Article ID: JAF3326 | By: Elliot Miller
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 32, number 6 (2009). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org
Concerns raised in the Open Letter besides the LC’s history of initiating lawsuits with evangelical Christians include the LC’s teachings on the nature of God, the nature of humanity, and the legitimacy of evangelical churches and denominations. Concerning such teachings the letter states, “Because the following statements by Witness Lee appear to contradict or compromise essential doctrines of the Christian faith, we respectfully call on the leadership of Living Stream Ministry and the ‘local churches’ to disavow and cease to publish these and similar declarations.”
The Open Letter proceeds to provide excerpts from Witness Lee’s allegedly unorthodox teachings while providing no explanation as to why such statements are unorthodox, perhaps assuming that any theologically literate reader could clearly see the heresy in the statements themselves. As we shall soon see, this was a serious mistake both on the part of those who drafted the letter and on the part of those who signed it, many of whom likely did little more research on the LC than to read the quotations the drafters provided them.
The Open Letter’s brief and succinct format makes it easy to reproduce its full statement of concerns here. Rather than reproducing it all at once, I will reproduce it one section at a time and interact with the material in each section before reproducing the material in the next.
The Open Letter’s first series of controversial quotations from LC materials begins with the heading “On the Nature of God” and contains the following statements by Witness Lee:
“The Son is called the Father; so the Son must be the Father. We must realize this fact. There are some who say that He is called the Father, but He is not really the Father. But how could He be called the Father and yet not be the Father? … In the place where no man can approach Him (I Tim. 6:16), God is the Father. When He comes forth to manifest Himself, He is the Son. So, a Son is given, yet His name is called ‘The everlasting Father.’ This very Son who has been given to us is the very Father.”
The All-Inclusive Spirit of Christ
(Los Angeles: The Stream Publishers, 1969), pp. 4-5
” … the entire Godhead, the Triune God, became flesh.”
God‘s New Testament Economy
(Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1986), p. 230
“The traditional explanation of the Trinity is grossly inadequate and borders on tritheism. When the Spirit of God is joined with us, God is not left behind, nor does Christ remain on the throne. This is the impression Christianity gives. They think of the Father as one person, sending the Son, another person, to accomplish redemption, after which the Son sends the Spirit, yet another person. The Spirit, in traditional thinking, comes into the believers, while the Father and Son are left on the throne. When believers pray, they are taught to bow before the Father and pray in the name of the Son. To split the Godhead into these separate Persons is not the revelation of the Bible …. “
Witness Lee, Life Messages
(Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1979), p. 164
“THE SON IS THE FATHER, AND THE SON IS ALSO THE SPIRIT …. and the Lord Jesus who is the Son is also the Eternal Father. Our Lord is the Son, and He is also the Father. Hallelujah!”
Witness Lee, Concerning the Triune God
(Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1973), pp. 18–19
“Therefore, it is clear: The Lord Jesus is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and He is the very God. He is also the Lord. He is the Father, the Son, the Spirit, the Mighty God, and the Lord.”
Witness Lee, The Clear Scriptural
Revelation Concerning the Triune God
“The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not three separate persons or three Gods; they are one God, one reality, one person.”
Witness Lee, The Triune God to Be Life to the Tripartite Man
(Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1970), p. 48
To twenty-first century Western Christians, these statements at face value are understandably disturbing. They seem clearly to be teaching modalism. No wonder some evangelical leaders with little background on the LC simply read them and then said, “Show me where to sign.” However, as equally disturbing as it may be to evangelicals familiar with CRl’s longstanding commitment to historic orthodoxy, I must nonetheless say that, taken in context, there is nothing unorthodox about the above statements. It is not that I am saying that modalism is orthodox. CRI considers modalism, such as is taught by the United Pentecostal Church, heretical just as much now as we ever did. No, what I am saying is that the above statements by Witness Lee are not teaching modalism. At one time we thought they did, but that was because we, like so many others in the countercult movement, never carefully studied the entire body of LC teachings in order to understand the context of these teachings and what concerns were driving them.
What, then, does Lee mean when he teaches that the Son is both the Father and the Spirit? How can such teaching be squared with orthodoxy? The biblical bases cited in LC literature for their identification of the persons of the Trinity with each other will be explained in detail shortly, but to state them succinctly, they are (1) the activity of the three persons in the economic Trinity and (2) the coinherence of the three persons in the essential Trinity. The purpose for their emphasis on this identification of the three persons is to provide a corrective to what they view as rampant tritheism in the West. Before further clarifying the LC’s frequent seemingly unorthodox affirmations on the Trinity, however, we must first establish that they have frequently made soundly orthodox affirmations on the Trinity.
The LC’s Orthodox Affirmations on the Trinity
Even some LC critics will acknowledge that at many places in their writings they seem to be affirming the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.1 Consider, for example, these unambiguous Trinitarian formulations, made by Lee himself:
The three—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—are all from eternity to eternity, being equally eternal, without beginning and without ending, and existing at the same time.2
We may say that the Triune God has three persons but only one essence; the persons should not be confused and the essence should not be divided; the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three in person, but they are one in essence.3
We were aware at CRI that Lee made such statements and we therefore classified the LC’s theology as aberrant rather than heretical, according to the theological definition of aberrant that we have adhered to for decades. Aberrant theology will affirm orthodoxy but then will add to those confessions of orthodoxy further affirmations that contradict, compromise, or undermine them. We simply concluded that the LC believed they lived in a world where two contradictory propositions could be true at the same time and in the same sense.
However, long before we entered into dialogue with the LC this manner of dismissing their clear affirmations of orthodox theology in the very area where we have charged them with being unorthodox did not sit comfortably with me. I for one knew of no other group classified as modalistic that made similar detailed confessions of Trinitarian orthodoxy. The thought crossed my mind more than once that perhaps we were missing something in the LC’s teachings that would clarify this seemingly blatant contradiction. Indeed, we at CRI were missing something, and so were virtually all of our colleagues in the countercult community!
“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”
You may remember the catch phrase coined by Bill Clinton’s political strategist James Carville in the 1992 presidential race to keep the campaign on message: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In a different sense the same rebuke might well be addressed to those of us who missed a distinction frequently made in LC literature between the essential Trinity (also called the ontological Trinity or the immanent Trinity) and the economic Trinity. These terms refer to a distinction that is widely made in orthodox theology; one that we at CRI have always embraced and taught. It is a distinction between the eternal nature and interrelationship of the three divine persons and the temporal (i.e., time-related and situated) roles that they assume in their relationship with creation.4
Long before I ever considered that it might help explain the LC’s modalistic-sounding teachings, I recognized that when the economic Trinity is described in the Bible or by orthodox theology it often sounds like modalism; it isn’t, however, because behind it all lies belief in the eternal nature and unchanging relationship of the three persons in the ontological Trinity. Modalists, however, confuse the biblical distinction between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity, conflate the two concepts into one, and thus assign the characteristics of the economic Trinity to the ontological Trinity.
Lee could not have made it clearer where he stood on this issue, if only we critics had been thorough enough in our research of, and dialogue with, the LC to notice. He carefully explained the essential/economic distinction in many places and explicitly contrasted the LC’s view of the Trinity with modalism:
What is the error in Modalism? Modalism teaches that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not all eternal and do not all exist at the same time. Rather, modalism claims that the Father ended with the Son’s coming and that the Son ceased with the Spirit’s coming. The modalists say that the Three of the Godhead exist respectively in three consecutive stages. They do not believe in the coexistence and coinherence of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Unlike them, we believe in the coexistence and coinherence of the Three of the Godhead; that is, we believe that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit all exist essentially at the same time and under the same conditions. However, in the divine economy, the Three work and are manifested respectively in three consecutive stages. Yet even in Their economical works and manifestations the Three still remain essentially in Their coexistence and coinherence.5
Lee here does not address the fact that there are two forms of modalism: chronological and functional, and the latter view does not deny that God can function in more than one of the three modes or roles at the same point in history. However, the distinction he does make between the essential Trinity and the economic Trinity would not be made by a functional modalist any more than it would be made by a chronological modalist.
Furthermore, it is clear from Lee’s overall teaching on the Trinity that he viewed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three distinct centers of consciousness and volition, or “I’s,” eternally involved in loving subject-object relationship. For example, commenting on John 10:30 (“I and the Father are one”), he wrote that “although the Father and the Son are one, between them there is still a distinction of I and the Father. We must not disregard this point, because if we do we would become modalists.”6 Elsewhere, when astutely writing about how eternity would have no existence independent of the Triune God, Lee writes,
In eternity past when the Father and Son were fellowshipping, when the Father loved the Son, and whenthe Son was foreordained by the Triune God, the Spirit was also there because He is the eternal Spirit, the Spirit of the ages.
Acts 2:23 says that Christ was delivered up by the determined counsel of [the Triune] God …. Among thethree of the Godhead, there was a council, and by this council a determined counsel was made ….
…. Thus in eternity past the Triune God was there fellowshipping, loving, foreordaining, working, and choosing.7
Chris Wilde, director of media and communications for LSM, makes an observation that our independent research has found to be entirely true: “Nearly all criticisms of Witness Lee’s teachings related to the Trinity are the product of selectively excerpting portions of his writing that emphasize the economical operation of the Triune God, without bothering to even mention that he fully balances himself in other portions of his work, and often in the same passage. “8
Lee does identify the Son with the Father and the Spirit, but not in the wholesale manner of the modalists:
In God’s plan, God’s administrative arrangement, God’s economy, the Father takes the first step, the Son takes the second step, and the Spirit takes the third step. The Father purposed, the Son accomplished, and the Spirit applies what the Son accomplished according to the Father’s purpose …. After this [the Father’s] plan was made, the Son came to accomplish this plan, but He did this with the Father and by the Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt. 1:18,20; 12:28). Now that the Son has accomplished all that the Father has planned, the Spirit comes in the third step to apply all that He accomplished, but He does this as the Son and with the Father (John 14:26; 15:26; 1 Cor. 15:45b; 2 Cor. 3:17). In this way, while the divine economy is being carried out, the divine existence of the Divine Trinity, His eternal coexistence and coinherence, remains intact and is not jeopardized.9
Lee further clarifies, contra the modalists (who were also called Patripassionists because of their implied belief that the Father [patri] suffered [passion] on the cross), that
in the second step of God’s economy, the step of accomplishment, the Son did all the works. We cannot say the Father did the accomplishing work with the Son and by the Spirit. Neither can we say that the Spirit accomplished the Father’s plan as the Son, with the Father. We can only say that the Son did all the works to accomplish the Father’s plan with the Father and by the Spirit. Also, we cannot say that the Father became flesh and that the Father lived on this earth in the flesh. Furthermore, we cannot say that the Father went to the cross and died for our redemption, and we cannot say the blood shed on the cross is the blood of Jesus the Father. We must say that the blood was shed by Jesus the Son of God (1 John 1:7). We can neither say that the Father died on the cross nor can we say that the Father resurrected from the dead. 10
It is therefore the case that much of the LC’s identification of the Son with the Father and the Spirit is stated in the context of the operations of the economic Trinity, and is based on a similar identification that is made in Scripture. Examples are replete throughout the Gospels, particularly in the Gospel of John.
John chapter 14, for example, makes it clear that while each of the three persons in the Trinity has specific roles in the work of salvation, they never perform those functions apart from the active presence and involvement of the other two. To know Jesus is to know the Father (v.9). The Father was entirely involved in both the words Jesus spoke and the works He did (v. 10). After Jesus ascends to heaven both He and the Father will be active in answering the disciples’ requests prayed in Jesus’ name (vv. 13-14; d .
John 15:16). Likewise, when Jesus speaks of sending “another comforter” there is both the clear succession of the Son by the Spirit in the role of teaching and leading the disciples and the clear active presence of the Son in the Spirit’s work (v.18: “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you”), just as previously the Spirit was actively present in the work of the Son (v. 17: “you know Him because He [presently-in the ministry of Christ] abides with you”).
Some interpret Jesus’ promise to come to His disciples as referring to His resurrection appearances or to the Second Coming. Even if one of these interpretations was granted, it would not overthrow the argument I am making from John 14 for the close identification of the three persons, since such identification permeates the chapter. However, the context seems to suggest that Jesus is referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is the topic in the verse immediately preceding this statement, and when in v. 22 Judas (not Iscariot) asks Jesus how He will disclose Himself to the disciples and not to the world (referencing Jesus’ statement in v. 19 that “after a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me”), Jesus does not explain this in terms of His resurrection appearances but rather clarifies that He and the Father will come to whoever loves Him and keeps His word and “make our abode with him”-an indwelling that can only be understood as identical to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
We see then that while in the Gospels the work of the economic Trinity is identified with one person or the other, such identification is never meant to exclude the involvement of the other two in the same work, and sometimes one or both of the other two are specifically identified with that work (with the exception of such unique roles as the Father sending the Son, the Son dying for our sins, and the Spirit glorifying Christ).
In the epistles we also frequently see this identification of one divine person with the other’s distinctive roles. The following quotation from a paper the LC prepared for Fuller Theological Seminary cites several of these Pauline texts, explains their importance in LC theology, and quotes extensively from both Witness Lee and respected theologians to explain the biblical warrant for such identification of the persons:
A key focus of our ministry is the believers’ experience of Christ, and it is in this experiential sense that we interpret verses like 1 Corinthians 15:45 [“The last Adam became a life-giving Spirit”] and 2 Corinthians 3:17 [“And the Lord is the Spirit”]. We understand that in resurrection Christ comes to the believers and works out the full activity of God’s complete salvation in and through the life-giving Spirit. Because of this, we find in the New Testament Epistles a strong identification of Christ with the Spirit, again not to the elimination of their distinctions in the Divine Trinity but according to their coinherent existence and operation in the believers ….
…. Adept readers of historical theology know that Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, and a list of other solidly orthodox teachers can be read aberrantly, but that in their writings there are also the balancing portions that validate their orthodoxy. Witness Lee too has his balancing portions, which are rarely seen in published “proofs” of his alleged heterodoxy. Here we wish to offer two exemplary portions that show something of his full view on Christ and the Spirit:
This very Christ is now the Lord in the heavens and at the same time the Spirit within us. “Now the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17). As Lord, He is in the heavens. As the Spirit, He is within us. As the One in the heavens, He is exercising His rulership, headship, and priesthood …. Whatever He carries out as Lord, He applies to us as the Spirit. (The Heavenly Ministry of Christ, 69-70)
Some who read this word concerning the Spirit as another Comforter and the Spirit as Christ’s breath may ask, “Don’t you believe that Christ and the Spirit are distinct? Don’t you believe that Christ and the Spirit are two?” Yes, I believe that, as viewed from one aspect, the outward, objective aspect, Christ and the Spirit are two. However, as viewed from another aspect, the inward, subjective aspect, the Spirit, the second Comforter, is the breath of Christ, the first Comforter. Thus, from the perspective of the inward aspect, Christ and the Spirit are one. (The Fulfillment of the Tabernacle and the Offerings in the Writings of John, 588)
Without too much analysis, one can see that Witness Lee held to the notion that Christ and the Spirit are distinct; however, echoing the New Testament Epistles, he understood and taught that in our Christian experience, which, as opposed to theological systematization, was the great focus of his ministry, the resurrected Christ is often identified with the life-giving Spirit. As this is one of the topics that has drawn the greatest amount of criticism concerning Witness Lee’s teaching, we feel that it is important to add a few quotations from others on the subject. Witness Lee’s teaching on this subject may be considered non-traditional or even controversial, but he is certainly not alone in the conclusions he has drawn. At least one notable contemporary scholar worth mention is James D. G. Dunn, who addresses some of the same scriptural passages that Witness Lee has given frequent attention to:
…. Paul identifies the exalted Jesus with the Spirit-not with a spiritual being … or a spiritual dimension or sphere … , but with the Spirit, the Holy Spirit …. Immanent christology is for Paul pneumatology; in the believer’s experience there is no distinction between Christ and Spirit. This does not mean of course that Paul makes no distinction between Christ and Spirit. (The Christ and the Spirit, vol. 1, Christ logy [Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans,1998], 164-165)
W. H. Griffith Thomas, the noted theologian from a generation ago and one whom Witness Lee frequently quoted regarding the Trinity, also makes reference to the twofoldness of this divine truth, while offering a remarkably clear and succinct summary of the identification of Christ and the Spirit:
It is essential to preserve with care both sides of this truth. Christ and the Spirit are different yet the same, the same yet different. Perhaps the best expression we can give is that while their Personalities are never identical, their presence always is. (The Holy Spirit [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1986; reprint of The Holy Spirit of God, 4th ed., Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1913], 144)
It is clear from these quotations as well as from the entirety of the ministry of Witness Lee that it is in the realm of the believers’ experience of Christ-and not in God’s immanent existence-that the identification between Christ and the Spirit obtains. H. B. Swete confirms this same thought:
The Spirit in its working was found to be in effect the equivalent of Jesus Christ … where the possession of the Spirit of Christ is clearly regarded as tantamount to an indwelling of Christ Himself …. “the Lord the Spirit,” (i.e. Christ in the power of His glorified life) are viewed as being in practice the same. (The Holy Spirit in the New Testament [London; New York: Macmillan, 1912], 306)11
We have seen that Scripture clearly identifies the three persons of the Trinity with each other in many manifestations of the economic Trinity. This biblical fact does not seem to be fully appreciated by many evangelical critics of the LC. Beyond this, in the doctrine of coinherence (more commonly termed interpenetration by theologians) there is an ontological grounding in the Trinity for such economic identification of the three persons that seems to be equally missed by many evangelicals. Once understood, this truth could go a long way toward correcting a problem that the LC has accurately noted in the Western church today. We will proceed to the doctrine of coinherence presently, but first more needs to be said about this problem.
Turning the Trinitarian Tables: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Witness Lee
As we have seen among the quotations supplied in the Open Letter to the LC, Witness Lee has already stated the problem: “The Spirit, in traditional thinking, comes into the believers, while the Father and Son are left on the throne. When believers pray, they are taught to bow before the Father and pray in the name of the Son. To split the Godhead into these separate Persons is not the revelation of the Bible …. ”
To be sure, Lee should have stated his concern more carefully. There is nothing wrong with believers being taught to pray to the Father in the name of the Son, something Jesus Himself encouraged (John 16:23), and Lee was not opposed to this, for he himself taught it.12
From even the limited material provided in the Open Letter it should be evident, however, that Lee’s real concern was tritheism, which makes it ironic that the Open Letter includes this quotation as evidence of Lee’s unorthodox teaching. Do the drafters and signers of the Open Letter really want to say that when the Spirit comes into believers the Father and Son are left on the throne? Do they really contend that splitting the Godhead into three separate persons is the revelation of the Bible? If so, then conscientious Christians should be concerned about their beliefs on the Trinity.
To better clarify the LC’s position it should be noted that they believe in a principle that theologian Robert Govett called “the twofoldness of Divine Truth,” in which God’s revelation characteristically has two sides to it, and it is important to embrace and teach both sides fully.13 This explains why Lee often failed to follow radical and controversial statements with seemingly appropriate qualifications: he did not want to diminish the fullness and force of one aspect of biblical truth (e .g., the oneness of God) by too quickly balancing it with the opposing aspect (e.g., the threeness of God), and so he would often do so at another time.
The LC certainly could have and should have taken greater care to explain the nuances of their controversial teachings to leery Westerners, but it can nonetheless be demonstrated that they have not contradicted themselves as their critics suppose. They have consistently affirmed that the three persons of the Godhead are eternally distinct from one another while consistently denying that they are ever separate from one another.
If this observation seems to be making a distinction without a difference, further thought should be given to the matter. Even if the English dictionary defined the two terms in an identical manner, the important question would remain: how do the “local churches” define the terms? However, the American Heritage Dictionary agrees with the LC that there are significant differences of meaning in the adjectival use of the two terms:
1. The first (and only applicable to this usage) definition that the AHD gives for distinct is, “Readily distinguishable from all others; discrete.”
2. For separate the AHD’s first two definitions are both relevant: (a) “Set or kept apart; disunited”; (b) “Existing as an independent entity.”
A careful effort to understand LC writings on their own terms is bound to discover that the strong modalistic sounding language often found therein is a reaction to, and an attempt to correct, the tritheistic tendencies that Lee and his compatriots believed they were encountering in the West. Indeed, some Western theologians have made the same observation about modern evangelicalism,14 and the very fact that the distinction between separate and distinct is not recognized even by theologians and countercult apologists involved with the Open Letter would seem to corroborate this concern.
Of course, the vast majority of Western Christians are not full-blown tritheists (believing that the Trinity is composed of three separate gods). However, many of them do seem inconsistently to hold beliefs about God that imply tritheism.
In keeping with his belief in the twofoldness of Divine Truth, Lee taught that “in order to hold a biblical truth properly, we must hold both sides of it. The pure revelation of the Triune God in the Bible occupies a central position in between the extremes of modalism and tritheism.”15 As far as Lee was concerned, the LC was maintaining that balance but much of evangelicalism was not. This, the LC would argue, is a factor in the outcry against their teaching: tritheists are more likely to construe sound Trinitarianism as modalism just as much as modalists are more likely to construe sound Trinitarianism as tritheism.
Now, at this point both the LC and their critics should step back and take a deep breath. Both sides need to recognize that leaning toward an extreme and embracing it are not the same thing. Orthodox Christians would surely agree with Lee that we need to find the proper balance between modalism and tritheism; it’s just a question of determining where that balance lies, and that has been a tricky proposition throughout church history. Within historic orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy leans more toward tritheism and Roman Catholicism leans more toward modalism, but virtually no one accuses either camp of heresy on the Trinity. In the same sense, an argument could be made that the LC leans toward modalism, but an argument that they are modalists simply cannot be sustained.
What about Lee’s declarations that the Son is the Father and the Spirit? Many critics have taken this as a dead giveaway that he was a modalist. Because many people understandably respond this way, CRI has advised the LC against making such declarations. It is important for a group’s teachings to be clearly understood. But even if the LC ignores our advice, truth still matters, and when Lee affirmed the existence of three eternally distinct persons in the Godhead he was stating his true belief. Furthermore, when he affirmed that the Trinity is one person he was not engaging in boldfaced self-contradiction. He was rather attempting to safeguard LC theology from the implication of separateness of being (tritheism) that the word person at least potentially carries.
As we’ve seen, Lee did explicitly teach that the Trinity consists of three distinct persons, but in other places he can be found expressing reservations about the use of that term.16 For example:
Actually, to use the designation “three Persons” to explain the Father, Son, and Spirit is also not quite satisfactory because “three Persons” really means three persons. Therefore, Griffith Thomas (famous for his exposition on the book of Romans) in his book The Principles of Theology wrote in this wise concerning the Trinity of the Godhead: “The term ‘Person’ is also sometimes objected to. Like all human language, it is liable to be accused of inadequacy and even positive error. It certainly must not be pressed too far, or it will lead to Tritheism.”17
We dare not say that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are three persons, nor do we dare say that they are not, because this is truly a mystery. 18
It seems that we in the countercult community can learn something from Lee on this point. In our efforts to define the Trinity in a manner that could be easily assimilated by the masses and would quickly rule out the errors of Arianism (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses) and modalism (e.g., United Pentecostal Church), we have perhaps relied too heavily on succinct definitions of the Trinity such as “one God in three persons” or “three persons in one nature.”
To assume that this is all we need to say about the Trinity seems simplistic. Where else in the entire realm of human experience do we encounter persons who are not simultaneously separate entities from all other persons? If we supply lay Christians with nothing more than such simple formulas, should we be surprised if they become tritheistic in at least some of their thinking? Should we be greatly surprised if some of them move on to embrace the full-blown tritheism of such teachers as Finis Dake, Jimmy Swaggart, Kenneth Copeland, and Benny Hinn?
The Bible does not present the Trinity in such simplistic terms. There is an element of mystery in its depiction of the Godhead that can be as difficult to sort out as the Trinitarian teachings of Witness Lee! For example, evangelical countercult apologists will often correctly argue with Jehovah’s Witnesses that the Bible identifies Jesus with Jehovah, and Jehovah (or Yahweh) is the personal name of God. How many of them stop and wrestle with the fact that the Bible applies one personal name to all three persons of the Trinity?19 Furthermore, the Bible (and we Christians, following the Bible) often uses the singular personal pronoun “He” to refer to the triune God and not merely to one person in the Trinity.20 There is clearly a sense biblically in which the three persons of the Trinity share a singular personal identity: Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God, who we appropriately refer to as “He” or “Him.” To affirm this is not to confuse the eternal and economic distinctions that exist between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is rather to safeguard the equally important biblical truth that they comprise one eternal Being, a truth that describing them as three separate persons compromises. Those of us who have used the word separate to distinguish the persons of the Trinity owe a debt of gratitude to Witness Lee for pointing this out.
Lee’s thinking was very close to that of the late Reformed theologian Cornelius Van Til on this point, and although Van Til has been criticized for his view, no one that I am aware of has charged him with heresy. Theology blogger Phil Gons writes:
Avoiding modalism and tritheism is as challenging as steering clear of legalism and antinomianism. Errors in formulating a biblical doctrine of the Trinity stem from the desire to say too much. Perhaps Van Til’s approach is best. He leaves the tension unresolved and maintains the full mystery of the Trinity by arguing that God is both one person and three persons, though in different senses. Van Til is combating the notion that “God” is some kind of attribute that the three persons of the Trinity share in common. [John] Frame’s defense of Van Til on this point is quite insightful. Van Til’s formulation helpfully preserves us from the tendency toward either modalism or tritheism. God is one and God is three, but in different senses (and thus not contradictorily). In precisely what ways He is one and three, we cannot and should not say.21
The Little-Known but Entirely Biblical Doctrine of Coinherence
As previously suggested, the best antidote to a tritheistic tendency is to understand the important biblical doctrine of coinherence. The reason the three persons of the Trinity can never be separated is that their oneness of nature involves more than merely sharing the same attributes (as humans share attributes); it involves existing as one entity and therefore interpenetrating one another.
In their paper presented to Fuller the LC make their position on coinherence, and their justification for it, quite clear:
While we adamantly maintain that the three persons of the Divine Trinity exist eternally and are eternally distinct, we also recognize that in every manifest and distinct action of each all three operate inseparably (yet still distinctly) …. Witness Lee relied heavily on the notion [of coinherence] to explain how the Bible sometimes identifies one distinct hypostasis [person] of the Trinity with another:
…. The term coinhere applied to the Triune God means that the three-the Father, the Son, and the Spirit–exist within one another. First of all, this is based upon the word spoken by the Lord Jesus in the Gospels …. Besides John 14:10, the same utterance is found in 14:20; 10:38; and 17:21,23. These five verses all refer to the fact that the Son and the Father exist within one another at the same time. These verses are crucial to our understanding of the mystery of the Divine Trinity’s being three and also one. (The Revelation and Vision of God, 33-35)
John 14:10 perhaps best captures the fine nuances of the manifest action and inseparable operations that we see in the Trinity: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak from Myself, but the Father who abides in Me does His works.” Because the Son is in the Father and the Father is in the Son-that is, because the Father and the Son coinhere—what is manifestly and distinctly the Son’s action (“the words that I say to you”) is likewise the Father’s operation (“the Father who abides in Me does His works”). An allusion to the similar inseparable operations of the three in the distinct action of the Spirit can be found in John 16:13-15 ….
Because of this marvelous reality of the coinherence of the three in the Trinity, we believe that frequently the Bible identifies the hypostases with one another, sometimes to the chagrin of less-nuanced systematic theologies. But not all systematicians have been dull to this reality in God:
This oneness of essence explains the fact that, while Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as respects their personality, are distinct subsistences, there is an intercommunion of persons and an immanence of one divine person in another which permits the peculiar work of one to be ascribed … to either of the other, and the manifestation of one to be recognized in the manifestation of the other. The Scripture representations of this intercommunion prevent us from conceiving of the distinctions called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as involving separation between them. This intercommunion also explains the designation of Christ as “the Spirit,” and of the Spirit as “the Spirit of Christ,” as 1 Corinthians 15:45: “The last Adam became a life-giving Spirit,” 2 Corinthians 3:17, “Now the Lord is the Spirit …. ” The persons of the Holy Trinity are not separable individuals. Each involves the others; the coming of each is the coming of the others. Thus, the coming of the Spirit must have involved the coming of the Son. (A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, [Old Tappan, N.].: Revell, 1960, c1907], 332-33)
Similarly, we understand that because of co inherence in the Trinity the Son given to us comes to us bearing in His every action the inseparable operation of the Eternal Father and thus can be called, as Isaiah predicts, the Eternal Father. We do not need to relegate Isaiah’s prophecy to an Old Testament metaphor, nor should we neuter the passage of its full Christian significance, for as Christians we hold this verse as an inspired prophecy of the incarnate Christ. Rather, we wish to afford the passage its full textual force, understanding that the Son who came to us in incarnation was in the Father and that His works were as well the operations of the Eternal Father.22
At this point Lee’s statement, quoted in the Open Letter, that ” … the entire Godhead, the Triune God, became flesh” can be better understood. The drafters of the Open Letter apparently would have us believe that Lee was teaching an expanded, Triune version of Patripassionism and denying that the Son was uniquely incarnate, despite his express teaching, reproduced above, that only the Son became flesh, did the works of the “second step” of God’s economy, died on the cross, and rose from the dead. Notice, however, that the quotation the Open Letter provides is not even a complete sentence. This fact is significant because by only reproducing eight words out of a 240-word paragraph the drafters deprive the reader of the point Lee was actually making. The context of the paragraph is clearly and exclusively the coinherence of the Trinity, and it is in this sense and this sense only that Lee wrote those eight words: because of their unity of being, no person of the Trinity goes anywhere or does anything apart from the presence and involvement of the other two persons. When an author is indicted on the basis of an incomplete sentence it should raise a red flag for any discerning reader; in this case, further research bears out that the author was indeed taken out of context.
I believe that sufficient evidence has been provided to exonerate the LC from charges of heresy, aberration, duplicity, and self-contradiction as regards the Trinity. Just as we at CRI admitted that we had wrongly charged the LC with modalism, I am confident that other evangelical critics of the LC who are fair minded and open to correction will reach a similar conclusion. Because truth matters irrespective of personal histories, the fact that the LC has at times responded contentiously to such egregiously false charges does not make the charges themselves any less egregious and false and should not affect the conclusions evangelicals reach on this matter.23 As we shall shortly see, a careful contextual reading of LC literature forces the exact same conclusions on the other alleged theological errors identified in the Open Letter.
1 For example, see abuGian, “The Teachings of Witness Lee of the ‘Local Church’ (Church of Recovery),” The Bereans Apologetics Research Ministry, http://www.thebereans.netfarmwlee.shrml; “To All Zealous ‘Witness lee-Teaching’ Followers regarding the ‘Triune God’ Doctrine,” Biblocaliry, http://www3.telus.netltrbrooksfTeachingsofLC3.htmj also note the comments of Calvin Beisner in Colin Hansen, “Cult Watchers Reconsider: Former Detractors of Nee and Lee Now Endorse ‘Local Churches,'” Bold Bible Teaching, http://www.boldbibleteaching.ner/warchmanneeandwitness.htmi.
2 Witness Lee, The Revelation and Vision of God (Anaheim: Liv ing Stream Ministry, 2000),32-33.
3 Ibid., 19.
4 By relationship I refer co every aspect of the Triune God’s acciv ity as creacor, preserver, judge, and redeemer of the world.
5 Witness Lee, The Conclusion of the New Testament, Messages 1-20 (Anaheim: Living Stream
Ministry, 1997), 20.
6 Lee, Revelation and Vision, 34.
7 Witness Lee, Living in and with the Divine Trinity (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1990), 9-10.
8 Chris Wilde, “Presentation of Some of the Teachings of Witness Lee concerning Several Key Doctrinal Issues” (draft of a paper prepared for Fuller Seminary, October 2005), 2.
9 Witness Lee, The Crucial Points of the Major Items of the Lord’s Recovery Today (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1993), 10.
10 Witness Lee, Elders’ Training, Book 3: The Way to Carry Out the Vision (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1985), 69.
11 A Statement concerning the Teachings of Living Stream Ministry Prepared for Fuller Theological Seminary, January 20, 2007,12-14. (This document is posted at http://www.lctestimony.orglStatementOfreachings.pdf.)
12 Witness Lee, Lessons on Prayer (Anaheim: Living Stream Ministry, 1981), 239-47.
13 Wilde, 1. See Roben Govett, The Twofoldness of Divine Truth, 5th ed. (Haysville, NC: Schoettle Publishing Company. 2003).
14 See, e.g., Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 248; Phil Gons, “Are You a Practical Modalist?” PhiIGons.com, Thoughts on Theology and Technology, Janua ry 19, 2009, http://philgons.com/2008/0 1lare-you-a-practical-modalist/; and Rev. James Hastings, M.A., ed., The Expository Times, vol. 7: Occober 1895- September 1896 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, n.d.), 153.
15 Lee, The Conclusion of the New Testament, Messages 1-20, 29.
16 It is noteworthy that Karl Barth, whose theology was centered in the Trinity and who rejected modalism, nonetheless had a similar concern about the use of the term person as that expressed by Lee. On this see Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority Volume 5: God Who Stands and Stays Part One (Wheaton, lL: Crossway Books, 1982 ), 184.
17 Witness Lee, The Truth co1tceming the Trinity (Anaheim: Living St ream Ministry, 1976, 1994),32.
18 Lee, Revelation and Vision, 21.
19 Proof texts abound, but compare Isaiah 44:24 with John 1:3 and Genesis 1:2. Lf Yahweh alone created the universe, then the Son and the Holy Spirit, who with the Father were agents in creation, must also be Yahweh.
20 See, among a Bible full of examples, Deuteronomy 4:35- 39.
21 Gons, previously cited.
22 A Statement Concerning the Teachings of Living Stream Ministry, 9-11.
23 Indeed, the LC’s more aggressive response to charges of heresy and aberration than most groups may very well be explained by the fact that the charges are false. True heretics seem to live more comfortably with charges of heresy, perhaps because on some level they know the charge is true or, in any case, they don’t deeply care about being biblical and their concerns about such charges arise mo re from a public relations standpoint. Imagine, however, if your soundly orthodox church was being widely charged with heresy and cultism. The charge would be especially grievous because it is false and because you would be responding to it with evangelical sensibilities. Evangelicals therefore are well advised to view the LC’s past contentiousness in a different, more sympathetic light.