Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Some Concluding(?) Thoughts

It seems somewhat appropriate as we approach the Christmas season to attempt to draw these series of posts on Trinitarianism and Oneness to a close as we consider just who it was that was born in Bethlehem. Again, I was someone who had no understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as a younger person and as a teenager was introduced to the Oneness teaching. Oneness seemed simple and straightforward. Over the course of 25 years in the UPCI I was never exposed to anything other than Oneness proof texts and certainly was never provided a meaningful understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Today, I see Oneness for what it is – a simplistic and surface level understanding that distorts the teaching of scripture.

Within the UPCI, the Oneness doctrine is central to their teaching as it carries through to salvation for they believe that one must be baptized in Jesus’ name to bring about the forgiveness of sins and complete the new birth process. If they believe so strongly in their position that one’s salvation may very well depend upon the Oneness teaching, you would think that their followers would be equipped to go out and proclaim this teaching. To effectively proclaim this teaching (Oneness) you need to know and understand the other (Trinitarian) position so as to properly interact with those who believe differently. Over the course of 25 years in the UPCI, I never once even heard someone attempt to meaningfully contrast and interact with the doctrine of the Trinity versus Oneness teaching. As I have mentioned in the past, in my 25 years I also never once heard anyone teach on the subject of justification by faith and what that meant either.

I believe that one central reason for this is that there are very, very few people within the UPCI who can accurately discuss the doctrine of the Trinity from a biblical perspective and fewer still who would dare to attempt to equip their followers by exposing them to this doctrine.

As I have mentioned several times throughout my posts, one of the central errors of the UPCI is their taking the scriptural teaching that there is one God and presupposing that this means that God is unipersonal. From this presupposition, every time they interact with a scripture that affirms the deity of Christ, they conclude that this means that Jesus is the Father in flesh. While simple in its basic assertion that there is one God and that one God is in Jesus – if we give any serious consideration to a number of passages we find that the Oneness position is a confused and muddled view of the nature of God.

Oneness advocates state that it is all very clear if we simply understand that dual nature of Christ – he is fully man (Son) and he is fully God (Father). When Jesus speaks, Oneness supporters state, we simply need to understand whether he is speaking as a man or whether he is speaking as God. Is he speaking or acting from his humanity or from his divinity? If this is the simple key to understanding the nature of Christ then it must follow that John and Paul, in particular, were themselves very confused as to the nature of Christ. For their statements specifically ascribe to the Son such attributes and actions as eternality, glory and creative power and authority.

I will confess that while I saw clearly that we are saved by grace through faith and the implications of this when considering the gospel according to UPCI, I continued to struggle with the idea of oneness theology. It was something that I felt I understood and something that I was concerned about letting go of because of what that might possibly mean. But as I began to read the perspectives of others and to reread the perspectives of people like David Bernard (now superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International), I began to compare the views and their interpretations on various passages. When you find a string seemingly dangling there in an argument and you give it a little pull and find that the entire argument begins to simply unwind – that may not be a faith upon which to stand.

When I set aside my presupposition that God is simply unipersonal and to read scriptures allowing that God may be tripersonal, it became apparent repeatedly that there are distinctions made between the Father, Son and Spirit and that these are personal distinctions. But it was when I began to see those passages that assert the pre-existence of the Son to the incarnation and to understand the implications of what was being stated that things began to crystalize for me. It wasn’t simply an understanding of those passages but looking to how the UPCI has historically understood those passages and that the UPCI position simply does not work.

John’s gospel is simply so full of teaching asserting the distinctions between the Father, Son and Spirit and the pre-existence of the Son and the deity of the Son. The UPCI loves the gospel of John as well because, again, with every assertion of the deity of Christ they read into each and every passage that John intended to convey that Jesus was the Father in flesh. But this does not stand a simple, logical reading of John 1. It does not stand when reading what is considered the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 or the many other statements of the Son’s heavenly origin and his pre-existence.

While I am not a Greek scholar, I mentioned the Greek when looking at several passages in John’s gospel. The Greek is not necessary to understand the plain teaching of these passages, but it does aid in reinforcing some of the plain teaching and, in particular, by countering the assertions that Oneness advocates make concerning these passages. The Logos of John 1 cannot be understood to simply be the mind, plan or thought of God. The Logos of John 1 is not merely a thought or plan but is personal – he exists, he is in relationship, he has a divine nature, he is a creator, he was made flesh. Oneness advocates must assert the logos is simply a plan or thought because otherwise the rest of the teaching would collapse – it is the string that would unwind their theology. If the logos is a person in the substance of God who is in relationship with the Father, then he pre-exists the incarnation and he was creator.

The Oneness view of the Son as being begotten is also problematic when considering the Greek monogenes. It is helpful to appreciate the Greek when looking at and attempting to understand differences in particular Bible translations. But again, having an understanding of the Greek is not necessary as any student of the scripture, even if dedicated to the KJV, should consider and look to other translations of particular passages, particularly if important in your formulation of your theology. But if you create an environment where you are borderline KJV-only in your view of scripture, then you truly are seeking to protect your traditions over truth.

UPCI Echo-Chamber

The question I would ask is do you genuinely want to seek to know God. If so, you will look to what God has revealed to us about himself in the scripture. You will not allow traditions to trump the teaching of scripture. You should be willing to test your beliefs against those that disagree with you and you should be willing to listen. If you find that the footing upon which you have rested your beliefs in the past is not as securely rooted in scripture as you thought, you should be willing to examine those beliefs more closely against what the whole of scripture teaches. We should always be seeking and willing to bring our hearts and minds in line with the teaching of scripture on all points.

We should not be fearful of teaching that seems to contradict what we have been exposed to in the past. Exposing ourselves to the teaching of those that seem to disagree with us should do several things. First, if our faith is properly rooted in the scriptures we should find greater confidence in God. Second, being exposed to those that hold to a different view may help us better understand our position and the positions of others so that we are in a better spot to interact with those that think differently. Third, we may find that our thinking or teaching on a given subject is not truly consistent with all of what scripture has to teach. We should be extremely careful to not simply reject teaching or scripture that does not comport with our beliefs for it is possible we are rejecting God in favor of our traditions. My comments here should be taken as general statements – obviously there are differences between those areas that are definitional to the Christian faith and those that less definitional. Our view of the nature of God and the Trinity are more definitional while eschatological teaching is less so.

I do believe that there is a strain of anti-intellectualism within the UPCI in that there is no exposure to different beliefs. Not all matters that Christians disagree on are matters of heaven or hell. Not all points of disagreement are matters that we need be dogmatic about but even these non-dogmatic differences are not acknowledged within the UPCI.

In my final days in the UPCI, I heard a pastor simply dismiss offhand the idea of predestination within the plan of God. The idea of election was simply dismissed with a “we don’t believe in that” with no further explanation of what the scripture teaches or the differences in the camps of Calvinism and Arminianism. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is, I don’t think a proper explanation of those differences could have been offered. I also heard a lady from church, a licensed minister within the UPCI, teach on ‘God’s unfolding plan’ and essentially advocated for open theism. We can debate open theism but in this situation, I don’t think it was even understood what position was being taken and the implications. Even open theist, Greg Boyd, has stated that there are certain things that God has decreed, such as the fact that Abraham’s seed would be enslaved in Egypt. Yet it was taught by this licensed UPCI minister that even the enslavement of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt was contingent upon their obedience or disobedience to God. Thus, God’s words to Abraham were merely a warning and not something that was a part of God’s decree that would come to pass.

I seem to have digressed.

I believe my point here is that while there are matters upon which Christians can disagree, we should be open to addressing those disagreements to help ensure that our beliefs comport with scripture. There are other matters that are more definitional and this would include the scriptural teaching of the nature of God. Nevertheless, without a willingness to be open to the views of others offering different positions, you will remain in an echo chamber. The only thinking that you will ever be exposed to is that of those who agree with you and what they tell you about other positions. These will be the only voices you hear and if they are not proclaiming properly what is taught in the scripture, it makes it a bit challenging for you to ultimate hear the voice of God leading you to where he wants to take you.

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Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Oneness Proof Texts Addressed (cont.)

In addition to the many texts that we have discussed previously, there are other standard texts to which Oneness advocates will appeal in support of their position that God is unipersonal and that the Son merely refers to the humanity of Jesus –he was God the Father manifested in the flesh.  I am attempting to touch on a number of those passages here.

Revelation 4:2 – At once I was in the Spirit and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.

Here John has a vision in heaven and he sees a throne set up in heaven with one sitting on the throne.  David Bernard and other Oneness advocates will look at this passage and then compare the description of the one sitting on the throne with the description of the one given in Revelation 1:12-16.  Given the similarity in titles and descriptions given for Jesus in Revelation 1 and the one who sits on the one throne in Revelation 4, according to Bernard, “it is apparent that the One on the throne is none other than Jesus Christ.”[i]

The fact that similarities exists in a vision of one on a throne and a glorified Christ does not a doctrine make.  Revelation is full of visions and symbols and of some things that John was unable to record.  Clearly there are similarities between the one on the throne and the one said to be a glorified Christ.   This certainly supports the Trinitiarian and Oneness claims that Jesus Christ is the Lord God Almighty.  Yet as we continue to read the text into chapter 5 we see that in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne was a sealed scroll that no one was worthy to open.  “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.  And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.  And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song….To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”  (Revelation 5:6-91, 13).

According to Oneness advocates, this vision of the one on the throne and the Lamb affirms that the Lamb and God are one and the same person.[ii]  Again, the presumption is that God is unipersonal and, therefore, every statement affirming the deity of Christ is a statement, according to Oneness advocates, that God the Father is in Christ.  Oneness supporters say the Lamb in these visions would pertain to the Jesus the man the one on the throne would be God the Father or Jesus’s divine nature.  Yet how does such an interpretation not fall into the trap that Oneness advocates assert against Trinitarians – that their position stands for more than one God.

There appears to be a clear distinction made between the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb in Revelation 4 and 5.  Yet both are in heaven and both are the objects of worship.  In the Oneness position, God is one person and he would be the one sitting on the throne and yet the Lamb is also an object of worship.  Isn’t this teaching bi-theism or a belief in two gods?  How does the Oneness position reconcile this seeming contradiction?  They simply assert that the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb are the same.  But how are they the same?  Bernard states, “The only person who is both God and the Lamb is Jesus Christ.”[iii] (emphasis added).

The fact of the matter is that Revelation continues to emphasize the Trinitarian teaching that recognizes that there is but one God/one divine being shared by three persons or subsistences – Father, Son/Lamb, Spirit.  The Father, Son and Spirit are all recognized to be the one God and yet are distinguished from one another time and time again.  It is why Jesus and the One sitting on the throne can share in the same divine glorious appearance in one moment and then be distinguished from one another in the next moment.  Oneness theology continues to struggle with providing an explanation for these passages that remains both consistent to their position as well as consistent to the overall teaching of scripture as a whole.

[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God (Word Aflame) page 77.

[ii] Id. at 78.

[iii] Id. at 78.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Oneness Proof Texts Addressed (cont.)

In addition to the many texts that we have discussed previously, there are other standard texts to which Oneness advocates will appeal in support of their position that God is unipersonal and that the Son merely refers to the humanity of Jesus –he was God the Father manifested in the flesh.  I am attempting to touch on a number of those passages here.

Colossians 2:9 – For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

One of the issues that you will frequently encounter with many is they will simply ignore the purpose for which the epistles were written.  These are occasional writings – there was some issue, teaching, concern in the church that prompted the Apostle Paul to write to the church and those issues can be identified through a close examination of each epistle.  In the letter to the Galatians, for example, it is pretty clear that Paul had great concern for false teachers coming into the church who sought to add to the gospel of faith certain works introducing a legalism that undermined grace.

By ignoring the purposes surrounding which the epistle was written it is easy to then misunderstand the meaning of passages written in the letter.  They are taken out of the context in which they are written.  To fully appreciate Paul’s purposes in explaining to the Colossians that in Christ the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, one need take into consideration the intent behind the letter and what was prompting the letter in the first place.

Colossians was written by Paul to address early Gnosticism that was coming into the church.  Without delving too deeply into Gnosticism, it is sufficient to say that the Gnostics held to a strong dualistic theology that viewed that which is spiritual as good and that which is matter as evil.  This dualistic view of spirit and matter led to the idea that the God could essentially have nothing to do with matter for to do so would be to lead to this God’s being responsible for evil.  Thus, this highest form of God or the Monad who dwells in the Pleroma would have descended through various emanations or Aeons, which are deemed as being lesser gods until you find the demiurge or the lesser God that was responsible for the creation of evil matter.  According to the gnostic view, only the demiurge or a lesser god could have been responsible for the creation of matter in light of the evil nature of matter itself.  The one true God could not have been responsible for the creation of matter but creation only came about through these lesser manifestations of God.  These views historically have been traced through to various Jewish influences that appear to have then infiltrated the Christian church.

One of the early heresies of the church flowed out of Gnosticism and that was Docetism or the belief that Jesus did not have a real physical body – Jesus only seemed to have a physical body but couldn’t have if he was believed to be God.  This heresy actually crept into the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) during the 2000’s.  More on that in another post.

David Bernard and other Oneness advocates cite to Colossians 2:9 as a go-to proof-text.  As they tend to read the KJV, Oneness advocates will frequently refer to the term “godhead” as the KJV states, “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.”  The term “godhead” simply refers to the all that makes up the nature and attributes of God.  It is an old English variant of the word godhood.  We can compare this word to some degree to the word childhood.  We would define childhood as the state of being a child and encompassing all that goes into being a child – the nature and attributes of a child.  Godhead or godhood, therefore, pertains to the divine nature, the essence or substance of God.  Utilizing Trinitarian definitions, we would say that “godhead” refers to the ontological Trinity or the essence or substance of God and not to any individual person in the being of God.  It is what makes God God – it is the divine nature.

In looking back at Colossians 2:9, what we find is a clear, unambiguous, and strong affirmation of the deity of Christ.  In Christ, bodily, dwelt all the fullness of deity.  All that makes God, God was in Christ bodily.  Christ was not a lesser god.  Christ was not a demiurge. Christ had both a physical body and in that body was veiled the fullness of all that is of God.  Again, just as in the confession of Thomas, the passage is not Paul stating that Jesus was the Father but in Christ was the fullness of deity – the fullness of the divine nature.  This is not a statement, per se, affirming Oneness theology but is a statement affirming the deity of Christ in the face of heretical teaching that had infiltrated the church in the form of Gnosticism.  This passage is a simple statement as to the deity of Christ in face of false teaching that would lead some to believe that Jesus was some demigod or only seemed to come in bodily form but was truly only a spirit.

Consider for a moment the implications of either of these false teachings.  To believe that Christ was merely some demigod introduces polytheism and is contrary to the strict monotheism of the Christian faith.  But if Christ was not truly come in the flesh, how is it he was tempted in every point as we are and yet without sin, how is it he fulfilled the law, how is it that he made atonement for sins?

This passage does not teach that Jesus and the Father are one and the same person in the being of God.  This is Oneness advocates, once again, presupposing the unipersonal nature of God and reading that into the text such that every time there is an affirmative statement concerning the deity of Christ in the text, Oneness advocates read that to mean that Jesus is the Father.

The context of the Colossians makes clear that the purpose of Paul’s writing was to affirm not only the deity of Jesus but his role in creation as well.  “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and form him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  (Colossians 1:16-17).  The Oneness explanation of the role of Jesus in creation is that as the Father, he was the creator, and that the Father also created all things with the plan of Jesus the man in mind.  Yet here we have Paul speaking of the Son of God as the image of the invisible God and that by him all things were created and that he is before all things and by him all things hold together.

Therefore, we should understand Colossians 2:9 in its proper context and be consistent in our approach to understanding the passage.  In addressing the Gnostic ideas coming into the church, Paul strongly affirms both the deity of Jesus Christ as well as the role Jesus Christ played in the creation of all things.  He was not only the creator all things but he was before all things and by him all things hold together.  In him all the fullness of divine nature dwells – not some portion of God or some lesser god – but all the fullness of the essence of God was in Christ bodily.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Oneness advocates continue to read into this passage the notion that God is unipersonal, therefore, the Father was in Jesus.  Yet, they don’t apply the same consistent reading to the role of Jesus, as distinguished from the Father, in creation.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Oneness Proof Texts Addressed (cont.)

In addition to the many texts that we have discussed previously, there are other standard texts to which Oneness advocates will appeal in support of their position that God is unipersonal and that the Son merely refers to the humanity of Jesus –he was God the Father manifested in the flesh.  I am attempting to touch on a number of those passages here.

John 20:28 – Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”

The statement of Thomas to Jesus is clear and unambiguous – he called Jesus his Lord and his God.  The response of Jesus is not to correct Thomas in any way but to affirm that the confession of Thomas is a demonstration of his faith.

The fact of the matter is this is a verse that strongly confirms the deity of Christ but nothing concerning him being the same as the Father in terms of identity unless you being with the presupposition that the God is unipersonal and read into the text that Thomas was declaring the Jesus to be the Father.  In his book, The Oneness of God, Bernard properly cites to this verse as evidence of Jesus being God but he does not go so far as to state that this is a statement of Jesus being the Father because it is not such a statement.  Nevertheless, oneness advocates look to this verse making the assumption that God is unipersonal and read into the text that notion that Jesus was God the Father.

Again, one would need to bring the presupposition that God is unipersonal to the text to interpret the text in isolation from the rest of scripture to understand the passage as a declaration that Jesus is declared to be the Father by Thomas.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Oneness Proof Texts Addressed (cont.)

In addition to the many texts that we have discussed previously, there are other standard texts to which Oneness advocates will appeal in support of their position that God is unipersonal and that the Son merely refers to the humanity of Jesus –he was God the Father manifested in the flesh.  I am attempting to touch on a number of those passages here.

John 10:30 – “I and the Father are one.”

John 14:8-10 – Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?”

The Oneness advocate appeals to these passages regularly to assert their view that Jesus is simply God the Father manifest in the flesh.  David Bernard asserts, “This statement goes far beyond a relationship of agreement; it can be viewed as nothing less than the claim of Christ to be the Father manifested in flesh.  Like many people today, Philip had not comprehended that the Father is an invisible Spirit and that the only way a person could ever see Him would be through the person of Jesus Christ.”[i]

The fact of the matter is that Bernard wants us to read these passages as Jesus stating that he is the Father but that is never asserted by Christ.  Jesus never states, “I am the Father.”  Instead, Jesus states that he abides in the Father and the Father abides in him.  Certainly, it is an assertion of his deity but Jesus is not saying that he is the Father.  Bernard states, “However, other passages describe the onesness of Jesus with the Father in a way that transcends mere unity of purpose, and in a way that indicates that Jesus is the Father.”[ii]  Bernard is probably accurate in that the meaning conveyed by Jesus and the Father abiding in one another “transcends mere unity of purpose” but he errs in stating that Jesus is the Father.  As James White states, “the unity that exists between Father and Son is far more than a mere unity of purpose or intention.  The Son reveals the Father, or to use the words of John himself, ‘He has explained Him’ (John 1:18).”[iii]  To read into this passage that Jesus is stating that he is the Father completely ignores the distinctions made throughout the NT, much less the distinctions made in the very context of the verse, between the Father and the Son as persons.

Later in John 14:20, Jesus states, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  Jesus continues in John 15 to discuss the subject of abiding in Christ in describing himself as the vine and his Father as the vinedresser and that his disciples are the branches.  This abiding together of the Father and the Son and us with the Christ is far deeper than a unity of purpose but what it is not is a statement on the part of Jesus that he is the Father.  To the contrary, the passage continues to make distinctions between the Father and Son even into chapter 15 where the Father is the vinedresser and the Son the vine.  There is a life, love, and fruit bearing that results from the unity that comes from abiding in one another.

Similarly, Oneness advocates cite to John 10:30 to support their argument that the Father and the Son are the same person.  Again, Bernard and others run into the same problem.  Jesus is not saying that he is the Father but that he and the Father are one.  The passage is literally translated as, “I and the Father, we are one.”  The verb “are” is plural in the Greek meaning that the plurality of persons – Jesus and the Father – is preserved in the verbal form.  Jesus is not claiming to be his own Father but he is again identifying with the Father within the context of the redemption of his people.

Tertullian (certainly not a friend of the modalists of his day) in Against Praxeas (circa A.D. 210) identified the grammatical issue with the plural verb as denoting a plurality of persons being one when he states, “Here, then, they take their stand [the modalists/oneness advocates], too infatuated, nay, too blind, to see in the first place that there is in this passage an intimation of Two Beings – “I and my Father;” then there is a plural predicate, “are,” inapplicable to one person only….”[iv]

If we continue looking at the context, Jesus states, “I give them [my sheep] eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.  My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.”  (John 10:28-20).  They are one in the work of giving eternal life and they are one in the preservation of the sheep.  They are one in the redemption of God’s people but this does not translate to Jesus and the Father being the same person, as Oneness advocates assert.  Again, Oneness advocates must ignore the context in which the sayings of Jesus are spoken and then read into those passages meanings that are foreign to the text.

[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God (Word Aflame) page 68.

[ii] Id. at 197.

[iii] Dr. James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House) page 158.

[iv] Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Chapter 22.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Oneness Proof Texts Addressed

In addition to the many texts that we have discussed previously, there are other standard texts to which Oneness advocates will appeal in support of their position that God is unipersonal and that the Son merely refers to the humanity of Jesus –he was God the Father manifested in the flesh.  I will attempt to touch on a number of those passages in the next several posts.

Isaiah 9:6 – 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.

Malachi 2:10 – Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us?

It would seem to make sense to consider the texts of Isaiah and Malachi together as they are often utilized together and to make one assertion – that there is one God who is one Father of us all and that the Son of God is simply the Father in flesh.  You will find Isaiah 9:6 is a text that is repeatedly cited by Oneness advocates, which they argue demonstrates that the Son is distinguished from the Father in that the term Son refers to his humanity or flesh but that the Son, as to his divine nature, was God, the Everlasting Father.

David Bernard describes this verse as “one of the most powerful proofs that Jesus is God….”[i]  Well, no one denies the deity of Jesus Christ – the presupposition on the part of Oneness Pentecostals is that God is unipersonal contrary to the scriptural evidence.  It is the Oneness position that “the terms child and son refer to the Incarnation or manifestation of ‘The mighty God’ and ‘The everlasting Father.’”[ii]  Bernard notes that Isaiah “calls the Son the everlasting Father.  Jesus is the Son prophesied about and there is only one Father…so Jesus must be God the Father.”[iii]  Oneness advocates also cite this passage to reaffirm that “the Son of God would be begotten….”[iv]  “The Bible plainly states that there is only one Father….  It also clearly teaches that Jesus is the one Father….  The Spirit that dwelt in the Son of God was none other than the Father.”[v]

As happens frequently with Oneness Pentecostals, there is an over emphasis placed on particular verses at times (see the OP perspective on Acts 2:38) and a reading into passages, as a result of that over emphasis meaning that is not there (once again, see the OP perspective on Acts 2:38).  Bernard and the Oneness advocates see here ironclad proof that the Son is the Everlasting Father –God the Father and the Son are one and the same person.  OP’s themselves place great emphasis on the notion of names but here they seem to ignore the typical usage of describing one’s “name being called” as describing the characteristics or qualities of the person and not necessarily being identified as a literal name.  OT names were frequently given in describing certain qualities or occasions around the birth of a child.  Isaac means “laughter” because Sarah, in having a son in her old age said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  (Genesis 21:6).  Jacob’s name meant or came to mean “supplanter” because of what he did to his brother Esau in assuming his birthright.

Clearly, Isaiah 9:6 is a messianic text concerning the child that would be born in Bethlehem but when Isaiah states that his “name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” he is not describing literal names of the child but characteristics or qualities of the child.  To assert that this passage is teaching that God the Father the divine being is in the Son/flesh of Jesus is to read back into Isaiah an understanding that simply is not there.

To make this assumption, as Oneness advocates do, you must begin with the assumption that every time we see “Father” that it carries only one meaning despite the reality that we need to look to the context in which the terms is used to determine its meaning.  The term Father is used infrequently with respect to God in the OT and is not a common name used for God.  In some cases it is used as a descriptor to refer to his parental position with respect to his children, Israel.  Primarily it is used in reference to God’s role as creator.

It is also interesting to note that with Father is coupled with the term eternal.  So here we have the Son being identified with the OT eternal creator of the universe and overseer of Israel.  The fact of the matter is, this passage does not provide as much support for the Oneness position as they would assert and, frankly, it doesn’t provide much support for Trinitarian theology as well.

[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God (Word Aflame) page 55.

[ii] Id. at 56.

[iii] Id. at 66.

[iv] Id. at 105.

[v] Id. at 126.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Philippians 2

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  Philippians 2:5-11

Paul’s purpose with this passage in Philippians 2 is not to necessarily focus us on some of the theological points around the doctrine of the Trinity but encourage the Philippians to take on the spirit of Christ in humility and service to others.  But in so doing, Paul conveys tremendous truth concerning Christ himself in this passage.

“…though he was in the form of God.”  Just as in John 1:1, the Greek term here carries with it the meaning that Christ existed in the form of God and with no origin or beginning.  The word denotes his continuous existence in the form of God – he did not enter into a state of being in which he was found to be in the form of God, he always was in the form of God.  The Phillips Modern English translation captures this when it translates this phrase as “who had always been God by nature.”  Once again, this would seem contrary to any Oneness understanding of the Son as a creature who came into existence in Bethlehem and was then found to be in the form of God.

To be found in the form of God is speaking of the nature of God, as many translations render the verse.  Thus, Christ in his pre-existent state was God by nature and in his incarnation, was a manifestation of that divine nature.  Christ was always by nature divine.

“…did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself….”

Christ continuously existed in the divine nature but Christ did not count equality with God something to be grasped or held onto but instead Christ emptied himself.  How did Christ empty himself?  He emptied himself by taking on human flesh, being born in the likeness of men and taking the form of a servant.  John 1:14 describes this emptying when it states that “the Word become flesh and dwelt among us….”

The emptying is used in a metaphorical sense in that Christ set aside certain privileges that he previously possessed and took on the humble nature of a servant.  In fact the King James Version provides a nice understanding when it states that Christ “made himself of no reputation, and took on him the form a servant….”  Thus, Christ emptied himself in the sense of setting aside those privileges that were his in light of his divine nature and instead veiled that glory by taking on the likeness of men by taking on flesh, dwelling among men and serving others.

Thus, the message of Paul to the Philippians is one truly of humility and service.  Paul is encouraging the Philippians to have the same humble manner of life and mind of service that was in Christ.  Christ, though he was eternally divine as to his nature and served by angels, did not seek to retain that equality with God but instead he laid those privileges aside, took on flesh concealing his divine glory, and served others to the point of taking up the cross and being obedient to death for the sake of others.  Out of love for others Christ himself set aside those divine prerogatives and took on human flesh.

David Bernard argues, from the Oneness perspective, that Jesus was God the Father manifested in the flesh and Jesus was equal with God in that in Jesus was God the Father but Jesus voluntarily set aside those divine prerogatives and took on the form of a servant and humbled himself, even to the death of the cross.  As Bernard notes, this verse “only refers to the limitations Jesus imposed upon Himself relative to His life as a human.”[i]  In other words, this passage is strictly pertaining to the life of Jesus on earth.

Bernard views this passage as teaching “that Jesus had the nature of God, that He was God Himself.  God has no equal (Isaiah 40:25; 46:5, 9).  The only way Jesus can be equal with God is for Him to be God.  So, Jesus was equal with (the same as) God in the sense that He was God.”[ii]

“From the Oneness point of view, Jesus is not God the Son, but He is all of God, including Father and Son.  Thus, in his divinity, He is truly equal to, or identical to God.  The word equal here means that the divine nature of Jesus was the very nature of God the Father.”[iii]  “This verse only refers to the limitations Jesus imposed upon Himself relative to His life as a human.”[iv]

While Bernard begins to explain the Trinitarian perspective that the Son and Father are of the same nature and that the Son became incarnate, Bernard seems to begin to overly focus on the kenosis or emptying of Christ and the extent to which that means that Jesus stripped himself of certain attributes of God or stripped himself of his dignity and rightful prerogatives as God while dwelling in flesh as a human.[v]

This interpretation poses a number of problems.

First, Bernard does not do a fair job in presenting the opposing (Trinitarian) position to his Oneness view.  Trinitarian theology distinguished between the ontological and economic trinity in that while the Father is fully God as to his nature and the Son is fully God as to his nature; the Father and Son are distinct persons within essence of God.  Jesus being divine and yet distinct from the Father is emphasized throughout the New Testament as well as in this very passage.  Paul states that God has exalted Jesus so that every tongue would confess Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:9-11).   Bernard cannot simply dismiss the distinctions as they are presented (even in the same passage) by not accurately presenting the Trinitarian position and then making statements such as Jesus was equal to God “in the sense that he was God” from a unipersonal perspective.

Along these lines, Bernard errs by taking the statement “equal with God” to identify Jesus as being God the Father.  The context makes clear that we are speaking of the nature of God and Jesus as sharing in or possessing the divine nature of God.  (see also John 1:1c).  To say that Jesus was equal (isa) with God is speaking of equality in terms of quality or substance.  Paul is not conveying that Jesus is equivalent with God the Father but shares in the same divine nature or substance as God the Father.  Thus, once again, Paul is affirming the deity of Christ while distinguishing him from God the Father.  Therefore, Bernard’s assertion that Jesus’ being equal with God is the same as his being identical to God the Father is a misreading of the passage entirely.

Bernard’s assertion that this passage is strictly limited to the time of Jesus’ life as a human is muddled and not accurate.  Oneness advocates must argue this because in their mind the Son only existed when he was born in Bethlehem – he is, after all, the “only begotten Son”.  Therefore, they argue that Jesus the Son was equal to God in terms of identity in that he was God the Father in flesh.  Because the Son only existed in human flesh during the incarnation, this passage can only apply strictly to Jesus’ physical lifetime on the earth.  We have already seen that this is problematic in that Jesus “was in the form of God” or as to his nature, God, from eternity past.  The Greek indicates his continuous existence in bearing the nature of God with no point of origin or beginning.

Paul also tells us that it was Jesus himself who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant….”  So if Jesus himself was the one who “emptied himself”, when was it that this emptying took place?  The Oneness advocate must argue that it was over his entire life that he simply laid aside his divine privileges. In reality, the point is that Christ emptied himself by considering what he was and then setting that aside and instead was focused on the needs of others and therefore took on something that he was not previously – he took on human form.  Jesus, essentially, added to himself humanity.  But the context makes clear that it was the Son who did this and not God the Father.

Bernard and other Oneness advocates must argue that Jesus the Father took on flesh and also became Jesus the Son.  This is a muddled reading that does not comport with the plain teaching of the passage.  But the Oneness view of the nature of God and the nature of the Son require these muddled readings in order to avoid what is otherwise the plain teaching that distinguishes the Father and the Son and yet affirms the divine nature of both.  Again, when read with a clear understanding of the doctrine and the distinctions of the one being of God being shared by three distinct persons – distinguishing the ontological and economic trinity – these passages are quite clear.

Finally, the conclusion of the passage reinforces the distinctions between the Father and the Son and their functions in the plan of redemption.  Paul here quotes from Isaiah 45:23:

By myself I have sworn;

From my mouth has gone out in righteousness

A word that shall not return:

“To me every knee shall bow,

Every tongue shall swear allegiance.”

In Philippians 2:9-11, Paul writes:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The OT passage in Isaiah is clearly about Yahweh and yet Paul is saying that it is to Jesus that every knee will bow.  First of all, if we look to these verses we see that it is the Son who is being exalted and the Son who is to be worshipped as distinguished from the God the Father.  Bernard must argue that as a result of the humbling of Christ (the man), “God (the Spirit of Jesus) has highly exalted Jesus Christ (God manifested in flesh).  Jesus has a name that is above every name – a name that represents all that God is.  The Spirit of God gave this name to the Christ (Messiah), because Christ was God manifested in flesh.”[vi]  It is also this view of the name of Jesus – “the exalted position of this name” – that Oneness advocates use as an argument in the requirement that baptism be administered in the name of Jesus rather than in the Trinitarian formula.[vii]

Yet, we will see that this continues to be a Oneness adventure in missing the point.  The passage makes clear that it is the Father who exalts the Son and this brings about glory to the Father.  The exalted name given to the Son is the name of Lord or Yahweh.  Paul is making clear that bowing the knee to the Son is bowing the knee to the “Lord”, Yahweh.  To the Son is the OT name of God ascribed in this passage – the name of Yahweh is the exalted name that is given to the Son, to the glory of the Father.  This brings the passage full circle when we see that the Son eternally existed sharing in the divine nature but he laid aside those divine privileges and took on human flesh and humbled himself becoming obedient even to the death of the cross for us.  This results in the glorification of the Son in his being confessed to be Yahweh as well as the glory of the Father.

This is consistent with the salutations regularly used by Paul in his epistles where he speaks of God (Theos – Elohim) the Father and the Lord (kurios – Yahweh) Jesus Christ.  Both the Father and the Son are continuously asserted as being simultaneously distinct persons and yet divine.  This is not bi-theism as Trinitarian theology asserts at its most fundamental level that there is one divine being shared by three distinct persons or subsistences.

This passage is a beautiful message that when understood in its simple meaning confesses the deity of the Son from eternity, his humbling himself to meet the needs of mankind resulting in his great glorification to the glory of God the Father.  As we have seen elsewhere, the attempts by Oneness advocates to impose their view of the nature of God as unipersonal renders the reading of this verse as muddled, confused and in denial of the true nature of the Son of God and what he did for us.

[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God (Word Aflame) page 222.

[ii] Id. at 221.

[iii] Id. at 222.

[iv] Id. at 222.

[v] Id. at 221-3.

[vi] Id. at 223.

[vii] Id. at 52.