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A Response to the Christian Research Journal’s Recent Defense of the “Local Church” Movement
Norm Geisler and Ron Rhodes
Norm 盖斯勒 和 Ron 罗兹 合著
基督教研究所为地方教会辩护的背景 The Background of the Christian Research Institute Defense of the Local Church
地方教会（召会），以其在威胁起诉（和真正起诉）个体和团体的好诉讼的行为而被称为“邪教(cult)1”，这个已经成功的强博很多组织收回对他们使用“邪教（cult）”这个词，甚至最近的基督教研究期刊（Christian Research Journal, CRJ，由基督教研究所 Christian Research Institute, CRI发表）也承认这一点（45页）2。
The Background of the Christian Research Institute Defense of the Local Church The Local Church (LC), known for its litigious activity in threatening to sue (and actually suing) individuals and groups that call them a “cult,” 1
has been successful in
forcing many organizations to retract the word “cult” in reference to them, as even the recent Christian Research Journal (published by CRI) admits (page 45). 2
researcher Eric Pement has listed numerous examples of Christian groups that were
threatened or sued by the LC, most of which CRI did not even attempt to refute in its
Journal articles (45). It is a fact that the litigations of the LC drove a major countercult
movement called Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) into bankruptcy. The list of other
groups threatened with lawsuits include Christian Literature Crusade, Christian Herald
Books, Moody Bible Institute, Salem Kirban, Eternity Magazine, InterVarsity Press,
Tyndale House Publishers, Jim Moran and Light of Truth Ministries, Berean Apologetics
Research Ministry, and Daniel Azuma (45). Most recently they sued John Ankerberg and
John Weldon in reference to their Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions (ECNR),
along with their publisher (Harvest House), for $136 million. Had the suit been
successful, it would have bankrupted both organizations. Pement rightly commented, “I
doubt that the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses combined have issued as many
lawsuits and threats of lawsuits against evangelical Christians” (45).
In the wake of this, “a long list of evangelical theologians, apologists, and
leaders” (7) sent an “Open Letter” protesting the aberrant teachings of the LC (15),
urging them to recant their unorthodox statements “that appear to contradict or
compromise essential doctrines of the Christian faith” (15).
Further, they asked the LC
to “disavow and cease to publish these and similar declarations” (15). In addition, they
requested that the LC desist their litigious activities against evangelical groups that do not
Our use of the word “cult” in this document is not intended to be taken as an
inflammatory or pejorative term. Defined theologically, a cult is “a group of people,
which claiming to be Christian, embraces a particular doctrinal system taught by an
individual leader, group of leaders, or organization, which (system) denies (either
explicitly or implicitly) one or more of the central doctrines of the Christian faith as
taught in the sixty-six books of the Bible” (Alan Gomes, Unmasking the Cults [Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], p. 7).
Unless otherwise noted, all page numbers are from the Christian Research Journal (No.
32, Number 6).
The term “aberrant” literally means “departing from an accepted standard.” In the
context of this document, a doctrine is said to be aberrant if it undermines or is in
significant tension with the orthodox beliefs of the historic Christian faith as based in the
Bible and expressed in the early Christian creeds.2
believe that their doctrines and practices measure up to the standards of evangelical
beliefs and practices.
No apologies have been forthcoming by the LC, nor have they retracted the
unorthodox statements. Instead, the Supreme Court of Texas disagreed with their charges
against Ankerberg and Harvest House. The LC appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court also
failed. This was a great victory for the countercult movement and all who seek to
preserve evangelical orthodoxy, as we pointed out in our article titled “The Local Church
Movement and the Supreme Court of Texas: A Big Victory for the Countercult
Movement” (see “Articles” at www.normgeisler.com).
It is surprising to us that: 1) in spite of the final decision of the High Court against
the LC, and 2) in spite of the majority view in the countercult movement against them,
and 3) in spite of the failure of the LC to respond affirmatively to specific requests in the
Open Letter from numerous evangelical leaders, and 4) in spite of my (Norman Geisler)
personal plea to Hank Hanegraaff in my living room not to go this route, and 5) in spite
of the fact that for years CRI admits to calling the LC “aberrant,” and “cultic,” if not
“heretical” (49), and 6) in spite of the fact that CRI admits to being in possession of the
basic material then which they now use to justify the LC—in spite of all this, CRI has
launched a full-scale defense of the LC, going so far as to call them “solidly orthodox”
(47) and in many ways “an exemplary group of Christians” (29)!
Evaluation of CRI’s Defense of the Local Church Movement
Not only does CRI no longer believe the LC is a cult, as they once did, but they
do not even believe they are an “aberrant Christian group” (47). They now call the LC “a
solidly orthodox group of believers” (47, emphasis added). Moreover, they say, members
of the LC are in many ways “an exemplary group of Christians” (29). All this has come
as a great surprise to the majority of countercult ministries and apologists who have
studied the matter and have come to the opposite conclusion.
CRI not only now charges that the vast majority opinion in the countercult
community on the LC (which goes against their minority view) is incorrect, but suggests
that among LC critics, “animus drives ministry decisions” (47), seeming to imply that
many who stand against LC doctrines may be motivated by animus. In light of the
following evaluation, the reader can judge for him- or herself whether this conclusion is
What CRI Admits about the LC
Even what CRI admits about numerous unrecanted statements of the LC is, in our
view, cause for great concern. Consider the following as examples—all listed in the
Christian Research Journal (15-16). The Journal concedes that such statements in the
past provided sufficient fodder for knowledgeable cult researchers—including
themselves—to come to the conclusion that the LC was an aberrant, if not cultic, group.
Indeed, the Journal affirms: “We were convinced some of their teachings on essential
doctrines were at best contradictory, at worst heretical” (49).3
Controversial and Contradictory Statements
Statement # 1
“The Son is called the Father; so he must be the Father. 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?”
Statement # 2
“The traditional explanation of the Trinity is grossly inadequate and borders on
tritheism… 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.”
Statement # 3
“THE SON IS THE FATHER, AND THE SON IS ALSO THE SPIRIT…and the
Lord Jesus who is also the eternal Father. Our Lord is the Son, and He is also the Father.”
Statement # 4
“The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are not three separate persons or three Gods;
they are one God, one reality, one person” (emphasis added). Note: While the three
persons in the Godhead are not “separate” but rather distinct persons, nonetheless, they
certainly are not “one person” as the LC declares.
Statement # 5
Witness Lee, the revered leader of the LC movement, stated clearly that “the
entire Godhead, the Triune God, became flesh.” This same belief is repeated and
defended by Ron Kangas, Editor-in-Chief of the LC journal (Affirmation and Critique
[April, 2008. p. 6]) when he speaks of “the Triune God who passed through the process
In spite of attempted explanations found elsewhere in LC literature (including the
doctrine of coinherence, which we will address below), this statement flies in the face of
the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation which affirm that only the Son,
the Second Person of the Triune God, became incarnate. It was not of the Father, but of
the Son, that Scripture affirms: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (Jn.
1:14). Nowhere in Scripture or the early creeds is it ever claimed or suggested that the
Father or “the entire Godhead” (via coinherence) became incarnate in human flesh. This
is clearly an unorthodox statement. Yet, incredibly, CRI defends the LC’s orthodoxy in
spite of this statement.
Doctrinally Careless Statements
At best, many of the LC statements are careless and lend to a modalistic
understanding. CRI admits, “to be sure, Lee should have stated his concern more
carefully” (20). And “the LC certainly could have and should have taken greater care to 4
explain the nuances of their controversial teachings…” (20). But if CRI was “sure” and
has “certainty” that the LC has made unrecanted statements that “should” not have been
made, then why are they still defending the LC when it refuses to change these statements
which most knowledgeable people in the countercult community do not believe are
orthodox statements? Even cult expert and former CRI employee, Gretchen Passantino
Coburn, admitted that some LC teachings are “still confusing to many, especially
One has to ask why any group would continue to maintain careless, confusing,
and uncorrected statements on crucial doctrines—even when urged by some of their
friends (such as Hank Hanegraaff) to change them.
Apparently Unorthodox Statements
Interestingly, CRI admits that many statements by the LC appear to be
unorthodox. Indeed, they admit that, given the statements on God by the LC, “one could
reasonably surmise that Lee was affirming modalism” (25)—that is, unless one had done
the recent research that they have. However, we now have seen the results of the same
research and have come to the same conclusion, namely, that if the LC has made
admittedly unorthodox-sounding statements, then why does the LC continue to refuse to
repudiate them? Why not reword these statements to more accurately reflect their
claimed intended meaning? And why does CRI defend them without demanding that they
repudiate them? CRI even goes so far as to admit that their original conclusion that the
LC was unorthodox was based on a “pattern” of “hot button words associated in our
minds with heresy or cultism…” (34). But one must ask why—if there is a repeated
pattern of unorthodox expressions which the LC refuses to change—should one so
completely exonerate them as CRI has done, affirming that they are “solidly orthodox”
(47)? Even CRI is forced to admit that “strong modalistic-sounding language [is] often
found” in LC writings (21).
Admittedly Regrettable and Harsh Statements about Other Religious Groups
Strangely, CRI’s current devotion to the LC movement includes an almost blanket
acceptance of them despite the fact that CRI admits they have uses “harsh,” “loaded,” and
“regrettable” terms against other religious groups, such as “Babylon,” “spiritual
fornication,” and “satanic system.” It is simply insufficient to counter this by producing
an admission from the LC that there are true believers in others churches (35). Even in
their very statement they claim that “the local church, so defined, is the only genuine and
proper expression of the one universal church…” (35).
Not only does the LC believe they are the only proper and genuine local
expression of the universal church, but they are unrepentant about making libelous
statements about the rest of Christendom. In their Appeal to the Texas Supreme Court to
reconsider their case, the LC ironically included an appendix containing Chapter Three
from a book by Witness Lee titled, The God-Ordained Way to Practice the New
Testament Economy in which he engages in a slanderous attack on “all of Christianity,”
“all Christians,” “today’s Christendom” “all Christianity,” and “today’s Catholic
Church.” He calls organized Christianity “deformed and degraded,” containing “false 5
teachers,” who are “in their apostasy.” The Roman Church is infested with “Satan’s evil
spirits” and “full of all kinds of evils. Evil persons, evil practices, and evil things are
lodging there.” It is an “adulterous woman who added leaven (signifying evil, heretical,
and pagan things).” It is “the Mother of the Prostitutes” and an “apostate church.” Again,
it is “full of idolatry,” “against God’s economy,” and “saturated with demonic and satanic
things.” If ever there were grounds for religious libel, this would be it. Yet the LC objects
strongly and litigiously when someone else calls them a “cult.” This is a classic example
of the kettle calling the pot black!
The language of this attack on the rest of Christendom is not only “regrettable”
and “harsh,” as even CRI admits, it is lamentable and inexcusable. In view of this, it is
inconceivable that CRI can conclude of the LC that “it is therefore, once again, both
unreasonable and unrealistic to call on them to renounce these statements by their late
leader” (37) and to claim that they are “an exemplary group of Christians” (29). If LC
members are in agreement with Lee’s statements above, how can this be said to be
“solidly orthodox” and “exemplary”?
Apparently or Actually Contradictory Statements
CRI offers what they admit are apparently contradictory statements of the LC in
an attempt to exonerate them from heresy.
One such statement is that “although the
Father and Son are one, between them there is still a distinction of I and the Father” (17).
At best, however, this would show that the LC has made contradictory statements about
God. It is noteworthy that the LC still refuses to repudiate their statements that the Father
and Son are really the same (cited above). Merely appealing to the doctrine of
coinherence does not alleviate our concerns (see below). As well, they refuse to accept
the orthodox creedal statements on the Trinity.
After they cited me (Norm) in an article in their journal, I gave them an
opportunity to clearly distinguish their view as orthodox and they refused (see Appendix
below). So, despite the claim that they are open to dialog, and even after citing me in
their journal, they were not open to any scholarly exchange with me.
Likewise, the LC’s alleged repudiation of patripassianism (the heresy that the
Father suffered on the cross—17) is unconvincing since they also claim (and CRI
apparently supports) the view, based on the doctrine of coinherence, that both the Father
and the Son are involved in each other’s activities. They say, “no person of the Trinity
goes anywhere or does anything apart from the presence and involvement of the other two
persons” (23, emphasis added). If this were true, then the Father would have been
involved in the suffering of Christ on the cross, which even they admit is the heresy of
patripassionism. God was certainly present in His omnipresence, but God the Father is
not God the Son, and the Father certainly was not involved in the experience of Christ’s
suffering on the cross. CRI claims that “what is distinctly the Son’s actions…is likewise
Our use of the word “heresy” (or “heretical”) in this document is not intended to be
taken as an inflammatory or pejorative term. Based on biblical usage, the word heresy
refers to a divisive teaching or practice that is contrary to the historic Christian Faith as
based on the Bible and expressed in the early Christian creeds. It involves a teaching or
practice which compels true Christians to divide themselves from those who hold it.6
the Father’s operation.” They cite with approval the statement that “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…” (22). But, again,
this confuses the different roles and actions of different members of the Godhead. For
example, the Father did not die for our sins, nor does the Father eternally proceed from
the Father, as the Son does from the Father.
There is a big difference between claiming that each member of the Trinity dwells
in the others and claiming, as the LC does, that each member is the other. For the LC
affirms that “the Son is called the Father; so he must be the Father. 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?” (Statement # 1 above, emphasis added).
Clearly, this is not an orthodox way to express the Trinity.
What is more, the LC affirms that there is only one “Person” in the Trinity
(Statement # 4 above), while at the same time claiming there are “three distinct” persons
in the Trinity. So, at best, the LC has both orthodox and unorthodox statements about the
Trinity—which involves a contradiction. Hence, they are duty-bound to renounce the
unorthodox elements of their theology.
Now, if CRI believes that the LC has made unrecanted statements that are
controversial, careless, apparently contradictory, and which are unorthodox expressions
as such, then how and why do they claim: “I believe that sufficient evidence has been
provided to exonerate the LC from the charges of heresy, aberration, duplicity, and selfcontradiction as regards the Trinity” (23)? This incredible conclusion does not match the
evidence that even they admit.
A Response to the CRI Arguments for the LC
Many arguments are used by CRI to defend the LC. Two of the more substantive
arguments are: 1) LC critics have taken the unorthodox-sounding statements of the LC
out of context. If they understood the context, they would not pronounce them
unorthodox. 2) These statements are explainable in the light of the orthodox doctrine of
coinherence in the Trinity, and the distinction between the ontological Trinity and the
We will examine these arguments below. First, however, we will briefly address
some of the supportive arguments CRI offers in defense of the LC.
The Fear of Potential Persecution
The president of CRI, Hank Hanegraaff, argued in his Amicus brief to the High
Court that calling the Local Church a cult will bring persecution on it and other Christian
groups in religiously intolerant societies. He claimed that the word cult “can have
dramatic and dangerous ramifications. This could be particularly harmful to any group,
such as the Local Church, with large constituencies in religiously intolerant societies”
(8.7/06 “Brief of Amicus Curiae Hank Hanegraaff,” p. 2).
The Court rightly saw no merit in this pragmatic argument and for good reason.
While we personally abhor all forms of religious persecution, and are not insensitive to
the plight of those who do suffer such persecution, the fact remains that truth and legality 7
are not determined by what its possible social misuse may be. Further, in view of the
libelous things the LC has uttered against the rest of Christendom (mentioned above), by
this same argument, the Local Church has endangered all other Christian groups and
denominations in China, who are now vulnerable to persecution by the Chinese
government for the same reason. So, it is surprising that the otherwise thoughtful
Gretchen Passantino Coburn is supporting such a poor argument—an argument that even
her own brother, Cal Beisner, a sophisticated theologian, has had to rebuff her on.
The Approval of Fuller Seminary
It is noted by CRI that Fuller Seminary, after an allegedly thorough examination of the
doctrines of the LC, has pronounced (in a letter on behalf of the Local Church of January
5, 2006) that “the teachings and practices of the local churches and its members represent
the genuine historical, biblical Christian faith in every essential aspect.” But given
Fuller’s own well-documented deviation from orthodoxy on the doctrine of Scripture, this
is hardly a compliment. After several years of examination of one of its professors, Paul
Jewett—who had said (in his book, Man as Male and Female) that the apostle Paul was
wrong in what he affirmed as true (in 1 Cor. 11)—the seminary concluded that he was
orthodox and retained him on their faculty. But if “whatever the Bible affirms, God
affirms” is so (as B.B. Warfield and the ICBI “Chicago Statement” affirm), then their
professor Paul Jewett denied inerrancy. It is not a surprise, then, that Fuller removed
inerrancy from its founding doctrinal statement. Fuller Seminary is scarcely known as a
bastion of orthodoxy, and neither is it known for its sophisticated discernment on cults
and aberrant religions. One would be more likely to listen if seminaries such as Dallas,
Denver, Grace, Masters, Trinity, or Westminster had exonerated the LC movement. The
truth is that the one class of Christians that is most accustomed to doing this kind of
analysis—the countercult movement—has spoken out loudly against the LC movement.
The Argument from More Research
One argument used by CRI is that their conclusions in favor of the LC should be
believed because they have done better and more research on the topic (50). First of all,
as we all know, more does not necessarily mean better. So, we can concentrate on what
really matters. Gretchen Passantino Coburn claims she has done more research on this
topic than most others and that she has been doing it for a longer time (50). However, it is
clear that truth does not always reside with the persons who have read more or studied
longer. Rather, it rests with those who can reason best from the evidence.
Further, there is really no new evidence available since CRI did its first research
and found the LC to be aberrant, if not heretical. Even Passantino speaks of
“reexamining” the evidence rather than discovering really new evidence. True, she
speaks of looking at a “wide body of material” (50), but there was really nothing new. It
was just more of the same basic facts they had known before. Elliot Miller speaks of it as
“reassess-”ing (7), but confessed that they knew back then the kind of passages that are
now being used to justify the LC (16). So, why CRI’s sudden reversal? It is not really
new evidence. Is it that they now think that contradictory statements can both be true? 8
Apparently not. It is because they were prompted for some unknown reason to “reassess”
and “reexamine” the same basic evidence and come to the opposite conclusion that the
LC was really orthodox all along. In response, we recall Elliot Miller’s statement about
the CRI staff raising the possibility that their leader Walter Martin softened his view
toward the LC as a result of being “taken in” by Witness Lee after he met with him (11).
One could ask whether Walter Martin would not now believe his successors at CRI have
been “taken in” by the current LC leaders.
Further, as to the implied claim of truth-by-longevity-of-study argument,
Gretchen Passantino claims she has “30 years in professional countercult apologetics”
(letter in support of the LC, 8/18/06). If that has any weight, then my (Norm) view would
have twice the weight since I have been doing apologetics for nearly 60 years now!
Further, I have carefully examined CRI’s new recent reversal on the LC, and I am still
convinced that they are unorthodox in many of their statements about God.
The Doctrine of Coinherence in God
CRI attempts to exonerate the LC from heresy on the Trinity by invoking the
doctrine of coinherence in God. They claim that this means that it is legitimate to speak
of one Person of the Trinity as being the other Person because there is an
“interpenetration [of] one another” (22). However, this, in our view, is a serious
misunderstanding of coinherence.
One evangelical theologian from Dallas Theological Seminary recently observed
that “for much of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as for an increasing number of scholars
in the West, the unity of the Trinity is to be found in perichoresis, the inner habitation (or
coinherence) of each divine person in the other. That is, each member of the Godhead in
some sense indwells the other, without diminishing the full personhood of each. The
essential unity of the Godhead, then, is found both in their intrinsic equality of divine
characteristics and also in the intensely personal unity that comes from mutual
indwelling” (Scott Horrell, “The Self-Giving Triune God,” www.bible.org). However, we
can observe that those who hold to this particular understanding of coinherence are
careful to retain the distinction between the three persons. Yes, the three Persons have
unity, but they forever remain actually distinct. In this view, to say that the three Persons
mutually indwell each other is not the same as saying that the three Persons ARE each
other. That is, to say that the Father and the Son mutually indwell each other is not the
same as saying that “the Son is the Father.” The latter is modalistic language.
One does well to recognize that, more foundationally, each of the three distinct
Persons of the Trinity coinhere in the same divine essence. In this view, what they share
in common is not their distinct personhoods—though they are indeed “intensely
personal” with each other—but their common nature.
However one understands the doctrine of coinherence, it is illegitimate to
conclude that the doctrine allows for referring to one Person in the Trinity as being
another. That is, it is unorthodox to say “the Son is the Father” or “the Son is also the
Appealing to “Everlasting Father” in Isaiah 9:69
Appealing to Isaiah 9:6, in our view, does not provide the scriptural support for
this idea that the LC apparently hopes for (“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful
Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”). First, when used of the
First Person of the Trinity, the term “Father” is a distinctly New Testament term. That
fact alone ought to clue the reader in that the term “eternal Father” in the Old Testament
is being used in a different, unique sense of the Second Person of the Trinity (Isaiah 9:6).
Moreover, in the New Testament, we must not forget that the Father is considered by
Jesus as someone other than Himself over 200 times in the New Testament. And over 50
times in the New Testament the Father and Son are seen to be distinct within the same
verse (see, for example, Rom. 15:6; 2 Cor. 1:4; Gal. 1:2-3; Phil. 2:10-11; 1 John 2:1; and
2 John 3). These facts set interpretive parameters regarding our understanding of Isaiah
Based on the original Hebrew, the phrase “eternal Father” is better rendered into
English, “Father of eternity.” In reference to Jesus this phrase can mean one of several
Jesus is Eternal. Some believe the phrase is here used here in accordance with the
Hebrew mindset that says that he who possesses a thing is called the father of it. For
example, the father of knowledge means intelligent, and the father of glory means
glorious. According to this common usage, the meaning of Father of eternity in Isaiah 9:6
is “eternal.” Christ as the “Father of eternity” is an eternal being. In keeping with this, the
ancient Targums—simplified paraphrases of the Old Testament Scriptures utilized by the
ancient Jews—rendered Isaiah 9:6, “His name has been called from of old, Wonderful
Counselor, Mighty God, He who lives forever, the Anointed One (or Messiah), in whose
days peace shall increase upon us.” A strong case can therefore be made that the term
simply indicates the eternality of the divine Messiah, not that the Son (the Second Person
of the Trinity) is the Father (the First Person of the Trinity).
Jesus Gives Us Eternal Life. A second viable view is that the first part of verse six
makes reference to the incarnation of Jesus. The part of the verse that lists the names by
which He is called expresses His relationship to His people. He is to us the Wonderful
Counselor, the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, the Prince of Peace. In this sense of
the word “Father,” Jesus is a provider of eternal life for His people. By His death, burial,
and resurrection, He has brought life and immortality to light (2 Tim. 1:10). Again,
however, the verse does not give justification for saying that the Son (the Second Person
of the Trinity) is the Father (the First Person of the Trinity).
Appealing to “The Lord is the Spirit” in 2 Corinthians 3:17
Nor is there any real support for saying the Son (the Second Person of the Trinity)
is also the Spirit (the Third Person of the Trinity) from 2 Corinthians 3:17 (“Now the
Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”). Many
expositors view this verse as saying that the Holy Spirit is “Lord” not in the sense of
being Jesus but in the sense of being Yahweh (the Lord God) (cf. v. 16, which cites Exod.
34:34). One must observe that just earlier in 2 Corinthians 3 (vs. 3-6) the apostle Paul
clearly distinguishes between Jesus and the Holy Spirit (see vs. 3-6). More broadly, the
whole of Scripture indicates that Jesus is not the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the Holy Spirit is
said to be another comforter (John 14:16; cf. 1 John 2:1). Jesus sent the Holy Spirit (John 10
15:26; 16:7). The Holy Spirit seeks to glorify Jesus (John 16:13-14). The Holy Spirit
descended upon Jesus at His baptism (Luke 3:22). Even if one holds to the doctrine of
coinherence (affirming that the Son and the Holy Spirit mutually indwell each other),
they are still distinct, and this doctrine should not be taken to mean it is acceptable to say
that the Son (the Second Person of the Trinity) is also the Spirit (the Third Person of the
Trinity), which is an unorthodox and modalistic way of expressing it.
Appealing to “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” in John 14:10
Support for the doctrine of coinherence is often sought in John 14:10, where Jesus
states: “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Based on this
verse, it is argued that because Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus that it is
acceptable to say that “the Son is the Father.” If that is true, then when Jesus says in John
14:20, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you,”
can I thus say that “I am Jesus Christ” since I am “in” Jesus and Jesus is “in” me
(compare with John 17:21)? Obviously not.
Please do not misunderstand what we are saying. We grant that there is an
intimate personal unity among the Persons of the Trinity. However, we also believe that it
involves a leap in logic to say that simply because the Father is “in” the Son and the Son
is “in” the Father (John 14:10) that it is therefore acceptable to say that “the Son (the
Second Person of the Trinity) is the Father (the First Person of the Trinity),” which is a
modalistic way of expressing it.
It should be emphasized that Jesus in the New Testament never says the Son is the
Father or that the Father is the Son, which is what the LC holds. Remember, the LC
affirms (see Statement # 1 above) that “the Son is called the Father; so he must be the
Father. 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?” (emphasis
added). Notice that the LC claims that the Son “really” is the Father and vice versa; he is
not simply “called” the Father.
To illustrate the absurdity of the LC position, one final citation from Witness Lee
is necessary. He wrote: “Because the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all one with the
Body of Christ, we may say that the Triune God is now the ‘four-in-one’ God. These four
are the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and the Body. The Three of the Divine Trinity cannot
be confused or separated, and the four-in-one also cannot be separated or confused.” (Lee,
A Deeper Study, 203-204). No amount of hermeneutical gyrations can untangle this
theological absurdity. Clearly, Lee does not hold the orthodox view of the Trinity which
allows no creature or creatures to be one with the members of the Trinity in the same
sense that the Body of Christ (the Church) is one with God. Defending such a view is
both senseless and useless.
The Distinction between the Ontological Trinity and the Economic Trinity
CRI also cites a distinction between “the activities of the three persons in the
economic Trinity and the coinherence of the three persons in the essential Trinity” (16).
Witness Lee is quoted as affirming that in eternity, “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” (16). But Lee elsewhere contradicts this by saying, 11
“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…. 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…. 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” (21). In response, we would point out that we dare not
make statements that are contradictory. Nor, should we use unorthodox language that is
modalistic. Even CRI admits that the LC uses “strong modalistic-sounding language”
CRI admits that they knew from the beginning that the LC made contradictory
statements about the Trinity (7). This is why CRI originally considered the LC “aberrant”
rather than a “cult,” because the LC “add[ed] to those confessions of orthodoxy further
affirmations that contradict, compromise, or undermine them” (16).
For some strange reason, CRI now argues that these once admitted contradictory
statements are now not contradictory. What prompted the change of mind? Do these
reputable cult apologists (such as Elliot Miller and Gretchen Passantino) now believe that
the statements “God is only one Person” and “God is three distinct Persons” is now not a
contradiction? In brief, strangely, the answer is Yes. How so? Because, we are told, the
LC makes a distinction between the “essential Trinity” and the “economic Trinity.” The
“essential” Trinity is the Trinity in itself from all eternity. The “economic” Trinity is the
Trinity in operation in creation. In the “essential Trinity” there are three distinct Persons,
but in the “economic” (operational) Trinity there is no difference between them. They are
so co-mingled with each other in their activities that one member of the Trinity can be
called the other. The Father is the Son; the Son is the Father, and so on.
In response, two points must be made. First, to clarify, there are not of course
really two Trinities but only one. If there were two, then this would be a serious heresy of
denying that there is only one God. Thus, at best, the distinction between an “essential”
and “operational” Trinity is not an ontological (real) distinction since, in reality, there is
only one Trinity. Thus, the “operational Trinity” is, at best, only a way of speaking about
the one and only essential Trinity’s activities, not His essential Being. But even here
when one member of the Trinity acts in the world, He is still distinct from the other
members, even if they are co-acting with Him. For example, when co-authors such as
ourselves mingle our minds and act together by co-authoring the same thoughts and
words in the same book, we are still in this action two different persons. And no such coaction justifies anyone calling Ron “Norm,” or calling Norm “Ron.” We are two really
distinct persons with different names.
Ultimately, the problems for the LC view here (and CRI apologists) are that: 1) in
the “essential Trinity” they either a) have a traditional modalistic heresy of not affirming
three really distinct Persons in God, or else b) they have a contradiction (wherein God is
both one Person and not one person but three distinct persons), and 2) in the “economical
Trinity” they have a heresy, constituting a new sub-category of modalism—what we
might call operational modalism. In either case, it should be rejected as not orthodox.
Of course, like most analogies, this is not a perfect one since, as human beings, we are
not only distinct persons, but we are also separate beings from each other. Our point is
that co-acting does not blur the distinction between persons.12
With this in mind, we can see that the distinction between “economic” and
“operational” Trinities does not eliminate the contradiction and does not preserve
orthodoxy. Distinctions in God (like “economic” and “essential”) have been made by the
LC where there are no such real differences in Him. This is not to say that there is no
difference between God and His actions; there is. It is simply to say that there is no
difference in the nature of God prior to His actions, during His actions, and after His
actions. God does not lose His true identity of one nature and three distinct persons when
He is acting in this world any more than we lose our distinct identities when we engage in
the actions of co-authoring an article or a book.
However, Witness Lee used a traditional modalistic analogy for the Trinity when
he spoke of God being one person in “three appearances.” He said, “If you could visit
him [the man in his illustration] at his home in the early hours of the day, you would see
that He is a father or a husband. After breakfast, he may go to the university to be a
professor. Then at the hospital in the afternoon, you may see him in a white uniform as a
doctor. Why is he these three kinds of persons?.... [In God] There are three Persons, but
only one name)…. [Likewise] The father in the home, the professor in the university, and
the doctor in the hospital are also three persons with one name” (Witness Lee, The
Practical Expression of the Church, Living Stream Ministry, 1970, p. 8, inserts added for
clarification). Such language is clearly modalistic, for one and only one person is
performing three different roles, which Lee calls “three persons.” But these “three
persons” are not really three distinctly different persons, as in the orthodox view of the
Trinity. Rather, it is only one Person who performs three different roles. There is hardly a
better illustration of modalism than this.
Further, a case can be made that the LC holds to a progressive form of modalism
in which the one God expresses Himself in three stages or successive steps. Witness Lee
affirmed: “In the heavens, where man cannot see, God the Father; when He is expressed
among men, He is the Son; and when He comes into men, He is the Spirit” (Witness Lee,
Concerning the Triune God, Living Stream Ministry, n.d., pp. 8-9). Lee also wrote, “Our
God is the Triune God, and He has been processed so that He can be dispensed into us….
When a watermelon has become processed into juice, it can easily be taken into us to
become our very element. God the Father has been processed through God the Son, and
now He is God the Spirit…. Likewise, we can drink the Spirit, who is the ultimate
consummation of the processed Triune God. Our God today is the ‘juice God’… Because
God has been processed, He is drinkable” (Witness Lee, The History of the Church and
Local Churches, p. 10). Lee wrote, “In eternity past God existed alone…. At a certain
point in history, this creating God, the Creator of all, became man…. After His
crucifixion, Christ was buried in a tomb…. After three days, Christ arose from the dead
in His resurrection. Through the resurrection and in the resurrection He became the lifegiving Spirit [the Holy Spirit]… Because God, after completing the work of creation, passed
through incarnation, human living, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and descension, we
may speak of Him as the processed God” (“What is the Process of God’s Economy?” The
Hearing of Faith: Living Stream Ministry Radio Newsletter, Number 34, Feb. 2001, p. 2,
insert added for clarification). So, “the Father who listens to the praying is the Son who
prays; and the Son who prays is also the Father who listens to the prayer” (Witness Lee,
Concerning the Triune God, p. 27).13
In fact, Lee did not hesitate to distinguish his view from the orthodox view of the
Trinity, calling the orthodox view “the traditional teaching concerning the Trinity… Now
we believe that the Son is the Father and also that the Lord is the Spirit” (Witness Lee,
Young People’s Training, Living Stream Ministry, 1989, p. 110). Lee adds, “I realize that
this offends the theology of Christianity, but I have some verses from the pure Word as
the ground to say this” (Witness Lee, The Wonderful Christ, Living Stream Ministry,
1989, pp. 23-24). Then he cites Isaiah 9:6 and John 14 (which were discussed above).
In seeming contradiction, Lee also states: “But we still believe the other side of
the Triune God—that all Three of the Godhead exist at the same time, and among Them
there is real coinherence for eternity.” He adds, “Although we cannot reconcile these two
aspects of the Trinity, we absolutely believe them both” (Witness Lee, Young People’s
Training, Living Stream Ministry, 1989, p. 110). Here again, what Lee calls a “mystery”
he does not really distinguish from a logical contradiction.
Ron Kangas, editor-in-chief of the LC journal, expresses the same basic view,
claiming that the Members of the Godhead are “distinct” and yet only one. He declared
that “essentially, God is one, but economically He is three…” (Affirmation and Critique,
vol. x111, No 1, April 2008, p. 5).
Further, Kangas goes on to claim that, although God in eternity (in his essential
state) is unchangeable, nonetheless, God in time (in his economical mode) does change.
God changes successively from Father (in the OT) to the Son (in the Incarnation) to the
Holy Spirit (after the resurrection). This Kangas calls the “processed God—the Triune
God who passed through the process of incarnation…” (ibid., p. 6). Of this process God
undergoes, Kangas uses words like “changed,” “became,” and “entered upon a new stage
existence” (ibid., p. 10). Yet somehow God in His essential nature remains unchanged
through all this. Realizing the apparent contradiction here, Kangas here too appeals to
Lee’s mysterious doctrine of the “Twofoldness of Truth.”
The Use of “Twofoldness of Truth” in Defense of the LC
CRI apologists attempt to justify Witness Lee and the LC by defending the belief
in “twofold truth.” They ask, “What about Lee’s declarations that the Son is the Father
and the Spirit?” (21)? And what about the LC claim that God cannot change in His
essential nature, but that He did change in the incarnation? Are these not contradictory?
Despite the fact that they admit that they have “advised the LC against making such
declarations” (21), they insist that “when he [Witness Lee] affirmed that the Trinity is
one person he was not engaging in boldfaced self-contradiction” (21).
In response, let us be clear: There are no degrees of contradiction. Either
something is logically contradictory or it is not. Non-boldfaced contradictions are still
contradictions. Nor can it be excused, as CRI attempts to do so, on “Western” (21) and
“Aristotelian” (49) type thinking. Aristotle did not invent logic, nor is the law of noncontradiction limited to Western minds. Eastern minds can’t avoid the laws of logic either.
Once one gives up on the law of non-contradiction, there is no basis for intelligible
affirmations or denials, orthodox or unorthodox. It is simply not possible for God to be
both only one Person and also three Persons at the same time and in the same sense. But
Lee does not distinguish any different sense in which God is both only one Person and 14
three Persons in the ontological Trinity. Nor do LC leaders distinguish any real difference
between claiming God is three Persons and yet only one Person in His essential Being.
The Use of Cornelius Van Til
The use of Cornelius Van Til to justify contradictions in LC thinking about God is
questionable for several reasons. First, Van Til never denied the early Christian creeds
which define God as having three distinct Persons in one essence. What he did was to say
that in some sense God can be also designated as a Person, as well as defined as three
distinct Persons. To give Van Til the benefit of the doubt, either his insistence on God as
a Person should be taken to refer to the Godhead overall as a tri-personal being, or else
we must understand that the term “Person” does not mean exactly the same thing when
speaking of God as one as it does when speaking of God as three. If not, then Van Til
would either be involved in a contradiction (namely, affirming that God is only one
Person and also three Persons at the same time and in the same sense) or else it would be
heretical. If Van Til is orthodox here, then he should not be used to support the
unorthodox LC position. If he is unorthodox, then using one unorthodox view to support
another unorthodox view is not a good way to defend orthodoxy.
The Use of Theologian Augustus Strong
CRI appeals to the noted Baptist theologian Augustus Strong in support of the LC
view. But even the citation they use does not justify the LC belief that the Father is the
Son and the Son is the Father and that the name Father can be used of the Son and vice
versa. For Strong rightly says that “there is intercommunication of persons and an
immanence of one person in another which permits the peculiar work of one to be
ascribed…to either of the other….” (22, emphasis added). But he does not say that one
person is the other; he merely says that one person is in the other. This is indwelling, not
identity. God is in believers, but God and believers are not identical. In fact, Strong flatly
affirms that “as respects their personalities, [they] are distinct subsistences” (22). This
gives no support to the modalistic-sounding view of the LC now being approved by CRI.
CRI rejects the Texas Appellate Court decision regarding the constitutionality of
calling the LC a cult both in a theological sense and in a sociological sense. In truth, the
decision was a great victory for all orthodox, conservative, and evangelical Christians.
For, as we pointed out in our amicus brief to the Texas Supreme Court (which upheld the
Texas Appellate Court’s decision), this would be a violation of free speech, since it
would deny us the freedom to define the limits of our own orthodox beliefs by
distinguishing them from unorthodox beliefs. The LC rightly but reluctantly had to
acknowledge that “it is nothing more than an expression of religious opinion that the
Local Church is a ‘cult’ in a theological sense. It is a type of religious opinion that is
undisputedly protected by the Establishment Clause...” (p. 9, emphasis added).
As for their residual charge that Ankerberg, Weldon, and Harvest House had
libelously labeled the LC a cult in a sociological sense, the court rejected this as well, as 15
indeed it should have. For nowhere did they make false or libelous charges against the
Indeed, the best CRI can produce in support of their contention is that Ankerberg
and Weldon made “imprecise” statements that could possibly be construed as including
the LC and that “imprecise allegations can still result in character assassination and
should therefore be considered defamatory” (43). However, on this ground, most
theologians and Christian writers I know (to say nothing of many hymn writers) should
all be put in jail!
One final comment should be made about CRI’s justification of LC lawsuits.
Despite the fact that they agree that the LC multimillion dollar lawsuit against Ankerberg
was a “mistake” (44), they went on to justify LC lawsuits, claiming, “LC always took
legal action as a last resort when the parties absolutely refused to meet with them as
Christian brothers.” Despite factual evidence provided by Ankerberg and Harvest House
to the contrary (which convinced the High Courts), one is hard-pressed to justify these
kinds of lawsuits on biblical grounds. First Corinthians 6 is clear on these kinds of
disputes among Christians. Matthew 18 sets the pattern to follow, and in it the last
recourse is to take it to “the church,” (v. 17), not to secular courts. In 1 Corinthians 6, the
bottom line is: “To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why
not rather suffer wrong?” (v. 7). Further, CRI attempts in vain to show moral (or biblical)
equivalence between this kind of theological and moral issue and other friendly and/or
financial suits a corporation may take to get its rightful financial due.
The LC’s attempt to justify their lawsuits have a hollow sound, by claiming that
“we did not do so lightly or without cause” (46), adding unconvincingly that they were
“forced [to] file lawsuits in the United States when no other avenue was open to us” (46).
In truth, no one forced the LC to do it. They did it of their own free will.
CRI’s use of Paul appealing to Caesar (46) in his own defense against false
charges that involved his life is a desperate attempt to justify the biblically unjustifiable.
There has always been another alternative that the LC refused to take, namely, to stop
suing and threatening to sue other Christians, to admit and revise its false statements
about the Triune God of Scripture, and to apologize for their harsh statements about
Christian organizations, such as “spiritual fornication” and “satanic.”
Meanwhile, CRI needs to reexamine its own near-blanket justification of such an
aberrant and unrepentant organization as “solidly orthodox” (47) and are in many ways
“an exemplary group of Christians” (29). Indeed, their whole effort is more of a selfjustification than a self-confession. We are still left with the mystery of explaining how
my friends and otherwise good countercult researchers (like Elliot Miller and Gretchen
Passantino Colburn) could be persuaded to use their considerable talents to over-defend a
group which they once believed—and most countercult scholars still do believe—is
unorthodox. Further, one is greatly disappointed that one of the foremost countercult
groups in the country could sacrifice its once high credibility in their nearly unqualified
justification of this aberrant and cultic group.
The following letter was sent to Mr. Kangas, editor-in chief of the LC journal. He
used my name (Norm) in his article “The Economy of God: The Triune God in His
Operation” in the LC journal called Affirmation and Critique: A Journal of Christian
Thought. So, I assumed (wrongly) that he was open to dialogue. Had he answered my
questions, he could have clarified LC views. Not answering them leaves a shadow over
their position. He included a “Statement of Faith” next to the article which affirmed that
“…we believe that God is eternally one and also eternally the Father, the Son, and the
Spirit, the three being distinct but not separate.” Noticing, among other things, his refusal
to use the orthodox statement on the Trinity which speaks of three distinct “Persons,” I
wrote him the following letter to which I never got a reply.
June 1, 2008
Editor-in-Chief Ron Kangas
Affirmation and Critique
Living Stream Ministry
Dear Mr. Kangas:
Thank you for the copy of your Journal. Since you mentioned me in your article, I
thought I would take this opportunity to ask for some clarification of your views.
First, if you desired to be considered orthodox in your “Statement of Faith,” then
why did you leave out the word “person” of the three members of the Trinity. To be
orthodox you should have said “three [persons] being distinct” and “we confess the third
[person] of the Trinity.” If it is not a triunity of persons in one essence, then what are the
“three”? You rightly claim they are not “three separate gods.” Yet you deny they are
merely three “modes” of one person. Then, what (or who) are the three?
Second, you speak of an “essential Trinity.” But again, who (or what) are the
three in this essential tri-unity. The Word “Trinity” means, as you recognize, three in one.
But if the one is the essence, then who (or what) are the three? There can’t be three
essences in one essence.
Third, you claim your view is not “modalism,” but you never clearly affirm there
are three distinct persons in the Trinity in distinction from modalism. If there is only one
person, then this is modalism. And if there are three distinct persons in the one essence of
the Godhead (which you do not affirm), then this is the orthodox view of the Trinity.
Fourth, what do you mean by “twofoldness” of truth. Can logical opposites both
be true? You seem to say that Christ was both divine and human in one nature. For
example, you affirm he is both “infinite God and a finite man.” You say that “God is
infinite, and man is finite, yet in Christ the two became one.” This is not the orthodox
doctrine of the Trinity, which never affirms that God (the infinite) became man (the
finite). Rather, it asserts that the second person of the Godhead became man. Certainly,
the Father and the Spirit did not become human. Only the Son became human. That is, he
(who was the second person of the Godhead from all eternity) assumed another distinctly
different nature and thus was both God and man united in one person (but not in one
Fifth, what do you mean when you say that Christ’s resurrection body is both a
glorified body of “flesh and bones” and yet at the same time “the Spirit of reality.” How
can it be both material and not material (im-material) at the same time?
Sixth, how would you distinguish your view from the heresy called
monophysitism which co-mingled the two natures of Christ? How can he be both finite
and not-finite (in-finite) at the same time in the same sense?
Seventh, how would you distinguish your view from the Yin-Yang of Taoism
where ultimate reality is beyond distinctions like true or false, and opposites can both be
one? You view of “coinherence” and “mingling” sounds very much like a denial that the
Law of Non-contradiction applies to God. Do you believe that our statements about God
must be non-contradictory in order to be true?
Eighth, you say God is “immutable” and yet is in process, calling Him the
“processed God.” This, too, sounds like a contradiction where the unchangeable actually
changes. How can this be?
Sincerely awaiting your reply,
Norman L. Geisler