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Was the Trinity Broken at the Cross? Paul Copan

As we approach Good Friday, it would be good to reflect on what did and didn’t happen while Jesus was on the cross.

Some modern theologians (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann in his Crucified God) have asserted that in the crucifixion of Jesus and his cry of dereliction (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), the Father and Son were separated. There was, they maintain, an actual break within the Trinity. After all, didn’t Jesus “become sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21)? Doesn’t that mean that the Father and Son were ripped apart from each other, as some will say, “for the first time in all of eternity”?

In answer I’ll be drawing primarily on the work of Thomas McCall’s fine, accessible book Forsaken. [1] We can raise several concerns with this view.

 

  1. From the point of church history, church fathers and theologians—from the likes of Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and John of Damascus to Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and beyond) did not take this view; they would have rejected what is a fairly recent theological development.

 

  1. The broken-Trinity view is not biblical.

(a) Psalm 22 does not actually affirm this. This psalm begins with a cry of God-forsakenness (quoted in Mt. 27:46 and Mk. 15:34). It is the cry of the anguished psalmist who feels abandoned. Throughout the psalm he acknowledges God’s presence, and the psalm ends on a note of triumph: “You have been my God from my mother’s womb” (v. 10); “Be not far from me” (vv. 11, 19); “O you my help hasten to my assistance” (v. 19). Note this key verse from the psalm: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted. Neither has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard” (v. 24).

(b) Other parallel crucifixion indicate that the Son and Father were united and in harmony rather than radically separated. We have no indication of separation, but rather union between Father and Son. Jesus gives a “loud cry” after his “God-forsaken” cry (Mt. 27:50; Mk. 15:37), but we aren’t told what he said.

  • In John 19:30, Jesus cries triumphantly, “It is finished!”
  • Jesus tells a criminal that he will be with him when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus says, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This doesn’t like a God-forsaken Son.
  • Jesus also calls on the Father while on the cross to extend forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).
  • Jesus finally says, “Father, into your hands I commit My spirit” (Lk. 23:46)—again, no indication of a broken union—only that of a deep fellowship with his Father. We have a string of affirmations that the Trinity was united rather than broken, nor did “the Father turn his face away.”
  • We witness this elsewhere in the New Testament.
  • At Jesus’ baptism, we read that he is the Father’s beloved Son (Mt. 3:17). How could the Father then cut himself off from his Son?
  • Jesus says that his Father is with him—even when he is abandoned by others at his crucifixion: “Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me” (John 16:32).
  • Peter at Pentecost, quoting Psalm 16, makes clear that the Father did not abandon the Son:

 

22 “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know–23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.  24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. 25 For David says of Him, ‘I SAW THE LORD ALWAYS IN MY PRESENCE; FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, SO THAT I WILL NOT BE SHAKEN.  26 THEREFORE MY HEART WAS GLAD AND MY TONGUE EXULTED; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL LIVE IN HOPE; 27 BECAUSE YOU WILL NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW YOUR HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY.  28 YOU HAVE MADE KNOWN TO ME THE WAYS OF LIFE; YOU WILL MAKE ME FULL OF GLADNESS WITH YOUR PRESENCE’” (Act 2:22-28).

 

  1. Dividing God into parts is not possible metaphysically: By his very nature, God is necessarily triune; so the deep, unbreakable interrelationships between the persons of the Trinity cannot be broken. Indeed, the persons of the Trinity have mutually-indwelt one another from eternity (perichoresis [Greek]; circumincessio [Latin]), and they are necessarily bound up with each other. The persons of the Trinity are not detachable “parts” of God.

Furthermore, there is no opposition or lack of harmony between these persons. The Father does not “take out his wrath” on the Son. The saving plan of the Trinity before the Incarnation was mutually agreed upon by all persons of the Trinity from eternity. We should speak of both the love and the wrath of the Trinity. The wrath of God the Father is not opposed to the love of Jesus, as though God is the one Trinitarian person who is angry with us and threatens to punish us, but Jesus—thank heaven!—intervenes to rescue us. Let us not forget that the crucifixion reveals the love of the Father (Jn. 3:16), and the New Testament teaches the wrath of the Lamb (Rev. 6:16).

Just as the Son is not forced by the Father to die but voluntarily lays down his life and takes it up again (Jn. 10:18), so the Father is lovingly and reconcilingly involved in the death of Jesus: “God [the Father] was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). The triune God—not just the Father—is wrathful against sin, and the triune God—not just the Son—is lovingly involved in redemption. Love and wrath are not opposed to each other in God. Rather, wrath flows from the love of God.

 

  1. Jesus could not be the unblemished or perfect sacrifice if he did become stained by sin. It is because Jesus is the spotless Lamb of God that could be the perfect sacrifice (1 Pet. 1:18-19). As a sinless, but sympathetic, high priest, he can offer himself up (Heb. 4:14-15; 7:26). God cannot be defiled by sin within himself (cp. Hab. 1:13). He could not literally “become sin.” Otherwise, he could not be a perfect sacrifice on our behalf. Rather the one who knew no sin became a sin offering for us (2 Cor. 5:21). This is what Isaiah 53:10 expresses: “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering [asam], He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand”). Craig Keener, commenting on 2 Cor. 5:21, says this:

Presumably the Corinthians were familiar with Paul’s teaching that Christ’s death appeased God’s wrath, hence reconciled humanity to God (Rom. 5:9-11). In the becoming sin of one who “knew no sin” (5:21; cf. Rom. 3;20; 7:7), Paul may combine the notion of unblemished sacrifices with the scapegoat that came to represent or embody Israel’s sin (Lev. 1:3; 16:21-22).[2]

Again, Christ doesn’t become a sinner or stained with sin—and thus impure and immoral. He becomes a sin offering on our behalf to reconcile us to God.

 

  1. We can still speak of a kind of “abandonment” without speaking of a broken Trinity or of the Father’s pouring out his wrath on Jesus—as though the Son of God is not wrathful against sin. Jesus identifies with humans in their feeling abandoned, alienated, scorned, humiliated, shamed, and experiencing death. This is a voluntary self-identification with sinners as our faithful High Priest (Cp. Ps. 22:6-8: “despised by the people…[they] sneer at me…wag their head, saying, ‘Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him. Let Him rescue him, because He delights in him.”) Yes, the Father allows his Son to die rather than shielding him from it—although the Son also lays down his life of his own accord (Jn. 10:17-18; Heb. 7:26). God allows evil men to crucify him and to die a naked, cursed, humiliating death; he allows for the disciples to scatter and abandon their savior. The sermons in the book of Acts indicate that evil men—not the Father—put Jesus to death, but that God raised him from the dead (2:23-24; 3:14-15; 13:29-30; 13:36-37).

However, wasn’t the Father “pleased to crush [daka]” his Son (Isa. 53:10)? Of course, in a broad sense, God permits even evil choices to incorporate them into his good purposes (Rom. 8:28; Gen. 50:20). But God never afflicts humans willingly in order to crush (daka) them (Lam. 3:30-33). God permitted humans to put Jesus to death, and let us not forget that Jesus laid down his life of his own accord.

In the end, we do not have any rift within the Trinity. This is not biblical; it is not in keeping with the stream of Christian theology over the centuries; and it is utterly impossible metaphysically. Rather, we have a Triune God who is involved not only in creation (Gen. 1:1-2; Jn. 1:1-3), but also in the redemption of human beings. May this understanding inform us as we worship in spirit and in truth during this Holy Week.

[1] Thomas McCall’s book Forsaken: The Trinity, the Cross, and Why It Matters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012) elaborates on these concepts, which I am summarizing.

[2] Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 187.

4 Responses to “Was the Trinity Broken at the Cross? Paul Copan”

  1. But, what DID happen to the deity of Christ on the Cross? It seems to me to be very anti-climatic if Jesus, in his human nature, died like so many others died. I really don’t think that Jesus was so anxious about physical death. I am not sure I understand from your article exactly what you are suggesting actually took place on the cross. In your view, what did happen?

  2. Thanks, Eddie. I was writing about what took place on the cross in my *Loving Wisdom* book. I wasn’t primarily talking about what did take place; I was speaking of what didn’t take place–namely, a rift in the Trinity. Of course, Jesus’ death was unique; he didn’t simply die just like so many others died. For one thing, Jesus certainly would not have been the perfect sacrifice if he were somehow tainted with sin. Also, as for what happened at the cross, I think Anselm was correct in affirming that God, who alone could pay our debt but did not have to, became human, since it was humans who owed a debt to God but could not pay it–hence, the incarnation. Further, we could speak of Jesus as a faithful Israelite and who, as the true Israel (God’s obedient Son) faces the alienation/exile on the tree–an exile that was threatened against national Israel if it broke God’s covenant. Jesus takes on that exile for covenant-breaking Israel and, more broadly, for all humanity (as the second Adam). And beyond this, we could speak of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) as overthrowing Satan’s rule. Much more could be said. Again, keep in mind that I was trying to correct a misperception, not offering a defense of what the atonement achieved.

  3. I agree that the Trinity was not broken, and wrote briefly about the subject in an e-book.
    [Appendix 3 of https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/625784%5D

    Here is one more Bible verse that mentions the union between Christ and the Holy Spirit during the Christ’s death:

    Hebrews 9:14 WEB “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without defect to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”

  4. Sorry for the bad link. My e-book called “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” can be found here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/625784

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