Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Shack: Rejection of the Chief Article of the Christian Faith

This article condenses a series of articles previously published on Brothers of John the Steadfast. That series has been transformed into a free book. Information about the free book is available in the post titled, “Multiple Distributors and Formats for The Shack: A Journey from Pain to Truth to Error."

The novel, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity, has come out as a movie. It is time again to have discernment about its message.

Many worthy critiques address a catalogue of problems and are worth reading. This article focuses on the chief article of faith upon which the church stands or falls, which is justification and the redemption we have in Jesus.[1]

The theology and the story of The Shack arise from two pressures:
  • Pain, tragedy, loss, trauma, and suffering.
  • Perceived inadequacy of traditional American Protestantism to heal pain.
The author, Wm. Paul Young, had a severely abusive childhood. It is a painful story. Mackenzie (Mack) Phillips, the main character in The Shack, had a severely abusive upbringing by his hypocritical Christian father. It is a painful story that Young tells very well. Traditional Protestantism could not heal Young’s pain, he says, and in The Shack, it cannot heal Mack’s pain. Mack’s seminary training and standard Christianity do him no good.

The pain of Young’s upbringing cause him to enter what he calls “the Great Sadness.” Parallel to his great sadness, in the 1980s and 1990s there was a “renaissance of Trinitarian theology.”[2] This happened around the world, across denominational lines, and across disciplines and fields of study. A piece of this renaissance provided Young with his healing and healing for Mack in The Shack.

As it relates to The Shack, the British setting of this renaissance is significant. In Britain, the revival of interest in the Trinity was much influenced by the Study Commission of the British Council of Churches on “Trinitarian Doctrine Today.” This commission met between November 1983 and May 1988. John Zizioulas presented the seminal paper to the commission. His paper delineated the commission’s task and defined its agenda. He agreed with Karl Barth and Karl Rahner that the doctrine of the Trinity has become marginalized in the church. This had happened in both the East and the West. It had happened not only in matters of doctrine, but also with regard to the devotional life of Christians.

The commission published its report titled The Forgotten Trinity. With the report, the commission published a selection of papers and a study guide for local churches. The study guide related the Trinity to worship, Scripture, tradition, our relationship with God, human relationships, and society.

The joint chairs of the Commission were Costa Carras and James B. Torrance. James, his brother Thomas Torrance, Zizioulas, and theologians like them became prime influences on Young. That influence led to the core of the message in The Shack.

A second book, The Shack Revisited, by F. Baxter Kruger, is a more or less authorized commentary on the theology of The Shack. Young himself writes the foreword for The Shack Revisited, saying, “If you want to understand better the perspectives and theology that frame The Shack, this book is for you.”  He describes Kruger as “A Mississippi theologian who cut his intellectual teeth in Aberdeen, Scotland with the Torrance brothers.”

This school of thought, this type of Trinitarian Theology, is not easy to summarize briefly. It draws from many sources in church history including the Cappadocian Fathers, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robert Farrar Cappon, George MacDonald, James Torrance, Thomas Torrance, Kallistos Ware, Richard Rohr, and John Zizioulas, to name a few.

For our purposes here, we can summarize Trinitarian Theology this way:
  • First, we begin with a concept called perichoresis as the essence of the Trinity.
  • Second, perichoresis expands to become a theory-of-everything.
Young and Kruger really do mean everything. Confining ourselves to theology, however, for the sake of this article, perichoresis conditions all other doctrines. It becomes a hermeneutical principle that governs how Scripture is interpreted. What we are to believe about creation, law, fall, sin, wrath, promise, faith, repentance, conversion, justification, atonement, sanctification, adoption, testament, new covenant, reconciliation, eschatology, holiness, and more is subject to what fits with the perichoretic Trinity.

As Roderick T. Leupp says, “If today's devotees of trinitarian theology learn only one technical term, perichoresis should be it.”[3] Kruger describes perichoresis this way:

The sharing between the Father and Son in the Spirit is so deep and genuine, the intimacy so real and personal, that our minds are forced to move even beyond the rich notion of face-to-face fellowship into the world of mutual indwelling and union. The relationship of the Son and the Father in the Spirit is a living and unobstructed fellowship of love of the deepest order. They know one another fully. They live a fellowship of unqualified personal interchange and communion in the Spirit, which is so flawless, so rich and thorough and true, that there is literal mutual indwelling. The Persons pass into one another and contain one another without losing themselves. When one weeps, the other tastes salt, yet they never get so entangled or enmeshed that they lose themselves and become one another. The beautiful word perichoresis (peri-co-ray-sis), my favorite theological word, says both things at once.(6) Perichoresis means mutual indwelling, or interpenetration, without loss of individuality: “The doctrine of the perichoresis links together in a brilliant way the threeness and the unity, without reducing the threeness to the unity, or dissolving the unity in the threeness.”(7)[4]

There is much good in the renaissance of Trinitarian theology. Pain brought Young to it, and that was a journey from pain to truth.

Tragically, however, the specific vein adopted by Young in real life and Mack in the novel gets carried away and falls into error. Based on perichoretic speculations, The Shack teaches that God never had wrath on sin. The perichoretic nature of love forbids it. God is not allowed the complexity or mystery of simultaneous wrath and love. For as lofty and dazzling as it sounds, Trinitarian Theology really flattens God to a cardboard cutout of humanly manageable proportions.

The Shack expressly and purposely contradicts the historic Christian understanding of this compact confession of the Gospel:

How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:14)

This verse shows the actions of each person of the Trinity. Christ offers himself as a blood sacrifice. He offers himself through the Spirit. God receives and accepts Christ’s sacrifice.

By these actions, the Triune God worked for us “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood.” (Romans 3:24-25) In his Incarnation and state of humiliation, Christ was “made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17) “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2) “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

The Shack teaches that none of that work of God to save us was necessary. We just got psyched out by the fall into sin and projected a notion of wrath onto God. That was just in our insane minds. Jesus went to the cross not to actually bear the wrath of God on sin, but to clear up our distorted perception of God, showing that because of perichoretic love, this whole wrath deal with just a big boogeyman man of our own making.

And there it goes, the chief article upon which the church stands or falls. The doctrine of justification and the redemption we have in Jesus is tossed out. Instead of putting our confidence before God in the blood of Jesus, The Shack teaches us to trust that perichoresis means there never was any wrath.

In The Shack, the shack comes to symbolize the mess inside ourselves. Supposedly, the perichoretic theory is going to heal that mess. The problem historic Christianity thought sees with The Shack is that it fails to deal with the shack – the shack of actual sin, wrath, and forsakenness, which Christ bears in the place that was mine, the cross. The Shack leaves us in our sins. It leaves us in the shack.

Besides the catalog of problems noted in other critiques, a central error of The Shack is its rejection of atonement and justification. This is not a small problem. This pretty much eliminates the point of the Christian religion. To believe The Shack is to disbelieve Christ.
[1] Luther called this doctrine the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae (‘article of the standing and falling of the church’): ‘…if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls.’  In XV Psalmos graduum 1532-33; WA 40/III.352.3. In the Smalcald Articles, he said:

The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us ... Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31].
Smalcald Articles, The Second Part, Article I, The Chief Article, ¶¶ 1-5, in McCain, Paul Timothy, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006).p. 263.
[2]  Christopher Schwöbel, ‘The Renaissance of Trinitarian Theology: Reasons, Problems and Tasks,’ in idem, ed., Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), pp. 1-30.
[3] Roderick T. Leupp, Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 71-72, quoted in James D. Gifford, Jr., Perichoretic Salvation: The Believer's Union with Christ as a Third Type of Perichoresis, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), p. 15.
[4] Kruger, C. Baxter, The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream FaithWords. Kindle Edition., pp. 112-113, (citing at n. 6, Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 168ff, and quoting at n. 7, Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (London: SCM Press, 1981), p. 175. Perichoresis is to dance or flow around, mutual movement, mutual indwelling.  Each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. That creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love. See Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (New York: Penguin Group, 208) p. 215.

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