Not Just Modes or Manifestations
Why the Trinitarian Persons Are Crucial
Recently there was a firestorm of controversy over the invitation, by pastor James MacDonald, to Bishop T.D. Jakes to participate in a regular roundtable discussion called “The Elephant Room.” The controversy stemmed from the fact that the Elephant Room was intended to be a discussion among Christians – Christians of different theological and philosophical persuasions to be sure, but still Christians. Yet many were shocked by the invitation. Why? Because Jakes comes from a Oneness Pentecostal background, his church has a belief statement regarding the Trinity that is couched in Oneness language, and he has consistently avoided making any clear statement affirming the Trinity.
Why was this a big deal, though? After all, most evangelicals would be hard-pressed to even describe the Trinity accurately, much less defend it biblically. If it’s such an advanced and technical doctrine, why would disagreements about it be a dividing line between believers and unbelievers?
Because, as Jakes’ critics pointed out, the Trinity lies at the very heart of Christian belief. It is fundamental to Christianity, and denial of it has always been understood to place one outside the camp.
What Does “Oneness” Mean?
I was exposed to the Oneness Pentecostal movement when still juvenile in my faith, and that helped sharpen my conviction about the absolute necessity for the Trinity in Christian faith. Put simply, Oneness Pentecostals (like the United Pentecostal Church) are modalists - Sabellians. That is, they believe that Father, Son, and Spirit are not distinct, self-aware “persons” but are instead mere "modes" or "manifestations" of the one, undifferentiated “person” that is God. They reject any personal or eternal distinctions within God's being and consider Father, Son, and Spirit to be mere roles that the one God has played.
The sad thing is that this reduces the true God, in biblical revelation, to a mere actor wearing masks. What's more troubling is that the entire thrust of Oneness theology has been fatally tainted as a result. They believe in a God who is ever changing faces, or who is ever revealing a different face - a God who, in short, is extremely, even obsessively, concerned with appearances. It's no coincidence that these denominations then require strict dress codes. In some places in Atlantic Canada, the term "Pentecostal" implies not so much tongues and passionate worship as it does floor-length patterned dresses and hair back in a bun! Many such churches threaten their members with loss of salvation if they do not comply. Their stress on "Jesus only" baptism as being required for salvation is a further mistake derived from this foundational error.
We Have No Mediator?
The most devastating effect of modalism, however, is that since the Father and Son are identical in person - the same person simply playing different roles - it therefore strips the Christian of his or her Mediator before God. In orthodox theology, while we stand before a Judge being accused by Satan, we also have a Divine Mediator who can argue on our behalf and point to His own work as a basis for mercy toward us. In Oneness theology, there can be no such distinction between Judge and Mediator - the Mediator is the Judge, and thus we have no mediator. Consequently, the believer is left to argue his own case before God the Father without intercession on his or her behalf by either a distinct Christ or a distinct Holy Spirit. It's no wonder, then, that the United Pentecostal Church and other Oneness denominations functionally deny justification by faith alone, adding various requirements including Jesus-only immersion baptism, long dresses, short hair on men, tongues-speaking, avoidance of TV, and other "works" or "performances" as requirements for salvation. Without an Advocate before the Father, they have to prove their own worth.
This is just one example of why the Trinity is so critical for Christianity, and why orthodox Christians have held that a denial of the Trinity is heresy. One need not understand the Trinity to be saved - as if any of us ever could - but an informed denial of it is tantamount either to a belief in multiple gods or a denial that we need a Mediator between God and man and an Advocate before the Father. The Trinity is non-negotiable.
Not A Fringe Movement
And just in case anyone reading this thinks that this is just a fringe movement, it's not. The very prominence of T.D. Jakes in the evangelical world demonstrates its influence even in evangelical circles. Another prominent, and perhaps even more influential, group would be the band Phillips, Craig, and Dean. These three men are all UPC pastors and all teach Sabellian modalism, and yet their music is all over the Christian airwaves and sung in our churches.
I personally think it’s a telling example of how terribly low evangelical discernment has fallen. We'd never put music by Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses on Christian radio, precisely because of their Trinitarian heresies (polytheism for the former, subordinationism for the latter). Why, then, are PCD and Jakes embraced by so many evangelical Christians as brothers in the faith when their very conception of God is so radically different from (and incompatible with) ours? Why are Oneness pastors, who not only accept but are required to teach salvation by works, embraced as theological role models for evangelical kids?
If we think the Trinity matters, brothers and sisters, it has to matter not only in our classrooms but on our iPods, radio stations, and church worship sets as well. It has to matter when declaring who is our brother or sister in Christ and who is not. So many of our fellow evangelicals read or listen to materials by these leaders. We need to have the courage to raise the alarm when we see others being influenced by such men.
And we need to be prepared to explain why the Trinity is so critical. May God grant us all the wisdom and knowledge to do so.