is a modalist a Christian?

First, what is modalism?

Modalism maintains that there is one God who manifests Himself successively as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but who is not contemporaneously all three. [Believer’s Study Bible, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Glossary.]

The ESV Study Bible expands on this with this paragraph:

One of the most fundamental ways to misunderstand the Trinity is tritheism, which overemphasizes the distinction between the persons of the Trinity and ends up with three gods. This view neglects the oneness of the natures of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the other end of the spectrum is the heresy of modalism (also known as Sabellianism, named after its earliest proponent, Sabellius, 3rd century), which loses the distinctions between the persons and claims that God is only one person. In this view, the appearance of the three persons is merely three modes of existence of the one God. For instance, God reveals himself as Father when he is creating and giving the law, as Son in redemption, and as Spirit in the church age. A contemporary version of modalism is found in the teaching of Oneness Pentecostalism. [Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2514-15.]

Sabellius, the man usually credited as the earliest proponent of the view was excommunicated by the Bishop of Alexandria in 260 or 261. The Sabellians appealed to Rome (the church in Rome played an early leading role, but there was as yet no papacy). In 262, the Bishop of Rome held a council and condemned Sabellius and his modalism along with tri-theism and subordinationism (an early variant of what would become Arianism).

False doctrines like modalism were condemned by the church in the third and fourth centuries. That settles the question, right?

Wrong! Heresies are persistent. They crop up, sometimes in modified forms, throughout church history. Sometimes orthodox men may mistakenly embrace a heretical view at some point of their theology. An example would be the Bishop of Alexandria mentioned above. He excommunicated Sabellius for modalism, but in doing so committed the error of subordinationism (Jesus less than fully God). When the Bishop of Rome also rejected Sabellius, the Bishop of Alexandria “The bishop of Alexandria very cheerfully yielded, and retracted his assertion of the creaturely inferiority of the Son in favor of the orthodox homo-ousios.”1

Since that time, modalism, or some form of it, has been taught by a variety of erring teachers. Karl Barth is a most prominent example as the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy.2 On a far less erudite portion of the ecclesiastical matrix, we find modalists in the heretical Oneness Pentecostal (United Pentecostals) movement. A most prominent representative of that movement is the popular teacher, T. D. Jakes.

T.D. Jakes is pastor of The Potter’s House, a church in Dallas, TX.3 The link above takes you to the doctrinal statement of The Potter’s House where you will find this point regarding the Trinity:

There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

At best, this is a very imprecise theological statement. The statement says in the second point:

Jesus Christ is true God and true man, having been conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He died on the cross, the complete and final sacrifice for our sins according to the Scriptures. Further, He arose bodily from the dead, ascended into heaven, where, at the right hand of the Majesty on High, He is now our High Priest and Advocate.

One can see some wriggle room here, for the statement on the face of it sounds orthodox enough. If Jesus is now at the right hand of the Majesty on High, he may be considered to be distinct from said Majesty.

In an essay critical of Jakes, Ryan Turner says this about Jakes’ apparent ambiguity:

Even as a result of various criticisms, Jakes will not affirm the orthodox position on the Trinity.  Instead, he skirts the issue and continues using the “manifestation” terminology.4 In one interview on a Los Angeles radio station, he even implicitly denies the Trinity and advocates a Oneness Theology view of God:

Turner makes this conclusion about Jakes:

While one does not have to positively affirm the Trinity to be saved, if one denies it he or she is in serious biblical error and should not be teaching on major television networks like TBN.  Furthermore, it is true that the doctrine of the Trinity is not fully comprehensible by humans, but it is problematical when people like Jakes deny this orthodox teaching of Scripture even after numerous warnings and specific clarification.

I certainly agree with that conclusion, but probably would go further. It is one thing for a Christian to slip into an error of thought or speech on a subject like this through ignorance or lack of education. On admonition, a true believer ought to correct himself on such errors. If someone will not correct such errors when confronted with them, one has to wonder about the validity of the Christian testimony.

Jakes is no ignoramus. He is not untaught. He has been corrected and he persists in his errors.

Well, according to James MacDonald, Jakes is a ‘brother’:

I do not agree that T.D. Jakes is a Modalist. 
I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as I find it in Scripture.  I believe it is clearly presented but not detailed or nuanced.  I believe God is very happy with His Word as given to us and does not wish to update or clarify anything that He has purposefully left opaque.  Somethings are stark and immensely clear, such as the deity of Jesus Christ; others are taught but shrouded in mystery, such as the Trinity. I do not trace my beliefs to credal statements that seek clarity on things the Bible clouds with mystery. I do not require T.D. Jakes or anyone else to define the details of Trinitarianism the way that I might.  His website states clearly that he believes God has existed eternally in three manifestations.  I am looking forward to hearing him explain what he means by that.  I am also excited to hear him state his views on money, which may be closer to Scripture than the monasticism currently touring reformed world.  I believe T.D. Jakes shows immense humility by being willing to step outside his own circles to interact with brothers in Christ who may see certain things differently.  Getting brothers together who believe in salvation by grace alone through faith alone but normally don’t interact, is what the Elephant Room is all about.  Talking about issues that separate with grace and truth is what the Elephant Room is all about.  We are greatly honored that T.D. Jakes has agreed to participate.

I would have to say that MacDonald himself is squishy on the Trinity in this statement.

Why bring this all up? The subject came to my attention via Sharper Iron. There has been some discussion there, but most of it is skirting around a significant point for fundamentalists. (MacDonald clearly separates himself from a fundamentalist testimony in his blog. “I grew up with this separatist centerpiece of fundamentalist thinking, and I rejected it many years ago.” I don’t recall MacDonald’s background, other than that he is from Canada, I believe.)

The significance for fundamentalists isn’t just that James MacDonald and Mark Driscoll are teaming up to host T. D. Jakes at their conference, The Elephant Room. No, it also involves the participation of conservative evangelicals like Mark Dever.

Part of the controversy among fundamentalists these days involves the question of separation like this: “We agree that we need to be separate from apostates, but we don’t agree that we should separate from brothers like the conservative evangelicals – after all, they are separatists too… just not so separate as us.”


I wonder what some fundamentalists are thinking about this? Some of our fellow fundamentalists joined with Mark Dever in a recent conference. He is seen to be a “separatist, just not quite like us.” Is he?

Most fundamentalists would agree that T. D. Jakes should be kept at a distance. I don’t think we would be affirming him as a ‘brother’, would we? At best we would be expressing a good deal of uncertainty and doubt. We would say he shouldn’t be given prominent platforms, along with Ryan Turner, quoted above.

Well… what are Driscoll, MacDonald, and Dever doing?

Should fundamentalists join in common ecclesiastical cause with non-separatists who persist in “preaching the gospel” at events that include at best very questionable people, if not out and out heretics?

Before anyone gets hysterical, let me be clear on something: I don’t think Dever is the same as Jakes. I don’t think he is the same as MacDonald and Driscoll. But I think he is demonstrating that he doesn’t have any concept of separation that is remotely close to that of most self-professing fundamentalists, even those who are on the ‘leftish’ side of fundamentalism. The distinction between Dever (and men like him) and fundamentalists is very marked.

Yet there is a clamor on the ‘leftish’ side that we should join with the Conservatives. They are not so different from us, it is said. What? Why is it that Dever shows up at so many Driscoll events?

What should fundamentalists say about the trend towards wider cooperation?



  1. Philip Schaff, vol. 2, History of the Christian Church (Galaxie Software, 2002; 2002) 12:152. []
  2. “Although Barth rejects modalism by name (p. 196), the shades of modalism, more complex than in its third and fourth century forms, are present throughout his thought.” Fred H. Klooster, “Karl Barth’s Doctrine Of Reconciliation
    A Review Article”, Westminster Theological Journal Volume 20, 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1957), 182.
  3. His wife, interestingly, is listed as the “First Lady” of the church… whatever that means. []
  4. []


  1. Brian Ernsberger says:

    Let the excuses juices flow. Sure the CE guys are separatists, they just “apply” it differently, don’t ya know.

  2. It gets so “uncomfortable” when conservative evangelicals act like squishy ones, doesn’t it? That’s why they are on the same side of the “divide” as the squishy ones.

    Jakes’ terminology is such a mess. He says enough things that don’t really fit with modalism that you might hope it is just sloppy terminology, except that he persists in it when challenged. There’s no way you could trust him. Nice analysis.

    Brian, I will remember that “excuses juices” line, that’s hilarious. I might steal it sometime — I hope I remember where I got it when it happens, so I can attribute it properly.

  3. Brian Ernsberger says:

    Jon, I haven’t trademarked, or copyrighted the phrase, “excuses juices” so go right ahead and use it, you have my permission…and you don’t have to give any citation. If it ever gets into the annals of historical phrases it won’t bother me in the least if my name is not attached to it. Even though some have called me arrogant, I am not self-consumed that I need to receive the credit.

  4. Larry says:

    Don, Where did this come up at SI? I missed it there.

    • First saw it here, second thread here. I think there is another one in the filings somewhere that is related to it.

      Also for everyone, the Bayly’s have a good post on it as well.

      Don Johnson
      Jeremiah 33.3

  5. Larry says:

    Thanks, Don. I had seen those and had forgotten about them. I couldn’t remember what you were talking about.

    I wonder though about the context of this. Does it make any difference to you that this is a forum that is about confrontation about these issues? The whole point of it is to disagree and say in person and face to face why the other person is wrong. That seems like a forum tailor made for fundamentalists doesn’t it? (Not that MacDonald would invite any.)

    • Well, I still have a problem with it. I agree with the Bayly’s and their strong take on it. I wouldn’t give the guy a platform.

      MacDonald’s attempt to justify Jakes’ modalism shows why it is such a problem. I think MacDonald and Driscoll are basically spiritually immature men who like to shock the religious world with how edgy and cool they are. They aren’t about pastoring flocks but about building their own brands (names).

      MacDonald posted a followup where he tries to reclaim Trinitarian bona fides for himself. Sounds like he got a serious wrist slapping from some evangelical heavyweights.

      As for the form of the “Elephant Room”, I just don’t see it as Christian ministry at all. Again, more about puffing MacDonald/Driscoll than anything else. One thing that is astonishing is that a guy like Dever is quite willing to go along with it.

      He isn’t as conservative as his reputation and as some of our friends would like to make him out to be.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  6. Larry says:

    I agree with just about everything you say as I said on my own blog and even gone a little farther in some respects probably.

    I do think the format of the elephant room has some value. I think it is better to let people define their own positions and then confront them face to face and interact about it. I just don’t know that this is all that troubling in one sense because it is about confrontation. If we are invited to confront heretics in a public forum, it seems like we should take it, shouldn’t we?

    • I’ll give a real definitive answer… maybe…

      I’m not sure about this particular venue, but I wouldn’t necessarily give a blanket NO.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  7. Don’t be too hard on Dever; I’m pretty sure the announcement was news to him, too. It appears he’s now withdrawn.

    • Yes, I agree that it was probably news to him. I am glad he has withdrawn, if he has indeed done so. Given the controversy, I think a statement to that effect might be in order.

      However … it is not like he isn’t aware of what sort of guys Driscoll and MacDonald are. It’s not like he isn’t aware of the general milieu of Acts 29. Yet he has allowed himself to be drawn into their network and cooperate with them fairly regularly. He has said he isn’t a separatist like fundamentalists are (and so has Thabiti). Fair enough, that’s his privilege, but perhaps this instance might teach him some of the wisdom of the fundamentalist position. If he had been more wary, he wouldn’t have been caught in this difficult situation.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3

  8. Arlyn Ubben says:

    I saw the SharperIron article over the weekend also. My reaction was a theological yawn, because I did not think there was much merit for the idea of modalism in my world. I would not encounter a modalist.

    Monday in class, I was connecting Colossians 1:16 with Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1. Thought it would be an easy lesson.

    One young lady brought up some disagreement with the fact that God is three persons in one because she had been taught (somewhere else) that God is One and not divisible into persons, just expressions of One. I could not believe it. Here was modalism staring me in the face in my senior Bible class.
    So, this teaching does filter down to the folks in the “pew” more readily than we might think.

    Now to brush up on my knowledge and application of doctrine in this area. I have always taught Trinitarian doctrine, but never compared it with modalism because I did not think it would apply to high school students.

    Always a new challenge.


    • Great illustration.

      You know, I think this incident drives home how important it is to teach theology in the pulpit. I used the Jakes incident as an introduction Sunday AM. I was preaching on the role of the Trinity in sanctification (Rm 8.1-11). I didn’t dwell on Jakes, our people have no clue who he is. But my point was that theology matters, so an otherwise “dull” topic like the Trinity is vitally important for our spiritual lives.

      Orthodox theology isn’t about just being “right” about the Bible. It is vital for spiritual life.

      Don Johnson
      Jer 33.3