An Answer to A Critic

An Answer to A Critic
By David K. Bernard

This book is the first on Oneness Pentecostalism to be offered by a major publisher. The movement’s size and historical significance certainly merit a scholarly analysis. This work makes only a modest contribution to an understanding of the movement, however, due to its polemical nature.

The author discloses that at age sixteen he was converted from a life of sin to the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), and he embraced the Oneness doctrine. Shortly thereafter he began to question some UPCI teachings. In college, his study of church history convinced him that the Oneness message was erroneous, and he left the UPCI at age twenty. Eventually he became a minister with the United Church of Christ.

The stated purpose of his book is to affirm the third-century doctrine of the Trinity and to combat Oneness Pentecostalism. The book concludes that the Oneness view is a “heresy” and “sub-Christian,” and indicates that the UPCI may even be a cult.

The author states the basic Oneness doctrine clearly and fairly, using representative Oneness sources. Unlike past attacks by men such as Carl Brumback and Jimmy Swaggart, this book does not misrepresent basic Oneness views or make the erroneous charge of Arianism. Moreover, the author excludes a number of popular Trinitarian arguments that do not have scholarly validity. This section of the book provides a service by giving readers a generally accurate overview of the Oneness doctrine, although they could easily investigate the primary works for themselves.

In refuting Oneness, Boyd presents standard Trinitarian arguments, particularly those of Thomas Aquinas. His biblical points are not new; they are addressed in Oneness works such as The Oneness of God (1983). Boyd relies heavily upon ancient church history and philosophical reasoning to prove that Trinitarianism is both correct and necessary. He does not utilize, however, the extensive analysis and reflection of significant theologians in this century. He devotes a chapter to asserting that the early post apostolic writers were Trinitarian, but curiously, he does not interact with the most extensive Oneness work on this subject, Oneness and Trinity, A.D. 100-300 (1991), although a copy was available to him. He revives arguments against the ancient modalists such as the allegation that they had an abstract, impersonal view of God-that do not appear to be relevant to modern Oneness.

Perhaps the strongest chapter of the book is the presentation of scriptural passages that distinguish between the Father and Jesus. This chapter relies on biblical argument, which is the only valid basis for establishing doctrinal truth. This section could help some Oneness believers develop more well-rounded terminology and thought by causing them to consider more seriously the Sonship of Jesus. Yet Boyd does not seem to realize that a distinction between the Father and the Son (not of eternal personhood, but relative to the Incarnation) is at the very core of Oneness theology, and he does not present the more recent, full-orbed discussion of Oneness authors on this subject.

On other subjects, the author makes a number of unsubstantiated, erroneous, and inflammatory charges. For example, he accuses the UPCI of “teaching salvationby-works to an extent almost unparalleled in the history of Christianity,” of teaching “baptismal regeneration,” of teaching that a person must be “salvationworthy” and must “purify” himself to receive the Holy Spirit, of being “the most legalistic
‘Christian’ movement in church history,” of believing that the Trinity is “the most diabolical religious hoax and scandal in history,” and of believing that no one holding a Trinitarian view is saved.

What prompts these charges is the UPCI’s teaching that repentance, water baptism, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit constitute the “Bible standard of full salvation,” and the UPCI’s advocacy of practical holiness teachings such as modesty of dress and women’s having long hair.

On these issues the author’s bias, limited UPCI experience, and limited research handicap him. He does not interact with major UPCI works on
these subjects, such as The New Birth (1984) and Practical Holiness: A Second Look (1985), that expressly refute salvation by works, baptismal regeneration, and legalism. Instead he relies on anecdotal examples, secondary works, and unofficial sources, many of which clearly do not reflect standard UPCI views or practices.

In trying to establish that the UPCI is grossly aberrant on these issues, he does not consider historical and contemporary evidence to the contrary. He does not seem to realize that the UPCI’s view of the role of water baptism corresponds closely to that of the first five centuries of Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Lutheran Church. He does not consider contemporary works by significant evangelical and charismatic writers, such as Larry Christenson, Kilian McDonnell, James Dunn, and David Pawson, that speak of water baptism and Spirit baptism as part of Christian initiation. And most of his arguments against the baptism of the Holy Spirit would apply to the Pentecostal movement generally.

Boyd does not recognize that the holiness standards taught by the UPCI have been advocated by many ancient writers, Anabaptists, Quakers, Methodists, Holiness groups, Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Trinitarian Pentecostals. For example, he states that “neither the early church, nor the church throughout the ages, has ever held to the very eccentric notion that a woman should never cut her hair.” As Practical Holiness documents, however, advocates of women’s keeping their hair long, based on I Corinthians 11, include Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, and, earlier in this century, most of the groups mentioned above.

The author clinches his argument by attempting to show that Oneness believers inevitably and almost unconsciously think in Trinitarian categories. This assertion seems to undercut his attempt to classify them as heretics or worse, but it does point the way to a more fruitful analysis. That is, if Oneness believers typically express themselves in ways that at least some Trinitarians find to be functionally Trinitarian, is there more common ground than one might suppose from the tone of this book?

Instead of focusing on philosophical arguments, historical opinions, creedal formulations, nonbiblical terminology, and derogatory labels, perhaps Oneness and Trinitarian theologians could profit from a dialogue that could erase some misconceptions, correct some mutual imbalances, and encourage greater attention to a more strictly biblical theology. The difference between Oneness and Trinitarianism is more than semantics, yet those who share common spiritual experiences and values may also find some surprising commonalities of thought as well.