The Bishop is back at Hillsong conference again this year**. Pastor of the Potter’s House in Dallas Texas, TD Jakes is not only an extraordinary communicator but the pastor of a church with an extraordinary missions program addressing issues of social and economic injustice.
While I am one to celebrate Jakes’ ministry, his invitation to preach in Australia has not been without controversy, largely because of his doctrine of the trinity, described on his website as follows:
- There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
For those familiar with trinitarian theology this is a fascinating doctrinal statement. In using the word ‘manifestations’ rather than ‘persons’ it echoes the modalism traditionally considered to be heretical. What is perhaps more interesting, however, is the attempt that has been made to mediate between Oneness and Trinitarian Pentecostalism.
Jakes’ himself was raised a Baptist but became a Pentecostal when joining the Greater Emmanuel Apostolic Church. A Oneness Pentecostal church, it is affiliated with the United Pentecostal Churches, a movement that explicitly rejects the doctrine of the trinity. Its statement of belief notes:
- In distinction to the doctrine of the Trinity, the UPCI holds to a oneness view of God. It views the Trinitarian concept of God, that of God eternally existing as three distinctive persons, as inadequate and a departure from the consistent and emphatic biblical revelation of God being one. The UPCI teaches that the one God who revealed Himself in the Old Testament as Jehovah revealed himself in His Son, Jesus Christ. Thus Jesus Christ was and is God. In other words, Jesus is the one true God manifested in flesh, for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (John 1:1-14; I Timothy 3:16; Colossians 2:9).
This position clearly reflects modalist perspectives, although it is not true to say that Oneness Pentecostals merely repeat ancient modalism. In recent years, there have been formal dialogues between Trinitarian and Oneness Pentecostals, reports of which have been published in the Society of Pentecostal Studies journal. It is beyond our purposes to comment on this dialogue, except to applaud the move toward mutual understanding between these two movements with a common heritage and shared spirituality – whatever the extent of theological disagreement.
Back to Jakes. The Potter’s House is an independent church that is not affiliated with the UPC. As Jakes’ preaching became more public and ecumenical, he recognised the need to move away from the UPC rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity, but in doing so he sought to retain a friendship with the movement that shaped his ministry. His doctrine on the trinity (see above) is thus an attempt to mediate between trinitarian and oneness pentecostals – taking on the form of the former but avoiding wording that would offend the latter (i.e. Trinity and Person).
Whether or not he is successful I will leave for you to decide. In Feb 2000 Christianity today published a response by Jakes to charges that he was a “heretic”, My Views on the Godhead. It is a fascinating read, reflecting a number of elements common to pentecostal theology. These include
- the restorationist tendency to avoid theology and tradition and “go directly to the bible” (from my perspective, an unfortunate method, since presumes we have little to learn from theological tradition and naively presumes we can access an unmediated biblical theology. Unfortunate, but not heretical – and common to Pentecostal and conservative evangelical communities)
- Efforts to affirm trinitarian theology without using the word ‘person’ – e.g. “My views on the Godhead are from 1 John 5:7-8, “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.”
- Some unusual attempts to describe the trinitarian mystery. e.g. “Many things can be said about the Son that cannot be said about the Father. The Son was born of a virgin; the Father created the virgin from whom He was born. The Son slept (Luke 8:23), but the Father never sleeps (Psalm 121:3—5). The Son took on the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3), but God is a spirit (John 4:24). Likewise, several characteristics are distinctive to the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit alone empowers (Acts 1:8), indwells (2 Timothy 1:15), and guides the believer (John 16:14). In spite of all the distinctives, God is one in His essence. Though no human illustration perfectly fits the Divine, it is similar to ice, water and steam: three separate forms, yet all H20. Each element can co-exist, each has distinguishing characteristics and functions, but all have sameness.”
The Christology implicit in this latter assertion is unusual indeed, since it makes a basic category error. That is, it fails to distinguish between the two natures of Jesus, his full deity and full humanity. In trinitarian terms, it thus makes no sense to say that the Son differs from the father because he was born a virgin and sleeps, since these are part of Jesus’ human nature not his deity. Notwithstanding this, what is clear is that Jakes is attempting to affirm a trinitarian perspective by distinguishing between the (persons) of the trinity. Whatever criticisms might be made of how he goes about it, this is NOT the view of a oneness pentecostal.
As a Pentecostal theologian, it is something of a disappointment to me that a public figure of Jakes’ stature does not seem to understand the insights church tradition. If we are honest, however, Jakes is not alone in this; many (most) Christians would struggle to explain the doctrine of the Trinity or makes sense of the distinction between the two natures of Christ. That does not make them (or Jakes) any less ‘saved’, any less in relationship with Jesus’, or any less effective in ministering the grace of the gospel.
To conclude. I dare anyone to assert their own superiority over Jake’s in the things that matter most. I might be better equipped to teach the doctrine of the Trinity, but i have more important things to learn from his dedication to the preaching of the good news of Jesus to the lost, poor, outcast, addict, abused etc.
Obviously, i believe that theology is important and that theological study helps enrich our proclamation of the gospel. But Jake’s is surely also correct when he observes:
- I look forward to the day when Christians do not judge one another by the diversity of our associates, nor the distinctives of semantics. Rather by the love of Christ we reflect, the integrity of our personal convictions, and the sweet fruit of both in our lives. There are a few things I would die for; a few more I would argue strongly; after that I am too busy trying to preach the Gospel to split hairs. People in my generation are lost, hungry, in prison, wounded, and alone…. Many of our generation are dying without knowing God — not dying for the lack of theology, but for lack of love.
** DISCLOSURE** I attend Hillsong South Western campus. While I believe this does not colour my opinion, readers should be aware of the potential conflict.