Shawn McCraney is probably not a heretic

argument-cartoon.jpg-300x239Last night Shawn McCraney and his C.A.M.P.U.S. ministry hosted an open forum to address the accusations that have been flying around the last few weeks. The format wasn’t quite what I expected  with the event called an “Inquisition” and Shawn’s detractors referred to as “accusers.” Personally, I think this set an unhelpful tone from the outset that wasn’t improved on much through the course of the evening. A photo of the program handout can be found here.

The main discussion began with Pastor Jason Wallace confessing his ill-preparedness for the format and the strict limitation of the discussion to the subject of the Trinity. He also confessed being uncomfortable with referring to the event as an “Inquisition.” At the heart of his concern with Shawn’s doctrinal positions was his use of the term ‘manifestation’ and that term’s close ties to the heresy of Modalism. Pastor Dale Finley also expressed concerns about Shawn’s rejection of the Trinity, as did the final accuser: Rob Sivulka. Rob led his presentation of concerns with the firm statement that he does not regard Shawn as a brother in Christ, he also followed it with multiple declarations throughout the evening decrying Shawn as a heretic and a Modalist.

The event was not a formal debate and lacked civility on all parts at a number of points; along with a few unhelpful outbursts, and even one very disruptive heckler who was ushered outside while screaming that Shawn was an “idiot,” a “heretic” and a “cult leader.” Shawn’s response to his opponents was fused with invective from its outset, which some of his opponents responded to in kind. Initially, Shawn did not offer much clarification of his belief except to identify his objection to the term “Trinity” on the basis that it does not appear in Scripture. However, Shawn did, eventually, clearly reject Patripassianism, which is a form of Modalism.

After a brief break the, so-called, “accusers” then had further opportunity to question Shawn and for Shawn to respond. Of all the further questions asked of Shawn only one by Rob Sivulka could have helped clarify the discussion: how did God exist before the creation? Unfortunately Shawn did not answer this question fully and directly. However, I was able to ask this essential question again, along with some follow-ups to try and bring more clarity to the essentials of the matter. In the end I don’t know that either side was moved in a helpful way. Shawn’s supporters seemed just as supportive and his detractors seemed just as resolute in their opposition. But, I’m not thoroughly convinced that Shawn is all that far from his opponents. Shawn’s opponents seemed hung up on his refusal to use terms such as “Trinity” and “persons” in articulating his view. But, I’m not convinced that Shawn is really departing from the essential teaching of Trinitarianism.

Shawn articulated his clear affirmation of monotheism, something he and his opponents agree upon. But, Shawn’s rejection of basic and historic theological terminology muddied the waters and I think is the real root of misunderstanding. In my attempts to clarify what Shawn believes we struggled to identify a word to adequately describe the distinctness of Father, Son and Spirit; which Shawn preferred to refer to as Father, Word and Spirit. In the end I simply used “thing” in place of the more theologically clear term of “person.” Shawn affirmed the co-eternal nature of all the “things” within the singular God, as well as their basic distinction from one another. He also affirmed a voluntary subordination between the divine “things.” Because of this exploratory questioning, which I prompted late in the proceedings, I’m not willing to decry Shawn as a heretic. I’m not convinced that whatever errors he holds to in his theology rise to the level of damnable error.

I want to say that I do think Shawn is being needlessly vague by rejecting historically established and helpful terminology simply because it does not appear in the Bible. This seems to be a troublesome path since the Bible teaches many things which, if we wish to communicate them concisely, benefit from adopting theological, and even philosophical, terminology. Yes, such terminology is a form of jargon; but that does not make it bad, wrong, or unbiblical. In a very narrow sense it is man-made, which seemed to be one of Shawn’s big hang-ups; but, that does not mean it is without use or value. In this case I am simply led to disagree with Shawn, but that is not the same as considering him a heretic. I disagree with Shawn’s assessment of Calvinism, being a Calvinist myself, but I don’t know that Shawn and I really mean the same thing when we use such labels. I also disagree with Shawn’s readiness to reject the use of the creeds, but I understand his reticence as it has been held to by many of my Baptist kin over the years.

In the end, I consider Shawn a brother in Christ, but I believe he is errant and perhaps misguided in some of his teachings and approaches. But, I think the vitriol that has been displayed on all sides, going back even to the beginning of last year is the real problem. Shawn and his opponents need to calm down, slow down and talk more with each other, and less at each other. I look forward to taking up both Shawn’s and Pastor Jason Wallace’s invitations to sit down and talk more. I will continue to hope for more unity amongst Christians and will look for ways I can even foster that myself.

It was an interesting night in Utah, and I trust God will use it for some purpose that will bring Him glory.

UPDATE: 2014-02-21 — 9:45am

A good brother pointed out that I may be painting with too broad a brush in castigating both sides for being overly harsh with one another. I want to clarify that my point of reference is restricted to the event that Shawn hosted. At that event Jason Wallace was the only one of the formal “accusers” who maintained a calm and respectful tone and presentation throughout. There were some other questioners from the audience who maintained a gentle and loving tone, and I want to be clear that it is not my intention to treat everyone who has voiced concern with Shawn’s teachings as though they have been overly harsh or unloving in their presentation, that is simply not the case. There are plenty of Christians who have approached Shawn in private and public and maintained the gentle and Christ-like approach that is called for. I hope this clarifies my meaning and intention in criticizing both sides in the current controversy.

UPDATE: 2014-02-21 — 12:56pm — Defining Terms

A friend asked if I could include a few definitions for those who may not be as steeped in the jargon of theology at issue:

  • Heresy — I use this term to mean damnable error, error so egregious that you will end up in Hell for holding firmly to it.
  • Trinitarianism — The affirmation that there is one, and only one, God eternally existing in three equally divine and equally eternal persons described as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • Persons — As used in the previous definition to mean a subsistence within a single being, each possessing completely the divine nature, yet not representing the totality of the Godhead; and each distinguishable from the other two persons. The term is insufficient in some ways, but useful.
  • Modalism — A family of heresies that essentially affirms the unity of God while denying the distinctions presented in Scripture between the members of the Godhead.
  • Patripassianism — A form of Modalism that is represented by the idea that the Father became the Son and thus suffered on the cross.

I highly recommend the online resource Theopedia for those who want to explore these terms more or learn about the jargon of Christian Theology and its rich history.

UPDATE: 2014-02-24 — 12:40pm

The video from the event has now been posted.

UPDATE: 2014-02-25 — 3:57pm

I have closed the comments section before it would normally be automatically closed because I’m not in a position to stay on top of them and some look to be venturing into discussion that, while important, is not best conducted in the comment area of this blog post. This is an issue that will not be going away soon or quietly, nor should it. It is important for believers to wrestle with the Word and come to to conclusions about where they stand on important doctrinal issues. I am in discussions with some friends of mine about the doctrine of the Trinity and I have an email I recently sent to Shawn that I am awaiting reply to. I expect to have a follow-up post on this important matter in the coming weeks and I want to encourage everyone to maintain hope in Christ that unity may come, not at the expense of sound doctrine, but as a result of sound doctrine and with the support of Christian charity between brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wondering what to expect from Shawn McCraney

Last year I wrote a number of posts about Shawn McCraney, a well known ex-Mormon here in Utah. For years Shawn has had a television program where he confronted Mormon teachings with the Bible and critiqued their history, theology and organization. Then, at the beginning of last year, he announced his intention to go after American Evangelicalism. I was cautiously supportive of Shawn and publicly stated why and identified some things that bothered me about the way some Utah Evangelicals were responding to Shawn.

Well, it’s been over a year since the first post and Shawn is embroiled in another controversy. This one is a bit more substantial in my estimation. Lately Shawn has been teaching things that sound a lot like denials of basic Christian doctrines. He appears to now be denying the Trinity and the eternality of Hell. Tonight Shawn is hosting a public Question and Answer session. I will be attending it since I have withheld judgement up to this point despite my misgivings about Shawn’s teachings, hoping for him to offer more clarity.

Tonight, I am hoping for that additional clarity before I make up my mind about how to regard Shawn in relation to the body of Christ. I’m hoping that he’ll clarify his beliefs sufficiently to allow me to continue regarding him as a brother in Christ. But, I am honestly not sure what to expect. I will hold on to hope and be sure to respond with as much charity and understanding as Scripture demands.

It is going to be an interesting evening in Utah.

Why the Creation v. Evolution debate is boring

This past week Bill Nye and Ken Ham had a debate. Lots of people have weighed in on both sides and in the end the issue remains just as intractable as ever. No one won the debate and no one lost, except the folks who walked in with their opinions already established, which includes everyone I know. In the end the debate was, in my opinion, a waste of time.

I want to be clear. I’m a young earth creationist. I believe that God created the entire universe in six twenty-four hour periods. I’m less committed to a particular age of the earth, and would tend to place myself in the old-earth creationist camp. But, I hold these beliefs for purely theological reasons. I am not a creationist because I believe the science points there. But, I also don’t hold my views in spite of science. To the best of my knowledge absolutely no one witnessed the creation of the universe. Nobody knows based on observation, repeatable experimentation or any other empirical means how all the exists came into being. For the theist, like myself, this presents no problem whatsoever because of a commitment to revealed truth, as contained in the Bible. But, in the absence of another source of authority arguments about the origin of the universe are simply boring.

Everyone has a narrative they want to put forward. Some, like Ken Ham, advance a very clear biblically literalist narrative based on a singular source. Others, like Bill Nye, advance a more nuanced, less certain and certainly more complex narrative filled with as many questions as supposed answers. And yet others advance variations or even entirely different narratives regarding the origins of all that is. But, they are all simply narratives based on their own prior commitments and presumptions. And, without an agreed upon source of authority, it is very difficult to arbitrate between competing narratives.

For these reasons I am not an evidentialist and I don’t put a lot of stock in Christian Apologetics. And it is because of this that I find the Creation v. Evolution debate to be exceedingly boring. Additionally, as a Church Historian, I find the modern predisposition to make one’s belief about origins a litmus test of orthodoxy quite strange. The only essential commitments of the Church through the centuries has been that God created all that is. The processes used to accomplish this creation are not specified in any of the early creeds and they appear in very few confessions coming from the Reformation until now. The Westminster Confession affirms a six day creation, but nearly every other confession or catechism of the church end simply by stating that God created all things.

Again, I want to affirm my full belief in Exodus 20:11 in which Scripture declares that “in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (ESV). But, I also take Scripture seriously when it declares that unrighteous men suppress the truth by means of their unrighteousness and gladly choose to worship the creation rather than the creator (Romans 1:18, 25) and that “No one can come to [Jesus] unless the Father who sent [Him] draws him” (John 6:44, ESV). For this reason the arguments over evidence to defend one narrative about origins or another is very boring to me. I believe that we ought to engage with science as Christians, but we also need to avoid substituting apologetics for preaching the Gospel. We need to recognize that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, ESV). We have nothing to offer this lost and dying world apart from the message of Christ who lived, died and was raised for the forgiveness of our sins.