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T.D. Jakes, the Trinity, and Truth

I've never met Texas pastor T.D. Jakes. Not long ago, we both spoke at the same event-- we served as the co-keynote speakers for the Evangelical Press Association meeting in his hometown of Dallas, but did not meet-- and that was about as close as my association has been. He is certainly well known and influential... and in the "evangelical press" again this week.

In evangelical circles, few issues have been as controversial lately as James MacDonald's invitation of T. D. Jakes to an event called The Elephant Room. Many people expressed great concern and, to quote Mark Driscoll, MacDonald "must have felt like a piñata on Cinco de Mayo."

During the simulcast that took place yesterday, Jakes was paired with Driscoll for a discussion about doctrine. Quickly the question that was on everyone's mind was brought into the conversation-- something called modalism or Sabellianism. (For more info on Sabellianism, visit Justin Holcomb's Know Your Heretics series at The Resurgence.)

There is no official transcript yet, but Trevin Wax live-blogged the event. He acknowledges some content may be inexact, but an attendee who previewed this post attests to the substance of both the question and the answer. Thus, according to Wax, Driscoll asked Jakes:

We would all agree that in the nature of God there is mystery. But within that, for you, Bishop Jakes, is the issue one God manifesting Himself successively in three ways? Or one God existing eternally in three persons? What is your understanding now? Which one?

To which Jakes responded:

I believe the latter one is where I stand today. One God-- Three Persons. I am not crazy about the word 'persons,' though. You describe 'manifestations' as modalist, but I describe it as Pauline. In 1 Timothy 3:16 he says, 'For God was manifest in the flesh.' Paul is not a modalist, but he doesn't think it's robbery to say 'manifest in the flesh.' Maybe it's semantics, but Paul says this.

Now when we start to think about that sort of thing, I think it's important to realize there are distinctives between the work of the Father and the work of the Son. I'm with you. I've been with you.

Be sure to read the whole recap here.

You might be wondering why this would even be an issue for arguably the most well-known African-American pastor in the country. It's because Jakes has, in the past, been identified with Oneness Pentecostalism, which teaches that God is one God in three successive "manifestations," rather than one God in three Persons eternally co-existing. The issue at hand is not one of mere wording or terminology. Rather, the theological difference between Oneness (God in three successive "manifestations") and Trinitarianism (God in three "Persons") is a foundational distinctive. Where a person stands on this key facet to the doctrine of God will determine the rest of their theology.

The website for Jakes' church, The Potter's House, states, "There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit." This wording generally reflects the unorthodox view (though Jakes has explained why he prefers it) and causes concern for those who hold to an orthodox view of the Trinity--one God in three persons.

It is interesting that Jakes, as he also stated in the Elephant Room discussion, is no longer welcomed by some of his former Oneness friends. He jokingly said of his predicament, "In some new circles, I'm getting beat up. In other older circles I'm the heretic. I have to read the article to see what kind of heretic I am!" His predicament should say something to evangelicals, as now some in the Oneness movement no longer accept Jakes because they view his Trinitarian view as problematic. Jakes has indicated that his view has changed.

Think about who participated in the Elephant Room-- Driscoll, MacDonald, Jack Graham, and Crawford Loritts among them. It is telling that these men-- recognized as orthodox evangelicals-- readily received Jakes' statement, with Graham having been a prayer partner with Bishop Jakes for the last 10 years. Some might say they are all just naïve, but I've preached for Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald and do not find them to be theologically unaware or easily fooled on matters of orthodoxy. I think they are simply willing to believe the man at his word. It appears that some still do not, and, based on the response in blogtown and the twittersphere, it seems that more do than don't. However, some still do not.

Now, to be clear, I do not affirm all of Jakes' theology. But, there again, I don't affirm all of many other people's theology either. And there are probably a few misguided people who don't affirm mine ;^). However, at some point, you have to decide how (or whether) to respond to his statement on the Trinity.

Of course, some think his articulation here is just not enough. Actually, I believe that no matter what he says, some will demand more since they have already made up their mind. As James MacDonald indicated:

The issue of the Trinity is not a small thing. It is central to Christianity and a pillar of orthodoxy. However, when a man confesses his trinitarianism, and people say, "Is he trinitarian enough?" That's when we need to turn down the rhetoric and let a man's confession and fruitfulness speak for itself.

Yet, some are changing their view of Jakes, including one helpful letter like this one from Brandon Smith. Also, my friend Danny Slavich gives a well-nuanced review.

Ironically, Jakes has said much of this before. On an Australian radio program in 2010, he explained:

I believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I believe that they are three persons. I believe that in a way that persons is a limited word for the Godhead and even those that adhere to that say that to be true. But I think the issue is there are distinctives - there are things that can be said about the Father than can't be said about the Son and the Holy Spirit. I believe that.

Yet, yesterday he was more specific (just as the Australian interview was more specific than this Christianity Today article in 2000).

Jakes has explicitly said he moved away from a non-trinitiarian position to a Trinitarian one as he studied the scriptures. You might want more, and I would have loved to hear several other theological issues addressed. Regardless, to be fair, you have to at least acknowledge a shift on views of the Trinity-- and that is a move in the right direction.

Feel free to comment-- you don't have to agree, but you need to follow comment rules. If you don't, your comment is just not posted. I look forward to interacting with the conversation.

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T.D. Jakes, the Trinity, and Truth