I promised myself I would stay out of the debate over the theatrical release of the popular Christian novel, The Shack. I don’t have much of a desire to join the echo chamber of condemnation that already exists. Pretty much anything I would say has already been said and said better than I could say it.
Yet, I do feel the need to speak out over one aspect of the movie I do not think has received enough attention. While I am quite concerned over much of the theology that the novel/movie promotes, that is not my top concern. In reality, there are lots of movies out today that put forth a theology or a worldview that is contrary to the historic Christian faith. Movies like this come and go. The Christian faith will live on forever.
I recall a few years ago Dan Brown’s Davinci Code was the biggest challenge put before the church. There was fear that people would leave the church in droves as they were misled by the false historical claim of the movie/novel. That was years ago and the Church of God still stands. I’m sure we’ll say the same thing about The Shack years from now.
However, there is something that concerns me about the Christian response to this film. I have had more than one fellow believer tell me how they were blessed by this work as it finally helped them see the Trinity in a much clearer way. This bothers me.
This bothers me not just because the Shack’s portrayal of the Trinity is flawed (though it is). I think most people’s concept of the Trinity may be flawed. Many believers in the pew on Sunday could probably define the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but I fear most are unable to go beyond this definition. Those who do often times unknowingly slip into heresy.
There is no doubt that the Trinity is a mystery that is difficult to comprehend, so we try to break it down in ways we can understand. This is natural. This where the church must get involved. We all believe in the Trinity, but when was the last time we heard a sermon explaining the Trinity? It is a part of most conservative churches’ statements-of-faith, but it is rarely explained and rarely taught. It’s simply a given in most churches. This vacuum of teaching leads to speculation. This void is right now being filled with The Shack. Author William Paul Young is giving people simplified explanations which are being received with praise because so many have nothing else to compare or contrast it with.
What adds difficulty to this topic is that the word Trinity is not found anywhere in Scripture. Overly simplistic reductionism might tempt us to think this doctrine is not all that important. After all, if the word is not even there, why should it be important to us? Yet, it is of the utmost important to us. Our view of God is what distinguishes as Christians. If our view of God is off, our whole faith is off.
The question of the Trinity is wrapped up in a larger question of how came to express our Christian just the way we do today. Our modern systematic theology books contain may words, phrases and doctrinal systems that would be foreign to the authors of Scripture, even though we are confident they are a reflection of what the authors of Scripture actually wrote. Our sermons today contain verbiage and phrases that the early church might not have understood. So, how did we get to where we are today? How did go from Jesus to Joshua Pegram (my pastor)? The answer is found in church history.
If you have struggled with the concept of the Trinity, you are in good company. It was the major concern of the early church. Though we take it for granted today, this was all new to them. In the first few centuries of the church, Christians, pastors and thinkers struggled with just who Jesus was. Why would they struggle?
First, news traveled slowly back then. You have no internet, cell phone or even a telegraph. There were no automobiles or even flight. Mass production was still a few centuries in the future. So, as the authors of Scripture wrote their books, it would take some time for it to arrive at the intended destination. Once it arrived, the church often times would copy it and send it off to another church. It was a slow process. It would take quite a bit of time until we had a completed canon (meaning the collection of books we now accept as Scripture).
Second, the books we now accept as Scripture were not the only books being written. They certainly were not the only books people claimed as from God. Perhaps you’ve seen a documentary on TV about the “lost books of the Bible.” Many of these books were not “lost” as much as they were rejected. Remember, even as Paul was writing his letters he warned of false teachers and even false letters written in his name. This would add confusion. Even in addition to these false books you had godly Christians continuing the tradition of Paul writing good and helpful letters to churches. These were helpful, but never claimed to be inspired by God. Yet, because they were helpful, they too were passed on to other churches. So, there was quite a bit of material being circulated, even if at a slow speed.
Third, remember the church was facing times of great persecution. Waves of persecution would sweep through the church in various places at various times. It’s hard to form a sound theology when you are running for your life! Christianity would not become a legal religion in the Roman Empire till the early fourth century.
When you consider all of these factors, it is not hard to imagine why it took awhile for the church to form a coherent set of beliefs. But, even in the midst of all this, there were those who were thinking deeply and contemplated whatever light God had granted to them. The church was discussing the issues closest to their heart – who is Jesus and how does He relate to the Father and the Spirit?.
How do we know they were thinking through this – we see this reflected in one of the earliest creeds the church confessed. While the Apostle’s Creed was not actually written by the Apostles, it was believed to be a summary of what they taught. This was what it meant to be a Christian. Believers all over the world could recite this as a confession of faith. At very least, we agree on these things. At the heart of the creed is a declaration of belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
But this was only the beginning of what the church would wrestle through. The church continued to grow and spread once Christianity was made legal in the empire. As Constantine took power, he identified himself as a Christian. But, he recognized controversy within his new-found faith. There were those who said that while Jesus was like God, and of a similar substance of God, he was not actually God, at least not like the Father was. So a council was called consisting of churchmen throughout the empire. They met at Nicaea in 325. The result was an acceptance of the deity of Christ on par with the Father.
They declared, “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” We call the full statement the Nicene Creed. This would be the first of seven church councils that would meet in those early centuries of the church. Later, the Nicene Creed would be affirmed with a few edits at the Council of Constantinople.
The church would revisit the issue at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as more false teachings and questions arose about the relationship of the members of the Trinity. As a result we have the Chalcedonian Definition:
So, following the holy fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; of one essence with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same of one essence with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days, for us and for our salvation, the same born of Mary, the virgin God-bearer, as regards his humanity.
He is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation. At no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being. He is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.
I could go on, but my point is that the church has a rich history of struggle that leads to a clarification of what we believe. A study of the church councils, creeds and confessions can be incredibly profitable. Why do we believe what we believe and state it as we do? Church history answers these questions. Such a study can lead to a greater confidence in our faith. It will certainly leave us less prone to be drawn in by false doctrine as much of these false teachings have been dealt with many times before in the past. The study of church history is a study of who we are.
As imperfect human beings we struggle to fully understand the Scripture God has given us. Doctrines like the Trinity challenge our mortal, sin-stained minds. But, we are not alone in the struggle. We’re not the first ones to find ourselves in this position. Let’s learn from those who have gone before us.
So, am I worried about The Shack? No. Movies like this will come and go but sound doctrine will remain forever. I am more concerned about the health of our churches. We have a rich, godly heritage. Are we passing that down to the next generation? Are we digging deep into this well or are we simply trying to re-invent the wheel? Or, even worse, are allowing the heresies of the past to wreak havoc among us once again, filling a vacuum that could be filled with a deep understanding of the Word aided by those who fought these battles already? Maybe The Shack is not the problem. Maybe we are.
So instead of attacking a movie, let’s do our due diligence and continue to the fight that started long before us.