Theological Reflections on “The Shack” IV: Trinitarian Heresy?

[My book on the Shack is now available on Kindle.]

The portrayal of the Trinity in The Shack has come under two assaults from critics.  Some suggest The Shack teaches modalism while others believe it teaches tritheism. The fact that such polar opposite accusations are present in the blog-o-sphere indicates….well, it is interesting to say the least.  Perhaps it is more in the eye of the reader than in the text of the novel.

Heresy?

Modalism is an ancient heresy that affirms that the one God comes to us as Father, Son and Spirit–these are merely different modes of revelation or different hats that the one God wears. There is no personal distinction between the Father, Son and Spirit.  Rather, God is one person who appears in different ways at different times in the history of redemption. Ultimately, the Father is the same person as the Son and the Spirit is the same person as the Father and the Son is the same person as the Spirit. There are no real, personal distinctions or individuations of any kind within the one God.

Tritheism is another ancient heresy which few, if any, ever affirmed but the early church sought to avoid.  It affirms that God is a triad of three independent beings as if three gods came together to work on an agreed plan of action. They formed a kind of corporation to accomplish a task together. There is no union in substance or essence but only in terms of purpose and goal. They are three autonomous gods who decided to work together.

Trinitarianism has always sought to avoid both extremes, though not always successfully. I think The Shackwants to avoid those extremes as well.  It is hard to see modalism when all three sit at the table eating with Mack and he has personal conversations with each. Each is clearly distinct from the other in the parable.  Tritheism seems more likely because threeness is emphasized in The Shack.  But Young is also careful to stress the unity, mutual interdependence, and shared consciousness of Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu–their total transparency, deference and shared life are intended to communicate oneness.  In fact, Papa’s statement to Mack clearly rejects both modalism and tritheism (p. 101):

We are not three gods [tritheism, JMH], and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes [modalism, JMH], like a man who is a husband, father, and worker [wearing different hats, JMH]. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.

Young’s formulation is a classic statement of Trinitarianism: one God in three persons. It seems abundantly clear to me that he seeks to avoid both modalism and tritheism.

So, what are we to make of this? What is important here theologically? What generates confusion about this?

Modalism?

The accusation of modalism is basically rooted in Papa’s wounds. The Father, in Young’s parable, has stigmata, the wounds of the cross, on his theophanic body. He bears the marks of the cross.  “Mack noticed the scars in her wrists, like those he now assumed Jesus also had on his” (p. 95).  This is, supposedly, evidence of Patripassianism, that is, that the Father suffered on the cross as if the Father and Son were the same person rather than distinct persons.  Patripassianism is a form of modalism.

I think this accusation misses the point and thus misses one of the key theological motifs that the parable embraces.  The scars are not about modalism, but about the experience of the Father through the incarnation of the Son.  The Father suffers through the Son rather than suffering as the Son (Patripassianism).  The Father dwells in the Son as he suffers and thus the Father suffers as well. In that sense, as Papa says, “we were there together” (p. 96). The Father was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19).

This is an important theological point.  The Father empathizes with humanity through the Son.  Mack wonders how Papa could ever understand how he feels….and then he sees the wounds on Papa as tears trickled down her face (p. 95).  When Jesus suffered, the Triune God–including the Father–suffered through him because he participates in the divine community and the divine community is transparent with each other. Jesus’ human experience becomes the experience of the Father through the shared consciousness of the Triune God. This does not mean that the Father became flesh or experienced flesh independently of the Son, nor does it mean that the Father died on the cross, but the Father did enter into human experience through the suffering of the Son by means of the shared consciousness (the oneness) of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

A populist understanding of atonement tends to distance the Father from the suffering of the Son. The Father is the punisher and the Son persuades the Father to accept us sinners.  The wounds on Papa are a corrective to this populist misunderstanding. When Mack is angry about how broken the world is, he asks “why doesn’t he do something about it?” “He already has,” Sophia answered, “Haven’t you seen the wounds on Papa, too?” (p. 164). The Father suffered–the whole Trinity suffered–through the death of Jesus, and they suffered for the sake of mercy and out of their love.  This is not modalism; this is good pastoral theology.

If you are interested in reading something more “heady” on this point–the Father suffered through the Son–I would recommend Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday by Alan Lewis.

Tritheism?

Tritheism, it seems to me, is the more problematic accusation.  The problem in describing an theophanic encounter with the Father, Son and Spirit is the individualization of the Father, Son and Spirit.  Human language is limited in its attempt to approximate the transcendent reality of the Triune relationship.  Anytime we describe this relationship with human metaphors (e.g., African American Papa and Asian Sarayu) we risk reducing the Trinity to those metaphors. Anytime we talk about the Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct individuations or persons, we risk tritheism.

But Scripture itself does this.  There is a threeness that can certainly appear tritheistic at the baptism of Jesus–the Father’s voice, Jesus in the water, and the dove descending. John 14-17 can be read in a trithesitic way–there are clearly three identities with their own personal pronouns distinct from the other as Father, Son and Spirit. At the same time in John 14-17, there is unity of nature, purpose, and communion.

The fundamental problem, I think, is that the unity of the three persons of the Trinity far transcends any human ability to imagine.  Modern Westerners live so individualistically and look at the world with such compartmentalization that the substantial and communal unity of three persons is inconceivable. In reality, it is indescribable as the finite human mind attempts to grasp the transcendent unity of God in three persons.

Theophanies will naturally tend toward individuation but these are theopanies, not the reality of God within himself.  So, it seems to me that we should given Young a break here just as we see Scripture doing something similar.  Human language cannot fully describe or portray the one God in three persons.

The Shackseeks to maintain the Trinitarian balance of “oneness” and “threeness.” Whether it does or not is subject to debate just as any account–even by theologians of the rank of Barth, Pannenberg, etc.–is as well. But it seems clear to me that Young intends to steer a course between modalism and tritheism.

The Shack’sTrinitarianism

In fact, if we want to identify the Trinitarianism present in The Shack, it comes closest to the Social Trinitarianism of the Eastern fathers, particularly the Cappodocians, and is articulated by various modern theologians (even by the evangelical Stan Grenz and Reformed Cornelius Plantinga). What is important about this way of conceiving the Trinity is, in part, the social relation between the persons of the Trinity, that is, they exist in a communion of relationship in which they experience what the Greek church has called perichoresis. They live in a harmonious community as being-in-relation; they live in transparency and in sync with each other as one. The one God lives in a relational community, a circle of love, in a beautiful and wondrous dance of love. Their oneness far exceeds any vision of oneness humans can muster but their relationship is exactly what we were created to image in our communal life.

This is what, I think, Young pictures in The Shack. Clearly, it is an accomodative, metaphorial picture. It is art, not science. And this kind of picturing of the Trinity is a historic part of Eastern Orthodox iconography. One of the most famous is Rublev’s “Holy Trinity” (1410). The icon portrays Abraham’s three visitors as the Trinity. It paints a theophany.  Here, as in Young’s story, we have three sitting at a table communing with each other but also inviting us to commune with them.  Notice how the chalice on the table invites viewers to come sit at the table as well and drink with God.  I suggest that Young’s parable is a literary form of what is pictured in this icon.  It is far from heretical. Rather, it is a parabolic portrayal of the reality of social Trinitarianism which is what the Eastern church has affirmed for centuries.

Why Important?

Wounded people tend to isolate. Addicts immerse themselves in their own shame and feel unloved. Trinitarian theology is extremely important for the wounded and the addict because Social Trinitarianism emphasizes the relationality and communion of love between the three persons.  “Love and relationship,” Papa says, “already exists within Me”–within the Triune God.  God has never been alone but has always been being-in-relation, that is, always in relationship with another and that relationship is one of love.

What The Shack does is offer wounded people a vision of the loving relationship into which they are invited.  This is who God is–the lover who yearns to bear hug us and wants us to experience his own loving communion.  Wounded people want to be loved; they need to be loved.  They want to feel loved.  And this is who God, as Trinity, is–“I am love,” says Papa (p. 101).  This is not an abstract idea but a dynamic, real communing between the Father, Son, and Spirit.  The Father loved the Son before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).

The love that the Father, Son, and Spirit have for each other is exactly the love God wants us to experience in our relationship with him. The mission of God is that “the love with which” the Father “loved” the Son “may be in” us and they in us (John 17:26). As Jesus tells Mack, humans were “always intended to be [in] the very center of our love and our purpose” and “my purpose from the beginning was to live in you and you in me” (pp. 111-112).

That is truly amazing! It is the good news of the gospel. Though the world is broken and filled with pain, though I am wounded and sinful, the good news is that God places me at the center of his love and purpose. The good news is, no matter what my shack my look like, I am loved!



28 Responses to “Theological Reflections on “The Shack” IV: Trinitarian Heresy?”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    john mark…wow
    you are one peice of work.
    now i will think on this a while.
    blessings
    rich

    eph
    3:14-19

  2.   Brian Says:

    Perhaps you are planning on addressing this in a future post, but I am surprised you did not discuss Sophia more in this post.

    I understood Sophia not to be a theophany of one of the members of the trinity, but a manifestation of one of God’s character traits, his wisdom. However, in the very quote you used in this post, Sophia refers to Papa as “He” as if Sophia has a separate identity from Papa.

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts on this. Thanks for the posts on this book. It has helped me to understand it better.

  3. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Young has said that he is using Sophia (which means wisdom) much like Proverbs 8 personifies wisdom. It is the wisdom of God. Proverbs 8 also refers to God in the third person as if God were a separate identity (e.g., 8:22). I think Young is simply following the lead of Proverbs 8. It is literary personification analogous to what biblical literature does.

    I commented in some detail because I had not thought I would do a post on Sophia though I may change my mind. 🙂

  4.   Terrell Lee Says:

    John Mark,
    I learned of your blog just a few months ago; I wish I’d known of this ministry of yours sooner because I profit so much from your thoughts and experiences and education. (Now I’ve got a lot of reading to do in order to catch up.) You help me bring together ideas and doctrines in such a way that I rethink most everything I believe. I especially value your contemporary theological reflection as it interacts with historical and biblical theology. Thanks for helping me rethink.
    So, as you’ve been re-arranging some of the furnishings in your own shack by reminiscing on furniture and decor, perhaps tossing out pieces that have served their purposes and even trying to bring in some new pieces to give a fresh look to the place, I’m profiting from the interior decorating that is taking place. God has used you well even during your workaholism (which was unhealthy for you); how much more as you gain even more S/spiritual perspective.
    God bless you brother.

  5.   rich constant Says:

    just the comment i was wating for,Terrell… 🙂

    …JOHN MARK…,
    NOW THEN…
    …DID I HEAR AN, OH NO…! GOOD…,

    Now we all play on a theological trampalean with you, bouncing up and down trying to clarify our vision through the OUR fog.bY your knowledgeable endeavors for us. You being a workaholic and all.
    On that last post you spoke of intimacy God’s Catch-22 of clarity I suppose.
    now then…
    i will not revisit the past again…so …
    john mark? How can you experience intimacy with God on a level that you would like to since one of those characteristics predominant characteristics that you have the word we shall use will go unnamed but that it has a big IC in back of it .
    not being fully intimate in the relationship that God gave you…
    and I know you’re working on THAT very hard the most difficult relationship that we can have is not with ourselves and not with God BUTwith the one who looks at us every day, my brother.
    So it would seem to me, scripturally anyway, if you want to take all of that knowledge and get some wisdom out IT. to experience the love of God you correspondingly have to share that with the person that knows you well and will reciprocate.
    So my brother the blessing that God gave you is the blessing that you’re responsible for.on every level
    The dynamic of family…
    you might want to think on the mystery and the marriage relationship as I’m sure you have.
    now on an intimate level between you and Jennifer. And when you’re jumping on God’s trampalean the fog might thin out a little FOR you.AND YOU might get some insight into since some of the things that you never ever seen before. Like that light at the end of the tunnel used to be a train.

    Much big blessings John Mark

    then you can come out and help me!!!! 🙂

    i need to do the same, it’s not help i need …

    i think it’s a new brain…BOY

  6. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    The intimacy of marriage mirrors the intimacy of God. Through marriage (or other close relationships where we reveal our true selves) we are trained in intimacy. This is part of the point of Gary Thomas’ “Sacred Marriage” book.

    The more intimate I am with my wife in terms of sharing myself with her–letting her come to my “shack”–the more open I become to God. Praying with my wife opens the doors of intimacy between God, myself and her.

  7.   rich constant Says:

    thanks john mark
    onward to enlightenment…. boy

  8. Profile photo of matthewmorine  Matthew Says:

    John Mark, this is the deepest review of a book I have ever read. You are amazing. By the way, I had a great time at Harding Graduate this week for a D.Min program. Great school and place.

    http://www.matthewsblog.waynesborochurchofchrist.org

  9.   Bruce Says:

    Great pickup on Young’s balancing act on p 101. I hadn’t noticed that before. Agree with him or not, Young has done a great job of helping us all revisit our views on trinity and personhood. I find the visit very comforting; feeling at home in my own skin as the Son showed us how. It is so great to be alive in Christ! How sweet our day of resurrection will be!!! Go miracle Sox 🙂

  10.   irishanglican Says:

    To my mind ‘The Shack” is a mess.. historically, theologically, and psychologically!

    Fr. Robert,
    D.Phil., Th.D.

  11. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Fr. Robert, I thought about deleting your comment since it is simply an assertion that offers no rationale or probes the discussion. But, for your sake, I did not because I did not want you to think that I was ignoring you or eliminating all critical comments about the Shack.

    Care to give reasons rather than use my blog to rant? 🙂

    My “shack” is certainly a mess but I’m grateful God is already living in my shack to forgive, transform, and empower me. That is the point of the The Shack.

    John Mark Hicks, Ph.D. (I can do that too!) 🙂

  12.   irishanglican Says:

    John Mark Hicks, Ph.D.

    First, I am an Irishman, who lives and works in the greater London area.

    I feel personally “The Shack” is as I stated really poor in the area of the historical, theological (not really sound Trinitarian doctrine)..and here on a blog I cannot get into details, save to say look more closely at both the East and West (Latin) Fathers, etc. Augustine’s philosopical here, as the Greek Fathers must not be pressed out too far.

    And sorry mate, but a Ph.D. can mean almost nothing today, even in theology. I am in my late 50’s, and an English (Brit) D. Phil. has more than just some book written. But we can lay this down. I sat under some great men, in my day (most of whom are with their reward). Plus I was a Royal Marine officer in Gulf War 1. So yeah, I am somewhat a proud Irishman.

    Fr. Robert

  13.   irishanglican Says:

    PS.. Let me also recommend an older and indeed more sober work (few in the West have perhaps not even read?) on the Trinity of God: Against Praxeas, by the the first western theologian Tertullian.

    Fr.R.

  14.   rich constant Says:

    I happen to be up late tonight, one thing about John Mark, he is far from being a pedagogue.
    It would be very interesting if you had the time and if you’re still awake, to read some of your thoughts. this is one of the most enjoyable websites that I have ever been associated with. And the man that organizes this is one to be admired in his humility.
    As I’m sure that you are quite aware truth is a funny word,
    and how we arrive at the truth is a community effort, that makes us all the better for the glory of God because of the manifestation of the divine nature through his son.
    As we work these issues through, in our contemporary environment, as we all play bump and run in and out of lives with no truly meaningful interaction to speak of I’m sure that you would be rewarded and those around you.
    Blessings to you and your studies rich in California.
    .

  15.   rich constant Says:

    p.s.Fr. Robert

    verily verily,
    I say to you,
    John Mark truly endeavors to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
    Have a nice morning
    blessings rich in California

  16. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Fr. Robert,

    Actually, I have little interest in what academic degrees mean or don’t mean. I know my pursuit of my highest degree was simply due to opportunity, availability of money, good mentors, and perseverance by God’s grace. My mantra has been, “What do you have that you did not recieve?” (1 Cor 4:7)

    As to Trinitarian relations, I find the Greek fathers more on target than the Latin fathers (including Augustine)–a greater balance with the threeness and oneness in line with LaCugna’s “God For Us.”

    I do like Tertullian; he is one of my favorite Patrisic authors. But I see nothing in my post about the Shack or in the Shack that would contradict Tertullian’s prosecution against modalism.

    Of course, Trinitarian theology cannot be discussed in the few pages of a novel or debated to any great extent in comments on a blog. It is way to nuanced than that (as Augustine’s massive volume illustrates) and it is too far beyond us to comprehend even with the most nuanced thought we can muster.

    Blessings on your work in London.

  17.   rich constant Says:

    A leap a Whirl A vertical climb and once again you know it’s time for John Mark and his friends.
    HOW BOUT A SUNDAY POST IF YOU HAVE TIME.

    BLESSINGS YA ALL

  18.   Garrett Maxwell,MD Says:

    Great Insights from very learned men about the ‘SHACK’, but let us not be sidetracted from the inspiration and purpose of the writing of this ‘story’ for William Young’s children to more clearly know of their Dad’s relationship with God, Christ, & Holy Spirit: as he is involved in living his virtual life on earth. To this purpose, ‘The Shack’ accomplished this objective to perfection as revealed by the universal popularity of the story by the millions of readers– i.e. many weeks on Best Seller Fiction Book list, & wide acclaim in the literary world. Read on America! & the rest of the world; for all who need & desire a clear view of the reality of our Great & Gracious & Saving GOD! AMEN!

  19.   Greg Says:

    The Rublev icon goes far beyond what you suggest here: it affirms the monarchy of the Father and invites us to enter into the perichoretic life of the Holy Trinity vis a vis the Eucharistic offering.

    Having said that, it is really important to understand that this is not an icon of the Godhead. It is an icon of two angels and the pre-Incarnate Logos (or, if you are a very strong in your view of recapitulation, the Incarnate Logos). It reveals things we believe about the Holy Trinity symbolically, but unlike The Shack, it doesn’t pretend to represent the Godhead itself. We can never picture the Father in iconography – he is made known only through his “Perfect Icon”, the theanthropic hypostasis, Jesus Christ.

    The “Eastern understanding” of Trinitarianism, ie, that of Athanasius the Great, Gregory Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nyssa ought really to be normative for anyone who professes to be ‘o’rthodox and it doesn’t correspond to the picture given in The Shack: where there are echoes of ‘o’rthodox thought, they are, as with most echoes, given to distortion.

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      I agree that the Rublev icon suggests the monarchy of the Father. Thus, it is an icon of the Godhead, but a icon of the theophanic Godhead. How can it suggest the monarchy of the Father if the icon is only intended to depict two angels and the pre-incarnate Son? Like The Shack, the icon reveals something of what we confess the Trinity to be, as you say, symbollically or theophanically. Neither The Shack nor the Icon intend to depict the Trinity absolutely but nevertheless speak truths about the Trinity. Both are symbols or parables; not the reality itself.

      And I agree that only Jesus is the living, authentic icon of the Father….and no icon is permissible of the Father as the transcendent one.

      I agree that the Eastern understanding of the Trinity is a helpful analysis but I do think The Shack is a broad picture of the Trinity that falls within the social Trinitarianism of the Eastern Fathers, especially Gregory of Nyssa.

      I suppose we shall have to agree to disagree about the interpretations of Orthodox Trinitarianism and its relationship to The Shack. That is ok. Disagreements about the particularities of the Trinity–even within the Nicean framework–have been part of Christianity since 325. Blessings, Greg.

  20.   Greg Says:

    Didn’t realize from the last comments dates that this thread was so old – apologies for intruding on a closed discussion!

  21.   Gabriel Fackre Says:

    Found this on Google and want to thank John Mark Hicks for his perceptive introduction to this thread.The exchange of comments is also helpful.

    In the “Open Forum” of “Confessing Christ,” a movement within the United Church of Christ to recover the core ecumenical convictions that launched this church in 1957, we are currently exploring the theological themes in THE SHACK. The current discussion is on the doctrine of the Trinity, and I am looking at my Rublev wall icon :). We are also right now considering the book and its narrative’s assumptions about institutions vis a vis Bonhoeffer’s “mandates” or the various traditions on the orders of preservation or orders of creation. Where THE SHACK appears to juxtapose “relationships” to institutions, the authors should struggle some with Reinhold Niebuhr, beginning with MORAL MAN AND IMMORAL SOCIETY (or better, as in his latter days, “Immoral Man and Even More Immoral Society”). So too, the necessity of the orders in a fallen world, to protect from social harm and promote human flourishing. Of course, they can be corrupted and they never achieve the perfections of the divine Life Together, but function best according to the norms of justice, and thus short those of the Eschaton. Or, have we missed something here?

    Gabriel Fackre

  22. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thank you for your kind comments and I have apprecited your work.

    I would agree that Niebuhr’s “Christian Realism” comes into play here and I would not want to reject “institutions” or “orders” altogether within the framework this broken world.

    John Mark Hicks

  23.   Gabriel Fackre Says:

    John Mark Hicks,

    Thanks.

    Might I copy and paste your introduction into the Confessing Christ Open Forum?

    GF

  24.   Gabriel Fackre Says:

    Appreciate it. Will give proper credits.

    Gabriel Fackre

  25.   barney Says:

    Shalom,

    With respect to your definition of a TRINITY as NOT 3 “SEPARATE” Gods please explain the following Passage?

    It is respectfully noted here that Yeshua Jesus is indeed GOD.

    John 20:17 (KJV)
    17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

    barney

    • Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

      The Incarnate Logos is indeed Theos (John 1:1-18). As incarnate, the Logos lived as a human being who descended from and ascended to the Father and related to the Father as “my God” (cf John 17:3). John 20:17 is spoken by the incarnate one who stands as a human being with others (“my brethren”) and ascends to the Father to represent them. That is how I would understand this text.

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