I really wasn't looking forward to yesterdays Elephant Room discussion. For one thing, my schedule simply did not allow me to dedicate an entire day to the event. Furthermore, I was honestly skeptical of the content, and the outcome.
My primary reason for this skepticism? One of those invited to participate in the discussion yesterday was T.D. Jakes, a texas pastor who founded "The Potter's House" in Dallas. It is well-known among evangelicals that Jakes spent his formative years among those called "Oneness Pentecostals," who deny the historic Christian doctrine of the trinity. Oneness Pentecostals instead confess to something called "modalism" or "Sabelianism," denying inherently the full personhood and separate consciousnesses of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Yet over the past few years, Jakes had been silent about where he stood on this issue. Furthermore, he was joined on stage by the likes of Crawford Loritts, Mark Driscoll, and James MacDonald. I've been listening to all these guys long enough to know that they are not theological lightweights, and are not easily fooled by heresy. That fact alone should have been enough for me to wait--to expect the best in hope as commanded in 1 Corinthians 13. Still, I was skeptical.
I should have known better.
To be sure, the trinity is no small thing. In fact, in many ways, it is everything! One of the first questions one must ask when considering the Gospel is "who is God?" Obviously, if you get that one wrong, it only goes downhill from there. Furthermore, each of us owes our salvation to the trinitarian nature of the Father, who chose us before creation, the Son who paid the penalty for our sin, and the Spirit who seals us and sanctifies us in our new relationship as His adopted children. Though the Scriptures as a whole are pregnant with the concept, Ephesians 1 details in the most succinct terms how the members of the Godhead work together--as separate persons--to bring about the redemption that assures us of "every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies, in Christ."
To put it bluntly, if God is not a trinity, then the Gospel is a myth! No Trinity? No Gospel!
So we are right to see the issues surrounding T.D. Jakes as no small thing. At the same time, the way many evangelicals suspiciously responded to Jakes' statements to Driscoll and MacDonald yesterday betray that while we rightfully excel at sniffing out heresy, we are slow to love, to assume the best, and to celebrate when someone who has erred realizes that error through his or her own examination of the Scripture. The mixed reaction to Jakes' statements in the Elephant Room yesterday reveal that the spirit of Ephesus is still, regrettably, alive and well (Revelation 2:2-5)
I'm grateful that, through the transcripts of Trevin Wax yesterday, I was able to read that T.D. Jakes is now a trinitarian. But more than this, I was thankful to read of his life journey which has brought him to this place. He spoke of how he had embraced modalism because, well, that is the tradition in which he grew up!
According to Wax's account, Jakes elaborated on his background in this way:
They [Oneness Pentecostals] believe in Jesus Christ, he died and raised again. But how they explain the Godhead is how Trinitarians describe the gospel. I was in that church and raised in that church a number of years. I started preaching from that pulpit. But I’m also informed by the infiltration from my Baptist experience. I ended up Metho-Bapti-Costal. I’m a mixed breed. It is easy to throw rocks at people who you do not know, but when you see the work of Christ in their lives, you try to build bridges. So even though I moved away from what that church’s teaching, I didn’t want to throw rocks. Much of what we do today is teach people to take sides. But I believe we are called to reconcile wherever possible. My struggle was that in some passages, the doctrine fits and in other places it doesn’t. I don’t want to force my theology to fit my denomination. . . The Bible made me rethink my ideas and I got quiet about it for a while. There are things that you can say about the Father you cannot say about the Son or the Spirit. There are distinctives. I’m very comfortable with that.
Jakes goes on to then confess an orthodox understanding of trinitarian Christianity, while admittedly pushing back a bit on language choice, for Biblical reasons:
I believe the latter one is where I stand today. One God – Three Persons. I am not crazy about the word persons though. You describe “manifestations” as modalist, but I describe it as Pauline. For God was manifest in the flesh. Paul is not a modalist, but he doesn’t think it’s robbery to say manifest in the flesh. Maybe it’s semantics, but Paul says this. Now, when we start talking about that sort of thing, I think it’s important to realize there are distinctives between the work of the Father and the work of the Son. I’m with you. I have been with you.
So here we have a guy who was raised in a tradition that he, over time and through his study of the Scriptures, realized contained error. He studied and prayed his way through some things that were fuzzy to him, and as they became clear, he landed squarely within the realm of Christian Orthodoxy. What's not to celebrate?
And by the way, this is not the first time this has happened. The early church took three and a half centuries before what we today call "orthodoxy" was established. Are we to believe that no one was orthodox before the Council of Constantinople? Of course not! First, second, and third century followers of Jesus spread His message, organized themselves into churches, submitted to Biblically qualified leaders, observed baptism and the Lord's Supper, and lived the message of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit in front of an unbelieving world.
Throughout those three centuries, much was discussed about the nature of God. During this time the early church had to hunch and feel its way through a myriad of issues, returning time after time to the text of Scripture and thereby avoiding the theological "off-ramps" of Nestorianism, Arianism, Monarchianism, and a host of other heretical streams before finally being able to articulate what we now call an orthodox understanding of the triune God, codified in a revised Nicene Creed in 381 A.D.
My point is that seventeen centuries later, individuals sometimes take this same journey, and its a journey that is often complicated by an error-filled tradition to which they were exposed at a young age.
Does that mean Jakes' earlier error was "no big deal?" Not at all! But ff T.D. Jakes' testimony yesterday teaches us anything, it teaches us that while Christian faith may exist in a personally "pre-Nicean" form, if it is real, eventually it will emerge as a decidedly "post-Nicean" faith. I believe that's what happened to T.D. Jakes, and I rejoice in this.
Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be good enough for many in the evangelical church. In some sense, this should be expected. As the heirs of the Protestant Reformers, we can be a cantankerous bunch and we can critique ourselves to death. Its in our family history! The Reformation began as critique. It was neccesary critique. It was purifying critique. It was a critique that led to the recovery of the Gospel, AND the recovery of the church!
Problem is, as the Protestant movement grew and established itself, it tended toward maintaining its posture of critique as opposed to mounting an offensive and aggressive movement forward to accomplish the Great Commission. Possibly the only legitimate criticism that Erasmus of Rotterdam leveled toward Martin Luther was when he contended that the Protestants couldn't possibly represent the "true church" because, in Erasmus' words, "you have no missionaries."
These are our theological ancestors, and we would do well to cling to the faithful teaching they left us while simultaneously realizing--and rejecting--the hyper-critical nature of our history so that the sins of the fathers are not visited on the sons any longer.
So how do we do this? Do we jettison concern for sound doctrine? Anyone paying attention at yesterday's Elephant Room should know that isn't happening. At the same time, when someone formerly in error confesses Christian orthodoxy to me, my response shouldn't be cynicism, suspicion, or on T.D. Jakes' case, the desire to know "how trinitarian" he really is.
To be sure, I differ with Bishop Jakes on quite a bit, and his former modalist views are not the only areas where I would personally have concerns. But yesterday's conversation between Jakes, Driscoll and MacDonald have put my concerns about trinitarian orthodoxy to rest, and in fact, have left me with a renewed confidence in the power of the Scriptures to transform our fallen minds and understandings.
Others may want to continue to critique and find fault. But I love my brother in Christ, and as a result will bear, believe, hope, and endure with him as he continues to walk in a right understanding of God.
As for me, I'm rejoicing that I have a brother in Dallas!