Thinking Out Loud

February 4, 2011

Why are Non-Trinitarians Included Among “Christians?”

In Wednesday’s Link List there was a form at the end which gave people the opportunity to leave a message for my eyes only, without it appearing as a public comment.  I want to thank those of you who used this feature, and those who are still using it even today.

One of the comments was from a longtime reader who raised an issue that I want to bring forward here, not to be divisive, but because it is something that can always use discussion.  While it affects all of us, it involves a very small, but still significant number of people who belong to one or two denominations; including some who read this blog, and I hope that any comments will be made in the spirit of Christian love.

Here was the comment:

If the Trinity is such an important tenet of Christian belief (the Apostle’s Creed), why do we venerate singers like Phillips, Craig & Dean and preachers like T. D. Jakes who are non-trinitarian as though they are “one of us”?  If a singer or preacher didn’t believe that Jesus was truly God and man would we welcome him/her the same way?  What if they didn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

Every time I hear a Phillips, Craig & Dean song on Christian radio it makes me squirm.  Am I being judgmental?

Yes, you are being judgmental.

The next question was… okay, just kidding; let’s look at this issue.

Again, this is not to debate the particular doctrine.   I’ve heard some of the arguments and yes, I know that the word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible, but for most of us, our “statement of faith” — either our personal one or the one for the faith family to which we belong — is the reduction to seven or eight (or twelve) sentences concerning the things we consider to be core beliefs.  These are the things that people would consider non-negotiables.

It’s about the importance we place on doctrine.

Here are four of the seven statements in the National Association of Evangelicals Statement of Faith which specifically refer to God, Jesus and Holy Spirit, of which the first is primary for this discussion:

  • We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
  • We believe that for the salvation of lost and sinful people, regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
  • We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is enabled to live a godly life.

(For my Canadian readers, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Statement of Faith is identical.)

These summary statements are based on something similar that we refer to as creeds.

The Apostles Creed, originally written in Latin but translated into modern English, says in part,

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit…

…He ascended into heaven,
He is seated at the right hand of the Father

I believe in the Holy Spirit

These statements are intact in all of the creed’s denominational variants.

The Nicene Creed is similar, and just in case those two are insufficient, the Athanasian Creed, which reads as though it was written by a Philadelphia lawyer, goes to even greater lengths to try to spell out the mystery of  what the hymn-writer termed “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”   (While waiting for Athanasian Creed readers to return, we’ll put some music on hold in here…)

So we agree.  At least most of us.  We don’t understand it fully.  We have a number of weak analogies to try to explain it to Sunday School and VBS pupils, but when we worship on the weekends, our services speak of God, speak of Jesus and speak of The Holy Spirit.

So the question my reader is asking is simply, ‘Are people who reject the trinitarian doctrinal view truly one of us?’

Personally, I think there is one, and only one way to answer that.  If we value the creeds and what they say then either those who believe differently cannot be included among those we call “Christian” or the creeds have to go.  I say that simply because the creeds don’t relegate this to the realm of secondary issues or tertiary issues.  The creeds make the trinity a primary issue.

This isn’t about modes of baptism; it’s not concerned with the appropriate musical style for weekend worship; it’s not discussion about whether women should wear hats in church; it’s not interested in seven-day creation versus theistic evolution; and, believe it or not, it’s not about any of the 57 varieties of debate over homosexuality.

It’s more important than all that.

Still, there are those who feel that this is all semantics; that the case against Jakes is overstated and that he is just expressing his understanding of God in different words.   Here’s an excerpt from an online discernment ministry article:

When being interviewed on the radio Jakes in responding to the questioner on the orthodox view of the trinity said “The Trinity, the term Trinity, is not a biblical term, to begin with. It’s a theological description for something that is so beyond human comprehension that I’m not sure that we can totally hold God to a numerical system. The Lord said, “Behold, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one, and beside Him there is no other.” When God got ready to make a man that looked like Him, He didn’t make three. He made one man. However, that one man had three parts. He was body, soul and spirit. We have one God, but He is Father in creation, Son in redemption, and Holy Spirit in regeneration. It’s very important that we understand that, but I think that the first thing that every believer needs to do is to approach God by faith, and then having approached Him by faith, then they need to sit up under good teaching so that they can begin to understand who the God is that they have believed upon.” (“Living by the Word” on KKLA, hosted by John Coleman, Aug. 23, 1998)  …continue here…

What you’re seeing take shape here is a doctrine known as ‘modalism.’  Another online apologetics ministry, CARM,  identifies this more clearly:

At the Potter House’s website, under their statement of faith regarding God, they state, “There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The keywords here are “three manifestations.”  If Jakes believed in the Trinity he should use words like “simultaneous,” “coeternal,” or “coequal” when referring to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s relationship to one another.  T.D. Jakes’s view on the nature of God is known as modalism.  Modalism is a heresy that teaches the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not simultaneously exist as distinct persons…   …read the whole article here…

(A much more exhaustive article on this subject appears at The Forgotten Word.)

So to restate my reader’s comment another way, ‘Is all this a dealbreaker?’

If it’s a dealbreaker with Jakes, to be consistent, you have to apply the same standard to contemporary Christian musicians Phillips, Craig and Dean.  But here it gets trickier, since CCM tends to break down denominational walls to the point where PC&D have appeared at the very theologically conservative Moody Church in Chicago and at Promise Keepers rallies.

But the three not only attend church at one of the largest “oneness” denominations, the UPC or United Pentecostal Church; they are — all three of them — on pastoral staff:

Randy Phillips serves as Pastor at his home church in Austin, Texas. Randy’s responsibilities include preaching, counseling, leading worship…

For more than 18 years, Shawn [Craig] has served as Music Pastor at his home church in St. Louis, MO. There he leads music, worship, and the New Members Disciple class.

Dan [Dean] is the Senior Pastor at his home church in Irving. TX. There Dan’s responsibilities include preaching, casting the vision for the church, oversight of day to day operations, and hiring and placement of all staff members.

The above is from a very exhaustive article on this subject at Dr. James White’s website, written by Erik Nielsen.  (Even if you’ve never heard of PC&D, this is a great introduction to UPC beliefs for those unfamiliar.  They go so far as to say that if you were baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son and The Holy Spirit,” that was ineffective.)   On the other hand, the article concludes with a letter from PC&D in which they affirm the very Apostles Creed with which we began this discussion.  Can both positions be true at the same time?

There are many other webpages as well, typing “Phillips Craig Dean trinity” into Google came up as an auto-complete with about 76,000 pages dedicated to this discussion.  Even the Wikipedia article on the band has a subheading for “theological criticism” including the quotation: “[w]e believe in one God who is eternal in His existence, Triune in His manifestation…” with manifestation again being the key word here.  At a Baptist discussion board, there is the suggestion that the band recorded “You Are God Alone” as a specific denial of the trinity.

Again, I’m not interested in attacking PC&D here.  Kelly Powers, writing at The Berean Perspective Online, has correspondence from the band’s handlers saying that they avoid discussion like this because they don’t want to be divisive.  But she notes — correctly, I believe — that “the gospel divides folks plain and simple. If they truly were following what the Word teaches they would not be so worried about offending people for the cause of truth.”

The situation with Phillips Craig and Dean is more complicated than that of Jakes.  With Jakes, Christian bookstores, which serve as the frontline or “gatekeepers” of what Christian people read can simply not carry his books.  And by extension, those same stores (or online equivalents) can not carry PC&D CDs.  But with PC&D, you’re introduced to another very influencial party: Christian radio.  Combine the airwave-friendly sound the band has with the willingness of many program directors to play anything that fits that format, the endorsement of the record label (EMI Christian Group), and the band’s propensity to record cover tunes by other Christian songwriters, and the issues get very, very fuzzy.

I know from past experience that this blog post is going to attract the usual comments from people in the UPC denomination and similar churches.  I take it as a given that such people most certainly consider themselves Christians and don’t consider modalism a dealbreaker.

It’s everyone else I want to hear from.

Related posts on this blog:

April 2008 — God in Three Persons — What if instead of trying to explain the “three persons” of the Trinity, we looked at one pair and then the other?

June 2009 — Trinity — Some of the “trinitarian” verses including a few that are problematic for those believing in modalism.

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