Book Plunge: Resurrecting The Trinity

What do I think of M. James Sawyer’s book published by Weaver Book Company? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

The Trinity is something that many people do not really pay attention to in Christianity. Sawyer is certainly right that for many Christians today that if the Trinity was proven false, their church services and worship style would be little changed if any. We are often mere monotheists, confessing Trinitarians but practicing Arians.

Of course, we do lip service to the Trinity, but that’s where it usually ends. The only other time we open up the Trinity box is when Jehovah’s Witnesses come by so we can beat them up with it and win in a battle that we don’t often see the importance of and then the Trinity goes back on the shelf. Sawyer wants us to see the Trinity as a life-changing doctrine.

In our modern secular world, we can often view God through a scientific lens where He often plays no active role in our universe except for an occasional miracle. This is why deism is such a possibility for so many people. The universe can run on its own power with laws of nature being active. God is not really necessary. The universe is just a big machine.

Go back to the past and in fact to many other traditions today like the Orthodox church and the Trinity is a living reality to them. We can make many statements about God that would be easily agreed to by a Muslim or a Jew. To some extent, this is understandable. There is no philosophical argument that can prove the Trinity. If we have just reason alone, we can get so far, but the problem is we often act like reason alone has got us as far as we can go.

Instead, the Trinity is to show us what God is like mainly through Christ. Christ doesn’t appease an angry side of God. Christ shows us what the Father Himself is like. If we think the Father is eager to judge us, then we have to ask why Jesus doesn’t seem the same way. There is no dark side of God. What you see is what you get. When you look at Jesus, you see what God is like.

Sawyer also shows that we can have those false views of God such as the kind of name-it, claim-it God or the God who is eager to smite us all. To some extent, we all have these ideas of God at some time in our lives I suppose. It has been rightly said that whatever your idea of God is, it is inadequate. Still, we should strive for as truthful a view as possible.

Sawyer also says that this has often led to a certain moralizing in our walk. Holiness can become a burden when it needn’t be because we are trying to appease the angry God. There is no problem with being moral, but the issue is did Jesus really come to establish a new morality, or did He come to give us God? By all means, He showed us a better way, but did He not show God as well?

When we look at our theology, it is too easy to not have it really be informed by Jesus. The God of the philosophers is tempting to stick with, but the God revealed in Christ is a huge step forward. Too many of us are too tempted to stick with all the omni traits, which we should not deny, and just leave it at that instead of interacting with the whole theological picture.

There isn’t as much in defense of the Trinity here against objections, but that’s fine. There is some grounding of the idea and how it contrasts with Rabbinic thought and about what happened in the Arian controversy, but I think the whole of the work doesn’t seek to defend the Trinity as much as it seeks to show why the Trinity matters. This is indeed something that we need restored to the church today.

The only major area I think I’d disagree with is that Sawyer does seem to hold a higher view of The Shack than I would like. It’s quite interesting that one of the main reasons I didn’t like that book was because of the way it treated the Trinity. If you are like me, you can still get a lot out of this as it doesn’t play a major role in the book.

I hope a book like Sawyer’s is appreciated. The church needs to reclaim the revelation that has been given in Christ. Our doctrine has become largely about morality and such instead of really about a revelation of who God is so that He can often seem just as distant to us as He would have been before the revelation of Jesus. There is a better way.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

The Shack: A Review

We’re going to take a brief interruption tonight from our Trinity series to talk about the book, The Shack. This is one I’d been meaning to look at for awhile, but didn’t really have the motivation to buy it until I saw it used at a library for $3. I’d heard a lot about it and I wanted to get it for myself to see if it was true.

Unfortunately, it was, and what I’d heard wasn’t good.

The story is by William Paul Young. It involves a man named Mackenzie Allen Philips who has his 6 year-old daughter kidnapped and murdered by a serial killer. Mack, as he is often called throughout the book, blames himself and has great anger at God. One day he gets a note in his mailbox he believes is from God inviting him to “The Shack” which is where his daughter was murdered. His wife and kids go away for a weekend elsewhere leaving him free to go and meet God. Earlier on before the meeting however, we do have this set of lines which really sets the idea of where the book is going:

In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects.” (65-66)

Yes. Let’s not dare educate ourselves and let’s keep in mind that this is what education really teaches. Christians ate up a work that referred to reducing God’s voice to paper. I’ve argued before on this blog that the idea of hearing the voice of God as a normative practice is really a modern idea that has no basis in Scripture. Who cares though? We like it. The early church died for that paper. People risked their lives and several around the world would give anything to have that paper. Young’s work denigrates this paper. In fact, throughout this book, you will not see Scriptural references, most likely because this stuff can’t be backed Scripturally.

When he first meets “God”, the Father is actually an African-American woman who he keeps referring to as “Papa.” This should raise flags. Did anyone ever consider there could be a reason God is portrayed as male in Scripture most often and to mess with that is to mess with his revelation of himself? Now we should embrace all races, but let us not use God as the means to do that. God is neither white nor black. In fact, he couldn’t be since he is immaterial by nature. While he contains within his nature maleness or femaleness, he is neither exclusively one or the other.

Jesus is pictured as a guy who works  in jeans and a work shirt. While he is supposedly the most human of the three, all three together just continuously gush on and on about how much they simply love the other two.

The Holy Spirit is pictured as an Asian woman named Sarayu. The idea of each person being incarnate in this case seems to lead to tri-theism more than anything else. Now the author does claim to be Trinitarian, but his understanding of it is terrible. At one point, he will seem as if he is tri-theistic. Then you’ll look and he will be modalistic. If our author doesn’t have a good understanding of the Trinity, he shouldn’t write about it. If he does, he obviously didn’t display it.

The book also speaks about the religious stereotypes that Mack holds on page 93 which is why God appears to him as a woman. Why were Christians not concerned that the author speaks of the ideas the church has held for centuries and are found in Scripture and treats them as “religious stereotypes.”?

Page 95-96 has Mack noticing that “Papa” has scars on her wrists. (Yes. The book refers to Papa as her often.) She tells him that she and Jesus were on the cross together. This is actually a heresy known as patripassianism which said that God the Father suffered on the cross. To have that would be to bring the divine nature itself down to less than divine. It would be temporal and would be capable of suffering.

This doesn’t just extend to Papa. Papa tells Mack on page 99 that in Jesus, the Trinity entered into the world. Again, this is a part where the book sounds modalistic. If you want to know the author’s understanding of the Trinity, so do I. It cannot be told what it is from this book. I’m sure he wants to be orthodox, but the presentation is not.

On pages 99-100, Papa tells Mack that all that Jesus did, he did as a human being. He never used divine power to do anything. He just lived in full trust of God and thus was able to do the miracles that he did. That’s not the way the Bible presents it. Jesus, for instance, forgave sins, something that I can never do. Someone was healed just by touching Jesus’s cloak. Jesus’s signs were to point to his divine nature. The idea even then comes that if we fully trusted God, we would be doing all the miracles. This is where the author gets extremely close to the Word of Faith camp where the implication is that if we fully trusted God, we would be able to do the miracles that Jesus did.

Papa even says on page 100 that while he was limited in Jesus, he has never been limited in hismelf. It’s good that it was stated that God has never been limited in himself, but the Father was never limited in Jesus.

On page 101, Papa says that “we are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.” But what is being said here? Is Jesus the Trinity? Each of the three persons in the Trinity partakes of the divine nature fully, but no one person of the Trinity is the divine nature and no one person of the Trinity is the Trinity. If you heard a rumble just now, it was the early church fathers who fought to give us orthodoxy rolling in their graves.

On page 106 when Mack is having a meal with “The Trinity” and they are asking him questions about his family, he asks them why if they already know to which Sarayu says “We have limited ourselves out of respect for you. We are not bringing to mind, as it were, our knowledge of your children. As we are listening to you, it as if this is the first time we have known about them, and we take great delight in seeing them through your eyes.”

Young has lowered deity thinking that that is something that would comfort humanity. When I talk about the people I love the most in my life, I don’t want God to see them the way I see them. I want him to see them the way he sees them. God doesn’t need to limit himself to take joy and delight in things. Don’t forget also of the problem of God personally limiting his knowledge. A Christian teacher of the past was once credited with the orthodox saying of “If God ever stopped thinking about me he would cease to exist as God.” God cannot stop thinking about you because he is omniscient. You are always on his mind. That truth is far more comforting than what Young has said. I have no problem with writing to comfort Christians, but let’s do so with truth, not with error.

On page 120, Papa says “I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”

Kind of makes you wonder what was going on with Sodom and Gomorrah then.

Contrary to Young, God does punish sin. Why? It is contradictory to his nature and he cannot overlook that which is in direct opposition to him. Now I would say God does delight in forgiving sin and he does not delight in the death of the wicked, but he does punish sin. He never says it is itsown punishment. I believe he did take part in what happened in Sodom and Gomorrah.

On page 122, Papa complains about institutions having someone in charge including marriage and what a waste it is. This is contrary to what Scripture says where in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3, we are told that a man is to lead his household. Paul made sure churches had elders in authority to help others. The God of The Shack may not like authority on Earth, but apparently the Bible doesn’t have a problem with it.

On page 145, Jesus tells Mack about the submission within the Trinity. Now I have no problem with the Son submitting to the Father and the Spirit to both as I believe that happened when the Son became incarnate and the Spirit was sent at Pentecost, but Jesus presents this as a mutual submission of all to each other in the Godhead and then tells Mack “We are submitted to you in the same way.” The God I know has never been submitted to me. He may do things for me, as he has and will, but he does not serve me. I am his servant. He is not mine.

On page 149, Jesus tells Mack that his life was not meant to be an example to copy. Now in some ways, we cannot copy Jesus. We cannot cleanse out the temple as God. However, we can copy him in several ways and Paul noticed this and told churches to imitate him as he imitated Christ. John tells us that the one who abides in Christ ought to walk as Jesus walked. (1 John 2:6) Once again, Scripture or The Shack. Which am I to believe?

In the chapter after the one that comes from, Jesus goes to meet Sophia, who is God’s Wisdom. Now in my thinking, Wisdom is actually Jesus, but obviously Young does not think so. He doesn’t explain Wisdom well however. She seems to be deity in this encounter, but yet a person of the Trinity,  but still Jesus does say she is the wisdom of God so she must be eternal. She is also a person so what is it? We don’t know. Young never clears it up.

On page 159 we hear Sophia say “Judging requires that you think yourself superior over the one you judge.” That sounds really good to hear to some Christians who treat judgment like it’s a dirty word. It’s entirely unbiblical. Jesus told us to make a right judgment in John 7:24. All people judge and you cannot avoid judging. Young wants us to judge his account as accurate I’m sure. (Which I don’t.) I have met too many Christians who want to throw out all judging as evil and too many atheists that have been quick to throw out Matthew 7:1 when I condemn an action as immoral as if Jesus was obviously telling us not to call evil evil.

On page 164 in talking about creating, Sophia tells Mack that God doesn’t stop a lot of things that cause him pain. This goes against the impassibility of God and frankly, a God who suffers pain is not the God we want. This God is temporal and can act then just to avoid his own pain. A God who is unaffected by pain can go with us whereever we are and will seek our own good without being moved by emotions. He acts on truth.

On page 179, Jesus talks about how he doesn’t create institutions like the church. He just cares about relationship, a concept that would actually be foreign to the ancient world. He condemns religion, politics, and economics. Religion however is the worship of God and there is no harm in calling Christianity a religion. We should. It’s not a dirty word. Politics refers to a system of governing. Is Jesus against that? How would that mesh with Romans 13? What of economics? Economics is the understanding of scarcity and demand? Does Jesus have a problem with my buying groceries as that involves economics? There is no explanation of this from Young. What would it mean if we embraced his system?

On page 182, Jesus says those who love him come from all systems. They can be Baptists, Republicans, Mormons, Buddhists, etc. He says he has no desire to make them Christian, but he does desire to make them into sons and daughters of Papa, into his brothers and sisters. Of course, he quickly adds that he’s not saying that all roads lead to him. While there is no problem with saying God will go to meet anyone on the path they’re on, which he does say, there is a problem with saying he will leave them there. Yes. God does desire to make them Christian because the term Christian means one who is a follower of Christ who trusts him for salvation. Maybe Young just doesn’t want to use the word because of his view of religion, but his presentation is less than ideal.

On page 192, Papa talks about Jesus and says “He is the very center of our purpose and in him we are now fully human, so our purpose and your destiny are forever linked.” The “Papa” I see in Scripture is never fully human and the Trinity did not become human in Jesus. John 1:14 tells us that the Word became flesh. We never hear that the God he was with did.

We also read on that page that through Jesus God is now reconciled to the world. Not at all. Now the path of reconciliation is open to all because of Jesus, but not all have accepted. Now Young does say that this is a two-way street, but once again, he really isn’t speaking good theology here. Some have excused this as just a work of fiction he wrote for his kids. It doesn’t matter. When he decided to send it to publish, he knew what was in it and frankly, if I was teaching my kids theology, I’d especially want to make sure it was right.

On page 197, we are told the Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. Now if they mean for salvation, that’s correct. Rules can’t get you salvation. It does speak of these things called “Commandments” however. Young seems to have this reaction to any kind of terminology he thinks is religious and wants to avoid it altogether. He only ends up with a feel-good religion that is incapable of showing the glory of who God is. It only focuses on what he can do for man.

On page 203, Sarayu tells Mack that “In Jesus, you are not under any law. All things are lawful.” Yet when Paul says that, he is most likely quoting his opponents and dealing with what they said and he didn’t approve. We are under the law of Christ. (1 Cor. 9:21) We cannot do anything we want. We are free to do as we ought. Once again, I can either believe Scripture or I can believe The Shack.

On page 204, we are given this odd sentence that nouns exist because there is a created universe and physical reality. Now I know God is eternally active, but he is an eternal being as well and you can speak of God as a noun. How would Young respond to that?

We are also told that we won’t find the word responsibility in the Scriptures. If you do not, you will still find the concept. There are things you are to do in a relationship as much as Young does not like that idea. In fact, we are told God does not give us a responsibility. We are under no obligation to him, because apparently that would be a dirty term.

When Sarayu describes this she says that we are free to respond in love and “Because I am your ability to respond,  I have to be present in you.” (205) I have no problem saying the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to respond to God. (Calvinists and Arminians work that out amongst yourselves.) I think both sides of the camp I just mentioned would have a problem with saying the Holy Spirit is that ability. The Spirit is a person. He is not an ability.

On page 206, we are told that we are never disappointing to God. After all, God does not have any expectations of us or responsibilities for us so how can he be disappointed in us, yet the Scriptures tell us that he does have responsibilities and expectations. We are to walk as Jesus walked and be holy.

Sarayu also condemns living by priorities. Now while the other persons of the Trinity say that God should be at the center of all of our lives and not just the biggest portion, that means God must be a priority. The greatest commandment is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

On page 223, Papa says that he (He has turned into a man at this point) does not do humiliation, guilt, or condemnation. This is again a far cry from the God of Scripture who does bring about shame on those who go against him, does speak of their guilt, and does condemn them when they die apart from him.

On page 236-7, Mack is getting ready to leave and finds that “God” has already packed everything in his car. Mack laughs about the thought of God the servant and then says, “It is more truly God, my servant.” I can imagine the Word of Faith camp cheering in delight at this. Because God does things for us, that does not mean that he is truly our servant. It means he is acting out of grace. John 15:20 tells us that no servant is greater than his master.What does that say about the god of Young?

As for the Problem of Evil which this is supposed to address, I cannot point to a convincing argument in the book against it. I see it instead as designed to bring about emotions. Too often today, Christians seem to like something not because it is true but because it feels good and based on that, they say it is true. I am concerned greatly about the way this book has been so widely received when there are so many statements that are anti-biblical on essential matters. There are books that are popular out there in Christian circles that I disagree with, but they are not heretical. This one I say is. If you want something comforting, it is what the author does not give. It is truth. Come to see God as he truly is and the more you see it, the more comforting it is. We can try to bring God to our level, but we will no longer have a god who can truly help us in our distress then. Good theology is not only true, but it is also comforting. Not only that, it is entirely orthodox. You can worship the true God and get comfort.

Final conclusion? I suggest avoiding The Shack. It is time for the church to rise up and return to the triune God that is revealed in Scripture and not be moved by emotions and feelings. If books like this stay popular, I don’t think the church in America will last long. Let’s change that.