17 Apr 2019
Neither Forsaken nor Estranged from God
Not long ago, I was able to attend a conference, where Dr. Mark Snoeberger presented on the question of what may rightly be said about the death of God in the death of Christ. This paper, published in The Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, is a written form of that presentation. I heartily encourage you to read it, for its application of originalist hermeneutical principles creates some push-back on long-held interpretations.
Fascinating article. Thank you Dr. Snoeberger but also to you, Dr. Miller, for sharing it here.
In thinking about the songs that reflect “startling Moltmannian specificity,” I notice that the specific songs referenced in the footnote all date within the last 25 years. I have grown up singing How Deep The Father’s Love For Us, and in the early 2010s learned His Robes for Mine, and never paused to consider the lines “The Father turns His face away” and “God estranged from God.” Dr. Snoeberger, I appreciate your thoughtful research and presentation here, which have caused me to think about it for the first time. I have in my head believed in the occurrence of some (unspecific) type of estrangement/turning away between Father and Son on the cross and I wonder whether I was explicitly taught this or if the songs trained it into me.
I wonder if someone more knowledgeable than I in the topic of Church Music knows whether many (or any) songs exist from before Moltmann’s writing that contain lines like these.
The classical hymn most famous for “death of God” language is Wesley’s “And Can It Be,” so it’s not strictly a contemporary thing. But it does seem that the specificity of expression (abandonment, estrangement, face turned away, etc.) is seeing something of an uptick.
Thanks for reading.
This is a good paper and I’m largely in agreement. However, it raised a question in my mind that I don’t recall being addressed. Namely, if it is wrong to think in terms of God forsaking God, or estrangement, or turning away, or suspended fellowship, or the like, how then is it proper to think of God’s wrath abiding on Christ? It seems to me that God would not pour out his wrath in judgment on one with whom he was in perfect fellowship. Those two things seam incongruous to me. The way I would answer that question is that the Father poured out his wrath on the human Jesus who, because he is the 2nd person of the Godhead, could bear the sins of the world. But, as Mark says, Christ is a singular person, so I’m left a bit puzzled, still. Maybe this was answered in the paper and I just glossed over it.
Andy, good thoughts. I offer in the article a possible answer on pp. 51–52, viz., a “judicial” forsaking or legal estrangement (so McCune, Walvoord, and poss. Carson), which, were I convinced that forsaking language is definitely used in Scripture, is where I would land. The difficulty in most discussions of the topic (at least post-Moltmann ones) is the prominence of the experiential in the proposed “forsaking”–filial abandonment, contempt, withdrawal of love, suspension of perichoresis, Trinitarian breach, and the like. I find this very alarming, especially as Moltmannian approaches to atonement begin to show up in evangelical discussion.
The language seems too aggressive to me. Say, for instance, I need to punish my son for something he does wrong. Would you describe me as forsaking my son? abandoning him? turning my face away from him? holding him in contempt? It seems that all of these are too strong to describe the imposition of a legal penalty.
But your point is well made. Thanks Andy,
Mark, could you interact with this statement from Nick Batzig: “First, the divine nature of the Son of God sustained and kept the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God while he was the object of the infinite wrath of God. The infinite wrath of God was poured out on the finite human nature of Jesus, while the infinite divine nature of Jesus was upholding his person. Second, the infinite and eternal divine nature of the Son “gave worth and efficacy to his sufferings…to satisfy God’s justice.” It was not the amount of time that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God when he hung on the cross, but the fact that an infinite and eternal being was giving worth to his human soul as Jesus bore the wrath of God in his body on the tree.
If Jesus wasn’t truly forsaken–if he didn’t really endure the equivalent of eternal punishment on the cross–then substitutionary atonement is a legal fiction.” (http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2019/01/hell-to-pay.php)
Jeff, great pushback. Let me start by saying that Batzig (and the WCF that he cites) do not offer a thorough definition of “forsaking,” and I am hesitant to do this for them, because definition is everything in this discussion. Based on what he does say, namely, that the forsaking involves the “infinite wrath of God [being] poured out on the finite human nature of Jesus,” Batzig seems to fall short of affirming that God forsook God (the primary burden of my paper), saying rather that God forsook Christ’s “finite human nature.” So my immediate questions would be these:
• If Batzig is, in fact, saying that the Father forsook the whole theanthropic person in both of its natures, I would very much like to know the sense of this forsaking. What does it mean for the God to forsake God? Much rides on the answer. Does the First person of God regard the Second with contempt? Withhold his paternal love? Temporarily suspend the eternal divine perichoresis? Effect a breach in the Trinity itself? This is the great burden of the “God estranged from God” position, and only two explanations, in my observation, even come close to working, viz., (1) Walvoord’s “judicial” view and (2) McCall’s narrow understanding that God “forsook” Christ in the bare sense of choosing not to intervene and put a stop to the crucifixion.
• If Batzig is saying instead that God forsook only Christ’s human nature (and NOT his divine nature), my angst diminishes somewhat, but I remain confused. It seems to me that the very idea of “forsaking” involves persons, not natures. As such, it would seem that the whole, undifferentiated person of Christ is either forsaken or is not forsaken. God can’t simply forsake one of Christ’s natures and not the other. If Batzig has limited the divine forsaking of Jesus strictly to his human nature (and I’m not saying, necessarily, that he has) then I would want to know how his position differs from that of Aquinas (discussed on p. 51 of my article) that God forsook Christ’s “lower soul” but not his “upper soul.” I have found Aquinas’s position to be incongruous (and even that it jeopardizes Chalcedon). Further, if God abandoned Christ’s humanity, when then is it said that he did not abandon even Christ’s soulless body (Acts 2:31)?
Since I have found these two options unpersuasive, I have opted to reexamine the text to see if divine “forsaking” is as settled an idea as I had thought. My conclusion has been that while Jesus cites the opening verse of Psalm 22 in a way that might suggest God forsook him, the fact that the whole psalm was in view during the crucifixion suggests that Christ also appropriated the psalm’s conclusion, viz., that God “has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (v. 24). Those two verses have to be harmonized.
Q: Did God forsake David (v. 1) or didn’t he (v. 24)? A: No he did not. David’s circumstances were such that it seemed to him that God had forsaken him, but through the argument of the psalm David comes to the firm assurance that God would never do this.
Q: Did the Father forsake the Son on the cross (Matt 27:46)? A: No he did not. He did, yes, pour out upon Christ the whole of his divine wrath, and in so doing seemed to forsake him, but as we know from John 10:17, the Father’s love toward the Son diminished not one whit during the passion; indeed, in the course of his sufferings, Christ endeared himself all the more to his Father.
Mark, greatly appreciate your response. I’m not trying to pushback as much as I’m seeking clarification for my own understanding and ministry. Holding to a proper theology is often like walking a razor’s edge and I hope to be on that edge rather than falling off.
I agree that “God estranged from God” undermines the unity of the divine Godhead. I also agree that God was upholding Christ on the cross as you noted from Psalm 22. But is it possible, even from Psalm 22, that Christ was both forsaken and upheld by God in some sense on the cross? That he did endure an “objective God-forsakenness” (Bavinck) and a sort of hell in God’s hiding his face from him (Spurgeon) (as both were cited in Batzig’s article)? Yet, even so, God was also upholding him?
I know we should not divide the one Theanthropic Person. But by way of analogy, was not Christ omniscient in his divine nature while he grew and learned in his human nature? In his one person it was not either/or but both. Christ was the divine omniscient Logos and yet limited as a human. Likewise, could not have Jesus maintained his union with the Father in his divine nature while being forsaken in his human nature as he suffered and died as a man on that cross? And yet still upholding the unity of his one person?
Thanks again for your interaction.
Thanks Jeff. You’re right that actions may be predicated of one nature of Christ and not of the other, so yes, it is possible for the human Jesus to say that a piece of information was not available in his human brain. Is it also possible that “forsaking” could be an experience predicated only of Christ’s humanity? I’m not sure that it is (see below), but if so, McCall’s view would be my default. But at the end of the day, I don’t think the exegetical evidence is there to say that Christ was forsaken or that the Father “hid his face.” That doesn’t seem to be Christ’s intention in citing Psalm 22.
Bavinck’s remark is more helpful, as his “objective God-forsakenness” improves on the subjective God-forsakenness that Moltmann and much of the modern evangelical expression seem to require of the “forsaking” of Christ. Bavinck cites Calvin, too, to stress that the forsakenness involved nothing “inimical”–the Father felt no anger or contempt toward the Son, but rather meted out a dispassionate and forensic penalty (this matches the “judicial” view that I credited to Walvoord in my paper).
So if I can summarize, there are roughly four views here:
(1) God forsook Christ in a subjective sense–despising him, withdrawing his love, breaking off “fellowship,” suspending the divine perichoresis, and even creating a breach in the Trinity. This is Moltmann’s view and the one that seems to be slipping into the modern evangelical discussion. I see this view as destructive of redemption, the Trinity, and of God himself. It was the primary burden of my article to discredit this view.
(2) God forsook Christ in a strictly objective/forensic sense–pouring out his wrath on the God-man without passion (so Walvoord, Bavinck, etc.).
(3) God forsook merely Christ’s humanity, abandoning him to the savagery of crucifixion and refusing to intervene (McCall).
(4) God did not forsake Christ at all (my position). While not dismissing the ideas contained in views (2) and (3) (i.e., God DID pour his whole wrath out on Christ and DID allow the crucifixion of occur without intervening), this view sees the term “forsaking” as too strong and experimental a term to use in these contexts. Instead, Christ intended by his citation of Psalm 22 to express his confidence that, despite the terrible ordeal that he was enduring, God had not and would never go so far as to forsake his afflicted one (v. 24).
Hope this helps.
Thanks, Mark. I agree with your rejection of the first view. And I see how you hold to elements of the second and third view but without the baggage of the term “forsaking.” Very helpful. Appreciate the time you took to answer my questions.
I’m intrigued by the language of the WLC answer to Q38, embedded in the Batzig quote: “The infinite and eternal divine nature of the Son ‘gave worth and efficacy to his sufferings…to satisfy God’s justice.’”
Working from memory here, but hasn’t a basic tenet of penal substitutionary atonement (going back to Anselm, at least, if I recall correctly) been that the infinity of Christ’s divine nature makes his sacrifice sufficient to assuage the wrath of an infinitely holy God? Seems to me that either this concept has to be wrong, or else the infinite divine nature has to be involved at a higher level than merely giving worth and efficacy to the human nature’s sufferings. I don’t quite see how one could argue that the divine nature doesn’t actually bear the wrath, but it still contributes worth. Feels like some hypostatic cherry-picking, at best.
Ben, I have long struggled with this question, and I have argued similarly in the past that Christ’s death had infinite value precisely because it was infinite God in Christ dying (so, I thought, 1 Cor 5:19).
Tom Nettles challenged me on this point a few years back, suggesting that Christ’s life and death were not expansive in value because they had an divine (infinite) component, but because God appointed Christ to be our representative—his representation was exactly like that of the first Adam (who represented the whole race despite the fact that he was not divine or infinite). In his By His Grace and For His Glory (346), Nettles says, “We are declared guilty—not because Adam sinned enough sins to be imputed to all the race that would follow him, but because he was the head of the race. We are declared righteous—not because Christ had done enough individual righteous deed to be scattered throughout the world of the elect, but because He was the second Adam.” If the parallelism holds, then Christ no more had to be infinite to represent the whole body of his elect in a moment than Adam had to be infinite to represent humanity in his moment. What we needed a perfect human to keep the law perfectly, to die a human death, and to know that this substitution was accepted via the resurrection. Christ gave us exactly that (Col 1:22).
Nettles goes on to assure us that Christ’s divinity was necessary, but not because “Christ’s nature…increase[s] the intensity or quantity of what was placed upon Him”; rather, it was because his divinity “enables Him to bear whatever it might have been” (348). I would add, too, that Christ’s divinity was necessary to sustain his impeccability and most especially to raise his own humanity back to life afterward (John 2:19; 10:18).
What I’m not convinced is necessary is that Christ had to die with respect to his divinity in order to save men. This is an inference that many have made over the years, but I’m not convinced that it is taught (and certainly not explicitly) in Scripture.
That’s interesting. I’ve never heard the view Nettles articulates. Has anyone else made that case?
You say that you’re “not convinced [it’s] necessary is that Christ had to die with respect to his divinity in order to save men.” Am I right to infer that you’re also uncertain whether Jesus’ divine nature bore the wrath of God along with his human nature? Or is there a way you could affirm that latter concept without also affirming the former (“die with respect to his divinity to save men”)?
Correct, I would say that Christ died strictly with respect to his human nature, because his divine nature is by definition immortal. While the Logos may be said to have experienced death through his humanity, the death itself was not with respect to his divine nature.