By Clete Hux –
In teaching seminars on cults over the years, I often role-play as an anti-trinitarian. It is a very effective means of instruction, especially when helping people better understand and defend Christian doctrine. Also, it lets the teacher know what people are thinking about a certain issue or topic. One thing I have learned is that many Christians do not have a firm, biblical understanding of the trinity.
When I ask people to give illustrations of the biblical trinity, they will invariably give certain analogies. Quite common is the “water” illustration. Water we know can be liquid, vapor or solid – but all having H2O as a common denominator. The trinity, it is said, is like water in this regard. There is one God, one substance, but three persons. Some will ask, “Aren’t you one person?” I’ll say, “Yes. They will ask, “Are you a husband, father, and teacher?” I’ll say, “Yes!” They respond, “Well, there you have it. That’s one person with three different roles. That’s one in three. That’s the trinity!”
The trouble with these analogies is that they do not illustrate the biblical trinity at all. Rather, they illustrate the heresy of modalism. So common are these analogies in Christian circles, though, that it makes it very difficult for Christians to spot heretical anti-trinitarian teachers when they encounter them. One such false teacher, as we will see, is the popular T.D. Jakes.
But what is modalism and where did it come from? Also, known as Sabellianism (after the church leader Sabellius in the third century), modalism denies that there are three distinct and co-eternal persons in the godhead. They teach instead that there is only one person in the godhead. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one and the same person, though manifested in different roles.
Historically, the groundwork for modalism was laid in the second and third centuries when patripassianism arose, the view that it was the Father himself who became incarnate and suffered on the cross. Later, Sabellius taught that the single, divine “monad” presented itself in revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As Craig Blaising explains, “As Father, it revealed itself as Creator and Lawgiver. As Son, it revealed itself as Redeemer. As Spirit, it revealed it self as the giver of grace.”1 The idea is that the three persons of the godhead are merely different modes of the same divine person that are revealed or manifested at different times. Simply stated, modalists understood the trinity as one person (God) who wore three different hats (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
Modalists thought they were safeguarding monotheism (belief in one God) against what they saw as tritheism (belief in three gods). This led them to believe that traditional trinitarianism was polytheistic (many gods) and to be denounced as heresy. However, it was modalism that was eventually rejected as unorthodox teaching by the early church councils.
In more recent times, modalism has become known as the “oneness” view of God. Early in the twentieth century, the “oneness view” surfaced in pentecostal circles and was recognized as heresy by the Assemblies of God.2 It needs to be understood, of course, that not all pentecostals are Oneness Pentecostals. While there are many pentecostals who believe the trinity to be biblical, Oneness Pentecostals (just like the Jehovah’s Witnesses) have historically labeled the trinity a pagan doctrine and view anyone who embraces it as being lost.
In our day, a new or “neo”-pentecostalism has arisen within the ranks of Oneness Pentecostals. Many neo-pentecostals have been “knocking” at the evangelical door by down-playing the differences, wanting to have the Oneness teaching accepted as a Christian alternative, treating the issue between Oneness and Trinitarianism as simply a matter of semantics rather than an essential theological difference. One such neo-pentecostal is the ever popular T.D. Jakes.
T.D. JAKES AND MODALISM
Jakes is the founder and Senior Pastor of The Potter s House in Dallas, one of the largest churches in the nation. In 1999, the New York Times named Jakes “one of the top five evangelists most frequently cited by scholars, theologians, and evangelical leaders to step up to the international pulpit behind the Rev. Billy Graham.”3 Also, in 2001, Time magazine named him “Americas Best Preacher.”4
As one of the most flamboyant and powerful speakers to come along in some time, he has been featured on an array of stations including Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), Black Entertainment Television (BET), and Daystar Network. In 1999, he held a conference at the Georgia Dome with over 100,000 attendees.5 Just last year he produced an R-rated religious movie about sexual abuse, Woman, Thou Art Loosed, which made the box office top ten. Also last year, he was the main speaker at Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek Church Leadership Summit.6
Jakes is quite a phenomenon, but his teaching on the trinity is unmistakably Oneness Pentecostal modalism. His heretical views have been a topic of discussion and articles by apologetic ministries over the last several years. His ministry’s belief statement declares, “There is one God,. . .existing in three manifestations: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”7 Interestingly, on his same website, Jakes “doctrinal statement” reads differently than his “ministry statement” regarding the trinity. It says “three dimensions of one God,. . .Triune in His manifestations, being both Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’8 Even though the word “triune” is used, the ministry statement defines the godhead in typical Sabellian language. He says, “We believe in the Father . . .Creator of the universe. . .W e believe that Jesus is the Son of God. . .for our tot al salvation. . .We believe in the Holy Spirit. . .regenerating the believer.” Yet, he also states that these “persons” are “three dimensions of one God” and that God is triune “in His manifestations.”9 This is modalism.
In one documented radio broadcast, Jakes was asked how important it was for Christians to believe in the Trinity. He answered that once a person comes to know Christ, he should study the trinity apart from salvation, but that the term “trinity” is not a biblical term.10 He went on to say that “When God got ready to make a man that looked like him, he didn’t make three. He made one man. However, that one man had three parts. He was body, soul, and spirit. We have one God, but he is Father in creation, Son in redemption, and Holy Spirit in regeneration.”11 Again, this is clear modalistic language.
Some time ago the Christian Research Journal did an article about Jakes’ Oneness Pentecostal background. Christianity Today then did an article about CRIs Journal article, and Jakes responded by doing an “op-ed” piece for Christianity Today in which he stated that his association with Oneness people did not constitute assimilation into their ranks. Further, he stated that the language in the doctrinal statement of his ministry on the trinity’s persons as “manifestations” did not derive from modalism.12 Yet, in the same op-ed piece, Jakes, after quoting 1 John 5:7-8 as representing his view on the Godhead, says he believes “in one God who is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. . . [T]hese three have distinct and separate functions -so separate that each has individual attributes, yet are one. I do not believe in three Gods.”13
This statement is not clearly orthodox for it places the distinction of persons simply at the point of “function” – something typical of modalism. And Jakes betrays his implicit modalism when he goes on to clarify his meaning by providing the modalistic analogy of water as “ice, water [sic], and steam.” As Elliot Miller points out, when Jakes was given the opportunity to explain his views, he continued to refer to the members of the godhead as “manifestations,” avoiding the use of the term “persons” – even though it is this very language that causes others to question his orthodoxy. To distance himself from modalism, all Jakes has to do is affirm that he “believes the Trinity comprises three eternally distinct Persons, who together are the one and only Almighty God.”14 His reluctance to say “three persons” instead of “three manifestations” betrays a modalistic suspicion that to say “three persons” is to embrace tritheism.
Elliot Miller’s conclusion is apt: “Given his and his ministry’s insistence on modalist language in describing the Trinity, the assertions of his colleague [associate minister Lawrence Robinson] that he is a modalist, and his affiliation with the Oneness group, we have every reason to doubt that by ‘Trinity’ his ministry means three eternally distinct Persons.”15
Just because the term “trinity” cannot be found in the Bible, does not mean it is unbiblical. The question is whether the ideas contained in the doctrine of the trinity can be found in the Bible.
The Bible teaches that God is one indivisible being as to His nature (Deut. 6:4; 4:35; Jas. 2:9). Nevertheless, the Bible presents God as more than one person (Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Is. 6:8; Matt. 3:16-17; John 1:1). These persons are equally God, and yet they are distinct and eternally co-existent. They are not simply different “hats” that God put s on at different times. The early church believed this and adopted the Athanasian Creed that states, “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, or dividing the substance.”16
For Sabellius and Jakes to teach that God is one person revealed interchangeably in their “manifestations” as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to depersonalize the Godhead and confuse the “persons” of the Godhead at the same time. For Jakes to liken God and his triune personality to man’s body, soul, and spirit is to dissect the nature of God into three parts. Surely, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not mathematically 1/3+1/3+1/3=1. This would be tripartism, a picture of God that is not the biblical one.
Clete Hux is the Counter -Cult Specialist for the Apologetics Resource Center.
1 Water A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), s.v. “Monarchianism” by C.A. Blaising. See also The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), s.v. “Monarchianism.”
2 Elliot Miller , “T.D. Jakes Responds to the Journal,” Christian Research Journal 22:3 (2001).
3 Gustv Niebuchi and Laurie Goodstein, “The Preachers: A Special Report New Wave of Evangelists Vying for National Pulpit,” The New York Times (January 1, 1999). See article at http://archives.nytime.com.
4 See http://www.time.com/time/archive/printout/0,23657,1000960,00.html.
5 See www.thepotter shouse.org (biography of T.D. Jakes).
6 See www.myfortress.org/Jakes-willowcreek.
7 See www.thepotter’shouse.org/beliefstatement.
8 See www.thepotter’shouse.org/doctrinalstatement.
9 Ibid (emphasis mine).
10 Douglas Leblanc, “Apologetics Journal Criticizes T.D. Jakes,” Christianity Today 44:2 (February 7, 2000): 58.
12 T.D. Jakes, “My Views on the Godhead” Christianity Today Online Edition (Feb. 21,2000). Article found at http://www.christianityonline.com/ct/current/0221/0221c.html.
14 Elliot Miller, “T.D. Jakes Responds to the Journal,”
15“Apologetics Journal Criticizes T.D. Jakes,” 58.
16 H. Wayne House, Charts of Cults, Sects, and Religious Movements (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 338.