Oneness Pentecostals are vehement anti-trinitarians who commonly maintain that the doctrine of the trinity states that there are three gods. Of course, this is a mischaracterization. If an individual believes that there are three gods, then they have, in effect, denied the doctrine of the trinity. The doctrine of the trinity states that there is one God who is eternally present in three persons. So, what is Oneness Pentecostalism? While they may be anti-trinitarians, they are committed to the truth that Jesus is God. They accomplish this by adhering to modalism, more commonly referred to as oneness theology. Oneness theology is the doctrine that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons. They are manifestations that one God takes on, sometimes simultaneously. What arguments do they use to support this proposition? In this article, I will be answering a few common Oneness Pentecostal arguments.
The reason that I am doing that is because Oneness Pentecostalism is often not understood by trinitarian Christians. They do not know how to deal with the texts that are often cited. If you are interested in learning, I recommend you view my series Oneness Pentecostal Heresy. But I thought that it would be useful to assimilate many of the arguments into one post so that you may have a quick reference. But for a deeper understanding, please view my other posts on this important subject.
Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”
If you were to ask a Oneness Pentecostal to provide a proof-text for Oneness Theology, it is very likely that first passage that you will hear is Deuteronomy 6:4, which is Israel’s shema, essentially the thesis statement on the paper of the Jews. They could also cite many of the various declarations of monotheism throughout the Old Testament, thus establishing that there is only one God. In doing so, they will think that they have mounted a proper argument against trinitarian theology because they believe that the doctrine of the trinity states that there are three gods. This argument can be deflected simply by explaining that the trinity is strictly monotheistic, claiming that there is one God who is eternally present in three persons.
However, some advocates of Oneness Pentecostalism have responded to this point. In many debates and particularly in his book The Oneness of God, Dr. David K. Bernard argued that the declarations in the Old Testament are so powerful that they dismiss any conception of plurality within the Godhead. But what good reasons are there to think that? In the book of Isaiah, he was targeting polytheists; pagan idolaters. There is not a single case in which the prophets repudiated anything like the doctrine of the trinity, nor is there any case in which rebellious Israel believed it and convoked the wrath of God. It is noticeably absent. Therefore, we may conclude that Deuteronomy 6:4 and the multiple proof-texts for monotheism do not represent a good argument against the trinity.
Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38 – “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Matthew 28:19 includes the marching orders for Christians. It is our duty to go into the world, preach the gospel to all nations, make disciples, and baptize those disciples in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is from where most Christians derive their baptismal formula, actually reciting the words, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” However, Oneness Pentecostals think that in reciting those words, they are not obeying the command. This is because in Acts 2:38, we see a manifestation of this command. When Peter obeyed the command of Matthew 28:19, he recited the words, “In the name of Jesus.” From this cross-reference, it will follow that the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is Jesus.
There are three problems with this worth pointing out. First, there are no good reasons to think that obedience to this command necessarily entails that those words are recited. One could be baptized in the name of Jesus without actually reciting the words “In the name of Jesus.” For the Oneness Pentecostal to read a deep concern of baptismal formulas into the text is to retroject their situation onto the apostles. Further, the idiom “in the name of” does not always refer to a reciting of the name. It is an idiom for authority, like if I say “in the name of the king.” This is firmly established in Acts 4:4, which reads, “By what power or what name did you do this?” Power and name are parallel. So there are good reasons to think that the disciples were not concerned with the words that were recited but with the power and authority of the Trinity.
Second, it may be said that the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is YHWH. There is one God who is eternally present in three persons, and his name is YHWH. It may be that is the name under which we are baptized. Third, it may be that Father, Son and Holy Spirit is the one name under which we are baptized. In Isaiah 9:6, the text says, “His name shall be mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace, wonderful counselor.” This is his name, despite that Oneness Pentecostals would identify them as titles. It may also be that Father, Son, and Spirit is the name by which we know God.
John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”
This is an important text for Oneness Pentecostals because it seems to use parlance that they are familiar with. Just as they often say that God is one, Jesus also says that he and the Father are one. They take this to indicate that Jesus is the Father. However, this seems to be far too simplistic of a reading. After all, he did not say, “I am the Father,” in this verse. He said that he and the Father are one. If he and the Father are one, does that necessarily mean that he is the Father?
The question that we need to ask is one what? Trinitarians could easily affirm that they are one God, they share the same essence. They are one in being but distinct in person. Though, this would also be too simplistic of a reading. After all, in John 17:11, the text says that the disciples are one in the same way that Jesus and the Father are one. Unless you are going to say that Jesus only had one disciple, I do not think this can be used as a proof-text for Oneness theology. What does it mean, then? Is this even a good argument that Jesus was God? Well, I think so. Jesus was claiming absolute unity with the Father. He was making claims that no mere human could make. His will is one with the will of the Father.
John 14:18: “I will not leave you as orphans. I will come to you.”
Since Oneness Pentecostalism maintains that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all different manifestations of the same person, it follows that Jesus is the Holy Spirit. The name of the Holy Spirit is Jesus. This seems to draw support from John 14:18. In speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit, Jesus tells them, “I will come to you.” Is this not a clear identification of the Holy Spirit with himself?
Well, this would be to ignore all of the prepositions of this passage. It would be to cherry-pick the verse that fits into one’s doctrine. Throughout the passage, it is clear that Jesus is speaking of someone else. He says in verse 14 that he will ask the Father, and the Father will send the Holy Spirit. If Oneness Pentecostalism is true, how do we avoid the absurd image of Jesus asking himself permission and then sending himself? In verse 17, he refers to the Holy Spirit as “he” and “him.” Is it really coherent to think that in the next verse, he would refer to the Holy Spirit as himself? How is that clear at all? How would anybody understand what he is saying?
So what does this verse mean? Well, in verse 18, Jesus is talking about the resurrection. That is why he went on to say in verses 19 and 20, “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” When they see Jesus raised from the dead, they will realize that he is in the Father and the Father is in him. They will see that because he lives (he was raised from the dead), they too will live (be raised from the dead). This is far, far more plausible than thinking that Jesus switched between “him” and “I.”
John 14:9: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”
During the Last Supper, the disciples were distraught. They had come to love their Messiah over the years. Phillip asked him, “Show us the Father, Lord, and it will be enough for us.” Jesus replied that Phillip should not need to ask this question, because, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Oneness Pentecostals will argue that Jesus was saying that he is the Father. How can they ask him to “Show us the Father” when he is the Father? However, like John 10:30, this verse also does not record Jesus as saying, “I am the Father.” It merely says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” What is the best way to understand this verse?
In John 1:18, John wrote, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Jesus is the only begotten God and he is at the Father’s side, and he explains him. What does it mean that Jesus explains the Father? As Hebrews 1:3 tells us, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” If we want to know who God is, then we need to look to Jesus Christ. Jesus is a perfect representation of the person of the Father. It is enough for the disciples to see Jesus because they share a divine essence. Jesus and the Father are both God. While this is not a good argument that Jesus is the Father, it is a good argument that Jesus is God.
John 3:5: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Now I will switch gears from Oneness to their view of water baptism. If you were to join a Oneness Pentecostal church, what would your experience be? Well, first, you need to be baptized with the baptismal formula, “In the name of Jesus.” They will re-baptize you if you were baptized “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Second, you will need to “receive the Holy Spirit with evidence of speaking in tongues.” Both of these are essential ingredients to salvation. Oneness Pentecostals will point to John 3:5 as evidence of that. After all, it says that one must be born of water and Spirit. This is clearly a reference to baptism in water and baptism of the Spirit, right?
Well, there are a number of reasons that I think that interpretation is implausible. John 3:5 does not explicitly say that one must be water baptized before entering the kingdom. It says that one must be “born of water.” But what does it mean to be born of water? In John 4:14, talking to the woman at the well, Jesus said, “…the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” In John 7:38, Jesus referred to “Rivers of living water.” This is a theme throughout the book of John. It does not seem at all implausible that Jesus was referring to living water in John 3:5.
Further, the conversation that Jesus had with Nicodemus should not be overlooked. John 3:5 should not be read in a vacuum. Read the entire account. Nicodemus was perplexed by what Jesus said to him. He had never heard anything of being born of water. Jesus asked in verse 11, “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?” Nicodemus should have understood as the teacher of Israel. His knowledge of living water from the Old Testament (Jeremiah 2:13, Isaiah 12:3, 58:11, etc) should have informed him. But if Jesus expected him to understand his reference to living water, it follows that he was not teaching the doctrine that water baptism is necessary for salvation. That specific doctrine was foreign to the Old Testament.
Mark 16:17: “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name… they will speak with new tongues…”
Recall what I said regarding what Oneness Pentecostals believe about being born again. When somebody is born again, they will show the evidence of speaking with new tongues. If they do not do that, then they are probably not saved. One of the key verses to which they will appeal is Mark 16:17, which tells us that those who have believed will speak in tongues. Does this not seem to vindicate Oneness theology? Well, first, most Christians will point out that this verse is part of the long ending of Mark, and therefore it is not Scripture. If we were in the Court of Law, it would be dismissed as evidence. However, the Oneness Pentecostal could grant that it is not really Scripture. But they would simply amend their argument by saying, “But this is clearly what early Christians believed because it is here.” So I am willing to grant the long ending of Mark for the same of argument.
Does the long ending of Mark vindicate the Oneness Pentecostal position about speaking in tongues? I do not think so. Speaking in tongues is listed among several other practices, including casting out demons, resisting a snake bite and healing the sick. There is no grammatical way to disconnect tongues from the rest of the elements of that list. So, if you are going to mount an argument on the basis of Mark 16:17 for the necessity of tongues, you would have to mount an argument for the necessity of resisting a snake bite. Why is snake-handling not a criteria for salvation? Why is drinking poison not a criteria for salvation? How can you use Mark 16:17 to establish tongues as a criteria for salvation without using an absolute double-standard?
The Pattern In The Book of Acts Establishes Our Doctrine
Oneness Pentecostals brand themselves “apostolic.” They will suggest that they are following the model of the earliest apostles. Every time somebody is saved throughout the book of Acts, we will see them speaking in tongues. They are just continuing that long tradition. However, there are only a few places throughout the book of Acts wherein people speak in tongues. They are Acts 2:4, 10:44-46, and 19:6. Significantly, there are two instances in which that pattern is broken. In Acts 4:31 and 8:17, people are filled with the Spirit and tongues are simply not mentioned.
Now, I recognize that this may be vulnerable to the counter-strike that the author simply did not record them speaking in tongues, but they probably still did. That may be the case. But that is not quite the point of the argument that I am making. If you are going to claim that there is a pattern in the book of Acts wherein everybody who is filled with the Spirit also speaks in tongues, you have a problem, because that pattern is broken on two occasions. The burden of proof is on the person making the claim. The Oneness Pentecostal is making the claim that everybody who was filled with the Spirit also spoke in tongues. But that position seems untenable.
There Are Different Kinds of Tongues
When we hear a Oneness Pentecostal claiming that everybody speaks in tongues throughout the Bible, we immediately go to 1 Corinthians 12:29-31, for Paul recognizes that not everybody possesses all of the spiritual gifts, and tongues are listed among them. In response, Oneness Pentecostals will tell us that there are different kinds of tongues. There are tongues for edification (this one is necessary for salvation) and the gift of tongues (this one is not necessary for salvation). Paul was referring to the latter, not the former. Is that the case?
First, that seems to be an ad hoc measure to circumvent the meaning of the text. This interpretation is not an attempt to understand the text. It is an attempt to get around what the text is saying so that their doctrine will prevail. Second, in 1 Corinthians 14:4-5, Paul speaks about tongues for edification. His insight is edifying. In verse 4, he writes that the person who speaks in tongues edifies himself. So, he establishes that he is speaking of tongues for edification. But in verse 5, he says that he wishes everybody spoke in tongues, indicating that everybody does not speak in tongues. This seems to disconfirm the idea that all believers speak in tongues.
Third, how could we recognize tongues for edification as opposed to the gift of tongues? Imagine that you heard two people speaking in tongues. One possessed the gift of tongues and the other possessed tongues for edification. How would you be able to tell the difference? Is there any practical difference at all? Further, how do you know that you do not merely possess the gift of tongues? How do you know that your family members or your friends do not merely possess the gift of tongues? How can tongues function as the sign of salvation if you do not even know the difference between tongues for edification and the gift of tongues?
Answering A Few Common Oneness Pentecostal Arguments
Why did I do this? Well, Oneness Pentecostalism has a lot of subtleties. There are some who are trained very well in Oneness theology and know how to maneuver through the various arguments and counter-arguments. Many trinitarians, unfortunately, have never heard of these arguments before. So I want to provide a resource for understanding Oneness Pentecostalism, some of the arguments that they will use and how to respond to them. I also recommend that you read the series that I linked to at the beginning of this article.
Is there an argument that you would like to see addressed? Leave a comment.