Pastor Tim Keller has posted a follow-up to the ideas and concepts that Mark Jones highlighted a few days ago concerning Christ’s cry of abandon from the cross. There’s a lot that could be said, but so far it’s simply worth nothing that it is a very good conversation that opens up lots of avenues for further discussion. In his most recent post, Pastor Keller cites Calvin for explanation and context, and he embraces many important distinctions. As I was reading along, I decided to cross-reference Calvin and ended up going down a fun sort of rabbit hole. As it turns out, Calvin wrote quite a lot on this particular topic. It’s fascinating. Calvin treats the whole matter with biblical integrity and careful attention to dogmatic theology, and the whole excursion serves a sort of theological education.
In what follows, I would like to give this all more exposure. I will list Calvin’s most significant statements on Christ’s cry of despair on the Cross and give a brief commentary on each, noticing his common affirmations, denials, and emphases. I may not have found every relevant passage in Calvin’s writings, but I have tried to catalog the major ones. If readers find others, they may feel free to pass them along.
John Hesselink has published an edition of the catechism Calvin wrote in 1538. This was a summary form of the first edition of his Institutes, and it served as the city confession of faith for a time. It can now be found in Hesselink’s Calvin’s First Catechism: A Commentary (Louisville: WJK, 1997). The 20th chapter of that catechism explains the Apostles’ Creed, a creed which Calvin says “contains nothing merely human but has been assembled from very sure testimonies of Scripture.” When Calvin gets to the part of the creed that says Christ “descended into hell,” he makes these remarks:
It is said that he descended into hell. This means that he had been afflicted by God, and felt the dread and severity of divine judgment, in order to intercede with God’s wrath and make satisfaction to his justice in our name, thus paying our debts and lifting our penalties, not for his own iniquity (which never existed) but for ours.
Yet it is not to be understood that the Father was ever angry toward him. For how could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom he was well pleased”? Or how could he appease the Father by his intercession, if the Father regarded him as an enemy? But it is in this sense that he is said to have borne the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God, so as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
(Catechism of Geneva 1538, chapter 20. 4; published in Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism, pg. 24)
Here we see Calvin explaining Christ’s cry of Psalm 22 under the topical heading of the descent into Hell. This style of categorization will continue throughout Calvin’s later works as well. We also see that the descent into Hell is interpreted as Christ’s psychological bearing of God’s wrath in the atonement, another hallmark of Calvin’s. Christ really felt the fullness of the wrath of God in order to satisfy divine justice. Yet, for all of this, Calvin also asserts that “the Father was never angry toward the Son,” nor ever truly regarded the Son as an enemy. This balance of affirmation and denial will characterize the rest of Calvin’s work on this topic.
Seven years later, Calvin wrote another catechism, this time designed for the teaching of children. Whereas the 1538 catechism was more of a confession of faith, composed of chapters, the 1545 catechism takes the form of the familiar question and answer format, with each answer typically being between one and three sentences. Starting at question 65, Calvin again highlights Christ’s descent into hell and its relationship to the cry of dereliction from the cross:
Q65 M. It is immediately added, “he descended into hell”. What does this mean?
S. That he not only endured common death, which is the separation of the soul from the body, but also the pains of death, as Peter calls them. (Acts 2:24.) By this expression I understand the fearful agonies by which his soul was pierced.
Q66 M. Give me the cause and the manner of this.
S. As in order to satisfy for sinners he sisted himself before the tribunal of God, it was necessary that he should suffer excruciating agony of conscience, as if he had been forsaken of God, nay as it were, had God hostile to him. He was in this agony when he exclaimed, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46.)
Q67 M. Was his Father then offended with him?
S. By no means. But he exercised this severity against him in fulfilment of what had been foretold by Isaiah, that “he was smitten by the hand of God for our sins and wounded for our transgressions.” (Isaiah 53:4, 5.)
Q68 M. But seeing he is God, how could he be seized with any such dread, as if he were forsaken of God?
S. We must hold that it was in respect to the feelings of his human nature that he was reduced to this necessity: and that this might be, his divinity for a little while was concealed, that is, did not put forth its might.
Q69 M. How, on the other hand, is it possible that Christ, who is the salvation of the world, should have been subjected to this doom.
S. He did not endure it so as to remain under it. For though he was seized with the terrors I have mentioned, he was not overwhelmed. Rather wrestling with the power of hell he subdued and crushed it.
Q70 M. Hence we infer that the torture of conscience which he bore differs from that which excruciates sinners when pursued by the hands of an angry God. For what was temporary in him is perpetual in them, and what was in him only the prick of a sting, is in them a mortal sword, which, so to speak, wounds the heart.
S. It is so. The Son of God when beset by this anguish, ceased, not to hope in the Father. But sinners condemned by the justice of God, rush into despair, murmur against him, and even break forth into open blasphemies.
It is rather impressive to see this much space devoted to this topic in a children’s catechism. Calvin obviously thought it important. The organization is nearly identical to the 1538 catechism, explaining the Apostles’ Creed and connecting the descent into Hell with Christ’s bearing the wrath of God. This suffering goes all the way to Christ’s conscience and the agonies of His soul.
But notice the safeguards. The Father was not “offended with Him.” Calvin even says that the feeling of dread was proper to Christ’s human nature:
We must hold that it was in respect to the feelings of his human nature that he was reduced to this necessity: and that this might be, his divinity for a little while was concealed, that is, did not put forth its might.
Given the doctrine of divine impassibility, Christ’s divine nature suffered no change or affectation on the cross. The deity of the Son was unmoved, remaining in perfect unity with the Father throughout. The humanity of Christ felt this sensation of abandonment– “his divinity for a little while was concealed”– but even this is taken in a qualified way– it “did not put forth its might.” God chose to hide or conceal His divine majesty, though He did not absolutely “remove” it in such a way as to rend the hypostatic union.
This point becomes, for Calvin, a model of how we can overcome feelings of doubt and hold fast to a confident faith. Christ’s humanity felt the greatest spiritual anguish, and yet, “he was not overwhelmed. Rather wrestling with the power of hell he subdued and crushed it.”
Calvin returns to this same topic in his commentary on Hebrews 5:7, “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared.” As an explanation of this verse, Calvin argues that Christ suffered in both body and soul and that he bore the judgment of God– which Calvin again connects with the descent into Hell. Calvin emphasizes Christ’s emotional state, citing both Matt. 26:43 (“Let this cup pass from me”) and Matt. 27:46 (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?). Calvin then connects this to the “fear” of Hebrews 5:7 and points to the need to pray in such circumstances:
When he had offered up prayers, etc. The second thing he mentions respecting Christ is, that he, as it became him, sought a remedy that he might be delivered from evils; and he said this that no one might think that Christ had an iron heart which felt nothing; for we ought always to consider why a thing is said. Had Christ been touched by no sorrow, no consolation could arise to us from his sufferings; but when we hear that he also endured the bitterest agonies of mind, the likeness becomes then evident to us. Christ, he says, did not undergo death and other evils because he disregarded them or was pressed down by no feeling of distress, but he prayed with tears, by which he testified the extreme anguish of his soul. Then by tears and strong crying the Apostle meant to express the intensity of his grief, for it is usual to show it by outward symptoms; nor do I doubt but that he refers to that prayer which the Evangelists mention, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” (Matthew 26:42; Luke 22:42;) and also to another, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46.) For in the second instance mention is made by the evangelists of strong crying; and in the first it is not possible to believe that his eyes were dry, since drops of blood, through excessive grief, flowed from his body. It is indeed certain that he was reduced to great straits; and being overwhelmed with real sorrows, he earnestly prayed his Father to bring him help.
And what application is to be made of this? Even this, that whenever our evils press upon us and overwhelm us, we may call to mind the Son of God who labored under the same; and since he has gone before us there is no reason for us to faint. We are at the same time reminded that deliverance from evils can be found from no other but from God alone, and what better guidance can we have as to prayer than the example of Christ? He betook himself immediately to the Father. And thus the Apostle indicates what ought to be done by us when he says that he offered prayers to him who was able to deliver him from death; for by these words he intimates that he rightly prayed, because he fled to God the only Deliverer. His tears and crying recommend to us ardor and earnestness in prayer, for we ought not to pray to God formally, but with ardent desires.
And was heard, etc. Some render the following words, “on account of his reverence” or fears but I wholly differ from them. In the first place he puts the word alone ἐυλαθείας without the possessive “his”; and then there is the preposition ἀπὸ “from,” not ὑπὲρ “on account of,” or any other signifying a cause or a reason. As, then, εὐλάθεια means for the most part fear or anxiety, I doubt not but that the Apostle means that Christ was heard from that which he feared, so that he was not overwhelmed by his evils or swallowed up by death. For in this contest the Son of God had to engage, not because he was tried by unbelief, the source of all our fears, but because he sustained as a man in our flesh the judgment of God, the terror of which could not have been overcome without an arduous effort. Chrysostom interprets it of Christ’s dignity, which the Father in a manner reverenced; but this cannot be admitted. Others render it “piety.” But the explanation I have given is much more suitable, and requires no long arguments in its favor.
These paragraphs show how Calvin is committed to emphasizing the true human emotional weight that Christ bore in His sufferings. This is important for defending Christ’s full humanity, but Calvin also believes it is important to teach us how to respond to similar feelings in our lives. We ought to have the faith Christ had. When we feel feelings which do not rise to the same extreme (for we do not bear the full wrath of God), we ought to persevere and to turn to God in prayer.
Then Calvin adds an additional explanation, nothing that Christ was never actually rejected by the Father:
Now he added this third particular, lest we should think that Christ’s prayers were rejected, because he was not immediately delivered from his evils; for at no time was God’s mercy and aid wanting to him. And hence we may conclude that God often hears our prayers, even when that is in no way made evident. For though it belongs not to us to prescribe to him as it were a fixed rule, nor does it become him to grant whatsoever requests we may conceive in our minds or express with our tongues, yet he shows that he grants our prayers in everything necessary for our salvation. So when we seem apparently to be repulsed, we obtain far more than if he fully granted our requests.
Notice the conclusion to the first sentence: “at no time was God’s mercy and aid wanting to him.” Christ had a true feeling of abandonment, but he was not actually abandoned. Indeed, when confronted with this feeling, Christ drew near to God in prayer, and His prayer was heard. “Hence we may conclude that God often hears our prayers, even when that is in no way made evident.”
Perhaps the most obvious source to examine on this topic would be Calvin’s commentary on the crucifixion passage, and indeed, he does address this topic in his comments on Matthew 27:46:
And about the ninth hour Jesus cried. Though in the cry which Christ uttered a power more than human was manifested, yet it was unquestionably drawn from him by intensity of sorrow. And certainly this was his chief conflict, and harder than all the other tortures, that in his anguish he was so far from being soothed by the assistance or favor of his Father, that he felt himself to be in some measure estranged from him. For not only did he offer his body as the price of our reconciliation with God, but. in his soul also he endured the punishments due to us; and thus he became, as Isaiah speaks, a man of sorrows, (53:3.) Those interpreters are widely mistaken who, laying aside this part of redemption, attended solely to the outward punishment of the flesh; for in order that Christ might satisfy for us, it was necessary that he should be placed as a guilty person at the judgment-seat of God. Now nothing is more dreadful than to feel that God, whose wrath is worse than all deaths, is the Judge. When this temptation was presented to Christ, as if, having God opposed to him, he were already devoted to destruction, he was seized with horror, which would have been sufficient to swallow up a hundred times all the men in the world; but by the amazing power of the Spirit he achieved the victory. Nor is it by hypocrisy, or by assuming a character, that he complains of having been forsaken by the Father. Some allege that he employed this language in compliance with the opinion of the people, but this is an absurd mode of evading the difficulty; for the inward sadness of his soul was so powerful and violent, that it forced him to break out into a cry. Nor did the redemption which he accomplished consist solely in what was exhibited to the eye, (as I stated a little ago,) but having undertaken to be our surety, he resolved actually to undergo in our room the judgment of God.
But it appears absurd to say that an expression of despair escaped Christ. The reply is easy. Though the perception of the flesh would have led him to dread destruction, still in his heart faith remained firm, by which he beheld the presence of God, of whose absence he complains. We have explained elsewhere how the Divine nature gave way to the weakness of the flesh, so far as was necessary for our salvation, that Christ might accomplish all that was required of the Redeemer. We have likewise pointed out the distinction between the sentiment of nature and the knowledge of faith; and, therefore, the perception of God’s estrangement from him, which Christ had, as suggested by natural feeling, did not hinder him from continuing to be assured by faith that God was reconciled to him. This is sufficiently evident from the two clauses of the complaint; for, before stating the temptation, he begins by saying that he betakes himself to God as his God, and thus by the shield of faith he courageously expels that appearance of forsaking which presented itself on the other side. In short, during this fearful torture his faith remained uninjured, so that, while he complained of being forsaken, he still relied on the aid of God as at hand.
Calvin begins by saying that Jesus felt estranged from God, but notice there is a qualification even there “in some measure.” This qualification will become more pronounced in the second paragraph where Calvin says, “still in his heart faith remained firm, by which he beheld the presence of God, of whose absence he complains.” Calvin then goes on to explain the opposition between Christ’s human nature and its “weakness” and the (human) faith which He ever retains. “The perception of God’s estrangement from him” is proper to Christ’s human nature, a “natural feeling,” and yet, even in His humanity, Christ’s “faith remained uninjured,” and so he continued to have assurance and to rely upon God. Indeed, this reliance is what enables Him to make the cry in the first place, as it is a prayer. Even still, Calvin goes on to say, it was “as if an offended God had thrown him into a whirlpool of afflictions.”
Calvin wants to here balance a number of truths. Jesus Christ truly felt the most extreme pain of judgment, even in His soul. But Christ did not lose hope nor actually fall away from God, and by the continuation of His faith, His human nature still perceived the presence of His deity. Through all of this, Christ is an example of how to respond to spiritual suffering.
Now, we should notice that Calvin says that he has previously explained that the Divine nature “gave way to the weakness of the flesh” for our salvation. This may be a reference to places like his commentary on Philippians 2:7, where he writes, “Christ, indeed, could not divest himself of Godhead; but he kept it concealed for a time, that it might not be seen, under the weakness of the flesh. Hence he laid aside his glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it.” He adds to this, “the abasement of the flesh was, notwithstanding, like a vail, by which his divine majesty was concealed,” and “In fine, the image of God shone forth in Christ in such a manner, that he was, at the same time, abased in his outward appearance, and brought down to nothing in the estimation of men; for he carried about with him the form of a servant, and had assumed our nature, expressly with the view of his being a servant of the Father, nay, even of men.” Thus the “concealing” or “hiding” of the divine nature is one aspect of the accommodation of the incarnation itself. At the cross, it took its most extreme form.
But Calvin has also addressed this concealing of the divine majesty in his commentary on Matt. 27, in the preceding verses. Commenting on Matt. 27:40, Calvin writes:
He had clothed himself with human flesh, and had descended into the world, on this condition, that, by the sacrifice of his death, he might reconcile men to God the Father. So then, in order to prove himself to be the Son of God, it was necessary that he should hang on the cross. And now those wicked men affirm that the Redeemer will not be recognized as the Son of God, unless he come clown from the cross, and thus disobey the command of his Father, and, leaving incomplete the expiation of sins, divest himself of the office which God had assigned to him. But let us learn from it to confirm our faith by considering that the Son of God determined to remain nailed to the cross for the sake of our salvation, until he had endured most cruel torments of the flesh, and dreadful anguish of soul, and even death itself.
This continues the theme of Christ’s divine nature being hidden from human view. This is the paradox of the Cross. But then, a few verses later, Calvin makes this striking statement:
This, as I said a little ago, is a very sharp arrow of temptation which Satan holds in his hand, when he pretends that God has forgotten us, because He does not relieve us speedily and at the very moment. For since God watches over the safety of his people, and not only grants them seasonable aid, but even anticipates their necessities, (as Scripture everywhere teaches us,) he appears not to love those whom he does not assist. Satan, therefore, attempts to drive us to despair by this logic, that it is in vain for us to feel assured o the love of God, when we do not clearly perceive his aid. And as he suggests to our minds this kind of imposition, so he employs his agents, who contend that God has sold and abandoned our salvation, because he delays to give his assistance. We ought, therefore, to reject as false this argument, that God does not love those whom he appears for a time to forsake; and, indeed, nothing is more unreasonable than to limit his love to any point of time. God has, indeed, promised that he will be our Deliverer; but if he sometimes wink at our calamities, we ought patiently to endure the delay. It is, therefore, contrary to the nature of faith, that the word now should be insisted on by those whom God is training by the cross and by adversity to obedience, and whom he entreats to pray and to call on his name; for these are rather the testimonies of his fatherly love, as the apostle tells us, (Hebrews 12:6.)
This speaks directly to the question of whether Jesus lost God’s love. Calvin says that this is patently false. While Satan may tempt us to believe that we have lost God’s love when we undergo His judgment, we should remind ourselves of God’s promises and “patiently endure the delay.” Indeed, “we ought, therefore, to reject as false this argument, that God does not love those whom he appears for a time to forsake.” While we may experience God’s chastisement as divine absence, Calvin reminds us that the Scriptures say “these are rather the testimonies of his fatherly love.”
After all of this, it might be easy to neglect the original source of those words “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me.” They come from Psalm 22. Calvin has a commentary on that psalm, and he begins it by noting the initial irony of feeling forsaken by God and yet still addressing Him as “my God.” The repetition itself is important, as it shows emphasis. Calvin puts it this way:
The first verse contains two remarkable sentences, which, although apparently contrary to each other, are yet ever entering into the minds of the godly together. When the Psalmist speaks of being forsaken and cast off by God, it seems to be the complaint of a man in despair; for can a man have a single spark of faith remaining in him, when he believes that there is no longer any succor for him in God? And yet, in calling God twice his own God, and depositing his groanings into his bosom, he makes a very distinct confession of his faith. With this inward conflict the godly must necessarily be exercised whenever God withdraws from them the tokens of his favor, so that, in whatever direction they turn their eyes, they see nothing but the darkness of night. I say, that the people of God, in wrestling with themselves, on the one hand discover the weakness of the flesh, and on the other give evidence of their faith.
…There is not one of the godly who does not daily experience in himself the same thing. According to the judgment of the flesh, he thinks he is cast off and forsaken by God, while yet he apprehends by faith the grace of God, which is hidden from the eye of sense and reason; and thus it comes to pass, that contrary affections are mingled and interwoven in the prayers of the faithful. Carnal sense and reason cannot but conceive of God as being either favorable or hostile, according to the present condition of things which is presented to their view. When, therefore, he suffers us to lie long in sorrow, and as it were to pine away under it, we must necessarily feel, according to the apprehension of the flesh, as if he had quite forgotten us. When such a perplexing thought takes entire possession of the mind of man, it overwhelms him in profound unbelief, and he neither seeks, nor any longer expects, to find a remedy. But if faith come to his aid against such a temptation, the same person who, judging from the outward appearance of things, regarded God as incensed against him, or as having abandoned him, beholds in the mirror of the promises the grace of God which is hidden and distant. Between these two contrary affections the faithful are agitated, and, as it were, fluctuate, when Satan, on the one hand, by exhibiting to their view the signs of the wrath of God, urges them on to despair, and endeavors entirely to overthrow their faith; while faith, on the other hand, by calling them back to the promises, teaches them to wait patiently and to trust in God, until he again show them his fatherly countenance.
Presented this way, Calvin would seem to be saying that this prayer expresses a mixture of sinful feelings as well as true faith. But he adds a further qualification explaining that this need not be the case:
Yea, we see that he has given the first place to faith. Before he allows himself to utter his complaint, in order to give faith the chief place, he first declares that he still claimed God as his own God, and betook himself to him for refuge. And as the affections of the flesh, when once they break forth, are not easily restrained, but rather carry us beyond the bounds of reason, it is surely well to repress them at the very commencement. David, therefore, observed the best possible order in giving his faith the precedency – in expressing it before giving vent to his sorrow, and in qualifying, by devout prayer, the complaint which he afterwards makes with respect to the greatness of his calamities. Had he spoken simply and precisely in these terms, Lord, why forsakest thou me? he would have seemed, by a complaint so bitter, to murmur against God; and besides, his mind would have been in great danger of being embittered with discontent through the greatness of his grief. But, by here raising up against murmuring and discontent the rampart of faith, he keeps all his thoughts and feelings under restraint, that they may not break beyond due bounds.
Calvin does go on to explain how the faithful will have to wrestle with their faith, and so he is not denying that sin will intermingle with their prayers during such times. But he does not believe that the expression of Psalm 22, as such, requires an element of sin. To the contrary, it is an example of the appropriate way to stir up one’s faith.
But what about when Christ takes these words unto Himself? Again, there is no sin, nor even dishonorable emotion. Rather, Christ shows us that a perfect man can still possess such feelings in the face of extreme affliction:
As our Savior Jesus Christ, when hanging on the cross, and when ready to yield up his soul into the hands of God his Father, made use of these very words, (Matthew 27:46,) we must consider how these two things can agree, that Christ was the only begotten Son of God, and that yet he was so penetrated with grief, seized with so great mental trouble, as to cry out that God his Father had forsaken him. The apparent contradiction between these two statements has constrained many interpreters to have recourse to evasions for fear of charging Christ with blame in this matter. Accordingly, they have said that Christ made this complaint rather according to the opinion of the common people, who witnessed his sufferings, than from any feeling which he had of being deserted by his father. But they have not considered that they greatly lessen the benefit of our redemption, in imagining that Christ was altogether exempted from the terrors which the judgment of God strikes into sinners. It was a groundless fear to be afraid of making Christ subject to so great sorrow, lest they should diminish his glory. As Peter, in Acts 2:24, clearly testifies that “it was not possible that he should be holden of the pains of death,” it follows that he was not altogether exempted from them. And as he became our representative, and took upon him our sins, it was certainly necessary that he should appear before the judgment-seat of God as a sinner. From this proceeded the terror and dread which constrained him to pray for deliverance from death; not that it was so grievous to him merely to depart from this life; but because there was before his eyes the curse of God, to which all who are sinners are exposed. Now, if during his first conflict “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood,” and he needed an angel to comfort him, (Luke 22:43,) it is not wonderful if, in his last sufferings on the cross, he uttered a complaint which indicated the deepest sorrow. By the way, it should be marked, that Christ, although subject to human passions and affections, never fell into sin through the weakness of the flesh; for the perfection of his nature preserved him from all excess. He could therefore overcome all the temptations with which Satan assailed him, without receiving any wound in the conflict which might afterwards constrain him to halt.
Many of these themes will reappear in our final example of Calvin’s thoughts on this matter, a portion of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Calvin continued to work on his Institutes of the Christian Religion for most of his life, and the final edition represents something close to his most mature theology. A bit of the original outline can be detected, as Calvin still treats Christ’s bearing divine wrath and cry of abandon under the topical heading of the descent into Hell, but the topic has grown in size and scope over the years. The final treatment can be found in Institutes 2.16.8-12. This is the portion of Calvin’s text that Pastor Keller used in his recent post.
Calvin spends a good amount of time covering the history of the descent clause of the Apostles’ Creed and criticizing certain views that argue that Christ literally went to a sort of underworld domain. This is the part of Calvin’s thought that many people have in mind when they say that he rejected or re-invented the descent clause. Calvin actually attempts to present his view as one possible reading of the creed, though this may strike the modern reader as rather strained. Calvin writes:
It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man. (Inst. 2.16.10)
More relevant for our purposes is what Calvin goes on to say. He again takes up Christ’s cry, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” and repeats many of the statements he has said elsewhere. This cry showed the spiritual anguish Christ felt when experiencing divine wrath:
Christ then praying in a loud voice, and with tears, is heard in that he feared, not so as to be exempted from death, but so as not to be swallowed up of it like a sinner, though standing as our representative. And certainly no abyss can be imagined more dreadful than to feel that you are abandoned and forsaken of God, and not heard when you invoke him, just as if he had conspired your destruction. To such a degree was Christ dejected, that in the depth of his agony he was forced to exclaim, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” …it is evident that the expression was wrung from the anguish of his inmost soul. (Inst. 2.16.11)
But then Calvin adds an important qualifier:
We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him. How could he be angry with the beloved Son, with whom his soul was well pleased? or how could he have appeased the Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself? (ibid)
Thus the feeling of abandonment was only a perception. It was a true feeling, but it did not reflect the entire reality.
Calvin next enters into an argument against Apollinarian objections, those who argued that Christ did not actually bear grief and agony in His spirit. This, Calvin argues, would rob Christ of a truly human spirit and prevent Him from being our example in this experience. To the contrary, Christ was able to bear a certain sort of human infirmity without being tainted with any accompanying sin:
One thing which misleads these detractors is, that they do not recognise in Christ an infirmity which was pure and free from every species of taint, inasmuch as it was kept within the limits of obedience. As no moderation can be seen in the depravity of our nature, in which all affections with turbulent impetuosity exceed their due bounds, they improperly apply the same standard to the Son of God. But as he was upright, all his affections were under such restraint as prevented every thing like excess. Hence he could resemble us in grief, fear, and dread, but still with this mark of distinction. (Inst. 2.16.12)
Indeed, Calvin says that Christ had “incredible bitterness of soul” which was “a fiercer and more arduous struggle than with ordinary death” (ibid). Calvin goes so far as to say that Christ’s human will felt a measure of “repugnance” towards “what he willed in his divine nature.” Yet, for all of this, Christ did not sin, nor was there any “violent emotion.” Even though “the Spirit veiled itself for a moment, that it might give place to the infirmity of the flesh,” Christ persevered in faith, continuing to “confide in [God’s] goodness.” Though there was a true feeling of abandonment, Christ retained a sure knowledge of God’s loving presence.
We have covered a significant amount of text in this post, though we have tried to simply highlight and clarify what Calvin has written. A consistent argument emerges throughout. Christ did feel a sort of divine absence on the cross, but this was according to His human nature. This feeling was a true perception, due to the weight of spiritual grief brought about by the divine wrath, but it was not an absolute reality, as God never fully withdrew from Christ, nor ceased loving Him or being pleased by Him. The anguish was internal to Christ’s humanity, and the turmoil was without violence or sin. In the end, Christ’s faith triumphed over the infirmity of His assumed nature, and the proof of this was that, when feeling this grief, Christ went directly to God in prayer. He took refuge in God, and as such, showed us a perfect example of pious suffering.
None of these explanations should be used to deny the paradox of this reality. Christ was both God and man on the cross, and His humanity had both total spiritual anguish and perfect faith. And all of these truths coexisted simultaneously during that famous cry from the Cross.
Still, the explanations are important, as they guard against errors of excess or carelessness. In this, Calvin shows a consistent desire to affirm the full truth of Scripture was also preserving the necessities of Trinitarian and Christological dogma.