Tuesday, July 22, 2008

SHACKING UP WITH GOD—William P. Young’s ‘The Shack’

When a novel by an unknown Christian writer which is basically privately published, goes to the top of the NY Times fiction bestseller list, mostly on the basis of word of mouth, you know something is up. More particularly you know it seems to be a God thing, since word of mouth doesn’t really travel that far that fast from say the woods outside of Portland Oregon. This however is the second important Christian work to emanate from that general neighborhood (the first being Blue like Jazz), and when it is a neighborhood not generally known for its Christian ethos, one is forced to take notice. Furthermore, when people as diverse as Wynonna Judd and Eugene Peterson and the producer of ABC News (Patrick M. Roddy) are giving testimonials to this first time novel, Peterson even suggesting it might do for our generation what Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did a long time ago, then again, something is afoot, as Sherlock would say. Since I about to publish my first novel, I had an added reason to ask—‘What’s Up with Dat?’

I want to say from the outset that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, as it involves a lot of interesting theologizing about God and the divine-human encounter, and it clearly has struck a nerve with many people who are longing to have a close encounter with God of the first sort. I am happy this novel can provoke thought and stir up people to reconsider the God of the Bible and what having a relationship with God might mean and be like. And because it is a work of fiction, no one should evaluate this work as if it were an exercise in systematic theology as if it were Barth’s Dogmatics for the Emerging Church, as its aims are much more modest. But there is both good theologizing and bad theologizing that can go on in popular fiction (remember the Da Vinci Code), and so it is certainly fair to ask what is going on in this novel and why has it struck a nerve. This novel is not a literary masterpiece. Its value stands or falls on some of the provocative and interesting things it says about our relationship with God, and it is in regard to its theology that I want to comment in this post. I accept that this novel has gone through various revisions, and rewrites, and could be called a work in progress. What I would suggest is that it needs considerable further theological refinement.

One of things that is up is we are in a post-modern situation and this makes people in some cases more open to things spiritual, but paradoxically less open to traditional church and religion in general (if I see one more bumper sticker saying ‘I believe in Jesus, not Christianity’, or ‘I believe in Jesus, not religion/church etc.’ I think I will be forced to honk). This novel most certainly breathes that ‘Jesus without traditional religion air’. For example, late in the novel Jesus says to the main character in the novel Mackenzie Phillips who is turned off by traditional church “that’s because you’re only seeing the institution, a man-made system. That’s not what I came to build. What I see are people and their lives, a living breathing community of all those who love me, not buildings and programs…Not a bunch of exhausting work and long list of demands, and not sitting in endless meetings staring at the back of people’s heads…just sharing life” (pp. 179-80). It’s all about relationships, and not about religion, according to this approach. And while no one would deny it’s very much about living and loving relationships, the truth of the matter is that it is a false dichotomy to separate Jesus from religion, or for that matter organism from organization. Let me give an illustration on the latter point.

Consider for example a very simple organism indeed—the single cell amoeba a form of protozoa. Now the amoeba is nothing if not flexible. It can subdivide over and over again. But within that larger flexible entity there is organization—there is a nucleus for example, without which it could not exist. It also has pseudo-pods by which it moves and vacuoles by which it maintains its equilibrium. Without structure, order and organization it could not ever be even a viable living thing. This is in fact true of all organisms, and that includes the church, if one wants to call it an organism. That doesn’t mean that human beings aren’t capable of over-institutionalzing things, or ossifying some of the structures, but to pit organism over against organization, with one seen as living and the other dead, one God-given, and the other man-made is absolutely a false dichotomy when it comes to the church.

There is no such thing in heaven or on earth as an organism without organization, order, structure, form, otherwise it would have no distinct shape, purpose, or being. And that applies to God, the church, as well as to all created things—remember the story of how God created the universe in a very specific order with very specific properties? Well it’s always been like that. Creativity takes a particular form and shape, bring order out of chaos or a disparate group of elements. Spontaneity is not particularly more God-like than something that was planned before the foundations of the world and executed over a long period of time. And why we should think an organism like the church needs to normally be completely spontaneous in order to be ‘alive’ is a mystery. Perhaps it is an over-reaction to spending too much time in moribund or unwell churches. One thing I know about real works of art--- they take time to create, and care, and skill, and form, and substance. This is as true of a Matisse masterpiece as of God’s creation of the universe. But I digress.

Another element in the creative theologizing in this book is what is said about the Trinity. Another of the bad guys in this novel is ‘hierarchy’ whether in human relationships or in the Godhead. Consider what is said on p. 122—“Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and enforcement of rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promoting it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship” Or on the immediately previous page ‘Papa’ (aka God the Father) tells Mack “We [i.e. the Trinity] are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command. What you are seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power…Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually this is your problem, not ours.”

There are some real problems with this sort of formulation, especially when one comes to deal with the fact that the Son is the only begotten of the Father, and only the Son dies on the cross, and no one comes to the Father except through the Son, and no one receives the Spirit except if the Father and Son sends the Spirit. Even in the most revealing of Gospels when it comes to the relationship between Father and Son, the Fourth Gospel, we have a very clear picture of a functional subordination of the Son to the Father—he can only do and say what his Father gives him to do and to say, even though he is fully equal in being to the Father and can be called God in John 1 and 20 (see my study The Shadow of the Almighty). In other words, hierarchy and subordination are not inherently the enemies of equality of being. There is a reason why the church Fathers suggested a triangle rather than a circle best images the Trinity—it has a certain order and shape, just as the relationships within the Trinity do. The image of God in this novel is even pushed so far as to say that following “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.” (p. 98). This statement is closer to Monarchianism, a heresy the early church rightly condemned than it is to Biblical Christianity.

The Father and the Spirit did not become incarnate as the Son did, and did not assume the limitations the Son did at the point of the Incarnation. Only the Son took on flesh. The three-ness of God must be stressed just as much as the oneness of being or ‘ousia’ of God, and in that three-ness there are things that can be said of the Son that cannot be said of Father or Spirit (for example the Father is unbegotten from all eternity, the Son alone died on the cross, and the Spirit did not become Incarnate with or as Jesus). Equally problematic is the comment on p. 100—“I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.” This for sure is not what the ecumenical councils said about the relationship of Father, Son and Spirit. They said that the three persons of God shared the divine nature or ousia, not that each of the 3 are fully and entirely the one (go back and read up on monarchianism, monothelitism, Sabellianism, and Apollonarianism).

Equality in the Godhead no more means ‘the same’ in all respects, functions, or activities any more than it need mean that in human relationships. If there is a place for subordination and obedience within the Trinity, there is a place for it in human relationships. And furthermore, obedience is not at odds with love--- indeed we are commanded to love in the Bible, and thus the two are rightly spoken of in the same breath—as Jesus says “if you love me, you will keep my commandments”. Law, order, rule, commandments are not inherently the source of the human problem in the Bible, sin is—which not incidentally begins as an act of disobedience to a specific commandment.

While I certainly agree that some forms of hierarchy can be oppressive, for example a gender specific hierarchy which resulted from the fall when ‘to love and to cherish’ became ‘to desire and to dominate’, the Bible is quite clear that ordering of relationships is a normal and good thing. It is not an accident that children are commandment to obey their parents in various places in the OT (see Proverbs) and the NT (see Paul’s letters). Obedience is the quite concrete shape love can and often should take. But what about the idea of freedom in this book--- both the freedom of God, and the free will of human beings?

I suspect that Calvinists will have even more problems with what is said about freedom in this book than I would, but I too have various serious issues with what is said about freedom in this novel. Let us consider first what is said about human freedom on p. 93: “Does freedom mean that you are allowed to do whatever you want to do? Or we could talk about all the limiting influences in your life that actively work against your freedom. Your family genetic heritage, your specific DNA, your metabolic uniqueness, the quantum stuff that is going on at the subatomic level…Or the intrusion of your soul’s sickeness that inhibits and binds you, or the social influences around you, or the habits that have created synaptic bonds and pathways in your brain. And then there is advertising, propaganda, and paradigms. Inside the confluence of multifaceted inhibitors….what is freedom really?” This is actually one of the best and most interesting passages on freedom in this novel where God reflects on human freedom, and it is precisely these sort of factors that lead to assumptions about materialistic determinism, or biology is destiny and so on. At the very least these factors are inhibitors or limiters of human freedom to some degree. And I would emphasize that human falleness is the biggest inhibitor of all. Apart from the grace of God, human beings are not able not to sin. Apart from God’s grace, we are all in the bondage to sin. The question becomes, does God’s grace work outside of and before we have a personal relationship with God? Fortunately the answer to this is yes, or else none of us would ever repent or have a personal relationship with God at all.

One of the major flash points in the discussion of freedom and the reason for an insistence on it is of course that love is not something that can be forced, compelled, compulsed, pre-determined etc. To have a loving relationship with someone requires a modicum of freedom of choice, at a minimum, and the power of contrary choice. I have stressed this elsewhere in this blog, so I will not belabor the point here, but Young is basically right on this point. But how far and to what degree does this characterize the way God relates to us. At one point Jesus in the novel says “To force my will on you…is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful and healthy.” (p. 146). The concept is then broached about how God has submitted himself to our human choices in various ways. The problem with this is it eliminates part of the Biblical paradox. The Bible is all about divine intervention. God is always intruding into our affairs, like a good parent should when his children are as wayward as we are. Is it really the case that God never rescues us against our will? Does God stand idly by, when a normal human parent would leap in and grab the child about to step out onto a highway and be smashed by a sixteen wheeler? Or listen to the following passage on p. 188. God says:

“Just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I need it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.” And then God adds “my love is a lot bigger than your stupidity…I used your choices to work perfectly into my purposes.” (p. 192). Now it is clear enough that Young is not an universalist in the sense that he thinks all will ultimately respond positively to God’s will. But when you once allow that God is busy working all things together for good for those who love Him, whether they realize it or not, then it becomes perfectly clear, as also in cases like when God flattened Paul on the road to Damascus that there are times when God doesn’t wait on our permission to do things on our behalf, and in various cases does things that would have been against our wills at the time. And herein lies the mystery—God, by grace both gives humans limited freedom, but is prepared to intervene and make corrections, redirections etc. for God is free as well, and there is something more important than human beings ‘having it their independent way’ and that is rescuing them. A drowning person can’t save themselves, they require a radical rescue—but how they respond to that rescue thereafter, whether in loving gratitude or with a bad attitude—well that’s another matter and involves human volition.

In other words, the answer to the question of why tragedy happens in the world is not just because God won’t violate our wills, or just because our wills are bent and fallen, and we are the orchestrators of our own tragedies. It’s far more complicated than that. If God’s relationship with us is at all like a relationship between a good parent and petulant child, then yes there are times when the human will is and must be violated to rescue the child from disaster. Thank goodness my parents cared enough about me to do that on occasion. On most occasions loving and leading and modeling was enough. On some occasions it was not.

The God of the Bible is not just a wistful wooer of fallen humankind. The God of the Bible is an intervener and a Lord over all. And while we are at it—the Jesus of the Bible is not Mr. Rogers--- he said he was coming back to judge the quick and the dead, as the Book of Revelation makes so very evident. Nor is the Holy Spirit just the one who gives us holy goosebumps, the Spirit is the Spirit of holiness and a refiner’s fire of sanctifying influence.

In other words, the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and mercy, of righteousness and compassion, of love and lordship, of order and creativity, of hierarchy and equality. Unless you can hold these antinomies in tension, you cannot paint a full picture of the Biblical God.

I am thankful for this novel, and its strong stress on the relational and deeply personal nature of our God. I am equally thankful for the message that God is much greater than we could ever think or imagine. I like as well the emphasis on love and freedom, rightly understood, as well as its admission that not all roads lead to God, for Jesus is the way. But on its next lap around the revising track, and before it goes into somebody’s movie, it needs to make a pit stop for some more theological tune ups.


Ray Hughes said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks once again for an insightful response to a relevant work. As a pastor hoping to discuss books like the Shack with the folks in my church, I am grateful for the time you spend to offer your insights!

Ray Hughes
Houston, TX

goodearth said...

Thank you for a fair and balanced review of Shacking Up with God. I have not read it, but if I do, I will keep your critique in mind. A book that traces the history of the privileging of spontaneity in Western religious experience is Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth, by Lori Branch, an Orthodox Christian and an English professor. I have not read this book either, but it is on my short list.

Ruud Vermeij said...


How do you relate what you wrote about the functional subordination in the Trinity to what you wrote about the Trinity debate around Kevin Giles?

I have never seen any subordination in the Trinity, except for a volutary submission in the incarnation.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks for this review. I too had trouble, and need to finish the book after getting around three quarters of the way through it. I do have a "question".

You say, "the Spirit did become Incarnate with or as Jesus".

I've never heard or read from Scripture that I'm aware of, that the Spirit became Incarnate. The Spirit is spirit, not taking on a human body, surely. The Spirit is down to earth, and with Jesus of course, but not Incarnate. Surely I misunderstand what you're saying.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I hope, Dr. Ben, that your words can get to him and make a difference. Helpful review.

And I need to press on and finish the rest.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ted:

A simple typo-- the Spirit did not become incarnate. Thanks for catching it.

Hi Ruud: I think Giles is right in attacking the notion that there is an ontological subordination in the Godhead. I am not in any way arguing for that. I do think there is a functional subordination of the Spirit to the Son for example, which has nothing to do with the Incarnation per se.

Ben W.

Brent said...

I think the problem with explaining the Trinity is that we aren't really meant to understand it fully. To the ancient Jews, God was ineffable. I think much of early Chrisitanity had this understanding as well. But the church Fathers, with their Greek obsession for dissecting everything to its smallest metaphysical aspects, may have, at times, gone too far in trying to "eff the ineffable." God revealed Himself in Jesus, but that doesn't mean we can completely define who God is. Only things that are revealed to us. The entire life of the disciples with Jesus seems to be a message of their total confusion at who He was and what He was really getting at.

We really cannnot fully grasp the Trinity. Our minds are bound to the finite and temporal. David wrote, "You hem me in—behind and before;/You have laid your hand upon me./Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,/Too lofty for me to attain" (Psalm 139:5-6).

The Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father, and the Trinity is One being in three persons. Paul describes Jesus work as God being in Jesus reconciling the world to Himself. While Jesus was on earth, the other members of the Trinity were working in Him, with Him, and through Him, but that doesn't mean they are all one personality. It is more a description of their relational reality and their mutual indwelling.

Jesus's statement about being subject to Father's authority was made on earth as a human. But the problem becomes how do you conceive of heirarchy when every person in the Trinity exists in a reality of love and agreement with the others? If there is heirarchy within the Trinity, it simply cannot be like our human heirarchies, which are based on the need to order someone to do something they wouldn't want to do otherwise, or to solve disagreement via fiat. Our heirarchies assume inequality on at least some level, even if it is merely an inequality of experience. We cannot get around this. How do you find heirarchy like ours in the Trinity when they are of the same essence? To put our understanding of heirarchy on God seems to bring us dangerously close to tritheism.

For instance, Jesus's statement that the Father is greater than He is cannot be taken ontologically, or else it would imply He is of a different, and less powerful, essence. But He said, "I and the Father are One."

Carrie Allen said...

This is such a great review. I too enjoyed the book, though I did think there were some theological "issues" that were not right on. This book ministered to many people in my congregation, and also outraged many people, but I think your review is fair, and I 100% agree with you.


John Farrell said...

Did I understand you to mean you are publishing your own first novel yourself?

If so, I heartily encourage you. It can be done.

Ben Witherington said...


Revelation is meant to reveal things about the Trinity, and while it is of course true that we can never fully get our minds around God, this is really irrelevant. We are meant to get our minds around what God has revealed of the divine nature, or else he would never have shared it with us. To that extent we certainly are meant to understand as much of the Trinity as God has revealed.

To John, no I am not self-publishing. My first novel will be published by Pickwick Press.


Ben W.

Brent said...


Appreciate your insight. I agree we are to understand what is revealed. But clearly the kind of hierarchy we humans think of--the Father ordering Jesus around like a servant or employee--cannot be a proper description of a relationship among equals. It doesn't even make sense of infinitely loving and sinless persons. Nor is this idea revealed anywhere.

We might see Jesus acting this way on earth as a human being "born under the law [the old covenant]." But it seems this is temporary, in that Jesus went back to sit at the Father's right hand. Father and adult Son could be much better (and seems to be the way Paul looked at it in Galatians).

My own relationship with my earthly father as an adult tells me "hierarchical" is not at all an apt description, though submission in love probably is. But his love for me is itself a kind of submission, as all love is (love is not self-seeking - 1 Cor. 13:5). This is a nuance Young gets that I have not read anywhere else.

I appreciate that your tone in the discussion was better than a lot of others. I think this book may indeed go a long way to reach postmoderns, but I wouldn't give it to a postmodern unbeliever without a caveat about the Trinity (especially that part about each member being uniquely the One--smells like modalism).

Also, you might be interested to read: http://lifestream.org/blog/2008/03/04/is-the-shack-heresy/

Good luck on your book!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Witherington--thanks for the review. I'd love to hear your thoughts on Young's ecclesiology (or lack thereof).
It's not just that Young doesn't like 'organization'. There's also no mention of baptism or of communion. Or of any kind of 'people of God' for that matter. So the problem, as far as I can tell, is quite deep.

Also, I do think you're too soft on Young. The Shack isn't Barth's Dogmatics, but the ONLY reason for the novel is its theology. The theology consequently merits as much scrutinizing as we can muster.


Ben Witherington said...

Brent you seem to have missed the fact that the Son continues to rely on the Father and the Father has the final say so on things even after the ascension. Notice how Hebrews stresses that he intercedes with the Father on our behalf, even in heaven and perpetually. The Father continues to be the commander in chief when it comes to answering prayers. Or consider Phil. 2--- who gave the Son the name above all names and who highly exalted the Son--- it was the Father. So there is still an order in the Godhead after the Son ascends to heaven.


Jim Lahey said...

I am with Brent on this one Dr. Witherington. I believe the following makes Brent's point.

NASB Philippians 2:6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to
be grasped,

NRSV Philippians 2:6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something
to be exploited,

The whole passage teaches oneness and speaks against hierarchical relationships that we humans always practice if we can use the bible to justifiy them.

phil said...

Dr. Witherington,

Did you think Young's brief insertion of the Garden of Eden being a literal garden was the author’s cheap shot at those who think otherwise?

Through your studies, would you say that the Hebrews would have understood this account to be a literal garden or a figurative explanation for things? Would the 1st Century Christians of viewed the story different from the original Hebrews who told and heard the story?

Ben Witherington said...

Early Jews certainly did believe in a historical Adam and Eve, but they were equally clear that a good deal of the creation account was meant to be seen as poetry, certainly not a scientific description of origins.


Steven Ganz said...

I live on the road (Wildcat Mountain Dr.) outside of Portland in the woods where the shack is supposed to be. From my vantage point this book is like a picture of Jesus with long, flowing brown hair, white skin, and a long very English nose. Some thing we can identify with culturally. It is kind of like a paraphrase - useful for a time to help us see the word in clearer ways but very liable to become outdated.

Denise Hess said...

Dr. Witherington,
I am especially intrigued by your two statements:

Apart from the grace of God, human beings are not able not to sin. Apart from God’s grace, we are all in the bondage to sin.

The second is clear to me, could you say more about the first?

Anonymous said...

While I appreciate such an honest and attempted fair review of the book, I'm like other posters. I think the one area you missed it on is the hierarchy issue. Whatever we are seeing in submission with Jesus and the Father is the outworking of a perfect relationship.

At issue is the term "hierarchy" which by definition implies inequality. And if we push that too much, we end up in tritheistic heresy in regard to the Trinity. For the Trinity to be "one God", we can't have such inequality.

Rather, what the earliest believers saw were things like perichoresis. Interpenetration. Each unique, yet one.

And perhaps it is just semantics ... maybe when you say "hierarchy" you are attempting to suggest the uniqueness of each member of the Trinity. I just suggest we need a better word. When Jesus says, "I and the Father are one" that destroys the concept of hierarchy to me. And yes, there is the matter of submission and the like.

But it is much like marriage to me. The Bible talks of submission in terms of marriage. What we are seeing is an outworking of a relationship, not a military operation.


Brent said...

Hey Ben,

Appreciate your insights. My point isn't so much that the Son doesn't submit in love to the Father. Even as an adult son, there is still a sense in which my father is above me, even though he doesn't order me around.

On the other hand, Jesus's intercession for us indicates that the Father submits Himself to Jesus's requests on our behalf.

The thing I liked about the Shack is how it displayed the loving relationship the Divine Community has in itself. I believe John was describing the relationship in the Trinity when he said, "God is love."

My point is that hierarchy is a human metaphor. I simply doubt our authoritarian human understanding of hierarchy is a particularly apt metaphor for the Trinity.

Ben Witherington said...


Lets clear up something. The word hierarchy in no way implies any sort of ontological inequality. That's just silly. Just because I am an employee of Asbury Seminary doesn't in any way make me less equal or somehow inferior to the President of the seminary. The same applies to a business or the army, or you name it. Hierarchies are everywhere, some are good, some are bad, and they tell us nothing about the issue of equality or inequality.


Krissi said...

It's great that Portland is finally on the map. I live here (well, for three more weeks, after which I'll be in Kentucky) and it's AMAZING. We have a wonderful flavor of Christianity here, especially if you also happen to be Quaker (like me, because humbly speaking, it's the best;).

All that to say, I attempted to read The Shack. It's a fascinated idea and I love some parts of it, but I was an English major, so I can't seem to stop myself from wishing the book would go through a few more edits. And I have to admit that once God became a man again, I completely lost interest and have yet to read the last twenty pages or so. Your response makes me wonder if perhaps I should. Thanks for the thoughts.

zefiriel said...

"Revelation is meant to reveal things about the Trinity, and while it is of course true that we can never fully get our minds around God, this is really irrelevant. We are meant to get our minds around what God has revealed of the divine nature, or else he would never have shared it with us. To that extent we certainly are meant to understand as much of the Trinity as God has revealed."

When you said 'understand,' do you really mean UNDERSTAND, like getting the ins and the outs, or KNOW?

I think it is rather ridiculous to restrict that the reason of revealing is so that it can be understood.

If I give you some information about myself, I don't necessarily expect you to understand how I am so, why I am so.

Anonymous said...

Ben, are you serious?! :)

"The word hierarchy in no way implies any sort of ontological inequality. That's just silly. Just because I am an employee of Asbury Seminary doesn't in any way make me less equal or somehow inferior to the President of the seminary."

The basic definition of hierarchy is an arrangement of objects, people, elements, values, grades, orders, classes, etc., in a ranked or graduated series. Items in a hierarchy are typically thought of as below or above others.

Since you are equal to your President, I would challenge you to park in his parking space (if he has a dedicated one). Make sure to use his office chair whenever you feel like it, and demand that he consult you on any pertinent decisions regarding the school and faculty raises. Also, suggest that you want to review his performance as you might possibly fire him from his position if he is not performing well.

I'd love to see just how "equal" you are to him. Please report on your findings to this equality in your hierarchy!


Ben Witherington said...

Hi Brandon:

You're pretty fun, have you thought of going into Christian comedy? But actually I have parked in Ellsworth's space, I have frequently given him advice which he has taken, and I have sat in most chairs in the President's office :) SO, once more with feeling, functional hierarchy has nothing to do with ontology. I don't know any of my friends in the military who think they are somehow ONTOLOGICALLY, which is to say by their very nature less than or unequal to their commanding officers.


Ben W.

Dani Smith said...

I appreciated your unbiased theological opinion on The Shack. Reading the book has fully transformed my life. Not that I believe God to be a woman or that I now believe the Trinity is without hierarchy. I am not a theologian at all, so I missed many of the problems in the book. However, reading from my standpoint I was able to surrender so many things in my personal life that I have been holding on to. Could this book have missed a great deal in the theology area, yet emphasized an aspect of theology that the church has completely left out of it's teaching? For instance, the way Sophia taught Mack about his judging? For the first time as I read that part, I had eyes to see my own judging. Also, in the hierarchy discussion, for the first time I understood how to mother my children in Grace. I also saw for the first time how I can be comforted by the fact that God never leaves His children. The way the Spirit in the novel described wrapping herself around Missy while she was going through the horrible ordeal. There seem to be countless aspects of the book in which God is revealed so accurately that traditional conservative religion communicates so inacurrately.

phil said...

1 Corinthians 15:26-28

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death; for he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.”

Do these verses speak of a hierarchy of some sort in the trinity? If not, what would be your interpretation?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben ... :)

Now be honest ... you being able to do those things ... are you friends with the guy? Because if so, that lessens the hierarchy argument quite a bit simply because your ability to do those things are a matter of relationship, not hierarchy.

Put it another way ... do you know the President of the United States? If not, can you go today and walk right into the Oval Office? Use his phone? His plane?

That is probably a better example in many ways just because that is one of the ultimate hierarchies in our society. Remember John-John Kennedy? At one time, he could walk right into the Oval Office. He could interrupt the President's meetings. Was there a hierarchy there between him and The President? Sure. If he were alive today, that hierarchy would prevent him from doing those same exact things right now. But I would suggest that relationship trumps hierarchy in his childhood situation simply because at one point the President WAS his father. And that relationship was the trump card over any hierarchy.

So since you seem to have a way of working with hierarchy better than me, would you mind arranging a personal tour of the White House for me in a few weeks? I'd like to stay in Lincoln's bedroom too, and I would love to take a trip to London. So can you arrange that with Air Force One?

Because I must be doing something wrong. For some reason my hierarchical relationship with the President isn't equal. He won't answer my calls, Secret Service push me away ... nada ... zipola ...

Maybe you might have better luck with this hierarchy of "equality"? :)

Again, I think the issue is semantics. We are most likely saying similar things but in different wordings. What you mean by hierarchy is not what I mean by it, and I find the term quite a Biblical contradiction to Trinitarian truth whereas you don't. I would suggest again that our definition of the word is the reason perhaps. There is a definite submission, give-and-take in the Trinitarian life. I just see that as the outworking of a holy, perfect relationship, not some cold, sterile, legal hierarchy. But perhaps your understanding of hierarchy is more akin to relationships?

By the way, The Shack has repeated reference of Jesus submitting to the Father in the book. I would suggest this is the hierarchy you thought was missing in the book, but it just wasn't said in the way you liked and thus you took exception to.

To me, it is a delicate balance to maintain the Trinitarian truth of "Three, but One". It is almost as if you have to say both, otherwise one will border on either modalism or tritheism. I personally find too much talk of "hierarchy" in a human sense of the word bordering on tritheism myself. I still am unconvinced that "hierarchy" means equality. The only time that happens is in the form of equality of position (of which no real hierarchy exists) or in a relationship which trumps the hierarchy.

But again, I definitely feel it is a semantics issue.


Unknown said...

We need someone like you to give an even-handed and scholarly look at a book like this. It seems like it could be quite dangerous to unsuspecting Christians given the biblical illiteracy among us and even the wider culture. I know that it is a fiction, but we must be careful because it is fictional works like these that serve to shape the mind in a great way. I just don't understand why someone like Peterson would put his name on a book like this knowing that people out there will endorse it just because he said its good. We really need to be awake and well grounded in Church History and the Bible in order to catch these things. Also you might want to look at p. 119 where he talks about judgement.

Ben Witherington said...

Brandon think about this--- you seem to be thinking about equality from a modern American point of view which suggests that equality of personhood means that I should be able to do anything anyone else does. You should not mix up ontological equality with equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work etc. Those are justice issues, not ontological issues. Equality in the Biblical sense is not in any way based on 'sameness' except that we are all equally created in God's image and equally persons of sacred worth. This really says nothing for or against ordering principles of various sorts, including hierarchial schemes of ordering. There can be no doubt that the early church had a hierarchial scheme of ordering things, beginning with the 12, and then the apostles. It is no accident Paul felt it necessary to go lay his Gospel before the pillar apostles according to Gal. 1-2 'lest I be running in vein'. Yes he chaffed at that structure, but he nonetheless recognized and honored it.

Dr. Ellsworth Kalas is both a friend and a President of mine, but that is irrelevant. We believe in the principle of servant leadership, just as Paul enunciates it in Phil. 2.4-11. Leaders still lead, even though they do it in other-regarding and serving ways.


Ben W

Ben Witherington said...

There is now a helpful orienting review of 'The Shack' in the latest (August) issue of Christianity Today by Derek Keefe. I accept his caution that this is a parable not a work of systematic theology, but if one is going to characterize God at length with lengthy discourse put into God's mouth, then a careful critique of lay theologizing of this sort is perfectly appropriate.


Richard said...

Ben: How does your view of the functional subordination of the son differ from say, Wayne Grudem, who would claim that his view of the son was merely functional rather than ontological (essentially the complimetarian logic applied to trinity)? If Jesus remains functionally subordinate after the acension and in operation, how is he not ontologically subordinate to the father?

Grudem's whole argument seems to be that if you don't view the son as eternally subordinate in function then the trinity breaks down because his role as a person distinct from the father is defined only by the relationship of authority he has with the father, because the whole trinity must be of the same substance. Grudem seems to think that the roles of the son, spirit and father are only defined by their heirachical relationships with each and the "division of labour" in the trinity. How does your view differ? Couldn't your view of the trinity also be used to ontologically ground the subordination of women and other people in society to their heads as well? (simply using a different but equall logic). Obviously the trinity must relate to world in some way beyond simply being a way of describing God

Casey Taylor said...

Thanks for the review.

Just to note: so far as I understand Eastern Orthodox theology, Orthodox theologians DO emphasize a kind of functional subordination while maintaining ontological equality. You're in good company, Dr. Witherington!

Bill said...

Dr. Witherington, I enjoyed your commentary on "The Shack" and am currently reading your book on "Paul's Letter to the Romans". I'm up to chapter seven of Romans so far and am thoroughly enjoying your Commentary. My question on your blog regarding "The Shack" is that your comment about if you ever see another bumper sticker that says "I like Jesus but not Christianity/Religion, etc." you'll have to "honk". What I don't understand is that usually someone will honk if they see a bumper sticker they agree with and it seems that you DON'T agree with those that don't seem to appreciate "organized" religion for a number of reasons. Did I misunderstand something or do you agree with those bumper stickers?

Thank You,

Ben Witherington said...

Nope I would be honking against the bumper sticker.


Charisma in Life said...

One of our pastors led me to your blog about The Shack. While reading it, I had misgivings about a list of things, but kept with the STORY.
When I put it down, I felt moved to be more intentional with forgiveness. I also appreciated the part of the story when the writer points out the judgement we hold towards God....good points.
You and other bloggers have addressed a couple of my hesitations about the book, but I have one to add. I question the writer's belief in Satan; or the lack there-of. He points out that where there is no light, that is all it is; non-light. In his theology, does he not think spiritual warfare exists? Satan?

matthew christopher davidson said...

I very much enjoyed this review, Dr. Witherington. I hope you don't mind that I've linked your review in my own.

Volkmar said...


In reference to your "non-inequitable" ontological relationship to the president of the seminary...is that also reflected in equal salary?


Volkmar said...


BTW, good review.


D. Lynn said...

After having finally read The Shack and Blue Lie Jazz, I think the emerging, post-modern movement is closely related to a personal relationship with God. Especially Blue Like Jazz has the author repenting and surrendering. This reminds me of the theme of Dr. Kinlaw's devotional, This Day with the Master. Dr. Kinlaw equates entire sanctification with entirely surrendering. It appears that Kinlaw and Miller argee that nothing is more important than relationship, and that relationship is everything. There truly is nothing new under the sun [Son].

Steve said...

"Does God stand idly by, when a normal human parent would leap in and grab the child about to step out onto a highway and be smashed by a sixteen wheeler?"

As a Ph.D. theologian, AND an experienced truck driver, I am in a unique position, perhaps, to point out an error in your otherwise excellent review. The vast majority of big trucks on our highways are EIGHTEEN wheelers. In fact, don't think I've ever seen a sixteen wheeler. Ah well, you can't be an expert in every field.

Steve Dintaman

Volkmar said...


As you say, the vast majority of semi-trucks are 18 wheelers. I guess a 16 wheeler could be possible if the tractor didn't have twin screws.


Jordan said...

Dr. Witherington.

I appreciate your review, and we share many of the same criticisms of the book.

"More particularly you know it seems to be a God thing, since word of mouth doesn’t really travel that far that fast from say the woods outside of Portland Oregon."

I disagreed with the idea that its popularity indicated that it is a 'God thing'. Biblical warnings about itching ears would seem sufficient to serve as an alert that popularity may indicate the opposite. What would stop one applying the argument to the unlikely popularity of, say, Slumdog Millionaire? Theology is replete with examples of popular movements that are nevertheless not 'God things'. Arianism in the 4th Century is one; Catholic relics and indulgences in the 15th likewise; prosperity gospel now too.

Secondly, this book (and Emergent Church in general) seems to me to be doing for Postmodernism what 'Liberalism' did for Modernism (or perhaps, more accurately, existentialism). It deletes everything from Christianity that proves culturally embarrassing (authorities, such as scripture, judgment, wrath etc.), and in so doing carves itself a new god.

A theological 'tune up' is surely insufficient to patch what is actually a failure in methodology.

Warm Regards,
Jordan Pickering, GWC, Cape Town