I am a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ, the full and final revelation of God to mankind and the Creator and Judge of all mankind who is the Lord and Savior of those who put their faith in Him. I don’t apply any denominational or traditional label to my faith; I am not a “Baptist” or a “Pentecostal”, I am not a “Calvinist” or an “Arminian”; I am “a Christian”, one who puts their faith in Jesus Christ. Someday I might feel comfortable accepting one or more of these labels, but not today. Let me explain why.
Over the course of the last two years, my theology has been submitted to the crucible of confusion. Everything I thought was essential to belief in Christ has been challenged and my mind has been a jumbled mess. My theology has gone through (what I hope is) refining fire and been stripped down to (what I hope are) the essentials. I grew up, from the ages of 6-23, a member of the Oneness Pentecostal denomination. I grew up believing that we were the only Christian denomination that had “the truth” about essential Christian doctrines and all other past, present, or future denominations (or individuals) who didn’t believe the same doctrines were not actually Christian. These “essential Christian doctrines” I was taught to believe had to do with the nature of the Godhead, the plan of salvation, and the Christian life. In short: regarding the nature of the Godhead, I believed that Jesus Christ was God the Father incarnate, not the second person of the Godhead incarnate, which amounts to a denial of the Trinity and a kind of “modalism”; regarding the plan of salvation, I believed that one obeyed the Gospel by repenting, being baptized in the name of Jesus only [meaning a verbal formula (spoken: “In the name of Jesus” not “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”)], and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence that one had received the Holy Spirit being speaking in tongues; regarding the Christian life, I believed that one must be a part of a local church under the authority of a pastor, submitting to their leadership, in order to be holy, which involved many “holiness standards” such as refraining from alcohol of any kind, refraining from any music other than Christian music, refraining from watching any movies or TV, refraining from wearing shorts or short-sleeved T-shirts, refraining from growing beards, etc. When my father, who had began taking me to this church when I was 6, left the church and began explaining why he thought they were wrong on their interpretation of these doctrines, I began to struggle with my understanding. To make a long story short, I eventually left the denomination and am currently on a journey to discover, articulate, and defend authentic Christianity. Because of my upbringing in this group and the struggle I experienced while leaving it, I am very hesitant to commit myself to any theological system or denomination.
I find myself at peace with God trusting completely in the work of Christ for my salvation and in the work of the Holy Spirit to sanctify and teach me day by day. I am not idle in my rest; I pray and study daily, hoping that the Holy Spirit will enlighten my spiritual eyes so that I may increase in the knowledge of God through Christ. It is my sincere prayer that God will guide me in understanding the deeper truths of His Word such that I can believe what is true and be a force for edification and unification in His Church. Of the three main issues raised by the Oneness Pentecostal denomination, as I’ve outlined it above, the one which holds the most of my attention is the nature of the Godhead. It is my prayer and goal that God will illuminate His Word to my mind so that I can understand His Nature as He wishes me to understand it, and, once I have such an understanding, to articulate and defend it against error so as to edify the Body of Christ and advance the Kingdom of God.
Of immediate importance then is the question of the importance of getting the nature of the Godhead right. Must we, as individuals and as the Church collectively, get this issue right? Well, obviously, there are some things about God’s nature that we need to get right (His existence and faithfulness, for example; see Hebrews 11:6). To be clearer, what I am asking is, do we, as individuals and as the Church, need to adjudicate between the “oneness” and the “trinity” interpretations of the nature of the Godhead? How important is this issue? Asked a different way, what are the ramifications of failing to properly adjudicate between these two alternatives? Is error on this issue “heresy” or merely “false doctrine”? I hasten to add that by distinguishing between “heresy” and “false doctrine” I mean to call to the reader’s attention the distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” doctrine. I do not mean to imply that error on non-essential doctrine is unimportant or doesn’t have negative ramifications, but only that, as is implied by the distinction, error on a non-essential doctrine would be of less importance than error on an essential doctrine. In other words, is the nature of the Godhead an essential doctrine? Well, I would have to say that, at least with respect to the “oneness” v. “trinity” interpretations of the nature of the Godhead, failure to properly adjudicate between these two alternatives does not seem to me to be damning heresy. Jesus said, “Unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins.” He did not say, “Unless you believe that I am the Father incarnate” (oneness) or “Unless you believe that I am the second person of the Trinity incarnate” (trinity) “you will die in your sins”; He said, “Unless you believe that I AM [YHWH, cf. Ex.3:14-15] you will die in your sins.” Both the oneness interpretation and the trinity interpretation affirm this – Jesus is YHWH incarnate. I know there are those who will disagree with me here. I know, having been a Oneness Pentecostal, that they believe error on this issue is damning. I know as well that there are many Trinitarians who believe the same way only from the other side of the table. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise but, at present, I do not think more is necessary than understanding that there is only one true God, that Jesus is that God incarnate, and that the Scriptural terminology Father, Son, and Spirit are all referring to that God in some sense. On these things, both oneness and trinity agree.
The next question seems perfectly natural: if understanding more of the nature of the Godhead is not essential doctrine, if error here is not damnable heresy, then why even engage in the debate? Why not unify around the basic truths about which both camps agree and work together to evangelize the unbelieving world? I cannot answer for others I know personally with certainty, much less for the breadth of Christianity, but I can answer for myself. I suppose there are two reasons. First, there is a lingering fear within me that this issue is more important than I’ve just made it out to be and I’m open to being convinced that it is, in fact, an essential issue. My hope would be that, through my study, this would be made clear, as, if it is indeed an essential issue then I would want to get it right even more! Second, as I said earlier, false doctrine on non-essential issues, while not damning heresy, still has negative ramifications. The slightly-more educated student of this issue will recognize that oneness and trinity are two disparate interpretations of the nature of the Godhead and cannot both be true; one or both are false. If there is a right answer on this question, if there is a truth of this matter, then I want to know it. I think it is God’s will that we all mature in our faith, growing in our knowledge of God through Christ. It seems to me that this issue is important enough that searching out the truth of the matter should be important to us. Believing and teaching that God is something that He is not surely doesn’t glorify Him as much as He deserves to be glorified. In short, if for no other reasons (such as that truth on this issue is essential) than knowing the truth of the matter and glorifying God by believing the truth about Him, I want to get this issue right.
Therefore, getting this issue right is what I aim to do! That is, I want to study this issue into the ground. I want no questions unanswered, no issues swept under the rug, no items unstudied. This will require mastering Hebrew and Greek. This will require mastering Church History. This will require reading everything that has ever been written on the topic and understanding it. This is no small task, but, by God (and I mean that literally) I mean to do it. God helping me, I will do no other. This task will take many years; I pray God will grant me the grace necessary to follow it through to the end.
What is the end to which I think I am headed? First, a comprehension on my own part of this issue. I want to understand everything about this issue so that I can make an educated (and Spirit led) decision. Second, I want my work to be of use to God’s Church. If one or the other of these alternative positions is true, then I wish to work to make this known amongst the totality of the Church as there are significant portions of Christianity believing one or the other position. Truth is edifying and unifying. For the sake of edification and unification, I would want the results of my research to be of use to the Kingdom of God.
Obviously, I come to this task with my personal biases. I’ve found it very difficult to detach myself from the oneness interpretation over the last couple years due the fact that I grew up believing this interpretation made or broke my salvation, but I’ve finally found myself at a place where I am at peace trusting completely in Christ for my salvation and not my ability to think correctly about God, for at that I am bound to fail on at least some points some of the time. I still find some of the arguments intriguing, if not convincing, and thus am still willing to believe it if it can be demonstrated to be true. I currently believe the trinity interpretation to be the true interpretation (if you want to know the primary reasons for my current commitment to the trinity interpretation, check out a forthcoming post). So, I come to this task with a “trinitarian” bias. That should be admitted and noted up front.
In closing, I would just like to say that, if you are reading this, please follow this blog so that you can stay abreast of my studies and insights. Also, please pray for me and my wife (Kaitlin) if you get the chance. Put a comment below and I’ll pray for you as well!