In my last post I promised to turn to two criticisms launched against The Shack by one of the fifty most influential pastors in America. That pastor is Mark Driscoll, one of the leading Reformed spokesmen in the country today, author and pastor of the booming Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I am concerned here with a 7-8 minute excerpt of Pastor Driscoll's teaching his church in which he offers a short and sharp critique of The Shack. The reason I'm focusing on this clip is because it has had a big impact on the internet, having been viewed over 170,000 times on youtube. And because the clip charges Mr. Young with heresy four times over. And because it is utterly without substance. (Nor is my critical engagement with it a strawman. I have heard no more substantial criticisms from other well known critics of the book including blogger Tim Challies and Al Mohler.)
I am going to discuss here one of Driscoll's charges, namely that The Shack offers a modalistic (and thus heretical) understanding of the Trinity. (Modalism is a heresy, rejected at the beginning of the third century, which interprets Father, Son and Spirit as the exact same person acting in three different ways in history.) If The Shack teaches modalism then it is indeed in grave error. But does the charge stick? Here's what Driscoll says:
"It's modalism! It's a heresy. Papa says at one point, quote, ‘I am truly human in Jesus,' end quote. That's not true, that's modalism. The Father was not born of a virgin. The Father did not die on a cross. The Son died. Modalism says the Father became the Son and the Father became the Spirit. The Trinity says they are distinct, they work together. The Father sent the Son. The Son died and rose and the Spirit was sent to indwell and regenerate us."
Let's first note that Driscoll has not made as strong a case as he could have. In addition to the statement that he quotes (found on p. 201) we have the even more disturbing statement by Papa: "When we three spoke ourself into human existence as the Son of God, we became fully human." (p. 99) How should we understand these statements? Do they indeed constitute a denial of the Trinity?
Before jumping to a decision, let me introduce one caveat. Every Christian who seeks to articulate the Trinity is attempting to find the right balance between the unity or oneness of God and the distinction or threeness of God. However, this is a very difficult balance to maintain. As a result, theologians concerned to be fully orthodox have often found themselves charged with blundering near to one or another heresy. (For instance, Karl Barth was charged with veering toward modalism, while Jurgen Moltmann over-corrected for this error and for his efforts was called a tritheist - believing in three Gods.) So if we think that a fellow Christian has failed to attain that elusive optimal balance in affirming both the oneness and threeness of God our attitude should not be that of "Gotcha! You're a heretic!! Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah!!) Rather, it should be a careful and gentle correction in the "as iron sharpens iron" spirit.
So what if The Shack did veer toward modalism? That might warrant pastors warning against an imbalance at that point in the book and offering a gentle correction. Only if the book is flagrant in its espousal of a heresy would a shrill response like Driscoll's be warranted. But the passages quoted above, while regrettable, are also ambiguous. It seems to me then that at the most these passages should be red flagged and prompt further discussion and enquiry. The book does not clearly teach modalism.
But we can go further, for the book actually denounces both modalism and tritheism. Consider the words of Papa: "We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one." (p. 101) This denial of God being one individual with three attitudes is an explicit disavowal of the very doctrine that Driscoll accuses the book of espousing.
This leads me to a disturbing question. How could one of the fifty most influential pastors in America claim that a book teaches modalism when the book explicitly denounces modalism? I am left with the following possibilities. (1) Driscoll is malicious. He is intentionally deceiving people as to the content of The Shack. (2) Driscoll is incompetent. He does not know how to read a book. (3) Driscoll is irresponsible. He ventured an opinion without having carefully read the book.
I am open to hearing further suggestions, but for now I'll cast my vote with (3). As I am unwilling to say Driscoll is either malicious or incompetent, I will conclude that he didn't read the book carefully. And who hasn't offered an opinion on a topic prematurely? The difference is that whereas our ill found opinions are offered over a coffee break to a few colleagues, Driscoll's were offered to a church of thousands and then uploaded to the internet.
The moral of our tale is that we should be careful only to venture our opinions based on the evidence. Of course the same goes for Driscoll. Although in his case a retraction and apology for Mr. Young would be nice too.