Canonical Parameters for Talking about the Cry of Dereliction

Last week I posted about some dogmatic parameters for talking about the Cry of Dereliction. In this post I want to add to those parameters some boundaries given to us by the text of Scripture. Jesus’ guttural utterance from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) ought to be taken in its immediate, surrounding, and, ultimately, canonical contexts. Here I only want to outline some of these; as with the previous post, this one could be expanded into at least an article if not a monograph. And nobody has time for that in a blog post.

  1. Mark’s Gospel – The first contexts for the Cry of Dereliction are its immediate and surrounding contexts in Mark’s Gospel. He and Matthew (27:46) are the only Gospels that include it, and Mark includes no other sayings of Jesus from the cross in his Gospel. Regarding the immediate context, there are a few things to say. First, the Temple veil is torn in two (Mk. 15:38) and the Roman centurion confesses that “truly, this man was the Son of God” (Mk. 15:39) immediately after Jesus’ cry and subsequent death. Second, this cry stands as the culmination of “the hour,” spoken of repeatedly in Mark 13 and fulfilled in the events of Mark 14 (see on this Peter Bolt, The Cross from a Distance). This “hour” is for “the Son of Man,” who will come riding on the clouds in glory” (Mk. 13:24-27).  Third, the cry from the cross is answered preliminarily in his royal, Jewish burial at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:42-47) and ultimately by the empty tomb (Mk. 16:1-8). Regarding the surrounding context (i.e. the context of the entire book), Jesus’ reference to Ps. 22:1 stands as the culmination of a long line of references to the Old Testament’s Suffering Servant in Mark’s Gospel. Most of these come from Isaiah, but in both the Psalms and Isaiah the Suffering Servant songs are intended to convey lament over present circumstances in the context of trust in God’s covenant promises, and specifically his promise to bring Israel’s New Exodus through the Suffering Servant. In other words, in Mark, the Cry of Dereliction, a cry of pain, anguish, suffering, and abandonment, is couched within the self-identification of Jesus as the divine and royal Son of Man, trust in God’s covenantal promises, the fulfillment of those promises in the penal substitutionary death of the Messiah, and the vindication of his death as a substitute for sinners in the Temple curtain’s tearing, the centurion’s exclamation, Jesus’ royal burial (rather than a criminal’s burial) at the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, and ultimately the empty tomb.
  2. The Fourfold Gospel Corpus – In addition to Mark’s context, we also need to pay attention to the canonical context of the four Gospels, and specifically to Jesus’ other sayings from the cross. I am here not so concerned about chronological order for the seven sayings as I am about how to read them together. Jesus cries “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” in the context of also saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), (to the thief) “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise,” (Luke 23:43), “Woman, behold your son. Son, behold your mother” (John 19:26-27), “I thirst,” (John 19:28), “It is finished” (John 19:30), and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Notice a few things about these other sayings. First, the initial and final sayings are prayers to the Father. While Jesus experiences abandonment here, it is not in such a way that he believes that the Father will not hear his prayers. Second, whatever we say about abandonment needs to include not only Jesus’ continued prayers to the Father but also his continued speech to those around the cross. He cares for his mother and friend (John 19:26-27), and he speaks to the soldiers (“I thirst”). Third, and most importantly, these other sayings indicate that Jesus’ actions are intended as a propitiatory, acceptable sacrifice (John 19:28, John 19:30). Therefore at death, in anticipation of the ultimate vindication of the resurrection, Jesus’ righteous life and sacrificially satisfactory death will be vindicated when he enters the intermediate state in the righteous place of the dead, Paradise (Luke 23:46).
  3. Psalm 22 – A third canonical context for the Cry of Dereliction is Psalm 22. While we should affirm that Jesus quotes this in a moment of intense suffering, and therefore has the abandonment mentioned in 22:1 fully in view, the NT authors (and Jesus in his ministry) often quote Scripture metaleptically. That is, when they quote one verse they have the entire context of that one verse in view. Given both Mark’s use of the Suffering Servant motif and the other sayings from the cross, as well as a proper understanding of the lament genre, it is likely that Jesus has the entirety of Psalm 22 in view even though he only quotes v. 1. When we look at Psalm 22, we find that this righteous man who suffers unjustly is ultimately vindicated and that his feeling and experience of abandonment to death take place in the context of the covenant faithfulness of God.
  4. The Old Testament Story – Finally, we need to understand that Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction stands at the apex of the biblical story, which is Israel’s story. Israel is promised exile in the Old Testament. They are told that, on the Day of the Lord, God will send them out of the Promised Land. God departs from the Temple at the beginning of Ezekiel in anticipation of its and Israel’s destruction. In other words, exile is divine abandonment. It is judgment on sin. Israel deserves it because they have not repented and trusted in YHWH. But when we look at the narratives concerning exile, YHWH is not only the God who judges but also the God who saves. As he sends Israel’s enemies to crush them and to remove them from the land, he also remains with them. He abandons Israel in 1 Samuel 5, when the ark is taken by the Philistines. But he also in that story is working on their behalf, going into exile on their behalf and defeating their enemies for them in the midst of that self-imposed exile by knocking over the idol of Dagon. In Ezekiel, as he pronounces judgment on Israel by abandoning the Temple, his presence goes with Israel into exile. Exile is real, but so is the promise of return. And in God, mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). Return triumphs over exile. Resurrection triumphs over death. The judgment that takes place on the cross is real, but it is judgment in a covenant context that anticipates vindication through resurrection.

As I said in the previous post, I wholeheartedly affirm penal substitution. God pours out his wrath toward sinners on Jesus at the cross. Those who repent of their sins and believe Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom. 10:9) receive death instead of life because Jesus took the curse that we deserve (Gal. 3:13). Jesus became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In all these ways I affirm penal substitution. But in describing this mystery we need to make sure we do not cross the dogmatic boundaries of Nicaea and Chalcedon or the canonical boundaries of Holy Scripture.

Theological Moorings for Canonical Readings

My doctoral supervisor, David Hogg, was once asked in my Theological Method PhD seminar what his method is. I still love his response: “I look for patterns and weird stuff.” That is, his approach to reading Scripture consists largely of paying attention to what is repeated and what stands out as extraordinary, either in terms of actual events or their description or both. This interpretive method produces readings that sometimes (many times) vexes those who hold to the historical-critical method and its evangelical cousins.

What, then, are the *theological* rationales that give an interpreter the hermeneutical warrant to link certain biblical texts together in a typological chain? To put a finer historical point on it, why does Irenaeus, in his On the Apostolic Preaching, feel justified in linking the Virgin Birth to the untilled ground out of which Adam is made, or Eve’s creation out of Adam’s rib to the Church’s birth out of Christ’s pierced side? I want to suggest that there are least three theological reasons that readers feel justified in these types of patterned readings.

  1. Spirit-Inspired and Christ-Centered: Of course, a canonical method, however clearly or vaguely defined, finds its ultimate ground in confessing that Scripture is one Spirit-inspired book with one Christological point. Because Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to his people, its ultimate source is the Triune God. Its inspiration and purpose are therefore related to God’s economic activity of redemption, and specifically to his work of revealing himself to his people. Because God ultimately makes himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, we should expect that the Scriptures’ primary point is to show its readers the incarnate Son. This is bolstered by the fact that the Spirit who inspired the biblical text is a Son-centered Spirit; that is, the Spirit’s job is to testify to the Son, because the Son demonstrates to us the Father. For these pneumatological and Christological reasons, we should not find it strange when Christian interpreters insist that Scripture’s ultimate referent is the incarnate Christ.
  2. God’s Providence: Patterned readings – readings that pay attention to biblical repetition, either at a lexical or narrative level – are rooted in the fact that God has providentially ordered redemptive history to progressively  and repetitively intensify until it reaches its culmination in Christ. That is, God has so ordered the events from the first Adam to the Second Adam that they a) are repetitive at both the level of the event and the level of the author’s description of that event and b) intensify via this repetition to point forward to their eschatological fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus. This providential ordering is related to the previous point, in that God’s revelation of himself centers on the person of Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s providential ordering of redemptive history also points forward to that same Christ. We should therefore expect at both the literary and historical levels to find repetition from one biblical story to another.
  3. The Christological Center of Human History: Christ is not only the center of biblical history; he is also the center of human history, of the entirety of God’s economic activity in redemption and also in creation. Interpretations of the Bible that focus on seeing repeated patterns at the lexical and narrative levels find their ultimate foundation in God’s providence over all of human history, since that providential ordering centers on Jesus. This last point actually grounds the first two: because God’s economic activities of creation and redemption both center on the incarnate Son, he has ordered all of human history, and therefore all of redemptive history, and therefore his revelation of himself as part of that redemptive activity, to point to and find their culmination in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Johannine Split

If you were to walk into a bookstore or library with a section on the New Testament, and if you were to look for the books that discussed Luke, chances are you’d find a large number of volumes combining Luke and Acts under whatever topic. So “A Commentary on Luke-Acts,” “A Theology of Luke-Acts,” “The Spirit in Luke-Acts,” and so on. This is true also of NT Introductions, which often discuss Luke and Acts together. On one level this makes sense; Luke is the author of both books, the introduction to Acts calls it the second part of a two part work, and there are a myriad of linguistic, narrative, and theological points of continuity.

But on another level, the canonical one, it makes little sense. The fact is that John almost always comes at the end of the Fourfold Gospel corpus (see Metzger, The Canon of the NT, 296), and there are only three cases of Luke coming at the end, each of which are late (6th, 14th cents.) and regionally isolated.

Why don’t we follow the overwhelmingly dominate order of the NT in our interpretive practice when discussing Acts? While I would not go so far as to say we should start having “John-Acts” monographs, we ought to consider seriously the fact that Luke almost never comes immediately before Acts in any of our available lists, codices, or MSS. The arrangement of material matters in interpretation, even on a canonical level, and John splitting Luke and Acts ought to give NT readers pause in how the interpret the NT exegetically, narratively, and theologically.

Canonical Method

The third fundamental component of a Christian theological method is that it ought to be canonical. This means that

it recognizes the Spirit’s inspiration of all of Christian Scripture and therefore the intertextual interrelatedness of it. This aspect also calls us to recognize the structure of the canon and its influence on interpretation of particular books and passages.

This foundation, like the others, follows on the previous ones. So, as noted in the definition above, recognizing the canonical nature of the scriptures and allowing that to dictate our interpretive practice is a direct implication of the fact that Scripture ultimately has one author, the Holy Spirit. Additionally, as we will see below, the intertextual connections and canonical shape of the Bible helps us to more clearly see how both the human and divine author testify to Christ, which points us again back to the first foundational aspect of method, its Christocentric nature.

First, a canonical method recognizes the intertextual connections between the various parts of the Bible. On the divine author’s side, the Spirit’s omniscience and sovereignty in inspiration allows and produces textual connections throughout Scripture. But we should also affirm that the human authors use an intertextual strategy throughout the Bible, beginning with Moses in the Pentateuch and continuing as each book is written. The authors of the Bible continually and explicitly quote, allude to, and echo previous parts of Scripture. So Moses quotes himself throughout the Pentateuch, Joshua 1 is textually connected to Deuteronomy 34, the Book of the Twelve (Hosea-Malachi) exhibits interlocking textual seams between the different books within it, and so on. The Old Testament grows organically through continually tying itself off to previously written parts of Scripture, and the New Testament continues this strategy by explicitly connecting itself with the entire Old Testament. So then, both from the perspective of the divine and human authors, we ought to search for and expect textual connections between the different parts of Scripture.

One final note here – this actually helps us see more clearly how the Old Testament speaks of Christ. Many times we read a story or a psalm and don’t see exactly how it is explicitly or textually about Christ. Many times, however, explicit textual connections to other parts of the Old Testament clarify how this so. My favorite (and the most controversial) example is the Song of Songs. The idea that this book is not really about Christ and the Church is so commonplace among Christians today that to say otherwise is deemed insane allegory, but I want to suggest that not only is Songs about Jesus, but it is explicitly textually so. I can’t go into all the detail needed to prove this here, but suffice it to say that the author of Songs very clearly quotes, alludes to, and echoes passages about the Davidic covenant, the Temple (specifically 1 Kings 7), eschaotological restoration (specifically Numbers 24), Garden imagery from Genesis 2, and Lady Wisdom language from Proverbs 1-9. Look at that list again – David, Temple, Garden, Restoration, Lady Wisdom. And while I can’t list them here, there are obvious and explicit textual connections to each of these – the author ties off his work textually to these highly charged, and indeed Messianic, OT themes.

Now for those who haven’t stopped reading after I broke the basic rule of evangelical hermeneutics – don’t allegorize Songs! – the second aspect of a canonical method is that it will recognize the importance of the ordering of the material both within individual books and within the canon as a whole. Not only has the Spirit authoritatively and infallibly inspired the biblical material, but it has also guided the Church in her reading of the Bible. Part of the people of God’s reception of Scripture includes ordering the books within the biblical canon. Although not an inspired task, we can nevertheless still say that it is a Spirit-illumined task, in that the Church always ought to be looking for guidance in her interpretation of the text. And make no mistake, ordering the books is an interpretation of the material. Of course, we ought to say here that the ordering of the material within a specific book (so the fact that Matthew 5-7 comes after Matthew 3-4) is inspired. But we can’t say the same about the order of the books within the canon – only that the order reflects a literary reading strategy illumined by the Spirit in the Church’s reception of the biblical material. This post is already very long, so if you are interested in why the order of the books of the Bible matters, see for instance John Sailhamer, Brevard Childs, Christopher Seitz, Stephen Chapman, Stephen Dempster, etc.