Shawn McCraney is a former Mormon who became a “born-again” Christian and eventually left Mormonism, received some ministry training through Calvary Chapel, and launched his own ministry in Salt Lake City to evangelize Mormons. In the past few weeks Shawn has gone public on his television show denouncing the term Trinity as “garbage” and explaining his own doctrine of God in ways that have been confused at best. I flew out to Utah to meet with Shawn, had very friendly and enjoyable conversations with him, and appeared on Shawn’s show Heart of the Matter. I also posted a few messages on Facebook regarding the controversy.

On March 12, 2014, Shawn McCraney’s lecture on his TV show was a critical response to his critics, whom he characterized as scholars, theologians, and apologists who impose their exclusively “linear thinking” on the church to rule, control, and dominate. There is a “teachable moment” here because the issues that Shawn’s argument raises have relevance beyond the specific controversy over his teaching.

Shawn professes to value knowledge and the contributions of scholars, but he describes himself as a “Christian artist” who views Christianity in an artistic way that the linear-thinking scholars simply cannot appreciate. But if an “artistic” thinking person can appreciate the “linear” thinking of scholars, why cannot scholars likewise appreciate the “artistic” thinking of people like Shawn? I think they can. But just as people who profess to be scholars can and sometimes do make egregious mistakes, self-described artists who profess to see the world in a fresh and unpredictable way might be fooling themselves. The “Christian artist” label does not excuse Shawn or anyone else from the responsibility of speaking faithfully to the truth. The charge that someone is teaching erroneous doctrine cannot be answered by merely asserting artistic license.

Early in his lecture Shawn asked, “Just how different can a believer be in personality and worldview and still be considered a Christian?” By “worldview” Shawn apparently means the way in which a person views the world, either logically or artistically, although I didn’t catch a definition of the term. The answer to his question, if I understood it correctly, is that believers can be quite different in many ways and still be considered Christians. However, that isn’t the real question here, is it? No one is suggesting that people who are artistic or storytelling or relational or physical in their personal makeup and orientation rather than logical or scholarly cannot be Christians. Most Christians are not intellectually oriented. Believe it or not, we intellectuals noticed that a long time ago. One of the first Christian intellectuals himself commented on that fact, in a passage that Shawn quoted (1 Cor. 1:18-23). Really, we do understand this. That’s not the problem. No, the problem is the content of Shawn’s doctrinal teaching, which at best is unsound and at worst, in the estimation of at least some observers, is heretical. This concern about his teaching is either justified or it is not. How do we tell? Like it or not, we must try to think clearly about the question.

Shawn himself engages in “linear thinking” when he feels comfortable doing so. His lectures are just that, lectures. He has a point he wishes to make, and he presents reasons to support the conclusion he hopes his listeners will accept. Shawn cites the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, appeals to biblical scholars and theologians when he thinks they support his views, and formulates objections to statements made by his critics. He is actually much more capable of engaging in such logical, rational thinking than perhaps people realize and engages in such reasoning far more often than his self-description as a Christian artist would suggest. The appeal to his supposed artistic personality is itself presented as an argument: the logicians are wrong because they overgeneralize from their own experience and preference and don’t recognize that there are different yet equally valid ways of thinking. Which reminds me of the famous observation that there are two kinds of people in the world—those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t. (Sorry.) When Shawn argues, for example, that the Bible presents truth in a grand narrative rather than in a systematic theology, he is presenting an argument based on the very kind of logical, linear thinking he complains is being used against him. That argument is either a sound argument or it is not. The value of the argument can be judged only on the basis of its factual support and logical validity; its value is not aesthetic, creative, artistic, emotive, or relational.

It’s really a matter of the right tool for the job. If we want to stir people’s emotions, touch people’s feelings, or appeal to their intuitive sense, we use art – music, story, drama, soaring speech, visual displays, and so forth. If we want to inform people’s minds, then we present facts in a reasoned manner. If we want to explain a text of the Bible, then we use skills relevant to reading and interpreting texts. This doesn’t mean ignoring non-linear elements of biblical texts. It doesn’t mean running roughshod over symbolic language, emotive appeals by the biblical speakers and writers, or forcing the Bible into overly simplistic and rigid philosophical systems. Sound reading of the Bible appreciates the power of its narratives and the color of its poetry. But the Bible also presents didactic material that calls for careful, reasoned thinking about the subject matter. The epistle to the Romans is a theological treatise, not an Easter drama.

According to Shawn, logic and linear thinking came from the Greeks. I’ve heard this one before. Friends, logic came from God, not from the Greeks. Logic, order, rationality, reason, and coherence are all reflections of the nature of God, just as much as beauty, joy, creativity, and artistry. The Greeks did not invent logic; they came up with a formal system for recognizing and teaching logic.

Shawn emphasizes, fairly enough, that knowledge has value only in the context of love. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1b). Amen. Knowledge without love makes people prideful. A person who claims to know God but is devoid of love does not know God, because God is love (1 John 4:7-8). Shawn feels that some of his critics have been long on knowledge, or at least in claims to knowledge, but short on love. Perhaps he is right. Yet Shawn also seeks to refute his critics with arguments. Again, perhaps he is right. But there are two issues here: (1) Is Shawn’s doctrine biblically sound? (2) If it isn’t biblically sound, can this point be made in love? It would help if these two questions were kept distinct.

I wish Shawn would discuss whether the category of “heresy” is ever a valid category. If a teacher claims that Jesus did not rise from the dead, is it inappropriate to label this teaching as heresy? Are there any heretics? Shawn says, quite correctly, that Christians should tolerate different views on nonessentials. But what are the essentials and how does one know if something is an essential or not? This is a reasonable question and it requires a reasonable answer, grounded on the teaching of Scripture. Shawn insists that he believes the whole Bible, accepts everything it teaches, and that therefore he should be accepted as a Christian. I view Shawn as a Christian, albeit one whose doctrine is in serious question, but his reasoning here is quite flawed. Jehovah’s Witnesses also insist they believe the whole Bible, accept everything it teaches, and that they are Christians. Is that good enough? Shawn would say, I’m guessing, that they are not really Christians because they deny that Jesus Christ is God. If so, then Shawn is acknowledging the legitimacy of using doctrine to test the claims of those who present themselves as teachers of God’s word. And I assume that Shawn does not think he is being unloving for excluding Mormon teaching from his new television network. Why not? Obviously, he is “imposing” a doctrinal test here, and rightly so. Then is it necessarily unloving or wrong for Christians to express the opinion that Shawn’s denial of the doctrine of the Trinity might be heretical? The question is a valid one, however we answer it.

Robert Bowman
Robert Bowman

Robert M. Bowman Jr. (born 1957) is an American Evangelical Christian theologian specializing in the study of apologetics.

    5 replies to "Shawn McCraney on the Linear Thinking of His Theological Critics"

    • Caleb Smith

      I quite enjoyed this post, but I must make a friendly disagreement with a relatively minor point. Addressing “logic came from God”: I’m not sure even that is very accurate. Logic (and by this I mean the “functioning” of the basic laws thereof, not the study) seems fundamental to the very concept of reality. God’s existence and realness can only be coherently expressed starting from fundamental logic such as non-contradiction. The very reason that “God exists” is a meaningful statement is that the logical law of non-contradiction holds in reality even over issues of God’s being. Otherwise God could arbitrarily exist and not exist, or be omnipotent and impotent.

    • Carrie Hunter

      The thing is though Caleb, logic itself does not exist on it’s own. Logic is not a thing that exists “out there, some where”.

      The principles of logic are concepts. Concepts subsist within minds. The law of non-contradiction for example is an eternal principle (concept) that subsists within the mind of God. It is communicated to us through His image thus we recognize logic and furthermore create systems to articulate it (as the Greeks did.)

      Logic cannot exist apart from God. God is not outside logic which is what I think you were getting at. He is subject to logic but that is because He is subject to His nature. He cannot act outside of His character. Because the principles of logic are eternal ones they have always existed. But only by virtue of being in the mind of God – who is eternal.

      Rob, this is a great post. You lovingly pointed out the flaw in Shawn’s thinking. He himself was using doctrine as a linear guide to reject Mormonism. The key here is being kind and winsome which you are. A lot of apologists would have used this as an opportunity to heap scorn on this young man. You however did not.

      A true model of what an apologist should be.

      Great stuff!

    • a.

      don’t recognize that there are different yet equally valid ways of thinking.”
      “Then is it necessarily unloving or wrong for Christians to express the opinion that Shawn’s denial of the doctrine of the Trinity might be heretical? “

      don’t know his ‘opinion’ details, but shouldn’t ‘might’ above be ‘must’

      for we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth, being of the same mind [the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God]; maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 2 Cor 13 8 ; Phil 2: 2 ; 1 Cor 2: 11b

      the only true disciples are’ in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ disciples; thru Jesus we have access in one Spirit to the Father growing into a holy temple in the Lord, a dwelling of God in the Spirit. Matt 28:19;Eph 2:18 21-22

      As for us, the anointing from the Holy One which we received from Him abides in us and if what we heard from the beginning abides in us, we also will abide in the Son and in the Father. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also; just as it has taught us -we abide in God.1 John 2 verses

      we know it is the last hour.. the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. 1 John 2:18b ; Phil 2:14

    • Clint Roberts

      The debate about logic and God is not unlike the more familiar debate about God and morality. You could have a ‘Euthyphro’-like dilemma where you are asking whether logic is merely arbitrary (God just decided it would be like it is and ‘made up’ the rules) OR logic is in some way self-existent and God is beholden to it.

      As Carrie says, the solution is seeing the most basic components of thought and reality as though they could not be different UNLESS God were someone else entirely. Could God be mean, nasty, unfair, evil? If he had a different nature he could. In other words, sure, if he were someone else (which is tantamount to saying NO this person (God) could not but I can imagine another person otherwise very similar – powerful, transcendent, etc. – who could be).

      By the way, I should add regarding the situation that Rob is commenting on, that I knew Shawn personally back when he first began his local television call-in show in Salt Lake City. I had done things with that station too and we had lunch several times where Shawn discussed his vision for the program. I sympathize with him in many ways, because I have loved seeing his effectiveness as a passionate ex-Mormon successfully reaching into that world and making a difference. But I also know some of those who have called Shawn out on his anti-trinitarian views, and I can’t fault them for it. Rob did a great job going on Shawn’s program to discuss the matter. It’s unfortunate to see it all go down like this.

    • Robert Bowman

      Some great comments, thanks. I agree with Carrie and Clint about the relationship between God and logic.

      If Shawn denies the doctrine of the Trinity in substance, replacing it with a false doctrine that is unfaithful to the core truths expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity, then Shawn’s teaching is heretical. The problem is that it remains unclear to what extent Shawn’s objections are semantic or incidental. Most of the time Shawn seems to be saying that his problem is with the word ‘Trinity’ and not with the truth the doctrine affirms. Other times he makes statements that can be taken to reject the substance of what the doctrine expresses. If Shawn accepts a Walter Martin-like doctrine that the first and second persons of the Trinity co-existed eternally but took on the roles of Father and the Son when the second person became incarnate, that would be heterodox (differing from classic understanding of orthodox doctrine) but not heretical (outside the bounds of orthodoxy). Some of what Shawn says supports this interpretation of his view. But he is frankly inconsistent and not always clear, which makes it difficult to reach a simple, settled assessment of his doctrine.

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