Editor’s Note: To understand what is meant by “Trinitarian Theology” in this post, please see Part 2.
Having traced the journey of Wm. Paul Young, author of The Shack, and his main character, Mackenzie Phillips, from the pain of their Great Sadness to the truth of the Trinity to the error of denying God’s wrath on sin in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, in this Part 4 of the journey, I offer a Lutheran critique of the Trinitarian Theology of The Shack, under the following headings:
- Underestimation of Christ’s Suffering
- The Lutheran Approach Neglected by The Shack
- The Approach of Jesus to Suffering
- Protestant Myopia and Theory-bound Thinking
- Self-contradiction, Incoherence, and Lack of Solvency
- Mystery Meets Mystery: Word and Sacrament
- The Way Christ Faces Temptation
- A Bridge Too Near
Underestimation of Christ’s Suffering
Recall that the theology and the story arise from two pressures:
- Pain, loss, and suffering.
- The perceived inadequacy of Calvinistic and Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism to heal pain.
The problem of suffering finds its answer in the suffering of Christ. Trinitarian Theology reduces the suffering of Christ. It denies that God has wrath on sin. It says that on the cross, Jesus suffered our wrath, as if that were worse than to suffer the wrath of God. One wonders how they think diminishing the suffering of Christ helps us with our suffering.
By making the issue of wrath our wrath rather than God’s, the conflict that the cross resolves is a much smaller deal. It is as much smaller as we are smaller than God.
The Lutheran Approach Neglected by The Shack
Ronald K. Rittgers provides extensive information about the part ministering to suffering people has in the Lutheran reformation. He shows the Lutheran way of consolation, assurance, and peace amidst tragedy, trauma, pain, loss, and suffering in two of his writings:
- The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)
- The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004)
Oxford reviewer Laura Kounine says,
He contends that ‘In the sixteenth century, Protestant theologians and pastors engaged in an effort of unprecedented scope and urgency to change the way their contemporaries understood and coped with suffering’ (p. 5). Indeed, Rittgers argues that suffering formed the battlefield on which early modern Christian confessions fought for the souls of the European population, yet it has been a curiously neglected historical topic.
In a lecture on the book at Concordia Theological Seminary – Fort Wayne arranged by Dr. John T. Pless, Dr. Rittgers said:
Here’s the argument of my book, which will save you about 80 bucks. Martin Luther wanted to reform the way his contemporaries understood and sought to cope with suffering, and this reformation of suffering was an essential though understudied part of his overall reformation agenda. Suffering, the reformation of suffering, was central to the Reformation itself.
Theodore G. Tappert, famous among Lutherans for his edition of the Book of Concord, demonstrates the importance to Luther of pastoral care of sufferers in another work that he translated and edited, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003). In this work, Tappert collects Luther’s letters of spiritual counsel, which he offered to his contemporaries in the midst of sickness, death, persecution, imprisonment, famine, and political instability.
Dennis Ngien unfolds the pastoral work of Luther from his single overarching theme – God’s ways with people. As spiritual adviser, Luther sought to relate this focus to the events of his days such as evils, severe afflictions, the prevalent lay abuse of the Eucharist. He counseled how to meditate aright on Christ’s passion, prepare to face the terror of death, advise the sick, rightly approach the sacrament of the altar, why and how to pray aright, what benefits could be gained from the Lord’s Prayer, and how to live out a life of discipleship under the cross. Luther as a Spiritual Adviser: The Interface of Theology and Piety in Luther’s Devotional Writings (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007).
Luther devoted tremendous energy to helping the common person understand and take comfort from God’s word. An outstanding aspect of this is his work with the lament Psalms, which Luther brings to bear for the encouragement of everyday Christians. Ngien brings Luther’s work in these Psalms forth for us today in Fruit for the Soul: Luther on the Lament Psalms (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015)
In the succeeding generation, Lutheran theologians and pastors continued this work. An example is Johann Gerhard’s Handbook of Consolations (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009).
Another huge area of Lutheran medicine for sufferers is many of its hymns. Lutherans have hymns Evangelicals have never heard that bring the Balm of Gilead to the soul. These hymns tend to have many verses, and go well into the depths of suffering and consolation.
The Lutheran church continues to produce helpful literature with its chief hallmark: honestly facing stark realities. Rather than giving a sufferer The Shack, I would give them The Problem of Suffering: A Father’s Hope by Gregory P. Schultz (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2011). From the foreword:
Warning: After you’ve read this book you’ll never be the same again. You will be challenged by its intellectual depth, encouraged by its spiritual consolation, and blown away by its honesty. Like a roller-coaster, it will lift you to dizzying heights of insight, plunge you down into the deepest imaginable human pain, then lift you out again into hope.
Pain and suffering come in different sizes and intensities for different people, but they come inevitably to us all. A lot of ink has been spilled over the centuries on the so-called “problem of evil,” but there’s not much help in that. Anyone who has personally experienced the mind-numbing and gut-wrenching impact of suffering, pain, or loss can tell you the last thing anyone needs in the midst of that mess is intellectual reflection and explanation. What you need is the honest truth. And such honesty is rarely pleasant.
The power of the Lutheran approach has not been tried by Trinitarian Theology. So far as can be seen from their explanations of The Shack, they appear to be oblivious to this option. Having been raised in Calvinistic and Arminian thought, what Wm. Paul Young and C. Baxter Kruger know as Gospel proclamation is a different breed of cat from what Lutherans know, and they reject the Office of the Keys. Instead of moving from pain to denial of God’s wrath on sin and an atonement that does not atone, they should have started by reading Luther’s Small Catechism, and move from there into the consolations and assurances of the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith.
Lutherans, appreciate this: you have treasures for healing pain in Gospel proclamation and the Office of the Keys. More is needed for healing of various traumas and suffering, but that is where healing starts, rather than in the denials and flights of fancy in The Shack.
The Approach of Jesus to Suffering
The Lutheran approach flows from the approach of Jesus.
Consider the approach of Jesus. Four men broke through a roof to let down a paralytic on his bed. Here is the man, paralyzed, on a bed, carried by others, set down in front of Jesus. Is he a sufferer? Surely, he is. What does Jesus do?
“When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you.’” Jesus called him “Son.” He absolved his sins. (Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 9:1-8; Luke 5:17-26.)
Controversy broke out about authority. Does Jesus have authority to forgive sins? Now that Jesus is ascended into heaven, where can a paralytic find authority to absolve sins?
As Rittgers says, “Not only do the Gospels claim authority over sin for Jesus; they also assert that this divine power was entrusted to his disciples.” (Reformation of the Keys, p. 2) Gospel proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and the authority the Church possesses from Christ in the Office of the Keys continue the work of Christ for sufferers like the paralytic.
On the root of the forgiveness of sins, our justification and the redemption we have in Jesus, solace, consolation, assurance, and peace grow for sufferers.
Protestant Myopia and Theory-bound Thinking
The second pressure that drove Wm. Paul Young and Mackenzie Phillips to the Trinitarian Theology of The Shack was the perceived inadequacy of Calvinistic and Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism to heal pain.
When considering options in what to believe, much of American Protestantism suffers from myopia. For example, in the chronic disputes about the role of the will in conversion, American Protestantism tends to view this as a conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism. They have the impression that the universe of ideas about free will is completely embraced in those two isms, oblivious to Lutheran thought. They see their own two solar systems, and think that is the universe.
In a similar way, Wm Paul Young and C. Baxter Kruger weighed what they apparently thought were all the Western Protestant options and found them lacking, after considering the teachings of Calvinism and Weslyan-Arminianism. Calvinism was lacking because of its limited atonement, double predestination, and so on. Arminianism was lacking because of the burdens of “accepting Christ as your personal savior” and living a sanctified life. They found the theory of the atonement in these two branches of Christendom not only lacking, but offensive. With one exception where they misuse a statement by Luther, they never give evidence in The Shack or The Shack Revisited of considering the Lutheran confession.
Owing to this myopia, this oblivion to the Lutheran way, they failed to realize that Luther already had solved the problems they found in their Calvinist vs. Arminian world. Luther already delivered us from double predestination, limited atonement, the unbearable burden of “making a decision for Christ,” and the type of sanctification burdens put upon people by the Holiness Movement, Pentecostalism, and so on. Luther already delivered us from errors that the West perpetuates from Aristotle, Augustine, and others. The Shack speaks as if the Lutheran confession didn’t exist.
When it comes to the atonement, Young and Kruger reject the theory of the atonement in Calvinism and Arminianism, and adopt a theory of the atonement in Trinitarian Theology. They present this as if it were a great liberation, but it is still theory-bound. Cue up The Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” They fail to realize that theory per se on the atonement is the problem, so going from one theory to another does not solve the problem, it only perpetuates it.
As Pastor Rolf D. Preus said in his paper on “Justification” presented at the 2017 Brothers of John the Steadfast Conference:
Beware of such words as theory and metaphor to describe the saving works of God. God doesn’t posit theories. If it is a theory, it cannot be divine doctrine. It must be a human attempt to explain a divine doctrine. Talk of theories of the atonement is talk designed to undercut the vicarious satisfaction of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Luther was as capable as any man in Europe to handle theories. But in catechizing, preaching, and teaching, Luther does not do theories. He does Scripture.
A handy place to see Luther’s teaching of the atonement is his explanation of the Second Article of the Creed in his Large Catechism. This Lutheran confession of the work of Christ is not theory-bound. It simply represents what Scripture says. What Scripture says has multiple parts. As Luther says, “this article is very rich and broad.” He pulls the parts together, and simplifies them under the little word, “redeemer.” (See footnote for quotation of it.)
This rich yet simple and scriptural statement defies classification according to theories. It cannot be housebroken. It expands past the narrow limitations that caused Young and Kruger to disdain Calvinism and Arminianism. But, included within this teaching is what Trinitarian Theology denies about wrath and the vicarious satisfaction worked by Christ on our behalf. Instead of denying these two truths, Young and Kruger could have looked beyond the Calvinist-Arminian world into the Lutheran solution to the problems they perceived.
Self-contradiction, Incoherence, Lack of Solvency
Trinitarian Theology identifies a problem, and proposes the Trinity as the solution. At key points, however, it actually abandons using the Trinity as the solution, and stops short of the distance it says it goes.
Trinitarian Theology says God never had wrath on sin. The belief that he did was a projection of our sin onto God, a mythology about God that we created. That was our misperception and insane mind. Therefore, on the cross, Jesus does not suffer the wrath of God on our behalf. Instead, he suffers our wrath.
But notice what they did there. Having said the Trinity is the solution, just when we get to the crucial (pun intended) point on the cross, suddenly, they stop using the Trinity. The Trinity is not engaged within itself concerning wrath and forsakenness. Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me,” is not a real conflict of wrath and forsakenness within the Trinity. It is just Jesus’ “losing touch” with the Father’s love and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
Trinitarian Theology does not face the mystery of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” but instead explains it, as if anyone could! Luther, because he does face the mystery, denies that anyone can explain it. Trinitarian Theology psychologizes away the cry of Jesus. This is psychological reductionism of sin, wrath, and atonement.
This reductionism goes along with the ironic reductionism right at the Trinity itself. In the flights of fancy about mutual interpenetration and dancing they use to expand the dimensions of our speculation about God, ironically, they reduce God to a flat, cardboard cutout of “relationship” that means sin is only social, and therefore God cannot have wrath because wrath is antisocial. That is social-reductionism, an oversimplification of the Trinity. The simultaneity of wrath and love in God is rather more complex and rather more mysterious.
Mystery Meets Mystery: Word and Sacrament
These are mysteries: wrath and love, and God forsaking God. While accusing traditional Protestant theology of using law to tame God and maintain control, ironically, Trinitarian Theology uses “relationship” as law to tame God and maintain control. They won’t let God have wrath. They forbid him!
This they did because of the pressure to heal pain. They want something for their Great Sadness, the fear that God forsakes them. So they use one of the oldest self-medications ever: denial. Just deny it. Just says there is no wrath. This is how they tame the mystery.
Again, in their Protestant myopia, they never considered that Luther already delivered the solution in his teaching of Word and Sacrament. Yes, we need a way to deal with the mystery of wrath and love. God gave the way to us. The way is the external means of grace. Mystery meets mystery: Word and Sacrament meet us at the cross of wrath and love.
God gives you his word on it. He promises, God for Jesus’ sake forgives you all your sins, adopts you as his child, and makes you fully accepted in the Beloved. This we hear in the proclamation of the Gospel, and despite all nightmares and monsters of uncertainty over the mystery of wrath and love, we cling to the Word, and do not look behind it for theories.
God also gives his command and promise to Baptism. He gives his command and promise to the Lord’s Supper. He even, by his Word, makes bread and wine his true body and blood that you may receive by your mouth at the Communion rail. Despite all the accusations of the Law, regardless what apparitions of wrath may frighten you, Luther teaches in the Small Catechism that the words of Christ that his blood is “given and shed for you for the remission of sins” convey what they say, the remission of sins. By his Word and Sacrament, you have exactly what these words say, “the forgiveness of sins.”
The Shack would have you turn to a theory about the Trinity instead of the Word and Sacrament. That is why it is only one more in a long string of Enthusiasms that rely on internal notions rather than the external Word. According to the theory, our knowledge of the truth arises from experiencing within ourselves the perichoretic life of the Trinity. The truths we learn from this immediate – im-mediate, without medium, without means, without Word or Sacrament – condition what the Bible is allowed to say about law, sin, wrath, atonement, repentance, faith, and justification. Knowledge becomes intra nos, and cut loose from assurance promised in the extra nos means of grace.
The Way Christ Faces Temptation
This ironically lands a person right back at the shack of what is going on inside, with the impossible monster of uncertainty because, unless one can detect this inner perichoresis, one has no witness of adoption. This is contrary to the way Christ himself faces temptation.
On the cross, Jesus did not rely on the inner witness that He is the Son of God. He relied instead on the same witness that gave him the victories in the wilderness temptation and the Gethsemane temptation. In his baptism, Jesus heard the external Word, “You are my Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit immediately (Mark 1:12) drove him into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. The Devil said, “If you are the Son.” This was a direct challenge to the external Word. Jesus overcomes temptation by clinging solely to the external Word, “You are my son.” He does not cling to his internal experience, his Enthusiasm, but to the external means of grace.
On the cross, Christ was stripped of all experience, sign, support, or evidence of being accepted by his Father. What He had left was only one thing, one solitary thing: the Word. His human ears had heard an audible voice from heaven in the waters of Jordan: “You are my beloved son.”
That is why, when Jesus says to me, “Follow me,” I can follow him, by clinging to the external word of promise and identity, “You are my adopted son” in Baptism. The wilderness temptation for us is when the Devil attacks what we heard in our baptisms. The answer is to cling to the Word that makes Baptism what it is, not to a theory about God never having had wrath in the first place.
A Bridge Too Near
Kruger tries to make his theory of the atonement sound like Christ comes all the way to me. He tries to make it sound like a further journey than what traditional Protestantism teaches. He says Jesus “crossed all worlds to find us in our pain.” He says Jesus “cross[ed] every chasm between the triune God and humanity [to] establish a real and abiding union with us.” He repeats and elaborates this theme in various ways. He gives a book-length treatment to it in Across All Worlds.
But in another irony of Trinitarian Theology, its narrative of the cross is opposite to the theme of the movie, A Bridge Too Far, and has Jesus battling for me only to a bridge too near. For Luther, Jesus met me in my shack, the shack of actual sin, wrath, and forsakenness, which he bears in the place that was mine, the cross. He came all the way to me where I really was, under the wrath of God. For Kruger and Young, Christ only came so far as my psychological misperception of God, since that’s all there is in his shack. In spite of the flourishing language about God crossing all worlds to include me, in reality, Kruger and Young have Christ stop short of my cross and never make it into my shack.
Many worthwhile Reformed and Arminian critiques of The Shack have been written. But this is the Lutheran critique:
The Shack fails to deal with the shack – the shack of actual sin, wrath, and forsakenness, which he bears in the place that was mine, the cross. Contrary to The Shack, Jesus came all the way to me where I really was, under the wrath of God.
The mess inside is sin. God has two words about it, Law and Gospel. The Law sincerely threatens wrath, and the Gospel sincerely promises forgiveness, life, and salvation.
 “The book was born in the crucible of life, of trauma and abuse; of empty religion, misery and betrayal; of mercy, love, and reconciliation. Luther said somewhere that God makes theologians by sending them to hell. In hell, of course, no one is interested in mere theology. In the emptiness of grief, in the pain, the trauma of suffering, we are not interested in pseudo-promises, intellectual masturbation, or “Skippy, the wonder-Christ,” as my friend Ken Blue puts it. What we learn in hell is that we want out. We learn desperation for life, for healing, for real salvation, for a Savior who saves here and now, who reconciles, who heals our brokenness and delivers us from our shame. We need something that works.” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 9). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.
 “27] If now you are asked, What do you believe in the Second Article of Jesus Christ? answer briefly: I believe that Jesus Christ, true Son of God, has become my Lord. But what is it to become Lord? It is this, that He has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness.
“28] For when we had been created by God the Father, and had received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell under His wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved. 29] There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us. 30] Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.
“31] Let this, then, be the sum of this article that the little word Lord signifies simply as much as Redeemer, i.e., He who has brought us from Satan to God, from death to life, from sin to righteousness, and who preserves us in the same. But all the points which follow in order in this article serve no other end than to explain and express this redemption, how and whereby it was accomplished, that is, how much it cost Him, and what He spent and risked that He might win us and bring us under His dominion, namely, that He became man, conceived and born without [any stain of] sin, of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, that He might overcome sin; moreover, that He suffered, died and was buried, that He might make satisfaction for me and pay what I owe, not with silver nor gold, but with His own precious blood. And all this, in order to become my Lord; for He did none of these for Himself, nor had He any need of it. And after that He rose again from the dead, swallowed up and devoured death, and finally ascended into heaven and assumed the government at the Father’s right hand, so that the devil and all powers must be subject to Him and lie at His feet, until finally, at the last day, He will completely part and separate us from the wicked world, the devil, death, sin, etc.”
Martin Luther, Large Catechism, The Creed, Second Article, paragraphs 27-31.
 Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (pp. 192-193). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.
 “I have read that once upon a time Martin Luther sat down in his study to consider this text. Hour after hour, that mighty man of God sat still—and those who waited on him came into the room, again and again, and he was so absorbed in his meditation that they almost thought he was a corpse. He moved neither hand nor foot, and neither ate nor drank, but sat with his eyes wide open, like one in a trance, thinking over these wondrous words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And when, after many long hours, in which he seemed to be utterly lost to everything that went on around him, he rose from his chair, someone heard him say, “God forsaking God! No man can understand that!” And so he went his way. Though that is hardly the correct expression to use—I should hesitate to endorse it—yet I do not marvel that our text presented itself to the mind of Luther in that light. It is said that he looked like a man who had been down a deep mine and who had come up again to the light.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Saddest Cry from the Cross,” Sermon No. 2803, January 7, 1877.
 Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 15). FaithWords. Kindle Edition. See also pp. 49, 142, 151, 218, 219, and 227.
 Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 63). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.
 Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (49, 142, 151, 218, 219, and 227). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.