The Shack: A Journey from Pain to Truth to Error – Part 2: Pain to Truth

In Part 1 of this series of articles, we saw that The Shack and its theology arise from two pressures:

  • Pain, loss, and suffering.
  • The perceived inadequacy of Calvinistic and Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism to heal pain.

These two pressures – pain and the inadequacy of “traditional Christianity” – drive a person in pain to look for something else, or drive those who try to help persons in pain to find something else.

Wm. Paul Young, the author of The Shack experienced the Great Sadness that his main character, Mack, suffers in the novel, as a result of severe abuse in childhood. (See footnote 13 in Part 1)

Parallel to Paul being in his Great Sadness, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a “renaissance of Trinitarian theology.”[1] This happened around the world, across denominational lines, and across disciplines and fields of study. Many Lutherans are unaware of this, but it is a pretty big deal. A piece of this would come to provide Paul with his healing, the healing he wants his children and you to have, the gospel of Trinitarian Theology.

As it relates to The Shack, the British setting of this renaissance is significant. There the revival of interest in the Trinity was much influenced by the Study Commission of the British Council of Churches on “Trinitarian Doctrine Today.” The commission met between November 1983 and May 1988. The seminal paper John Zizioulas presented to the commission delineated its task and defined its agenda.[2] Zizioulas agreed with the view of Karl Barth and Karl Rahner that the doctrine of the Trinity has become marginalized in the church, both East and West, not only in matters of doctrine, but also with regard to the devotional life of Christians.[3] With Costa Carras and James B. Torrance as their joint chairs, the study commission published their report titled The Forgotten Trinity,[4] a selection of papers with the same title, and a study guide for local churches. The study guide related the Trinity to worship, Scripture, tradition, our relationship with God, human relationships, and society.

Torrance, his brother Thomas, Zizioulas, and theologians like them become some of the prime influences on Paul and others in the Perichoresis movement, such as the author of the The Shack Revisited, C. Baxter Kruger. Paul himself writes the foreword for The Shack Revisited, saying, “If you want to understand better the perspectives and theology that frame The Shack, this book is for you.”[5] He describes Kruger as “A Mississippi theologian who cut his intellectual teeth in Aberdeen, Scotland with the Torrance brothers.”[6]

This school of thought, this type of Trinitarian Theology, is not easy to summarize briefly. It draws from many sources in church history including the Cappadocian Fathers, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Robert Farrar Cappon, Geroge MacDonald, James Torrance, Thomas Torrance, Kallistos Ware, Richard Rohr, and John Zizioulas, to name a few.

In this theology, the Trinity becomes a theory-of-everything.[7] All other doctrines are affected by it, to the extent of being conditioned by it. The Trinity becomes a hermeneutical principle that governs how Scripture is interpreted. What we are to believe about creation, law, fall, sin, wrath, promise, faith, repentance, conversion, justification, atonement, sanctification, adoption, testament, new covenant, reconciliation, eschatology, holiness, and more is subject to what fits with the perichoretic Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not to be regarded as a specialized subsection of the Christian doctrine of God, but it functions as the framework for doing Christian theology. It is the point from where the whole of Christian teaching finds its integration.[8]

In Paul’s own words:

Eventually Baxter and I would like to deal, among other things, with history to help us understand how we got so far off-course, with theology that asks the hardest and best questions, and with the implications that must necessarily arise out of such conversations. If what we are trying to unveil and communicate is true, how does this affect our thinking about heaven, hell, evangelism, homosexuality, work, the role of women, politics, religion, science, the sacred-secular divide, commerce, education, the nature of the Church, the process of transformation, healing, and everything else? We would then like to see this reality worked out in the flesh of everyday experience. We hope to gather together people who can communicate with us what this vision looks like in their own spheres of interest and passion: astrophysics, mothering, arts, media, music, plumbing, farming, fathering, business leadership, pastoring, caring for the planet, medicine, day laboring, teaching, dance, you name it.[9]

Kruger says, and rightly, “it would take twenty volumes to set out the details and nuances of these ideas.”[10]

Paul’s larger vision is rooted in “the evangelical theology of the ancient Catholic Church,” to borrow a phrase from theologian Thomas F. Torrance. This vision involves you, me, and everyone else on the planet in a breathtaking relationship with Jesus’ Father – the Papa we always wanted. It is trinitarian, incarnational, relational, thoroughly biblical, Christ-centered, and cosmic.[11]

Streamlining this to the issue of the chief article: First, there is a perichoresis of the persons of God, then a perichoresis of the two natures in Christ, and then a perichoresis of fallen sinners in God through Christ, which is our salvation.[12]

I agree that the Trinity was marginalized. I agree that the Trinity should be dusted off from the shelf of academia and technicality and made the lay person’s bread, breath, prayer, and song. I am on board with that part of the agenda of the Trinitarian renaissance. Nine of my catechetical evangelism articles published in my local newspaper are about the Trinity.[13] Those articles seek to show how the Trinity is a vital, personal concern for the lay person, a matter close to heart, and an indispensable part of the evangelical appeal of the Gospel.

Trinitarian Theology’s theologians, pastors, teachers, and writers have created beautiful, flourishing, and inspirational expressions of many true things about the Trinity and many true implications of the Trinity for family, church, and society. Up to that point, Trinitarian Theology is a journey from pain to truth.

That is why it is tragic, so tragic, that many in the movement have fallen into error in ways that depart from the chief article on which the church stands or falls, justification and the redemption we have in Jesus. Trinitarian Theology, when it goes beyond what is revealed in Scripture, becomes a springboard for speculation. It becomes yet another Enthusiasm that bases beliefs on intra nos sources aside from the external Word and Sacrament. It becomes a sola trinitas that overrules sola scriptura, thereby changing the doctrines of law, sin, wrath, atonement, and justification, which loses the Gospel.

Part 3 will explore that tragedy. It will explore how the journey from pain to truth got carried away, how it overshot, and led to error. As a foreshadowing, one way of describing the problem is that a vicarious humanity of Christ subsumes and eclipses the vicarious sacrifice of Christ.

As a typical American, I was an individualist. I had always believed that Jesus was the Son of God and that he became a human being, but I thought of him as an individual who did something for us. I had not seen – even though Professor Torrance was telling us so fifty times a day, in his great phrase “the vicarious humanity of Christ”— that in Jesus something happened not only for us, but to us and with us.

Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 144). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.


[1] Christopher Schwöbel, ‘The Renaissance of Trinitarian Theology: Reasons, Problems and Tasks,’ in idem, ed., Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 1–30.

[2] John Zizioulas, ‘The Doctrine of the Trinity Today: Suggestions for an Ecumenical Study,’ in Heron, ed., The Forgotten Trinity, 19–32.

[3] Rahner said that if it were announced that the dogma of the Trinity had been a mistake and was to be erased from official Christianity, nobody would be too bothered, neither the ordinary believing Christians nor the authors of theological textbooks. Karl Rahner, The Trinity, Trans. Joseph Donceel (NY: Crossroad, 1997) pp. 10-11.

[4] The Forgotten Trinity: 1. The Report of the BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today (London: British Council of Churches [BCC], 1989); The Forgotten Trinity: 2. A Study Guide on Issues Contained in the Report of the BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today (London: BCC, 1989); Alasdair I. C. Heron, ed., The Forgotten Trinity: A Selection of Papers Presented to the BCC Study Commission on Trinitarian Doctrine Today (London: BCC/CCBI, 1991).

[5] Young, Wm. P., Foreword, Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. ix). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[6] Young, Wm. P., Foreword, Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. ix). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[7] The Trinity as a theory-of-everything has merits. The Renaissance sought the theory of the unified field, giving to the university its name, and while making headway, never found it. The Reformation, without making that its project, serendipitously happened upon it (by grace!), in the Trinity. The Trinity shows something that deserves to be called much more than a harmony of the one-and-many, unity-and-diversity, and community-and-individuality. This harmony solves problems across fields, and thus can be a unified field theory. For example, we see it in the seven simple machines from which all the manifold machinery of the world is composed. Because of the Trinity, I can say that ‘On my farm, I have only seven machines, because there are only seven machines in the world, from which all the thousands of kinds of machinery are composed.’ We see it in e pluribus unum underlying the constitutions of Great Britain, Canada, and the United States. We see it in the field of accountancy with its seven elements. We see it in art, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, economics, and so on. A Reformed treatment of the Trinity and the impact of the One-and-Many worth your time to read is Rousas John Rushdoony, The One and Many: Studies in the Philosophy of Order and Ultimacy (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1978). The trouble comes when we speculate beyond what is revealed, and use speculative notions about the Trinity as intra nos Enthusiasm that supplants the revelation of Scripture. Because, ‘No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him,’ (John 1:18), theology centers better in the Incarnation, in Christology. In Christ, God is declared, not in speculations about God that go past what Christ has declared.

[8] Christopher Schwöbel, ‘Where Do We Stand in Trinitarian Theology?’ in Christophe Chalamet and Marc Vial, eds., Recent Developments in Trinitarian Theology: An International Symposium (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), p. 16. Downloadable at Project Muse.

[9] Wm. P. Young in Foreword, Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. xii). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[10] Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 64). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[11] Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 62). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[12] “This means that the mutual indwelling of the blessed Trinity now includes us! In Jesus, the human race has been gathered into the Holy Spirit’s world. Adam’s fallen race has been embraced by Jesus’ Father and made his children forever. In Jesus, the love and joy, the fellowship and shared life, the staggering oneness of the blessed Trinity, have found us in our shacks – us: you, me, all of us – forever. In Jesus, ‘Papa has crawled inside of your world to be with you.’” Kruger, C. Baxter. The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going On Here than You Ever Dared to Dream (p. 141). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

[13] Halvorson, T. R., Catechetical Evangelism in the Newspaper (Sidney, MT: Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., 2007), pp. 75-90.

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