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?”
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).