An area that I have yet to tackle in any post in detail is a subject that is at the core of Oneness Pentecostal (OP) belief and that is the idea of the oneness of God, from their perspective. I have been reluctant to address this only because of the amount of information and time required to begin addressing this issue – but it must be addressed.
For any OP individuals that come across these posts, one must begin by setting aside the presupposition that the doctrine of the Trinity somehow asserts a belief in three gods. Let us try and understand the issue by establishing some basic points on each side. Trinitarian theology teaches strictly that there is one God – one divine and indivisible being and in this one divine, indivisible being are three persons or subsistences (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). I have heard some describe God as one what and three who’s.
Louis Berkhof provides the following definition of the Trinity
A) There is in the Divine Being but one indivisible essence (ousia, essentia). B) In this one Divine Being there are three Persons or individual subsistences, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. C) The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons. D) The subsistence and operation of the three persons in the Divine Being is marked by a certain definite order. E) There are certain personal attributes by which the three persons are distinguished. F) The Church confesses the Trinity to be a mystery beyond the comprehension of man.[i]
Trinitarian teaching asserts that there is one indivisible being that is God and that one indivisible being “belongs equally to each of the three persons.” Thus, the Father is fully God and the Son is fully God, the Father is somehow distinct from the Son and the Son distinct from the Father. The one being of God is shared by three co-equal, co-eternal persons, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
When speaking of the Trinity a concise definition would be to state that God is one in divine essence, three in person. There is no logical contradiction here because they are not one and three in the same sense. The body of Christ is one but many in members. Thus, the church being one and many is not a logical contradiction between it is not one and many in the same sense.
Trinitarian and Oneness theology both assert that there is one Divine Being – one God. The distinction between the positions is essentially that Trinitarian theology asserts that the one God is tripersonal while Oneness asserts that the one God is unipersonal. Oneness advocates cannot simply disregard the doctrine of the Trinity as being a creation of the 4th Century that asserts the existence of three divine beings or is tritheistic. This is not what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches. All agree that there is one divine being – one God. The question is: does scripture teach that this one divine being is shared by three “persons” or is the one divine being unipersonal?
Let’s consider some basic definitional terms:
Essence – Essence is derived from the Greek word ousia, which simply means a being or substance. Essence therefore points to inner nature, substance or personal qualities or attributes. When we speak of the essence of God we are speaking of those attributes that make God God. It points to the being and existence of God and what God has revealed about himself to people through his word. God is one, God is Spirit and God is eternal.
Person/Subsistence – Most would agree that the term Person is not ideal terminology to describe the individual subsistences of God due to our modern usage of the word. We typically think of physical, distinct or separate beings from other beings. Three persons sitting around a table are three separate individuals. Within the context of Trinitarian theology, the term person is used to describe the fact that each member of the Trinity is self-aware, can speak, and demonstrates individual qualities. There is one substance of God possessed by three distinct persons or subsistences in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is an error to think of the Father, Son and Spirit as each being one-third of God. Each is fully God and share in the nature and essence of God. Thus, you can say that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Spirit is fully God. Each person must have a distinct center of consciousness as they relate to each other personally. The scripture is full of the usage of “you” and “I” and “he” between the Father, Son and Spirit. Thus, they can each be regarded as “persons” within the substance or essence of God.
Ontological Trinity – When one speaks of the ontological Trinity we are speaking of the overall nature of the divine being of the one God. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit each share equally in fully possessing the attributes and nature of the one being of God. The Father is fully God. The Son is fully God and the Holy Spirit is fully God.
Economic Trinity – When one speaks of the economic Trinity we are speaking of the various functions and activities of the various persons in the Trinity. While the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each fully God and possess all of the nature of God, their roles and functions are distinct. The fact that the roles or functions of the Son and the Holy Spirit differ from that of the Father does not mean that the Son or Spirit are in anyway subordinate to the Father. They each remain fully sharing the divine essence of the one divine being of God. We speak of distinguishing the Ontological Trinity from the Economic Trinity in order to appreciate the nature of God on the one hand and the various functions and roles on the other hand of the Father or Son or Holy Spirit with respect to redemption, for example.
David Bernard erroneously defines the economic trinity as a view that “holds that there is no eternal trinity but only a temporary one.”[ii] This is simply incorrect as the terms is understood today.
At this point, you might be saying, “See, you are just introducing a bunch of non-Biblical terminology to describe a non-Biblical doctrine.” It is true that Trinity, persons, co-equal and co-eternal are not words that you will find in the scripture. Nevertheless, this is not a valid argument. First, as we will see, the doctrine of the Trinity is derived from a proper understanding and reading of all of the available Biblical data on the subject of the nature of God. Non-Biblical words can be used to define Biblical concepts, categories, and truths. Oneness advocates will inevitably argue that the use of non-Biblical terminology in defining the doctrine of the Trinity somehow renders the doctrine itself untrue regardless as to whether the concepts described by those non-Biblical terms are clearly revealed as scriptural truths.
On the subject on non-Biblical language, B.B.Warfield (quoted by David Bernard, Oneness advocate, in his book on The New Birth) states as follows:
The term “Trinity” is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Biblical language when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is only one and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence. A doctrine so defined can be spoken of as a Biblical doctrine only on the principle that the sense or Scripture is Scripture. And the definition of a Biblical doctrine in such un-Biblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is crystallized from its solvent it does not cease to be scriptural, but only comes clearer into view.[iii]
Everyone, including Oneness Pentecostals, routinely use non-Biblical words to describe a teaching found in scripture. If they were being consistent, they wouldn’t level this type of empty argument. We routinely use words such as omniscience and omnipotent to describe the nature of God and yet these words are not found in the Bible. Would the Oneness advocate assert that God is not all-knowing or all-powerful? I’ve never found the word incarnation in my concordance but all agree to some degree that Jesus was God in the flesh. The Oneness Pentecostals have particular teaching on the second coming of Christ and utilize the term rapture on a regular basis to describe the second coming of Christ for his Church. I would venture to argue that the consistent use of the term rapture results in a misconstruing of proper Biblical teaching on the subject of the second coming while the use of Trinitarian terminology actually helps us in understanding Biblical teaching.
[i] Louis Berkhoff, Systematic Theology, (Grand Prapids: WM. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1941) pgs 87-89.
[ii] David Bernard, The Oneness of God, (Word Aflame Press, 2001) pg 237.