I’m aware that I’ve spent a lot of bandwidth on this blog recently complaining about my seminary education. But these days I continue to be reminded of ways in which mainline Protestant seminary let me down.
One important way it did this, to say the least, was in its teaching about the cross and atonement. For example, I was taught that Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross—”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—didn’t really mean that Jesus was forsaken on the cross. Rather, he was reciting the first verse of Psalm 22 as a way of recollecting the entire psalm, which ends in the narrator’s vindication.
I haven’t believed this for years, of course, and I’ve preached often that Jesus experienced complete abandonment by God. I say “experienced” because I don’t want to imply that the Trinity was somehow broken on the cross. Still, he experienced abandonment, which is nothing less than hell. I am deeply suspicious of any attempt to soften that.
I’m pleased, therefore, that Fleming Rutledge, herself a retired Episcopal minister, also affirms Jesus’ God-forsakenness. In her new book on the cross, she puts it like this, in a footnote:
Was Jesus truly forsaken by God on the cross? It may be that Luke omits the cry of dereliction because he does not want to leave the impression that God was actually absent. On this point, Raymond E. Brown offers a stirring insight. He suggests that, in the cry of dereliction, Jesus is experiencing the silence of God even though God is present and “speaking” in the sign of the darkness at noonday, “but Jesus does not hear him“… I have no better commentary than that of Clifton Black: “It seems to me suspect to rush to the Almighty’s defense in Matthew and in Mark, protesting that the apocalyptic ambience of their crucifixion accounts demonstrates that God’s beloved Son was truly not abandoned at three o’clock that afternoon… sub specie aeternitatis, under the appearance of eternity (Spinoza), that is true. Sub specie cruciatus, under the aspect of torturous execution, it is no less true—from the evangelists’ point of view—that Jesus ultimately, faithfully prayed to a God whose presence he could no longer perceive”… Both of these quotations suggest that it was Jesus’ own perception that the Father and withdrawn from him.
1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 98.