Substitution not Abandonment: A Response to Dan Wallace

Having recently written on Jesus’ cry of forsakenness from the cross, I was pleased to see this piece by Al Hsu at Christianity Today that likewise argued against the view that God the Father actually turned his back on Jesus the Son as he hung on the cross. With Hsu, I take the whole of Psalm 22 to be the determinative factor in interpreting Jesus’ quote from the first verse of that very Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even with this agreement, I want to be clear that I think Hsu is unhelpfully accommodating to those who charge that the crucifixion of Jesus is divine child abuse.
Dan Wallace thinks so as well, if not more so, and recently wrote a response to Hsu criticizing him for going soft on a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Wallace seems to take the reality of the Father’s abandonment of Christ on the cross as necessary to a penal substitutionary view of atonement. I affirm Wallace’s commitment to penal substitution, a doctrine to which I too am committed. I also want to affirm that Wallace has made many positive contributions to contemporary Christian theology, not least with regard to our understanding of the textual reliability and the language of the New Testament. His work has been a great benefit to me and has informed the way I read the scriptures. His books have probably taught me as much about New Testament Greek as any. I appreciate Dan Wallace and his work. However, I find his response to Hsu to be problematic four at least four reasons. So, having written on the view that Wallace is here criticizing, I offer these points in response:
1. As I said, Wallace suggests that God turning his back on Jesus is essential to understanding the death of Jesus as taking the penalty of human sin on himself. I want to assert that the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6:23), Jesus most assuredly suffered this penalty, the benefits of which are applied to those who believe in him. Where does scripture say that the penalty of sin is God turning his back?
2. I find Wallace’s argument to be insufficiently trinitarian because he seems to take the wrath of God to be exclusively the wrath of the Father (click here for more on this). However, the gospels present a different picture. In Matt 25:31ff., it is Jesus himself who bestows blessing on the sheep and executes the just wrath of God’s judgment against the goats by consigning them to eternal fire (25:41, click here for more on this). Jesus seems to think the role of judge against unrighteousness falls to him. Thus, the wrath of God is not merely the wrath of the Father, it is the wrath of the triune God, which means it is also the wrath of the Son. If the wrath of God means forsaking the Son, then the Son must in wrath forsake the Son, which is nonsense. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is the judge who takes the penalty that his own judgment requires upon himself for our sake. No self-abandonment necessary.
3. This point flows out of the previous one. I find Wallace’s method to be flawed as well. He goes primarily to the letters of Paul to explain the gospels. But we know that good inductive hermeneutic method gives primacy to the book-as-a-whole as the most significant context for exegesis. That is not to say that Paul was wrong; he wasn’t. Neither is it to say that Paul does not inform our readings of the gospels; he does. It is to say that Wallace needs to attend first to the views of the particular gospel writers of sin, judgment, atonement, and divine wrath as they relate to the words of Jesus that those same gospel writers record from the crucified Jesus before correlating that with Paul. What Wallace neglects is what I’ve attempted to do in #2 above, though only as a start.
4. Since we’re talking about Paul, I finish by saying that I see no reason that any of the Pauline texts to which Wallace appeals must require that we take the Father to have turned his back on Jesus. Was Jesus cursed for us? Yes. Does that necessarily mean God turned his back on Good Friday? I don’t think so. The curse is death, not abandonment. And was Jesus “handed over”? Certainly he was, but it is far from clear that being handed over for crucifixion is the same thing as being abandoned by God. Wallace would have to do extensively more work to persuade me that the penalty is not only death but divine abandonment as well. The series of proof-texts he provides are insufficient.

5 thoughts on “Substitution not Abandonment: A Response to Dan Wallace

  1. Great post Matt. This topic is huge and I have not had time to review all of the linked material, but couldn't resist making a few comments anyway.

    Wallace, it sounds, seeks to substantiate penal substitution with the abandonment notion. As you helpfully demonstrate, this is backwards. It risks eisegesis in one's theologizing. And you've summed up a very solid method for biblical and systematic theology to follow in #3, as an alternative.

    But on point #2, I think your logic confuses how each person of the Trinity relates to the wrath of God (though I love your plea for Trinitarian sufficiency). Just because the Trinity shares attributes does not mean that the economic Trinity reveals them identically. God reveals Himself to have a certain character at the same moments as the persons of the Trinity are differentiated. Certainly the Father loves the Son and the Son the Father, but that love is demonstrated according to their different roles in history. So this whole business about wrath is begging the question: How does the Son demonstrate the Triune God's judgment on sin? The answer is by way of the Incarnate deity and not in the manner of the Father. So your conditional sentence is untrue in my opinion: “If the wrath of God means forsaking the Son, then the Son must in wrath forsake the Son”. No, the Triune God will demonstrate His wrath, each person according to that person's relational position to the others. They do not have to duplicate the historic work which each does, three times, in order for an attribute to remain salient and common to them all. The attribute is theirs by way of their interdependently working together. None of this, however, proves that God's wrath DID result in the forsaking of the Son by the Father. I just do not think your criticism has hit its mark.

    But I also disagree with Luke Stamps at one point. I appreciate what he's trying to do but it diminishes the Trinitarian event that is the crucifixion to qualify the Father's abandonment of the Son according to Christ's natures. The Triune God is fully involved in this work and by Father abandoning Son, the whole Godhead is essentially threatened. God Himself, as Moltmann suggests, was at risk in this self-estrangement. The idea of God's suffering (even in His deity) removes any accusations of malevolence. God is the only innocent sufferer, the only pure victim. Sadism, therefore, is categorically disproved. But back to the main point…

    I think we must refer any sense of the Father's abandonment of the Son to the light of the historic Resurrection. If abandonment is to be inferred by the cry of dereliction, then God ultimately said “No” to its permanency when the Father raised the Son from the dead. But for this reason, Matt, I think you are more right to call it “a cry of faith”. God resolved to be who God is.

    Hope these disagreements are constructive. Thanks for the forum. For some exegetical and theological support of my comments, let me refer you to the helpful and very thorough work of Wolfhart Pannenberg's Systematic Theology, Vol. 1…particularly ch.5 sec. 3 & 4.


  2. I echo what Luke said. How could a God of omnipresence turn His face(by the way does God the Father have a face)away from anything and not remain present with everything being laid bare before Him still?



  3. Great post, Matt! And I think Luke may be onto something with the communicatio idiomatum. Still, the question of whether the abandonment was real or perceived takes over, if that's the case. In On The Christian Faith, St. Ambrose elaborates:

    >>Finally, He cried: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” As being man, therefore, He speaks, bearing with Him my terrors, for when we are in the midst of dangers we think ourself abandoned by God. As man, therefore, He is distressed, as man He weeps, as man He is crucified.<< (See NPNF, 2nd series, Vol 10: 230.) Matt, I think your point of seeing the purpose of the statement within the Gospels hits the nail on the head. Whatever else we say about the issue of wrath-bearing, we should also examine the role of unjust (or at least, undeserved) suffering in the world and the fact that in his crucifixion, Christ empathizes with folks like the psalmist of Psalm 22, Job, Habakkuk, and so on. Habakkuk contains the passage of God's eyes being “too pure to behold evil” which is the typical proof text for suggesting God had to “turn away”. But reading the passage in Habakkuk suggests the same sort of idea conveyed in Psalm 22. The clear implication is “God, your eyes are too pure to behold evil [in approval].” In other words, “Why aren't you doing something about this?” This question is frequently on the lips of those suffering unjustly.


  4. Hi Luke, thanks for your comment. Your point here does strike me initially as a potentially fruitful perspective on the whole thing.

    With regard to the extent of the penalty for sin, I'm inclined to say it is more than physical death,though I think physical death as penalty for sin vastly underemphasized. Hell would certainly qualify as a penalty beyond physical death. However, I think we've discussed before how Jesus' death is a sufficient substitute for that wrath, though not an equivalent substitute. Which is to say that Jesus does not go to an eternal hell while we all go into the presence of the Father. Whatever happens on the cross is not exactly equal to the judgment that comes to those not in Christ, but it is sufficient to rescue them from that judgment. That said, I'll go back to my original argument on the Asbury Seedbed blog: I don't think the text of the gospel (I've been working with Matthew in my posts) requires that Jesus' so-called cry of dereliction be read as an event in which God actually turns his back on Jesus. In fact, I've argued that the text suggests we should read it as a cry of faith on the part of Jesus that the Father is present and will vindicate him despite his experience of being forsaken to death on the cross. So, at the end of the day, that exegesis trumps theologizing, which is why my response to Wallace focused largely on inductive exegetical method.

    Thanks again for reading and commenting. I always appreciate hearing from you.


  5. I think maybe the communicatio idiomatum would be helpful at this point. The properties of both divinity and humanity are attributed to the Person of the Son, without any actual transference of properties from one nature to the other (contra Lutheranism). So, in his humanity, as the covenant mediator, the Son was abandoned by the Father. But in his divinity,as the only begotten Son of the Father, it was impossible for the Son to be abandoned by the Father; the Trinity cannot unravel, so to speak. We still have some work to do to explain how this reduplication isn't contradictory, but don't we have to start with something like this? Also, don't you think that the penalty for sin includes more than (but not less than) physical death? Doesn't it also include the reality of bearing the wrath and curse of God in an eternal/infinite sense?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s