Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity

OPT.jpgBoyd, Gregory A.

Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity

Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992. Pp. 234. Paper. $22.00.

Amazon | CBD




With thanks to Baker Academic for this review copy!

Nearly twenty years ago a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Greg Boyd wrote a book defending the doctrine of the Trinity against the objections of Oneness Pentecostals. At the time Boyd was full of zeal and all sorts of emotion, which comes out on nearly every page of Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity, but rightfully so, the Trinity is worth getting excited about! It’s worth defending vigorously! As a former Oneness Pentecostal (OP), Boyd was especially equipped to accurately describe Oneness beliefs about God and their arguments against the Trinity, and as a trained philosopher/theologian he was especially equipped to refute such views. This combination makes for a biblically sound apologetic that has held up well in the near-two decades since its publication.

The opening chapter is strictly descriptive and outlines the Oneness doctrine of God, which is founded on two basic premises: 1) Monotheism, and 2) the Deity of Christ. The resulting conclusion is that Jesus Christ is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because the Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God. Boyd also highlights the Oneness hermeneutic, which sees the distinctions between the Father and the Son as distinctions between Jesus’ divine and human natures. After describing what OPs believe about God he highlights a number of their objections to the doctrine of the Trinity such as it violating monotheism (tritheism or splitting God into parts are the usual charges on this front); the use of unbiblical terminology; its alleged pagan origins; or the illogicality of the doctrine.

The following chapters are spent systematically refuting the Oneness doctrine of God as well as their arguments against the doctrine of the Trinity. Boyd’s arguments are dependant mainly on Scripture but he does take some time to delve into the writings of the early Church Fathers (chapter 7) in order to show that the early church was far from Oneness in their theology. Boyd extends his examination past the Trinity to include the Oneness doctrine of baptism (chapter 6), which is intimately linked to (and actually served as the impetus for) the Oneness doctrine of God. Boyd shows the bankruptcy of the claim that baptism must be administered in Jesus’ name only and that one cannot be saved apart from water baptism. He also tackles some other Oneness distinctives such as tongues, holiness standards, and the length of women’s hair in a series of appendices (A-C) before closing out with an appendix (D) citing Oneness Pentecostal membership statistics.

The main points of contention between Oneness and Trinitarian theology are the personal distinctions between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the real preexistence of the Son. OPs have no problem making distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit since these are all distinctions within the one person of Jesus Christ, i.e., the Father is Jesus’ divine nature, the Son is Jesus’ human nature, and the Spirit is another way of speaking about divine immanence (or the Father as he exists in the world). Where they have the problem is in admitting that these are personal distinctions. Likewise, OPs have no problem affirming the ideal preexistence of the Son in the mind or plan of the Father but if they were to admit it was a real preexistence of the Son as Son before the Incarnation then they’d have to admit the personal distinctions that their theology doesn’t allow for. Boyd persuasively shows these real personal distinctions and this real preexistence from a careful reading of Scripture.

In short, Boy effectively accomplishes his task, which is to provide sounds reasons for believing in the Trinity and sound refutations of the arguments against it. This book is the perfect primer to the budding apologist seeking to dialogue with OPs. Boyd will only be preaching to the choir for those who have had extensively interacted with OPs and debated these issues, but he preaches a good sermon. If I were to write a book on OPs and the Trinity then this is very much like the book I would write (save the appendices). The book shows an impressive interaction with the top Oneness authorities of the day, and while the endnotes are sparse, they show that Boyd was familiar with the relevant orthodox scholarship of the day as well. There’s really not much to fault about this book so my criticisms are going to be a bit nitpicky.

One issue I had is a matter of terminology. Boyd consistently places the word “person” in quotation marks. He explains his rationale for this saying:

I shall throughout this work place the word “person” in quotation marks when I am referring to the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. I do this to avoid the modern trinitarian tendency to overliteralize and overindividualize the threefoldness of the Trinity. This tendency has frequently encumbered the doctrinal discussion on the Godhead between trinitarians and Oneness believers. The quotation marks are intended to remind us that we are speaking analogically about God. (229, n. 1)

I can appreciate the concern but I think it’s misplaced. To start, God speaks of himself in personal terms, and we’ve been created in the image and likeness of God. Some, myself included, interpret that to mean that we’ve been created (at least in part) to exist in relation to others. On this understanding one could argue that our personhood is analogical to God’s. I think it’s a mistake to set humanity up as the standard that God is compared to. There’s also an issue with the language that Boyd employs, which presumably is not analogical since it bears no quotation marks. Repeatedly throughout the volume he refers to God’s “existing fully in three distinct ways” (61); “existing in three personally distinct ways” (64); “threefold personal way of existing” (83), which presents two problems as I see it. First, this seems a bit inconsistent with his placing the word “person” in quotation marks so as not to overliteralize or overindividualize. How does this language not result in those things? Second, I can’t see why this very language couldn’t be employed by OPs themselves. This type of phraseology seems apt for suggesting that the singular person of Jesus can exist in different personal ways without actually entailing a Trinity of persons.

Boyd also plays the analogical card with respect to the Father-Son relationship. He says:

When we, following Scripture, call God “the Father” and Jesus “the Son,” we are speaking analogically, not literally. We are saying that the loving relationship that exists between God and Jesus is like that of a father and a son—but, of course, devoid of the physical characteristics that are present in human father-son relationships. (63-64)

Again, one wonders why humanity is the standard to which God is compared, especially in light of flawed human father-son relationships. Boyd admits that in calling God the Father and Jesus the Son that we’re “following Scripture.” Where do we ever get the impression that Jesus spoke analogically when referring to God as his Father? We don’t. This was the case in the third- and fourth-century debates over the relationship between the Father and the Son as well. As Peter Widdicombe said:

The terms Father and Son for third- and fourth-century Christians were not arbitrary terms, reflective simply of the assumptions and values of a particular kind of culture. Their use of the word Father to refer to God was based on the example and teaching of Jesus himself and the Bible’s witness in the early church’s practice. The Scriptures were regarded as inspired by God, and so their witness was authoritative. This was as true for Arius as it was for Origen before him and Athanasius after. It would not have occurred to Origen, Arius, or Athanasius that the proper method to approach the systematic reflection about the nature of God was to begin from the knowing human subject and her or his culturally conditioned experience of God. The terms Father and Son were for Origen and Athanasius the core terms of Scripture, in relation to which all others were to be considered; they were the terms given by God himself and by the Son; they were the terms of Christian initiation in baptism and of Christ’s prayers and ours. Appropriately interpreted, they truly do tell us about divine nature; they are not arbitrary ascriptions. (The Fatherhood of God from Origen to Athanasius, 258-59)

My final gripe would be with “Appendix A: Salvation, the Spirit, and Tongues.” Boyd ably refutes the idea that one must receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues in order to be saved. No arguments there. He makes some good points against tongues as the initial physical evidence of Spirit baptism, which I didn’t find ultimately persuasive, but that’s not my problem either. The problem is in the hermeneutic that says interpreters can’t (or at least shouldn’t) take “descriptive history” and derive from it “prescriptive doctrine” (see esp. 206-09). This is a common enough approach to Biblical interpretation but it’s one that I think violates a method used in Scripture itself. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul appeals to Israel’s narrative history and suggests that the things that happened to the Israelites in the wilderness “happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.” (1 Cor. 10:11) The point is that Paul uses descriptive history in order to teach prescriptive doctrine (in this case something about eating idol meat).

These minor quibbles aside I can recommend this book to OPs and anyone who interacts with OPs. My one recommendation to the publisher in the event of future printings or subsequent editions would be the addition of subject and Scripture indices. Boyd appeals to a copious amount of Scripture and it would be nice to have that all indexed in one place for ease of reference.


26 thoughts on “Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity

  1. I’m about half-way through this book and also share your concerns around “person”. Good review — thanks for sharing it.

  2. Two points:

    1. Is it normal for publishers to send books this old for review?

    2. The whole evangelical hermeneutical rule of “you can’t use narrative (descriptive) passages for theology” is specifically designed so that they don’t have to deal with Acts and the problems it creates for their applied pneumatology, and nothing more. (Well, some also use it to get around doing what Jesus tells them to do in the Gospels.) Notice they all still use Acts 5.3-4 as a major prooftext for the divinity of the Holy Spirit; the little rule gets forgotten then.

  3. Fr. Robert: Yup.

    Roy: I’m glad I’m not alone there.

    Sean: (1) Depends on the publisher. This is actually abnormal for Baker but I’m in pretty good with those guys. (2) I seem to remember you writing something about this on your blog a number of years back. I agree with your assessment.

  4. Wow! I must be either really memorable or really repetitive in my senescence.

  5. Good review Nick. I enjoyed this book many years ago and still find it helpful. Robert Sabin told me that Boyd used to be a disciple of his many years ago. I found that interesting because we referenced his book at our debate with Sabin and I believe we handed out Boyd’s literature to the Oneness audience in attendance. Other than this book I haven’t really liked much of anything else Boyd writes about.

  6. Drew: I’m in much the same boat as you. I haven’t cared much for the stuff I’ve seen Boyd say on the internet so I’ve never been too anxious to read his books. I will say that The Jesus Legend is pretty good from what I’ve read of it.

    Did Sabin have anything to say about Boyd’s book?

  7. He didn’t say anything specifically. In fact, I used much of Boyd’s preexistence arguments and Robert explained these texts were ‘prophetic anticipations’ of Christ. He did say something in an email now that I think about it. I’ll search through some of those exchanges and let you know.

  8. I remember seeing this book on a few shelves when I was a student at Christian Life College in Stockton, CA (a UPCI approved institution). I don’t remember many students actually reading it. It seemed like it was there just to show they weren’t scared to have a copy. I assume if they had read it (or if I had read it back then) there may have been significant changes in our views.

  9. Drew: I have to find the DVD you sent me. I put it into the case of a movie but I can’t remember which one!

    Brian: One could only hope! I can say from my interaction with OPs that all the Scriptural arguments in the world don’t seem to make much of a dent in their beliefs. In the end it’s only once the Holy Spirit convicts and draws that those arguments begin to have any real force. It’s a joy to know that there are former OPs in the world like you, JohnDave, and Boyd.

  10. Nick, if you can’t find the DVD just let me know and I’ll send another. I was also unable to find anything in the email exchanges with Robert referring to Boyd’s book.

  11. Questions: 1) Weren’t Matthew 28:19 and 1John 5:7-8 later insertions? 2) Isn’t the portion in the Didache which shows the Trinitarian baptismal formula, ALSO a later insertion? Some scholars say it’s a fraud. 3) Jesus is called the Everlasting Father in Isaiah 9:6, so why can we call Him the Prince of Peace but not Father? In fact it also calls Him son…so is He not all Isaiah says He is? 4) God is Holy and God is a Spirit…that’s why OP’s can call Him the Holy Spirit…what’s wrong with that? 5) How is Jesus not also the Father, since He created ALL things, AND sustains us? In Him we live, move and have our being, and by Him all things consist. 6) Revelation says there is One who sits on the throne. Since in Christ is all of the fullness of the Godhead bodily…don’t you think Jesus is the only One we’ll be able to see in heaven…who encompasses all that God is?

    Citing from “So in heaven, there are three Persons. But will we be able to actually see them? Revelation 4:3-6 gives us a description of heaven and the throne that is occupied by God and by the Lamb: “the one sitting there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian… a rainbow resembling an emerald encircled the throne. Before the throne… a sea of glass, clear as crystal.” Since God dwells in “unapproachable light” and is one “whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16), God is described in terms of the reflected brilliance of precious stones. First Corinthians 2:9 says, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” Because of God’s holiness, it may be that we will never be able to look upon His face, but again, this is speculation.

    Revelation 5:6 tells us that in heaven, the Lamb stands in the center of the throne and there are descriptions of Him clothed in brilliant white. Since the Lamb represents Christ Jesus, and we know that human eyes have beheld Him after His resurrection and glorification, it seems reasonable to conclude that in heaven, we will be able to look upon our Lord and Savior.

    The Holy Spirit, by the very nature of His being, is able to move at will and take various forms. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended on Him in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:13-17). At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was accompanied by a loud rushing noise and was seen as tongues of fire (Acts 2:1-4). It may not be possible to see the Holy Spirit unless He chooses to manifest Himself in some form, but that is speculation.” This confirms my believe that according to Col 2:8,9…we will only see Jesus, and thus calling Him Father,Son and Holy Ghost would then not be an error. What do you think?

    Ok…those are all of my questions for now. I think it’s GREAT that if you close the page by accident, before you actually post your comment, your remarks are STILL THERE! Ok…be blessed!

  12. Dee: That’s a lot of questions and I normally don’t allow such long comments (see my comment policy) but I’m going to answer you.

    (1) Matthew 28:9 was not a later assertion (see here); 1 John 5:7 was, but most informed Trinitarians don’t use 1 John 5:7 in order to argue for the Trinity from Scripture.

    (2) I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that the trinitarian baptismal formula in Didache 7.1 is a later addition. There’s a textual variant in the verse but it isn’t the baptismal formula. What scholars say it’s a fraud?

    (3) Isaiah 9:6 works against Oneness theology. It speaks of what the Messiah will be called. Oneness theology asserts that the humanity of Jesus is “the Son” while the deity of Jesus is “the Father.” Isaiah 9:6 says that the Messiah “born unto us” will be called “everlasting Father.” Why would the humanity be called the Father when the deity is supposed to be the Father? Also, we could dispute translating the Hebrew avi ad as “everlasting Father” since something like “Father of eternity” or “Father of the age to come” makes better sense in the context (i.e., it’s a messianic prophecy and the Messiah inaugurates and rules the age to come).

    (4) I don’t see your point. There’s nothing wrong with calling the Holy Spirit, who is God, the Holy Spirit. There’s something wrong with calling the Father or the Son the Holy Spirit since they are distinct Persons.

    (5) Your question doesn’t make sense. Jesus is not the Father because he is the Son; he prays to the Father; he was sent by the Father; he will return to the Father; he glorifies the Father; everywhere in the NT he is distinguished from the Father.

    (6) Revelation constantly talks about God and the Lamb on the throne. Let’s say that Jesus is the only one that can be “seen” in heaven; so what? He’s the only one with a physical body, right?

    And that’ll do it. Please, for future reference, keep the comments shorter. Also, try to stick to the topic of the post. I’ve indulged you here because I had a few minutes but you’re just defending Oneness theology; you haven’t said anything about my book review. This isn’t a discussion board where people can introduce new topics at will. Thanks.

  13. I just read your blunt and humorous comment policy, so now I totally understand. Thanks so much for answering my questions. They were not to defend Oneness theology, I just wanted to hear your thoughts because I’m still learning, and perhaps this would be a learning opportunity for me. I disagree and have found holes in most of your statements but I’ll find another one of your articles to perhaps continue. Thanks again.

  14. Dee: Sounds good, and if you’re looking to learn or be challenged then I’m happy to join in the process. You can always shoot me an email. I’m pretty good about answering those. My email address is on my “About” page at the top of the blog. I be interested to hear what holes you’ve found since I can’t seem to find any.

  15. I hope I’m not being a nuisance, but my Outlook is malfunctioning… may I have your email address or must I wait until I get my problem resolved? Thanks…

  16. I am a former oneness pentecostal, and this book is one of the reasons why. In your review you make a good point about the person issue. It is always in a relational sense i understand it, wheras in oneness theology all the dialogue and interaction between the Father and Son is meaningless and pointlessly cryptic. Why would God even speak in such terms if we were not to take them as such? This part of the book helped me immensely; If He is not REALLY the Father, son, Spirit, then WHO IS HE??

  17. I have grown up in a Trinity church and never faithfully attended a oneness church but I have visited one which propelled me to study the oneness doctrine which I researched some through internet articles mostly then I got a oneness book by Dr. Bernard which referred me to Dr. Boyd’s book. Dr. Boyd’s book has been really helpful to me even though I’m just a layman who never has gone to theological school. I particularly liked the way he explained the mystery of the Trinity by the definitions of a contradiction to a paradox. I haven’t finished the book however but still the fact that Dr. Boyd was a oneness adherent in his past gives some validity to his critique of the oneness doctrine. The biggest problems of the oneness doctrine to me anyways is that if they believe they have the essential “truth” of God and everyone else is lost then #1 they have set themselves above everyone else(being elite) since I don’t believe no church/denomination has the perfect doctrine for everyone has to “work out” their own salvation with the essential theme is Jesus is the Son of God, redeemer of our salvation, and author/finisher of our faith. There are good christians in almost every denomination. #2 Most oneness churches are very legalistic to the point they are not much different than the Pharisees in Jesus’ time in which Jesus accused them of burdening the people while they don’t lift a finger to help them. Oneness leaders make the yoke heavy for their followers while they can do some things the followers cannot do. #3 Also most oneness churches believe you have to speak in tongues to be saved which I can never discern out of the scriptures. This belief also burdens their followers as well causes useless distress and despair in them which is the very opposite of what Jesus wanted to do for his followers. #4 The history of oneness or “modalism” is very scant. It showed up in 2nd century then died off then reappears in the 1920’s in America and has grown substantially. However, Jesus proclaimed to Peter after his confession 1) it did not come on his own but the holy spirit revealed it to him and 2) the gates of hell will not prevail against the church he(Peter) will start. To me the oneness movement with their declaration of having the truth of God is saying the Holy Spirit has failed for 19 centuries and has finally figured how to bring men to God and “His Truth”. I would never blasphemy the Holy Spirit like that but me the oneness movement is in danger of doing just that!

  18. May I submit that a critique of this book has been put forth by Ross Drysdale.

    Nick, I have seen elsewhere where you have engage oneness teachings (60 questions tract comes to mind). it would be nice if you could respond to the following entry by Robert Sabin. That would be a great handout for those reaching out to oneness affiliates and advocates. Here is the entry:

  19. I would say that the format for Robert Sabin’s entry is so HORRIFIC, it is almost not even worth reading! I’ve been going through it to fix it, just so I can read it better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s