‘Heresy Hunters’ and ‘Doctrine Police’ – A response to Tim Challies’ blog
With the release of the movie The Shack, there has been a renewed interest and fair amount of talk about the good/bad or truth/error of the book and the author himself, William Paul Young. Additionally, the recent release of Paul’s new non-fiction book, Lies We Believe About God, has doubled the size of the lightning rod that is Paul Young and The Shack.
I have been slow and a bit reluctant to enter this fray, because though I relish conversations, I do not enjoy debate, and I detest arguments… and I fear that might be the outcome of offering my opinion. But for the sake of the many who have asked about a certain blog that Tim Challies wrote, and for the sake of the many who have real questions regarding their understanding of God, I have decided to write – even against what may, in fact, be sounder judgment. I am not necessarily an authority, but I do bring a real familiarity with the worldview that shapes Mr. Challies objections, because I taught from that perspective for many, many years, both in schools and churches. So here we go…
Lies We Believe About God contains 28 short chapters wherein Paul Young addresses 28 statements, which are commonly held to be true in certain circles of Western (particularly American) Evangelical Christianity. Paul has questioned these statements because he believes they are neither true nor accurate, hence the title “Lies.”
His book was not meant to be an academic book on Christian doctrine or an exegetical work on various passages of Scripture. Paul Young’s point is to challenge assumptions that have been made and to offer an alternative, and in Paul’s mind, a better, more accurate view of God and life. Tim Challies does not agree and takes issue with Paul on just about everything.
What we end up with is a clash between two different interpretations of Scripture, two different views of God, and two different understandings of theology. Unfortunately, it does not simply end in “we see things differently” but rather ends with Challies claiming Paul Young “despises sound doctrine” and describes him as “beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy” and labels his work “a credo for false teaching, for full-out heresy.” He admonishes Christian booksellers they “should be utterly ashamed to sell this book or any other by its author” and confidently warns readers they “should not subject themselves to his teaching or promote his works”.
So what has Tim so rattled and upset? What are the thorns that are irritating him so?Well, let’s look at his blog and see what he finds so troublesome…
What follows are quotes from Tim Challies blog. (He quotes Paul Young and occasionally comments).
Let me say first, that both Paul Young and myself believe that indeed, all of humanity is fallen, broken, twisted, and blind. The disagreement with Tim Challies is how we understand the concept behind the word “depravity.”
Let me ask a question…
Does any human being have the ability to fundamentally change (at the ontological level) what God has created or done?
The declaration of Genesis is that God made mankind and pronounced his creation as, not just good – like the previous things that were made, but “very good” because he made us in His image and after His likeness. What God does from his hand and heart and declares to be good in its very essence… no human has the ability to change that good into bad.
If this is true, then the way I read the story in Genesis leads me to believe Adam and Eve did not change the fundamental essence of their nature. Did they twist or distort it? Yes. Did they become alienated from God, each other, and themselves? Yes. But, like Adam and Eve, from whom we inherit this “fallenness”, our act(s) of disobedience, unbelief, arrogance, or independence cannot undo what God has done.
Conclusion: Paul Young has not thrown out the concept of depravity. He disagrees with Tim Challies understanding of it. And he has given a thoughtful reason why he understands the idea of depravity differently. So Tim’s first charge of “heresy” is false. It is little more than a difference of opinion.
Mr. Challies alleges that Paul “insists that God is not sovereign”. But his quote of Paul does not say this implicitly or explicitly. What it does show is that Paul has rejected Tim’s concept of sovereignty.
So again, what we have is a disagreement over the understanding of a concept or word.
To this point in the blog (and actually this is true of the entire blog) it is interesting to note that Tim never gives a reason (biblical, theological, philosophical or otherwise) why Paul’s views are wrong. He simply states they are. I do not judge why he has failed to do this. However, please be careful. If you, the reader, think the reasons are so self evident that it should be obvious to everyone; then you have just revealed how entrenched you are in your particular way of thinking and that you are unaware of other legitimate ways of understanding.
In the quotes from Chapters 5 and 12 Mr. Challies not only fails to give a reason why Paul Young’s thoughts are erroneous, he doesn’t even bother to comment. Could it be he assumes the quotes are self-condemning enough to prove Paul has stepped outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy?
It is very clear that Paul Young believes that the atoning reconciliation accomplished in the Incarnation of the eternal Son as the man Jesus is not for a particular group but universal, i.e. for all of humanity and therefore has indeed saved everyone. No one has been left out. Paul cites several scriptures that he believes bear this out. This is called unlimited atonement. It is not, nor has it ever been in the history of the Church, a heresy. Mr Challies may disagree with Paul Young but he is misleading and incorrect to label this heresy.
Secondly, Mr. Challies calls this belief universalism. Not true. The common understanding of Universalism is that it is the teaching that all of humanity will eventually spend the ages to come enjoying the presence of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In everyday terms, the belief that everyone goes and abides in heaven when they die. Paul does not teach this. He is on record as having repeatedly said so for years.
What Paul young states unequivocally is that the atonement Jesus accomplished was effective for all of humanity. Therefore, every person is included in this salvation. In other words, God has provided salvation for all for he has saved all. The problem is that we have come to understand the word “saved” as equivalent to going to heaven to live in eternal bliss in the presence of God. So, many people read Paul’s words and assume this meaning, including apparently, Mr. Challies. But though Paul Young adamantly maintains that Jesus has obtained salvation for all, he is just as adamant that not all will respond with trust and love in Jesus. I believe this is a balanced and faithful view of Scripture.
Paul has always referred to himself as a “hopeful” universalist. And by that, he means that he actually hopes that this will be the final outcome for all. And it baffles me why doesn’t everybody hope that? Interestingly, the Church has never taken a position on this idea and it was never the subject of any of the ecumenical councils or creeds. So what gives any of us the right to now label this thought heresy?
For some reason, and I’m not quite sure what that is, in certain religious circles of todays’ climate in America being labeled a universalist and espousing universalism is just about the worst heresy one can be accused of. For someone who traffics in theological ideas, like Paul, this label is the kiss of death. I believe Tim Challies knows this. His awareness of this phenomenon is implied when he says, “This book is a credo for false teaching, for full-out heresy. I do not say this lightly, I do not say it gleefully…”
Yet, Tim not only misrepresents Paul and what universalism actually is, he chooses to ignore Paul on record denying this accusation dozens of times. This is troubling to me, and I believe it should be to you too.
Did you notice that Paul says, “I propose the possibility…?” Clearly, Paul is not sure what hell is. But he believes two things:
That the current theories of hell are false and inadequate and
what he is proposing is not hard fact or doctrine. It is an educated guess as to what hell may be.
Apparently Tim does not read Paul’s statement this way. He asserts that for Paul Young hell has “fallen by the wayside” and what he means by that phrase becomes clear in a later paragraph where he accuses Paul Young of writing “that hell does not exist”.
This is a blatant misrepresentation of Paul’s belief on Mr. Challies part. Paul never made that claim. Rather, he is offering the possibility that this version of hell, which is more akin to Dante’s version, (and it is apparently Tim’s version as well) does not exist.
So again, Mr Challies has called Paul Young a heretic because his theory of what hell may be is different from Paul’s theory. I find it deeply disturbing that someone could accuse another of heresy because their views are not the same. The truth is; dozens of theories regarding the existence and nature of hell have been offered throughout the history of the Church precisely because we don’t have a complete picture of this subject and so will never come to a definitive answer. And for someone to claim that they know accurately the nature of hell is so presumptuous it borders on arrogance of the worst kind. At the very least, they are either ignorant of Church history and the debate around this issue or they just don’t care. So when someone tells you authoritatively and dogmatically that they know what hell is… run.
I would suggest these two “thorns” for Tim are closely related and are really about a larger issue. And that issue is theories on the atonement. It is difficult to articulate what Tim Challies believes because he never really states it. I assume he believes his readers already have a pretty good idea of his take on different theological subjects so he sees no need to restate them. But here again, we are back in the waters of disagreement over different theories of the Atonement. And as I have repeatedly said, it is irresponsible and a misrepresentation to label someone a heretic because they disagree with your particular views, especially when they are attempting to articulate a legitimate historical viewpoint.
Paul does not claim that the cross was not part of the plan. What he is proposing as an alternative is the part the cross plays in the plan. It is a historical fact that the Romans invented the cross as a means of inflicting as much suffering as possible upon a human before their body succumbs to death. What Paul is disagreeing with is the notion that the Father and Spirit would inflict suffering on (punish) the Son. Paul proposes that we did that and God used it as the means to save us. He disagrees with the notion that the Son was killed by the Father – that Jesus dies to save us from God. He believes we killed Jesus and that Jesus came to save us from our sins, not from the Father.
What Paul proposes is that in the love and wisdom of the Father, Son, and Spirit, they incorporated our evil response of cruelty, torture, hatred, and murder culminating in Jesus’s death on the cross to be the way in which they would accomplish the healing of our souls.
Mr. Challies goes on to say that Paul “refutes the doctrine of propitiation.” Not true. What Paul refutes is a particular version of the doctrine of propitiation. He accuses Paul later in his blog “that any God who would punish his Son as a substitute is abhorrent, and that the very notion of appeasement is unworthy of God.” Apparently, Tim believes that propitiation has to do with God needing to be appeased in order to save us. Paul does not.
Question: When God repeatedly told Israel He “was not like the gods” of the surrounding nations and “there is no one else like me,” is it possible what made Yahweh distinct was that he does not need to be appeased, like all the other gods? I believe it is more than possible. In fact, I would say it’s highly likely this was part of what Israel was to learn. There is ample evidence throughout Israel’s story. Consider what God is attempting to teach Abraham when he tells him to go and sacrifice Isaac. The Hebrew Scriptures explicitly state that Yahweh does not delight in sacrifice. Psalm 40:6; cf. Hebrews 10:5; Hosea 6:6 cf. Matthew 9:13, 12:7.
Since we haven’t referred to the Bible much, let me do that here for a moment. Briefly, the word propitiation comes from the root idea of satisfaction. It is used 4 times in the NT. Three of them are by John and one by Paul. Let me give you an example: “Herein is love, not that we love God, but that He loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” I John 4:10
Notice; John does not say that propitiation took place only in the death of Jesus. He does not say, “God sent his Son to die”. He simply says, “God sent his Son to be the satisfaction for our sins.” I would suggest John has the entire Incarnation in mind, not just one particular aspect of it.
Furthermore, who and what is satisfied by the eternal Son becoming flesh? Most would assume that it is God (all three persons) who is satisfied. There are other options, but I’ll leave those alone for now. If it is God who has been satisfied in the sending of his Son, then what in God has been satisfied? Some, and I would include Mr. Challies because of his statements, would reply: it was God’s justice and/or wrath. If this is true, then it would support the idea that God is a god who needs to be appeased.
However, and I find this fascinating, the words justice and wrath do not even appear in the entirety of John’s letter. But do you know which word John uses most frequently in his little letter? It is love. Yikes, it’s actually in the sentence! What does this mean? I would suggest; it was God’s love that was satisfied in the sending of his Son. This makes perfect sense of John’s conversation of love in another place – John 3:16-18. And if God’s love is perfect love, then there is no need for appeasement. What kind of love would it be if it required the beloved to do something to atone for it’s sins and failures? This contradicts the very point of I John 4:10.
I believe it is terribly unfortunate that people like Tim truly believe of God that He is a being that needs to be appeased. But I would never label Tim a heretic because his view is also a historically legitimate view of the Church.
Mr. Challies assumes that if Paul thinks our fate is not sealed when we die it only follows that Paul would have no reason to urge people to know Jesus and follow him. Not true. Paul talks to people all the time. You see, what motivates Paul to talk with others about knowing Jesus is this; he knows of Jesus love for them. And because of his own incredible experience of Jesus love for him, Paul doesn’t want anyone to spend another second living without knowing Jesus. For that would be to continue existing in the consequences of their blindness and destructive ways.
On the other hand, Mr Challies assumes Paul would feel no urgency because he reasons that if your fate is not sealed before you die, what’s the rush? The “rush” is spending one more minute missing the experience of a relationship with the best being in the universe.
For the record, there is no Scripture that explicitly says that when you die your fate for all ages is sealed. Oh, I get where people could think that, but it’s only a theory – not heresy.
Tim offers no comment, no alternative view, nothing. He simply quotes Paul.
As Tim begins to come to the close of his blog he offers this summary of what he has discovered.
Going Back to The Shack
I have already worked through Tim’s objections, repeating my response would be redundant, so I won’t.
However, a brief response (italics mine) to a specific point of his accusations seems in order:
“Young systematically discusses and denies tenet after tenet of the historic Christian faith.”
[Paul’s thoughts bear] “only a passing resemblance to the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”
“Young seems set on undermining orthodox Christianity.”
“He is set on revoking and replacing the very pillars of the Christian faith.”
And a few paragraphs later, “he outs himself as beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.”
I believe that here, Tim has made a grave error. I do not know why he made such a bold claim. I only know that it is absolutely, irresponsibly, false.
Mr. Challies makes these claims with the utmost certainty. Therefore, it seems to be a rather large point for him. But his error is this:
The similarity in all these claims is that Tim has assumed that his version of the Christian faith is the historic, orthodox, once for all delivered to the saints, pillars of the Christian faith. This strikes me as not a little bit over confident, maybe even smug.
Mr. Challies accusations simply are not true.
Some of his thoughts may be true, but throughout the history of the Church there has been rich dialogue and millennia of study, which has produced many views that are not in line with Tim. Some the Church has classified as heresy. Others views have not been. These are not heretical views. They are legitimate ways of interpretation that continue to be discussed, even debated. And more than that, many of the subjects that Tim raised – the Atonement, the nature of God – these are mysteries that we should peer into with reverence and humility. We all see through a glass darkly.
Two final issues I want to bring to your attention:
First, here are Tim’s final observations:
I disagree; they damage Tim’s interpretation of doctrines.
They may seem novel or creative to Tim, but for the most part, they are not to the history of the Church’s struggle to find the meaning of Scripture.
I think Paul does accurately understand them. He grew up learning them, and he studied them in college. This is the very reason he questions these assumptions.
I disagree. What is more, Mr. Challies’ accusations miss the stated purpose of the book. His critique may sound good, but his inaccuracy demonstrates that Tim has lost touch with what many evangelicals in America believe. I have taught in evangelical bible schools and colleges. I have served in evangelical churches and had hundreds, if not thousands of conversations with evangelicals. They are my “people.” This is my heritage. And I know from personal experience that many of the issues that Paul raises are not simply “straw men”. Paul has received hundreds of thousands of emails that reveal these are real beliefs that have consequences in the lives of real people.
First, Paul is not trying to prove his statements. He is calling into question beliefs that he himself once had and taught and beliefs he has encountered. Second, this is the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Not once in his blog does Tim quote or even refer to a Scripture. In fact, as I have noted, he never even gives a reason to validate his accusations and labels of heresy. This would be comical, if it weren’t so sad.
Again, this sounds good when you write it but is simply and profoundly not true. Paul proposes answers to every question he raises. Are they definitive, absolute, conclusive answers? No, and they are not intended to be.
I do not write this with any ill will in my heart… but this statement is a cheap shot. Tim should know better. Paul does neither of the things Tim accuses him of. Both certainty and humility are something we need. Yet, uncertainty is a crucible where humility grows… and so the tension. We all have danced around the fine line between confidence and arrogance. Paul does speak out of his experience – both damage and joy. And I know the man, he sincerely and passionately wants people to be confident in God – not their theological system.
I disagree with Tim; this is an asset. I’m sorry he does not agree.
Finally, and I think this is crucial, Mr. Challies is scandalized by the idea that God would, and has, submitted himself to humanity. This, I believe, is at the heart of these matters. For the humility of God is the heart of the Incarnation. It is the heart of the gospel. Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Mark 10:45
This is not simply “window dressing” where God appears to be one way in order to win us over so he can then return to his true nature of narcissistic power and dominance, barking orders at us to fall at his feet and worship. I believe this image of God is unworthy of him and should be called blasphemy, and rightly so. Is it possible that the very way in which God reigns and leads his people is by serving them? Yes it is.
The stooping of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is not a temporary coat that he puts on and eventually takes off. The Incarnation is not some cosmic, deistic “bait and switch.” We may act with hidden agendas in our pockets, behave in ways not consistent with our nature to get what we want, and it’s called hypocrisy. But God is incapable of doing that. If Jesus washes our feet, he does it because that is the way God is. Jesus is not revealing something that is different from God’s true nature. He and the Father are one! The Incarnation is a self-revelation of God, not some divine used car salesman’s pitch to get us to buy in.
Furthermore, the cross is the ultimate demonstration of the true nature of God. How else are we to understand Jesus’ statement, “No one takes my life, I lay it down,” if that is not God submitting to us? We didn’t take his life… he gave it up to us. This is the way of the cross, the way of suffering… the way of Jesus. Our king bears our scorn, hatred, and torture that culminate in his death and our salvation.
He submits to minds he designed that in their scheming hatred premeditate a way to kill him; he submits to hands that he knit together which beat and torture him; he submits to hearts he formed that scream with blood thirsty passion that can only be appeased with his murder, he submits to wills he fashioned that manipulate both laws and people in order to shame him and get what their hearts want… The Creator submits to the blindness and brokenness of humanity, to us at our worst, in order to heal the very hands, minds, hearts, and wills that are trying to end his life.
How is this not submission? Paul Young believes it is. I believe it is. I think Paul the apostle does too.
“…Taking the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
I am bewildered that this offends Mr. Challies enough that he deems it worthy to be labeled heresy and Paul Young a heretic. I couldn’t disagree with him more.
In conclusion, Tim Challies has rejected Paul Young’s invitation to a conversation. For he neither answered Paul Young’s questions nor demonstrated any error in what Paul has written. He offers no support historically, theologically, or scripturally that his accusations are accurate. And in truth, they are not. What Tim Challies has done in this blog is misrepresent what Paul Young wrote and even the man himself by providing a label of “heretic” that is blatantly false. This may attract readers to his blog, such is the weird world of social media, but his accusations hold no merit.
In Lies, Paul Young has raised what he believes to be false ways of pursuing the knowledge of God. Did he do it perfectly? No, who does? But in questioning commonly held dogmatism, he has caused people to think, to own what they really believe of God, and this invites conversation. Far from being a subversive tactic to lure people to abandon their faith, Paul’s book is a call for readers to abandon their god for the true God; one who is better than we can possibly imagine, who was revealed perfectly in the face of Jesus.