That’s why I was so interested in this recent blog article about an upcoming conference that will include Bishop T. D. Jakes.
Not long after I read that article, I received the following question(s) by email from a friend. He wrote:
I could use your help in understanding a defense of the faith, namely, what exactly is modalism (my one question) and its three manifestations: 1) Who started it? 2) Who still believes it? 3) Is TD Jakes a modalist?
Similar questions are probably circling in the minds of many this week. So today’s article is an attempt to provide a brief answer:
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Before answering that specific question, it would probably be helpful to define what modalism is. Stephen Nichols, in his excellent book For Us and For Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church, gives us this helpful definition:
Modalism is a “heretical view that denies the individual persons of the Trinity. [It] views biblical terminology of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as merely modes of existence or manifestations of the one God” (p. 153).
As for where it started, an early third-century teacher from Rome named Sabellius is generally credited with popularizing the view. For that reason, modalism is sometimes called Sabellianism. However, as Gregg Allison explains (in his excellent Historical Theology), modalism was first “introduced by Praxeas in Rome, articulated by Noetus of Smyrna and his disciples Zephyrinus and Callistus (both bishops of Rome), and popularized by Sabellius” (p. 235).
Also known as “modalistic monarchianism,” this heretical view
… held that there is one God who can be designated by three different names—‘Father,’ ‘Son,’ and ‘Holy Spirit’—at different times, but these three are not distinct persons. Instead they are different modes (thus, modalism) of the one God. Thus, God can be called ‘Father’ as the Creator of the world and Lawgiver; he can be called ‘Son’ as God incarnate in Jesus Christ; and he can be called ‘Holy Spirit’ as God in the church age. Accordingly, Jesus Christ is God and the Spirit is God, but they are not distinct persons. (Ibid., 235–36).
Modalism (a.k.a. Sabellianism) was soundly condemned by the orthodox church—even before the doctrine of the Trinity was defended at the Council of Nicaea. For example, second and third-century church leaders like Tertullian (160–220), Origen (184–254), Dionysius (3rd century), and others clearly denounced it.
Since the Councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), modalism has been universally understood by every major branch of Christianity as heretical—falling outside the boundaries of theological orthodoxy. The Council of Constantinople, for example, explicitly condemned and anathematized “the Sabellians” in both Canon I and VII. The Athanasian Creed adds this:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [universal] faith; which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
(Importantly, as a side note, the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople did not invent the doctrine of the Trinity; rather, they defended and articulated what orthodox Christians had always believed, from the time of the apostles. It is critical to remember that the doctrine of the Trinity is established in Scripture, not church history. The early councils merely affirmed the biblical teaching in the face of heretical attack.)
Thus, to arbitrarily discard the Nicene Creed is to place oneself outside of historic Christian orthodoxy. As Carl Trueman rightly explains in this post,
To place Nicene orthodoxy in the category of over-scrupulous doctrinal precisianism is, in effect, to declare the entire church (except for strands of American evangelicalism, apparently) from 381 to the present day to be wrong-headed. True catholic Christianity has always regarded Nicene orthodoxy as vital. An evangelicalism which argues for the basic irrelevance of such is simply not part of that catholic tradition; rather than being generously connected to other believers, it effectively isolates itself from the mainstream Christian tradition.
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In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem explains that “one present denomination within Protestantism (broadly defined), the United Pentecostal Church, is modalistic in its doctrinal position” (p. 242). Those associated with this movement are broadly referred to as “Oneness Pentecostals.”
According to Wikipedia (an admittedly non-authoritative source):
Oneness Pentecostalism (also known as Apostolic Pentecostalism or One God Pentecostalism) refers to a grouping of denominations and believers within Pentecostal Christianity, all of whom subscribe to the nontrinitarian theological doctrine of Oneness. This movement first emerged around 1914 as the result of doctrinal disputes within the nascent Pentecostal movement and claims an estimated 24 million adherents today.
From a church history perspective, it is interesting to see how the early heresies have been recycled by modern heretical groups. Whereas Gnosticism shows up in New Age theology and even in Mormonism; and Arianism has been regurgitated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses; modalism has returned in the form of Oneness Pentecostalism.
It is important to note that the orthodox church has historically rejected modalism just as it has consistently rejected those other ancient christological heresies. After explaining the evangelical position, Kevin DeYoung (in his insightful post on the Trinity) notes this:
Orthodox Trinitarianism rejects modalism which believes that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are different names for the same God acting in different roles or manifestations (like the well-intentioned but misguided “water, vapor, ice” analogy).
In his excellent treatment of Oneness Pentecostalism, Robert Bowman explains why modalism is such a serious error:
One’s view of Christ cannot be separated from one’s view of the Trinity. Deny
the Trinity, and you will lose the biblical Christ; affirm the Christ of Scripture, the Son who was sent by the Father and who sent the Holy Spirit, and you will find that your God is the Trinity. … Only the Christian God is triune, and consequently, to deny the Trinity is to say that, historically, [apostate] Judaism and Islam have been right about the being of God, while Christianity has been wrong. Oneness writers have said as much. … We must conclude, then, that the Oneness teaching is a heresy; that it denies a fundamental, basic belief of biblical Christianity; and that those churches and denominations that teach this heresy are not authentic Christian churches but rather heretical sects.
“If the question is, are Oneness Pentecostals evangelical Christians, then the
answer is obviously no.”
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According to that same Wikipedia article, T. D. Jakes is part of the Oneness Pentecostal movement. Here’s the actual quote from the article, “Bishop T.D. Jakes is an adherent to Oneness theology, though he tones his views down to some degree in his public ministry.”
Granted, it’s only a Wikipedia article. (Open-source information is not known for being ultra-reliable; though it usually reflects popular perception.)
That being said, here are some of the reasons evangelicals have been concerned with the teachings of T.D. Jakes (both now and in the past):
• The Potter’s House website says this in their doctrinal statement: “There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Note that the word manifestations is used; rather than the word Persons.)
• According to a 2000 article from Christianity Today, when asked about the doctrine of the Trinity, T. D. Jakes responded:
The Trinity, the term ‘Trinity,’ is not a biblical term, to begin with. It’s a theological description for something that is so beyond human comprehension that I’m not sure that we can totally hold God to a numerical system. The Lord said, “Behold, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one, and beside him there is no other.” 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.
(That description sounds very modalistic. Statements like that were what prompted the Christian Research Institute’s anaylsis of T. D. Jakes back in 1999.)
• In a response to the above CT article (also from 2000), Jakes used this illustration to define his understanding of the Godhead:
Though no human illustration perfectly fits the Divine, it is similar to ice, water and steam: three separate forms, yet all H²O. Each element can co-exist, each has distinguishing characteristics and functions, but all have sameness.
Later, in that same article, Jakes denied that his use of the word “manifestations” was rooted in modalism:
The language in the doctrinal statement of our ministry that refers to the Trinity of the Godhead as “manifestations” does not derive from modalism. The Apostle Paul himself used this term referring to the Godhead in 1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Corinthians 12:7, and 1 John 3:5-8 [sic]. Peter also used the term in 1 Peter 1:20. Can this word now be heresy when it is a direct quote from the Pauline epistles and used elsewhere in the New Testament?
• However, many theologically-orthodox Christians were not convinced. In a 2001 article, again in Christianity Today, Ted Olsen reiterated evangelical concerns. In this section, Olsen begins with a quote from Jakes:
“And God said, ‘Let us. Let usssssss … ‘” says Jakes, and then digresses: ” … One God, but manifest in … three different ways, Father in creation, Son in redemption, Holy Spirit in regeneration. And God said, ‘Let usssssss … ‘”
Problem: That’s not Trinitarianism. That’s a pretty straight-up teaching of modalism. … This view is also that of Oneness Pentecostals, which apparently describes Jakes. He has used these exact words before, but denies he’s a heretic. “My association with Oneness people does not constitute assimilation into their ranks any more than my association with the homeless in our city makes me one of them,” he told CT last year. Maybe his association doesn’t mean he’s a Oneness Pentecostal, but his language describing the Trinity certainly seems to.
• A 2002 Christianity Today article further explained that evangelicals have always regarded Oneness Pentecostalism as being outside the boundaries of orthodoxy, noting that “orthodox Christian theologians believe Oneness theology is guilty of the heresy of modalism.”
• A more recent 2010 interview with T. D. Jakes suggests that he wants to distance himself somewhat from Oneness Pentecostalism. However, he is still frustratingly fuzzy when it comes to the Trinity. After seemingly dancing around the issue, Jakes finally comes to the point where he says:
I believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I believe that they are three Persons. I believe that in a way that Persons is a limited word for the Godhead. And even those who adhere to that say that to be true. But I think the issue is that they are distinctive. There are things that can be said about the Father that couldn’t be said about the Son and then the Holy Spirit… I believe that. I’ve grown into that, but I came into a Pentecostal church that happened to be Oneness. They loved me at a time that my father died. I became friends with them and in covenant with them and embraced them. And though I don’t agree with everything, and they don’t agree with everything, they’re evolving as a people.
But even here, Trinitarian scholars (like E. Calvin Beisner) are not fully persuaded. Beisner, responding to this interview, contends that there is,
Far, far, far too little evidence there to justify reclassifying Jakes as Trinitarian granted all he’s said before and his continuing to consider United Pentecostals his Christian brothers. Nothing quoted there falls outside what any reasonably sly and sophisticated United Pentecostal could say. … My impression is that Jakes is simply out to gain the trust of larger groups than the Oneness and Pentecostal crowd in which he’s been at home.
If you’d like to read parts of that interview and Beisner’s full response, see Mark’s helpful blog post here.
So, where does that leave us with regard to evaluating T. D. Jakes? Perhaps Carl Trueman’s perspective is safest. Trueman writes:
The language of manifestation [which Jakes and his church continue to use] is vulnerable to being seen as modalist; and a modalist God cannot save. The best one could say is that he uses very dangerous terminology at this point.
There are certainly valid reasons for evangelicals to be concerned about the “dangerous terminology” of T. D. Jakes. Over the years, he has both employed the language of modalism and been associated with Oneness Pentecostalism. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that someone who truly embraces the doctrine of the Trinity would have so much difficulty being clear about what he believes.
In any case, one thing is clear: modern-day modalism poses a significant threat to undiscerning evangelicals. As John MacArthur explains in The Truth War:
Many—perhaps most—in the evangelical movement today are perfectly willing to ignore the lessons of Scripture and history, set aside the whole disagreement as something entirely nonessential, and embrace contemporary Sabellianism as a legitimate expression of authentic Christian faith. For at least a decade now, evangelical best-seller lists have included a steady stream of works by authors and musicians who deny the doctrine of the Trinity. They hold to a distinctive version of modalism. That is the official position of “Oneness Pentecostals” and the United Pentecostal Church International. As these groups and their popular spokespersons have found increasing acceptance in the evangelical mainstream, modalism is suddenly being accepted as if it were a valid evangelical option. (p. 117)
MacArthur goes on to explain that this is a serious error that is attempting to creep into the church unnoticed. As a subtle-yet-deadly deception, modalism is more than just an elephant in the room. It’s a dangerous false doctrine that evangelical Christians should be very careful to avoid.
UPDATE 2: Thabiti Anyabwile gives one of the clearest arguments for why inviting T. D. Jakes to the Elephant Room is a bad idea. He also provides additional documentation showing the connection between Jakes and modalism.