The Recent Controversy over Modalism

For a primer on modalism see my post on it here:

What Modalism Is, Why It’s Wrong, and Why It’s Dangerous

If there is one thing we’ve learned over the two millennia of church history it is that heresies never die, they just come back dressed differently. Recently there was a controversy over an evangelical leader, James MacDonald inviting a known modalist, T. D. Jakes, to speak in an evangelical forum and even referring to Jakes as a “brother.” Jakes’ modalism is well-documented by those who know him and he was ordained and still pastors in a modalist denomination (so it isn’t just a “rumor” or “gossip”).

Trevin Wax live-blogged The Elephant Room (hereafter TER, the forum in which Jakes sat down with MacDonald, Mark Driscoll, et al), and many were waiting for clarity from Jakes on the issue and hoping that Jakes would announce that he has renounced modalism. I have yet to see a transcript of the debate but Wax has some copious notes on the discussion with some direct quotes and based on his account, I have yet to see where Jakes has changed his view except that he has begun to adopt a moderate amount of Trinitarian language.

Jakes statement, as reported by Wax, goes as follows:

When asked by Driscoll:

But within that, for you, Bishop Jakes, the issue is one God manifesting Himself successively in three ways? Or one God existing eternally in three persons? What is your understanding now? Which one?”

Jakes replies:

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. 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 talking 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 have been with you. There are many people within and outside denominations labeled Oneness that would be okay with this. We are taught in society that when we disagree with someone in a movement, we leave. But I still have associations with people in Onenness movements. We need to humble both sides and say, “We are trying to describe a God we love.” Why should I fall out and hate and throw names at you when it’s through a glass darkly? None of our books on the Godhead will be on sale in heaven.

This is typical of the rest of the discussion and throughout Jakes seemed to be hedging to me. Earlier Jakes talked about “persons” but then here claimed he didn’t like the word “persons” and went on to defend the term “manifestation,” a term that is both loaded and telling from someone entrenched in modalism. It doesn’t matter whether you like the word or not, that is the accepted term used for centuries to describe the Godhead. No other term is going to necessarily be better because we’re discussing the infinite God. When a Trinitarian says they don’t like the word “person” that’s one thing, but if you’re supposedly moving away from modalism this is not the best way to discuss your move toward orthodox Trinitarianism.

I agree with Jakes that Paul uses the word “manifestation” (I mean, it’s in Scripture, after all) but remember that Paul used the word before the baggage of modalism was loaded onto that word. I’m not saying Paul would have used a different word, but I am saying that you can’t condone a modalist reading of that term simply because it is found in Paul.

Jakes also slyly indicates that none of us can be sure because “Who can understand God?”  before calling for humility. The early church fathers faced this same issue which is why they stuck with words like “begotten” to describe how the Son comes from the Father: they were reluctant to say things about God that would reduce him to human categories or imply that we can fathom the nature of God. But what was revealed in Scripture they were not afraid to say clearly and distinctly using agreed-upon terms. This is another statement that a person makes when he’s trying to hedge and avoid speaking out clearly on a position.

Jakes also muddies the waters by talking about falling out and hating and throwing names. No one is doing that at all. We are seeking clear precise language to define what the Scriptures teach about the nature of God. Since when is someone hating simply by trying to nail down a definition. Jakes also says that there is “very little difference,” though I wonder if someone like Athanasius would think it’s just a “little difference.”

The line about our books being sold in heaven is gold on its own but in the midst of controversy, it seems like the kind of thing someone says to dismiss their critics without answering them.

If Jakes really has renounced modalism he should just say so. If he is struggling with this view and making a move toward orthodox Trinitarianism, he should just say so. What he shouldn’t do is hem and haw and bandy words about and point the finger back at critics, no matter how ungracious they might have been.

I can believe Jakes when he says that he is on the outs with people in the Oneness tradition and we all know that he is greeted with suspicion by many orthodox evangelicals. But being on the outs with both sides is usually what happens when one sits on the fence. All this may very well mean that Jakes is making the move toward orthodox Trinitarianism, but I don’t see anything in his nebulous statements from TER that lead me to believe he has jumped off the fence onto one side or the other. I hope and pray he does and then makes a clear statement to that effect. Until then, I remain unconvinced.

And we haven’t even touched his word-faith teachings. But that’s for another day.

UPDATE: See Kevin DeYoung’s post Seven Thoughts on the Elephant Room and T.D. Jakes. DeYoung is a member of the Gospel Coalition and he addresses every point I think should be addressed about this issue (including a few I didn’t touch on).

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About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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9 Responses to The Recent Controversy over Modalism

  1. Tim Trost says:

    Depending on the translation “manifest” is not just Pauline. However it is never used to describe any of the persons of the trinity other than Jesus. Manifest is not describing the godhead but Christ’s incarnation. That the pre-incarnate Christ was manifest in the flesh

    1 Peter 1:20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you
    1 John 1:2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—

    1 John 4:9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

    ESV

    Jakes is saying he does not like the word “persons”. These verses dont use the word persons but they are showing the interpersonal relationship between the Father and the Son. When the word manifested is used it is not describing the Father, Son , and Holy Spirit. But that Christ was incarnate or manifested in the flesh (ie carne equals flesh)

  2. Hamman says:

    Why didn’t the early apostles preach about the trinity if it’s that important? Can we please be honest with ourselves as Christians and at least admit that the teachings of Jesus and the apostles did not explicitly teach anyone that it is critical to believe in this three-in-one concept? Please, read the Bible and see if I’m making it up

    • I’m always amused when someone tells me to read the Bible, as if I’ve never done that before and as if that would not occur to me. You do realize that the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated using the statements of Scripture, don’t you?

      • Hamman says:

        I can see your point there. But what I’m saying is that we are so used to reading the Bible with pre-taught concepts (eisegesis). When last have you read the Bible, e.g. John 1, without reading the trinity into it? Let’s sit back and let the Bible talk for itself, do we really need philosophical gymnastics? Which goes back to my original question, did the apostles or event Jesus himself say, “God loved the world so much that he gave is only son, that whoever believes in the trinity shall not perish, but have everlasting life”? My hypothesis is that the emphasis of Jesus’ teachings was never on the trinity, directly or indirectly. It was on God the father, repentance, and social justice.

  3. Tanya says:

    I agree with Hamman’s posts.
    I don’t see a problem with Modalism. I love Jesus dearly. I deny no aspect of the living God that I read about in scripture. We are talking about an infinite and complex God. It’s funny how people can be so confident in their finite brain’s interpretation of something complex. The words and concepts within noth Modalist and trinitarian views are both insufficient to capture an infinite God’s nature but Modalism makes more sense to me. Jesus is God incarnate. Jesus said he and the Father are one. But I am not arrogant enough to call trinity doctrine heresy.

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Tanya.

      Your comment, however, is self-contradicting since you claim not to deny anything taught in Scripture yet you claim that words are insufficient to capture his nature. If God used words to reveal himself then words are apparently sufficient to capture him or he would have used something else.

      Modalism may make more sense to you but the question is whether or not it makes sense of God’s own self-revelation as given in Scripture. For almost 17 centuries now Christians have denied that Modalism does justice to what God has revealed about himself in Scripture. So denying Modalism is not “arrogance” but faithfulness to God’s own teaching about himself. Denying Modalism and embracing Trinitarianism is not confidence in my finite brain (or anyone else’s) it is confidence in what God has spoken about himself in Scripture.

      You yourself as much as admitted that the Scriptures are the standard and yet you presented no Scriptural argument and even denied what Scripture clearly teaches and has been understood to teach for almost two millennia.

      Your denying the Scriptures (especially while claiming to believe them) is an example of using your finite brain to interpret (misinterpret) what God has spoken about himself and is the ultimate arrogance.

      Your thinking that your finite brain can be so confident that this minority position that was first refuted almost 1700 years ago is still right just because you like it is also arrogance.

      • Hamman says:

        Sorry if I’m being blunt Michael. While you’re saying Tanya is self-contradicting, your response to her comment is also self-contradicting. Let me explain. You’re appealing to scriptures, but can you point to even one, singular verse that mentions the word “trinity” or even the complete theological concept within one verse? We are agreeing that God revealed himself in the Bible, and God’s own self-revelation never pointed to the trinity doctrine as a requirement for salvation. The trinity is man’s interpretation of God, as you yourself point out. Like you said, for almost 17 centuries Christians denied modalism. But just because many people have believed in something over a long period of time doesn’t make it true unfortunately. Even today, Christians know very little of the Bible, never taking time to read it as a self-contained book. We would rather hear interpreted sermons in the Church or read Christian books about the Bible. I don’t know about arrogance, I’m simply trying to let the Bible speak for itself, give it a voice over the noise of the religion called Christianity. Let me end this by pointing out a very simple problem that happens when we start relying on eisegesis to inject meaning into the Bible. If you bring up verses like “The Father and I are one” in support of the trinity, the biggest problem is that there’s no three persons in this verse. We can go back and forth about the meaning of “one”, but there simply isn’t a three-person association here. So what did Jesus do here, did he forget that the trinity has the Holy Spirit in it?

      • Since when does the Bible have to use a word for the word to represent true doctrine? Since when do we have to be able to find a doctrine contained in a single verse for it to be true? Your example toward the end of your comment commits this same fallacy from beginning to end.

        Funny that you mentioned eisegesis because your comment is an exercise in it. I never said the Trinity is man’s interpretation of God; it is our interpretation of the Scriptures. I also never said this doctrine was right simply because Christians have believed it for 17 centuries. But such consistent and ancient witness ought to give us pause before we embrace something that flies in the face of it, especially when divergent views do not adequately handle the Scriptural evidence.

        I completely agree that too many Christians don’t know the Scripturea but the same could not be said of the ancient theologians and preachers nor can it necessarily be said of every Christian and preacher today (though, sadly, it could be said of too many of them).

        Apparently the same could be said of you since, even though my post interacted with Scripture to state my case, but you have yet to make any case from Scripture in support of modalism. Instead, all you’ve done is attack historic Christianity and resort to ad hominem arguments directed at me and other Trinitarians.

        When you’re ready to engage Scripture (something you claim to do) I’ll be happy to engage it with you. Until then, this conversation is over.

      • And note that i addressed your use of Scripture early in my response so don’t reply claiming that I ignored it.

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