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.