SA asks:

Hi Will,
Can we call the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ Spirit? What do you think?
Clearly he isn’t Jesus because he is the third person of the trinity, but I am a bit muddled as we sometimes say Jesus is with us by his spirit. What do we mean by that? Do we mean Jesus? Do we mean the Holy Spirit? Or are we meaning specifically the Holy Spirit but also Jesus and the Father as our God is one?
For example, when Jesus said he would be with us until the end of the age did he mean himself or the Holy Spirit? In John 14 Jesus promises “another Counsellor to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth” but also that the Father and he (Jesus) will make their home in the believer.
And then I look at Romans 8:9 where Paul talks about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and calls him both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ in quick succession and then says that “if Christ is in you….”
And Galatians 2:20 “Christ who lives in me..”
I’m not sure if I’ve even articulated my question clearly!

[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here:]

Thanks for the question. It takes us into the area of trinitarian theology, which is notoriously brain-bending, but is also deep, profound, and joy-bringing.

The short answer to your question is yes, we can (and must) understand that the Holy Spirit is Jesus’ Spirit.

The longer answer means exploring the conundrum that you have described.  Your exploration is great.  You’ve quoted the verse that I would have gone to as a way into it: In Romans 8:9-11 the Holy Spirit is referred to in the following ways:

  1. “the Spirit”
  2. “the Spirit of God”
  3. “the Spirit of Christ”
  4. “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead”

This passage also has a close correlation between “the Spirit” and “Christ” with regards to the one who dwells “in you.”  You’ve also rightly picked up other places where this is implied – Galatians 2:20 – and also Matthew 28:20 where Jesus says “I am with you always”, just before he leaves! Of course, the Spirit is subsequently present.

It can be a bit of a brain twister, so what do we do with it?

We can get a little bit theological: What is being emphasised here is the unity of the Trinity. We cannot separate Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit reveals the Son, and if we see the Son we have seen the Father (that’s John 14 again). This unity is at the heart of the gospel: Jesus is not one third of God of with us, he is truly God with us. As Paul assures us in Colossians 2:9, in Christ “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”

We can even get a bit metaphysical about it. My tentative exploration begins with thinking of God as a relational dynamic, and I start by looking to God the Father [As an aside, the Orthodox emphasis on the Father as the “Fountain of Deity” got me thinking here]:  The Father perfectly and eternally pours himself out into the Son. We call this “begetting” and think of the way in which a parent desires to pour themselves – their character, wisdom, understanding, etc. – into their children and extrapolate from that. This is so eternal and perfect that the Son isn’t just a reflection of the Father, the Father is pouring out his very being, and so the Son is of the same dynamic essence. The Son therefore pours himself back towards the Father, in response, agreement, and self-giving.

The Son’s eternal and perfect “pouring back” is an eternal and perfect “Yes and Amen” to the self-giving of the Father.  This eternal and perfect outpouring perfectly and eternally manifests not just the power and character of the Father and the Son, but the very substance of who they are.  This mutual outpouring manifests perfectly and eternally in the person of the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father’s eternally begetting love and the Son’s eternal returning joy.

Take any aspect of this away and then the dynamic is not eternal or perfect, and therefore not God.  That is, if the Spirit is not totally the Father’s Spirit, or the Son’s Spirit, or the Spirit of God Almighty, then God is not God.

Phew. That’s a bit heady. But can you see the passion and joy of it all? At the beginning of creation, the Father pours out in creative fervour – “Let there be light!” – the Son receives and responds in a “Yes and Amen” and from the power and joy of their agreement, the Spirit proceeds to hover over the waters of creation. Their unified love creates. It’s not like there’s some committee discussion in the Godhead about weighing up the pros and cons of creating the universe, rather the creative love and joy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit simply brings it about. After all:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

And here is the joyous gospel part of it. We know that “God so loved the World”. At some point the heart of the Father pours out in grace and love – “Let us go to our broken children” – the Son responds with a “Yes and Amen” and the Spirit manifests that loving purpose, hovering over the womb of a young woman.  And now the eternally, perfectly begetting God and Father, pours himself out, eternally, and perfectly, into a human child. The eternal, perfect dynamic that is God, can incorporate, does incorporate, and still incorporates a human being, Jesus.

The Father pours himself out into Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Son’s response now has human voice: “Whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise” (John 5:19), and the Spirit manifests that desire as healings and miracles happen.

And then at some point it looks like the Father’s heart to save – “Let us take responsibility for our children” – and the Son, knowing exactly what that means, says “let your will be done” and enters into cruelty and injustice and forsakenness, until the sky goes dark and we hear “It is finished” and “Into your hands I commit my Spirit.”  And then the self-giving, outpouring, justice-loving, fierce joy of God is truly made manifest, and we really see the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead!

All the time, at every moment, the purposes of God occur from and within this dynamic of creative thought, creative response, creative power. Every aspect of God is like this – saving thought, saving response, saving power; healing, restoring, convicting, providing etc. etc. Every time we see the heart of the Father, grounded in the Son, manifest in the Spirit.

And then, lastly, the profound realisation of it is this, if we return to Romans 8:9 –  embraced as we are by Jesus, we are “in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells within you.” This tells me that we are not meeting God from the outside, as if we might occasionally have an audience with the Holy Spirit, or with Jesus, or (if we’re really lucky) the Father. No! In Christ, we have been caught up into the dynamic of God himself. We don’t pray from the outside, we pray from the inside. We seek to discern the will of the Father, we seek to respond with “Your will be done” and we find, amazingly, that the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead, the Holy Spirit, manifests the will of God, in, with, and through us.

So yes, we can call the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus – we must! If we can’t, then Jesus is not really God incarnate, and we’re not really abiding in the Father. And there’s less gospel (if any) in that.

jewishgospelsI have an ongoing interest in the interaction between first-century rabbinical Judaism and Christianity.  On each exploration I find increased depth and colour to my reading of the New Testament.  I picked up Boyarin’s book The Jewish Gospels on something of a whim and for the title alone.

Boyarin’s project is to reduce the divide between what are classically considered as the distinctives of Christianity over against Judaism: the divinity of Christ, and the necessity of suffering in the messianic expectation.  He seeks to demonstrate that these distinctives are present (although not always widely accepted) within pre-Christian Jewish thought and expectation; they are not novelties invented in the light of Christ, but pre-existing understandings that are re-appraised in the light of a kosher, crucified and risen Messiah.

In this he is aiding the increasing mutual affirmation that is currently apparent in Judaeo-Christian relations.  I follow Romans 11 enough to see this as a good thing: Gentile humility and Jewish messianic faith leaves my heart strangely warmed.  Boyarin’s location of classic Christian theology in Jewish messianic expectation serves both.

Of particular interest, however, is Boyarin’s hermeneutic.  This informs exegesis more broadly and I have added it to my toolchest:

Firstly, the title “Son of Man” was not code, or a dimunition of “Son of God” (a clearly messianic term, drawing on the image of the human Davidic kings); it is a deliberate connection with the one with the Ancient of Days in Daniel, and has always connoted divinity.

The occupant of one throne was an ancient, the occupant of the other a young figure in human form.  The older one invests the younger one with His own authority on earth forever and ever, passing the scepter to him.  What could be more natural, then, than to adopt the older usage “Son of God,” already ascribed to the Messiah in his role as the Davidic king of Israel, and understanding it more literally as the sign of the equal divinity of the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man?  Thus the Son of Man became the Son of God, and “Son of God” became the name of Jesus’ divine nature – and all without any break with ancient of Jewish tradition.
(pp 46-47)

Secondly, much of the controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees relates to the Pharisee’s novel approach to the manifestation of their Jewish identity.  Jesus represents a conservative and traditional view, resisting the legalistic and narrow innovations of the Pharisees.

Jesus’ Judaism was a conservative reaction against some radical innovations in the Law stemming from the Pharisees and Scribes of Jerusalem. (p104)

Jesus… was fighting not against Judaism but within it – an entirely different matter.  Far from being a marginal Jew, Jesus was a leader of one type of Judaism that was being marginalized by another group, the Pharisees, and he was fighting against them as dangerous innovators. (p105)

Thirdly, the messianic expectation of the Jews was not triumphalism, (vicarious) suffering was expected.

The notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that – indeed, well into the early modern period.  The fascinating (and to some, no doubt, uncomfortable) fact is that this tradition was well documented by modern Messianic Jews, who are concerned to demonstrate that their belief in Jesus does not make them un-Jewish. (pp132-133)

I do not have the wherewithal to properly and academically test this framework.  I can only consider the internal logic, and the sense in which they help me to tell the gospel story faithfully to Scripture.  To that extent it is helpful.

I have a few concerned questions about his analytical framework.  His redactional analysis of Daniel presupposes an “intra-Jewish controversy” in which “the author of the Book of Daniel, who had Daniel’s vision itself before him, wanted to suppress the ancient testimony of a more-than-singular God, using allegory to do so” (p43).  He therefore doesn’t present to us an Old Testament witness to Triune thought as a clear proclamation of Scripture, but as a tension within Scripture, a rejection of one part in order to express the emphasis of another part.

This willingness to divide Scripture does not strengthen his argument.  I don’t want him to stand outside and objectify Scripture, I want him to tell the covenant, gospel story.  He gives the material for it, but doesn’t narrate it.  This is a book of intriguing insights but it us readers who have the the task of assessing, applying and proclaiming them.  

TrinityI’m preaching on both Pentecost and Trinity Sundays over the next couple of weeks.  Time for me to brush up on my Trinitarian theology.

It’s something I’ve had to do recently, having interacted with muslims in a multi-linguistic context (try explaining trinitarian thinking when the only mutual language is the waving of hands!)  All analogies are imperfect, but I have found Augustine’s Lover-Beloved-Love dynamic to be a good place to start.

Trinitarian thought is asymptotic of course – you know where it is but you can’t. quite. get. there…   And God is mystery in true sense of the word – not unknowable, but unfathomable, if you know what I mean.

But for mine, a good explanation of the Trinity must be able to explain a few things at both the essential level: Why only three? What makes a three-person Trinity perfect and eternal? …and the economic level: Why was it the Son who became incarnate? Join the dots between the kenosis of the Son, the anointing of Christ’s work by the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection and Ascension, and the subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit… and show how such economic observations are necessary outworkings (not mere whims, because “God willed it” etc.) of Almighty God.

And so I’ve often found myself not approaching it from the point of view of the Unity (the essence, immutability etc.) or from the Persons (particularly in functional terms), but from the point of view of the Relationships.  The Relationships clarify the Persons.  And they must be mutual, two-way, distinct and therefore perichoretic.  And some of them we don’t have ready language for, which is probably where angels fear to tread (and/or is scope for more work):

The Father begets The Son and therefore(?) The Spirit processes
is brought forth(?)
The Son exercises(?)
shines with(?)
The Spirit and therefore(?) The Father is reflected(?)
The Spirit expresses(?)
(as in reveals the depths of)
The Father and therefore(?) The Son is energised(?)
is embraced(?)
The Father processes
brings forth(?)
The Spirit and therefore(?) The Son is begotten
The Son reflects(?) The Father and therefore(?) The Spirit shines(?)
is brought to action(?)
The Spirit energises(?)
The Son and therefore(?) The Father is expressed (?)
revealed-in-his-depths (?)

but even more tightly:

In the begetting of the Son by the Father, being the
reflection(?) of the Father by the Son
the Spirit is brought forth(?) and shines/acts(?)
In the procession of the Spirit by the Father, being the
expression/revelation(?) of the Father by the Spirit 
the Son is begotten and embraced(?)/energised(?)
In the exercise(?) of the Spirit by the Son, being the
embrace/energising(?) of the Son by the Spirit
the Father is reflected(?) and expressed/revealed(?)

Any suggestions for better words to describe these relationships?

This relational consideration gives some weight to the Orthodox assertion of the Unity of the Trinity originating in the Father (not some amorphous [and impersonal] divine essence).  The analogy is this: The eternal creative Father, eternally and perfectly pours himself out in perfect and eternal creativity (that is he begets the Son).  In with and through that perfect and eternal act of begetting the Father is perfectly and eternally revealed, expressed, and enacted – and so the Spirit of the Begetting Father proceeds in with and through the Son (who perfectly reflects the Begetting Father).  These two relationships (begetting and proceeding) inform the mutual perichoretic non-arbitrary interplay of relationships that I have (very imperfectly) attempted to render above.

In looking at this today I have been stimulated by this piece by Sorin Şelaru: Eternal Intra-Trinitarian Relations and their Economic Consequences.

He begins here…

The Holy Spirit continuously proceeds from the loving Father towards the beloved Son, and continuously shines forth the response of the Son’s love towards the Father. The Father gives procession to the Holy Spirit in order to love the Son through the Spirit, while the Son turns towards the Father through the Holy Spirit, in order to love the Father through the Spirit.

…which is what I’ve been trying to express.  And he then makes it economic and real…

The teaching on Trinitarian relations provides the basis for the relation between the Holy Trinity and the created world; therefore theological considerations concerning the special relationships between the Son and the Holy Spirit within the Holy Trinity, the Spirit’s shining forth from the Son, resting upon the Son, and accompanying the Son, have several consequences for the economic domain.

Everything Christ works, He does so in the Holy Spirit. And everything the Holy Spirit works, He does so in and through Christ, to perfect the creative, deifying work of the Holy Trinity.

…and, with relevance for Pentecost:

As the Spirit, shining forth from the Son towards the Father brings to the Father the splendor and the joy of the Son, so He makes us shine as sons. He embraces us with the joy and the love for the Father. We all are loved by the Father and we all respond to the Father’s love through the Son and with Son’s love, because the Father’s Spirit, dwelling within the Son, overshadows us all and from us all the Spirit shines forth towards the Father.

Which brings us into the picture: By the Spirit, in the Son, as the Father wills, we are included in the Trinitarian dance. That’s awesomeness, right there.

Which means we also experience the mutual interplay of the Trinitarian relationships, which is the grace of the incarnation if nothing else:

  • The Incarnate Son clearly receives and operates in the power of the Holy Spirit (a (F <-> HS) <-> S dynamic) – and we find God, who is the Son.
  • The Ascended Son, with the Father, reveals and expresses through an economic sending/empowering (a (F <-> S) <-> HS dynamic) – and we find God, who is the Holy Spirit.
  • The Son-in-Session, brings with him all those who are filled with his Spirit, adopted as sons, and sharing in his Sonship (a (HS <-> S) <-> F dynamic) – and we find God, who is the Father.

All of which makes the fact that Jesus is who Jesus is incredibly and stupendously amazing.

Sistine FingersAnonymous asks: Does God need us?

The short answer is, “No.”

The long answer is, “It depends what you mean by ‘need.'”

God does not need us ontologically, that is in order to be himself.  This is actually a key component of how we conceived of God as Trinity.  God, by definition, is perfect.  But it is impossible for a unitarian God to have relationship until that God creates something – the creature can then be seen to add/complete/perfect that God in some way.  But if God is Father who eternally and perfectly pours himself out in perfect love into a perfect and complementary reflection of himself you have the basis of the “God in three persons” which in some sense is to understand “God as relationship.”  A Trinitarian God does not need his creatures in order to perfectly incorporate relationship.  His creation of us is therefore an act of grace, a gift, not an act of necessity or self-exploration on his part.

God does not need us practically, that is in order to do what he wants to do.  This is pretty clear.  God, being God, can do whatever he likes.  He can create the heavens and the earth and doesn’t need our help.  He can reveal himself to patriarchs and prophets, and doesn’t need our help.  He can move mountains and quicken and harden hearts, and doesn’t need our help.  All these actions speak of a God who graciously choose to create, sustain, and even intervene in his creation.  This is a grace, a gift to us, and not an act of obligation on his part.

There’s a pattern here – it’s not about “need”, it’s about grace.

And one of the aspects of that grace is that God chooses to no only relate to us, but to lead us, guide us, and, yes, to work through us.  So much so that he binds himself to us which not only affirms his humility, but also affirms that we are indeed made in the image of God, through whom divine works can occur.  And so God achieves his project through a human.  He even achieves salvation through a human.  That perfect and creative outpouring of God the Father – i.e. God the Son – became, is and will ever more be a human being.  He is a human being through whom God has worked his most magnificent work, and through whom we are called to also be, like Jesus, obedient to God, empowered by his Spirit, and achieving the works of his kingdom.

Are we needed for that task?  In some sense, yes, but not out of necessity, only because God is both gracious and sovereign.

Can there be be such a thing as a novel and new work in the area of theology? I suspect not, but there are places where our current thought, practice and doctrine so intertwine with both modern ecclesiastical intellect and the real world, that the exploration perforce covers old ground in new ways and towards new ends. Scott Harrower’s Trinitarian Self and Salvation is one of these explorations.

This deeply theological book, a published doctoral thesis, is, in Harrower’s own terms, an “Evangelical Engagement with Rahner’s Rule.” This is a theologically technical landscape to journey through and so it bears some explanation. It relates to our understanding of how the immanent Trinity (God as God is for all eternity) and the economic Trinity (God as God is revealed and acting in history) can be understood together. Harrower himself gives excellent background.

This axiom, RR, is defined as follows in Karl Rahner’s classic work The Trinity: “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.” (Page 1)

Evangelicals with a high view of Scripture tend to choose either of two approaches to RR… There is firstly the “strict realist reading” (SRR) of RR, secondly, a “loose realist reading” (LRR) of RR. (Page 3)

Quoting Olson, “interpreters of Rahner’s Rule have tended to divide into two camps: those who believe in a strong identity of immanent and economic Trinity and those who would qualify that identity by positing a prior actuality of the immanent Trinity.” (Page 6)

In other words, to borrow from Giles from Harrower’s footnote on page 7, the SRR of RR connotes an identification between the economic and the immanent Trinity, and the LRR of RR connotes simply a correlation between the economic and immanent Trinity.

Harrower’s focus is to assess the strength of the SRR of RR by means of an exegetical study of Luke-Acts. He does not focus on the practical implications of either the SRR or the LRR but they are there in the background.

The inclusion of Giles as a contemporary Evangelical theologian who “employs the LRR” (Page 7) brings to bear the sphere of subordinationism within the Trinity and the correlative theology of subordinationism in terms of gender roles. It may be over-simplifying but we can take the LRR to be a generally egalitarian view of God and the effects of salvation history, and the SRR to be, generally, a complementarian view that reads the subordination of Christ back into the very being of the Godhead and then extends its applicability to many, if not all, areas of life.

Harrower’s method is simple enough. He unpacks the concepts, puts clarifying bounds on his terms, and then gives some detailed background on Rahner himself so that we can be clear about what is at stake. Rahner held to an SRR and it was here in this background information that my own interest began was piqued. I found myself reading of thoughts and phrases that I myself had employed to speak of the Trinity (e.g. “[a theology] which only allows for the Son to become incarnate”, Page 34; “The Christology is thus a descending Christology in which Christ has his identity from God he Father’s expression of himself towards the world in the Logos as his symbol.”, Page 43). Was I SRR or LRR? I had reached the end of my previous thinking and now precision was expected of me!

The conclusion is made clear from the beginning – Harrower’s mission is to demonstrate the flaws of an SRR of RR. Should I be seeking to line up beside him or give a retort to each point made? The best theological journeys are the ones where you are not quite sure where you will end up.

Before his exegetical thrust the background includes some strictly theological reflections on the flaws of the SRR. Harrower has enumerated these from Page 46 under informative headings. I had a number of “I hadn’t thought of that” moments in this section. Consider these gems that struck me in particular:

  • The strong identification of the economic with the immanent implies an essential necessity for God to be incarnate and therefore an essential reliance on creation/redemption in the very being of God. Can God still be God without creating and saving by this view? “…in Rahner’s theology God is dependent on the world for the fruition of his selfhood.” (Page 48)
  • “Rahner’s axiom detracts from the incarnation because it asserts that God the Son’s relations with the other person of the Trinity in history must be exactly as they are for God the Son within God’s immanent self… Thus, the extent of the condescension of God in the incarnation, and salvation history as the context for the incarnation may have a reduced place in Rahner’s theology.” (Page 53). “Thus Rahner does not sufficiently deal with the two “states of Christ”: his humiliation and glorification.” (Page 54)

This last point is key – the emphasis of the SRR elevates the fullness (or at least the precision) of the revelation of God in the incarnation – but this is at the expense of the condescension of God in the incarnation. The tension is clear, in Christ God brought all of himself, and at the same time emptied himself so that he might be, for us, the Son of Man, Messiah and Saviour. The SRR implies a complete (cost-free?) continuation of Trinitarian relationship before and after the incarnation. The LRR affirms that “the incarnation involved a change in the way in which God relates to himself as Trinity ater God the Son took on human flesh.” (Page 59).

Harrower picks up this point a number of times throughout and it enables him to approach his exegesis of Luke-Acts through the Christological lens of the “messianic role” in which in the light of “his anticipated eschatological work and revelation, Jesus’ work in the economy of salvation is an incompete revelation of who he is.” (Page 73). Harrower does not pursue it, but it would be an interesting exercise to thoroughly correlate the RR considerations with the hermeneutical perspective of the likes of N. T. Wright. The starting point might be this:

Jesus relates to the Father and the Spirit in a specific messianic manner which is a newly-structured relationality. To hold the contrary opinion, namely that the trinitarian relations in the economy of salvation are the unrestrained self-expression of God’s immanent taxis, is to lose sight of Jesus’ vocation as Messiah and its significance for Christian theology. (Page 79)

This understanding sets up Harrower’s basic exegetical argument: Take an element of the messianic shape of Christ’s ministry, apply the SRR to apply that shape to the essence of God, demonstrate the absurdity, inconsistency, or undesirability of that shape. The last two chapters exercises this argument by considering both Father-Son and Son-Holy Spirit relationships.

At the end of the journey that is this book I was left with varied thoughts. I was variously impressed, frustrated, intrigued, and challenged along the way. I am aware that because of its interaction with the subordinationism debate this is likely to be a book of some controversy, particularly in the Australian scene. As I was with Giles, I am sympathetic to Harrower’s stance.

What I most desire having read this book is further engagement. I want to read a rebuttal. I will seek to find an opportunity to share a coffee and a discussion with the author. One thing is sure, Harrower’s presence in the Australian and international theological academy is a welcome one and a worthy example of the next generation of Christian thought leaders.

I’ve just finished reading William P. Young’s The Shack. I’m reading it because it seems to be flavour of the month in popular christendom at the moment – which says nothing about its value, but something about its influence.

Respected Christian authors and commentators either love it (Eugene Peterson is quoted on the front cover “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!”) or hate it (Mark Driscoll decries its heresies on youtube). So what’s my take?

It’s a book that’s certainly well written. It evokes emotions and tells a story well. It is an allegory – or, perhaps more precisely, a narrative theology – as the main character, Mack, encounters personifications of a triune God. There are some gems in it, but in the end I would classify this book as dangerous.

It is an allegory – but an allegory of what? If the metaphor that Young spins is meant to be a word picture, a narrative that describes God-as-God-is then it is blatantly heretical. When God shows up at the end of the chapter 5 “he” shows up (in the midst of a straight-from-Narnia cliche of snow giving way to spring-time-flourishing grass) as three persons – “Papa” who is an African American woman meant to be God the Father (towards the end “she” does change and is portrayed as an older man as Mack grows through parent issues and comes to a place where he can handle that portrayal); Jesus who is a Jewish man (of course); and Sarayu a complex enigmatic hard-to-grasp woman who is meant to be the Holy Spirit.

If that’s the intended metaphor, it is not an accurate portrayal of trinitarian theology. For instance, Young runs straight into the error of modalism in which the diversity of the trinitry is reduced to being a number of “modes” of one being. And so Young’s “Papa,” as well as Jesus, bears the mark of the cross (an error known technically as patripassionism). All three persons appear as human (although Jesus is acknowledged to be “more so”), there is little explanation of the differences between the three persons and when a fourth “personification” in the form of a woman named Sophia (representing wisdom) comes along there is nothing but a throw-away sentence to indicate that she is any different to the three other persons. One of the inherent problems with modalism is that there is no need to have “three in one” but simply “multi-expressions-of-one” and the danger of portraying it the way Young does allows people to appeal to whatever image of God suits them (from an African-American woman who likes to cook, through to shimmering dancing spiritual gardener). Young mishandles the diversity of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is dangerous ground to go beyond “God reveals himself as…” to “this is what God looks like…” It borders on presumption. Even though the divine persons in this narrative state that they are self-limiting themselves in order to interact with Mack, and therefore provide theological wriggle room for the author, Young also mishandles the unity of the Trinity.

Because in reality when you see see Jesus you see the Father, and the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of the One who raised Christ from the dead. If you are going to put God into a story (and many have) then God can only have one face – the face of Christ. In God there is no unChristlikeness at all, as they say. If Young simply had Mack meet Jesus at the Shack then he would be on safer ground, because it’s through Christ that Mack (and we) can meet the Father by the Spirit. Never separated – such as when Mack talks to Papa while Jesus is off woodworking – but all life emanating by the Father in the Son reaching forward as empowering Spirit.

So Young mishandles the Trinity. It may seem like I’m being a theological pedant – nitpicking. But there are very good reasons as to why precision in this area is necessary. If you get this wrong, and walk along the erroneous road, you end up not with gospel and life, but death. If Jesus does not reveal the fullness of God then Jesus is not “God with us” and we are stuck in our sins and griefs and God has just pretended. If we come to the Jesus of this book we keep looking behind him to find the nice pretty dancing Spirit-girl or the homely Papa-woman, he is not enough for us. Ironically, even though Mack is constantly surprised and challenged by “God” in the narrative, this book gives permission for us to demand that God appear to us in times of need the way we think we need him to be (“submitted to” us and “self-limited” and thus conforming to us in some way) rather than as he is and as he came to us.

There are some “gems” and snippets that are intriguing and perhaps helpful. Some of the issues of theodicy (how can a just God be both all-powerful and good in an evil world) are dealt with well. But the problems are difficult to wade past. The Lordship of Christ is underplayed as is a sense of God’s justice and judgement. The metaphor, like all metaphors, extends into error and the boundaries are not strong enough to prevent the unwary from going there. It is a dangerous book.

If there is value, if we are to be generous, then we could state that Young is not spinning an allegory of God-as-God-is but a narrative describing the healing of someone from a painful loss. If the back cover is to believed – “William P. Young… suffered great loss as a child and young adult…” – then we are simply seeing a presentation, maybe, of Young’s own experience of healing and forgiveness. So perhaps the best way to read it is as an allegorised biography rather than an allegorised theology. There is some joy in seeing this story as something akin to a grown-up story about Wemmicks (a metaphorical world for children from Max Lucado – that, by the way, is not also without its dangers).

But in the end – it seems people are taking this book as theology. And they are building their spirituality around this book. That may not have been Young’s intention – but it makes this book dangerous nonetheless.

Eventually, when it comes to assessing these sorts of novels I have to ask the question “Having read it, have I been encouraged to seek God for myself in his Word by his Spirit.” And the answer for this book is “No.” There is little reference to the Bible in the narrative and when it is included it is as an illustration about (wrong) “preconceived ideas” not as words of life. Where then do I turn after reading this book?

Sadly, the message is this – “We invite you to continue your experience with The Shack at our website,” – where it’s not about being encouraged to turn to God or the local church or come to Jesus in some way but rather simply to “share how you feel,” “share your insights,” “communicate with the author” and “purchase additional copies.” And of course you can contribute to “The Missy Project” to help spread this
book (not the Bible, or the gospel) further and wider and fund a possible movie version.

And so popular christendom gets caught up into another merchandising extravaganza and looks to the pantheon of WWJD and “The Prayer of Jabez” which now includes “The Shack.” Invest in other pursuits rather than this book.

Recently I posted an article on the facebook group Club Theo < and a member quoted me, writing:

Hi Will, I like what you said here:
“The resurrection can thus be seen the Father’s act to honour the son’s act of self-sacrifice – and to bring not only Christ, but all those he counts as “his” – into a place of new life and authority.”
What verses/ideas did this flow out of? I’d not heard it put this way before, but it rings true to me. (perhaps a new discussion is now born??)

Well, here’s some thoughts-on-the-fly and a bit of a biblical cherry-pick. I would like, at some point, to do this properly, dip into the greek etc., but for now I’ll do what time allows.

There’s two points to make:

  1. That the resurrection is primarily the act of the Father.
  2. The act of the Father is, at least to some degree, a response to Christ’s act on the cross.

If these two points are true then we have an insight into that wonderful phrase (hinted in an entry in my Connections blog): “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25).

So here goes:

There are lots and lots of places where Jesus foretells the resurrection in the passive – e.g. “…until the Son of Man is raised” (Mt 17:9). See also Mt 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:32; Mk 14:28; Lk 9:22. And also after the resurrection the simple descriptions are also in the passive – “He has been raised from the dead” (Mt 28:7). See also Mk 16:6; Lk 24:6; Jn 2:22; Jn 21:14. The implication is that the Father, or at least “God” is the active participant in the resurrection.

In Acts we have many similar simple descriptions – but we also start seeing some reason being ascribed. Consider:

Acts 2:23-24 – This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

Although the reason for the “impossibility” for the hold of death is not given, there is at least a sense that God’s action to raise Christ was a right thing to do, not an arbitrary thing to do. [For further consideration: implications of the quote from Psalm 16 in Acts 2:25-28, it is quoted again in Acts 13:34-35 where the “reason” for the resurrection is related to a fulfillment of covenantal promise]

The Pauline epistles, especially Romans, also use the passive “raised” and Paul is quick to apply the resurrection to us as part of the justification process:

Romans 6:4 – “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Romans 8 is probably my favourite chapter in Scripture and contains the wonderfully trinitarian reference to “the Spirit”, “the Spirit of God” “the Spirit of Christ” and “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom 8:9-11). Galatians 1:1 specifies, explicitly, that it is the Father who is the “raiser.”

In the letter to the Hebrews we, once again, see some reason/cause or purpose to the Father’s actions:

Hebrews 2:9 – “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

In the end (and I’ve probably missed a whole heap of passages – so feel free to point them out to me), I think this famous passage sums it up:

Philippians 2:8-9 – “… he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name…”

In this well-known “hymn” the cross and it’s death is an act of the Son’s self-sacrifice and obedience – and the resurrection is an act of God – who “exalted” him and a response “therefore.” [For further consideration – exact nature of the “therefore” in the greek.]

Perhaps I can conclude with something of a blessing:

Heb 13:20-21 – May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleaseing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen