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The Shack and Ancient Christianity

Surveying the foremost critics of The Shack’s theology, I must compliment them for being among the most cutting-edge thinkers of the 17th century.  If Christianity begins and ends with the Westminster Confession, then yes, The Shack is a pretty big departure.  But when we realize the Christian tradition is bigger than Reformed scholasticism, we find the ancient tradition has PLENTY of room for theology that doesn’t suck.  The Shack, for example.

I boil down The Shack’s theology to:

1. God is the eternal being-together of Jesus, his Father, and their Spirit—who are all totally and joyously in love with one another.

2. The incarnation of Jesus is THE definition of what it means to be human AND what it means to be God.  Being human means being bound forever to God.  Being God means being bound forever to  humanity.

3. We are blind as bats, unable to see the truth.  In our darkness, we do awful things to one another.  But Jesus, his Father, and their Spirit are doing whatever it takes to get the truth inside us.  And when we believe the truth, it sets us free.

The Shack Bible Project is my attempt to read the scriptures through that lens.  But I also want to make the argument that this lens is not Paul Young’s invention.  Rather, this lens is the faith of ancient Christianity.

The early Jesus-followers summed up the gospel in one word—ADOPTION.  Jesus has a wonderful, life-giving relationship with his Father, and he has given that relationship to every human being everywhere.  Read a  few samples from early Christian writings:

A.D. 60’s  –  Paul emphasizes that adoption is why God created us (Ephesians 1.4), that “Christ’s one act of righteousness makes all people right in God’s sight” (Romans 5.18), and that “God is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4.10).  Our union with Christ’s sonship is so complete and total, Peter goes so far as to say that humans are participants in the divine nature itself (2 Peter 1.4).

A.D. 100’s  –  Clement of Alexandria writes: “All people are His; some know this, and others not yet” (Stromata, Book 7).

A.D. 200’s  –  Irenaeus of Lyons writes “He caused human nature to cleave to and to become one with God…In what [other] way could we be partaken of the adoption of sons?…He restor[ed] to all communion with God” (Against All Heresies).

A.D. 300’s  –  Gregory of Nyssa says “Humanity exists according to Christ, through whom all humanity is joined to the divinity” (Hom. 1 Cor. XV). 

Many of the other great names of early Christianity thought this way: Justin Martyr, Turtullian of Carthage, Athanasius of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Jerusalem, and others.  I would also argue that this is the theology laid out in the Nicene Creed.

So why is this (and The Shack) so different from what normally passes for Christianity these days?  It’s a long story, but, for the sake of getting the discussion started without boring everyone to tears with all the details, I will vastly over-simplify it by talking about Augustine.  Augustine came around in the 400’s, and he was amazing in so many ways, but there were some problems:

1. He couldn’t read Greek (the language of all the writers listed above).

2. He had shame issues with his sexual history.

3. He was a lawyer.

 As a result, he produced a theology which:

1. Didn’t always interpret the Greek New Testament very well, and didn’t benefit much from the Christian tradition which had preceded him, because they all wrote in Greek too.

2. Had some major hang-ups with human sexuality.

3. Was all about laws and how law-breakers get punished.

 Sound familiar?  Anyway, as the institutional church became more powerful in the late Roman Empire, and especially as the bishop in  Rome started centralizing power in himself (the beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church), Augustine’s theology was adopted as the official way of thinking endorsed by Medieval Christianity in the West and was passed on to its successors: the modern Protestant and Catholic communities.  After all, the politically powerful can reap much benefit from a theology that puts divine weight behind their laws and punishments.

And the rest, as we say, is history.


10 Responses

  1. Excellent summary, John! I need to refer my GCS Church History students over to this post. Could I suggest one slight edit? I think I would say “Augustine’s theology was adopted as the official way of thinking endorsed by Medieval Christianity in the West and was passed on to it’s successors: the modern Protestant and Catholic communities.” Phrasing it that way highlights that we American Evangelicals think that Augustine = Christianity because of the roots of our theology in the Medieval West but Eastern Orthodoxy, if listened to, might have a thing or two to tell us about the dangers of building everything on Augustine.

  2. Excellent suggestion. I have used your wording verbatim. But now that you know of my plagiarism, you must die. My thugs will meet with you later this evening…

  3. Plagiarism is the sincerest form of literary flattery and thugs are the sincerest form of covering it up. So, thanks!
    Just posted a message to the students in my class to come read this.

  4. Great job John. I am always amazed at people’s reaction to the reality of how Augustine’s neo-Platonic ideas have done more damage to the faith than helped it. When they see the love of the Father, Son and Spirit even in the limited fashion as in The Shack, they always seem to say, “This is the way I have always hoped God would be.”

    I am starting a new study on The Shack this week in the school where I teach. I will be sure to send people your way in due time.

    Oh and by the way, being Sicilian, my thugs are bigger than yours.


    • “This is the way I have hoped God would be.” That says it EXACTLY. One thing I’m noticing among the Shack-lover’s community: Many of them remain uninterested in Christianity per se, and in the Bible too. They feel something wonderful in THE SHACK, but they don’t expect to find anything like it in the Bible or in the Church.
      And I wisely yield to your superior thugness. I know better than to mess with people with names like “Ancona.”

  5. Thank you for this article! I found The Shack to be a transformational book for me in my personal relationship with God and was saddened by the opposition I received from some Christians who dismissed it out of hand without reading it or understanding where the author was coming from in writing it. As I am studying the writings of the early church fathers with Pastor Jonathan, I understand better why the book had such an impact on me–it’s roots were well-placed.

    • Hi Linda, I too have been disappointed by Christian opposition here. It looks like this is one of those places where Jesus brings not peace but a sword. That’s upsetting to me. Part of me wants to quit my paraphrase work, because I know it will upset many people I love and respect. Anyway, thanks for the kudos. It helps!

  6. Would love to see you link this post ina comment to Is “The Shack” Heresy? http://ow.ly/1dccm

    Found you from the Shack forum– see you like Baxter Kruger too!

    • I’ve checked out your blog, Robin. Great stuff! And I’ve left a comment/link as you’ve suggested. If you ever have thoughts about THE SHACK as it relates to the Bible, I would love to have you do a guest-post on my blog sometime.

      Yeah, Baxter is the one who convinced me to give THE SHACK a chance. I was SO SURE it was going to suck. =)

  7. I can’t say I know what Paul Young believes based on reading the shack, after all this is a novel and I don’t know if he injected his beliefs into the story or not but the Gospels, which are the earliest writings by those that lived with Christ prior to his crucifixion are clear…there is no salvation with out the acceptance of the gift via acknowledging Jesus is Lord and that he died for our sins. Apart from that we cannot be in right standing with God whatever our wishful thinking may be.

    He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. John 3:36

    Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins. John 8:24

    Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.John 5:24

    And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; He who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 1 John 5:11

    And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 1 John 4:14

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