Posted by: Billy Marsh | January 20, 2009

The Shack Revisited (Part II)

In Part I, I only covered two of my points of contention with The Shack, and I had planned on hitting about 15 different issues. So in this post, I’m going to try and cover as many of them as possible, as briefly as possible. Please let me state once again just for clarification’s sake: I’m not attacking the story, the literary style, fiction, or Christian fiction. I’m a huge fan of fiction in general and am in full support of Christianity and the arts, so please do not lash out against my displeasure with The Shack by writing me off as narrow-sighted or opposed to Christian involvement in the culture. If you disagree with my concerns, then please interact with me on the theological points I list because these are where my dissatisfaction with The Shack lie, though as a novel in general, Young’s story and style are average and nothing to get too excited about.

3) The Gender Issue with Young’s Trinity – For those of you unfamiliar with the book, here is what I’m referencing in Young’s picture of the Trinity: God the Father – Known as “Papa” and is an African-American woman, who seems to have a southern backstory; God the Son – Known as Jesus, but says he would answer to Yeshua, Joshua, or even Jesse (86-87); he appears as Jewish carpenter; God the Holy Spirit – Known as “Sarayu” and is an Asian woman. Doing the math, whereas orthodox Christianity has always upheld all three persons of the Trinity as male, Young has taken two of them and made them female, and oddly enough, has still given the first person of the Trinity a “fatherly” name, Papa. So should evangelical Christians have a problem with the literary and theological liberty that Young has taken? Absolutely. Why? Because God has not revealed himself as female. Scripture, as God’s Word, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, always refers to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit with masculine, singular pronouns (i.e. he, him, his). When members of the Trinity are portrayed as females, Young is contradicting how God has described himself in his very own revealed Word, and ultimately, undermines the authority of Scripture. There is a difference between acknowledging that God has used feminine metaphors and illustrations in the Bible to describe how he acts towards creation and his people than changing the manifest revelation of God’s divine identity. Altering God’s revelation of himself is not permissible, and when it occurs, the alternative result is not God, but instead a fabrication. In the case of Young’s version of the Trinity, it seems that only God’s humanity is perceived to be important, not his masculinity. This, however, is contrary to Scripture and God’s divine identity. Young tries to sidestep this critique with this troublesome quote, “Mackenzie, I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me Papa is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning (93).” Young is mistaken, though, to think that God as Father is only a metaphor. There is a grave difference in Scripture between when God talks metaphorically about “giving birth” to his people as opposed to when he reveals himself as the Father. The former is a metaphor, the latter is metaphysical. God’s masculinity is in the realm of his ontology, not a literary device. We would not call God’s Fatherhood a metaphor no more than we would call Jesus’ Sonship a metaphor. If God the Father is able to be female, then why can’t Jesus be his daughter? This type of theology is extremely dangerous, and bears immense implications for the whole of the fundamentals of Christianity.

4) The Incarnation – Another problem I have with Young’s depiction of the Trinity is that all three persons of the Godhead appear as humans. For me, this is unacceptable insofar as only the Second person of the Trinity, God the Son, is God made flesh. The Bible also clearly states that God is spirit (Jn 4:24), and the disciple John writes in John 1:18 that, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he [Jesus] has made him known.” Jesus, as the Incarnate Son of God, reveals the Father to the world. Likewise, the Holy Spirit does not appear as a human in Scripture, and instead, in the new covenant, is meant to indwell believers and point people to the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ. So when Young allows his narrative explanation of the Trinity to cause each member to become human, he has betrayed the purpose of the Incarnation and violated the divine identities of both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. There is a reason that only God the Son became both fully human and fully divine, and Young seems to think that this major theological category is up for grabs. An example of just how off-base Young is theologically can be observed in this passage (Sarayu is speaking): “When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human. We also chose to embrace all the limitations that this entailed. Even though we have always been present in this created universe, we now became flesh and blood (99).” The fact that so many Christians can read over selections like these in this book and find no problem with them is quite disturbing. Contrary to Sarayu, all three members of the Trinity are not human and are not flesh and blood. Only Jesus Christ is Immanuel, the Incarnate God, come in the flesh.

Once again, as I said before, when the God of the Bible is tampered with according to his revealed identity, the end result is not God (or as I could envision Francis Schaeffer putting it, “non-God”), but a fabrication, an imaginary god, or should I say, a fictional character.

I’m now set to do a Part III since each of these points are so huge that it takes a good solid paragraph or two just to introduce them, interact with the book, and give some implications. One more post should allow me to wrap things up since I’ve decided not to submit everything I’ve found questionable with the theology of The Shack. Thank you for bearing with me.


  1. To be honest, I’m not following your problem with Papa being a woman. I’m not a feminist; my entire life (and I’m 30) I’ve attended a Brethren church where women are not allowed to speak, and their heads are covered. So I am not coming from a feminist perspective. I’m coming from scripture, and the God I’ve grown to know and love.
    God revealed Himself as a burning bush in scripture, but we do not think of Him as a bush. It was a special occurrence—much like His appearing to be a Black woman in The Shack. He is spirit—not male. Was not woman formed in God’s image? The truth is; we don’t know why God revealed Himself as Father as apposed to Mother. And to change scripture itself would be wrong, but this isn’t scripture, and if you think God has revealed Himself as Father because He’s male then you are in serious error. Jesus, in the book, revealed himself as male because He Is. Jesus is a human man (while still being God) so there is not room to expand our understanding of him to be both male and female. But both men and women are created in God’s image, and God is Spirit so clearly this should not be problematic. Solo scriptura is, itself, an un-scriptural view. Read John 14-16. It is the Holy Spirit that is to be our primary teacher (and I’m not pentecostal or anything like that). Sure scripture is a (meaning one of) the works of the Holy Spirit, but without the Spirit to teach it to you, all you have is a dead book. I think that is what The Shack is getting at. The church as a whole has left its relationship with God and returned to a dead religion with lists, and requirements. If you want to go back to that then don’t forget that the complete fulfillment of the law IS LOVE. The pharisees and sadducees knew scripture better than anyone, but they did not know God. Seminary teaches you doctrines and theology, but do you actually know God? It’s the same problem Jesus encountered. Why do you attend seminary when you should be learning from the Holy Spirit? You have favored teaching from men over teaching from God, and it has made your heart hard to the work of the Holy Spirit.

    • Ryan,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts about my critique of The Shack. You make some good points, but then there are other places where I think you are off base.

      First, the comparison you made between God revealing himself as a bush in the Bible and as a Black woman in The Shack is not valid. In Exodus 3, the text does not say that God became a bush, but rather that the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. In addition, there is continual debate concerning this and other “theophanies” in the OT as to who is “the angel of the Lord”. Some say it is God the Father while others claim that these are visible manifestations of God the Son prior to his Incarnation. Though I’m still wrestling with this issue, I lean towards the latter based upon texts in the NT such as John 1:18 where Jesus states that no one has ever seen God except the Son, and it is the Son who makes him known. But back to the account in Exodus 3, you will notice immediately that the text always refers to God in the burning bush with masculine pronouns such as “he” and “him”. If the author of Exodus was following the same suit as Young, then the pronouns would have to change to “it” rather than specifying the gender. Nevertheless, my argument is the same as in the post. I agree that God is spirit, neither male nor female, but based upon Scripture as the revelation of God, it is clear that the masculinity that is assigned to the Trinity in all three persons is not metaphorical, especially as you noted in the case of Jesus, but rather it is metaphysical. In other words, it is the result of God’s divine identity, his personhood. Thus, God as Father is not a metaphor in the same sense as when the Bible uses feminine language to illustrate God’s affections towards his people. God as Father and as a male is rooted in God’s being and is how he has revealed his ontological nature to creation. So even though, as you said, we don’t know the exact reason why God has chosen to reveal himself as Father, what we do know is that it is clear from Scripture that it is grounded in his nature, and therefore, is unchangeable.

      Second, your comments concerning how humans, both male and female, are equally made in the image of God doesn’t really pertain to the issue of whether or not it is permissible to portray God the Father as a woman. This is so for a few reasons, one being that the very fact that the Genesis account tells us (as you mentioned) that both male and female were made in the image of God communicates to us that there must be more to being image-bearers than gender. As I have noted already, just because God is spirit doesn’t give us the freedom of tampering with God’s revealed masculinity in all three persons of the Godhead, not only Jesus’. I think the very fact that the Incarnate God is a man keeps us from altering the gender identity of the other two persons of the Godhead for the sake of oneness in the Trinity.

      Third, your statements regarding the work of the Holy Spirit as the teacher of Scripture are extremely problematic, and therefore, your accusations against me are misguided. Within this section, I want to begin by stating that your belief that sola scriptura is unscriptural is wrong. Sola scriptura is a principle popularized in the Reformation, and is derived from Scripture itself, where, in its definition, it presupposes the inseparable work of the Word and the Spirit. You reference the position as if it excludes the role of the Holy Spirit. This could not be more wrong. Second, sola scriptura also is representative of what the Reformers believed concerning the authority of Scripture. It is the supreme authority for all matters of faith and Christian living, not tradition or reason. And third, sola scriptura is used to identify the Bible as the sole source of God’s special revelation. Each of these three main points are all clearly taught in the Bible. To say that sola scriptura is unscriptural exposes a lack of understanding of what the term actually means and/or signifies.

      Another point of dispute is your view of the Holy Spirit as the primary teacher. I agree that in order to understand the full meaning of Scripture and to truly know God one must be taught by the Holy Spirit, but we are going to differ on the manner in which the Spirit exercises this role. My question to you is: By what means then does the Holy Spirit communicate Scripture’s meaning? Is the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit only something that occurs locked away in a room where it is just you and the Holy Spirit? When you are taught by the Holy Spirit, does he tell you what the Bible means in an audible voice? For example, I assume that what you have written in your comment you believe to be true and to be in line with what the Holy Spirit wants me to believe since apparently I have loved the teachings of men over the teaching of God. If so, let’s say that I am persuaded by your arguments and recant what I have written in my posts and accept your position on The Shack, sola scriptura, and theology to be the truth. At that point, who is responsible for me coming to a right knowledge of God? Was it you or the Holy Spirit?

      Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit does his illuminating work through other people. For instance, the Apostle Paul says that “we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:13).” Here we see that Paul, a human, is teaching the knowledge of God and it is the Holy Spirit who is working through him and in the hearts of the hearers to teach them the spiritual truths of God. On a different level, we also see this point demonstrated in the biblical canon itself where the authorship of Scripture is both human and divine, one not to the exclusion or contradiction of the other. Moreover, if we are only to be taught by the Holy Spirit and not men, then what do you do with the teaching offices of the church that are set forth in the Bible? In 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1:9, both elders and deacons are expected to be able to either teach, communicate, or defend the Christian faith to and before others. In Jude 3, we are commissioned “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Wouldn’t the defense of the gospel and the true knowledge of God also be part of the teaching work of the Holy Spirit? You claim that seminary teaches me doctrines and theology, but how is that any different from what you are doing in a briefer fashion in this comment? Isn’t that what Young is doing in The Shack? Though it is fiction, through the story he is teaching his readers what he believes about “the doctrines and the theologies” of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, salvation, Christian spirituality, suffering, heaven, and so forth. Then you ask, “But do you know God?” Knowing God requires not only affections, but also content (Jn 4:24). You cannot have a relationship with a God that you do not know in terms of true information. I’m at seminary because I have a relationship with God and want to be his servant in ministering and educating others to have a better knowledge of the God they adore. This is why I am against The Shack. Young’s vision of God conveys inaccurate information of who God is, and thus, those who accept his version of the knowledge of God will not be loving and adoring the true and living God, but instead, a man-made god; a false god. That’s the kind of way that seems right to man but in the end leads to death (Prov 14:12).

      I hope that I have responded sufficiently to your concerns, and I would appreciate further dialogue with you on these matters, but I hope that next time you would be more careful in your accusations against me regarding my hardness of heart towards the Holy Spirit and my not truly knowing God simply because I disapprove of a fiction book that you seem to cherish.


  2. Thanks for all the time you’re putting in. After I submitted my original response I regretted saying one part. I should have stated the part about the Holy Spirit as a question not an accusation—that was the wrong thing to say. The fact is, you’re probably a very good guy, a lot like my Calvinist friends who I get along with very well though not at all being Calvinist.

    In the interest of time I want to try to isolate more now; when doctors are identifying cancer they don’t need to tear your whole body apart to look at it, they just need a few cells.

    Also, don’t feel the need to answer every question—I use questions to help you understand where I’m coming from not necessarily what I’m most concerned about. They provide the context to my thoughts.

    First, let me say, the way I’ve always heard “sola scriptura” used is by its literal definition “Scripture alone.” Sure I understand that people attribute its being written to the work of the Holy Spirit, as do I. What I meant was, scripture alone is dead. When the Holy Spirit uses it to speak to us it becomes alive (God’s Word).

    If the authority of the Church is nothing then on what authority to we have the cannon? If scripture is so strait forward and systematical—requiring only logic to understand—then of what use is the Holy Spriit? When Jesus was getting ready to leave He didn’t say, “it’s better for you if I go because I’m leaving you a book.” If all we have is a Book then I would say Jesus wasn’t telling truth that “it’s better for us if He leaves.” Did the Holy Spirit just write it all down so we’d quit asking questions? Was God surprised at how many questions we have about Scripture? Why was scripture written the way it is—with lots of ambiguity?
    Those questions set the stage for this.
    In John ? maybe 6 or 7 or 8. Jesus tells the crowd that they aren’t following Him because they want the truth, they’re following Him because they want food. Jesus says okay, you want food then eat me. I’m the real food. Thy argue with each other, probably saying, “no I don’t think he really meant that do you?” so they asked for clarification. Then Jesus said more literally than before, “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” Then the people left saying it was a hard teaching. They thought Jesus was saying they should engage in cannibalism. Jesus turned to His disciples and says, “are you going to leave too?” But Peter is like, “where would we go?” “you have the words of eternal life.” Then Jesus says, “the words I have spoken to you are Spirit.”

    Why didn’t Jesus tell that to the other people? Because they would never commit to Him. Why didn’t His disciples leave? Two reasons—they were committed already, and most importantly they Knew Jesus. They knew he would not ask them to eat His flesh. But He did tell them to eat is body and blood. He said it so literally that the other crowed left because they didn’t want to be cannibals.
    I often wondered what would have happened if Jesus hadn’t told His disciples that His words were Spirit. I think, being committed to Him, they might have split into two groups. The Calvinist would say, well that’s what He said are you calling Him a liar? Are you just going to ignore what He said? And being committed they’d say “if that’s what He said then that’s what I’ll do.” The one who knew Him best would say, “that is what He said, but knowing His character he must have meant something different.” That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in with scripture. I think scripture is like a book written in code to stumble those who won’t listen to the Holy Spirit who is like a Living Key and the author of scripture. Without the Holy Spirit men systematize the Bible, but it was not meant for that. The Holy Spirit is like the wind, you can’t predict where it is going or from where it comes.

    • Ryan,

      I appreciate the quick response, but I found this comment a little hard to follow at times in terms of what you were trying to get across. I think I have the gist of it, but all of the questions make it difficult to nail down exactly what you’re arguing.

      Let me deal first with your reply on sola scriptura. Regardless of how you’ve heard the phrase used, its abuses are not the norm. Many people take offense with the phrase based upon its wording rather than how it is actually being put into practice. Nonetheless, it is a title that has its roots in the Reformation, and therefore, its definition is inseparable from its historical origins. However, I would greatly disagree with your statement that scripture alone is dead and that it isn’t the Word of God until the Holy Spirit uses it to speak to someone. This view misunderstands two main things: Scripture’s own testimony of itself and the Holy Spirit’s work in Scripture. Scripture is always the Word of God. We have to affirm this if we accept the divine inspiration of the Bible. 2 Tim 3:16 says that, “All Scripture is God-breathed . . .” Paul is making a statement about the basic nature of God’s written word regardless of the experience of the reader. The Bible is always God’s Word because he is its Author and it contains all that he has spoken through his chosen human authors. To make this dependent upon the reader’s response or experience of its content is to violate its God-given nature. Don’t confuse the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiration with his work of illumination.

      When you refer to Jesus saying that it is better for him to leave so that the disciples can receive the Holy Spirit, I think you are putting unnecessary weight on that text which appears in a larger context from John 14-16 concerning the fuller work of the Holy Spirit. The fact that it was better for Jesus to depart so that the Holy Spirit could come had more to do with other works of the Holy Spirit than his teaching office with respect to revealing the meaning of Scripture. Especially in the context of these chapters where Jesus makes this statement, I think you are presenting an extreme reductionist view of the work of the Holy Spirit. Without getting into the details, I think if you review these chapters you will find that it is better for the Holy Spirit to come for reasons not pertaining to the interpretation of the Bible.

      Towards the end of your questions in this section you move into the issue of the clarity of Scripture which brings up a much larger discussion. I will address this briefly: Scripture is clear in what it says. The problem isn’t with Scripture; the problem is with man, hence, the need for the Holy Spirit and his illuminating work. However, the work of illumination does not discount the need for intense study and examination of the Bible. The Holy Spirit grants insight to men through their labors of study and meditation. To think that we can’t learn what Scripture means through other people’s efforts such as reading books, church history, or seminary training is arrogant and neglects that all believers receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and are recipients of his revealing work. Theology is the work of the Church, the body of believers, who together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit labor to rightly interpret what God has said in the Scriptures. Even Peter said of Paul’s writings that they were sometimes hard to understand (2 Pet 3:16). Looking back at early Church history, we see the apostolic preaching that began with the disciples, demonstrated in the NT, and particularly in the sermons in the Book of Acts, which was then handed down to the apostolic fathers in the first and second centuries who thereby continued to work out the theology of the Bible and develop the doctrines that we have in such a mature fashion today. For instance, did you come about the doctrine of the Trinity all by yourself, or was it something handed down or taught to you, which you presuppose to be true as you read Scripture? The doctrine of the Trinity was not developed overnight, and there are many who have spent their lives working it out so that we can affirm it with confidence. However, though their efforts were laborious and spanned across many years, it is the fruit of the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit aiding men in determining the truth of God revealed in the Bible. The fact that the Bible is literature, a historical document, and is written by humans (though God is its supreme Author) forces us to discern its meaning using tools such as reason as well as grammatical, historical, and literary analysis. The difference between what you’re posing and what I’m trying to demonstrate is that you are making this an either/or discussion while I’m saying it is both/and. Because the Bible is divinely inspired, its full meaning cannot be grasped apart from the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit; however, the Spirit imparts his illuminating work through diverse means whether by personal meditation during one’s own isolated Bible study time, whether through having a late night conversation with a few other Christian friends drinking coffee and reading the Word, whether in a pastor’s sermon on Sunday morning, or whether through the fruits of someone’s lifelong commitment to the study of a particular theological discipline such as Old Testament Theology, the Gospel of John, or New Testament Greek.

      You said that Scripture is written in code and the Holy Spirit is the Living Key. I agree with this to a certain extent. The Bible presents a spiritual message that demands more than just ascent to knowledge. For example, the unbeliever can read John’s Gospel and at the end be persuaded that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of God. He could even agree that this Jesus was a historical figure, but refuse to submit to his lordship and become his disciple. However, it takes the Holy Spirit to create in him the true meaning of what the Gospel of John was intended to produce, namely, that he would “believe” in who Jesus is and thereby believing in his name, receive eternal life (John 20:30-31). Here we are talking about confession and commitment, not simply intellectual facts. But I’d say that the Spirit’s work is in both of these parts. He guides the Church to the truth of Scripture in all areas of its meaning because it all works together. You can’t believe on Jesus for salvation unless you have come to know the truth that he is the Christ and that eternal life is found only in his name.

      I’m not sure where you were going with the John 6 passage, but you kind of got the verses out of order. The place where Jesus says that his words are Spirit is in John 6:63, actually before the scene you summarized. Nevertheless, I believe you have taken this verse out of context. First, in the Greek, none of these words are capitalized; that is a liberty the English translators have taken. Second, when he says his words are “spirit” he is referring to their life-giving nature in the context of the overall meaning of this chapter. He’s not speaking of Scripture, or I’d say at this point, of the Holy Spirit. He is setting himself apart as the long-awaited Messiah who has come to give eternal life to those who hear his prophetic words. Those who believe Jesus’ testimony of himself will be given new life. That’s why the disciples responded in the manner they did in v. 68, namely, not because they had some buddy-buddy relationship with him, but because they believed him to be who he said he was: the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, the Incarnate God, the Word made Flesh. Out of their OT background, they knew that only the person who fulfilled this divine identity promised long ago would be the one whose words could be spirit and give eternal life. That’s why at the end of that quotation they say, “and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” There is a lot of theological baggage packed up in that declaration. Don’t get me wrong, they had a relationship with Jesus for sure, but that wasn’t the basis of their faith or belief in his words. It was placed in the theological confession of who he claimed and proved to be. Moreover, this is only one scenario of many others in John’s Gospel where this occurs.

      You said that without the Holy Spirit men systematize the Bible and it wasn’t meant for that. Here is where I wish you’d be more careful in throwing around these careless judgments. First, the Bible isn’t what is being systematized; it is doctrines or theologies derived from Scripture’s teaching. Second, the aforementioned accusation is ignorant because you have just thrown out the window some of the most influential and adored proponents of the Christian faith throughout Church History such as St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and more recently, Millard Erickson and Wayne Grudem. These are men who have proven to be lovers of God, devoted to piety, broken over sin, evangelistic of the lost, defenders of the faith, and servants of the Church. Third, systematic theology is only the attempt to aid Christians in understanding what the Bible has said as a whole on major and minor doctrines such as Creation, Scripture, God (the Trinity), Salvation, Sin, the Church, Heaven and Hell, and even the Holy Spirit. Systematic Theology, as well as Biblical and Historical Theology, serves the Christian in developing a better and fuller knowledge of what Scripture itself is doing as a whole. For instance, it helps to bring together what God’s Word is saying regarding eschatology (the study of the Last things) from both the OT (e.g. Daniel) and the NT (e.g. Revelation). They work together in helping us see the unity of the Bible. They of course can be abused just like anything else, but that doesn’t mean they are always done devoid of the Holy Spirit. This in no way violates the purpose of Scripture and it has been the practice of the Church since the time of the Apostles. To think that the Holy Spirit’s illuminating and revealing work is not a part of this theological discipline is naïve.

      Finally, you paraphrase the text from John 3 where Jesus says that the Spirit is like a wind blowing and no one knows where it come or goes. Once again, you’ve taken this verse out of context. It has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit’s work in teaching Scripture. It refers to the new birth. The Holy Spirit is the one who regenerates people and gives them new life in Christ. Jesus is saying that you can’t predict or determine who is going to be born of the Spirit, only God knows. As is said at the beginning of John’s Gospel in John 1:13, everyone who is born of the Spirit are “born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

      At the beginning you said that I didn’t have to respond to everything you write, but I think what you don’t understand is that through the process of your questioning you reveal that you have many underlying presuppositions that allow you to come to your final conclusions that are in need of reworking before we can communicate on the same page. I can’t simply deal with the work of the Holy Spirit when you obviously have problematic views that allow you to have the views you do of his work and role in other doctrines such as the doctrine of Scripture, inspiration and illumination, the canon, the role of tradition, and so forth. Not to mention that your interpretation of Scriptures that you choose to cite in favor of your argument are not correct either. This makes responding to your comments more than just a simple yes or no. I hope, however, that I have once again responded sufficiently.


  3. Quick question. In your approach how does a person in real life—with a wife, kids, career changes, trying to survive—come to an accurate view of God without trusting other men to tell him what to believe?

  4. Well, to begin with let me defend my fellow theologians and seminarians. To say that the world your question hints at is the “real world” while the world we live in isn’t, is not a fair judgment. It takes hard work and extreme commitment, and often a great deal of sacrifice, to enter higher education. I have many friends here who work a 40+ hr work week in a secular career or job, support multiple children, and still juggle courses in between, not to mention they are serving at their local church. Essentially they are “trying to survive,” but are doing so while reading theology books, writing exegetical papers, and learning biblical languages. So, that’s one way to answer your question. If the Lord leads you to enter higher Christian education, then you must be ready to do what it takes to make it through.

    Second, once again you are trying to box me into an either/or position regarding the topic of our discussion and I’m not willing to go there for several reasons, mainly due to the fact that Scripture doesn’t support such a perspective at all. Now there may be that one tribal convert out in no man’s land who was won to Christ by a missionary who has since moved on to a new location, and all this cut-off new believer has is the Holy Spirit and a worn out copy of the New Testament. I believe that the Holy Spirit will be faithful as he is with all of us to testify to the truth of Scripture and to Christ. Within the realm of what he has already been taught by the missionary and the faculties of a redeemed human mind, the Holy Spirit will guide him into the truth of Scripture. However, there is no promise as to how fast he will grow in knowledge and also there is no guarantee that he won’t possibly develop some bad and false theology along the way. Though he is a Christian, and though he has the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, he still is a finite and fallen man and always will be prone to error and the deceptive work of the lies of Satan. Nonetheless, this is not the norm, nor is it the ideal situation the Bible presupposes for a believer to do his maturing. Hopefully this man will make other disciples of Christ and together they will grow into a thriving Church, which is the location where theology is meant to be done, namely, in Christian community.

    Third, I can’t answer your question straightforward because my reading of Scripture won’t allow me to permit someone to do his theology willingly on an island or in isolation. However, here’s my synopsis of how the “everyday man” should go about growing in his faith and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ: (1) Prayer – Pray for insight, wisdom, and understanding from the Holy Spirit into God’s Holy Word; I pray this prayer almost every time I open the Bible: Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (2) Personal Bible Study – Though we should not cut ourselves off from sitting under the teaching of what other men have learned from the Holy Spirit, nothing replaces one’s own personal Bible study in the Word of God. Here, I mean more than a plan to read through the Bible in a year. I’m speaking of one’s commitment to wrestle with the Scriptures, fighting for discerning truth and meaning; (3) Read Books – We live in day and time when there is a plethora of Christian literature at our disposal. Find a theologian or writer that you like and read everything he’s written. I’ve tried to do this with a few people such as John Piper, Martin Luther, and Francis Schaeffer. God has granted more insight to some than others, and some have had more time to pour over Scripture and theology than others who for instance like my dad worked in sawmill instead of filling a professorial chair at a seminary. The fruits of their labor are for the benefit of those whose lives have not allowed them to spend hours tucked away in a corner of the library. It would be foolish not to avail ourselves of what may have taken them ten years to write, but is made available for us to read at our leisure. The Christian academy is meant to serve the Church. In his book, Brothers We are Not Professionals, Piper shows how reading just 20 mins a day for a year one could pack away volumes of material. Even for those trying to survive, that’s not too much to ask, and if it is, then you’re either too busy or you really aren’t as interested in growing as you seem. (4) Church – This is the place where you come to sit under the teaching authority of a pastor, as well as to Sunday School teachers and others who lead in that fashion. Also, it is here that you should be cultivating meaningful Christian relationships that spark conversation and result in sharpening each other’s walks with the Lord, including his or her theology and reading of Scripture. Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” In addition, as I said in one of the previous responses, here is where the church teaching offices come into play. This passage speaks directly to what I’m trying to communicate: Ephesians 4:11-14, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

    When you say “without trusting other men to tell [you] what to believe” it shows that you keep missing what I’m saying. When Christians learn truth from each other, it is not only the work of men, but it is even more so the work of the Holy Spirit. You aren’t just trusting men. You are trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts and minds of other men who have valuable and necessary things to say in aiding you in Christian belief. But you keep wanting things to be either/or and it’s just not that way. In my list above, you just don’t pray and you don’t only learn theology at Church, you’re supposed to work at it yourself too in personal Bible study. These are parts of a whole system and it is all supported in Scripture, and they are the diverse means by which the Holy Spirit imparts his illuminating work in revealing the meaning of the knowledge of God in the Bible.

  5. Billy—
    This is a hard conversation because for most of my life I saw much of this more from your point of view in terms of the way we see scripture. It’s only recently that I’ve grown tired of the debates, inconsistencies, diffusion of the church into every possible isolated denomination—all guarding their own turf. If the world is supposed to know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for each other then it seems we’ve left the world a real pickle.

    You said,

    “You are trusting that the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts and minds of other men who have valuable and necessary things to say in aiding you in Christian belief.”
    That would be nice wouldn’t it? and in fact that is exactly what I’d like to see happen. However, the traditional approach to scripture has caused more arguments and divisions than anything I can think of. And neither side seems to be sporting horns, but both are convinced sincerely against the other while both displaying Christ’s Love and power in other areas of their lives. Why are doctrines the very things that seem to destroy relationships when the sole purpose of doctrine is supposed to be relationships. Relationships are not made for doctrine but doctrine for relationships—relationships between individuals and between us and God.

    If your general approach to scripture is right then why is the fruit bad?

    — Ryan

    • Ryan,

      This discussion has come along way since your first comment, and I have enjoyed conversing with you over these matters.

      Your church experience poses a valid question and one that we must deal with since there are so many different denominations staking claim to the Bible. First let me say that I think what would be helpful in your own approach is to be more restrained in submitting these broad, sweeping generalizations. Things are rarely that black and white. For instance, there are two major generalizations in this last comment that don’t do justice to each situation. First, I won’t hesitate to admit that the Church has its flaws and has failed in various ways through history. We will always be lacking in demonstrating to the world things such as love and unity until Christ comes again. However, I can’t say that the Church is wholly at a loss when it comes to manifesting the love of Christ to the world. Often the Church is criticized for its lack of love based off of the world’s definition of love rather than a theological one that takes into account the biblical scope of what it means to love someone with the love that God gives. Christian love is about embodying the gospel of God. I would also say that the love between believers is also mistakenly criticized at times under the assumption that just because we disagree that we are being unloving towards one another. I’m a Baptist by conviction and confession, but I have had good, loving relationships with other Christians who were Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and even Catholics. Baptists themselves are known for infighting, and deservedly so, but there is much more going on in this denomination and its churches than the quarrels over carpet color. Let me state again just to be clear: disagreement does not have to entail being unloving. If that was the case, then not only would I be divorced, but I wouldn’t have any other relationships either.

      With respect to your dissatisfaction with the traditional approach to Scripture, I still think you are putting the blame on the wrong subject. It’s not the traditional approach to Scripture that has produced all of the disagreements and divisions, but rather it is man who is to blame and the deceptive work of the evil one. Man is finite and fallen and Satan is the father of lies who has since the very beginning been trying to twist the Word of God (look back at the manner in which the serpent tempted Eve in the garden). These are the problems which cause Scripture to be mishandled and for the ungodly results that arise within disputes over it. I can’t place all of the burden on these two, however, concerning the cause of the divisions and arguments throughout Church History because I believe that the Holy Spirit has been at work enabling people to further understand, contend, and preserve the Christian faith which has often entailed separation and dissension.

      You ask why do doctrines seem to destroy more than build relationships, but once again, I think you have misplaced the blame. If you believe in objective truth and its knowability, then you must be prepared for division and disagreement. Doctrines aren’t necessarily the source of the division; it’s truth that draws the dividing line. Where there’s truth, then there’s also false. We believe that there is only one gospel, and it is about the one and only True and Living God. Therefore, the Church is in pursuit of the truth as well as keeping a watch out for what does not accord with the truth. At the same time Christianity is saying all other religions and belief systems are false. By nature truth divides, thus, it would be extremely unrealistic for Church history not to have its fair share of arguments, disputes, and disagreements. Exhaustive truth is not only something that we will never attain, but also all truth is not equally self-evident. The discernment of truth requires study, analysis, and testing in order to see what is true and what is false. However, just because different groups and denominations take opposing sides on the correct interpretation of Scripture doesn’t mean that we can’t discern objective truth in relation to doctrines and the gospel. Christ’s Bride, the Church, is in a constant state of maturation, refinement, and sanctification until the day of his return when, and only then, he will present it to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph 5:27).”

      You keep attacking “my” approach to Scripture, and in this last comment, you assign to it the cause for such bad fruit; however, your approach isn’t any better off. You have to answer the same question, and perhaps even more so since you are wanting to bypass “the teachings of men” and only give an ear to the Holy Spirit (whatever this looks like, I’m not sure; it is hard to imagine it apart from falling into some sort of Christian mysticism which would have dangerous implications for the role and authority of Scripture in theology). If your position is right, then how are we to account for the fact that somehow the overwhelming majority of Church History has neglected this view of Scripture, and why hasn’t the Holy Spirit by himself brought us into all truth yet? I’m sure that here you would answer based upon the willingness of the individual, but then your heading down the same path as my response, except for the fact that you’ve made the Christian faith individualistic rather than grounded in the body of Christ corporately. I think you will have a difficult time defending this individualistic nature of Christianity and the Holy Spirit’s work from careful study of the NT, not to mention particularly the corporate element at large in the OT.

  6. I was surprised by this comment from Billy: “However, I would greatly disagree with your statement that scripture alone is dead and that it isn’t the Word of God until the Holy Spirit uses it to speak to someone.” And another place Billy mentions Karl Barth as an example of an “adored proponent” of the faith!

    The view of inspiration that Ryan takes is pretty much the same as Karl Barth’s. It is also my view. Inspiration happens both when the words are written, and when the words are read. Both are necessary, and equally important. If you read the bible without any help from the Holy Spirit, then it is just like any other book. You are completely at the mercy of your own faulty intellect.

    For young people this is ok, because they are idealistic and confident of their own intellect. Older people tend to go in one of two ways. Either their idealism becomes solidified into a system of beliefs, or they are humbled and mature into a more relationship-based view of truth.

    I think Mack’s experience is a lot like Job. At first Job is very black and white. Then reality hits, and Job has questions. God (or Papa) doesn’t actually ever answer Job’s questions. God says I am who I am, deal with it. And by the way, I love you. The story of Job/Mack is about a man who’s intellect is being humbled. His faith is making a transition from the rational to the relational. The fact that Abraham was willing to kill his son tells me that Abraham had also made that transition. God doesn’t want us to know things, so much as to know him. Truth is not a thing. Truth is a person.

    My advice to Billy, wait another 20 years, and then read The Shack again. I think your perspective will be different. I say that because I used to be where you are now.


    • John,

      You’ve taken my reference to Karl Barth out of context. He was cited in response to Ryan’s assertion that all who “systematize the Bible” are doing so without the Holy Spirit. I enlisted Barth along with the others I mentioned because of his Church Dogmatics, which aren’t considered in a strict sense a “systematic theology,” but nonetheless it is a work that categorizes theology derived from the Scriptures. The fact that I referenced him in no way contradicts the first statement you quoted from me. I’ve read most of his work on the Word of God in his Church Dogmatics and was already aware of the similarities between Ryan’s view and Barth’s. However, I had no desire to pin Ryan to Barth unless he brought it up, and whether or not his affiliation with Barth is known to him isn’t pertinent to our discussion. I certainly disagree with Barth and his theology of the Word of God at this level, but that doesn’t mean everything he wrote was wrong. Barth’s theology was very God-centered and was permeated with the Scriptures. John Webster remarks in an article in the Dictionary of Theological Interpretation that Church Dogmatics ought to be viewed as one huge demonstration of biblical exegesis. I doubt seriously that Barth would be a fan of The Shack, especially with respect to its terrible portrayal of the Trinity, of which it is one of the doctrines Barth is famous for expounding. Just FYI: Barth was not a fan of using the terminology of “persons” for explaining the Trinity, and he was definitely against trying to over emphasize the humanity of God. Barth is known for his view of the total otherness of God. I could honestly see Barth reading The Shack and turning purple.

      My assessment of Barth’s view, therefore, is similar to Ryan’s. Barth collapsed the doctrines of inspiration and illumination into one and this is the source of the problem with his understanding. The main issue with Barth’s methodology at this point is that the Word of God is more than the Bible. I think, though, that Barth still retains an extremely high view of Scripture though he admits that it isn’t always the “Word of God” in the way he is defining that phrase. But as I said before, this is due to the manner in which he has merged two doctrines that should be left distinct. Barth is a heavy-weight theologian, but here his findings can’t stand with careful biblical exegesis. There is no doubt at all that the Bible sees itself in its very nature as the Word of God. God has spoken, and we have it as the Bible; likewise, Scripture is God-speaking, not only a record of what God said in the past. I’m not going to go into all of the details of this argument here, but there is an overwhelming amount of textual evidence that supports the view that the Bible is always the Word of God regardless of the experience of the reader and the manner in which the Holy Spirit sees fit to enlighten minds and impart its divine truth. The Bible is the Word of God in its very essence, not in its usefulness. In both yours and Ryan’s defense of this position, you have based your stance on the experience of the reader. This is backwards. This approach immediately shows that you have departed from the sole primacy of the authority of Scripture as the Word of God, thereby failing first of all to demonstrate textually from biblical exposition that the Bible is not, in your view, always the Word of God. If you do decide to cite Scripture in response, make sure that the verses don’t have to do with the work of the illumination of the Holy Spirit, but rather are speaking towards the ontological nature of the Bible, or else we’ll be having the same discussion all over again.

      With respect to your use of Job, I think this is a little off-base. Job was not a man who only saw in black and white. You make it out to seem like God saw Job as naïve so he let “reality” hit him hard. But this is not reflective of a careful reading of this book at all. Instead, Job is commended by God for his faith and righteous living (which in order to be righteous one had to be in relationship with God). Satan is the one who thinks Job is in need of a dose of “reality,” but the devil is the delusional one. In addition, if anyone in the narrative works within a framework of black and white, it is Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Their theology is based off of a strict principle of retribution which doesn’t prove true. Job finds himself defending both himself and his view on God and evil. Finally, in the epilogue, it is God who finds fault not in Job, but in Job’s three friends, stating “For you have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has (Job 42:8).” Your statement that Job’s transition was from the rational to the relational shows a surface level reading of this story, especially since the first verse of the book states clearly the exact opposite, and then again in 1:8 by God himself: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil (1:1).” And in 1:8, God himself calls Job “my servant, . . . there is none like him on the earth.” I don’t think the problem here is that Job was a theological zombie whose doctrine wasn’t grounded in reality.

      Once again, your usage of Abraham is also an abuse of the actual meaning and content of this narrative. There is much to say here, but I will state just that the dichotomy that you, Ryan, and The Shack keep wanting to make between knowledge and relationship isn’t one that Scripture even considers. There’s nothing new under the sun, and you aren’t the first ones to try and make this separation, and in most cases, it appears to be more of a critique of how some have been disappointed in the way some Christians throughout history have lived out the Christian faith. Nevertheless, the Bible cannot be brought in as a witness as to being a proponent of one side or the other. It is obvious in Scripture that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, but instead are expected to have a reciprocated mutual bond. You said that God does not want us to know things, but instead to know him. Knowing God, however, is packed full of knowing “things” that must be upheld in order to know this God who has revealed himself to us. When you try to empty out the word symbol “God” of all those “things,” you are free to put whatever you want back into it. In response, we cannot know God relationally if we do not know him truly theologically. Abraham knew that God was a God who keeps his Covenant because of who God is, not based upon his relationship; God’s divine identity is what produces the relationship. As Genesis 15:6 says, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Do you even know how much NT Theology (“things”) is built off of that verse? Don’t be under the notion that just because the Bible isn’t a systematic theology textbook that its intention is not to present coherent and unified doctrines and theology concerning the truth of the knowledge of God. This knowledge is always meant to be relational as testified to by Christ himself in several places as he names the greatest commandment.

      As far as your statement regarding “Truth is not a thing. Truth is a person.” I’m going to put off replying to it for now. I’ve touched on the problems associated with this view a little. The danger in over exaggerating the maxim that “Truth is a person” is the same as those who abuse the verse “God is love.”

      I doubt seriously there is any hope for The Shack as becoming something that I would cherish in any regard whether as a way of viewing theology or as a gem of quality literature. I never even critiqued that aspect of it, but if I did, my reviews wouldn’t be much better. I’ve been “ruined” on Tolkien, Lewis, T. H. White, McCarthy, and others to be satisfied with Young’s style and story-telling. Not to mention that judging where my perspective will be in 20 years based upon the fact that yours changed is so subjective. What are we to do with all the people whose theology didn’t change the last 20 years? What does that have to say with respect to the potential future of my views? Those type of projections are best left unstated. They don’t add to this discussion at all and only reveal extra weaknesses in your argument.

  7. Billy, You sure do type a lot. Not that I’m complaining, but I admire how efficiently your brain can collect ideas and express them. But i’d better not flatter you, lest you be tempted. :-)

    This conversation about Job is a good one, and relevant to The Shack, I think. I’m trying to explain how Job’s relationship with God changed because of his suffering. And that through his ordeal, Job got a better understanding of God. I’m not saying that Job had wrong theology and God had to correct him. Probably the logical, intellectual aspect of Job’s theology was just fine. Not that any of us completely understands God, but in Job’s case it appears to have been good enough. And morally Job was pretty good, as it says in ch.1. So there you have it, correct thoughts and good behavior, what else could Job be lacking? Is that all God wants from us is correctness? I think a lot of christian teaching only goes that far: correct thoughts, good behavior. Which is why I think The Shack is so popular. Correctness is not all that God wants from us, the thing he mostly wants is relationship. Ok, so I totally agree that The Shack is not great literature, and I agree it overstates the case. But I think the main reason people like it is that it shows us that God really wants a lot more for us than just correctness. He wants us to be to him just like he is to himself. And how is God to himself? that is one word, Love. All that other stuff, doctrines, sin, suffering, life, death, etc. they are important. But they are not the main thing, which is our becoming one with God. Jn 17:23 “Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us.” Probably you’ll say I’m taking that out of context :-) but anyway I think it is true.

    What does “one with God” mean? How does it happen? Those are interesting questions, and we all have ideas. After some theological training you will get a lot of ideas. But it doesn’t really matter, because the important thing is just do it. I agree that we cannot separate knowledge from relationship. But also I know that of the two, relationship is more important than knowledge. A little bit of knowledge is necessary for the relationship to get started, “how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” And as we grow in our relationship we might learn more stuff. I know some people are nervous that a relationship that gets started based on incorrect knowledge (like say you were converted by a Mormon missionary) will be somehow a “false” relationship, and so it won’t “count”. Hmm, I suspect God has relationships with a lot of people who have less-than-perfect theology.

    Despite appearances, I am not trying to persuade you, or teach you something that is truth. I don’t presume to know any “truth”. Nothing in my brain is certain, it is all just vaguely defined notions arbitrarily embraced. Which is true for all of us, I think. But if I put a vague notion into words so that maybe you can get a similar vague notion, too, that’s all I meant to do. That’s the best anyone can hope for, even apostles, I reckon.


  8. Oh I forgot to ask. You said, “There’s nothing new under the sun, and you aren’t the first ones to try and make this separation” Can you give some examples? I’d like to read about them.

    Thanks, John

  9. I’m going to put off responding to the details of your last comment. You really opened a can of worms in that one. I’ll wait for now, though it is taking a lot of self-restraint, which as you’ve noted, I like to cover all my bases. Instead, I have a basic question.

    If you don’t presume to know any “truth,” then how do you know that you are having a “true” relationship with the one, “true” God? Does your understanding of truth only relate to doctrines, or does it extend to the existence of God?

    Also, it is somewhat self-refuting to claim that you don’t presume to know any “truth,” but then in two sentences later say that this is “true” for all of us.

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