Israel Folau’s high profile has positioned him as the public face of Australian Christianity’s fight for freedom following his sacking by Rugby Australia. As the Nine Newspapers examine what what Folau actually believes, it is time to tackle the complicated subject of Folau and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Back in January 2018, Folau replied to a tweet saying:
Jesus Christ was the vessel of God, God is a spirit. He formed the body of Jesus Christ and was in him. And the holy spirit is the characteristics or functions of God. But it’s not 3 or the Trinity but just him alone. Isaiah 43:10
This is an expression of what is called modalism; a teaching that is nearly as old as the church itself and rejects the Trinity as expressed in the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds. The Truth of Jesus Christ Church in Sydney (TOJC) where Folau attends and teaches, has confirmed that they teach that “God is ONE” – meaning that he cannot be understood in any sense as three.
Modalism has taken on different shapes over the course of church history, but collectively these various forms seek to preserve monotheism or the “oneness” of God by expressing the Father, Son and Spirit as “modes” of God. Roughly speaking, this means that in order to achieve certain things, God sometimes works as the Father, sometimes works as the Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. God the Father is incarnated as God the Son, the Holy Spirit is an active expression of the one God who is spirit.
This is radically different to the Doctrine of the Trinity which describes God as one in essence (his essential divine makeup) and three distinct persons (meaning identities that can relate).
T. D. Jakes has preached God as ice, water, and steam. They are all one in being H2O, yet the H20 changes from one form to another:
“If you want to understand the relationship between Christ and God, next time you have a glass of water put some ice in it and figure out which one of them is H2O.”
Others have pictured God as an actor wearing different masks, or as a one-person band, although no one analogy would be agreed on by all modalists.
This is radically different to the Doctrine of the Trinity which describes God as one in essence (his essential divine makeup) and three distinct persons (meaning identities that can relate). Jesus is not God the Father in a created body, he is God the Son who has existed in all eternity, sharing the one divine nature with the Father and Spirit. The Spirit is not just an active manifestation of God, he is a separate identity who relates to the Father and Son, and to us. The Father, Son and Spirit are not like ice, water, and steam because the Father is always the Father, the Son always the Son, and the Spirit always the Spirit.
The most popular form of modalism today is Oneness Pentecostalism which has 24 million adherents worldwide, making it larger and faster growing than other non-trinitarian groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons. This movement is not cohesive and contains many denominations, but an overarching difference between its modalism and that of the early church is that it usually allows for God to exist in different modes simultaneously – allowing, for example, for all three of God’s modes to be present at Jesus’ baptism.
Interestingly, while Folau shares much theology with the oneness movement, he does not identify as a Oneness Pentecostal. One reason for this is, as he said in reply to a tweet on 24/10/10, he is “going under no denomination, following his teaching straight from the bible.”
Likewise, TOJC Church says they “do not fall under any denomination or religion but the truth of God from his reliable source the Bible.” There is also a difference between TOJC Church and some Oneness Pentecostals in that TOJC does not believe in the necessity of speaking in tongues for salvation.
Having noted this difference, I will talk about the contemporary modalist movement, including Folau’s beliefs, under the general term “Oneness Theology.”
Oneness Theology and the Bible
So, should we refer to Israel Folau as a Christian? Or, put another way, is he a heretic, or is this simply an error on which Christians are free to differ? One way to think about the difference between heresy and error is to think about how central the error is in our system of theology.
If we accept that the gospel is at the centre of our theology and that it is the gospel through which we are saved, then we can say that something is heretical if it affects the Doctrine of the Gospel or is a stumbling block for salvation.
I see five main problems with Oneness Theology as it relates to God as Father, Son, and Spirit. But firstly, we should note that Izzy Folau and oneness adherents believe that Jesus is fully God, they hold to the Bible as the Word of God, the sinfulness of all mankind, the doctrine of hell, and see the urgency of evangelism. Folau has publicly rejected the prosperity gospel and calls out Christian leaders whom he perceives to be primarily interested in personal popularity and profit. These factors make Folau and other oneness adherents appear to be evangelical. However, things are not always as they first seem.
Oneness theology doesn’t deny the deity of Christ; it denies that he is a separate identity within the one God. This is still a serious issue. Believing in a mode of God that was first manifested at the time of the incarnation is very different to understanding Jesus as a personal identity through whom we were predestined for adoption before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4-6), through whom the world was created (Jn 1:3) and who was active during the Old Testament period (Jn 12:41). 1 John 5:12 says:
Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 Jn 5:12 NIV).
And here is the first problem: the identity of Jesus within Oneness differs from the Bible to the point that we must conclude that Oneness adherents do not believe in the biblical Jesus.
Equally, a second problem comes in the fact that while Jesus defines eternal life as knowing God (Jn 17:3), Oneness Theology, by definition, is limited in its ability to know God. Both Anselm and Calvin realised that the way that God works outwardly, reflects the way that he is internally. We can only really understand God in his “oneness” through his “three-ness” because it is in his persons that we most see him at work.
For example, John can say that God is love (1 Jn 4:8), but that tells us little about God unless we know the true nature of love. The Bible defines love through the relationships and actions of the persons of the Trinity: we see it in the eternal relationship of the Father and Son (Jn 17:24), through the Father’s sending of the Son (Jn 4:10), and through the Son’s sacrificial death (Jn 15:13).
A third problem follows from these relationships in that if we lose the separate identities of the Father and Son, we lose the real example of their relationship as a model for ours. For example, the unity of the three persons within the one God should model our unity within the church (Jn 17:22-23), and the Son’s submission to the Father models our own suffering and obedience (1 Peter 2:18-21; Heb 5:8-10).
This brings us to a fourth problem and the crux of the matter: Oneness Theology undermines the atonement. In the atonement, the Father sends the Son (1 Jn 4:10) and presents him as the sacrifice that takes away his own wrath (Rom 3:25). This is a legal transaction that requires two separate identities; the sacrifice and the one to whom the sacrifice is presented. The whole notion of the atonement breaks down if there is only one party involved. The judge would be pronouncing a corrupt judgment if the reparation had not been made to the offended party (Rom 3:26).
A Oneness adherent could perhaps give the example of a judge who chose to pay a fine himself. However, even in this case, the fine must be paid to the state. If the state paid the fine to itself, it would essentially be cancelling the debt without payment – and so justice is not done. God is both the judge and the offended party, and in a sense he pays the debt himself because Christ is fully God, but in order for the logic to work, he does this in the person of Christ who is a separate identity to God the Father.
Fifthly, oneness theology undermines our assurance by diminishing Jesus’ current work at the Father’s side. We are assured that we have a perfect high priest who appears for us in God’s presence (Heb 9:24) and we are comforted in the knowledge that Jesus knows our human weakness and so can help us in temptation (Heb 2:18). This assurance relies on the existence of two identities; a high priest and God the Father in whose presence the priest ministers. Oneness adherents might argue that God can operate in both modes simultaneously, but this denies the power and reality of having a flesh and blood brother interceding for us.
It is not surprising given the weakening of Christ’s atonement and session, that oneness adherents fall into works-based salvation. I have shown elsewhere that Folau’s call for sinners to repent is a call to his particular theology of salvation which includes, by necessity, baptism in (only) Jesus’ name and the human laying on of hands to receive the Spirit.
Since oneness theology presents a significantly different God, a different Christ, and undermines Christ’s atonement and session, we, therefore, must conclude that Izzy Folau adheres to heretical beliefs.
Notice what I did not say. I did not say that Izzy isn’t saved or that hell necessarily awaits him. I do not believe that we need a full understanding of the Trinity to be justified and I accept the possibility that people within heretical movements can be saved. God will judge us on what has been revealed to us (Lk 12:48), and I will leave that judgement in his righteous hands.
However, I do call Izzy to repent. He is right in warning people of the seriousness of sin; this could include a wilful ignorance of God’s nature. I also pray that God will send someone closer to him than I am, to lovingly rebuke him and lead him into a fuller knowledge of God. Please join me in that prayer.
Should Christians Stand with Izzy?
But what about trinitarian Christians? Should we stand with Izzy? The answer is yes and no, and really yes.
I don’t think that we should stand with Folau in the sense of identifying too closely with him as a fellow Christian. He identifies as a Christian and the Australian public see him that way, but there may be times that it’s helpful to respectfully say that we do not share significant beliefs. I would not want our solidarity with him to give credence to this fast-spreading heretical theology or to downplay its seriousness. I would not want him to be given speaking positions in churches because he is seen as a high-profile Christian or held up to the non-Christian world as an example of our faith. While he is sincere in what he believes and shares many beliefs with evangelicals, his doctrine does not measure up to the Bible.
However, I do think that we should stand with Izzy in his fight to be able to express his faith publicly. I have two reasons for this.
Firstly, it would be hypocritical not to. In asking for freedom of religious expression, Christians are arguing that society is made richer for having religious voices and that positions of faith are reasonable and a normal part of the human experience. Izzy is expressing deep and sincere views that shape his identity and relate, in part, to his cultural heritage. We should fight for the same freedoms that we are asking Australia to grant to Christians to be extended equally to those who hold to oneness theology.
Secondly, Folau is not being persecuted for the beliefs that we don’t share with him, but specifically for those that we do share. While many of us might have preferred that Izzy present his views more graciously, we should agree that the Bible condemns drunkenness, homosexual sex, extra-marital sex, adultery, lying, theft, unbelief, and worship of idols and that hell awaits those who do not repent in response to God’s gracious offer of forgiveness. Silencing Izzy on this silences trinitarian Christians as well.
So #standwithizzy where it is good and right to stand with him and distance yourself on issues on which it is wise to do so. Pray for him that God will provide for his needs in court, and more so that he will reveal himself more fully to him.
Note: Israel Folau did not respond to my attempts to contact him – perhaps he has other things on his mind than the questions of an unknown teacher at a far-off Bible college. I am however thankful that a representative of The Truth of Jesus Christ Church in Sydney was able to graciously answer my questions.
Tom Richards is a missionary with Australian Presbyterian World Mission in Vanuatu. He is a minister in the Westminster Presbyterian Church.