Friday, March 25, 2016

Oneness Pentecostal Theologies of God

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."


  1. In response to my answer, Dave Farrell followed up with this question:

    I guess my specific question is how has Oneness Pentecostalism "re-visioned" Trinitarian thought as economic modalism? I am pretty versed in the three notions of oneness you describe, but I am interested in how or what ways or what techniques or through what “power” Oneness Pentecostalism has re-visioned these ideas? How did Oneness do that? Was it through the UPCI apostolic hermeneutic? Through vision? Was there a credible position or argument this "re-visioning" was based on?

    Here is my response to these questions.


    I am quite sure that every Oneness Pentecostal would chafe at the notion that their thinking "revises" mature Trinitarianism.

    And by mature Trinitarianism, I mean the language of the Niceo-Constantinople creed -- multiple hypostases (persons) and a single ousia (substance) as expressed by the Cappadocian Fathers as a refutation of Arius, a "clarification" of Athanasius, and a rejection of the majority view of the late 300s (the "homoi" who understood the Father and Son to be of similar substance) -- coupled with the later "caveats" of perichoresis (the interpenetration of persons) and accommodation (the notion that all divine persons partake in all divine actions). With this combination of eastern ideas (focusing mainly on plurality) and western ideas (focusing mainly on unity), classical Trinitarianism is expressed in terms of Aristotlean ontology (essence and accidents).

    Yikes!!!!!! What does that all mean? I am quite sure that I do not know. And I am also quite sure that there is a gulf between this reconceptualization of biblical language in terms of Greek metaphysics and the language of the NT itself.

  2. [Continued from previous comment.]

    Having said this, I have to ask a simple historical question. Did the Oneness theology of God (or Oneness theologies of God) -- as expounded in the early twentieth century -- emerge in a vacuum? Was it "rediscovered" from pure biblical study without any stimulation or opposing views? Was it "revealed" from God -- a term used by Goss and often repeated among Oneness Pentecostals?

    The clear answer to this question - if we take seriously the contemporary witness of the reports and writings of the earliest Oneness thinkers (primarily Frank Ewart and later G. T. Haywood) -- the entire "rediscovery" (to use E. N. Bell's term) of the "mighty God in Christ" began with a dispute about baptismal formula. Robert McAlister at a camp meeting in 1913 pointed out the multiple baptismal formulae in the NT and stated that -- according to the Acts of the Apostles -- the most primitive formula was "in the name of Jesus." The next morning, John Sheppe announced to a startled crowd that he had a "revelation" which seems to concern the correct baptismal formula. Shaken by this "new" insight, Frank Ewart and his close associate, Glenn Cook, searched the scriptures over the next few months and concluded not only that the "Jesus' name" baptismal formula was the correct one, but that the new insights regarding to the "saving name" of Jesus led to a rethinking of the place of Jesus in the Godhead itself.

    Yes, Sheppe claimed a revelation, although the exact correlation of this revelation to the Godhead is not really clear. Yes, Howard Goss and many others stated that "you will only get this by revelation." (I remember several students in Bible college who sought "the revelation" of the Godhead as an tangible, "moment-in-time" experience. To me that sounded a little less like "Joseph Howell" and a lot more like "Joseph Smith.")

    But in fact, Oneness Pentecostalism -- like all other forms of Pentecostalism -- likes to talk about revelation, but it does not see -- and never has seen -- contemporary revelation as an open-ended source of absolute truth. Whatever language may be used, for the Oneness Pentecostal, the canon is closed. God may provide a personal, mystical affirmation experience of a biblical truth, but the source of all truth about God is biblical study. Oneness Pentecostals -- whether they want to embrace the term or not -- are conservative evangelical Christians who share their attitude toward the Bible as other conservative Christian groups.

    Did Ewart and Haywood start with Trinitarian thought and then engaged in deep biblical exegesis to first refute Trinitarian ideas and then offer an alternative understanding of the place of Jesus in the Godhead? Well, in a word "yes" -- that is exactly what they did. The New Issue began with a "big NO" to the triune baptismal formula and ultimately to classical Trinitarianism. Only after this initial "no" and lengthy biblical study did it offer a rival understanding of God in Christ.

  3. [Continued from previous comment.]

    Neither Ewart or Haywood concerned themselves with the categories of traditional Trinitarianism. They did not talk of persons or substances -- except to deny them. But they could not abandon the biblical categories of Father and Son and neither could they easily free these terms from the historical Trinitarian thought that had long been associated with them. The heart of the writings of Ewart and Haywood is the repeated attempt to free the terms Father and Son from their Trinitarian implications and to redefine them in ways that combined an absolute understanding of monotheism and an absolute commitment to the undivided deity of Jesus (which of course is most clearly celebrated in the act of baptism in the name of Jesus.)

    Did early Oneness thinkers "revise" mature Trinitarian thought? This is probably NOT the best word to describe their actions. But did they develop their thought against the backdrop of traditional Trinitarianism? Most certainly they did, if only to deny and refute it at every possible turn. Oneness theology did not develop in a vacuum. No angel appeared with a new message. No "revelation" replaced earlier thought. Rather, Ewart and Haywood -- struck by their profound new insight concerning the baptismal formula and the "saving name" of Jesus -- engaged in biblical study to articulate what we would now call a Oneness theology of God.

    Does this new formulation fully escape the" Hellenization of Christian ideas" that Harnack spoke of? Does any Oneness theology of God completely escape that categories of developing Christological thought of the second, third, and fourth centuries and "get back" to the pure message of the Bible? The recurring theme of restorationism would certainly say "Yes" to this question. But as historical thinkers, can we make the same affirmation?

    My point in an earlier email was that the two most prominent expressions of Oneness thinking about God are both rooted in conceptualizations that emerged in the early Christological debates. The "Father-Son Christology" only makes sense through the lens of the Chalcedonian affirmation of the dual nature of Christ and modalism in any of its forms reflects notions of God taken from middle Platonism -- just as developing Trinitarian thought did.

    I think the most promising formulation of a Oneness theology of God would derive from the "salvation history" message that binds the two Testaments into a single story - without reference to any of the categories of the Christological controversies. That being said, you still have to deal with the Father-Son language in the Gospel of John that is absolutely compatible with monotheism, but explains the person and role of Jesus through an "agent Christology" using the Hebrew categories of Word (logos) and Wisdom (sophia). I don't expect David Bernard or David Norris to jump at this idea.

  4. For me, at least, it was what you have termed the "agent Christology" of the New Testament that began to unravel my inherited Oneness Pentecostal theology of the godhead nearly 40 years ago. In various NT passages, Christ is depicted as the "agent" through whom God created the world (particularly in the Greek preposition "dia". This idea seemed at once to suggest two realties, first that in some sense Christ was pre-existent, not merely as indistinguishable from the Father but as distinguishable, an idea that as Oneness Pentecostals we were loathe to admit, and further, that the act of creation could not easily be explained as the work of the one God without a more sophisticated explanation of his ontology than simply arithmetic. Indeed, it was the personalization of the Logos in the writings of John, both in the gospel and the letters (and Wisdom as well in Proverbs), that seemed incompatible with my inherited notion that these terms were only metaphors for God's attributes. It was hard to get around what seemed to be clear biblical statements concerning agency. God did not create the world through the agency of a metaphor but through the agency of something more. At the time, I wasn't sure what that "something more" might be, but it seemed clear enough that to attempt to explain it simply in terms of language games was inadequate. In the end, I came to accept that, in spite of its abstract character, the Nicene explanation of the godhead better accounted for the biblical data than my inherited Oneness ontology.

    Later, when I learned Greek in my undergrad work, the original language of the Bible only served to underscore the inadequacy of the Oneness assumptions and explanations. Hence, I became a Trinitarian by choice, not by pedigree.

    I hold no bitterness toward the Oneness Pentecostals of my upbringing, however. For the most part, I believe they were sincere people trying to do justice to the biblical material as best they could. I know that some of the more rigorous Trinitarian apologists insist on excising them from the Christian community, but this I decline to do. If one is "saved" by his/her acceptance of an abstraction of theological thought, then I fear no one is very secure. Rather, a person is saved by grace through faith. How much theology did the thief on the cross know, anyway? He certainly wasn't a Trinitarian, and abstractions about the ontology of God did not seem to figure in his assurance of salvation by Christ! In the end, God alone will assess how important are these theological explanations, but I am content to wait.