Jesus calls out from the cross: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Strong words of weakness. The very first hearers misunderstood them: “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” But he wasn’t calling on Elijah, of course, though the words sound similar: he was calling on God, in words from the opening of Psalm 22.
Starting in the late twentieth century, a different kind of misunderstanding of this cry of dereliction began to take hold on the imaginations of hearers. Hearing the words, “my God, why have you forsaken me,” moderns seem to have begun subliminally hearing them as “Father, why have you forsaken me?” It’s a subtle difference, and entirely understandable: the man on the cross is the Son of God, and in crying out to God he is speaking to his heavenly Father. Every time Jesus prays, it is conversation between the Father and the Son, conversation in the Trinity. So here, Jesus calling out to his God is also the Son calling out to the Father.
But in context, these particular words of Jesus on the cross don’t put the Father-Son relation in focus. Other prayers from the cross do: “Father, forgive them” and “Father, receive my spirit,” for instance. But for some reason, it is the words “why have you forsaken me” that have caught the modern imagination as having something special to say about the Father-Son relation. You can hear this presupposition in the way people paraphrase the cry of dereliction: On the cross, they say, the Father turned his back on the Son; the Son cried out to the Father; the fellowship between the Father and the Son was somehow eclipsed.
It’s a curious shift. The modern instinct fronts the Father-Son relation in a passage that does not. The names Father and Son are not on the surface of the cry of dereliction. The words of Jesus here make prominent the name God (Eli, Eli). Jesus cries the name of God humanly from a human place.
One reason he does this, I think, is that what is being enacted here on the cross is the Divine-Human encounter over sin. The one who has taken the place of the sinner is being punished by exile, precisely as a human, precisely by God. To put this in the background and reach out instead for Father-Son language in the paraphrased telling of this story is to tacitly accept the proposition that what is happening on the cross reveals more about the Trinity (God in himself) than about the incarnation (God meeting man) or the atonement (sin meeting justice).
If I had to guess at the motives that make moderns paraphrase the cry of dereliction into trinitarian terms, to go out of their way to replace the word “God” with the language of “Father and Son” precisely here, I would be careful in such guessing. I doubt there’s any sinister intent, usually. Most sermons and songs that head in this direction are probably led by the honorable instinct to take the cry of Jesus seriously, not to flinch from it, and not to soften it. And we certainly need to devote ourselves to more consistently thinking in trinitarian terms about all aspects of salvation! But by surfacing the Father-Son relation here, we accidentally conjure the error that has been aptly labelled the “broken Trinity” view. And that –the notion that God came apart into constituent person-pieces, broke up, got by for a while on two-thirds of deity, mystically divorced, untrinitied for one long, lost weekend– really only needs to be stated clearly in order for most Christian people to recognize it as nonsense and reject it as false.
What are we to make of the bad habit, widespread only in the last century or so, of shifting to Father-Son language when re-telling the story of Christ’s death on the cross? I suppose most people pick it up the way we pick up most ways of talking, just by repetition and association. And though it’s mostly harmless, and often driven by good motives, I do think it’s a usage that’s worth getting rid of. It’s misleading; it starts the mind down paths that lead out of the Bible’s framework and into nowhere.
This linguistic tic may also be a carrier for some trends in late twentieth century academic theology that are better left in the textbooks. What I have in mind is a commitment to find the meaning of trinitarian theology in the midst of history, specifically in the historical event of Christ’s death on the cross. Jürgen Moltmann (first in The Crucified God and more programmatically in The Trinity and the Kingdom) is perhaps the most influential advocate identified with this movement. Moltmann is a full-grown academic theologian who presents his case and his presuppositions explicitly: God is self-defined at the cross in a divine event of rupture that constitutes true deity. If that sounds metaphysically thick, it’s because it is. It’s involved with a long intellectual lineage, partly Hegelian, that sees historical struggle as the core of what is really real, including for God. In most forms, this metaphysical historicism is hard to square with Nicene trinitarianism. The theology of the Nicene Creed recognizes that the eternal Son is true God of true God, and that his history of humiliation belongs not to the definition of God but to God’s work “for us and our salvation.” It teaches and enforces the distinction between God and creaturely reality.
The payoff for most Christians is this: What happens on the cross enacts the reality of the holy God dealing with sinful humanity. When we look to the cross and hear the words spoken from it, we do not say, “So that is what the Trinity is like,” but “That is how God atones for human sin.” Can you hear how changing the subject to the Father-Son relation at this point would be a misdirection of our attention? How it is misleading to change the subject to the relation of Father and Son in the Trinity just here? Of course the man on the cross is God the Son incarnate, but he isn’t negotiating his sonship just here. The cross is not primarily a revelation of the Trinity as such, but a revelation of the divine-human relationship under conditions of sin and atonement. Jesus Christ, bearing our sin, calls out to God about its consequences and how he carries them. If you can hear that, and shut out the distracting rumors of broken trinities and divine beings entangled in historical becoming, then you can hear the cry of dereliction more clearly. Jesus is not calling for Elijah, and he is not working out his relationship with the Father. He is working out our salvation. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We recognize our own sinful cry in his sinless voice, and we know the answer: “For us and our salvation.”