The Shack and Modalism

I think “The Shack is a cracking book. It’s a bit slow getting going but it’s a very accessibly way of thinking about some issues of personal tragedy in a believer’s life. It’s story and allegory. It’s not Scripture or propositional truth. Read it as a novel and you may laugh or cry with each page. It’s certainly got people talking about the Trinity again.

The very wise Eugene Peterson says “This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress did for his. It’s that good!’ And that’s high praise indeed.

Spoiler warning – in the rest this blog, I comment on what happens in the book!

There are often four criticisms levelled against the theology of the book

  1. It makes a graven image of God the Father: God the Father should not be portrayed as human.
    But, for example, in the Narnia series, Jesus is portrayed as a lion! God in the Bible is often described in human terms and Young is simply doing the same.

  2. It’s goddess worship – God appears as a black woman called ‘Papa’.
    Generally God does reveal himself as a father but sometimes God is described in feminine terms: cf Is 49:15. In the expression, El Shaddai – the all sufficient one – shad is translated 24 times in the OT as breast: a mother’s breast is all sufficient for her children. Humans are also created in the image of God male and female. I think no case to answer.
  3. The Trinity is expressed in a circle of relationship
    Shockingly for some western Christians, there is plenty of ways that the church worldwide have seen the relationships within the Trinity as being far more co-operative and less hierarchical. The later leads to structures of power. The former should be much more welcome to charismatics and those committed to the gathered church and collective leadership. Young is on solid if unfamiliar ground here when writes,

    Papa speaks: ‘Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’ as your ancestors termed it. What you are seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us.’

But there is some case to answer in the complaint that Young is somewhat modal in his thinking.

Modalism is probably the most common theological error concerning the nature of God. It says that God is a single person who, throughout biblical history, has revealed Himself in three modes, or forms. Thus, God is a single person who first manifested himself in the mode of the Father in Old Testament times. At the incarnation, the mode was the Son. After Jesus’ ascension, the mode is the Holy Spirit.

These modes are consecutive and never simultaneous. In other words, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit never all exist at the same time, only one after another.

Modalism denies the distinctiveness of the three persons in the Trinity even though it retains the divinity of Christ. Present day groups that hold to forms of this error are the United Pentecostal and United Apostolic Churches. They deny the Trinity and teach that the name of God is Jesus. These modalist churches often accuse Trinitarians of teaching three gods.

This is not what the Trinity is. The correct teaching of the Trinity is one God in three eternal coexistent persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Each time we try and explain the Trinity to children in terms of H2O presenting as ice, water and steam, we are being modalist. It’s a bad example, but I’ve heard it used regularly.

In my view Young can be a bit modal. Certainly, he has all three parts of the Godhead present together, which is an orthodox view. But then he writes that Papa reveals the nail scars on his/her hands. Young says he had in mind 2 Cor 5:19, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them”. That is a misinterpretation of this verse. There is a man who sits in heaven at the right hand of the Father and he does indeed have scared hands, but his name is Jesus.

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