The Cry of Dereliction (McCormack Croall Lecture #5)

Perhaps wanting to circle the wagons after his unquestionably daring theological moves in the last lecture, McCormack began Lecture 5 by trying to emphasize the non-novelty of what he was doing.  There was a time 25 years ago, he said, when talk of the “suffering of God” and the “death of God” had achieved something of the status of a new orthodoxy in dogmatics.  Process theologians, open theists, Barthians, Moltmannians–they all had their different reasons for making these moves.  But the conclusions were similar: God suffers not as a mere matter of love and empathy, but as one who takes the suffering of world into his own being.  

Returning to some of the rhetoric of his first lecture, McCormack darkly intimated that the causes of the shift back to the doctrines of divine simplicity and divine impassibility had little to do with theology.  The churches of Protestantism are in decline, he lamented, and its theologians are no longer faithful to Protestant theological distinctives–most now seem intent on trying to synthesize Anabaptist ethical impulses, Reformed theology, and High Church liturgical impulses (which, to be frank, sounds like a jolly good idea to me).  Catholic theologians no longer need to take Protestants as seriously as they once did; the traditionalists are now back in the ascendancy in the Catholic Church, and are trying to roll back some of the gains of Second Vatican.  All this, he suggests, has led to a rejection of the more radical, to his mind more Protestant, accounts of the atonement, and a retrenchment within older metaphysical categories–a trajectory that has not left New Testament exegetes unaffected.

Now, just as a brief side-note, all this is a bit amusing for a sheltered evangelical like myself to hear.  Evangelicals tend to lag a few decades behind the rest of the theological world, and so it is that we are just now encountering these radical Barthian ideas, and just now coming to grips with the fact that the Second Vatican Council happened–for us, a brave new world is opening before us, while for McCormack, that world is slipping away and he is desperate to stop the door from shutting on it entirely.  

McCormack prefaced his exegetical lecture with some words about method.  A Protestant dogmatics must be rigorously grounded in Scripture.  And while, to be sure, a dogmatics must read broadly and synthetically across Scripture, instead of singling out a particular text, this should not be the starting point.  Dogmatics must give due attention to the historical and literary features of individual texts.  In this case, that means that dogmatics may use historical reasons for privileging the Marcan and Matthaean accounts, and must take these narratives with utmost seriousness on their own terms, before attempting to make sense of the other narratives.  The lecture was to be organized in four major sections–first, an initial look at the crucifixion narratives in Mark and Matthew; then, attention to the Gethsemane narratives (again, primarily in Mark and Matthew); then, the Gehenna texts of the New Testament; finally, a return to the crucifixion narratives for reconsideration in light of all this.

 

1. The death of Jesus in Mark and Matthew–a first look

Mark and Matthew each only have one spoken word from the cross, followed by an inarticulate sound as Christ expires.  The one word is the cry of dereliction–there is nothing present to qualify this darkness, to add a tone of victory.  From the beginning, McCormack said, Christians have been concerned about the apologetic difficulties of this cry–how could a victorious God-man expire this way?  If it is the case, as McCormack thinks, that Luke deliberated substituted “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” then it seems that the apologetic modification began quite early.  Throughout church history, theologians were to continue to express discomfort with the cry of dereliction for various reasons.  

The cry has thus come to be considered something of a scandal, to be minimized rather than maximized.  McCormack wants to completely reverse that trajectory.  Two key questions have been raised about the cry: 1) did Jesus really feel himself to be abandoned?  2) was this feeling well-grounded?  Consensus of theological opinion has generally solidified around a “Yes” to the first question, and McCormack wants to take us further, to a “Yes” to the second question.  

The texts before us are Mark 15:33-34 and Matthew 27:45-46.  

The darkness that comes over the whole land is often recognized as an allusion to Amos 8:9, where this is described as an effect of the eschatological judgment of God.  The other obvious allusion is of course to Psalm 22, from which the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me are taken.”  McCormack criticized the tendency of many exegetes to bring some light into the darkness of this scene by drawing attention to the entirety of Psalm 22, which ends in praise amid the congregation at God’s deliverance.  But this misses the point of our narratives here–God does not intervene, Jesus does not live to praise God amid the congregation, the latter part of Psalm 22 is omitted for a reason.  But, like Psalm 22, this is a prayer, but a prayer that is no longer from a standpoint of intimacy with the Father, as the earlier prayers in Gethsemane were–God is distant.  This is not a prayer for deliverance; that prayer had already been made and refused in the garden; this is an expression of despair at the absence of God.  

McCormack also notes that some exegetes have connected the “loud cry” that Jesus utters at his expiration with the cries of the demon-possessed throughout these Gospels, the only other places this phrase is used. Could this make the cry of dereliction the equivalent of the demons’ “What have we to do with you?”  Not quite, says McCormack, nonetheless, the demonic idea points in the right direction–to the objective, not merely subjective, experience of God-abandonment.

The point of the exegesis McCormack wants to offer is this–in the Matthaean and Marcan accounts, Christ does not die in victorious union with his Father, but under the Father’s eschatological wrath.  These overtones are reinforced by the apocalyptic imagery that follows Christ’s death–the rending of the temple veil, the earthquake, etc.  Jesus thus dies forsaken by God and he remains so until his resurrection.

 

2. The Prayer of Jesus and Arrest at Gethsemane

The presence of apocalyptic imagery requires that attention be given to the background of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology in the Second Temple period, the study of which has become something of a growth industry.  There are two main patterns of such apocalyptic: cosmic and judicial.  In both, there are two ages of the world, and the move into the new age of glory is inaugurated by the “day of the Lord,” the day of divine judgment.  The first pattern understands the world to have fallen under the dominion of evil powers, and holds that God will invade the world and defeat these powers in a cosmic war.  In the second pattern, the demonic element is marginalized or absent; God’s judgment rests on the evil that human beings do.  God’s remedy in this understanding, the day of the Lord, is a courtroom in which all humanity appears before the judge, and God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.  

Both patterns are taken up in the New Testament and reinterpreted in light of the Christ-event.  So which one is dominant in these Passion narratives?  McCormack will argue that it is the latter–the judicial notion is most prominent.  He unpacks this by attention to the Gethsemane narrative, which comprehends two main events–the prayer of Jesus and his arrest.  The impassioned prayer of Jesus for deliverance was, like the cry of dereliction, an embarrassment to the early Church.  How could Christ have such terror at the prospect of suffering and death when many martyrs faced such torments more bravely?  Hence, we find a softening in the Lucan account and even more in the Johannine.  Modern interpreters, however, have liked to emphasize the humanness expressed in this fear in the face of death.  But both is mistaken.

What Jesus fears is not death as such, but the eschatological tribulation that will accompany it.  The cup is a common Biblical image of the eschatological wrath of God that will be poured out.  The cup that Jesus drinks is the eschatological wrath of God to be poured out on the nations at the end of history.   Joel Marcus tries to read the cosmic dimension into this account by calling attention to Jesus’s warning to the disciples not to fall into “temptation” or “testing”–a word that alludes back to the Lord’s Prayer and has demonic overtones.  But this demonic threat is to the disciples, not to Jesus.  When Jesus is handed over to the authorities in his arrest, the following narrative makes many allusions to Isaiah 53, which employs judicial, not cosmic categories.  Jesus is handed over to bear the eschatological wrath of God against sinful mankind; he is not handed over to demonic powers that they might be destroyed in their attempt to destroy him.

 

3. Gehenna texts

At this point, you like me, may be wondering just where McCormack is going with all of this.  And why does he bring in the notion of gehenna (“hell”) here?  Well, part of what McCormack seems to be up to is, following from the hints laid down by Barth and von Balthasar in the previous lecture (that the doctrine of hell was a result of the atonement), to subordinate the doctrine of hell to a judicial understanding of the atonement, and liberate it from dependence on a realistic account of the cosmic demonic powers.  One can see how such moves would be very desirable for a theologian speaking to the modern world, for whom both hell and demons have quite lost their appeal.  (Not that McCormack was denying altogether that there was a cosmic, demonic dimension to the world; he may want to deny that, but if so, he certainly didn’t go explicitly in that direction in these lectures.) 

McCormack thus spent a bit of time surveying the various passages in the New Testament that speak of gehenna or of a similar fiery judgment.  He took particular note, as Protestants generally do not, of hints that all who die, believer and unbeliever, will pass through some kind of fire–Jesus’s saying that “all shall be salted with fire” and Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 3.

The various descriptions of hell, he concluded, cannot be readily reconciled into one realistic picture; what does emerge clearly from them is the description of a condition of separation from God and from the righteous, a judicial picture of sentencing to experience the eternal wrath of God.  So it is that we can find a point of connection with the cry of dereliction.

 

4. The Death of Jesus in Mark and Matthew–a second look

The death of Jesus, we have seen, is the event in which the eschatological wrath of God against sinners is poured out.  Can we say any more than this?  Yes.

If the mission of Jesus was inaugurated by the Spirit being poured out on him, and the Father is mediated to him by the Spirit, then it makes sense to say that it is the withdrawal of the Spirit from Jesus in his passion that causes him to feel abandonment by his Father.  In the moment of death, the Spirit is withdrawn altogether.  Jesus is still the son of the Father, but the abandoned son of the Father.  It is thus in death that Jesus drinks to the dregs the experience of God-abandonment that is the sentence against the sinner.  Jesus experiences hell in our place on the cross.  

 

Conclusion

In concluding, McCormack turned to give brief attention to the Lucan and Johannine accounts: In Luke, we have “into thy hands I commit my spirit” and “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” and “Today you will be with me in Paradise”; in John, we have “Woman here is your Son”, “I am thirsty,” “It is finished.”  From John it’s clear how we can come to Tertullian’s conclusion that Jesus remains in complete control of his death.  

While the emotions which give rise to these disparate sayings may be compatible, McCormack considered it quite improbable that Jesus could have actually said all these things.  He thus wants to suggest that Mark and Matthew ought to enjoy a certain priority, on the basis of the sound principle that passages that cause serious difficulties for Christians are unlikely to have been interpolated later.  The words of Luke and John must of course be taken into account in a constructive dogmatic proposal, but cannot be taken with the same seriousness as the Marcan and Matthaean. 

 

Q&A

In the Q&A, unsurprisingly, most questioners zeroed in on what McCormack had said about Hell.  The upshot of his answers was to say that he believed that Jesus had experienced hell on the cross in our place–he went to hell so that no one else has to.  Like Barth himself, he gestured toward, but did not commit himself to, a doctrine of universal salvation, leaving open the door to annihilationist accounts, for instance.  And he made clear that salvation must always be accompanied by faith, but he did not necessarily confine the exercise of such faith to this life.  He did go so far as to say, in response to a question about the proper pastoral response to a dying person who asks what God has in store for them, that we can confidently assure them that God has already declared his mercy to them in Christ, and they have nothing to fear.  The mere fact that this dying person would ask such a question, he said, is a manifestation of some kind of struggling faith, and we can be confident that God will acknowledge that faith.  

 

Some remarks

If you’re like me, you’re probably reaching the end of this saying, “Huh, that’s it?  All that wild stuff in Lecture 4 and all that promise of a new reconstructed account of penal substitution, and the only really new thing we get (hardly new by modern standards) is a sweeping of the doctrine of Hell under the rug?”  I must say that little in the exegesis offered seemed strikingly original.  The emphasis on Jesus’s experience of God-abandonment, his consciousness of the divine wrath, as the heart of his sufferings, rather than mere physical torment and death, was certainly valuable, but in my experience, this has been well-emphasized by the best traditional interpreters.  The notion of the gradual withdrawal of the Spirit was new to me, though I doubt absolutely new, and I tend to think this is a very fruitful way of describing it.  I tend to think McCormack is right to foreground the “judicial” rather than the “cosmic” element, but I’m not yet sure why they must be played off against one another–the NT witness suggests that both are present.  Like Larry Hurtado in the previous lecture, I’m uncomfortable with the extent to which McCormack wants to privilege Matthew and Mark, treating Luke and John as revisionists; he repeatedly affirms that their accounts must of course be taken on board as well, but seems awfully hesitant to actually do so.  The emphasis on Jesus experiencing Hell in our place seems like it may be quite a helpful emphasis, and though I want to be more cautious than McCormack in drawing the conclusions he wants to from that, I don’t want to dismiss them out of hand either.  I will return to reflect more on this last issue in my evaluative post(s) at the end of the lecture series.

The last lecture is today, and I should be able to put up a summary of that this weekend, followed by some reflections in response at the beginning of next week.  

4 thoughts on “The Cry of Dereliction (McCormack Croall Lecture #5)

  1. Jeremy

    First off, thanks for posting these summaries. I've really enjoyed reading them. I'll also admit to be pretty disappointed by this lecture, at least from what I read of your summary. I was expecting some radical reinterpretation of the cross. I'm not sure the stressing that Jesus went to hell in our place is even all that original. Although, to be fair, lecture #4 was worth the price of admission.

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  2. What McCormack is doing here is to take elements of the Reformers (Calvin especially) and his own actualistic reading of Barth to reach a doctrine of the atonement that makes the cry of Jesus on the cross the actual event of atonement. What's novel here is that (1) the cry of dereliction actualizes the reconciliation between God and humanity, rather than merely illustrating it symbolically, and (2) this cry is ontologically constitutive of God's very being (and correspondingly the being of humanity as well). He has given an actualistic-ontological interpretation of the cry of dereliction, making it to be definitive for christology and soteriology.

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  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Jeremy,Perhaps this is unfair (of myself and you)…after all, there's no reason to expect radicalism at every point. Indeed, McCormack's whole point was not to be too radical with respect to penal substitution itself–he wanted to retain the basic form of the doctrine, and simply integrate it into a radical new context (what he does with lectures 4 and 6). Lecture 6 did make more sense of the purpose of this material.David, you're right about (2), but I didn't understand him to be saying (1). The cry "actualizes the reconciliation" rather than illustrating it? Hm…no it exhibits the realistic rift, which is a precondition to the reconciliation. But it is not itself the reconciliation, because McCormack was adamant that Christ died in God-abandonment; reconciliation was not accomplished before he died. In fact, he was rather unclear on when it happened, because he seemed to go with von Balthasar in making the suffering continue on Holy Saturday, as Jesus experienced Hell, and yet he emphasized repeatedly that the resurrection was not in any way the accomplishment of the victory, merely a proclamation…so it must have happened before the Resurrection. I even tried to push him on this point for elucidation, but didn't get any.

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  4. Brad,I could be wrong, but as McCormack's assistant and an early reader of these lectures, I feel pretty confident in saying that the cry of dereliction coincides with, even actualizes, the reconciliation. That is because our reconciliation requires God to overcome our spiritual death. God enters and so defeats our spiritual estrangement and death *in* the abandonment of Jesus on the cross. The cry actualizes this abandonment within the narrative. It is thus the event in which God abandons God's own self, and so reconciles humanity to God.

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