We start with the Old Testament and read the New Testament in light of that. That is what we often hear from Oneness Pentecostals who are attempting to mount an argument against trinitarian theology. They will say that trinitarians are starting with the New Testament and reading the Old in light of it, and that is an incorrect methodology. If you read the Bible from cover to cover, perhaps the most crucial theme that emerged is that God is inescapably one. When you get to the New Testament, that concept cannot be compromised. It needs to be read in light of the strong affirmation of absolutely oneness in the Old Testament. Are they right? Does the Old Testament favor Oneness Pentecostalism?
First, what is Oneness Pentecostalism? Readers of this blog will know that I have written extensively about this topic (see my series Oneness Pentecostal Heresy). Oneness Pentecostalism is a movement that adheres to neo-modalism, denying the doctrine of the trinity. They believe that God is only one person, and that person is Jesus. Jesus has simply manifested himself in different ways. Jesus is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They claim to draw this (perhaps primarily) from the Old Testament, which declares that God is one, and therefore not three.
Isaiah 44:24 – “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself.”
It is worth beginning by pointing out that many Oneness Pentecostals believe that the doctrine of the trinity teaches that there are three gods. There is one sense in which we cannot blame them for that belief. We should blame their teaches who relayed this lie to them. There is another sense, though, in which they are responsible for learning truth on their own. A simple Google search will reveal that the Trinity states that there is one God who is eternally present in three persons. So, passages that declare monotheism actually go to support the first premise of the doctrine of the trinity, namely, there is only one God.
But this argument takes a more robust form when this particular verse is used. The Oneness Pentecostal may grant that the doctrine of the trinity states that there is one God who is eternally present in three persons. At this juncture, they may read Isaiah 44:24 and ask, “Who is speaking?” If one person of the trinity is speaking, then it would follow that the other two persons were not involved in creation. It does seem, though, that there is only one person speaking. To say, “I am the LORD” is to use a singular, personal pronoun. Therefore, they will suggest that there was only one person speaking, and this seems to falsify the doctrine of the trinity.
There are a few things that we may say in response to this. First, consider the scope of this passage. God is responding to the influence of Paganism; the doctrine that there are multiple gods who had a hand in creation. He is saying that he alone created the universe. The doctrine of the trinity is simply not in view. To use it as a falsification of the trinity is to overreach the boundaries of this passage. Second, since the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all truly God, any of them could rightly say, “I alone am God.” There is a sense in which they are all in each other. In John 14:11, Jesus said, “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me.” In summary, then, whoever is speaking here has a specific scope in mind. He is referring to the being of God over and against Pagan mythology which asserts that there are other gods. That says nothing about the trinitarian doctrine that there is one God who is eternally present in three persons.
Genesis 19:24 – “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven.”
The early chapters of the book of Genesis chronicle the birth of the Jewish nation, and in particular, the father of the nation, Abraham. Throughout his journey, he hears of a great city several times, and in fact, Lot (one of his kinsmen) and his wife wanted to establish a life for themselves there. But they were evil people who engaged in every manner of sexual crime. So when God approached Abraham in Genesis 18, he told him that he was going to judge them. In Genesis 19:24, we see that judgment take place. God rained brimstone and fire on the wicked city.
However, there is something remarkable about verse 24. In verse 24, there seem to be two YHWHs (the name of God, replaced by LORD in most translations). There is the YHWH on earth, who was standing before Abraham, and the YHWH who was in Heaven, sending fire and brimstone down onto the earth. Of course, Oneness Pentecostals could conjure up an interpretation of this passage. They might say that God manifested himself in different ways (he is omnipresent, after all). But the question is, what good reasons are there to think that? It seems far more plausible and natural to read the text as portraying two YHWHs, because there are two YHWHs right there. The trinitarian model seems to make more sense of this passage than the Oneness Pentecostal model.
The Angel of The Lord
The concept of two YHWHs does not exclusively appear in Genesis 19:24. It appears in this divine figure known as the Angel of the Lord. One might be inclined to think that since his title is “Angel” that he is a created being and not God. However, throughout the Old Testament, the term angel can sometimes refer to the office or the function rather than the ontology. In short, God is sometimes referred to as “the angel of the Lord.”
Perhaps the most obvious example is in Exodus 3, when the Burning Bush appeared to Moses. In verse 2, the text explicitly says that the angel of the Lord appeared appeared to him. Yet this is one of the most central appearances of God in the Bible, where God’s very name, YHWH, was revealed. Further, in Genesis 48:16, Jacob refers to the angel of the Lord as God. In Genesis 16:10, it is the angel of the Lord who will increase the descendants of Abraham. In Joshua 5:13-15, Joshua bows down and worships the angel of the Lord. A strong case can be made that the angel of the Lord is the Lord himself. It may also be said that when the article “the” precedes the angel of the Lord, it is referring to God himself. When “an angel of the Lord” appears, he never behaves like God, receives worship, or claims to be God. But when “the” angel of the Lord is present, then the Lord is present.
What does this mean? Could it just be that “the angel of the Lord” is just one more manifestation of the unipersonal God? I think that there are good reasons to think that is not the case. In Zechariah 1:12, the angel of the Lord spoke with the Lord. He said, “O LORD of hosts, how long will You have no compassion for Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which You have been indignant these seventy years?” Similarly, in Exodus 23:20, God sends the angel of the Lord and commands the Israelites to obey him, giving the angel his name. Since God shares his glory with no one, we may posit that the trinitarian model outstrips the Oneness model on this count.
Seeing The Face of God
According to Exodus 33:20, nobody can see the face of God and live. Since God is unipersonal on Oneness Pentecostalism, there is only one face to be seen, and if you see the face of God, you will not live. This is echoed again in John 1:18. In resolving this problem, John tells us that “the only begotten God, who is at the bosom of the Father, he has explained him.” We can see the face of the Son, and live, but we cannot see the face of the Father and live. Since the Son is the perfect representation of the Father (Hebrews 1:3, John 14:9), it is sufficient for us to see the Son and recognize that we have seen the face of God. However, Oneness Pentecostals believe that the Son is a characteristic of the Incarnation. Before the Incarnation, Jesus was the Father. So it might be said that before the Incarnation, one cannot see the face of Jesus Christ and live.
With that in mind, it seems difficult to reconcile the passages in which prophets do see the face of God and live. In Genesis 32:30, after “wrestling with God,” Jacob said that he has seen the face of God. Moses saw the face of God in Exodus 33:11. The prophet Isaiah saw the glory of the Lord in Isaiah 6. In John 12:41, John specifically identifies the one he saw on the throne as Jesus. How did he see the glory of Jesus and live, if anyone who sees the glory of Jesus will not live? It seems that the trinitarian interpretation is more plausible than the Oneness interpretation, for we can say that anybody who sees the face of the Father will die, but we can behold the glory of the Son.
The Son of Man and The Ancient of Days
People often think that when Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, he was merely referring to his humanity. When he referred to himself as the Son of God, he was referring to his deity. This is a bit too simplistic of a reading of the New Testament, but it does seem to lend credence to the Oneness position. They will suggest that when Jesus was speaking as a human, he was the Son, and when he was speaking as God, he was speaking as the Father. But when Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man, he was referring to Daniel 7, in which the prophet Daniel had a vision of the eschatological figure known as the Son of Man.
For the sake of argument, I will not mount a case that the Son of Man was God. Since Oneness Pentecostals believe that Jesus was God, I will take it as an assumption that the one who received worship from all people and shared in the glory of God was God himself. What is significant about this passage is that the Son of Man is not the only divine figure in the vision. In Daniel 7:9-10, there is also the Ancient of Days, who is clearly depicted as God. There are two persons who are God and yet they are distinct from one another.
But there are always ways to reinterpret the text. In his book The Oneness of God, David K. Bernard made the interesting observation that in Revelation 1, Jesus is depicted with many of the same characteristics of the Ancient of Days. From this, we may conclude that Jesus is the Ancient of Days. Although, Bernard’s case seems to be overstated. Jesus had several characteristics that the Ancient of Days did not, such as eyes of fire, bronze feet, a voice like the sound of many waters, a seven-pointed star in his hand, a two-edged sword in his mouth, and his face shining with the strength of the sun. In fact, the only characteristic that they shared was wool hair. But suppose for a moment that Jesus had identical characteristics. That would still not establish that Jesus was the Ancient of Days. It would only establish that Jesus is the the exact representation of the Father. They share the same essence. They are both equally God. So, I think that Daniel 7 is plausibly a trinitarian text, given that there are two figures who are both God.
Why Didn’t The Jews Ever Believe This?
There are many more passages that we could have analyzed. The Oneness Pentecostal might point out that the Jews never believed in the trinity on the basis of those texts. Well, the first point that I want to make is that this is not necessarily true. There were Jews who believed that there are two powers in Heaven on the basis of the texts that I have pointed to. The orthodox Jewish scholar Dr. Daniel Boyarin argued on pages 89-11 of his book Border Lines that orthodox Jews regarded the “two powers in Heaven” as heresy only after the Christian concept of the trinity was popularized. It was a response to Christianity. But there were many Jews who believe in something like the trinity.
But let’s concede the point for the sake of argument. Let’s suppose for a moment that no Jew, at any time in history, ever believed that there were two powers in Heaven. Would that be sufficient to deny what these texts are saying? I should not think so. People often have their traditions so thoroughly ingrained in them that they find it difficult to think objectively. The Jews did not believe in the Suffering Servant. They did not think that the Messiah would be crucified and murdered. We have texts, such as Isaiah 53, which seem to clearly indicate that. Why did they not think that? Is the fact that they did not think that a basis for reinterpreting Isaiah 53? If you are going to be consistent, that would have to be your position.
Does The Old Testament Favor Oneness Pentecostalism Over The Trinity?
With all of this mind, I hope it has become clear that even if you start with the Old Testament and interpret the New Testament in light of it, you will still come away with the idea that there are two powers in Heaven. Although, I do not know why anyone would start with the Old Testament. The New Testament provides a wider revelation. There is more data. The Incarnation has happened. Go to the New Testament and you will see the deep relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. You will see the Son sending the Holy Spirit. It is through the lens of the incarnation of Jesus Christ that we can interpret the Old Testament.