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The Shack, Part 2 – Who is the Trinity?

This is the second part of a series on William P. Young’s book, The Shack, that came out of a Sunday School class at New Dublin Presbyterian Church.

Allow me to begin with a brief historical introduction: in the fourth century, a preacher named Arius argued that Jesus was less than God the Father. Poor Arius! Most heresies begin with noble intentions; in this case, a rather muddled yet earnest thinker was trying to explain how Jesus was both God and human. So, he claimed that God “created” Jesus, which could explain how Jesus had two natures, divine and human, but unfortunately implied that the second person of the Trinity was dependent upon, and quite possibly inferior to the first person. In response, the council of Nicaea developed a comprehensive statement of faith upon which subsequent doctrine and theology has been measured for centuries. The Nicene Creed affirmed the divinity of Jesus and the co-equal, co-eternal nature of members in the Trinity.

I do not know if William P. Young was well-versed in this historical context; but The Shack depicts three members of the Trinity who are essentially equal. “Papa” is the first person of the Trinity who is presented as the Father/Mother God, and who first appears in the form of a large African American woman. Later in the novel, Papa takes the form of grandfatherly lumberjack. Papa is accompanied byvthe two other members of the Trinity. Sarayu, the Holy Spirit, is described as a shimmering, almost transparent Asian woman who is always in motion and loves to garden. There is also Jesus, God’s beloved son, who is described as a Middle Eastern carpenter.

No matter what names are used, the Trinity is viewed first and foremost as a complex relationship among the three persons of the Godhead. They share one another’s pain in a mysterious way, Papa even bearing scars on her wrists, as Jesus does. What’s more, the relationship between Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu is one of perfectly proportioned power, a “circle of relationship” rather than Mack’s conception of a chain of command (122). It is an expansive, open system. The Shack presents the Trinity is a confederation of equals (146). While Young’s images are a product of his imagination, I want to stress to you that this understanding of equality and cooperation between the members of the Trinity is the historical view of the church. In the words of an ancient hymn, the persons of the Trinity are “Proceeding from each other, equal may they be praised.”

However, in our current era, there are certain theologians who are trying to change this perception; instead of a “circle of equals,” they argue that the Trinity represents a hierarchy and that the very nature of the Godhead is about submission to authority. As such, they make the same ancient mistake as Arius, a heresy known as subordinationism by which Jesus or the Holy Spirit are viewed as inferior to the Father.

In contradiction, the church has traditionally taught that each Person of the One Triune God shares equally in honor, glory, worship, power, authority, and rank. In fact, the Bible never suggests that any one Person of the Trinity has eternal superiority or authority over the others, or that one is in eternal subordination to another. As we see clearly in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (not my will but yours be done), the Son’s submission and obedience to the Father were voluntary and related specifically to the time during which he humbled himself, took on human nature, and dwelled among us as a servant. Philippians 2 is a hymn that celebrates Jesus’ obedience, yet the point is that Jesus was equal with God and “emptied” himself of divinity; this emptying is known by theologians as kenosis. And here’s the key: it is temporary, limited to Jesus’ earthly life, and only a prelude to Jesus’ exaltation as the name above all names. After the resurrection, Jesus says that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him (Matt 28:18). No hierarchy; instead cooperation and equality between the members of the Trinity! Even as Jesus says that the Spirit will come after him, he assures his disciples that the Holy Spirit will “take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15); again, cooperation not authoritative hierarchy.

Now, why I am spending so much time of this point? Why is all this important? Theologians that promote a hierarchical view of the Trinity are quite clear about their intentions: they want the model of subordination they believe is found in the Godhead to be copied in human relationships. Therefore, they teach that, just as Son of God is coequal with the Father in being or essence but has a subordinate role in the work of salvation and in all eternity, so women are created equal to men but have a subordinate role at home and in church. Very sneaky!

William P. Young has a beautiful response. In The Shack, Papa says, “Mack, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity … What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us.” Papa continues and makes it clear to Mack that this design is meant for human relationships. Where did Young get that idea?

Genesis 1:27, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” In contradiction to this verse, it is sometimes argued that woman was created as inferior because she was created after man. According to this same reasoning, plants and animals are superior to us all because they were created before we were!

According to the creation account of Genesis 2, there is no language of inferiority in the creation of woman; rather she is a helper (ezer). Note that Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit by the same term in the Gospel of John: a helper who will comfort the disciples once Jesus is gone. The term, helper, implies a continuation of the same responsibility.

Still not convinced? Allow me to reference Galatians 3:26–28, “In Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free. There is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The heart of the matter is the essence of what Papa relates to Mack: equality between genders is a healthy, beautiful model for the ordering of society. In perhaps one of the most often misinterpreted passages of the New Testament, Ephesians 5 makes it clear that the model of marriage is mutual submission between wives and husbands. Just like the relationship between the Father and the Son, there is fundamental equality between man and woman, and then a voluntary submission by both to each other, which is best termed cooperation.

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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