Essay / Theology

Victory, not Tragedy (Forsaken pt 3)

See the other essays in this four-part series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

Further reflections on Tom McCall’s Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why it Matters, as Sanders and Jenson do a conversational review-but-not-a-review type blog thing. Our offices are right down the hall from each other, so you’d think we’d just talk about good books in person…

Sanders: Chapter 3, and in the title McCall raises another big question: “Was the Death of Jesus a Meaningless Tragedy?” But he also immediately raises the question, “Should we say that God killed Jesus?” He says no to both, and I think the gist of this chapter is to talk about the cross in a way that avoids both errors: on the one hand, Jesus wasn’t an accidental casualty of world events (“What a promising young man, so sad that he was cut short in mid-career, I wonder what he would have gone on to accomplish if he hadn’t been martyred”), and on the other hand, God the Father did not execute him through political surrogates.

Now the first view is easy to defeat: As soon as you say the words “the cross was meaningless,” you should find yourself choking on the implications. And McCall is on fire to preach the meaning of the cross straight from the scriptures. He presents the death of Christ as a victory, a sin-offering, the fulfillment of God’s plan, and more more more. (More more more on that in a bit.)

But the second view, that God did it himself, that the Father killed the incarnate Son, is one that takes more parsing, and McCall decides to go for it. As a result, this chapter (sub-title: “Foreknowledge, Fulfillment and the Plan of the Triune God”) turns a tight corner and McCall refutes a position called divine determinism. The section on determinism, compatibilism, and foreknowledge (esp. pp. 99-104) seems like a digression, even if you agree with it. And there’s the rub: almost all readers of a reformed persuasion are bound (determined?) to disagree. I hope the section doesn’t make Forsaken unusable for that sector of evangelicalism. Paul Manata wrote out a 22-page refutation of the book’s “McCallvinism,” and Luke Stamps at TGC wrote a review that was appreciative and even warm, but devoted a lot of space to registering serious objections of a recognizably reformed type.

Matt, you’re some kind of friendly neighborhood Calvinist; did this chapter tempt you to any book-tossing?

Jenson: Not quite book-tossing, but certainly some eye-rolling. And I’m not even a Calvinist! (Where’s an emoticon when you need one?) That is, I have little invested in defending Calvinism per se, and if pushed I’m probably some kind of 3-petal Reformed-pietist mongrel. I know, I know, that’s probably incoherent, certainly inadmissible in the card-carrying Calvin-lovers conventions. I do, however, think the Calvinist problematic, which asks how we can meaningfully account for human action given the priority and sufficiency of divine action, is the right place to start.

But you were asking about chapter three of McCall’s book… Any fight that’s been going on as long as the free will vs. determinism slugfest won’t be settled in a few minutes, which is why McCall’s decision to dive into the scrum strikes me as unwise. His attack on determinism is too brief, too dismissive and too flat. In asking if it was God who killed Jesus, he turns to Peter’s testimony that Israel killed Jesus, while God raised him from the dead (Acts 2:23-24). Well, yes. Scripture says it, I believe. But that hardly settles it. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead is the God who gave his only begotten Son. McCall would respond that this kind of predestination (there’s that word) suggests divine foreknowledge of human action, not a strong determination of Jesus’ death; but that launches us into deep waters, searching like Ahab for the white whale of a solution to the question of the relation between divine and human action. To presume to dismiss the other side so summarily and quickly–well, it’s not very fraternal. His language gets a bit snarky, too, as when he describes “well-meaning Christians, eager to ‘protect’ divine sovereignty (as if it needs protection)” (pp. 99-100). I’m afraid all of this distracts, and it lowers the high bar McCall set in the previous two chapters.

Book reviewers need to watch out that they don’t require authors to have written the book they would have written. That’s silly. But, since I’m already wading in critical waters, let me risk one way I’d do this bit differently. Instead of weighing in directly on one side of the issue, what about situating the question more thickly in the economy of salvation? In that case, you’d outline a set of doctrinal commitments within which a constructive account of the “who killed Jesus?” question could be answered. The God who made the world was covenanted with humanity and committed himself to its redemption. Human agency is real, insofar as God made us in his image to serve as his representatives in the world. But human agency does not trump divine agency writ large, and human freedom must be articulated in the context of divine providence and the unassailability of God’s plan to renew the heavens and the earth. There’s much more to say. You might end up with a layered answer to the question, one acknowledging that Israel (and Rome!) killed Jesus, that Jesus willingly sacrificed himself and that the Father so loved the world he gave his Son.

I hope the few pages in which McCall skewers determinism don’t dissuade book buyers. While a less helpful digression (and it does seem to be a digression from the main conversation about the triune God of grace revealed in the cross of Jesus), there’s too much good stuff in this book. It’s a small, provincial mind that would kick a book to the curb for its failure to toe the party line on each point. What do you think of all this, Fred? Am I being too critical of McCall here?

Sanders: It’s fine to point out strongest and weakest chapters: I think we agreed that chapter 2 is the best, and now we seem to agree that chapter 3 is the worst. Maybe we can try a little harder to be fair to McCall: if the divine determinism pages in Forsaken are so brief that they seem like an opportunistic drive-by, he has at least worked out his basic case elsewhere in some detail: see his exchange with John Piper in the pages of Trinity Journal back in 2008.

As you note, Matt, a reviewer should review the actual book, not the book he wanted it to be. But what you’ve just said is well within the rules, for two reasons: First, this blog-back-and-forth thing we’re doing is not, formally, a review (though it will fulfill some functions of a review such as helping all six of our readers decide whether to get and read Forsaken). What we’re doing here is chatting in public about a worthwhile new book by a Pretty Important Theologian, and our theological conversation ranges pretty freely away from the book to the subject matter.

And second, I just plain like the approach you sketch: the apparent conflict between divine and human freedom demands some careful re-description. Any new and interesting answer is going to have to come from the kind of re-contextualizing you described (articulating the overall shape of the economy of salvation before allowing the question to be raised, so the terms of the answer are already at hand). So go write something longer about it already!

But I have to say, for a not-really-Calvinist, your “layered answer” sure seems to move toward the same judgments as Institutes I:18, where Calvin (quoting Augustine) ponders how in the very same act, “the Father delivered up the Son, Christ his own body, and Judas his Master.”

I think the secret to chapter 3 (and it took me some pondering to get this) is that it’s a plea for the unity of the various outcomes of the atonement. The whole book’s about holding things together: Just as McCall has argued that (ch. 1) you can’t divide up Father and Son, and that (ch. 2) you can’t divide up the divine attributes, here (ch. 3) he is arguing that you can’t divide up the results of the atonement. So he puts together the fact that the cross is a sin-offering with the fact that it’s the victory of Jesus, and adds the fact that it’s a moral influence on us, if by moral influence you can think deeply enough to acknowledge the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. At least that’s how I see the coherence of a pretty loose chapter.

At any rate, even with our gripes about chapter 3, I already know that from now on I’ll be pointing people to “McCall’s takedown of the broken Trinity view” in chapter 1 of Forsaken. I’ve already started, in fact: when I recently reviewed Tim Chester’s helpful book Delighting in the Trinity, I cautioned that Chester occasionally gives the cry of dereliction an exaggerated importance for trinitarian theology. My prescription was less Moltmann and a good dose of McCall chapter 1.

Jenson: One last thought on the determinism thing. Maybe that’s a place where McCall might extend the point about holding things together. Though we’d need to add some caveats, we could speak of holding divine and human action together. They don’t thereby become identified (caveat 1), nor do they trump one another (caveat 2); rather do they operate according to a trinitarian logic. Clearly divine action retains priority, God having created, elected and reconciled humanity to himself in Christ unilaterally. But in Christ we see the perfect, if ordered, harmony of divine and human action. And in the Spirit we see how God’s action makes space for and empowers human action. Tom Smail said it beautifully when he described the Spirit enabling us to respond “for ourselves, but never by ourselves.”

In holding the results of the atonement together, McCall moves beyond Colin Gunton’s helpful insistence that no one model of the atonement will do. It’s good to present a number of robust models for understanding the atonement, thereby acknowledging the expansiveness of Christ’s work. It’s better, though, to allow them to spill into one another, to downgrade from model language to considering a network of biblical descriptions of Christ’s work. One of the biggest mistakes of atonement theology in the last century has been to run a competition. Some will defend penal substitution to the death. Others mock such neanderthal bloodlust and rejoice in the peaceable kingdom of those who come under Jesus’ moral influence. (In case you didn’t notice, this become a wrath vs. love issue again, and we’ve already seen McCall dismantle that.) The diversity of legitimate descriptions of atonement in the Bible stems from the profundity of the cross and should be celebrate.

Here’s McCall to conclude an already lengthy post:

But how did the death of Christ provide for that rescue? The biblical answer to this question is multilayered and rich, and several major themes stand out as vital to the scriptural account: Christ came to be our representative and substitute, and to serve as the “sin offering” (2 Cor 5:21), Christ has come so that he could “destroy the devil’s works” (1 Jn 3:8), and Christ “suffered for us, leaving us an example” (1 Pet 2:21).

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