My friend Trevin Wax is helping us out as he “Live Blogs” through the Elephant Room. Beyond controversy (at least in the small circles I run in) is how I would describe the invitation of T.D. Jakes to the Elephant Room to discuss spirituality, truth, and theology. He has traditionally been defined as a Modalist theologically. Essentially what this means is that he denies the traditional definition of the Trinity by describing God as one God who shows himself in three different ways. The orthodox definition of the Trinity is that there is one God who eternally exists in three different persons: One what, three whos. Modalism, sometimes described as “Jesus Only” and sometimes Oneness, to say the least, undermines our understanding of God as he has revealed himself and rapes the Trinity of the eternal relationship upon which so much of our theology is built, understood, and practically lived out.
So, is T.D. Jakes a Modalist? I don’t know. Maybe not (or at least not anymore). Here is some of the stuff that he said that caught my ear:
Jakes: 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.
Disclaimer: I have never read any of Jakes’ books. I barely even know his voice as I have not heard him speak much (I think he screams a lot?). I think he sweats almost as much as I do. And I think he wrote a book about losing weight. Oh, and I have heard that he is a modalist. I have even told others this. For this, I am saddened as I might have been spreading misinformation. (Theology teaching 101: if you don’t know for sure, keep your mouth shut.)
If this paragraph were put together by someone else that I have a tradition of following and know is orthodox, it is not too bad. It even has a “tweetable moment” or two in it! Let me deal with a few things though.
“I am not crazy about the word person”: You know what? Neither am I. It is sufficient, yet in no way exhausting. Anyone who has studied the history of this word “person” in a trinitarian context understands that it never, even in the Latin or Greek (persona, hypostasis, prosopa), conveyed everything it could. It often creates misunderstandings since the English “person” carries some connotations that we would not apply to God. Nevertheless, we work with what we got. Barth did not like the word “person”. I agree with Calvin who said this about our articulations with respect to the Trinity:
“Where names have not been invented rashly, we must beware lest we become chargeable with arrogance and rashness in rejecting them. I wish, indeed, that such names were buried, provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his particular subsistence. I am not so minutely precise as to fight furiously for mere words. For I observe, that the writers of the ancient Church, while they uniformly spoke with great reverence on these matters, neither agreed with each other, nor were always consistent with themselves.” (John Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.5)
It is not about the words we use, but the concepts we believe. I use the word “person” and I raise and eyebrow when others don’t. But if they have trouble with it the way Calvin speaks of, I understand. Jakes comment seems to be in this vein, but I don’t know.
“Paul is not a modalist, but he doesn’t think it’s robbery to say manifest in the flesh.”
Obviously I don’t mind the use of the word “manifestations” either. However, I think we need to be very careful about the context we use this in. The way that Paul uses this to Timothy was an early Christian creed (1 Tim. 3:16) and was not speaking about the Trinity in the way that we speak about the nature and distinctions in the Trinity. As well, the KJV supplies the word “God” to “manifest in the flesh” giving some misconceptions. It is not best translated “God was manifest in the flesh” but “Christ (or simply “he” – the context being Christ) was manifest in the flesh.” And the word manifestation simply means “to reveal” or “make known”. Christ was made known to us in a body. Therefore, I don’t really like the way Jakes defended the Oneness use of “manifestation” by using Paul.
“None of our books on the Godhead will be on sale in heaven.”
Can I just be honest with you and say that were it not somewhat undignified to quote T.D. Jakes in my world (to say the least), this would definitely be a keeper? Love it.
Another paragraph from Jakes:
“The Bible made me rethink my ideas and I got quiet about it for a while. There are things that you can say about the Father you cannot say about the Son or the Spirit. There are distinctives. I’m very comfortable with that. There is very little difference between what I believe and what you believe. But I don’t think anything that any of us believes fully describes what God is. We in our finite minds cannot fully describe what God is.”
“The Bible made me rethink”
The Bible makes me rethink every day. Good stuff. The context here is encouraging as it essentially says “The Bible made me rethink my view of the Trinity that I was taught in my Oneness (modalist) background.” Right?
“There are things that you can say about the Father you cannot say about the Son or the Spirit. There are distinctives.”
I appreciate this as well. I am not sure if it says quite enough. It certainly could be evidence that Jakes is no longer a modalist as this is the type of language orthodox Christianity uses concerning the Trinity. There are things that the Father and the Spirit did not do that the Son did (i.e. become incarnate and die on the cross). I think that this is what he is saying. I hope that this is what he is saying. I suppose that this could be also seen in a Modalist concept as well. For example, a Modalist could say this: “There are things that you can say about the role of the Father you cannot say about the role of the Son or the Spirit. There are distinctives in their roles.” So, I am not quit sure I am committing to Jakes Trinitarian orthodoxy through this paragraph. But it is hopeful.
“There is very little difference between what I believe and what you believe.”
This makes me somewhat nervous. In fact, it give me more pause than any of the other statements. What is this “very little” difference? I really want to know. Mormons say the same thing. What I consider very little and what he considers very little might be very different.
“But I don’t think anything that any of us believes fully describes what God is. We in our finite minds cannot fully describe what God is.”
I can certainly agree with this. I don’t think we can describe God fully. However, I do think we can understand God truly. The “mirror dimly” may not give us a full understanding of things, but what we do see can be accurate. “Let him who rejoice, rejoice in this: that he understands and knows me” (Jer. 9:24). God seeks to be understood. Though our minds are finite, they are made by an infinite God. He is pretty good at making things. Therefore, if he has revealed himself to us, even in a limited way, that which he has revealed can be truly understood. The mysterious (i.e. unrevealed) things belong to the Lord, but those things that have been revealed belong to us (Deut 29:29). I say this because I want to be careful that we don’t go down the there-is-no-way-to-understand-the-trinity-so-there-is-no-“orthodox”-view-that-God-cares-about path. Our view of God is that he is one God who eternally exists in three persons, all of whom are fully God, all of whom are equal. While this statement is insufficient in scope, it is sufficient in accuracy (properly understood).
Is T.D. Jakes an orthodox Trinitarian? I don’t know, but I am more hopeful than I was before. I really just want to know what that “little difference” is.
UPDTE: here is the video of what Jakes said. It has some more red flags, but he did explicitly say that the Father did not die on the cross. Of course this could mean that the manifestation of the Father did not die, but I think he meant it rightly.