Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – John 1 continued – the Only Begotten Son?

Monogenes – Only Begotten?

Oneness advocates rely heavily on certain passages to assert that the Son refers exclusively to the flesh or the humanity of Jesus and not to a distinct person in the essence of God.  The only thing divine about the Son is that the Father was in him.  According to Oneness theology, generally the Son refers to the flesh while the Father refers to the divine and they can relate to one another as a human relates to the divine.  Yet, what made the Son unique was that he was divine in that the Father was actually in the Son, according to Oneness theology.

David Bernard states:

The term Father refers to God Himself – God in all His deity.  When we speak of the eternal Spirit of God, we mean God Himself, the Father.  God the Father, therefore, is a perfectly acceptable biblical phrase to use for God….  However, the Bible does not use the term “God the Son” even one time.  It is not a correct term because the Son of God refers to the humanity of Jesus Christ.  The Bible defines the Son of God as the child born of Mary, not as the eternal Spirit of God (Luke 1:35).  Son of God may refer solely to the human nature or it may refer to God manifested in flesh – that is, deity in the human nature.[i]

Let’s look at a several verses (from the King James Version):

John 1:14 – And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

John 1:18 – No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he had declared him.

John 3:16 – For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

John 3:18 – He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Bernard and Oneness advocates argue based that begotten means to procreate, to father or to sire and denotes a definite point in time that the Father must have come before the Son and then begotten the Son.[ii]  Bernard asserts that because the Son of God refers to humanity or deity as manifest in humanity, the idea of an eternal Son is incomprehensible.  The Son of God had a beginning.[iii]  If the Son is begotten how can he be eternal?

In citing to verses that speak to the coming of the Messiah, such as Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6, Bernard argues that these passages are “looking forward to the day when the Son of God would be begotten.”[iv]  Further, he argues, “From all these verses, it is easy to see that the Son is not eternal, but was begotten by God almost 2000 years ago.  Many theologians who have not fully accepted the great truth of the oneness of God have still rejected the doctrine of the “eternal Son” as self-contradictory, unscriptural, and false.”[v]  Unfortunately, this final statement is not supported by any references as to who those “many theologians” may be to appropriatly weigh this claim.  Certainly, there has been dispute as to the eternal nature of the Son but those who do not hold to this view would not be considered orthodox Trinitarians and would need to provide an alternate exegesis of John 1 as well as the other passages that point to the Son having pre-existed the incarnation, at a minimum.

It is in looking at these “begotten” passages it becomes evident that the modalism of Oneness theology, it can be argued, is somehow denying the deity of Jesus Christ as Jesus was a man born of a woman in who was the Father.  Clearly, the Son is not divine in Oneness theology because the Son simply refers to the human being born of Mary 2000 years ago.  Yet to avoid the claim of falling into the heresy of Arius, Bernard and Oneness advocates will side-step this objection by stating that the Son can also refer to the deity and humanity together as they exist in the one person of Christ.[vi]

The translation “only begotten” appears in the KJV (a favorite translation among Oneness Pentecostals) and some other translations.  The term “only begotten” is the translation of the Greek term monogenes.  The origin of the word is monos (one) and genos (kind or class) and is understood to simply mean one of a kind or single of its kind.  Monogenes is said to be a relational term but not one that has anything to do with origin or derivation.  Thus, when the scripture states that Jesus was the monogenes of the Father, the emphasis in not so much on Jesus being “sired” by the Father but is speaking of his being the one and only, the unique Son.  While I don’t believe that we can deny the fact that this term points to origination but that origination is in a relational sense – in the fact that the Son bears the nature of the Father – but the emphasis is not, as Oneness adherents argue origination in terms of pointing specifically to birth.  The use of the term intends to convey nothing about his origin with respect to time but everything concerning the Son’s uniqueness and his sharing the qualities and nature of the Father.

Most modern translations tend to rely on the earlier and oldest Greek manuscripts to arrive at a translation of John 1:18 as follows:

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.  (NIV)

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.  (ESV)

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.  (NASB)

No one has ever seen God.  The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.  (NET)

Bernard acknowledges that there are variant readings of John 1:18 pitting later manuscripts against earlier manuscripts of John’s gospel.  James White states that “there is every reason to accept the reading of the earliest manuscripts, and to see the later emendation as a natural mistake made by scribes who were accustomed to the phraseology ‘only begotten son.’”[vii]  Bernard simply dismisses the variant readings by stating, “We do not believe these variant readings are correct.”[viii]  He provides no further context for the dismissal, especially concerning the fact that he is dismissing variant readings from earlier manuscripts of John in favor of later manuscripts containing what textual critics would see as a variant resulting from scribal revisions rather than being what was originally written by John.

Looking further at the Oneness idea of “only begotten” to mean that the Father sired the Son we should consider again what was being conveyed in the Greek.  Bernard makes no further argument other than to state that monogenes is properly translated as only begotten showing that the Son is not eternal but was born and begotten by the Father, reading the English into the meaning of the text.  Yet, Bernard again seems to be ignoring the Greek.  Genos is derived from the Greek word gignesthai or gignomai whereas the Greek word gennao, which pertains or means to birth or to become the father of, is derived from the word gennasthai.  Whereas the term gennao and the words from which it derives pertain to birth and offspring, genos pertains only be being a member of kin or of a kind.  While the distinction may be subtle, the distinction is significant.

John is not stating that the Son was the offspring of the Father (gennao) but was affirming that the Son is of the kind or class or member of kin of the Father (genos).  Monogenes is not referring to a begetting of the Son by the Father but is referring to the Son’s existence.  This understanding is supported by the context of John as well as the use of monogenes elsewhere in scripture.

First, let’s consider Abraham and Isaac.  Matthew 1:2 tells us that Abraham was the Father of Issac (gennao).  Abraham became of the father of Isaac or he sired him.  Abraham was Isaac’s father as a result of Isaac’s birth.  In Hebrews 11:17 we read, “By faith Abraham, when he was being tested, offered up Isaac; yes, he who had received promises was offering his only son.”  Clearly, Isaac was not Abraham’s only son.  Isaac was, in fact, not Abraham’s first born son.  Here the writer of Hebrews uses monogenes to describe Isaac in terms of his relationship with Abraham.  Isaac was not Abraham’s only son but he was the unique son or his one of a kind son in that Isaac was the son of promise, the son of Abraham in whom God’s covenant was to be established.  Thus, monogenes is not emphasizing the fact that Abraham fathered Isaac but the uniqueness of Isaac himself in relation to his father and God.  He was the unique son, the only and only son of promise.

John 1:18 – No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

When we turn back to John 1:18, we see similarly, based on the context, that there is no emphasis on birth, origin or derivation of the human Son from the Father.  To the contrary, the emphasis is on the uniqueness of the Son.  The prologue to John begins with an affirmation of the eternality of the Word, the personhood of the Word in being in relationship with God and deity of the Word as to his nature.  In verse 18 we find the closing to this prologue with John stating that no one has seen God at any time and we see that he is referring to the Father.  As we continue, we see that the monogenes has made the Father known or has explained him.  With the use the term Father, it seems only natural that we would see the Son as being the one to exegete the Father – the only, unique Son has made the Father known.  Yet, it is not simply the humanity that has made the Father known but the “monogenes theos” or “the only God who is at the Father’s side or bosom” has explained him.  The monogenes is divine as to his nature just as was asserted by John in the first verse of this chapter.

The prologue to John demonstrates that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, that he is the eternal creator of all things and that he is the only Son who is God.  He is distinct from and yet in relationship with the Father.

The reading of “only begotten” appears to be inconsistent with the original Greek and the Oneness reliance on the terms “only begotten” results in reading into the scripture meaning that was never originally intended by John.  Instead of looking to the original understanding of monogenes and attempting to derive our understanding of the meaning of the text from what was originally written (earlier, more reliable manuscripts) and its intended meaning, Oneness advocates will stick with their KJV rendering of “only begotten” and will read their understanding of those English terms back into the text in an attempt to support their contention that the Son is merely referring to the humanity of Jesus.  These contortions deny the plain teaching of the text as to the Son’s pre-existence as the Word, his role in creation, his relationship with the Father, and his sharing in the divine nature.

[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God, at 98-99

[ii] Id. at 103.

[iii] Id. at 104.

[iv] Id. at 105.

[v] Id. at 105.

[vi] Id. at 100.

[vii] James White, The Forgotten Trinity, at 62.

[viii] Bernard at 100.

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Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – John 1 continued – Did the Word (as a plan) belong to God?

Did the Word belong to God?

In continuing to look at John 1:1, I wanted to address in a short, standalone post an argument asserted by David Bernard and Oneness advocates concerning the Word.

The second phrase of John 1:1 states:

and the Word was with God,

kai ho Logos en pros ton Theon

Bernard argues that pros is translated in other places as “pertaining to” and therefore the phrase in John 1:1b could just as easily be translated as “’The Word pertained to God and the Word was God,’ or, ‘The Word belonged to God and was God.’”[i]  Bernard cites to Hebrews 2:17 and 5:1.  Just looking at Hebrews 5:1, the KJV translates the verse as, “For every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.”  The NASB also translates the phrase as “pertaining to God.”  The vast majority of other translations render the verse as the high priest representing men “in relation to God” or “in matters related to God.”  Even the context and idea of “pertaining to God” demonstrates that this is a relational concept and not that of ownership or possession as Bernard attempts to read into the English translation of the passage.  The high priest is appointed to represent men before God – the high priest is acting as a mediator before God for men.  The concept of relationship is clearly preserved in the translations and the context.

But Bernard makes the leap from relationship to ownership based on his reinterpreting “pertaining to” with no basis for doing so whatsoever other than to make the verse fit within his Oneness theology.   To reinterpret John 1:1b as “The Word belonged to God and was God” is a twisting of the scripture away from its intended meaning and an abuse of the text to make the verse fit within Oneness theology.

Not only is his translation, “The Word belonged to God,” not only a leap but it is flat out wrong and contrary to the Greek language utilized in the phrase.  Bernard focuses on pros but completely ignores why pros has the meaning of with in relational terms – the accusative ton theon.  As already discussed, ton theon is in the accusative case, which typically reflects the direct object of the sentence and limits the action of a verb as to its extent or direction.  Thus, when the Word pros ton theon we understand that the Word was in relationship or intimate with ton theon – with God.

If John had wanted to state that the Word “belonged” to God, John would have placed ‘God’ in the genitive case showing ownership or possession.  In the Greek, this would have been rendered tou theou such as in Revelation 19:1 where it states he soteria kai he doxa kai he dynamis tou Theou hemon – salvation and the glory and the power [belong to] the God of us!  Possession or ownership is reflected in the use of the genitive case – tou theou.  In fact, in English we need to add the “belong to” as possession in the Greek is implicitly understood by the use of the genitive case.

In this particular case, Bernard is simply wrong in his translation in his attempts to deny the personhood of the Son or the Word in favor of the Oneness teaching that the Word is simply the plan or thought that belonged to God or was in the mind of God.  The Word was not a plan or thought that belonged to God but was in relationship with God.

In the next post, we will take a look at the Oneness understanding of the “begotten” Son.

[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God, at page 61.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Pre-Existence of the Son

Pre-Existence of the Son

A challenge for the Oneness advocate is the appearance of scriptural evidence of the pre-existence of the Son – the idea that the Son existed as a person with the Father prior to the incarnation. There are several particularly stunning passages that present this fundamental truth. If it is true that the Son existed prior to the incarnation, essentially the entire Oneness position must collapse upon itself for the Oneness position is that the Son refers only the human flesh which the Father robed himself in for it was the Father who was manifested in the flesh/Jesus.

On a personal note, it was beginning to see and understand these passages within the broader context of understanding the fundamentals around the doctrine of the Trinity that caused me to step back and question the Oneness teaching that I had received for years in the UPCI. If you are open to understanding your own faith as well as the faith of others and weigh the various doctrines with what is found in the scripture – certain points of faith become very clear. It was seeing the pre-existence of the Son in the scripture coupled with a basic understanding of the fundamentals of Trinitarian theology that opened my eyes to the fundamental problems inherent in the Oneness position.

In reviewing Hebrews 1:5-6, David Bernard makes the following assertions (see page 105 in his book The Oneness of God):

The following points can be deducted from these verses: the Son was begotten on a specific day in time; there was a time when the Son did not exist; God prophesied about the Son’s future existence (“will be”); and God brought the Son into the world sometime after the creation of the angels.

Bernard and other Oneness advocates argue that, based on passages such as John 1:5, 3:16 and 5:5, that the Son was “begotten” on a particular day and, therefore, the term “Son” refers to the flesh of Jesus and the Son cannot be eternal.

Unfortunately, this view quickly falls to pieces. The Oneness advocate attempts to hang his hat on the argument that the Son was “begotten” on a day and then when confronted with the host of other passages that point to the pre-existence of the Son they will reinterpret those passages presupposing the Son refers only to the humanity of Christ. Instead, one should let all of scripture simply speak (concerning the pre-existence of the Son) and when faced with a passage that seems to contradict, attempt to interpret that passage in light of the rest of the teaching of scripture. One should look to the context, to the original languages and so on. Unfortunately, this is the hermeneutic of the UPCI – find a passage upon which to hang your doctrine (i.e. Acts 2:38) and then interpret the rest of scripture in light of your understanding of that one passage rather than allowing all of scripture speak.

Let’s begin by looking at passages that point to the pre-existence of the Son.

John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.

It is impossible to do justice to this one verse in a simple post and I would encourage people to do some extensive reading on this passage.

The Greek word translated as Word is logos and is a very common word with a number of usages throughout the NT. It was a term used in Greek philosophy to help explain the functioning of the world but for the Greeks it was an impersonal force ordering the world but not personal.  (See The Forgotten Trinity by James White, page 49).

We can find reference to the Word in the OT as well in the concept of the “Word of the Lord” being frequently invoked, such as in Psalm 33:6, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host.”

As we will see, John goes beyond these concepts in his use of Logos or Word in ascribing the Word with life and action and personality. We begin by seeing that “In the beginning was the Word.” Greek scholars all note that the Greek word “was” (en) is a form of the Greek word eimi or to be but the tense of the en expresses a continuous action in the past. (See White at page 50).  If we were to look at verse 3 we find another use of the same Greek word when John states, “All things were made through him…” or came into being. Here the wording (egeneto) reflects that the when creation occurred, things had a point of origin. There was a time when they were not and now they were. But at the beginning, the Word was already in existence – the Word was continuously in existence in the past and had no origin. Some translations render the first phrase of John 1:1 as stating that in the beginning, the Word already existed. The Word simply exists.

The second phrase states that “the Word was with God” and reveals something further to us concerning the Word. Again, in the Greek we have the Word pros ton theon. Prepositions in the Greek assume different meanings or nuances depending upon the case of the noun with which it is joined. In the present phrase we have pros with the accusative ton theon. In such a case, the preposition carries with it the meaning of toward or with and ton theon as the object. Thus, the meaning conveyed here is that the Word was facing toward or with as in relationship with God. Uniformly, Greek scholars agree as to this understanding of the phrase pros ton theon. The meaning being conveyed is that the Word is on an equal plane with God, is in intimate relationship with and in the presence of God. (See Greenlee 1986: 39, Bauer, 2000: 875). R.C.H. Lenski notes that the idea presented by John is one in which there is communion and presence and reciprocity between two persons.

The first two phrases of John 1:1 point us in the direction that the Word eternally existed, and the Word has eternally been in the presence of and in intimate communion and relationship with God.

The third phrase states, “And the Word was God” or theos en ho logos. Here John very carefully describes the nature of the Word while differentiating the Word the identity of the Word, much like Paul in his salutations speaking of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, discussed previously. In the present phrase we have theos, which is an anarthrous predicate nominative with the articular Word (ho logos). Again, the presence or absence of the definite article reflects a more to the meaning of a given phrase than you would find in English. When we have the anarthrous theos along with ho logos, ho logos is not be identified as being equivalent to theos but theos is in fact describing the category or nature of the subject identified. Thus, ho logos possess the nature of theos in terms of qualitative state but not necessarily in terms of identify.

If John had written kai ho logos en ho theos, the meaning would be dramatically different. With the presence of both definite articles, the idea being conveyed would have been equality in terms the words being interchangeable. The meaning would have been the Word = God but that is not what is conveyed by John’s statement. John is careful to be describing the nature of the Word in terms of its divinity but not with stating that the Word is simply another mode or manifestation of God.

As James White states (on page 54 of his book The Forgotten Trinity):

If John had put the article before theos, he would have been teaching modalism, a belief…that denies the existence of three divine persons, saying there is only one person who sometimes acts like the Father, sometimes like the Son, sometimes like the Spirit.

Again, we see a careful distinction between made between the God and the Word while at the same time affirming the divinity of the Word. This parallels the distinctions made between the Father and the Son and yet the affirming of the divinity of both persons.

Therefore, in the first verse of John we have an understanding that the Word was in continuous existence prior to the beginning of creation, the Word was in continuous relationship with God and the Word was divine as to its nature. The Word is eternal, the Word is personal (he is not merely a force or an idea but was in a position of relationship with the Father), and the Word is deity as to his nature.

Oneness advocates argue that the Word is merely the thought or plan in the mind of God rather than a separate person in the being of God.  (See Bernard at page 60).  The first verse of John would seem to indicate that this could not possibly be the case. The Word existed continuously from the beginning – are we to believe that this existence was merely in the mind of God rather than an actual existence. The Word was in relationship – was face to face with the divine – are we to simply dismiss this as again being in the mind of God. Finally, as to the Word’s nature, divine. Again, are we dismiss these three statements as referring to a person in favor of stating that the Word is simply a plan or thought in the mind of God? Let’s look further at the John 1.

Verse 2-4 – He [the Word] was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him [the Word] and without him [the Word] was not anything made that was made. In him [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men.

Verse 10 – He [the Word] was in the world, and the world was made through him [the Word], yet the world did not know him [the Word].

Verse 14 – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Word existed in the beginning with God (again, pros ton theon). He was in the world and all things were made through him [the Word] and without the Word nothing was made that was made. The Word is the agent of creation. Further, it is the Word that became flesh as to his quality and we beheld his glory. Are these the actions of a thought or are these the actions of a ‘person’? Does a thought or a plan act as light for men, create the worlds and does a plan come to a people? The answer must be obvious that a plan does nothing. A thought does nothing. A person is required for relationship. A person is required to create and to be present.

John is careful in that he did not say that the Father became flesh, he states that the Word became flesh.

We will continue to look at this passage in John in the next couple of posts.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Love

Love

Bernard states, “Love is the essence of God; it is his very nature.” (Bernard at 32).    This raises more of a philosophical argument in favor of a Trinitarian theology but there is a very clear Biblical basis for this argument and we should look at what love is if it is the essence of God’s nature.

The essence of love is the giving of oneself to another.  “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.”  (Romans 5:8)  We did nothing to deserve or earn his love – his love for us was his giving of himself to us.

“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.  In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”  (I John 4:8-11).  God loved us first and his love was manifested among us when he sent his only Son into the world as the propitiation for our sins.  John continues in expressing the importance of knowing and understanding who the Son is and believing in him as the basis for our salvation.

We know that the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father.  (John 3:35, 5:20).  If Oneness advocates are correct that the God is unipersonal how can God eternally be love when by definition one loves by giving oneself to another –love is personal and requires God to be personal.  A solitary, unipersonal God cannot by definition be love.

C.S. Lewis states in Mere Christianity, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’  But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two persons.  Love is something that one person has for another person.  If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”

Thus, for God to eternally be love, God must contain “at least two persons” to be the objects of self-giving love.  If love is intrinsic to who God is, it is because God is eternally a communion of persons in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that love one another.  The God of Oneness theology cannot be defined as love as the God of Oneness theology is a solitary, unipersonal being that existed as a solitary being in all eternity.

John makes love the litmus test for those who claim to disciple of Christ.  “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  (I John 4:8).  As it is intrinsic to what God is, our being joined together in union with God through the Holy Spirit should be result in a manifestation of the love of God.  “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”  (I John 4:16).

David Bernard lays out certain statements/arguments against this reasoning.  “First, even if correct, it would not prove a trinity.  In fact, it could lead to outright polytheism.”[i]  Bernard’s statement is not an argument and, again, he is in basic error in arguing that this “could lead to outright polytheism.”  He provides no basis for this statement.  Once again, it is an intentional misconstruing of the doctrine of the Trinity and a straw man argument.

Bernard continues, “Second, why does God need to prove to us the eternal nature of his love? … Why do we limit God to our concept of love, contending that He could not have been love in eternity past unless He had a then-existing object of love?”[ii]  Is Bernard asserting that we should not be looking to the Bible to form the basis for our understanding of the love of God?  John provides within the very context the nature and demonstration of God’s love and it requires an object to which to direct love.

“Third, how does the trinitarian solution avoid polytheism and at the same time avoid saying merely that God loved Himself?”[iii]  This argument, once again, causes one to question whether or not Bernard fully appreciates and understands some basic concepts within Trinitarian theology that he so ardently argues against.  Analogies always tend to fail but it might be similar to stating that there is one church but many persons make up the church.  To say that the persons within the church love each other does not mean that the church necessarily loves itself but the persons who make up the church love each other.  There is simply one church.

“Fourth, we cannot limit God to time.  He could and did love us from eternity past.  Even though we were not then in existence, He foresaw our existence.  To His mind we existed and He loved us.”[iv]  To say that he foresaw and loved us from eternity past opens the door to a number of issues that the Oneness Pentecostal advocates likely would not like to pursue from the perspective of certain logical fallacies that will be encountered.  In this vein, Bernard points out that, “God knew before the world began that He would manifest Himself as the Son.  He loved that plan from the beginning.  He loved that future Son just as He loved all of us from the beginning of time.”[v]

Thus, in the Oneness perspective, God loved his plan from the beginning of time.  Earlier I noted that Bernard was critical of the Trinitarian perspective as “saying merely that God loved Himself?”[vi]  If, from the Oneness perspective, the Son was simply the Father manifested in the flesh, isn’t Bernard guilty of asserting that God merely loved Himself?  It is the Trinitarian perspective of distinct persons within the one being of God that is consistent with the understanding that God is love.  The Oneness perspective is the view that presents a solitary, unitarian God that is able to only direct his love towards his plan from eternity past.  This seems contradictory to the nature of the God that is revealed to us in the New Testament.

[i] Bernard at 185.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id. at 186.

[vi] Id. at 185.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – A Distinction of Persons

Distinctions of Persons

As previously discussed, Trinitarian theology holds to a strict monotheistic view of God.  There is only one God.  Trinitarianism holds that there are three persons sharing in the one being of God.  Oneness Pentecostal advocates seem to overlook this most fundamental concept of the doctrine of the Trinity and create straw man arguments against the Trinity by asserting that it teaches tritheism.  While David Bernard does not come right out and claim that orthodox Trinitarian theology asserts a belief in three gods, he certainly makes statements in his book, The Oneness of God, alluding to the teaching holding to tritheistic ideas.

“It is clear that the terms Father, Son, and Holy Ghost cannot imply three separate persons, personalities wills or beings.”[i] (emphasis added).

“The Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as different manifestations, roles, modes, titles, attributes, relationships to man, or functions of the one God, but it does not refer to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as three persons, personalities, wills, minds or Gods.”[ii]  (emphasis added).

Oneness Pentecostals view the one being of God as simply being unipersonal (rather than tripersonal).  A question for us to consider today is does the Bible differentiate between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in such a way that they are each understood to be God and sharing in the nature of God and yet distinguished from one another.  OP asserts that the Son was simply God the Father manifested in the flesh.[iii]  Thus, Son generally refers to the humanity of Christ – his flesh – while the Father is in reference to God and the divine nature of Christ.  The Holy Spirit is simply a mode in which God the Father is manifested in terms of his interaction with humanity.

Is this OP line of reasoning sustained by the scriptural evidence regarding the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?  Does the scripture teach that the only distinction is really between Father and Son and that is tied strictly to the dual nature of Christ?  Or does the scripture teach that the Father is so distinguished from the Son and from the Holy Spirit that the only consistent way in which to understand these passages is to understand the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to all be God and yet the Father not be the Son, the Son not be the Spirit and the Spirit not be the Father – that is, there are distinctions of persons within the being of God?

Father and Son

“The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand….For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all things that he himself is doing; and greater works than these will he show him, so that you will marvel.”  (John 3:35, 5:20).  Clearly, the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and these are the actions of distinct persons.  To the OP, these verses are simply describing the divine loving the humanity and the humanity loving the divine Father.

Yet there is something amiss if the Son is merely the Father manifested in the flesh, how can there truly be this loving relationship between the two if they are one and the same person.  Jesus said, “Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; abide in my love.”  (John 15:9).  So as the Father loves the Son, the Son loves his disciples.  Clearly the Son and the disciples were separate persons and were therefore capable of loving each other as the act of love is the giving of oneself to another – thus, by definition, love requires two or more persons.

In a number of other passages, Jesus clearly distinguishes himself from the Father.  “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”  (John 6:38).  “I came forth from the Father and have come into the world; I am leaving the world again and going to the Father.”  (John 16:28).  In these and other passages, the Son is referred to as being sent by the Father.  And not simply that the Father is sending the flesh but that the Son had “come down from heaven” and “came forth from the Father” having “come into the world….”

At the baptism of Jesus we read the following:
After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”  (Matthew 3:16-17).

We find here the Father speaking from heaven as the Son is being baptized.  The Father again is affirming his love for his Son.  We also see the Spirit is descending and resting upon the Son.  Here we see three distinct persons represented – the Father speaking from heaven, the Son being baptized, and the Spirit represented by the dove, resting upon the Son.  This passage certainly is not the end all of passages in support of the doctrine of the Trinity but it does seem to reflect the triune nature of God.  According to OP, the Father was in Jesus and yet the Father was speaking from heaven concerning who, Jesus the man?

Bernard argues that the key to understanding this passage is to appreciate the omnipresence of God.  “It was not at all difficult for the Spirit of Jesus to speak from heaven and to send a manifestation of His Spirit in the form of a dove even while His human body was in the Jordan River. The voice and the dove do not represent separate persons any more than the voice of God at Sinai indicates that the mountain was a separate intelligent person in the Godhead.”[iv]

No one disputes that God is omnipresent.  Bernard is presupposing that God is unipersonal rather than tripersonal and is confusing is the idea of the ontological Trinity with the economic Trinity and the idea that within the one being of God are three distinct persons.  His argument in alluding to the voice of God at Sinai makes no sense as no one would argue that the mountain is a separate intelligent person.  Yet the scripture seems to differentiate, as we have been looking at, between the Son and Father as distinct persons who love one another.  The Father states that he is well-pleased with his Son.  If the Son is merely the Father in flesh is the Father talking about himself or is he talking about the flesh?  Or are we looking at separate persons within the essence of God.

We can look at the transfiguration and see again separate persons in the Father and the Son and not simply the Father in the Son: While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!”  (Matthew 17:5).

Again, we see the Son being distinguished from the Father and not simply the divine from the flesh.  In this passage we see the glory of the Son being revealed to Peter, James and John as the Father speaks from heaven.

Bernard, again, simply argues that “a voice does not indicate a separate person in the Godhead but only another manifestation of the omnipresent Spirit of God.”[v]  Anytime a voice was heard from heaven, “the voice was not for the benefit of Jesus but for the benefit of others, and it came for a specific purpose.”[vi]

Certainly, there was a purpose and a benefit to those who witnessed the Son’s glory and the heard the voice of the Father from heaven.  But again, the passage seems to reflect a clear distinction between the Father and the Son from the perspective of personhood.

In the third instance in which there was a voice from heaven, we find the Son praying and the Father speaking to the Son in a voice heard by the disciples:
Father, glorify your name.”  There came then a voice from heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.”  (John 12:28).

Here we find the Son speaking to the Father and the Father responding to the Son.  According to OP, this is really a monologue between the Son and himself – it is the human nature speaking to the divine nature and the divine nature responding out of heaven because the Father is omnipresent.  Remember, a key to OP, from their perspective, is asking the question who is speaking – is this the human Jesus or the divine nature.  In this passage of John, OP would argue that it is the human Jesus praying to the divine and the divine responding from heaven, despite the fact that the Father is really in Jesus.  But that is not really an accurate picture as to what is being presented.  What we have being presented is one person speaking to another and vice-versa.

The prayers of Jesus and other passages show us over and over that there is a distinction between the Father and Son reflecting two persons.  These statements cannot be dismissed on the basis of the human nature of Christ speaking to his own divine nature.  Jesus’ statements of have been sent by the Father and having come down from heaven and his pre-existent glory make clear that there is something more here than the human speaking with the divine.  The content of these passages make clear that the Son is more than simply a reference to the flesh of Jesus.

Jesus prayed in John 17: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son, that the Son may glorify you, even as you gave him authority over all flesh, that to all whom you have given him, he may give eternal life.  This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent….”

First, we find the use of personal pronouns as stressing the fact that the Father and Son are distinct persons.  Jesus is stressing the distinctions in personhood between himself and the Father.  Is this simply distinguishing between the humanity praying to the divine?

Jesus continues his prayer: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.”  (emphasis added).

If the Son had glory in the presence of the Father before the world existed how can the Son simply refer to the flesh of Jesus.  Jesus, the Son of God, is stating that he had glory in the presence of the Father before the very worlds existed.  We will look at the prayers of Jesus and the pre-existence of the Son in other posts but for now, suffice it to say that there is a clear distinction being made between the Father and the Son and this cannot be limited to a simple explanation of pointing to the human and divine natures of Christ.  To do so, ultimately would seem to lead us down the troubling path of denying the deity of Christ himself.

How did Paul seem to understand this? One interesting point to note is that, like the rest of the NT writers, Paul made significant effort to both affirm the deity of Christ while distinguishing him from the Father.  We can look to many of his opening passages:  Romans 1:7, I Corinthians 1:3, II Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, and Philippians 1:2 where Paul states “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Any basic reading of these various passages demonstrates that God the Father is being distinguished from the Lord Jesus Christ.  Bernard attempts to force a reading onto this passage by arguing that the Greek word kai translated in all these passages as and could also be rendered even resulting a reading of “God the Father even the Lord Jesus Christ” thus identifying Jesus as the Father.[vii]  Thus, Oneness advocates argue that these passages teach us that Jesus Christ is the Father rather than a person distinguished from the Father.

Others have noted that re-interpretation of these passages is simply not based on any grammatical or exegetical foundation – it is simply asserted by people like Bernard to deny the scriptural teaching of a distinction between personhood in the being of God.  Kai is overwhelming used and properly translated as the connective “and” and not as “even”.

Further, Bernard argues that the definite article (the or o) is missing from before Lord Jesus Christ causing the translation to literally be “from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ.”[viii]  In support of his assertions regarding the Greek, Bernard cites to The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament to show the absence of the definitive article as well as “Greek scholar” Robert Brent Graves, who is also an advocate of Oneness theology and not necessarily an individual with no presuppositions on this issue.  Bernard is correct regarding the lack of a definite article before Lord Jesus Christ but is completely wrong with respect to its implications.  The passage would read as follows in the Greek:

…apo Theou Patros hemon kai Kyriou Iesou Christou

Bernard’s simple assertions that we should re-read the passage as using “even” rather than “and” and the lack of a definitive article serves to eliminate any distinction between the Father and Jesus Christ is simply not supported by anyone other than a Oneness “Greek scholar”.  The use of the definitive article tends to say more about the nature and quality of nouns, in particular, in relation to other nouns.  When you have two nouns present and both have the definite article this may well mean that they are essentially equivalent to one another.  When you have two nouns and only one has the definite article and it is absent from the other noun (this noun is anarthrous), the anarthrous noun is not necessarily equivalent to the articular noun but describing the nature or quality of the articular noun (see John 1:1c).

Greek grammarians agree that these salutary passages demonstrate that Paul was intending to make a distinction between the Father and Jesus Christ and in no way was he looking to identify them as the same person.  Granville Sharp’s Rule 5 states that “when there is no article before the first noun, the insertion of the copulative kai before the next noun, or name, same case, denotes a different person or thing from the first….”  (emphasis added).

In the present passages, we have a lack of the article before the first noun and both God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ are in the same case.  Therefore, according to standard Greek grammarian rules, God the Father and Lord Jesus Christ “denotes a different person or thing from the first.”  Bernard’s citing to the absence of the article before Lord Jesus Christ does nothing to support his Oneness position – the contrary, the lack of the article in this phrase points to the fact that Paul was seeking to differentiate between God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Granville Sharp himself cited to passages such as II Corinthians 1:2, Ephesians 1:2 and Galatians 1:3 as examples of where this rule should be applied.

The fact of the matter is, Paul is very consistent in his distinguishing between the Father and the Son and yet affirming the deity of both the Father and the Son.  He continuously refers to the Father as God/theos and the Son as Lord/kurios.  The Father is regularly referred to by the God or the OT name of Elohim while the Son is regularly referred to by the OT name of Yahweh.  They are never identified as the same person but are both identified as the God of the OT.  Both the Father and Son are deity and yet both are distinguished as persons from one another.  In this respect Paul can both affirm that Jesus is God and is yet distinguished from the Father. Paul can state that all of God dwelt in Christ and yet he does not state that the Father was in Christ.  All of God’s nature and attributes were in Christ as the Son is fully God, and yet he is not the Father.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit

If we have seen distinctions in personhood between Father and Son, it would seem that it should follow we would also see distinctions between the Spirit, the Father and the Son as well.

First, we know that the Spirit takes up unique functions with respect to God and his dealings with humanity and, in particular, with respect to man’s regeneration.  We have already made mention of the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove and lighting upon Jesus at his baptism as distinguishing himself from the Father and the Son in that picture.

In John 16, Jesus speaks concerning the coming of the Spirit and his role and purpose and does so while distinguishing the Spirit from himself as well as from the Father:

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you.  And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer….  I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

From these passages we can see that with the departure of the Son, the Helper will come.  He will be sent by the Son and will have a number of roles to play.  The Spirit will act as an advocate to the believer.  He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.  The Spirit will guide believers into truth.  But note that the Spirit does not speak based on his own authority but whatever he hears is what he speaks.  His role is to bring glory to the Son.  Thus, the Spirit is spoken of here by Jesus as not only distinguished from the Father and the Son in terms of his functions and role but in terms of his personhood as well.  Recall that differences in function does not mean subordination within God.  The Holy Spirit is fully God despite it being his function to speak what he hears and to bring glory to the Son.  Again, we are distinguishing between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity.

A number of other passages speak of this distinguishing both of personhood as well as work of the Spirit:

Now he who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us in God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge.  (II Corinthians 1:21-22).

For through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father.  (Ephesians 2:18).

There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.  (Ephesians 4:4-6).

In a number of other passages, the Holy Spirit is described as acting with personal attributes.  In Hebrews 3:7 the Spirit speaks; in Acts 15:28 the Spirit reasons; in I Corinthians 2:10-11 the Spirit searches, thinks and understands the depths of the mind of God; in I Corinthians 12:11 the Spirit has a will; in Ephesians 4:30 the Spirit can feel and experience grievance; and in II Corinthians 13:14 the Spirit fellowships with believers.

As we read these passages and other it becomes evident that the believers in the early church were Trinitarian in their thinking and understanding of the nature of God.  This thinking continues to be carried through and contained in the writing of the early post-apostolic church.  Clearly, there were those who struggled in attempting to understanding the nature of Christ and the nature of God and this did lead some into error.  There were those who sought to deny the deity of Christ and saw Jesus as simply a man – they distinguished between the Father and Son but did so at the expense of denying the divine nature of Christ (these were the Arians).  There were those who sought to maintain the deity of Christ but did so at the expense of denying the distinctions between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the scripture (these were the Sabellians).  Both camps were roundly condemned by the early church fathers as asserting doctrines concerning Christ and the nature of God that were contrary to the historical teaching of the church.

The historic teaching on the nature of God is that there is one divine being with one indivisible essence – this essence reflects all the attributes and fundamental nature of who God is and what makes God, God.  Oneness advocates (and KJV readers) will identify this as the godhead (from the old English word godhood as describing the essence of all that makes God, God).  Within this one being of God there are three distinct persons or subsistences (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) that are co-equal and co-eternal.  The whole essence of God is shared equally by each of the subsistences.  Thus, we can say that the Father is fully God, the Son is fully God and the Holy Spirit is fully God.  Nevertheless, the three distinct persons are distinguished by personal attributes, roles and functions.  Differences in attributes, roles or functions do not mean that one is necessarily subordinate to the other for all share equally in the essence of God.  Thus, there are no demigods within the nature of God.

[i] Bernard at 134.

[ii] Id. at 144.

[iii] Id. at 67.

[iv] Id. at 172-3.

[v] Id. at 175-6.

[vi] Id. at 176.

[vii] Id. at 208.

[viii] Id. at 209.

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Some Background on Oneness Pentecostalism

Oneness Theology

Having discussed some of the basic concepts, terminology, definitions and basic objections to non-Biblical language, let’s take a closer look at the basic teaching of the Oneness position.  Oneness advocates start with the Old Testament and the clear Biblical truth that there is only one God.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4, KJV).

[Advocates will misapply Galatians 3:24, which states, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ…” (KJV) to argue that the NT must be interpreted in light of the OT.  First, that is not what this passage is teaching.  Second, the fact of the matter is, we must read and understand the OT in light of the greater revelation given in the NT.  If the NT is a fulfillment of the Old, the New ought to govern our understanding of the Old and not the other way around.]

David Bernard, currently the head of one of the largest Oneness Pentecostal organizations in the world – the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), has been its primary apologist for the Oneness view.  Bernard essentially defines the Oneness position true monotheism believing in one God and further believing “that the fullness of the Godhead is manifested in Jesus Christ.”[i]  These strict monotheists “believe that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are manifestations, modes, offices, or relationships that the one God has displayed to man.  Church historians have used the terms modalism or modalistic monarchianism to describe this view as held by such early church leaders as Noetus, Praxeas, and Sabellius.”[ii]  I am sure that Bernard and others consider it a badge of honor to know that these three early church leaders were condemned by the early church for their modalistic teachings.

So Bernard makes clear that the teaching of the UPCI is in the similar vein of the modalistic teaching of people like Sabellius (again, condemned by the early church for his teaching but more on this later) but modern day Oneness advocates, like the UPCI, really have a form of modalism that is unique and not known in church history.

In his book, Bernard goes to great lengths to stress the “strict monotheism” of the Old and New Testaments citing again and again to references of God being one.  Again, Trinitarian theology also holds to a strict monotheistic view of God as well.  To argue that Trinitarianism is a form of tritheism is an argument based either in ignorance of the doctrine of the Trinity or in untruth because the orthodox Trinitarian position is purely monotheistic in its view of the nature of God.  Bernard’s position seems to be an argument that, despite Trinitarian claims to monotheism, Oneness theology is more monotheistic because it denies there are any distinctions of persons within the substance of God.  Bernard goes so far as to blame the doctrine of the Trinity as “a major reason for the Jewish rejection of Christianity throughout history….”[iii]

Again, the question presented is not whether there is one God but whether the one God is unipersonal or tripersonal.  Despite this being the more concise question, Oneness advocates will spend an inordinate amount of time arguing a point that all agree upon – that there is only one true God.  Let’s attempt to focus on some other points raised by Bernard.

In his book, he dedicates a chapter to the Names and Titles of God.  Bernard stresses the importance of names and titles of God stating that, “God’s name represents the following: 1) God’s presence, 2) the revelation of His character, 3) His power and 4) His authority.”[iv]  While this may be true to some degree, there tends to be an overemphasis on the importance of names and this is because Bernard is attempting to build a case for baptism in the name of Jesus as to being the valid, Biblical formula given for baptism in the NT.  Here he also stresses titles of God.  The argument goes that there is only one God and this one God has manifested himself in various ways and that he manifests himself as Father, as Son in the incarnation and as the Holy Spirit in regeneration.  Thus, there are no distinctions between Father, Son or Holy Spirit – these are merely titles that are ascribed the various modes in which the one God has revealed himself to man.  This also leads to the teaching that when Jesus commanded his disciples to make disciples and to baptize it the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit that Father, Son and Spirit are merely titles and not names.  Therefore, there must be a name applied at baptism and that name is Jesus.

From the Oneness perspective, the Father is God, the Son refers to the humanity of Christ who was indwelt by God the Father, and the Holy Spirit is simply the Spirit of God in its interaction with humankind in regeneration.  Bernard looks to passages such as Isaiah 9:6 and argues, “The terms child and son refer to the Incarnation or manifestation of ‘The mighty God’ and ‘The everlasting Father.’”  He takes passages such as Isaiah and looks to Colossian 2:9 to argue the deity of Christ but not simply the deity of Christ but that essentially the Father was in Jesus.

In citing to Malachi 2:10, Bernard notes that there is only one God and that God is the Father, therefore, if Jesus is God, then it must logically follow that Jesus is the Father.  In looking at the I AM (ego eimi) verses in John along with the statements that the Father and he were one, Bernard sees Jesus as identifying himself both with and as the Father.  (citing to John 8:19, 24, 25, and 27).  Bernard cites to John 10:30 where Jesus makes a statement about being one with the Father to mean that, “Jesus was not only the Son in His humanity but also the Father in His deity.”[v]

In looking to John 14:7-11 where Jesus speaks of those having seen him having seen the Father, Bernard sees this as a statement that “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.”[vi]

Bernard states, “We can easily understand all of this if we realize that Jesus has a dual nature.  His is both Spirit and flesh, God and man, Father and Son.  On His human side He is the Son of man; on His divine side He is the Son of God and is the Father dwelling in flesh.”[vii]

In addressing the issue of The Word (ho logos), Bernard argues as follows:

The Word was not a separate person or a separate god any more than a man’s word is a separate person from him.  Rather the Word was the thought, plan, or mind of God.  The Word was with God in the beginning and actually was God Himself (John 1:1).  The Incarnation existed in the mind of God before the world began.  Indeed, in the mind of God the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world (I Peter 1:19-20; Revelation 13:8).”[viii]

We will look at this in more detail but for now understand that the assertion here is that the logos is merely the thought or plan as it existed in the mind of God rather than an assertion that the Word was the Son in his pre-existent state prior to the incarnation.  We will need to test this interpretation based on the whole teaching of scripture, looking at the usage of logos in its context to determine if the Word is merely the thoughts or plan of God or something more.

A key to understanding how Oneness advocates understanding the distinctions between the Father and Son and their seeming interaction with one another is to understand their view of the dual nature of Christ, the assigning of titles, and how that impacts their view of scripture.  To understand these keys better, consider some statements from Bernard:

We can resolve most questions about the Godhead if we properly understand the dual nature of Jesus. When we read a statement about Jesus we must determine if it describes Jesus as a man or as God.  Moreover, whenever Jesus speaks in Scripture we must determine whether He is speaking as man or as God.  Whenever we see a description of two natures with respect to Jesus, we should not think of two persons in the Godhead or of two Gods, but we should think of Spirit and flesh.[ix]

Also:

The term Father refers to God Himself – God in all His deity.  When we speak of the eternal Spirit of God, we mean God Himself, the Father.  God the Father, therefore, is a perfectly acceptable biblical phrase to use for God….  However, the Bible does not use the term “God the Son” even one time.  It is not a correct term because the Son of God refers to the humanity of Jesus Christ.  The Bible defines the Son of God as the child born of Mary, not as the eternal Spirit of God (Luke 1:35).  Son of God may refer solely to the human nature or it may refer to God manifested in flesh – that is, deity in the human nature.[x]

To summarize, Oneness advocates adhere to a strict monotheistic view on the nature of God, which then presupposes the nature of God to be unipersonal.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit are viewed as merely titles used to describe modes or manifestations of this one God.  The titles Father and Son are used, in particular, to describe the relationship that existed between God the Father and the Son with the term Son used to always refer to the humanity of Christ.  Jesus was simply God the Father manifested in the flesh.  To understand the challenging portions of scripture around the nature of Christ, when Jesus acts or speaks, we must ask whether he is acting or speaking as man (Son) or in accordance with his deity (the Father).  When Jesus healed the sick it was the God the Father in him, his divine nature that performed the work.  When Jesus prayed, it was his human nature (the Son) speaking to God (the Father).

As a young person who had always been confused by the idea of the Trinity and, more importantly, never understanding the doctrine itself, the simplified understanding initially presented to me seemed to just make sense.  My simply understanding was that there is only one God and that one God was in Jesus.  Nevertheless, as one begins to look closer at Bernard’s explanation as to the relationship between the Father and the Son one quickly begins to detect that the reasoning becomes strained.  When examining some of these strained explanations against what appears to be the plain teaching (challenging to our understanding but plain teaching nevertheless) of the scripture, the Oneness view simply does not stand to against the Trinitarian view of God.  I hope to explore a number of these ideas and passages in the coming posts.

[i] David Bernard, The Oneness of God, (Word Aflame Press, 2001) pg 15.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id. at 17.

[iv] Id. at 44.

[v] Id. at 67.

[vi] Id. at 68.

[vii] Id. at 69-70.

[viii] Id. at 60.

[ix] Id. at 87-88.

[x] Id. at 98-99

Trinitarian vs. Oneness Theology – Some Basic Definitions

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.

Non-Biblical Terminology?

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.

[iii] Benjamin B. Warfield, Trinity, http://bbwarfield.com/works/trinity/.