Did the Atonement Break the Trinity? On Tom McCall’s Essay

Did the Atonement Break the Trinity? On Tom McCall’s Essay April 2, 2018

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46)

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This past weekend, Christianity Today published an editorial by Tom McCall, a well-regarded systematic theologian. McCall’s piece made several surprising claims. Below, I interact with several of its key arguments; see also this helpful blog by Denny Burk, and these tweets by Malcolm Yarnell.

McCall: “For many who hold this view, the Trinity is somehow “broken” as the communion between the Father and the Son is ruptured in the darkness of that Friday afternoon. And this is said to be good news and the heart of the gospel because Jesus absorbs the wrath of God in taking the exact punishment we deserve. God is changed from wrath to mercy and can no longer justly punish those for whom Christ died.”

McCall does not quote any theologians who use this word: “broken.” He himself references this language several times in his piece, but nowhere cites an actual evangelical theologian who says that the Trinity is “broken” at Calvary. McCall does cite C. J. Mahaney and quotes R. C. Sproul to this effect, but neither of these men say that the Trinity was “broken.” There may be a theologian out there who uses such language, but I do not personally know of them, and I’ve never heard a conservative evangelical quote them.

McCall: “There is no biblical evidence that the Father-Son communion was somehow ruptured on that day. Nowhere is it written that the Father was angry with the Son. Nowhere can we read that God “curses him to the pit of hell.” Nowhere is it written that Jesus absorbs the wrath of God by taking the exact punishment that we deserve.”

These four sentences pack quite a punch. There is indeed scriptural evidence that communion was impaired in the crucifixion of Christ. The passage cited above features Jesus crying out that the Father had forsaken him (see Psalm 22 for the Old Testament testimony he takes as his own in Messianic fulfillment). McCall cites Psalm 22:24 to argue against the Father turning his face away from the Son at Calvary, but there is no indication in the Gospels that the Father hears the Son’s prayer. At the very least, the Father does not grant the Son’s request that the cup pass from Christ; the sky is darkened on the day of Christ’s death, and he no longer enjoys the closeness with the Father that he always has. He asked three times for divine intervention, and none came (Matthew 26:36-46). This is unusual. This is not standard. The Son is still the Son, to be sure, but he is alone.

(Also, as a further word and update: I recognize like McCall that we need to pay attention to the full context of a New Testament citation of the Old Testament. However, I fear McCall is in danger of putting Psalm 22:24 in Christ’s mouth, rather than Psalm 22:1. Jesus does not say what Psalm 22:24 says; Jesus says what Psalm 22:1 says. When we interpret Christ’s words on the cross, then, we must pay attention to what he actually expresses, and cede it first priority. If Jesus had wanted to confess that the Lord had not hid his face from him, he would have cited Psalm 22:24. McCall is emphasizing the wrong verse from Psalm 22.)

Theologians and preachers–thousands and thousands and thousands of them in the evangelical tradition from a wide array of denominations and global locations–know that Habakkuk 1:13 teaches that God cannot look on sin. When Jesus dies on the cross, he does so as a blood sacrifice for sin, to such an extent that he becomes sin for us, all our guilt being laid upon him (2 Cor. 5:21). So it is that teachers like Sproul have argued that the Father turns his face away from the son, for at Calvary, the Father lays all our guilt on Christ. Christ becomes a guilt offering; he becomes a curse for all for whom he dies (Isa. 53:10; Gal. 3:13). So it is appropriate to say that the Father turned his face away from Christ. This does not entail a “broken Trinity”; it does show us the severity of divine judgment, judgment borne by the Son on the tree.

McCall’s denial of Jesus absorbing the wrath of God is serious business. If Jesus has not absorbed the wrath of God for sinners like us, it yet burns against us. Praise be to God that the Son has drained the cup of divine wrath for us.

McCall: “Finally, the “broken Trinity” and “God against God” views run aground on the doctrines of divine impassibility and simplicity as well as the doctrine of the Trinity. According to Christian orthodoxy, it not even a possibility that the Trinity was broken. If we know anything about the Trinity, we know that God is one God in three persons, and we know that God’s life is necessarily the life of holy love shared in the eternal communion of the Father, Son, and Spirit. To say that the Trinity is broken—even “temporarily”—is to imply that God does not exist.”

Our challenge here is to form our Trinitarian theology by Scripture first, and not by what any one theologian calls “Christian orthodoxy.” We love the great tradition (here’s one theologically-inclined book coming out soon that resources it), but if there is anything to be identified as “Christian orthodoxy,” it is first the teaching of the Word of God. The Word of God features the Son of God lamenting that the Father has “forsaken” him. This “forsaking” does not owe to what McCall terms “God against God” theology. The members of the Godhead execute the glorious plan of salvation in the execution of the Son. They do not work at cross-purposes with one another; they share a single cross purpose, you could say. But the one plan of God necessitates the death of the God-man, Jesus Christ, according to the Father’s will. As noted earlier, not for nothing does Christ pray in Gethsemane, “Not my will but yours be done” to the Father (Matthew 26:39). The language McCall critiques–that of a “broken Trinity”–deserves critique, for it is off-base. But the interruption of communion between the Father and the Son in the Son’s incarnational bearing of sin is a biblical reality. Denying it means denying the Bible.

McCall: “Indeed, we should be faithful to point out that “wrath remains” on all who reject the Son (John 3:36). At the same time, however, we are not at liberty to restrict our understanding of the intents, purposes, and breadth of Christ’s work.”

I don’t know exactly what this means. We “restrict” our understanding of the extent of Christ’s work only insofar as the Bible limits it. If the Bible says that Christ laid down his life for his bride, then we believe the Bible (Eph. 5:25). If the Bible teaches us that the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep, we believe the Bible (John 10:11). If the Bible says that Christ died once for the guilty, we believe the Bible (1 Peter 3:18). There is a lively debate about how to understand the effects of the atonement, but one reason why many of us believe that the death of Christ satisfies the wrath of God is because of the verse that McCall cites here. If Christ dies for you, God’s wrath is spent in your case. But if Christ does not die for you, the wrath of God is coming for you.

McCall: “Narrowing Christ’s work to the limited sense of taking the punishment for our sins can cause us to miss (much of) the point. Yes, Christ came to get us out of hell, but he also came to get hell out of us and to make us holy as we walk in communion with the Triune God.”

I confess I find this a strange formulation. Again, there may be a theologian out there who narrows Christ’s work to merely taking our punishment upon him. If so, too bad, because the Bible weaves a soteriological tapestry for us with elegant strands of union, adoption, reconciliation, expiation, recapitulation, propitiation, and more. But on the other hand, Christ taking our punishment for sin upon him is not really “limited,” is it? It’s the greatest miracle there is. It is “much of” the point of biblical salvation. Our central problem is that sin has separated us from God and condemned us, everlastingly, to hell. The fact that “Christ came to get us out of hell” isn’t a small thing, but is a truth so wondrous we’ll proclaim it for all eternity.

There is no need to put “getting out of hell” and “making us holy” at odds with one another; Christ’s effectual death clears our account before God, satisfies the full requirements of divine justice per the intrinsic righteousness of God’s holy character, and when applied to us in historical time and space through the Spirit’s regenerating work enables our own participation “in Christ” in the holiness of God. McCall here puts tension between truths that are one in the biblical mind.

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In sum, I would not encourage anyone to believe in a “broken Trinity.” Many of us would affirm that Christ’s Godness cannot be killed at Calvary; the second person of the Godhead upholds the universe even as Jesus dies on the cross. McCall goes after Mahaney and Sproul in his article, but neither man would affirm what McCall says they do. Instead, these men and countless others affirm what the Bible plainly teaches: the Son of God went to the cross as a sin-sacrifice, and absorbed the wrath of God as the one effectual offering for those who will confess their sin and believe on Christ.

McCall’s piece, in sum, says some good things, but ends up being rather confusing to me, at least. It seems to tackle a problem that may exist, but is not represented in the mainstream evangelical tradition. No one I know of preaches a “broken Trinity.” I’ve never heard such language before, in fact. Instead, most preachers and teachers I know of unite the various biblical themes of the atonement, in the manner of Mark Dever in his 2006 cover essay for Christianity Today: “While Christ’s example of self-giving love may also defeat our enemies, may he not, by the same act, propitiate God’s wrath?” He may. He may indeed.

I think also of the words of Billy Graham, founder of Christianity Today: “God judges man by the standard of the only God-man who ever lived, Jesus Christ. Jesus, the innocent lamb of God, stands between our sin and the judgment of God the Father” (Billy Graham in Quotes, 82). So he does. Because this is true, we will praise the Lamb slain before the foundation of the earth when we dwell with him, for eternity, in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 13:8). His dereliction means our in-gathering; his wrath-bearing means our sin-overcoming.

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