Trinitarian Unity and the Cross of Christ

This morning on the Kentucky campus of Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Marva Dawn spoke in a chapel service as part of the Theta Phi honor society lecture series.  As the lecture unfolded, Dr. Dawn took a brief turn to speak about sin and the Cross of Christ.  Normally I would support such an aside at any and every opportunity.  However, today I was shocked at what was said.  Not suggested, but spoken and emphasized.

When reflecting on Jesus’ words on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), Dawn stated, “On the cross there was a split in the Trinity, when Father forsook Son.” (paraphrased).  The then went on to emphasize this statement through repetition, saying again that the Trinity was divided at that moment.

Now, I want to preface what comes next by first stating that Dr. Dawn is usually quite orthodox in her theology, from what I understand, and is a devoted Christian worthy of our respect and grace.

However, in this case, what Dr. Dawn said falls far outside the witness of Scripture and Christian tradition, and has serious implications (both theologically and practically) that should not be ignored.

Scripture

The first, and most significant objection I have to Dr. Dawn’s statement is that it rejects the teaching of scripture by saying that the Father rejected the Son while he carried the burden of sin.  Romans 5:8-10 says:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

Scripture is clear that it is in our deepest need, when we are immersed in sin and enemies, that God reaches into the muck of life, the putrescence of fallen creation, pulls us up, and embraces us as his children.  He never turns his back on us, never gives up in his loving pursuit.  God is in the business of saving sinners, and it is precisely because he will not turn his back on sinners that he sent his Son Jesus to die for us on the cross.

Even before this even, Christ taught his disciples about this truth in his parables of the lost sheep and prodigal son.  This message of love and hope is central to the Gospel.

Christian Tradition

My good friend, and fellow PhD student, Jeffrey Rudy has given a very helpful response to this issue from the perspective of the church fathers on his blog.  I have copied some of his post below, but please visit him for the full text of his comments:

Athanasius: For behold when He says, “Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” the Father shewed that He was ever and even then in Him; for the earth knowing its Lord who spoke, straightway trembled, and the vail was rent…then seeing these signs, [the centurion] confessed that “truly He was the Son of God.”
The confession from a Roman centurion, no less, that recognizes the closeness between Jesus and God to such a degree that he proclaims that Jesus was God’s Son is far from any notion that the Son and the Father were split at the cross.
Chrysostom: That darkness [at the cross] was a token of the Father’s anger at their [the crowd’s] crime…He saith, “Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani?” that unto His last breath they might see that He honors His Father, and is no adversary of God…and by all things, He shows how He is of one mind with Him that begat Him.

Implications

The implications of this idea of fractured Trinity are many and varied.  I would like to point out just a couple of the more serious ones.

First, this idea denies the ontological Trinity, which is the understanding that before creation and time the Godhead (Father, Son, and Spirit) eternally existed in other-loving relationship in which this love is expressed in unity of the will. This will may originate with the Father, but it is ratified by Son and Spirit.  It is precisely this unified will that Jesus expresses in John 14:24 and elsewhere. Without this unified will, there is no true equality among the members of the Trinity, rather we would have a Godhead whose members are not all omnipotent, since one would have to exert their will upon the others forcefully in order for Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection to occur.

Second, this idea has devastating implications for the preaching of the Gospel.  The very thing that gives hope to sinners is the knowledge that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.  This is not a turning away from the sinner, but an offer of  welcome to the sinner that, through the power of Jesus’ blood, we can be cleansed from all unrighteousness, and through the power of his resurrection, we can move from death into life.

If, instead of this, we begin to preach that God turned away from Jesus because of his sin, where is our hope?  If God rejected his own Son, a member of the Trinity, because of sin he must necessarily reject me because of my sin.  There can be no hope for restoration.

The Problem as I See It

The modern church has done a terrible job of interpreting Jesus’ words on the cross.  This particular issue that the Trinity was fractured is merely another symptom of poor exegesis.  The real problem, as friend, pastor, and fellow PhD student Matt O’Reilly stated to me earlier is that the church has lately been approaching the issue of “forsakenness” in absolute terms.

When we read Jesus’ words, “Why have you forsaken me?” we have been interpreting this as Jesus being forsaken absolutely, ontologically (in his being).  What we should be asking ourselves is: might this mean that he was forsaken to the cross, to sin, to temporal death, to humiliation? Perhaps Jesus’ question was open-ended, precisely because he suffered so greatly and no one thing to which he had been “forsaken” could be pinpointed.  Yet despite his suffering, Jesus trusts the Father and honors him.  His will remains unified with that of the Father and Spirit.

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

He maintained a sure trust and confidence in the Father and a unity of will that he had already expressed in the garden when he prayed:

“Not my will, but yours be done.” (Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42)

So, was the Trinity divided or fractured when Christ bore the burden of sin on the cross, as Marva Dawn suggests?  Did God really turn away from Jesus, rejecting him in his greatest moment of need?

If this is true, than we are to be most pitied, for we are fools and there is no hope for the lost, no solace for sinners.

But no, Yahweh is a holy God who loves us in spite of our sin:

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:8-10)

Thanks be to God!

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6 thoughts on “Trinitarian Unity and the Cross of Christ

  1. Hi Isaac…

    Thanks for your post, and for the gracious manner in which you have approached this. We could all do well to continue to respond to other people in such a way. (I’m glad you didn’t tweet “Farewell Marva Dawn”!)

    I agree with you, and would probably look more to 2 Cor 5:19 to deny a suggestion of a split in the Trinity. God being “in Christ” reconciling the world to himself is significant at this very point.

    Further, as for poor exegesis on this statement, we shouldn’t forget that this is clearly a reference, or at the very least an allusion, to Psalm 22. Your the OT guy here so you know this better than me, but there the Psalmist in the midst of suffering and “forsakeness” continues to return to worship and hope in the midst of pain. Rather than seeing a split in the Trinity at this point, good exegesis (which you’ve rightly called for) will question the nature of this reference/allusion and ask what Matthew/Mark are saying about Jesus at this point.

    Thanks again for your post.

    Every blessing
    Adam

    • Adam,

      Thanks for your comments and for the reference to 2 Cor 5:19. That makes an excellent point. I’ve gotten a couple other comments elsewhere about the connection to Psalm 22, and realize I should have said something about that in my post. As you mentioned, good exegesis takes this seriously into account and seeks for understanding in what the Gospel writers were trying to convey.

      I’ve got to mull this over some more, and may offer addition comments in a future post.

      Blessings,

      Isaac

  2. Hi Isaac, I can’t believe I’m just now discovering your blog.
    Re: your post – I wonder what precisely Dawn means when she speaks of a “split” in the Trinity. It seems to me that there may be a few ways to parse this out. For instance, one could make the case that von Balthasar posits something like a “split” in the Trinity in the dereliction of the cross (and in his account of Holy Saturday). Moltmann seems to be making a somewhat different claim regarding the nature of this “split,” in a more Reformed mode in this case (concerning which I am inclined to think is more problematic).
    Matt O’Reilly’s blog, which you cite, mentions a further comment by Dawn regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in this moment. As I recall, Bulgakov’s profoundly kenotic Christology (not in the early 20th c. English sense) gives a similar sort of reading not only of the cross, but the incarnation as well. The book is in my office at the moment, but I’m pretty sure he gets this idea from the Fathers and Paul. In any event, I guess what I’m trying to say is there are more than a few ways to think about these things.
    It would be helpful to get a better sense of what exactly Dawn has in mind when making the aforementioned statement. For instance, if she is thinking of what we have (perhaps unfortunately) been calling the “split” in the von Balthasar’ssense, I think much of your second criticism (implication) falls to pieces – the Father’s love for the Son, while existing in something like another modality in the dereliction of the cross and descent into hell (whatever that means), nevertheless overcomes the “split” between the Father and Son, thereby demonstrating both the depths and power of the divine love…at least, from what I recall. This is, of course, far too imprecise, but I think it suffices to make my main point.
    Justus

    • Justice,

      Thanks for your comments. Its good to see you one here.

      I certainly can’t begin to posit what Dawn fully intended with her statement. There is certainly a chance that she is harkening back to similar ideas in the scholars you mentioned.

      Whatever nuances she may or may not have intended, I maintain the implications that I spoke about (and several that I did not). They remain profound and disturbing, no matter her intentions, because in any case she has implied an ontological fracture in the Trinity, for this is the only way to define a ‘split’ in the Trinity, who share a common will and ousia. I also have to disagree that Paul implies anything of the sort, though I would be willing to consider evidence supporting that claim.

      Perhaps the most disturbing part about all of this is that Dawn never took the opportunity to either support her claim or explain what she meant. With something so critical as the nature of the Trinitarian relationship and the Cross, we cannot be flippant with our statements. We could posit that she is appealing to this or that source, but at the end of the day we are simply trying to fill in the huge, gaping hole in her work that she left wide open for interpretation. This is perplexing at best, disastrous at worst.

      At any rate, I still believe Dawn to be a devoted Christian and capable scholar. This happens to be one issue that is significant enough that it should not be left alone to our interpretation, but should be fully fleshed out by the one making the statement.

      Blessings,

      Isaac

  3. Hi Isaac. Great response. I like the way you approached Scripturally..

    As you have discerned, the devastating implications of “split Trinity” is on ontology. And who would want a God who is divided among itself, or a Family composed of a deserting sadist Father and a masochist Son?

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