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Introduction to Oneness Theology (Modalism)

See and print this short Oneness Tract

 

     INDEX:                    

Introduction


Origins


Sabellianism Regurgitated


Oneness Theology Defined


Did the Son of God's Life Start in Bethlehem?


The End of the "Son"


Disagreements in Oneness Theology


Same God?

 
The Oneness Church Tag


The Early Church


Conclusion 

 

INTRODUCTION

   

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut. 6:4). And with that, the Old Testament Jew rested on the assurance that there was only one true God and Creator of all things from whom salvation was given. No one can read Isaiah chapters 40-48 and not feel the endless concern that God had to clearly represent His Being as the one true God. Monotheism, the belief in one true God by nature, is what separated the people of God from the crass polytheism (i.e., the belief of many true Gods/gods), which flourished in the surrounding pagan nations.

 

Monotheism is simply the belief in one God (e.g., Deut. 4:35; Isa. 44:6, 8). Monotheism must first be defined from biblical context in order to (a) correctly apprehend the doctrine of the Trinity and (b) fully realize as to why Oneness theology is not consistent with biblical theology. Oneness theology as with all other unitarian1 groups assert that monotheism equals one Person. Nowhere in Scripture, however, is God defined as one Person, but rather as one Being: mono (from monos, meaning alone or only one) and theism (from theos, meaning God). Oneness adherents, though, wrongly assume that the word one when referring to God (e.g., Deut. 6:4) has the strict denotative meaning of absolute solitude.

 

Is there any merit to this contention, though? As we will see later, while it is true that there are some Hebrew Old Testament terms that can be translated this way, it is not true that every term carries this same emphasis, particularly the key term that is significantly applied to God. That is, the word that is exclusively applied to God to denote that He is one is echad (e.g., Deut. 6:4). Echad can carry the meaning of composite or compound unity (e.g., Gen. 2:24; Gen. 11:6). It is merely asserted by Oneness unitarians that the term means always means absolute solitude.  For God is one, that is, one Being--not one Person. In point of fact, there is no place in Scripture which says that God is one Person.

 

Another monotheistic group, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, will likewise say, “yes, there is only one true God, the Father; and Jesus (“a god”) was the ‘first of Jehovah’s works’—a created angel.”2 Hence, they assume the conclusion (monotheism equals unitarianism; i.e., God is one Person) that they are wishing to reach. This is a very important point when dealing with Oneness believers. We must not fall prey to their equivocation on the term monotheism.

 

Historically, the Christian church has always—and tenaciously—taught that there is one true God ontologically (by nature) who alone is eternal and uncreated. The very foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity is ontological monotheism: There exist three distinct, coequal, coeternal, and coexistent Persons or Selves that share the nature of the one Being.

 

Cappadocian church Father and defender of the church’s regula fidei (“rule of faith”) Gregory of Nyssa (c. A.D. 375) emphasized the ‘oneness of nature’ shared by the three Persons by quoting Psalm 33:6: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the power of them by the Spirit of His mouth,” this he did to prove that the Word and the Spirit are coordinate realities.3 Against such language, Oneness teachers assert that the doctrine of the Trinity departs from monotheism due to their gross misapprehension that monotheism and unitarianism are interchangeable terms. However, monotheism is the very foundation of the Trinity. As will be shown, the triune nature of God consists of the three distinct Persons, not three separate Gods. The theological misunderstanding that the Trinity is three Gods was the very soil upon which Modalism emerged historically (Modalism and Church History)..

 

Oneness Pentecostals, also known as “Jesus Only” churches, with the United Pentecostal Church International (hereafter, UPCI) are forms the largest Oneness domination. Further, the Oneness Pentecostals are one of the largest anti-Trinitarian movements in this country.

Too often, many well-meaning Christians simply assume that anyone who declares, “Jesus is Lord” must, by these words alone, be a Christian; it is for this reason that there is much confusion among even mainstream evangelicalism. What do I mean? Well, there is absolutely no question, whatsoever, that those who embrace the Oneness system most emphatically declare that “Jesus is Lord.” Since this is so, does it not follow, then, that they are true Christian believers? Thus the confusion gripping many churches: are those who hold to Oneness doctrine Christians or non-Christians? Hence, in this book we will analyze Oneness theology on the basis of biblical truth. Our focus, then, is not on the terms that Oneness adherents may use, for many systems use similar language that, in point of fact, mean entirely different things. Nor is our focus on the fact that Oneness people are involved in many noble works; for nearly every group, even Atheistic ones, could claim the same.

 

Rather, our focus will be on the sole infallible standard that defines true Christianity from a false or professing one: the Scriptural teaching concerning the Person, nature and finished work of Jesus Christ. So, it is not the mere name “Jesus” itself that has salvific value, for there were many who were named “Jesus” (that is, Joshua) in the first century, but, in contradistinction, it is only the Jesus of biblical revelation who can truly save those who are enslaved to sin. It is this Jesus who alone can forgive sins, and it is this Jesus who alone can grant eternal life!

 

When Jesus said, “He who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47), we must consider the meaning of the word “believe.” The word “believe”4 in soteriological (i.e., salvation) contexts has the denotative meaning of fully trusting in Him, intellectual assent, and accurate knowledge of Him (cf. John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 1 John 5:1). What does this mean? Simply, genuine Christianity is determined only by having accurate knowledge of the Person, nature, and finished work of the Jesus Christ of biblical revelation (cf. John 17:3). It was Jesus who asked, “What do you think about the Christ?” (Matt. 22:42). So, on that note, we will examine Oneness theology in the light of biblical exegesis, and not on the philosophical arguments so often presented by Oneness defenders in their endeavor to attack and discredit the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.

To properly understand Oneness doctrine, it is helpful first to define some technical terms, so that we will have a correct theological cognition of the doctrine. Historically, Oneness theology was first known as monarchianism, which comes from the Greek word monarchia, meaning single principle. There were two forms of monarchianism: modalistic, and the far less accepted, dynamic (or more properly called adoptionism), both of which emerged at the end of the second century. 

 

Dynamic monarchianism taught that Jesus became divinely inspired at His baptism to do miracles, but without becoming deity. God merely “adopted” Him to be His Son, hence the term adoptionism. Accordingly, the early Christian church quickly refuted and debunked this Christological heresy, which clearly denied the deity of Christ. Because of this radical denial of the deity of Christ, dynamic monarchianism never really gained popularity and eventually fizzled out.

 

On the other side of the spectrum, there was modalistic monarchianism, known also as Modalism, Sabellianism,5 and even patripassianism (from Lat. meaning “father to suffer”). Today, however, Modalism is generally classified as “Oneness.” Later on, we will explore the historical particulars of Modalism, but for now, a general summary will suffice. Modalism earned its name from its distinctive theology. Basically, Modalism teaches that God is a unitarian (i.e., unipersonal), indivisible monad. The titles “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” were merely the different modes, roles, or offices that the unipersonal deity temporally manifested for the sake of redemption. Oneness teachers today tell us that Jesus is the name of the single, lone Person behind the three masks of the “Father,” “Son” and “Holy Spirit” (in contrast to early Modalism which taught it was the Father Person behind the masks). In a Oneness doctrinal tract titled “60 Questions on the Godhead with Bible answers” (Hazelwood: Word Aflame, 1997), we read in question 11: "Does the Bible say that all the Godhead is revealed in one person? Yes, in Jesus Christ. II Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:19; 2:9; Hebrews 1:3."

 

Consequently, Oneness teachers present a Jesus who, while on earth, had two natures: divine as the Father/Holy Spirit and human as the Son of God (though not God the Son). By asserting that the divine nature was the mode of the Father (and Holy Spirit), Oneness believers are able to say that “Jesus is God in the flesh.” However, this is a play-on-words; for when they say “God” what they have in mind is that Jesus as the Father is God (i.e., Jesus’ divine nature). In this way, they can say that Jesus (as the Father) is the eternal God, or that Jesus (as the Father) preexisted. As we will see, they will claim that it was only for the sake of redemption that the Father came down and wrapped himself in human flesh (though, not actually becoming flesh).       

Therefore, according to Modalism, when Scripture speaks of Jesus as God (e.g., John 8:24, 58; 20:28; Titus 2:13) it is really Jesus speaking [about Himself] in the Father mode. But when Scripture speaks of Jesus as man (e.g., “I thirst” or “who touched Me”) it is really Jesus speaking about Himself in the Son mode. So, when reading Scripture we must determine in which mode Jesus was speaking: the “Father” mode, the human “Son” mode, or the “Holy Spirit” mode, which is it?

 

Origins

  In studying the ancient heresy of Modalism and its relationship to modern Oneness Pentecostalism, it is vital to have a basic knowledge of its doctrinal origins. Modalism emerged at the end of the second century. Noetus of Smyrna (c. A.D. 190) was the first known modalist. Additional leaders of the movement included Praxeas (according to Tertullian), and the Libyan priest named Sabellius. One point is firmly agreed upon by all Oneness believers: God is unipersonal and has not revealed Himself in three distinct, coequal, coeternal, coexistent Persons or Selves.

   

Sabellianism Regurgitated

  Shortly after the Christian church condemned Sabellius as a heretic, Modalism generally died off, at least until Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) had a “revelation” that Jesus was the one Person behind the masks of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Early Modalism (Sabellius in particular) taught that the one Person behind the three masks was the Father, not Jesus; so we find that Modalism made somewhat of a comeback. Modern Oneness Pentecostalism, however, is really an offshoot from early Pentecostalism (early 1900’s), emerging out of the Assemblies of God in 1914. From 1913 to 1916 several Pentecostal leaders—including R. E. McAlister, Frank J. Ewart, Glenn Cook, and Garfield T. Haywood--began teaching that the baptismal formula must be “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and not “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”6 In April 1913, R. E. McAlister preached a sermon based on Acts 2:38 in which he argued that the baptismal formula should be in the name of Jesus only; not in the Trinitarian formula. A preacher named John Scheppe was greatly influenced by the message and in prayer that night encountered a type of revelation or mystical experience confirming the power of the name of Jesus. Certain passages of Scripture (Matt. 17:8; John 10:30; Phil. 2:9-11; and Col. 3:17) led Scheppe to adopt a modalistic view of the Godhead that—contrary to Sabellius—made Jesus, and not the Father, the one true God.7

 

Today the largest Oneness denomination is the UPCI. According to the UPCI’s website, presently (2013): "The UPCI in the United States and Canada grew to 4,400 churches (including daughter works and preaching points) and 9,234 ministers in 2012. In the same year it reported works in 203 nations outside the U.S. and Canada with 36,804 churches and preaching points, 22,129 licensed ministers, 853 missionaries, and a constituency of 2.4 million. The international fellowship consists of national organizations that are united as the Global Council of the UPCI, which is chaired by the general superintendent of the UPCI. Total constituency is estimated at 3 million."

 

Staggering the mind even further is that there are literally hundreds of non-UPCI Oneness churches around the world that while divesting themselves of the strict legalism of the UPCI, still retain the same modalistic definition of God. It is difficult to ascertain an accurate count of Oneness believers worldwide. These non-UPCI Oneness churches have various names and many are not concerned about membership data. Thus, it is fair to say that the total number of Oneness believers could range from fifteen to twenty million making it the largest anti-Trinitarian non-Christian group in the world. There are many popular and prolific preachers on the airwaves that propagate the Oneness idea of God (e.g., Trinity Broadcasting Network [TBN] features one of the most recognized Oneness preachers, T. D. Jakes of the Potters House, Dallas, TX; see n. 22 below); regrettably, the ancient theological heresy of Sabellianism has been resurrected from Swedenborg to the present.

 

Oneness Theology Defined

The basic Oneness doctrinal syllogism is as follows:

 

  Premise 1: There is only one God, the Father (e.g., Mal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 8:6; cf. Bernard, 1983: 66, 126).

 

  Premise 2: Jesus is God (e.g., John 8:58; Titus 2:13).

 

  Conclusion: Jesus is the Father (and the Holy Spirit). Jesus has two natures: divine as the Father/Holy Spirit and human as the Son of God.

 

While this syllogism is a brief description of the modern Oneness view of God, it serves, nonetheless, as an accurate representation. Bernard clarifies the Oneness doctrine of God:

 

The modalistic doctrine is usually explained simply as the belief that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are only manifestations, modes, of the one God (the monarchia), and not three distinct persons (hypostases) … In summary, modalistic Monarchianism can be defined as the belief that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are manifestations of the one God with no distinctions of person [sic] being possible. Furthermore, the one God is expressed fully in the person of Jesus Christ.8

 

The Oneness position is made clear: modalistic Monarchianism, that is, Oneness theology, is unitarian in its doctrine of God, thus categorically rejecting the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Fundamentally, Oneness theology maintains that God has revealed Himself as three roles, modes, manifestations, etc., and that the entire Godhead consists in one Person—Jesus Christ.9 In an official UPCI doctrinal tract entitled “60 Questions on the Godhead with Bible answers” (UPCI, 2008c), question 11 asks, “Does the Bible say that all the Godhead is revealed in one person? Yes, in Jesus Christ. II Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:19; 2:9; Hebrews 1:3.”

 

In the same tract, question 56 asks, “Can Trinitarians show that three divine persons were present when Jesus was baptized by John? Absolutely not. The one, omnipresent God used three simultaneous manifestations. Only one divine person was present—Jesus Christ the Lord.” Oneness teachers thus present a Jesus who while on earth had two natures: divine, as the Father/Holy Spirit, and human, as the Son of God (though not God the Son). Most of them radically misdefine the doctrine of the Trinity, assuming that it teaches three Gods. The belief in three separate Gods is tritheism10. That the Trinity is three separate Gods is a straw man argument that redirects the issue. Hence, all Oneness teachers and believers unconditionally reject the biblical presentation of God revealing Himself in three distinct Persons: “To say that God is three persons and find substantiation for it in the Scripture is a work of futility. There is literally nothing in the Bible that supports God being in three persons” (see Weisser, 1983: 2).

 

In the above Oneness syllogism, their conclusion is stated: Jesus is the Father (and the Holy Spirit). In Oneness theology, it was the Father who took on, or wrapped himself in flesh and that flesh was called “Son.”11 Thus, Oneness teaching denies the incarnation of the Person of the Son. As well, the meaning of “Son of God” in Oneness theology refers primarily to the humanity (viz. the human nature) of Jesus—not to the deity. Or, “Son of God” may refer to

 

 God manifested in flesh—that is, deity in the human nature. . . . We can never use the term “Son” correctly apart from the humanity of Jesus      Christ. . . . The Son always refers to the Incarnation and we cannot use it in the absence of the human element. . . . The Son did not have pre-existence before the conception in the womb of Mary. The Son pre-existed in thought but not in substance.12

 

Hence, Jesus could be referred to as the “Father-man,” similar to what Sabellius said: “Son-Father.” Sabellius was clear in his teachings: the one unipersonal God was the Father that created all things, but then manifested itself as the human Son for the sake of redemption and then manifested itself again as the Holy Spirit for the sake of regeneration. Hence, Sabellius, and early Modalism, taught that the modes were “successive” or developmental. Today, most Oneness teachers hold to a simulations or static Modalism, which teaches that the modes can exist simultaneously.

 

In both beliefs, as many Christian theologians have pointed out, doctrines like Jesus as divine Mediator, Intercessor, and Redeemer are reduced to a mere charade. If Jesus is not a distinct Person, for whom does He mediate? For whom does He intercede? If He is not a distinct Person from the Father, for whom did He propitiate? Himself? Since the unipersonal deity of Modalism is a master of illusion, we can never know what the real nature of this God is, only the roles that he plays. Bernard strains to convince Oneness followers that they should not take the plain reading of texts but rather think of it this way:

 

Many verses of Scripture distinguish between the Father and the Son in power, greatness, and knowledge. However, it is a great mistake to use then to show two persons in the Godhead. If a distinction exists between Father and Son as persons in the Godhead, then the Son is subordinate or inferior to the Father in deity. This would mean the Son is not fully God, because by definition God is subject to know one. . . . The way to understand these verses is to view them as distinguishing the divinity of Jesus (the Father) from the humanity of Jesus (the Son). The humanity or Sonship role of Christ is subordinate to his deity (emphasis added).13

 

Firstly, to say, “If a distinction exists . . . then the Son is subordinate or inferior to the Father in deity,” begs the question. It does not follow in Trinitarian theology that the Son being distinct from His Father means that He, as to His nature, was ontologically inferior to the Father. He was subjected14 to the Father by way of function or position (cf. Phil. 2:6-11), and is not referring to ontological inferiority. Secondly, to say that “the Son was not fully God, because by definition God is subject to no one,” ignores the fact that Jesus was not part man and part God, but fully man and fully God. Jesus was the God–man, (not the Father-man). Remember that in Oneness theology, the Father came down and took on flesh—and that flesh was called “Son.”15 Hence, one must decide just who was speaking in the New Testament; was it Jesus as the Son, Jesus as the Father, or Jesus as the Holy Spirit?

 

Oneness teachers are quick to explain to their nave followers that when Jesus prays to the Father, Jesus’ human nature (the “Son”) is actually praying to His own divine nature (the “Father”); that is, Jesus talks and interacts with Himself! Think of it, Jesus spent a whole lot of time giving nothing more than a divine monologue to His hearers. The great weakness of this notion is that natures do not love and interact with each other; only persons, that is, self-aware subjects, do.

 

 

Did the Son of God’s Life Start in Bethlehem?

 

 In addressing this section, allow me to redefine some terms so as to properly distinguish what the Oneness means when they say, “Jesus is man,” and what they mean when they say, “Jesus is God.” Without such distinctions, the task of understanding the Oneness language becomes increasingly difficult. However, if these terms are properly identified within their own system, then the task of identifying the errors becomes increasingly easier. So, in the presentation that follows, when I reference Jesus as “Son,” by Oneness standards, I am referring to his human nature. When I refer to Jesus as God, I am referring to his Father/divine nature. Having established that, then, by asserting that God exists strictly as one Person” it would necessarily follow that the Person of the Son, Jesus Christ, did not exist before Bethlehem as a distinct (from His Father) conscious Self for only the Father (God) is eternal. Hence, they flatly deny that Jesus Christ (the Person of the Son) was the actual Creator. The New Testament is clear: Jesus was Creator (e.g., John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:6-17; Heb. 1:2, 10).

 

The New Testament is clear: the Son as a distinct Person from the Father was Creator (e.g., John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:2, 10). How could anyone read Colossians 1:16-17 and get the idea that Paul was really teaching his audience that the Father created all things with the Son merely in view? Historically, the book of Colossians was a clear refutation of the heresy of Gnosticism (i.e., proto-gnosticism), which taught that Jesus did not create “all things.” Failing to properly understand this historical background, and utilizing the interpretation put forward by Oneness advocates, literally robs Paul of his apologetic refutation. 

 

Further, the textual presentation of Christ as the Creator of all things is so clear that it prompts me to ask the following question: if this passage does not present such a truth, then what on earth would such a passage look like?” As we will see, the greatest weakness of Oneness theology is its denial of the preexistent Son as the actual Agent of creation. The bottom line in Oneness theology is this: Jesus Christ the Son of God did not have a life distinct from His Father before Bethlehem; for only the lone unipersonal deity, the Father, existed before time.

 

 

The End of the "Son"

 

In one of Bernard’s most popular books, The Oneness of God, under the title “The Beginning of the Son,” Bernard states:

 

The Sonship—or the role of the Son—began with the child conceived in the womb of Mary. The Scriptures make this perfectly clear. Galatians 4:4 reads, “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a women, made under the law.” . . . The Son was made under the law—not before the law (See also Hebrews 7:28). The term begotten refers to the conception of Jesus describe in Matthew 1:18-20 and Luke 1:35.16

 

Hebrews 1:5-6 also reveals that the begetting of the Son occurred at a specific point in time and that the Son had a beginning in time. . . . From all of these verses, it is easy to see that the Son is not eternal, but was begotten by God almost 2000 years ago.17

 

 

Oneness theology teaches that Jesus’ role or manifestation as the “Son,” will have an end. Bernard further explains in his book under the title “The Ending of the Sonship”:

 

Not only did the Sonship have a beginning, but it will, in at least one sense, have an ending. This is evident from 1 Corinthians 15:23-28. . . . This verse of Scripture is impossible to explain if one thinks of a ‘God the Son’ who is co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father. But it is easily explained if we realized that ‘Son of God’ refers to a specific role that God temporarily assumed for the purpose of redemption. When the reasons for the Sonship cease to exist, God (Jesus) will cease acting in His role as Son, and the Sonship will be submerged back into the greatness of God, who will return to His original role as Father, Creator, and Ruler of all (emphasis added).18

 

Ending of the Son? That the Son is not eternal as a distinct Person cuts straight through the heart of biblical Christianity. Believing that Jesus is eternal, as His own Person, is a necessity for salvation, as Jesus Christ Himself taught: “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He,19 you will die in your sins” (John 8:24).

 

One of the essential theological errors of Oneness theology is that the Person of the Son was created in Bethlehem and His life, as the Son, will end! The key text that is utilized (1 Cor. 15:23-28) does not teach what is assumed (i.e., the Sonship ending). Hence, Oneness proponents commit a categorical fallacy: they confuse, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do, Jesus’ earthly position as a humble man with His Being or nature. The only thing that will end, as clearly indicated from the text, is the Messianic kingdom of Christ, not His Person.20

 

The Son is not “less then” or subordinate to God the Father ontologically; rather, He is obedient to the Father in terms of function and position. In contradistinction, however, the Son of this decidedly unbiblical system is not eternal as a distinct Person from His Father; rather, His real existence began in Bethlehem. This is the Oneness solution to its misconstrued view of the doctrine of the Trinity. Consequently, Oneness teachers make God fit into an easy-to-understand category.

 

 

 Disagreements in Oneness Theology 

 

Despite their hubris in claiming to unwaveringly follow the “apostolic teachings,” not all Oneness teachers are in complete doctrinal agreement. Yet, they all adamantly proclaim to follow only “the apostolic doctrine.” Notice, for example, the lack of unanimity amongst two prolific Oneness writers and their interpretation of one of the key texts on this issue, Philippians 2:5-11. Bernard interprets this passage as referring to the Father, whereas Oneness writer Robert Sabin interprets this passage as speaking of Jesus’ earthly life.21

 

Further disagreements would include the so-called baptism formula: “In the name of Jesus” only. Not all Oneness churches use the same baptismal formula. Why? Because Oneness teachers take and dissect the book of Acts, thoroughly disregarding both the context and grammar of each relevant passage. Their reasoning is that in the book of Acts believers were always baptized using the verbal formula, “in the name of Jesus.” Therefore, Oneness believers argue that we must follow what they perceive as the apostolic example. However, following the apostolic example requires following the apostolic meaning. That is, reducing Luke’s intent to the bare words of these passages, bereft of the author’s intended meaning, creates more problems than the Oneness advocate is prepared to handle. Consider, for a moment, what we actually find in Acts. If this position is to be considered, then which formula is the correct: “on [epi] the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38); “in [en] the name of the Jesus Christ” (10:48); or, “into [eis] the name of the Lord Jesus” (8:16; 19:5)?

 

 

Same God?

 

Disappointingly, objective truth has little value in most churches that have been poisoned by a postmodern society. That’s why, sadly, it is not uncommon to hear such statements like “It’s all the same God,” and “As long as they love Jesus,” coming from the mouths of the unstudied and theologically-challenged will cry out. It is important, then, to realize that this is not mere semantic quibbling or the splitting of theological hairs. Nor, is this a matter of simply differences of opinion; get it wrong here, and the consequences are eternal. For there is a qualitative difference between a unipersonal deity that temporarily manifests at different times in different modes, roles or offices, and a Triune God who has eternally existed in three Persons in a loving unbroken, intimate relationship with each other. Jesus the “Son” declares: “Now, Father glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (John 17:5; emphasis added).

 

 

I cannot emphasize this point enough: beware of those who herald: “unity, unity, why can’t we just have unity and all get along?” Yes unity, but unity around essential doctrines, not in spite of them. Who God is, as to His nature, is not only essential, but also determines one’s salvation (cf. John 8:24; 17:3). The unipersonal deity of Oneness theology cannot save, for a false God does not exist.

 

 

The Oneness Church Tag

 

If you are unsure about the orthodoxy of a particular church (or pastor), examine the church’s doctrinal statement concerning God. If it avoids the word “Person,” and/or describes God as three “manifestations” or “dimensions,” use extreme caution! Orthodox Christianity has never described God as merely temporary appearances, manifestations, or even worse, “dimensions” (see T. D. JAKES).22 Oneness churches typically describe God in those terms. If a church claims to be Trinitarian, yet uses terms like “manifestations” to describe the three Persons of the Trinity, it reveals theological ignorance or carelessness. In my observation, the term “manifestations” in a doctrinal statement frequently indicates Oneness rather than Trinitarian theology. Therefore, when churches avoid the term “Persons” in their doctrinal statements—beware.

 

 

 

The Early Church

 

Unlike many of today’s churches, the early church sharply resisted Christological heresy with such passion that when a heresy would spring up, it was quickly and sharply refuted. As they saw it, when one attacks the church’s biblical rule of faith, they attack the Person of Jesus Christ in the worst way, thereby redefining Him.

One cannot read the writings of church Fathers like Fathers like Hippolytus, Tertullian. Novatian, Dionysius of Alexandria, Dionysius of Rome, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Epiphanius and not see the magnitude of importance attached to the doctrine of the Trinity (viz. the eternal distinctions of the Persons) and the utter impact of the heretical teachings of Modalism. The early Christian church universally saw Modalism for what it taught: a doctrine that denied Jesus Christ as eternal God.  

 

The early church Fathers valued Scripture and the nature of God. When false teaching attacked the very nature of Jesus Christ, the early church Fathers would polemically and aggressively deal with those promulgating these teachings. Scripture, their sole infallible ultimate rule of faith, instructed them to refute publicly those who oppose sound doctrine.23 So, in obedience to God’s word, they defended the truth because they submitted to and loved Him. Moreover, a careful reading of most Oneness writers will typically reveal a great misuse of historical information. It is not too uncommon to see these writers quoting very selectively, and even then, grossly out of historical context. Church history is no friend of Modalism (see Modalism and Church History)

 

Conclusion

  The Oneness God is a unipersonal deity that temporally manifests in different modes, roles, or expressions. This undifferentiated deity lived in absolute solitude until it temporally appeared in the role of “Father” in creation, in the role of “Son” in redemption, and in the role of “Holy Spirit” in regeneration. Oneness Pentecostals insist the Father came to earth and only appeared to become flesh (i.e., the role of the Son), without actually becoming flesh. This utterly denies John 1:14, which clearly teaches that the Word, not the Father, became (egeneto), not “wrapped” Himself in flesh.24

 

This modalistic deity had no loving relationships before time. Hence, the personal, loving relation between the Persons of the Godhead, clearly taught in Scripture, is reduced to an interaction among natures or modes. That “natures” can actually and emotionally love each other or that a nature can pray to another nature is irrational. Self-aware persons love and communicate with each other—abstract natures cannot.

 

Oneness theology forcefully rejects the historic doctrine of Trinity. The resulting doctrine completely undermines the very nature of God. Unquestionably, the modalistic deity of Oneness theology is not the God of the Bible. Either God exists in absolute solitude as an invisible monad that comes out in different modes, roles, manifestations, using the mere “language of plurality” to seem as though these modes are distinct when they are not, or God actually revealed Himself in three coequal, coeternal, distinct Persons sharing the nature of one Being, existing in an intimate inseparable indivisible unquantifiable loving relationship from eternity. The latter is based in Scripture; the former is not. Salvation is only granted by knowing God on His terms as He revealed Himself (cf. Isa. 40:21, 28; John 17:3). We cannot put God into easy-to-understand categories due to a laxity of biblical study about the nature of God Himself. If we do not worship God “in truth,” we err and worship a false God that cannot save anyone. God has revealed Himself in His truth; we, as his creatures, are not in a position to define God on our terms. 

 

So, while some may say, “we just can’t understand it” or, “it’s a matter of meaning the same thing,” the Scriptures, as the very breath of God, tell us differently: apart from the true God, the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is, there is no Savior, there is no salvation. Remember what we read earlier in John 8:24? Jesus, speaking to the religious leaders of His day, drew the line in the sand on this very issue. The meanings of His words are clear: If you believe Me to be anything or anyone other than what I have revealed Myself to be, you will perish in your sins. Obviously, then, it is not a matter of semantics. A different God or a different Jesus cannot save, be he the Jesus of Mormonism, of the Watchtower, of Islam, or, yes, of Oneness theology.

 

Oneness doctrine dethrones Jesus Christ, God the Son, from His position as Creator because it denies that He existed before Bethlehem. It also denies (among many other essential doctrines) the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation, stating that the role of the Father, not the Son, manifested or appeared in flesh without actually becoming flesh. It denies the distinction of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and thus denies God Himself.



 

NOTES

 

1 Unitarianism asserts God to be unipersonal; i.e., God exists exclusively as one Person, hence rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity. A distinction, though, needs to be made between those groups that are unitarian in their doctrine of God, and the official Unitarian religion itself. The former would include such religious systems as Judaism and Islam, while the latter is exclusive to the Unitarian Church as a religious denomination. Thus, unitarian (in lower case) will be used throughout articles one Oneness theology to refer to the unipersonal commitment that the Oneness advocate presents distinct from the Unitarian Church.

2 In the Watchtower publication Should you Believe in the Trinity?, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are repetitiously taught that Jesus was merely “a god” who had a beginning as a created angel:

The Bible is clear and consistent about the relationship of God to Jesus. Jehovah God alone is Almighty. He created the prehuman Jesus directly. Thus, Jesus had a beginning and could never be coequal with God in power or eternity (Should you Believe in the Trinity?: Is Jesus Christ the Almighty God? [Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989], 16).

3 Cf. J. D. N. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1978), 261.

4 The word translated “believe” is pisteuōn, which is the present active participle of pisteuō.

5 Called “Sabellianism” named after the heretic Sabellius who came to Rome and taught it at the beginning of the third century.

6 E. Calvin Beisner, “Jesus Only” Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 7.

7 Cf. John Ankerberg and John Weldon, Encyclopedia of Cults and Religions (Eugene: Harvest House, 1999), 367.

8 David K. Bernard, The Oneness of God (Hazelwood: Word Aflame, 1983), 248. Since Bernard is probably the most prolific and cited writer, and is agreed by most Oneness believers to accurately represent Oneness theology, I will be citing him primarily as to what Oneness theology teaches.

9 Ibid., 252.

10 The Mormon Church views the Godhead (for this world) as three separate Gods. Founder Joseph Smith declares to his followers:

I will preach on the plurality of Gods . . . I have always and in all congregations when I preached on the subject of Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods…. Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods (Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976], 370).

11 As noted (http://www.christiandefense.org/one_JesusFather.htm#_ftnref41), Oneness theology denies and convolutes the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation, which teaches that God the Son (viz. “the Word,” John 1:1c) “became” (egeneto, not put on or was wrapped in, but actually became) flesh.

12 Bernard, The Oneness of God, 99, 103.

13 Bernard, The Oneness of God, 186.

14 The term “subject” is from the Greek word hupotassō, which means “under” (hupo) “organization” or “arrangement” (tassō), and hence does not necessitate an ontological superiority or subjection. The Son was functionally (positionally) subordinate to the Father but ontologically co-equal. Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 15:27-28, Jesus is said to be “subjected” (hupotassō) to the Father. Again, it does not follow that being subjected to someone means less than or not equal with in terms of nature. Nor would it follow that because the husband is the head of the wife (cf. Eph. 5:23) or that wives are to subject themselves is to be “subject” (or submissive) to their husbands (e.g., Eph. 5:21-24; 1 Pet. 3:1) that they are not equal with their husbands in terms of nature. Likewise, in Luke 2:51, Jesus was “obedient” (NASB) or “subject” (KJV) to His parents. Both words are from the same Greek word hupotassō (same with “subjected” in 1 Cor. 15:23ff.). That Jesus was “subject” to His parents does not mean that He was inferior by nature to Mary and Joseph. Thus, He is ontologically co-equal with His Father as God (cf. John 1:1c; Phil. 2:6; Heb. 1:3). Hence, the Son is functionally subordinate to the Father. In the same doctrinal vein, when Jesus says that the Father is “greater” than He, it must be realized that the term “greater” (meizōn) is a term that denotes position or function—not nature. Jesus did not say that the Father was “better” (kreittōn) which is a term relative to nature or being (cf. Heb. 1:4).

15 Bernard, The Oneness of God, 299.

16 Bernard, The Oneness of God, 104.

17 Ibid., 105.

18 Ibid., 106.

19 The full force of Jesus’ assertion is striking: ean gar mē pisteusēte hoti egō eimi apothaneisthe en tais hamartiais humōn (lit. For if you should not believe that I AM [egō eimi] you will perish in your sins”). He did not say, “If you do not believe that “I am He” or “I am the one I claimed to be” as most translations read (i.e., there is no supplied predicate). Jesus clearly asserts here that salvation rests on believing that He (as the Person of the Son; cf. vv. 16-18, 27) is the eternal God. In the NT (primarily in John’s gospel), Jesus made seven (possibly eight, cf. Mark 6:50) “absolute” (i.e., no supplied predicate) egō eimi (“I AM”) declarations: John 8:24; 8:28; 8:58; 13:19; 18:5; 18:6; and 18:8. When Jesus claimed to be the egō eimi, He was essentially claiming that He was Yahweh. Hence, the Jews wanted to stone Him for blasphemy (cf. John 8:58-59). The Hebrew phrase ani hu, which was translated egō eimi in the Septuagint (i.e., the Gk. version of the OT, hereafter LXX), was an exclusive and recurring title for Yahweh (e.g., Deut. 32:39; Isa. 41:4; 43:10; 46:4). Thus, salvation is conditioned [“unless”] on believing that the Person of Jesus Christ the Son (cf. John 8:16-18) is the eternal God.

20 1 Corinthians 15:23-28, which Oneness teachers use to teach that the Sonship will end, is contrary de facto to the Oneness interpretation. The term “until” (achri; 1 Cor. 15:25) is a relational term and hence does not say that Jesus’ position, as Son, will end, only that His earthly Messianic kingdom will end. Thus, Oneness teachers assume their conclusion that the Sonship will end without first proving it from the passage. It is the “Son,” however, who sits on His throne in Revelation 3:21. Revelation 5:11-14 presents two distinct divine objects of worship: “To Him who sits on the throne [the Father] and to the Lamb [the Son]. . . .” Further, it is to the “Son” that the Father can say, “Your throne, O God, [ho theos] is forever and ever. . . . You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end” (Heb. 1:8, 12; emphasis added). Note that the Father Himself said that the Son’s “years will not come to an end.” Oneness teachers manipulate the text, ignoring word meanings and context. As with 1 Corinthians 15:27-28 (cf. n. 18 above), the Oneness assertion that the Sonship will end is not based on biblical exegesis, but on the assumed conclusion that God is a modalistic, unipersonal deity that will cast away his role as Son; They do this in spite of the clear language of the text, which militates against such a concept: “Your years will not come to an end.”

21 Cf. Bernard, The Oneness of God, 221-22; Robert Sabin, The Man Jesus Christ, a Oneness handout (St. Paul, Minneapolis); cf. Gregory A. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals & The Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 106-7.

22 The Belief Statement on the Potter's House website (http://www.thepottershouse.org/Local/About-Us/Belief-Statement.aspx) provides a unitarian and decidedly Oneness concept of God. In strikingly modalistic fashion, under the title "God" the Statement reads: "There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three manifestations: Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Using the term “manifestations” (avoiding the use of “Persons”) to describe God is consistent with Oneness doctrine, not Trinitarianism.

23 E.g., Ephesians 5:11; 1 Timothy 5:20; Titus 1:9, 13; and 2:1.

24 See n. 11 above.

 

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