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.
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.
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.
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:
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!