a helpful entrée into some of the most pressing theological and practical questions related to the work of the triune God in the cross of Jesus Christ. His theological reflections should serve as a reminder to all readers to be gripped once again by the “difference that is made by the trinitarian gospel.”