A little over ten years ago, the book The Shack became an unexpected best seller, sparking debate and garnering appreciation from across the evangelical landscape. Though originally written for the author’s children and copied at Kinko’s, the book reached number one on the New York Times fiction best-seller list after its release. It hit number one again in 2017 after a major motion picture was released based on the book.

The themes of the book are heavy, at times harrowing, and inescapably theological, though they are presented in such a way that the reader can forget it is indeed a work of theology. The theological themes touched on include the character of the church, the problem of evil (theodicy), the nature of revelation, the depiction of God, and our understanding of the Trinity. I want to speak to an element of this last theme because the novel assumes something we are all tempted to assume: in reference to God, ”Father” is ultimately a metaphor and, as such, can be manipulated to fit the needs of a situation. But is that true?

The plotline of The Shack brings its main character, Mack, to a shack in the woods where each member of the Trinity appears in bodily form. God the Father is referred to as “Papa” and appears first as a large, matronly African American woman and later as a pony-tailed gray-haired man. Leaving aside the problems of presenting the Father bodily (Ex. 20:4), these manifestations of the Father are carefully calibrated in order to meet the perceived needs of Mack. Papa himself explains this to him:

If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you. For me to appear to you as a woman and suggest that you call me “Papa” is simply to mix metaphors, to help you keep from falling so easily back into your religious conditioning. . . . Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?1

There is a strong impulse in popular theological thought, as well as in a more philosophically informed postmodern theology, that gives full support to this malleable presentation of members of the Godhead in order to meet the needs of any given situation. Indeed, postmodern theologians Carl and Susan Raschke explain in The Engendering God: Male and Female Faces of God:

The idea of a God that is disclosed exclusively in terms of gender must strike us somehow as a little hard to swallow. But we must remember that classical theology always allowed God the prerogative of self-revelation in whatever ways were appropriate to the historical situation. The notion advanced at times by both traditionalists and fundamentalists that there are certain inalterable concepts or figurations to represent the God-head—and these signifiers happen to be male—is not only idolatrous, it is quite unbiblical, if not blasphemous. . . .

When we begin to think of the divine as in certain circumstances having gender, we are compelled to discard the notion that God is either exclusively male or female, and we can become gradually comfortable with the proposition that he or she can be both masculine and feminine, depending on the context of experience.2

However, while it is true that God is neither male nor female in the biological sense (John 4:24), that does not mean that He revealed Himself in arbitrary or overly culturally conditioned ways. It also doesn’t mean that Scripture itself doesn’t attribute feminine qualities to God (see Deut. 32:18; Isa. 42:14; 45:9, 10; 49:14, 15; 66:13; Matt. 23:37; Luke 15:8). All kinds of images are used in Scripture to draw out some attribute of God: a rock, a potter, a shepherd, a physician, and so on. Should Father join these ranks? After all, we know what it is to have earthly fathers, no matter how godly or mediocre or wicked they might be. Is the word Father used in the Bible for God in order to draw from the best fatherly characteristics found in humanity and teach us something about the divine?

The Son provides for us the context for knowing and relating to the Father.

One of the governing truths of faithful theology is that God Himself provides for us the categories by which we understand Him (Deut. 29:29). The fourth-century church father Hilary of Poitiers put it eloquently when he wrote: “[The human mind] must not measure the nature of God by the laws of his own nature but evaluate the divine truths in accordance with the magnificence of God’s self-revelation. . . . Since we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of himself, and bow with humble reverence to his words.”3

What Hilary is saying is that if God names Himself, we tether our thoughts to that name and adjust our posture in order to bow at that name, not adjust the name in order to fit our life’s posture. As a name, Father reveals personal identity within God. It is not used to communicate fatherly attributes alone, though it does do that (see Heb. 12:3–11); nor is Father used as a handy “model” we use to describe God. Naming God Father, in other words, is done not for pedagogical or sociological reasons but for theological and relational ones.

Scripture gives us a number of similes and metaphors for thinking about God’s qualities, but we must recognize that it clearly and directly speaks of God as Father. What is more, Scripture reveals this is a personal name.

A name is more than a metaphor. It is something we use to identify and establish intimacy in direct address. That Jesus commands us to take “our Father” on our lips (Matt. 6:9) is the greatest privilege on earth, for what He is doing is inviting us to take on our lips the very name He has spoken from all eternity. We see this as Jesus prays to the Father toward the end of His earthly life in the midst of His disciples in John 17:

I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. . . . Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. (vv. 6–12, emphasis added)

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. . . . O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (vv. 20–26)

Jesus saves the best for last. He relates that the beautiful end of all that He came to do is an invitation into the eternal communion He has shared as the Son with the Father for all eternity. And it is in Him—the Son—that we gain the privilege of calling on the Father’s name.

We are in relation to a person with a name, so our thoughts and speech about Him, whether direct or indirect, are to be ordered accordingly. The Son provides for us the context for knowing and relating to the Father. It is because of His prior relation to the Father and His work on our behalf that we, former rebels enslaved to sin, are enabled to know and call on the Father as sons and daughters. Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27). We do not name God from any other “place” than in the Son.

As devastating as the circumstances are that sin and corruption brings into our lives—and indeed, the circumstances Mack faces in The Shack are horrific—there is no lasting comfort from a god who is constrained by the categories of our own understanding. We dare not name Him according to what we feel He should be for us. We must name Him in accordance with who He is.

And He is Father. He is eternally so in relation to the Son. And, as we will examine in my next post on this theme of divine Fatherhood, in our salvation we are adopted into their eternal family. The Son has existed in eternal bliss with the Father and the Spirit. Through adoption, we enter a familial relationship wherein the Father becomes our Father by grace even as He is the Son’s Father by nature.

Editor’s Note: This post was first published on September 28, 2018.

  1. Wm. Paul Young, The Shack: Where Tragedy Confronts Eternity (Newbury Park, Calif.: Windblown Media, 2007), 95 (emphasis original). ↩︎
  2. Carl A. Raschke and Susan Doughty Raschke, The Engendering God: Male and Female Faces of God (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 5, 8–9 (emphasis added). ↩︎
  3. Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity, 1.18. ↩︎

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