March 18, 2011

At One though Forsaken? Further Thoughts on Dividing the Trinity

Does Jesus' cry of forsakenness from the cross point to a division within the Godhead? Or could it surprisingly point to an even deeper union and communion between Father and Son in the work of redemption than we might typically imagine?

I've spent a couple of recent posts reflecting on whether a division between the trinitarian persons of the Father and the Son is conceivable or even possible. The first post defended the uninterrupted union of Father and Son exegetically while the second approached the topic theologically. I want now to return to return to the biblical text and propose that, not only were the Father and Son not divided when Jesus hung on the cross, they were surprisingly and paradoxically more at one than we might previously have suspected!

As already argued, Psalm 22 should govern our interpretation of Jesus' cry from the cross. In lamenting his own forsakenness, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1. Some suggest that Jesus may have quoted the whole Psalm, and that we are given the first line as a signal to that. But it seems unlikely to me that anyone nearing death by crucifixion would be physically able to quote the whole of the Psalm. At any rate, that text was certainly on Jesus' mind, and I agree that the whole text of that Psalm should shape our understanding of Christ's cry from the cross: Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?

The key observation about Psalm 22 is that it is not exclusively the literature of lament. It certainly begins as such and continues that way through v. 18. Then comes a shift in tone. The Psalm becomes a prayer of hope, a petition that the Lord be not far away (19). The Psalm declares the faithfulness of God and calls for others to praise him and stand in awe (23). The Psalmist continues by remembering that the Lord has heard his past cries and did not hide his face, which is a way of saying his presence (24). As the Psalm moves toward its conclusion, it becomes a word of prophecy declaring that the poor will one day be satisfied (26), those who seek the Lord will praise him (26), the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship him (27). And the dominion of the Lord over the nations is affirmed and celebrated (28). Then in v. 29 there is the assertion that all who go down to the dust (that is, the dead) will bow down and worship him. And the Psalmist declares: "I shall live for him." It would seem that the Psalmist, who is near the point of death (22:20), believes in the God who brings life from the dead. The earlier lament is never separate from, nor should it be interpreted without reference to, the later expressions of hope and faith in the God who is uncompromisingly present with his own.

If it is the case that Psalm 22 should govern our understanding of Jesus' cry of forsakenness, then the path is paved for a fresh reading of Jesus' words. And if Jesus does indeed have the larger content of the Psalm on his mind, then he is hardly simply mourning his forsakenness by the Father. I've already addressed the question as to what precisely Jesus has been forsaken and concluded that he was forsaken neither ontologically nor absolutely but that the Psalm suggests he was forsaken unto the pain and suffering of the cross. I want to suggest now that though Jesus was forsaken unto the cross, he and the Father were deeply united both in purpose and plan. Instead of merely crying out in desperation at being left to his fate, Jesus' takes solace in the Psalm that speaks of God's faithfulness and the hope of life from the dead. Instead of being absolutely forsaken by the Father, Jesus cries out in faith relying on his union with the Father despite being forsaken to the shame of the cross. Thus, the cry of Christ from the cross is not about some great chasm between the Father and the Son. To the contrary, when read in the context of the Psalter, it points to the Father's perpetual faithfulness and the Son's hope for vindication, which will certainly come. And it did, because the Father did not forsake the Son absolutely but accepted his sacrifice. The cross then points not to the separation of the divine persons but to their unity as they work to bring to pass their shared and single plan of redemption.

Some might say I'm twisting the text to make it say the opposite of what is plainly there. I would, of course, disagree. I think the authors intentionally emphasize a quote that gives us something much different than we might have originally expected. They want us to realize that there is much more than is initially apparent. They want us to dig into the scriptures and into the purposes of God in the cross and single the purpose of God who approves and accepts the sacrifice of the Son who has done his Father's will.

To sum up an already lengthy post, Jesus is quoting a Psalm that speaks of the abiding faithfulness of God despite the presence of pain and suffering. Jesus expresses his faith and hope in his Father in the words of this Psalm. The gospel account of Jesus' cry of forsakenness paradoxically points to the deeper reality of the Father's faithfulness. What on the surface appears to be a division of the divine persons actually signals their deepest unity.

Do you find this interpretation compelling? Could Jesus really be praising the faithfulness of God though forsaken to the shame of the cross? Should the whole Psalm shape our reading of this text even though we only get the first line? Let me hear from you.

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