T.D. Jakes and the Trinity

For more than a decade, Pentecostal Bishop T.D. Jakes has lived in the shadow of a Time magazine cover that asked, "Is this man the next Billy Graham?" That was a loaded question, because of tensions behind the scenes between the multi-media Dallas superstar and many mainstream Christian leaders.

Now, this legendary preacher -- often listed as one of America's most powerful evangelicals -- has taken a big step toward convincing his critics that he is, in fact, an evangelical. Jakes has, after years of rumors about private assurances, publicly affirmed that he believes in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

The Rev. Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle asked the question directly, during the recent Elephant Room conference at the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. This annual event brings together Christian leaders from a variety of backgrounds to discuss tough subjects. Baptist Press has circulated the interview transcript nationwide.

"So you believe," said Driscoll, that "there's one God, three Persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit? You believe Jesus was fully God, fully Man?"

Jakes didn't flinch: "Absolutely."

That one word represents a significant change for Jakes, the leader of The Potter's House, a 30,000-member megachurch that serves as the base for his thriving work in books, Gospel music, social-justice causes and a host of other ministries. While the church is nondenominational, the preacher has long been associated with an unorthodox stream of faith known as "Oneness" Pentecostalism.

The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches that there is one God, yet this God has been revealed in history as three distinct persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a core doctrine that unites Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians worldwide -- including most who embrace Pentecostal and "charismatic" Christianity, the world's fastest growing Christian movement.

The split between Trinitarian and the "Oneness" Pentecostals occurred in stages early in the 20th Century, soon after the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. That famous spiritual earthquake ignited the interracial Pentecostal movement, with its emphasis on spiritual gifts such as prophecy, healing and "speaking in tongues."

"Oneness" leaders denied the reality of the Trinity, saying there is one God -- period. Thus, they continue to baptize in the name of Jesus, alone, rather than using references to "Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Critics call this approach "modalism."

In the Elephant Room interview, Jakes noted that his father was Methodist and his mother was Baptist. However, he stressed that he made his own decision to become a Christian in a "Oneness" Pentecostal church. Thus, he said, "I ended up Metha-Bapti-Costal, in a way."

Several scripture passages influenced his change of mind on this issue, he said, especially the account of the baptism of Jesus.

"Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, for example, coming up out of the water [and] the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, the Father speaks from heaven and we see all three of them on one occasion," said Jakes. This and other references "began to make me rethink some of my ideas and some of the things that I was taught.

"I got kind of quiet about it for a while. Because when you are a leader and you are in a position of authority, sometimes you have to back up and ponder for a minute, and really think things through."

"Oneness" churches represent a relatively small piece of the global Pentecostal movement -- about 5 percent of an estimated 640 million believers. Nevertheless, Jakes has clearly been trying to find a way to keep expanding his work into the evangelical, "charismatic" mainstream without cutting his ties to his past, said historian Vinson Synan of Regent University, author of numerous books on Pentecostalism.

"The reality is that he had to address this issue sooner or later because he has all kinds of followers, including lots of Trinitarians," said Synan. "This man sells millions of books, makes movies and is an award-winning Gospel singer. He's a major force in Christian culture in this land. ...

"Well, he might not be able to keep doing all of that if millions of evangelicals think he is some kind of heretic. So he makes this one statement and he's cleared with most evangelicals and charismatics, most of the time. He's on his way to being more acceptable to just about everybody. That's big, in the post-denominational world in which we live."

Not a Catholic 'Mass factory'

Catholics who treasure ancient liturgies smirk and call them "Mass factories."

These churches are visions of horizontal utilitarianism, their flat, plain walls broken by patches of metal and glass while rows of chairs face ultramodern altars. The faithful are more likely to see balloons drift to the rafters than clouds of incense veil images of Jesus, Mary and the saints.

Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Dallas is certainly not a "Mass factory," as both critics and fans of this poor but lively parish in a battered barrio would agree. Its Italian windows have been lovingly restored, Romanesque walls repaired and statuary augmented by treasures abandoned by others. Roses are popular, often in waves of 700 or more.

"Beauty is terribly important, especially for people who have so little beauty in their lives," said Father Paul Weinberger, 44, a beefy, energetic Anglo who arrived 10 years ago after a Spanish-language immersion program.

"People need something that lifts them up, that lets them glimpse something higher. So I want worship here to be extravagant. I want their church to be like a garden in this workaday world. ... I can't guarantee that they'll listen to me, but if their eyes wander around this church they're going to drawn to things that point them toward the mysteries of the faith."

But it was a change in the 1999 midnight Mass that helped create a buzz in Dallas and on the Internet.

Weinberger estimates that 70 percent of his flock speaks Spanish and the rest English. The challenge was to find a way for worshippers to gather in the same pews, at the same time, sharing a common language.

The priest's solution raised eyebrows. He embraced the modern Catholic rite -- the Novus Ordo -- but elected to use the Vatican's Latin text, accompanied by preaching in Spanish and English. This rite then filled the 10:45 a.m. slot in the parish's Sunday schedule, mixed in with two Spanish Masses and three in English.

Now Weinberger is being transferred -- against his will -- and supporters believe his love of Latin is one reason for the decision. They fear sweeping changes in this revived parish.

This is nonsense, said Deacon Bronson Havard, spokesperson for Bishop Charles V. Grahmann. It's perfectly normal for a priest to be rotated to another parish after 10 years and the next pastor will make the decision about Latin at Blessed Sacrament.

However, Havard stressed that the Dallas diocese does require priests to seek permission to use Latin rites -- ancient or modern. This is an issue of loyalty. Only a directive from Rome can override the local bishop's authority on matters such as this, he said.

As for Weinberger's conviction that a Latin Mass is a symbol of unity, Havard said: "Using the Latin may mean something to him, but it means nothing to the people in the pews -- especially not to the Mexican immigrants who come into this area. We've had many complaints about that."

This is news to Weinberger. Diocesan policy requires that pastors receive copies of all complaints, he noted, and none have reached his desk.

This whole Dallas dispute sounds sadly familiar, said Helen Hull Hitchcock, editor of Adoremus, a conservative journal about liturgy.

"We hear reports from Catholics across the nation who are accused of doing all kinds of horrible things, like kneeling at places in the Mass where people have been kneeling for centuries," she said. "Then people tell them that if they clash with their bishop ... they're being disloyal to the pope.

"It's all very annoying. Some people are mad that these priests and parishes still exist."

This is precisely what worries Weinberger.

The days of the Advent season are passing as he prepares for a final midnight Christmas Mass at Blessed Sacrament. Poinsettias, stacked 15 to 20 feet high, will frame the altar. Pews will be packed for the Latin Mass.

"What father does not want to see his whole family gathered around the same table? That has always been my goal," he said. "I want to see our whole parish there, from the first-generation immigrants who only speak Spanish to the native Dallasites who only speak English.

"I don't want the language to divide us. I want it to unite us."