The "Name" and the Presence of God in the Community
Oneness Pentecostalism began with a new understanding of the name of God and its significance and function in the life of the believer and the church. From this new perspective of the divine name arose the Oneness redefinition of Christian monotheism, the reassessment of Christ's person as the quantitative incarnation of God, and the reevaluation of water and Spirit baptism as rites of Christian initiation. In response to this new understanding, Trinitarian Pentecostal hostility excluded Oneness believers, pronouncing the new doctrine as heterodox and its followers deluded. From this, the Oneness notion of community—the remnant community of the "Name" which stands boldly in the face of such opposition and suffering to proclaim the great revival of the end time and the impending separation of true and false Christians—emerged. "To name the name of Christ," in baptism and doctrinal reassessment, became the watchword of Oneness worship and belief.
The most pronounced impact of the new theology of the "Name" came to be felt in Oneness notions of the "Name" and the presence of God in the worshiping community. The Oneness Pentecostal lives in a world crowded with spirits, both divine and demonic. Men are tossed between these moral extremes, free to choose the good, but always weak before temptation. The church, the worshiping community, provides a bastion of protection and support in this maelstrom of spirits. Here, the believer directly confronts God and from this confrontation derives strength for moral victory. The recurring image of the church as the "filling station"—a place for recovering strength and preparing for daily spiritual battles—permeates Oneness testimonies and sermons.
But the God confronted in Oneness worship is not merely a portion of the divine, nor some far removed spiritual force which does not and cannot feel compassion for human infirmity. Rather, the God confronted in community worship is the risen Christ, the quantitative whole of the divine being incarnate in humanity. This "humanity of God" overcomes that "infinite qualitative" distance between God and man in the most practical terms (terms accessible to the layman's understanding), without denying divine transcendence. Rather than heterodox, this understanding offers a thoroughly "Christian," albeit simplistic, interpretation of the presence of God—his accessibility and providence—in worship. It is this "humanity of God," the divine capacity for identification with and compassion for human frailty, which undergirds the Oneness "theology of experience" and resounds again and again in the recounting of spiritual biographies in songs, testimonies, and sermons.
Such an understanding recognizes the worship service as the arena of the miraculous. The real presence of Christ, the great miracle worker, infuses the service with receptiveness to healing, deliverance, and salvation. Oneness Pentecostalism, in many ways, approximates the experience of the resurrected Christ in the primitive Christian communities by recognizing the "open-endedness" of the divine voice which reveals God directly to individuals and the community. Such directness in the risen Lord's activity supplants the accepted voices of authority: clergy, tradition, and scripture. Because of the power of God perceived present in the invoking of the divine name "Jesus," its public use elicits expectation of the miraculous, a key ingredient leading to the spiritual "overflow" and demonstrative worship of the "divine epiphany." This use of the divine name, contrary to any connotations of magic asserted by Oneness detractors, parallels the theophanic function of the divine name in the Deuteronomistic traditions of the Hebrew scriptures: the church is the place where the divine name rests, prayers are effectual when the divine presence is invoked through this name, and all worship—songs, sermons, and testimonies—are performed under the auspices of this name.
The real presence of Christ in the divine name is also apparent in the sacramental life of Oneness Pentecostalism. Although not formally recognized or theoretically explained, the entire physical arena of Oneness worship is understood in symbolic and sacramental terms. The service itself, brought to life by the invoked name and presence of God, is a sacramental drama of initiation. All the props of this drama—physical posturing, hand-clapping, raised hands, prostration, kneeling, dancing, shouting-play in this obvious symbolism. In these acts—their ritual performance and attendant verbal prayers and proclamations—the believer appropriates the grace of God. This is nowhere more true than in the act of initiation/conversion in water baptism which is performed in a highly structured manner accompanied by a specific verbal formula and the invoking of the divine name and presence. This act, along with the other rites of initiation (repentance, Spirit baptism, the worship service itself), is clearly sacramental despite the Oneness rejection of this term. The infusion of ritual worship with the divine presence redefines the ready accessibility of grace and the sacramental life of the Oneness community.
The Oneness encounter with the divine which separates true Christians from secular society and false Christendom produces an interesting paradox. The Oneness claim of superiority (of experience) rests solely in an act of grace which is freely available to all. Despite this admission, the notion of superior experience necessarily points out the inferiority of non-Oneness belief and experience and often leads to more intense evangelistic activity among "nominal" Christians than among the unconverted. Although Oneness believers seldom deny God's actions among other Christian groups, they do emphasize the partiality, and therefore insufficiency, of these actions—hence, the Oneness designations of their faith as "full," "complete," or "New Testament" salvation.
Accordingly, Oneness theological defensiveness arises not from a desire to rationally explain unique doctrines, but in response to opposition which threatens superior claims. Oneness propositional doctrine always fails to grasp the "positive" dimension of the "theology of experience" in worship due to its reactionary stance. Assuming the categories of their opponents, Oneness thinkers, armed with the common sense hermeneutic, construct "rational" defenses of their distinctives. But volumes of Oneness exegesis and apologetics fail to present even the faintest glimmer of the persuasive power of the divine confrontation in worship. The determination to be "right" marks the Oneness writer as the "guardian" of the faith, the protector of the supreme claim, and in turn, limits the possibility of any positive theological endeavor.
Next Post: The "Name," the "concreteness" of Christian salvation, and the assurance of the believer.