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.
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.