I recently received an email from Dave Ferrell - a Ph.D student who is researching the history and thought of Apostolic (or Oneness) Pentecostalism - with a couple of questions about my dissertation. Specifically, he asked that I clarify my use of the terms "Father-Son Christology" and economic modalism in my assessment of the Oneness Pentecostal theology of God. To this request, I wrote the following response.
I think that there are several versions of the Oneness Pentecostal theology of God - all of which center on the undivided and indivisible unity of God's being and all of which privilege the Hebrew/Old Testament presentation of God as the interpretive framework/foundation for dealing with all New Testament language regarding God's person and work. Perhaps different "versions" is too strong a term; for it implies that each position is clearly delineated from the others and is mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to describe several different - perhaps competing - conceptualizations in Oneness Pentecostal thought about God. These are not just "variations on a theme." Rather they are distinguishable strategies for explaining how the creator God was also present in the life and death of Jesus and is still present today in the life of the Christian believer and the worship of the gathered Christian community.
I also think that some of the contemporary Oneness Pentecostal theological expressions parallel historic positions that were taken in the post-apostolic, pre-Nicene/Constantinople period. I say this with a little trepidation because the historic sources of some of these early Christian views - especially those that were later labeled heretical - are slim and are available to us only in the context of the polemic writings of their opponents.
Let me also say that I am restricting my comments to the truly theological thinking about God's being rather than more popular Oneness Pentecostal views. While it would be interesting to list some of the popular expressions of Oneness Pentecostal teaching - ranging from the unique to the truly bizarre - such an entertaining exercise would not further this discussion.
The first common version of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is by far the simplest and in many ways the most profound: embracing the mystery of God in Christ. This view simply adheres to powerful scriptural proclamations - like "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" and "without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, and received up in glory." - all without consciously recognizing any theological problem, contradiction, and/or difficulty with these passages. For those holding this view, Christological debate is a non-starter. This view bluntly affirms that the selfsame creator God was present in Christ and is equally present as the Holy Spirit in the church today - without any attempt - or even a felt need - to delve into the challenging questions rising from biblical language and its Christological interpretation, a concern that dominated Christian debate in the first centuries of church history.
This view does not acknowledge any problem with its overly simple Christological interpretation of biblical language or attempt to engage in any debate or defense of its position. I am tempted to say - without any concrete evidence to back up my statement - that this is probably the majority view among Oneness Pentecostals today.
The second common version of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is what I have labeled the "Father-Son Christology." This view takes a Chalcedonian understanding of the two natures of Christ as the solution to the "Father-Son" language in the New Testament. This view originates in the New Issue dispute in the Assemblies of God (1914-1916) about baptismal formula that relegated the terms "Father" and "Son" to mere titles rather than names - titles that point beyond themselves to the true divine name, Jesus. (This logic seems to follow the progression of Frank Ewart's thinking in the fall and winter of 1913-1914.) "Father" comes to represent the divine side of the incarnation and "Son" the human. The total incarnate God - Jesus - was both Father (God) and Son (man) at the same time.
This view reconciles all New Testament Father-Son distinctions - especially in John's Gospel - by an appeal to the dual nature of Jesus. The solution is particularly helpful in dealing with scriptural passages that show inequality between Father and Son - especially in clear subordination passages like "The Father is greater than I" and those passages that speak of the limitation of the Son's knowledge in contrast with the Father's. Problem passages that seem to confer the power and privilege of deity on the Son are understood to refer to the entire incarnate Christ who is both God and man.
This view distinguishes Father and Son qualitatively - one is God and one is man - and also spatially. God is physically inside the man Jesus. Colossians 2:9 is a great proof text of the Father-Son Christology. "For in him (Jesus) dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily."
The chief shortcomings of this view are twofold. First, while the term Father is used consistently of God, equivocation occurs regarding the term Son. Sometimes the Son refers to the human or physical side of Jesus; while at other times, it refers to the entire incarnation (the God-man). The shifting definition of the term Son allows Oneness Pentecostal exegetes to sidestep many problem passages that seem to distinguish Father from Son. Second, the underlying Chalcedonian conceptualization of Christ's dual nature - that underpins the Father-Son Christology - often devolves into a somewhat-Nestorian affirmation of two separate and distinct persons within the incarnate Christ - at least in practical terms. The prayers of Jesus - where the bodily side of Jesus prays to God inside him - is the best example of this sundering of the incarnation into two distinct beings bound together in only the loosest way. The "departure" of Christ's spirit (the Father) from the physical body of Christ (the Son) at the death of Jesus is another example of this strict "dichotomy of being" in the incarnate Christ.
The third and final common view of Oneness Pentecostal thought about God is economic modalism - the notion that there is no division of being or person in God, but rather there is only a progression of roles/manifestations - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - that God has played throughout salvation history. The selfsame God was - according to this Oneness Pentecostal understanding - Father in creation, Son in redemption, and Holy Spirit in salvation of believers. This view of the unfolding economy of God's actions, if seen consistently, must be progressive - the Father gives way to the Son and the Son, in turn, gives way to the Holy Spirit. (This may have been the historic position of Sabellius although all records of his teachings have been filtered by his opponents who may or may not have fairly and accurately understood or portrayed his views.)
With economic modalism, Jesus was not Father and Son at the same time - rather he was the one God who had been manifested as Father in creation and was now manifested as Son in first century Palestine. Likewise, to be consistent, the Son will one day "surrender" his role that God may be "all-in-all" - that is, the Son is only a temporary manifestation of God that began and will end in time. This temporary appearance of God in Jesus is especially troublesome to several of the most prominent Oneness Pentecostal defenders who reject any idea of progressive modalism. The Father-Son Christology is entirely incompatible with the progression of divine roles/manifestations in economic modalism.
Of these three commonly held views, I find the first to be the most compelling. (I am not being clever or facetious in saying this.) I am more persuaded by the appeal to the raw language of the New Testament proclamation that I am by the other reasoned arguments. The "Father-Son Christology" (rooted in Chalcedonian dual natures of Christ) and economic modalism both have something profoundly in common with the Niceo-Constantinople Trinitarianism that these views seek to deny. All of these arguments - Oneness and Trinitarian alike - recast Hebraic biblical language, symbols, and metaphors through the thorough-going Greek conceptual world of middle Platonism. Adolf von Harnack, the late 19th century church historian, labeled any such reformulations of biblical religion into Greek philosophical categories as the "Hellenization of the Christian church."