Tim Keller posted one of his gospel aphorisms on Facebook a couple of days ago that got some people riled. He said:
Now, on the face of it, this could be a very problematic statement. My friend Mark Jones has gone into why. Essentially, on one straightforward read, this is playing right into a tritheistic split in the godhead that many critics of penal substitution assume is going on. But contrary to that, orthodox theology has always held the Father has never stopped loving the Son, especially in his moment of greatest obedience to him on the cross.
My suspicion is that is not what Keller has in mind, but is speaking loosely about the experience of the Son as the Godman. I’ve written elsewhere that the Reformed speak of the Godman’s suffering on the cross per the logic of Chalcedon:
When we speak of the Son suffering the consequences of sin or judgment or wrath or God’s abandonment, we speak truly but we speak according to his human nature. We have to be able to say the divine Son suffered these things because Jesus is the divine Son. We confess according to Scripture that “God purchased the church with his blood” (Acts 20:28). But we also have to say the Son suffered according to, or by virtue of, his human nature. This is why Reformed Orthodox stalwarts like Francis Turretin insisted Christ is our mediator according to both natures with “each nature contributing what is its own—the human indeed the substance of the work (or passion); the divine, its infinite value and price” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, V). Or as Wilhelmus à Brakel put it, “It was an infinite person who suffered according to his human nature, and thus his suffering was of infinite efficacy and value, ‘having obtained eternal redemption for us’ (Heb. 9:12)” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1: God, Man, and Christ, 482).
In which case, I think it is a reasonable guess to suppose that Keller is speaking of Jesus’ experience of the loss of God’s infinite love in his experience on the cross.
Indeed, returning to Turretin, we see him articulating something like this at length in his careful scholastic way.
The punishment of desertion, suffered by Christ (of which he complained, Mt. 27:46) was not a bodily, but a spiritual and internal suffering. It arose not from any torment (however dreadful) which he could feel in his body…but from a most oppressive sense of God’s wrath resting upon him on account of our sins. Now this desertion is not to be conceived of as absolute, total and eternal (such as is felt by only demons and the reprobate), but temporal and relative; not in respect of the union of nature (for what the Son of God once assumed, he never parted with)l or of the union of grace and holiness because he was always blameless (akakos) and pure (amiantos), endowed with untainted holiness; or of communion and protection because God was always at his right hand (Ps. 110:5), nor was he ever left alone (Jn. 16:32). But as to a participation of joy and felicity, God suspending for a little while the favorable presence of grace and the influx of consolation and happiness that he might be able to suffer all the punishment due to us (as to the withdrawal of vision, not as a dissolution of union; as to the want of the sense of divine love, intercepted by the sense of the divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him, not as to a real privation or extinction of it.) And, as the Scholastics say, as to the “affection of advantage” that he might be destitute of the ineffable consolation and joy which arises from a sense of God’s paternal love and the beatific vision of his countenance (Ps. 16); but not as to the “affection of righteousness” because he felt nothing inordinate in himself which would tend to desperation, impatience or blasphemy against God. (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 14, Q. II, VI)
The long and the short of it in that very long, very carefully qualified paragraph is that while the Son doesn’t lose God’s infinite love simpliciter, he loses “a sense of God’s paternal love and the beatific vision of his countenance” for a while, not absolutely, but relatively, and so forth. In loose language, we could say that the Son loses his experience of the love of God. At least that’s what Reformed Orthodox stalwart Turretin seems to say.
Now, it’s true that elsewhere Keller has expanded statements like this to point out that the background of the Son’s loss of the experience of God’s paternal affection is his eternal relationship with the Father. That expansion may or may not be worth correcting. Though, it does seem initially plausible that Christ’s knowledge of himself as the Son who experienced glory with the Father in eternity past (John 17:5) could have contributed to the shock and pain of his experience of the “punishment of desertion.” While we speak according to the natures, and we don’t confuse them, we don’t separate them either. But I won’t take a hard line here.
Now, I don’t claim that my read of Keller through Turretin is obviously the right read. I do think it is at least as plausible this is the fleshed out thought behind his aphorism, if not more so, as the one that Jones is worried about. I suppose from there, the discussion we might have is how careful we ought to be with the communication of idioms in our preaching. I have little worry that Keller is preaching heresy, though.
Soli Deo Gloria
(One additional note: this is just one post on Facebook out of years of Keller’s sermons on the cross where one might find counterbalancing statements. I will say that I have heard enough of them to know that on those occasions he references Christ’s quotation of Psalm 22, Keller has pointed out that Christ still calls God “my God”, and is likely invoking the rest of the song as an act of trust in the Lord’s faithfulness to him. The implication is that the fundamental unity of the Trinity remains unruptured even through the experience of wrath. That sort of thing ought to be factored in as well.)