Essay / Theology

Not Forsaken: McCall Responds

For the past week and a half, Fred Sanders and Matt Jenson have been discussing Thomas H. McCall’s new book Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why it Matters. See parts 1, 2, 3, & 4 if you missed our little cartoon theology-heads talking back and forth about this commendable book. As our discussion drew to a close, I wrote to Tom and invited him to chime in. Here’s his response.

Sanders: Hi Tom. I hope you found our public discussion of your book engaging and fair. I also wanted to extend the invitation to you to respond in person on the blog, if you want to.

We don’t have a comments section at The Scriptorium on purpose, because I hate comments sections. But we’re not trying to hide, or get away without any accountability. Anything you want to add?

McCall: Matt and Fred, I’m very grateful to you for this conversation. I’ve been amazed at how kind you’ve been. You’ve been engaging and fair, but you’ve gone far beyond that: you’ve been very, very gracious. I wrote this book with a broad (and more general) audience in mind, so it is very humbling to see such respected theologians taking it this seriously.

I think that many of the insights – including the gentle criticisms – are both correct and helpful. In some places your comments left me thinking “yep, I almost wrote that book instead of this one,” while in other places my response was “wow, I wish that I would have had this kind of feedback before the book went into print.” Earlier I had planned to write a book addressing some of the suggestions that you make; initially I was hoping for a longer and dense scholarly monograph that more fully surveyed the history of interpretation of the cry of dereliction (as well, Fred, as 2 Cor 5:21 and Gal 3:13) and more carefully analyzed some important issues in Christology and the doctrine of the Trinity. But some interesting things happened along the way: first, my students urged me to write a shorter, more accessible book, and, second, I was privileged to preach during Holy Week. The more I reflected on it, the more I became convinced that what I had to say needed to be heard by pastors and students (as well as scholars). So, after prayerful consideration, I decided to write this little book, and to be as concise, straightforward, and direct as possible.

Writing it left me feeling a bit more vulnerable from a scholarly perspective – I know very well that I raise a lot of important issues here, and that each of them deserve more development (and more footnotes) than I provide. I could have said a lot more, and maybe I should have done so. But that would have made a very different kind of book. At any rate, there is a lot more work to do, and Fred, I agree with you that graduate students on the prowl for exciting research projects in historically-grounded theological interpretation of Scripture should look here! But writing this little book was also very energizing and even edifying.

One place where I had the response of “wow, I wish I would have had this kind of feedback earlier” is my discussion of determinism (or what sometimes has been labeled my “critique of Calvinism”). I certainly did not intend for the few paragraphs on divine determinism to be an assault on “Calvinism.” Indeed, I don’t think that we should equate Reformed theology with determinism; I’m not at all convinced that determinism is either necessary or sufficient for Calvinism. On one hand, clearly there are determinists who are not Reformed in theology – here I am thinking not only of determinists who are atheists but also of some Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and others. On the other hand, it isn’t at all obvious that the mainstream of Reformed scholasticism was committed to determinism.

The historical-theological issues here are complex; on one hand Paul Helm argues that not only John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards but also many Reformed scholastics should be counted as determinists, while on the other hand Willem J. van Asselt, Martin Bac, Rudy T. de Velde, and Richard Muller agree about Edwards but insist that the Reformed scholastics consistently and forcefully rejected determinism. The systematic-theological issues are complicated too, with theologians as diverse as John Frame and John Feinberg arguing that (soft or compatibilist) determinism is the only view consistent with Calvinism. I take this to be something of a Reformed intramural debate, and I don’t think that I need to sort all that out for the purposes of this book. But there is something that I wish that I would have made plain: I’m not convinced that Calvinism should be conflated with determinism – and I did not intend for my criticisms of determinism to be a direct critique of Calvinism per se. I fully agree with Matt that we should “hold together” divine and human action (so far as we remember to insist that divine action always has priority in salvation).

Thanks again for reading it, and for joining me in prayers that it will be glorifying to God and edifying to his people.

Jenson: Thanks for your fraternal response, Tom. I’m learning more just hearing about how you approached the process of writing the book. And, despite the occasional reservation, I’m so glad you wrote this book–a short one with an eye on serving the church directly, whether pastors in their preaching or the priesthood of all believers in their mutual ministry. What a gift! And hey, Fred, this has been fun. We should do it again…


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