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Unity, Yes, But in the Truth Only

Editor’s Note: During The Elephant Room, a panel discussion of prominent pastors from a variety of backgrounds and theological positions, Bishop T.D. Jakes of The Potter’s House church in Dallas explained his views on the Trinity with moderators Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald. The comments below first appeared in a Baptist Press article responding to Jakes’ statements, published on Jan. 27.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.


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Malcolm Yarnell

Professor of Systematic Theology, Director of the Oxford Study Program, Director of the Center for Theological Research, and Chair of the Systematic Theology Department

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