Mark Driscoll, the Trinity, and W. G. T. Shedd

This is the problem facing modern American evangelicalism: a conscious decision on the part of our leaders to reject historical theology results in leaders of the church who are unable to defend her from false teaching and uneducated Christians in the pews who see nothing wrong with such false teaching.

Last week, Mark Driscoll “interviewed” TD Jakes during the Elephant Room 2 conference. Of course, one of the topics Driscoll asked Jakes about was Jakes’ view of the Trinity.

Driscoll has caught some heat for not asking better questions of Jakes, and Jakes has been both lauded as a convert to orthodox trinitarianism by some, and derided as heretical by others for not expressing the doctrine of the Trinity correctly.

Most of my own concerns about Jakes’ view hinge on his use of the word “manifestations” instead of “persons” to describe the three-in-one nature of the Godhead. I do believe that Jakes has not left his Oneness Pentecostal beliefs, and still holds to a dangerous, unbiblical view of the Trinity.

But, today, I’d like to focus a little more on Mark Driscoll, the man who was asking Jakes the questions in the Elephant Room.

Driscoll may be a lot of things, but he’s no idiot. He is edgy, controversial, bold at times, popular with a lot of folks, and…educated. The man has a graduate degree in exegetical theology from Western Seminary. In addition to his education, he has written several books. You can call him many things, but ignorant he is not.

Which to me, begs the question: why didn’t he ask harder questions of Jakes during the Elephant Room 2? A lot of folks (myself included) who read the transcript or saw videos of the interview immediately balked at the language of “manifestations” that Jakes used to define the Trinity and did a double take when Driscoll let him have a pass on that.

Why not probe that language further? Why let Jakes get away with a “unity over doctrine” slight-of-hand trick? I believe the reason is, Driscoll’s own theology of the Trinity is so underdeveloped that he was not prepared to counter Jakes on that issue. Here are Driscoll’s own words from his book Doctrine:

The whole attempt to define the eternal relations in the immanent or ontological Trinity seems misguided. First, God has given us no revelation of the nature of their eternal relations. We should follow the command of the Bible: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” and refuse to speculate. Second, the Apostles’ Creed defines the Son as “begotten, not made.” The point was that something begotten was of the same substance as the one who does the begetting. But the term “begotten” could never be defined with any clarity, so it was of little use. Third, begotten unavoidably implies a beginning of the one begotten. That would certainly lend support to the Arian heresy that the Son is a created being and not the Creator God. For these reasons it is best to omit the creedal terms “begotten” and “proceeds” from our definition of Trinity. Our authority is not in creeds but in Scripture. (Mark Driscoll, Doctrine: What Christians Believe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 27-28) (Editor’s Note: Driscoll wrongly references the Apostle’s Creed rather than the Nicene Creed for the phrase, ‘begotten, not made’)

Note that Driscoll rejects some important theology regarding the eternal generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son. He says these terms go beyond what Scripture teaches (and this, despite nearly 2000 years of theologians saying this is exactly what the Bible teaches).

Without going into more detail about these specific mistakes about the Trinity by Driscoll, we can say Driscoll’s theology regarding the Trinity is underdeveloped at best, and heretical at worst (but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and just say it’s underdeveloped).

What are the practical implications of these errors regarding the Trinity? Turn back the clock to the late nineteenth century and W. G. T. Shedd. Shedd, of course, was a Presbyterian professor of historical theology and systematic theology at Andover Seminary and Union Seminary, respectively. He was also a prolific writer and wrote several books that are still in use today. In addition to his books, Shedd also wrote an Introductory Essay to the third volume of Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers. That volume contains Augustine’s work On The Trinity, so of course, Shedd talks about the Trinity and the implications of that doctrine. It is during that discussion that Shedd writes:

In some sections of Christendom, it has been contended that the doctrine of the Trinity should be received without any attempt at all to establish its rationality and intrinsic necessity. In this case, the tenets of eternal generation and procession have been regarded as going beyond the Scripture data, and if not positively rejected, have been thought to hinder rather than assist faith in three divine persons and one God. But the history of opinions shows that such sections of the church have not proved to be the strongest defenders of the Scripture statement, nor the most successful in keeping clear of the Sabellian, Arian, or even Socinian departure from it. (emphasis added) (W. G. T. Shedd, “Introductory Essay” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers, vol 3, ed. Philip Schaff. Available online, here.)

Shedd says that those who make the claim that the attempt to define the relationship between the persons of the Trinity is misguided are not the strongest defenders of the Scriptural doctrine of the Trinity, nor have such men been the most successful in keeping clear of Sabellianism.

Mark Driscoll is a man who thinks such definitions are misguided. He was interviewing a man who is a Sabellianist (Sabellius being the founder of Modalism which is the ancient form of the modern Oneness view of the Trinity). And guess what? Driscoll did not show himself to be a strong defender of the Scriptural doctrine of the Trinity! Shedd was right.

But I must ask: Should this come as a surprise to anyone? As I said before, I do not think Driscoll is an idiot. He is an educated man. He has made an educated, informed decision to reject the historic, biblical definition of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. As a result, he is ill-prepared to counter trinitarian errors, such as those espoused by TD Jakes.

This is the problem facing modern American evangelicalism: a conscious decision on the part of our leaders to reject historical theology results in leaders of the church who are unable to defend her from false teaching and uneducated Christians in the pews who see nothing wrong with such false teaching.

Seth Stark serves as a Ruling Elder at Communion Presbyterian Church of Irvine, CA (http://www.communionpres.org), a church plant of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He has a Master’s Degree in Science and Religion from Biola University and blogs at TheRulingElder.com where this article first appeared; it is used with his permission.