Thomas H. McCall, Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012. 171 pp. $20.00 (paperback)
Kevin W. Wong
Many a theologian lament that the common Evangelical church-goer is biblically and theologically illiterate, particularly during the school year when colleges and universities receive a fresh crop of wide-eyed students who grew up on a steady diet of Bible stories and Sunday school sermons. Yet, those same theologians are hard-pressed to recommend good materials in order to aid the Church with its religious education, finding the majority to be either too superficial or too technical. So I am pleased that Thomas McCall tackles the intersection of several complicated theological topics with the church-goer in mind (as well as those newly minted college students).
Contrary to expectations one might derive from the blurb on the back cover, McCall’s book is not an analysis exclusively centered upon the Cry of Dereliction (Mark 15:34/Matt 27:46). Rather, McCall uses the Cry of Dereliction as an entry point into the underlying theological convictions that give rise to two competing interpretations: Whether or not the Trinity was ruptured at the crucifixion. The Cry of Dereliction is, then, a sort of heuristic to test our theology. So although certain portions of the book look as though McCall has strayed from the original topic of Christ’s quotation of Ps. 22 at the cross, it is only because he is analyzing the complex constellation of theological topics that calibrate our understanding of what is occurring at that event. So by McCall’s lights, the questionable interpretations of the Cry of Dereliction is less of a problem per se and more of a symptom of deeper problems.
The book’s structure is fairly simple and straightforward. All four chapters, with a slight exception for the third, follow a standard pattern: a summary and analysis of a theological topic related to interpreting the Cry of Dereliction, ending with a three-fold conclusion of what is to be rejected, what is to be affirmed, and why does it matter. The third chapter lacks the why does it matter section, but that may be because the fourth chapter seems to fill that role even though it has its own why does it matter section (perhaps one can think of this as why it really, REALLY matters—which is not entirely speculative given the topic of that section; see below).
In chapter 1, McCall lays the foundation of the investigation by surveying the lines of reasoning of major modern thinkers who take the Cry of Dereliction to indicate a breaking in the Trinity, most notably Jürgen Moltmann among the theologians and a plethora of familiar names among biblical scholars. McCall then contrasts that with a brief review of major historical figures—ranging from Athanasius to Aquinas to Calvin—demonstrating that the ruptured Trinity view is a recent phenomenon. But rather than merely appealing to tradition (i.e. we should believe it because it has always been believed), McCall builds an exegetical and theological case for rejecting this recent turn. He admits that the Son was abandoned in some sense, but it was not a breaking of his relationship to the Father. Rather, the Father and the Son, along with the Spirit, acts as one to achieve the atonement. The Father abandons the Son in the sense that the former sends the latter to suffer at the hands of humanity, but that does not mean that the Father cuts himself off from the Son or, worse still, actively participates in making the Son suffer.
And so in chapter 2, McCall focuses on rebutting that frequently held view that the Father poured his wrath out upon the Son. McCall carefully situates the wrath of God with the love of God, arguing that they are not in opposition to one another for a variety of reasons including divine impassibility and divine simplicity. Further, he argues that the operations of God are indivisible, meaning that none of the Persons of the Trinity can act in isolation from the other two. McCall then brings these two strands of argumentation to show that the Father did not then have wrath upon the Son as though the two were against one another, but rather that they are united in their enacting the atonement at the cross. Further, it is God’s love that enables the atonement rather than the other way around. McCall is sure to reiterate that God does in fact have wrath, but it is directed toward sin which blocks our access to him.
But if the Son’s crucifixion did not concern being subjected to the Father’s wrath, what was it about? McCall answers with the third chapter that the crucifixion was a victory, not a tragedy. The cross was always something planned, as part of the divine orchestration of history to save humanity—seen not only in the planning in the Old Testament but also and especially in that God the Father raises the Son back to life. Even though it was planned from the very beginning, McCall insists that we ought not say that the Father killed the Son, but rather it was humanity that did so. Finally, McCall contends that the crucifixion is a victory on two fronts: It provides satisfaction for past sins and provides a way to correct humanity’s disposition toward sin.
That two-sided victory is the topic for the final full chapter. McCall explicates the doctrines of justification and sanctification. Nothing he says here is unusual except that he situates them within Trinitarian theology, something church-goers might not be regularly exposed to. It is not difficult to come to a modalist understanding of the Trinity with the familiar theological tropes being endlessly rehearsed: The Father creates, the Son saves, the Spirit indwells. As though only one Person of the Trinity is active at a time. Instead, McCall argues that all three Persons are active at every stage of salvation. He ends by emphasizing that salvation is not merely a reality to look forward to, but it is a reality that we can and do experience now.
Should the reader still think all of this has been an exercise in speculative, theoretical theology, McCall ends his book with a personal testimony that reiterates to me what my beloved undergraduate theology professor, David Horner, has taught me and has rung true time and again: Ideas have consequences. They may not immediately manifest in one’s life, but once embedded, they significantly contribute to one’s character. McCall exemplifies this very conviction by sharing a touching story about the illness and eventual passing of his own father. Ought he to despair? No, because God’s nature and character is unbreakable, even unto how the three Persons relate to one another. That unmovable, unshakeable foundation provides the surest stability.
The virtues of this book are many, but I will highlight some of particular interest. First, as I said, this is not an academic book. That might sound like an odd praise coming from an academician, but it makes sense when we remember that far too often academic books are written (if not intentionally, then unremorsefully) to alienate non-specialists. And though theologians roll their eyes at the disdain for their field that they experience by the church-goer, they often do little to make it more accessible (admittedly, I am all too guilty of this as well). So I commend and am inspired by McCall’s efforts to convey such lofty theological concepts in a more conversational, though still challenging, manner. Still, McCall hopes that specialists would benefit from this book and I think a practitioner from the guild would. Not only is this a great book to introduce the myriad of theology topics—such as the Trinitarian relations, the operations of the Trinity, the atonement, divine attributes such as impassibility and simplicity—but the bibliography is a good resource for those wishing to pursue further research. So, happily, any reader from any level of theological sophistication should benefit from this book.
Second, especially since McCall’s target audience are church-goers, his incredibly condensed historical treatments are invaluable. Evangelical churches suffer from not engaging in the tradition enough. McCall does not merely quote these great thinkers, as though that were sufficient to win the argument. Rather he makes his own argument, showing that these thinkers are not obsolete or ignorant as we sophisticated twenty-first century folk are sometimes led to believe.
But alas, no book is perfect, not even this little gem. Thankfully, none of the book’s shortcomings are fatal. First, an irritation. Some of the names of authors have been misspelled in both the main text and the corresponding footnote. I do not fault McCall personally since a book undergoes multiple processes before its final manifestation in print. Any step along the way is the possible culprit from his word processor trying to autocorrect to a compatibility error between the word processor and a bibliographic software to a copyeditor not reading thoroughly. Still, this is an irritation that is easily remedied (I hear there’s this thing called a search engine; perhaps I should use it). I am more than certain McCall is embarrassed by it, whether his fault or otherwise, so I will not give specific examples.
Second, although I think his appeals to traditional figures are needed, one wonders how authoritative they can be without an accompanying justification for paying attention to those traditional figures. In his first chapter, he noted that giants in the Christian tradition were adamantly opposed to any breaking of the Trinitarian relations. But deviating from tradition would not faze many church-goers I know who have built their spiritual lives on the (unintentionally ironic) principle “No creed but the Bible.” McCall keenly anticipates this by reinforcing the thoughts of these great thinkers with biblical exegesis and theological reasoning. But he could have made some gesture to show that the tradition has something important to say and not just that we contemporary Christians just so happened to have agreed with them in some happy accident. This is not a major criticism, however, as any remedy that McCall might attempt at justifying the authority of church tradition would inflate his otherwise slim book. And it is not his particular burden to do so, since it is a common problem of Evangelical identity: How do we relate to the larger tradition? So any using his book must anticipate this sort of conversation to emerge.
Third, McCall sometimes reverts back to his academic prose. Although the majority of the book is fairly accessible, there are moments where I can imagine the church-goer being unnecessarily challenged or befuddled. For example, on page 71, as he elucidates why divine love necessitates impassibility, he then quotes Weinandy’s talk of “subsistent relations fully in act.” Although I know what that phrase means because of years of training in Christian higher education, this is not common Evangelical church parlance. And I think it is unnecessary for the point he is trying to make.
Still, this book is a worthy volume to purchase for use in Sunday school or as an undergraduate textbook. It is also a fine resource for seminary or graduate students needing some remedial reading to fill in gaps in their theological training. I highly recommend it and look forward to more work by Dr. McCall.
My thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy.