September 29, 2011

Modalism, Oneness, and T. D. Jakes

by Nathan Busenitz

As a church history teacher, I’m always looking for ways to demonstrate just how relevant a knowledge of church history can be to issues that arise in contemporary evangelicalism.

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:

* * * * *

Where did modalism originate?

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.

* * * * *

Who still believes it?

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.

Those interested in this topic really need to read Bowman’s full analysis. In another lengthy treatise, Fred Sanders of Biola’s Torrey Institute adds this:

“If the question is, are Oneness Pentecostals evangelical Christians, then the
answer is obviously no.”

* * * * *

Is T.D. Jakes a modalist?

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.


For those interested in more information on Oneness Pentecostalism, please see this page hosted by Monergism or this lengthy treatment from James White.

UPDATE: Tim Challies, Dan Phillips, and Phil Johnson have each weighed in with helpful analyses of the current situation. 

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.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Daveatjude3

    Excellent collection of relevant information. Well done.

  • Kmomp3300

    very helpful, thank you.

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  • Anonymous

    Excellent article. In regards to point number 2 – if you do not have access to Dr. Grudem’s Systematic Theology book, you can listen to him teach through a four part series on the Trinity – Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. The series and the accompanying outlines (and the rest of his book in audio/teaching format) is available at A great resource!

  • Nathan, thanks for this helpful post. The history of the church’s view of of Modalism should help paint a clearer picture for people on the fence in this situation. It is interesting that Jakes considers Oneness folks to be Christians and, not only does he lack discernment, he doesn’t seem to care. He also has no problem using “manifestations” in his statement of faith with the reason being that Potter’s House is non-denominational and accepts people from all denominations.

  • I have it on pretty good authority that this is a topic that will be in Elephant Room 2 – and it was hinted it might be Jakes vs. Driscoll. That obviously might change, but that is where it currently is heading.

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  • bmh

    Nice summary Nathan. It’s interesting to see how T.D. shifts his position the more he’s challenged on it. Giving T.D.’s underlying motivation the benefit of the doubt, it’s clear that he hasn’t fully thought through the implications of what he believes about the Trinity (or doesn’t believe about it) and/or he’s having second thoughts.

  • Mary Elizabeth Tyler

    There is a desperate need for many unorthodox preachers to want to fit in with the more conservative, orthodox preachers. You can see this with men like Osteen and Warren. I think T.D. Jakes is no exception. His recent very vague description/acceptance of the orthodox view of the Trinity, obviously works to his advantage; it keeps him in partnership with the Oneness Pentecostals, while not totally excluding him from those who accept the orthodox view of the Trinity. What a better way to be all things to all people.

    I have noticed, over the years, that the more Joel Osteen has been criticized for his lack of declaring the gospel message, the more he wants to appear mainstream, so he has beefed up his sermons with more “Jesus talk”. It may hold true with T.D. Jakes, as well. Give the people what they want, without being too committed to the specifics.

    None of us wants to see anyone go astray. The most any of us can do is pray for all these individuals. It is so humbling to know that none of us would have anythng, if it were not given to us from above by our Father.

    Great post, your articles are always very informative.

  • Michael

    what about Philips,Craig and Dean… I mean those guys are mingling with christians all day long and not many are aware of their unorthodox modalist theology.

    should we continue to sing their “you are God alone”?

    • Greg Long

      If we only sang songs written by people with whom we fully agreed, or even by people that were completely orthodox, our songbooks would be much smaller. I have no problem singing a PCD song (as long as the song itself is doctrinally correct), but I wouldn’t want them to come and perform at our church.

      • Jason

        Good point. I’m gonna go get me a Mormon hymnal and prepare for next weeks service.

        • Greg Long

          Not sure what your comment has to do with my comment. Obviously I wouldn’t use a Mormon hymnal because there would be songs that wouldn’t agree with what I believe the Bible to teach. And of course there would be songs that would be doctrinally not a problem.

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  • Anonymous
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  • adrienne

    Very informative. Thanks!

  • John Samson

    Nathan – Just a quote to add to your Church Fathers’ article from last week:

    Chrysostom (349-407): What does he mean when he says: “I have declared your justice?” He did not simply say: “I have given,” but “I have declared.” What does this mean? That he has justified our race not by right actions, not by toils, not by barter and exchange, but by grace alone. Paul, too, made this clear when he said: “But now the justice of God has been made manifest independently of the Law.” But the justice of God comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not through any labor and suffering.

    Greek text: Τί ποτέ ἐστιν, Εὐηγγελισάμην δικαιοσύνην; Οὐκ εἶπεν ἁπλῶς, Ἔδωκα, ἀλλ’, Εὐηγγελισάμην. Τί δήποτε; Ὅτι οὐκ ἀπὸ κατορθωμάτων, οὐδὲ πόνων, οὐδὲ ἀμοιβῆς, ἀλλʼ ἀπὸ χάριτος μόνης τὸ γένος ἐδικαίωσε τὸ ἡμέτερον. Ὅπερ οὖν καὶ ὁ Παῦλος δηλῶν ἔλεγε· Νυνὶ δὲ χωρὶς νόμου δικαιοσύνη Θεοῦ πεφανέρωται· δικαιοσύνη δὲ Θεοῦ διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, οὐ διὰ καμάτου τινὸς καὶ πόνου.

    Adversus Judaeos, VII, §3, PG 48:919; translation in Fathers of the Church, Vol. 68, Discourses Against Judaizing Christians, Disc. 7.3.2 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1979), pp. 186-187.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks John! I’ll add this to my collection.

  • Jbbuckmine

    Excellent as always – thanks a bunch!!

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  • Chris Donato

    comment deleted

  • Great and helpful post here, Nathan. From the hip, what do you think of Barth’s trinitarian construction? His use of the phrase modes of being and not persons make you uncomfortable?

    Also, the Stephen Nichols’ quote I think alludes to it above in section 1, but it’s important to make sure a particular facet of the modalist position (the exact position condemned by the creed) is stated clearly: the three masks (or appearances, manifestations in time) are distinct from the one God. There is a fourth person (the one divine subject), so to speak, who stands behind the three appearances of Father, Son, and Spirit.

    Finally, you write that those involved in the early trinitarian creeds “defended and articulated what orthodox Christians had always believed, from the time of the apostles.” I could go with “defended,” but “articulated”? Were the biblical authors really concerned with what God is (essence, substance, etc.) as opposed to who God is (identity, not least in his acts)? The apostles considered Jesus (and the Spirit) to be identified with the one, true God of Israel (their christology was as high, if not higher, than the later creeds), but were they thinking and articulating christology in terms of consubstantiality, etc.?

  • @Nathan, you might want to add Pastor Anyabwile’s analysis to your list of links. I found his explanation to be the most helpful.

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  • A. Amos Love

    I noticed you linked to Kevin’s article on the Trinity.
    Kevin rarely answers direct questions thought you might help.
    Here’s my comment there…

    Kevin – Anyone

    Maybe you all can help. I can agree about the first four on this post –
    because I can find, and read, scriptures that reveal God as – One – Father – Son – and – Holy Spirit.

    (1) There is only one God. (2) The Father is God. (3) The Son is God. (4) The Holy Spirit is God.

    But – I’m having a hard time finding verses for your last three.
    Where does this information come from if NOT from the scriptures?

    (5) The Father is not the Son. (6) The Son is the not the Holy Spirit. (7) The Holy Spirit is not the Father.

    In fact I’m finding verses that seem to paint a different picture for the last three.
    Just looking at # (5) – You say – “(5) The Father is not the Son.”

    1 – Didn’t Jesus say – “I and my Father are one.” John 10:30. How are we supposed to understand that?

    2 – Then there is Isaiah 9:6. Isn’t it Jesus who is called the Everlasting Father in Isaiah 9:6?
    If not Jesus, who is Isaiah 9:6 referring to as Everlasting Father?

    Isaiah 9:6
    For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder:
    and **his name shall be called** Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God,
    **The everlasting Father,** The Prince of Peace.

    If Jesus is known as “The Prince of Peace” couldn’t he also be **The Everlasting Father?**

    3 – John the Baptist only knew OT prophesy. And he was to prepare the way of Jehovah our Elohim.
    And Jesus showed up. Wouldn’t that mean – Jehovah and Jesus are one and the same?

    OT – Isaiah 40:3
    The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, (Jehovah)
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Elohim)

    NT – Matthew 3:3
    For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying,
    The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord…
    Wasn’t John the Baptist prepareing the way for and looking for Jehovah? And Jesus showed up?

    3a – – In the OT, Jehovah, and Jehovah Elohim, is also our Father.
    And Jehovah is not only our Father, Jehovah is also our redeemer. (But isn’t Jesus our redeemer?)
    So, John the Baptist prepares the way for – Jehovah our Father, our redeemer? And Jesus shows up?

    Isaiah 63:16
    …thou, O LORD, { Jehovah } art ** our father,** ** our redeemer;** thy name is from everlasting.

    Isaiah 64:8
    But now, O LORD, { Jehovah } thou [art] **our father**…

    1Chronicles 29:10
    …Blessed [be] thou, LORD God { Jehovah Elohiym } of Israel **our father**…


    These examples cause me to question – “(5) The Father is not the Son.” And there are verses that
    cause me to question (6) The Son is the not the Holy Spirit. (7) The Holy Spirit is not the Father.

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