AURORA, Ill. (BP) – Bishop T.D. Jakes says he has moved away from a "Oneness" view of the Godhead to embrace an orthodox definition of the Trinity – and that some in the Oneness Pentecostal movement now consider him a heretic.
Jakes – long a controversial figure among evangelicals because of his past unwillingness to affirm the Trinity – stated his belief Wednesday (Jan. 27) at the second-annual Elephant Room (theelephantroom.com), an event that brings together Christian figures from different backgrounds for what organizers call "conversations you never thought you'd hear." This year's Elephant Room was held at Harvest Bible Chapel in Illinois and was simulcast to other locations nationwide.
Jakes, founder and senior pastor of The Potter's House in Dallas, was the focus of a motion at Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings in 2009 and 2010 by a messenger who wanted LifeWay Christian Stores to stop selling his books. One was ruled out of order by the SBC president, the other referred to LifeWay for study.
Jakes – who once made the cover of Time magazine, which asked if he might be the next Billy Graham – said he was saved in a Oneness Pentecostal church. Oneness Pentecostalism denies the Trinity and claims that instead of God being three persons, He is one person. In Oneness Pentecostalism, there is no distinction between the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. It is also called "modalism," and it is embraced by the United Pentecostal Church International.
"I began to realize that there are some things that could be said about the Father that could not be said about the Son," Jakes said. "There are distinctives between the working of the Holy Spirit and the moving of the Holy Spirit, and the working of the redemptive work of Christ. I'm very comfortable with that." [See the transcript of Jakes' comments at the end of this story.]
The doctrine of the Trinity – embraced by all three historical branches of Christianity – holds that God is three persons, each person is distinct, each person is fully God, and that there is one God.
Several key Bible passages, Jakes said, impacted his transition.
"Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, for example, coming up out of the water [and] the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, the Father speaks from heaven – and we see all three of them on one occasion," he said, "or in Genesis [where God said,] 'let us make man in our own likeness' or Elohim – He is the one God who manifests Himself in a plurality of ways. Or what Jesus says, 'I am with the Father, and the Father is in me.'"
Jakes added: "That began to make me rethink some of my ideas and some of the things that I was taught. I got kind of quiet about it for a while. Because when you are a leader and you are in a position of authority, sometimes you have to back up and ponder for a minute, and really think things through."
James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel of Rolling Meadows, Ill., and Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle interviewed Jakes.
Not everything Jakes said will make Trinitarians happy. He said he considers both sides of the issue to be Christians, and that his church has affiliations with both camps. He also said "we're all saying the same thing." But under questioning from Driscoll, Jakes again affirmed the Trinity:
Driscoll: "Do you believe this is the perfect, inspired, final authority Word of God?" [Driscoll held up a Bible.]
Driscoll: "So you believe there's one God, three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit? You believe Jesus was fully God, fully Man?"
Driscoll: "You believe He died on the cross in our place for our sins?"
Driscoll: "You believe He bodily rose from death?"
Driscoll: "You believe that He is the judge of the living and the dead?"
Driscoll: "And you believe that apart from Jesus there is no salvation?"
Jakes said he prefers the term "manifestations" instead of the term "persons" – a position he has stated before.
He also said that "many of the circles that I came from would never allow me in their pulpit [now] because they consider me a heretic."
Southern Baptist leaders applauded Jakes' transformation while also saying Jakes isn't fully where he should be on that and other issues.
"It is encouraging to see T.D. Jakes moving away from the heresy of modalism," said Malcolm B. Yarnell III, director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. "However, we should pray for him and exhort him privately and publicly to move into biblical orthodoxy without equivocation. Much of what Jakes stated about God the Trinity in this interview was correct. For instance he noted the simultaneous but distinct movements of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in the baptism of Jesus. This is very true, though I might have described it differently."
Yarnell said Jakes incorrectly interprets 1 Timothy 3:16, which says "He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory." Jakes uses that verse to argue for his usage of "manifestations," but Yarnell says the passage is speaking only of Jesus – not the other members of the Godhead.
"The only 'manifestation' to which 1 Timothy 3:16 refers is the incarnation of God in Christ," Yarnell said. "... Jakes simply does not offer a proper exegetical basis for his unique theological term." [Yarnell's complete statement on Jakes' comments follows this story.]
Russell D. Moore, dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said he takes "Bishop Jakes at his word that he holds to Trinitarianism."
"But there's still some elephants left in the room," Moore said. "First of all, Bishop Jakes isn't a new convert being discipled in the basics of the Christian faith. He is a celebrity mega-church pastor. Moreover, Trinitarianism isn't the 'meat' of some advanced doctrine, but the most foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. A Christian pastor affirming least-common-denominator Christian doctrine should hardly be news, much less an elephant in the room. This can only happen in an American evangelicalism that values success, novelty and celebrity more than church accountability."
Moore added, "There still stands the issue of the prosperity gospel Bishop Jakes preaches. Joyce Meyer and Kenneth Copeland are Trinitatians but their health and wealth gospel is different from the message of Jesus and His apostles."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. DVDs of the Elephant Room II can be purchased at TheElephantRoom.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
Following is the transcript of the conversation between T.D. Jakes, Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald on the Trinity, beginning after Jakes was asked about his background:
Jakes: My father was Methodist. My mother was Baptist. My father's family was Methodist as far back as I can remember. I was raised in a Baptist church. But I was raised in church but I really didn't have a real committed experience with Christ until my father died. When my father died, I had a real experience with Christ – a real conversion in Christ, and I had it in a Oneness church.
Driscoll: By Oneness meaning [what]? – for those who do not know all the theological terms.
Jakes: Well it would be like, how do I explain it? It was not a UPC [United Pentecostal] church, in spite of the blogs. It was not a UPC church, but somewhat similar.
Driscoll: Jesus only, modalism?
Jakes: "Jesus only – modalism" which is still a theological term. ... But Christians and Christians [who] believe in Jesus Christ, believe He died and rose from the dead, coming back again – all the same things that you do. Pentecostal Christians by its virtue. But how they described and explained the Godhead in a traditional oneness sense is very, very different from how traditional Trinitarians describe the Gospel. And I was in that church and raised in that church for a number of years. My problem with it as I began to go on and as God began to develop my ministry, I started preaching from that church and from that pulpit and that sort of thing. But I'm also informed by the infiltration from my Baptist experience and my Methodist experience, so I ended up Metha-Bapti-Costal in a way. So I'm kind of like a mixed breed sitting up here, OK? And what I began to find out [is that] it is easy to throw rocks at people that you don't know, but the more you really get to know them and see Christ work in their lives, regardless of their belief system, you begin to try to be a bridge-builder. ... When you try to build bridges between people who've been fighting for hundreds of years – hundreds of years before you ever even got into the discussion. There is an old adage that says 'he who stands in the middle of the road gets hit by both sides.' So as I began to progress, I began to understand that some of the dogma that I was taught in the Oneness movement was very dogmatic and very narrow and really not the best description of how I now understand the Godhead. I still did not want to switch teams and start throwing rocks back across the street, because much of what we do today is teach people to take sides. But I believe we are called as the Body of Christ to reconcile wherever possible.
MacDonald: Alright, but before we even get into – and I think what you're leading us into is wise and helpful and it reflects why we're here – how we relate to people who differ is on subject. Before we even go to that, I'd love to give you an opportunity to just – like there were some particular Scriptures that began to inform you, you began to move and develop in what you personally believe. I'd like to just hear you articulate that.
Jakes: My struggle after I was ordained and consecrated in the Oneness church was in several passages, sometimes the doctrine fits; sometimes it doesn't. And when the doctrine becomes the primary thing you force it into many places where it doesn't fit. I really at this point in my life don't want to force my theology to fit within my denomination. I am open to hear whatever God is saying. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, for example, coming up out of the water the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, the Father speaks from heaven – and we see all three of them on one occasion, or in Genesis "let us make man in our own likeness" or Elohim – He is the one God who manifest Himself in a plurality of ways. Or what Jesus says, "I am with the Father, and the Father is in me" and understanding – or attempting to understand. And that began to make me rethink some of my ideas and some of the things that I was taught. I got kind of quiet about it for a while. Because when you are a leader and you are in a position of authority, sometimes you have to back up and ponder for a minute, and really think things through. I began to realize that there are some things that could be said about the Father that could not be said about the Son. There are distinctives between the working of the Holy Spirit and the moving of the Holy Spirit, and the working of the redemptive work of Christ. I'm very comfortable with that. You and I have talked; [Jack] Graham and I have talked; there is very little difference in what I believe and what you believe. But here is where I find the problem: I don't think anything that any of us believes fully describes who God is. And if we would ever humble down to admit that we in our finite minds cannot fully describe an infinite God.
Driscoll: ... We all would agree in the nature of God there is mystery, and it's like a dimmer switch: how much certainty, how much mystery. But within that, Bishop Jakes, for you the issue between Trinitarianism and Modalism at its essence is one God manifesting Himself successively in three ways? Or one God three persons simultaneously existing eternally. ... And I understand, there is some mystery – for sure. Would you say it's One God manifesting Himself in three ways, or One God in three persons?
Jakes: I believe that neither one of them totally did it for me, but I think the latter one is where I stand today.
Driscoll: One God, three Persons?
Jakes: One God, three Persons. One God, Three Persons, and here is why – I am not crazy about the word "persons." ... My doctrinal statement is no different from yours except for the ...
Driscoll: The word "manifestation."
Jakes: Manifest instead of persons. Which you describe as modalist, and I describe it as Pauline. Let me show you what I'm saying. When I read 1 Timothy 3:16, I didn't create this. ... "And without controversy," which I think we have been bickering about something that is what Paul describes as a mystery, and I don't think we should do that. "And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness. So God was manifest in the flesh." Now Paul was not a modalist, but he does not think that it is robbery to the divinity of God to say God was manifest in the flesh. And I think maybe it's semantics. But Paul says this before this fight was started. But He also says God "was manifest in the flesh, justified in the spirit, seen of angels, preached until the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up into glory." Now, when we start talking about that sort of thing, I think that it is important that we realize that there are distinctives between the Father and the working of the Son. The Father didn't bleed, the Father didn't die – [that happened] only in the person of Jesus Christ. Coming back for us in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has with us, but only indwells us through the person of the Holy Spirit; we are baptized into the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. I don't think any of that is objectionable to any of the three of us.
MacDonald: Not at all.
Jakes: So that is consistent with my belief system. I'm with you. I have been with you. I teach/preach that all the time. There are many people within and outside quote unquote denominations that are labeled Oneness that would describe that the same way. There are some that would not. But when we get to know people by their labels, then comes all the baggage of how we define that label. ... it's almost like the stereotypical ideologies we have about races. We have little ideas about denominations and movements. The reason I applauded what you said earlier about people who have dual affiliations: We are taught in society that if we disagree with any movement, we leave. We sever. Oh, you said something I disagree with we fall out and then we walk away. I still have fellowship, associations, relationship, and positions within and without Trinitarian and Onenness movements, because I believe that until we bridge the gap between our thinking and humble both sides and say, "We are both attempting to describe a God we love, that we serve, and that we have not seen. And that we are viewing Him through the context of the Scriptures, but that with a glass darkly." Why should I fall out and hate and throw names at you when all that I know and understand, be it very orthodox, is still through a glass darkly? And then face to face. None of our books about the Godhead or anything else will be on sale in heaven. You know why? Because we're only authorities down here, with our little kingdoms in this world. I think it's so important that we realize that our God is beyond our intellect. And if you can define Him and completely describe Him and say you are the end-all definition of who God is, then He ceases to be God. Because the reason Paul says it is a mystery, is that we deify the fact that God does things that don't fit our formulas.
Driscoll: Let me jump in here. I want to say a couple of things. Thank you for joining us. You don't have to be there. You were on the cover of Time magazine. You have options of where you go.
MacDonald: This isn't your biggest gig ever? [laughter]
Driscoll: It takes a lot of courage and humility to put yourself in an unscripted situation and to be outside of your normal tribe. And the fact that you showed up to dinner last night, I was shocked. I was like, "T.D. Jakes is coming to dinner?" I loved you. I enjoyed you. I really appreciated hearing your story of your family in context and your upbringing. And I walked away going, "I really appreciate getting to meet and know and enjoy that man. So thank-you for being gracious; thank-you for being courageous; and thank-you for being humble. And I think it might be helpful because, You're coming out of a Oneness background and out of a different context than a lot of us are. You've demonstrated humility, saying "I've been studying the Bible and I'm even changing some thinking as I'm studying." A lot of pastors will just defend their first position to death rather than humbly reconsidering it biblically. Maybe to help others understand you, on the flip side, How have you been treated and what has the response been from some who were friends that you don't want to throw rocks at, but because of your transition.
Jakes: That's what's funny about this, that's what's really funny to me.
Driscoll: Are you the heretic to them?
Jakes: Oh, very much so in many circles.
Jakes: ... Many of the circles that I came from would never allow me in their pulpit because they consider me a heretic. I have to read the article to see which heretic I am.
MacDonald: We'd be honored if you'd come be with us and let's all grow together.
Jakes: OK, and that'd be great. But I think the time has come for us to be willing to take the heat to have a conversation. Because if we do not do this, and we continue to divide ourselves by ourselves and compare ourselves with ourselves, we do it at the expense of decreasing numbers of new Christians in our country. We have to mobilize. Just for your consideration: This is the only thing that Jesus prayed that we can answer. He only prayed, "Father, I pray that they may be one even as You and I are also one." And this is the one thing that is within our power to answer, and we do not do it.
Driscoll: Can I ask a couple of quick questions, and then we can do whatever you want. Do you believe this is the perfect, inspired, final authority Word of God? [Driscoll holds up a Bible]
Driscoll: So you believe there's one God, Three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit? You believe Jesus was fully God, fully Man?
Driscoll: You believe He died on the cross in our place for our sins?
Driscoll: You believe He bodily rose from death?
Driscoll: You believe that He is the judge of the living and the dead?
Driscoll: And you believe that Apart from Jesus there is no salvation?
Driscoll: Thank-you. [applause]
MacDonald: That was crazy! I've just want to say this: I am so weary of people thinking they know – they don't know I think you honor us and you humble us, a man of your stature and commitment to the Gospel and fruitfulness would come and sit in this room, let you and me ask him what he believes? ... I just want to say this, I think you've honored us, and you've shown immense humility, and I want to be in the world where I believe that Jesus Christ stands. And He's told us again and again He stands with the humble. "Get to those people who love my Son, who believe my Word, who express humility." And I'm honored to hear what you said. I want to just say, further, Mark, if I could contribute to this, that I feel deeply in my heart that God is both three and one. Three and one. I believe the Scripture is very clear when we get to heaven, we are going to see Jesus – the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declare. Jesus is the only God we will ever see. When I was studying Revelation last year I was struck by the number of times that I saw in the book of Revelation that it almost seems in the text like the Father and the Son are on the same throne, and when I start to think about this, I believe in God eternally existing in three persons. But, the more I think about it, the more I feel like my head is going to explode, and I get a little weary of people who feel that they need to erase mystery and replace it with certainty as a test of orthodoxy. If what we have heard today doesn't satisfy, then the person is insatiable, and I'm ready to move on to a new subject. I believe that very strongly.
Jakes: Let me just make one little comment: One of the things that you said at the end, even as we talked about it before, and I've heard Jack Graham say this, too, that there is going to be one throne and there's going to be one God we can see. And I thought the more I hear everybody arguing about this, we're all saying the same thing. And we like fight about it to the death, and I just think that in the world that we're living in today, if we could just connect, and I know that there will always be distracters and there will always be people who define themselves by their differences rather than their connections, who are more comfortable with being known by what they are against than by what they are for. But when I hear you say that there's going to be one throne and one God on that throne, My soul leaps in celebration, and I hear both of us stumbling trying to explain how God does what He does like He does. I think THAT stumbling is worship. I think THAT stumbling is worship. I think the fact that we would humble ourselves and say, "Your thoughts and ways are beyond human comprehension" is what makes worship fill the room.
Following is Malcolm Yarnell's full statement:
In response to T.D. Jakes' recent statements on the Trinity, we can affirm seven things, though with some cautionary statements included, especially about proper biblical exegesis:
First, the goal of unity in Christ (John 17:21-23) is both laudable and necessary. Yet such unity must be founded on the "truth" (John 17:17) revealed by God in Jesus Christ and recorded in the Word inspired by the Spirit. True unity requires that we confess the true Christ, the second person of the Trinity revealed in Scripture, and not a Christ of our own fashioning.
Second, the call for civility in Christian discourse is also much appreciated. We ought to restrain ourselves from loosely casting around such terms as "heretic" or "heresy." Before using these terms, we should be absolutely sure what the terms mean and that they actually apply.
Third, Jakes is correct that Scripture should shape our theology and not that we should make Scripture fit into our theology. And though I agree with him on this in theory, he has unfortunately misread Scripture to fit his purpose of "building bridges."
Fourth, Jakes is correct that we must know and speak about what we are for rather than what we are against. This is living with our eyes on the positive nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Fifth, it is encouraging to see T.D. Jakes moving away from the heresy of modalism. However, we should pray for him and exhort him privately and publicly to move into biblical orthodoxy without equivocation. Much of what Jakes stated about God the Trinity in this interview was correct. For instance he noted the simultaneous but distinct movements of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the baptism of Jesus. This is very true, though I might have described it differently.
On the other hand, Jakes also speaks errantly. This derives from the fact that he is effectively trying to hold two positions without seeing that his proffered mediating category is ultimately untenable. Jakes stated he wants to have "dual affiliations" with both Oneness and Trinitarian churches. This is the goal behind his equivocation, and he relies on unique terminology to enable his dual theology. Although stating he is willing to use "persons" to describe the Trinity, he is also clear he would prefer not to do so. (There have been orthodox theologians who also registered difficulty with the term "person," but typically they object to modernist meanings attached to the term, meanings different from the classical Christian understanding. Jakes, however, is rejecting the term not because it has been misunderstood but because it is offensive to Oneness Pentecostals, whom he deems Christian.)
T.D. Jakes wants to have both Trinitarians and Oneness Pentecostals, who are Unitarian Modalists, classified as brothers in Christ at the same time. But you cannot affirm both are in the realm of truth without removing the Trinity as a fundamental basis of the Christian faith. You cannot have both beliefs at the same time: either God is both three and one (as Trinitarians believe and Unitarians deny) or God is only one (as Unitarians like Oneness Pentecostals believe and Trinitarians deny). There is no bridging this divide without losing the Trinity itself, for He is the God we worship.
Instead of using the term "persons," Jakes has long confessed he believes the "one God" is "eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (see Potter's House Belief Statement at http://www.thepottershouse.org/Local/About-Us/Belief-Statement.aspx). Jakes then proceeds to use "manifestations" in ways he hopes that both Trinitarians and Unitarians might find acceptable. Jakes, moreover, argues that "manifestations" derives from 1 Timothy 3:16. But he misuses the term's meaning in that passage, wrenching it from its Christological context and transferring it to the Trinity. The only "manifestation" to which 1 Timothy 3:16 refers is the incarnation of God in Christ. God was "manifested" in the flesh of Christ; this Christ was "justified" or "vindicated" by the Spirit through the Resurrection; this Christ was "received up into glory." The manifestation of God was Christ in 1 Timothy 3:16, not the Father and not the Holy Spirit. The Father and the Spirit are indeed at work in this passage but not as "manifestations." Instead, the Father and Spirit work through the Son, who is God manifested in flesh so we can see and hear and touch Him. Jakes simply does not offer a proper exegetical basis for his unique theological term.
Sixth, with regard to the same biblical passage, let us recognize that although there is "mystery" in Scripture, this is no reason to paper over real differences in theology. Where God reveals, there is no more hiddenness in the mystery, for the mystery has now been disclosed, for us in Scripture. The point of 1 Timothy 3:16 is not to say that the Trinity is an undisclosed mystery but that the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ is the mystery of God now disclosed. An appeal to a continuing mystery in this passage actually subverts the passage's meaning. Moreover, to claim that Scripture is dark is a repudiation of the Reformation rediscovery of the clarity of Scripture. Scripture is clear and God has sent His Spirit to lead us into all the truth He inspired the apostles and prophets to record therein (John 14:26, 16:12-15).
Seventh and finally, as a fallen human being saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, I concur with Jakes that theology, the human attempt to explain divine revelation, is a "stumbling" matter. I also agree with Jakes' interlocutors that we are all growing in our theology. However, I must disagree with T.D. Jakes when he says, "we're all saying the same thing," because Trinitarians and Unitarians definitely are not saying the same thing. But I hope he keeps reflecting on Scripture, which he has been doing, for it clearly and unequivocally reveals the eternally Triune God, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, into whose entire name orthodox Christians are baptized.
Editor's note: This post has been updated with correct host site.