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MacDonald, Jakes & the Elephant in the Room

Elephant RoomThere has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about James MacDonald inviting T.D. Jakes to round 2 of The Elephant Room, to be held on January 25, 2012. Controversy has centered around the widespread belief that Jakes does not hold to an orthodox understanding of the Trinity. Rather, some claim, he is a modalist, a person who believes that Father, Son and Holy Spirit do not refer to distinct persons, but to different modes of existence of the same person. This is no minor point of theology. These minor distinctions in trinitarian theology, a word here, a letter there, represent colossal differences, eternal differences—the difference between heaven and hell (and I say this without a bit of hyperbole). To say it as plainly as I know how, modalism is a damnable heresy; if you believe it in place of the biblical understanding of the Trinity, you are not a Christian. Period.

Hence all of the talk. By way of context, we need to remember that The Elephant Room is a meeting by Christians and for Christians, and even more, by Christian leaders and for Christian leaders. Inherent in inviting T.D. Jakes is the understanding that he is a Christian. Which presents a problem because inherent in modalism is the understanding that such a person is not a Christian.

What all this means is that the controversy largely depends on whether or not Jakes is a modalist. Is he?

I do not know, exactly. What is clear is that whatever Jakes believes about the Trinity, he has shown a continual reluctance to affirm a standard, time-proven creedal statement of trinitarian orthodoxy and that he has often used the language of modalism. This gives us valid cause for concern. This has not happened just once, but repeatedly and over many years. He has been given many opportunities to subscribe to an orthodox understanding of the Trinity and to this point he has not done so. He has not been asked to subscribe to a passing statement created by modern-day theologians, but a statement that Christians have held to for over 1,600 years. Nathan Busentiz documents some of the history of Jakes’ refusal to do so in this blog post (scroll down to point #3). He clearly offers enough evidence that we do well to question what Jakes truly believes and to be suspicious that he willfully holds to heretical theology.

It is important to note that MacDonald has come out and said that he does not believe that Jakes is a modalist. I am not going to comment on his statement except to say that I agree with Carl Trueman’s critiques (even keeping in mind MacDonald’s subsequent clarifications).

So here is where we’re at: James MacDonald is the one behind The Elephant Room and he has chosen to invite to it a man who, not without some justification, has long been accused of the heresy of modalism. The plot thickens a little bit when we understand that MacDonald is a council member of The Gospel Coalition and that many of the people invited to this event are also council members and leaders within the New Calvinism.

Having said all of that, this is MacDonald’s event and for that reason he is free to invite whomever he pleases. You and I are under no obligation to participate in this event or to endorse it. Neither do we need to like it. Neither do we need to refrain from critiquing it. Neither do we need to feel dirty or be a discernment ministry to be concerned about it. 

I see this as a matter of wisdom: Is it wise for James MacDonald to invite T.D. Jakes to this event? I don’t think you need to guess at my answer to that question. Please don’t play the “Angry Calvinist” card here. I am very glad to see interaction with Christians who come from outside our safe little Young, Restless, Reformed walls. There is great value in that. But I don’t know why anyone would draw those lines outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.

Just yesterday MacDonald wrote, “I am excited to welcome Bishop Jakes to the Elephant Room and hear him articulate his own convictions on this and other essential matters.” As I think about round 2 of the Elephant Room, here is what I want to know: Will T.D. Jakes be challenged very specifically on what he believes about the Trinity? Will this be the elephant in the room when he sits there with MacDonald and whoever else? Will these men be willing to ask him very difficult, very nuanced, very penetrating questions? And if he finally says, “Yes, I am a modalist” will they then be willing to tell him, “You are a heretic; you are not a Christian”? If he proves himself to be a modalist, will MacDonald then remove him from the event? Will all of this happen not to burn him at the stake, but for the sake of his own soul and for the sake of those who follow him? Souls are at stake here!

And I don’t mean for the other participants to ask a question that essentially says, “You’re not a modalist, right?” but an honest, searching, penetrating series of questions that will address this concern head-on and will not stop until it is settled. Jakes has given us legitimate cause to be concerned, cause enough to go no further until answers are given. Until that question is settled, nothing else really matters. Does it really matter what he has to say about any other theological matter, essential or otherwise, if the question of his orthodoxy isn’t settled first? On a pragmatic level he may have great things to say on any number of topics. But if he is a modalist he is not a Christian. And that makes all the difference to every word he says.