A Reformed Sticking Point

Reformed churches are mostly fiercely dedicated to remaining with and in the Word of God.  This is commendable.  This dedication does however often extend to insisting on a necessity of preserving in all cases the exact wording of professedly uninspired documents.  We might call this linguistic legalism.  As an example, I want to comment on this condemnation issued by certain Pastors Bayly.  I do not have anything against their words of warning for those who try to use the Gospel 'for profit' (though St. Paul's other commentary on envious preachers comes to mind as a counter-warning against taking such condemnations too far).

But at the end of their pronouncement, the Baylys leave the realm of reasonable warnings.  They accuse Pastor T.D. Jakes – one of those preaching for gain, in their accounting (at least a plausible accusation, given the tone of his ministry's website) – of heresy.  How so?  On the basis of this statement:
"There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
The offending word is "manifestations", with its overtones of the various kinds of essentially gnostic heresies throughout the church's history.  The Baylys particularly identify Jakes with the Modalists (that link is original to BaylyBlog: the possible irony of their using a Roman Catholic webcyclopedia amuses me).

To be sure, "manifestations" is not the accepted term "persons" used in the Western translations of the Church's creeds.  And as mentioned, to the historically literate Christian it has unfortunate overtones.  But the charge of heresy is concocted entirely on that poor word choice, with no regard for the rest of the statement.  Take for instance
"Further, [Jesus Christ] 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."
"The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ..." (emphases mine)
Both these statements accept, even emphasize, even require the traditional and orthodox doctrine of the separate persons of the Trinity.  Nowhere does Jakes' church veer into clear heresy (at least on that score) in their statement.  The charge is ludicrous – and making it worse is that searching for departures from orthodoxy within the ministry of The Potter's House is easy: the Baylys might have started, say, in the church's inclusion of female pastors.  Instead, they appear to be clutching carelessly at any straw of accusation they can find.  That's careless rhetoric, if nothing else, but often is the hallmark of personal attacks – which I doubt either Bayly had in mind at all, but again is an appearance to avoid if possible, for rhetorical reasons if nothing else.

I might have just dismissed the post out of hand and ignored it, but I had been reading earlier today in Henry Osborn Taylor's The Medieval Mind, where in a footnote to an account of Patristic discussions he has this to say:
"... The Latin juristic word persona [is] used in the Creed.  The Latins had to render the hypostaseis of the Greeks; and "three somethings," tria quaedam, was too loose.... hypostasis would have been substantia; but that word had been taken to render ousia.  So the legal word persona was employed in spite of its recognized unfitness." (Chapter III, note 1)
Hypostasis might literally be translated an "under-standing-ness", or more colloquially a thing which stands by itself (while supporting another), thus translations such as "foundation", "substance" (derived from the Latin word with the same literal meaning as the Greek), and the philosophical sense of the English "essence".  Yes, even the "somethings" of quaedam are more definite, more material than Jakes' "manifestations", to say nothing of substantia, Taylor's (and by his account the Church Fathers') preferred word if had been possible.  But we have to recognize that persona – meaning legally approximately the same thing to a Roman that "persons" now does to us, I believe – is itself an approximation, and that makes the charge look even sillier.  "Manifestation" is a poor choice, given that it carries a connotation of appearance only – but none of us are perfect, and perhaps a friendly letter, rather than flinging down a gauntlet?


  1. You do realize that he's had this "poor word choice" pointed out to him over a decade ago, don't you? The friendly letters have been sent. And he has refused to change his wording. Why do you think that is?

    Do you also realize that a modalist would agree with those two other quotes that you cite as evidence of his orthodoxy? You are completely right, but completely wrong. When properly understood, they do "require" a correct understanding of the Trinity. But that doesn't mean that they can't be understood improperly. When read by a trinitarian they mean something very different than when read by a modalist.

    Think about it this way, huge portions of scripture "require" a proper trinitarian understanding of God. But modalists claim to believe the Bible too. So if a self-professed modalist says, "I believe Matthew 3:16-17" what are you going to say? "Oh, that means you're a trinitarian. Why do you claim to be a modalist?" No! You're going to explain how the modalist understanding of Matthew 3:16-17 is completely wrong.

    Even your argument from history doesn't make sense. In English, "persons" has been adopted in exactly the same way that it was then. Recognizing its limitations, it has been carefully defined for centuries to clarify what we mean when we use it in the context of the Trinity. Is it a perfect word? No. But it is the word that is used now, just like persona was the word that was used then. Jakes is not an idiot. He knows what "manifestations" means. He understands that "persons" and "manifestations" are completely different, even in the untrained layman's head. He's using it intentionally. He has been for many years, because he's a modalist heretic.

  2. Sorry, Jon, I'm totally on the side of Bayly here...well, not totally, seeing as how I'm a Lutheran. But I agree with the above comment.

    "Manifestations", in its denotation and its connotations, is not even close to any of the acceptable categories hashed about at Nicaea and Chalcedon. This guy might be a nice guy, deserving of a nice friendly letter, but his words condemn him as a modalist, especially if this has been going on this long with nary an adjustment.

  3. Joseph (and Trent): As I posted on the Baylys' blog:

    "On the whole, given the background that's filled in, I am less inclined to defend Jakes than before. In fact, Henry's sources seem, at best, damning with faint praise as Jakes is too careful how he treats his position. *However*, I still find the manner of making the accusation – no background, no other information, nothing substantive except a single word which doesn't appear to be explicated poorly in the rest of that statement – unfortunate at best.

    Perhaps I am at fault for not following the "Christian scene" closely enough, but even reading the blog regularly I do not remember hearing of this man or his problematical doctrines. So to me the accusation seemed to come out of the blue... and be an example of (unnecessary) Christian nit-picking."

    I would make clear that this post is not about Jakes so much as the manner of discourse adopted too often - mountains made out of molehills, and substantive evidence not produced. Not that I think it should have to be brought out every time, so it may have been discussed before and I missed it, in which case I mainly picked a bad example, but I'm pretty sure there have been plenty of others.