Dividing the Trinity? A Response to Marva Dawn

I gathered with many of my fellow clergy for last week to hear Marva Dawn speak on the topic of Sabbath. Her presentation was well-done overall, and I found helpful much of what she said regarding the Sabbath. However, at one point she made a stunning and, in my view, problematic remark regarding Jesus’ cry to his Father from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). She suggested that at the moment of Jesus’ cry, the Father and the Son were split; separated; held together only by the Holy Spirit. I made note of this peculiar statement, but didn’t think on it much more until I learned that she said something similar today while giving the Theta Phi lectures at Asbury Theological Seminary. After further reflection on what I heard at the clergy gathering, I thought I’d offer a brief response in two points. I will focus on what I heard at the clergy gathering; Regarding what was said at Asbury Seminary,Isaac Hopper offers a theological response and Jeffrey Rudy a historical one with quotes from the patristics. 
First, the historic doctrine of the Trinity states that all three persons of the Trinity share one, single, divine essence. To say that the Father and the Son are split or divided is at best unhelpful in its vague ambiguity and at worst a wrecking ball to the central way the Church has spoken about God through history. A theologian is certainly welcome to argue as they desire, even when doing so in wrecking ball fashion; however, when a major doctrine like the Trinity is the issue, we should actually get an argument.
Second, there is nothing in the text of Mark 15:34 (and parallels) that comes close to suggesting that the ontological unity is in question in this text. Indeed, there is weighty evidence to the contrary. Jesus is quoting the opening line of Psalm 22, the first two verses of which read thus:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
The Psalmist here finds himself in a state of agony and suffering. His cry to God is for help in that moment of suffering. He pleads with God wondering why he is not delivered. In the context of Psalm 22:1-2, the notion of being forsaken by God is a way of expressing the pain in not being delivered by God from the pain of persecution.
Jesus’ use of this Psalm should be taken in just this way. He is not lamenting a splitting-up of the essential unity that is eternally the heart of his relationship with the God he knows as Father. Rather, he is lamenting that God has forsaken him to the suffering of the cross. The text does not indicate that this forsaking should be taken in any absolute sense. Instead, we are guided by the quote from the Psalms; when Jesus cries out questioning why he has been forsaken, he means “Why have you forsaken me to the pain of this persecution?
I propose that this interpretation makes better sense of the text than does the suggestion that the Father and the Son are here essentially divided. It seems much more likely the case that Mark has in mind the fact that Jesus has been handed over to the suffering of the cross rather than the essential relationship between the Father and the Son. 
How do you take this passage? Do you think Psalm 22 should guide our interpretation of Jesus’ cry from the cross? Are there other elements in the text that suggest other interpretive options? How should we go about deriving theological conclusions from historical and narratival texts?

2 thoughts on “Dividing the Trinity? A Response to Marva Dawn

  1. Hi Kelly, thanks for reading and commenting.

    Establishing the Garden prayer as a context is helpful. And it certainly would seem odd for the Father to forsake the Son in an absolute sense at the Son's climax of devotion. After writing the original post, it occured to me that the quote from Psalm 22 may be more telling than we typically think. While it certainly and strongly sorrows over the pain of being forsaken to suffering, it is not merely lament literature. Before it is over, the Psalmist expresses his strong hope for deliverance and vindication. I think its a fair interpretive move, then, to suggest that Jesus may well have quoted this Psalm not only as an expression of his lament but also as an expression of his hope for deliverance and vindication as well. The quote from the Psalm may represent not only Jesus sorrow at being forsaken unto the cross but his faith in and praise of the Father who would ultimately redeem him. If this interpretation is correct, disunity between Father and Son is not in view of the text. Rather, the moment of greatest agony is the moment of greatest trust and a demonstration that Father and Son are at work in unison.


  2. It seems odd to me to think of what Christ says on the cross is outside the scope of what he says in the Garden: “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” What Christ says on the cross is then testimony to his willingness to do what His Father wills, even when it is not–is precisely not–what he would otherwise have chosen for Himself. So what you say seems to me right. He means: “Doing your will has brought me to the pain and shame of the cross. I will not depart from your will, not even in this extremity.” We have here the full measure of devotion. And, if so, it would be strange to think of Christ as “ontologically” forsaken by the Father at the moment when the full measure of his devotion to the Father is taken. –I suspect that among the causes of this sort of reading is a misunderstanding of the Trinity: Monarchianism–perhaps in an Arian flavor, or perhaps something ultimately Ebionite. Anyway, as Gregory said, “What has not been assumed cannot be healed.” Our salvation depends on Christ being fully God and fully man: He, as God, assumed all that we are, thus healing us. Were He divided from God “ontologically” on the cross, He could not heal us.


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