By: David K. Bernard
Christology simply means the doctrine of Christ. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as the “theological interpretation of the person and work of Christ.” The heart of Christology is the study of the Incarnation-the union of deity and humanity in Jesus Christ.
The Oneness Pentecostal movement as a whole has given inadequate attention to the nature of this union. This paper seeks to formulate a consistent, biblical Christology compatible with the biblical doctrine of the Oneness of God. It will seek to identify problems in this area, such as unstated assumptions, inconsistencies, and uncritical acceptance of trinitarian terms and ideas. It will also briefly evaluate various Christological views in early church history.
The Absolute Deity of Jesus Christ
The Bible clearly teaches, and the Oneness doctrine strongly affirms, the absolute deity of Jesus Christ. “For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Colossians 2:9). “The Word was God”
(John 1:1). Many passages refer to Jesus as God Himself)Acknowledging the deity of Christ is essential to salvation. Jesus said, “If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). The Greek text does not contain the pronoun he, and it places extra emphasis on the pronoun L The effect is to identify Jesus with the name God used for Himself in the Old Testament: I AM (Exodus 3:14-16). A few verses later Jesus emphasized this truth: “Verily, verily I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The Jews understood His point; they immediately took up stones to kill Him for claiming to be God (John 8:59; 10:33).
Christianity rests on Jesus Christ’s identity as God incarnate. Christians look solely to Jesus as Savior. Only if Jesus is truly God does He have power to save from sin, for no one can forgive sins except God (Isaiah 43:25; Mark 2:7). John 8:24 does not demand a thorough comprehension of the Godhead as a prerequisite for salvation. It is possible and indeed likely for someone to obey John 3:5 and Acts 2:38 without a theologically accurate understanding of the Oneness doctrine. It is impossible, however, to receive remission of sins in the name of Jesus and to receive the Holy Spirit without acknowledging the deity of Jesus Christ.
The Perfect Humanity of Jesus Christ
Oneness believers often give inadequate attention to Christ’s humanity. Oneness teachers stress that Jesus is God but frequently fail to emphasize that He is the Son of God as well. Oneness preachers are sometimes hesitant to call Jesus the Son of God, as if this title were trinitarian. A few refuse to attribute complete humanity to Him. A clear Christology would avoid these problems, enabling Oneness preachers to use biblical themes and phrases with confidence.
Scripture emphatically proclaims the genuine and complete humanity of Christ. “Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same … For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren” (Hebrews 2:14,16-17). Jesus “was made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). Hebrews 5:7-8 graphically portrays One who wrestled with human emotions, weaknesses, and fears: “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.”
In whatever way we define the essential components of humanity, Christ had them:
* Flesh. “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). This does not mean the Spirit of Christ changed into humanity, as Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, but the Spirit was manifested in the flesh (I Timothy 3:16). It was not a transmutation but an incarnation.
* Body. “Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me … the body of Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 10:5, 10).
* Soul “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death” (Matthew 26:38). “His soul was not left in hell” (Acts 2:31).
* Spirit. “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit” (Luke 2:40). “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
* Mind. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
* Will. “Not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Jesus was a perfect human. He was more than a theophany (God in a visible form). He was more than God animating a human body-God in a human shell. He was actually God incarnate-God dwelling and manifesting Himself in true humanity, with everything genuine humanity includes. If Jesus had anything less than complete humanity, the Incarnation would not be real. We could not explain His agony and struggle in Gethsemane. He could not truly be “in all points tempted like as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). His life and death could not adequately substitute for ours. He could not qualify as our kinsman redeemer. His atoning sacrifice could not be sufficient to redeem man.
Belief in Christ’s true humanity is essential to salvation. “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist” (I John 4:3).
Again, this does not mean a complete theological understanding of Christology, but a belief that Jesus actually came in the flesh. Christ’s humanity is necessary to salvation because without it there is no death, burial, and resurrection for justification, no blood for remission of sin, no sacrifice of atonement.
The Sinless Humanity of Christ
Christ’s true humanity does not mean He had a sinful nature. He was without sin, He did not sin, and sin was not in Him (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Sin includes a sinful nature as well as sinful acts, and Jesus had no sin whatsoever. True human nature does not have to be sinful, for God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in a state of moral innocence. In fact, sinful human nature is a distortion and perversion of God’s original design for humanity. Neither does temptation require a sinful nature, because Satan tempted Adam and Eve in their state of innocence.
Jesus did not come in sinful flesh, but “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). He came as the second Adam, the second representative of the human race, so that through His obedience He could restore to mankind everything Adam lost by his disobedience (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49). God started the human race all over again with Christ, so He might yet have the perfect humanity He originally intended when He created Adam. God will conform His church to the image of Christ, that Christ might become the firstborn of a new, spiritual family of humans who have overcome sin and death (Romans 8:29). To fulfill this role, Christ came with an innocent, perfect humanity like Adam had in the beginning.
Since Christ was a descendant of Adam, how did He avoid inheriting Adam’s sinful nature, unlike the rest of the race? From a legal viewpoint, the sinful nature comes from the father. Although Eve actually sinned first, Adam’s sin had the legal consequences for the race. The Father of Jesus was the Holy Spirit of God, so Jesus did not have a sinful father from which to inherit a sinful nature. Moreover, the Spirit of God would have sanctified Christ in the womb of Mary, separating Him from any taint of sin and keeping Him pure.
The Distinction Between Christ’s Deity and Humanity
It is necessary to distinguish clearly between the deity and the humanity of Christ. While Jesus was both God and man at the same time, sometimes He spoke and acted from the human viewpoint only and sometimes He spoke and acted from the divine viewpoint only. He could speak as man one moment and then as God the next moment. Jesus was fully God, not merely an anointed man. At the same time, He was fully man, not just an appearance of man. We cannot adequately compare our existence or experience to His. What would seem strange or impossible if applied to a mere human becomes understandable when viewed in the context of One who was fully God and fully man at the same time.
For example, as a man He slept one moment, yet as God He miraculously calmed the storm the next moment. On the cross He spoke only from human frailty when He said, “I thirst.” Yet when Jesus said, “Thy sins be forgiven thee;’ He spoke with the power and authority of God alone. When the Bible says Christ died, it refers to human death only, for deity cannot die. When it says Christ dwells in the hearts of believers, it refers to His divine Spirit only.
Only as a man could Jesus be born, grow, be tempted by the devil, hunger, thirst, grow weary, sleep, pray, be beaten, die, not know all things, not have all power, be inferior to God, and be a servant. Onlyas God could He exist from eternity, be unchanging, cast out devils, be the bread of life, give living water, give rest, calm the storm, answer prayer, heal the sick, raise His body from death, forgive sin, know all things, have all power, have equality with God, and be king of kings.2 In an ordinary person, these two contrasting lists would be mutually exclusive, yet Scripture attributes all of them to Jesus, thus revealing the duality of His nature.
Christ’s prayer to God at Gethsemane is a clear example of the distinction between His deity and humanity. The agony, tears, sweat, desire to escape suffering, and reluctance of the will all relate to the humanity and could not in any way represent deity. Since Oneness believers do not acknowledge any person of the Godhead outside of Jesus Christ, the scene shows the vivid contrast and distinction between the humanity and deity of Jesus. One cannot merge Christ’s humanity and deity totally and still maintain the Oneness doctrine.
Trinitarians can more easily merge Christ’s humanity and deity since for them the basic contrast between Father and Son is between two persons of the Godhead, not deity and humanity. Some even teach the kenosis theory, which was once very popular. They base this theory on the Greek verb kenos in Philippians 2:7, which means “to make of no reputation, to make nothing, or to empty.” Kenotic Christology holds that Christ emptied Himself of many attributes of deity, such as omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, when He came in flesh. This doctrine cannot exist as a part of Oneness theology, because it involves an abdication of deity by Christ. Most trinitarian scholars today reject it also, recognizing that it makes Jesus a mere demigod.3 A correct understanding of Philippians 2:7 is as follows: Jesus did not renounce His deity but His being in the form of God alone. He did not discard His divine attributes but concealed them in the weakness of human flesh. He willingly relinquished His rights and prerogatives to heavenly glory and majesty, but did not give up the nature and power of God. He did not cease being God in every sense.
Oneness believers are sometimes careless in their Christology, bringing ridicule on their doctrine by improper use of terminology. Many use the title God when only Christ’s humanity is in view. For example, they may say, “God died on the cross.” While Jesus is God, He is also man. He did not die in His capacity as God, but only as man. Other examples of faulty terminology are, “Jesus was His own Father” and “Jesus prayed to Himself.” Oneness believers must clearly maintain the distinction between Christ’s deity and humanity and must emphasize the Sonship of Jesus if they are to be biblically accurate and doctrinally credible.
Jesus was both Son of God and Son of man. He was Son of God since God’s Spirit literally caused His conception (Luke 1:35), and He was Son of man (humanity) since He had a human mother. “Son of” means “having the nature or character of,” as in the biblical phrases “sons of thunder, sons of Belial, and son of consolation.” Jesus had the very character of God as well as perfect humanity. “Son of God” actually stresses His deity, for no one can be like God, equal with God, or have God’s complete character without being God Himself (Isaiah 46:9; 48:11; John 5:18). “Son of God” means “God in flesh.”
The Inseparable Union of Humanity and Deity in Christ
Although we must distinguish between Christ’s deity and humanity, it is impossible to separate the two in Christ. From our finite view, His human spirit and His divine Spirit were inseparable. Perhaps it is more correct to speak of the human aspect and the divine aspect of His Spirit.
The Scriptures describe this inseparable union. “The Word was God …. And the Word was made flesh” (John 1:1, 14). I and my Father are one …. The Father is in me, and I in him” (John 10:30, 38). “Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me; or else believe me for the very works’ sake” (John 14:10-11). “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). Christ’s basic nature cannot change. He will never cease to be God and man united.
Why did not Jesus simply say, I am the Father” instead of I and my Father are one”? Jesus was not only stressing His identity as the Father, but also the union of deity and humanity in Himself. He was more than the Father-He was the Father in the Son, the Deity in flesh. We cannot separate Father and Son into separate persons of the Godhead, for Jesus did not say, “My Father and I agree in one,” as if they were united in purpose only. Rather He expressed that the Father had united with humanity in such a way as to form one being-Jesus Christ, the Father incarnate.
Christ’s statement, “The Father is in me,” is a powerful Oneness text, but why did He say, I am in the Father”? This possibly describes the man Christ dwelling in the omnipresent Spirit of God, as all men can do. The context, however, indicates a deeper significance. His humanity was elevated in a total union with deity. He did not lose the distinctiveness of His humanity, but His humanity was joined with and submerged in deity in a way not true of any other man. His words speak of a permanent, inseparable, essential union.
Even the cross did not destroy this union. Christ offered up His blood to God as a sacrifice of atonement “through the eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:14). The Father remained with and in Christ to the end. “Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, that ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me” (John 16:32).
Death separated the divine Spirit from the human body, but Christ’s humanity was more than a body. Even while His body lay in the grave both humanity and deity remained united in His Spirit. At the resurrection Christ’s humanity was glorified, and at the ascension His humanity was exalted. While He is still human, He no longer submits to human limitations and frailties. His humanity is submerged in the deity, and in eternity His human role will disappear into the divine off ice (I Corinthians 15:24-28). He will still manifest Himself through His glorified body throughout eternity (Revelation 22:3-4).
While on earth Jesus differed from an ordinary human (who can be filled with the Spirit of God) in that He had all of God’s nature within Him. He possessed the unlimited power, authority, and character of God. He was God by nature, by right, by identity; He was not merely deified by an anointing or indwelling. In contrast to a Spirit-filled believer, the Spirit of God was inextricably joined with the humanity of Jesus. Without the Spirit of God there would have been only a lifeless human, not the living Christ.
Only in these terms can we describe and distinguish the humanity and deity in Jesus; we know that He acted and spoke from one role or the other, but we also know that the two were not actually separated in Him. We can make only a distinction and not a separation in the humanity and deity that blended perfectly in Him.
The Mystery of Godliness
How were Christ’s humanity and deity united? How did God become man? How did the divine self-consciousness and the human self-consciousness interact in Christ, from birth to childhood to adulthood to death? This is the true mystery of godliness. There is no mystery as to how many gods or how many persons of the Godhead there are. The Bible has always emphatically declared that Yahweh is one (Deuteronomy 6:4). No matter what terminology we use to describe God-being, substance, nature, or person—“God is one” (Galatians 3:20). He is not one God in three persons, He is simply and indivisibly one.
The true mystery of godliness is that God was manifest in the flesh (I Timothy 3:16), and this fact has been revealed to New Testament believers. This is the mystery that the Jews could not comprehend. They could not understand how Jesus, being a man, could also be God at the same time. They thought such an idea was blasphemy (Matthew 26:64-65; Luke 5:20-26; John 5:18; 10:33).
No doubt in this life the Incarnation will always contain areas of mystery for us. First, the Bible does not give us complete information in this area. It does not describe Christ’s childhood, for example, nor does it reveal the inner workings of Christ’s mind. Second, the very nature of the subject places it beyond the comprehension of the finite human mind. The basic question is this: How could and how did the infinite God manifest and incarnate Himself in finite human flesh? We can proclaim the biblical truth that He did, but we cannot offer a complete explanation as to how He did so.
Trinitarians face the same Christological puzzles as Oneness believers, only with added complications. Both groups seek to explain the relationship of deity and humanity in Christ, but trinitarians must
also explain the interrelationships of the three persons in their divine trinity. Moreover, they must contend with two Sons-the human Son, who was born at Bethlehem and died at Calvary, and the divine Son, who existed from eternity past and cannot die. Many trinitarian proof-texts actually result from their failure to understand Christology. For example, if they saw Christ’s prayer in terms of His humanity and deity, they would not see it as proof of two persons in the Godhead. The same is true of many other examples they use, such as love between Father and Son, the Son’s lack of knowledge, and the Son’s lack of power.
Trinitarian failure to explain these texts Christologically is ultimately fatal to their doctrine, for if these texts describe the trinity then they establish a nontrinitarian subordination of the Son to the Father. If trinitarians explain them Christologically then these texts do not support or require trinitarianism.
Ancient trinitarians accused modalists of being Patripassian, that is, of teaching that the Father suffered and died on the cross. To them, this effectively refuted modalism, which was a form of Oneness doctrine, for certainly it is ridiculous to teach that God as Spirit could suffer and die. In actuality, this is a problem of Christology that trinitarians also have. If. as they maintain. Father and Son are co-equal persons in the Godhead, it is just as heretical to speak of the suffering and death of God the Son. In whatever way trinitarians can explain God the Son’s participation in Christ’s human sufferings, so Oneness believers can explain the Father’s participation in Christ’s human sufferings. Apparently these early trinitarians did not actually believe that Father and Son were completely equal in deity or else they were unaware of their own Christological difficulties.
How, then, can we describe the Incarnation? While two distinct wills were present in Christ-divine and human-it seems to divide Christ too much to say He had two separate personalities. Surely He had an integrated personality, not a schizophrenic one. The divine personality permeated and colored every aspect of the humanity to the point that we should probably speak of the divine and human characteristics of Christ’s Spirit rather than of the divine Spirit and the human spirit dwelling side by side.
Most theologians propose that Jesus possessed the complete essence of humanity (whatever humans have in common that makes them human) in an impersonal form, with His personality seated in His deity. Henry Thiessen recognized the distinction between Christ’s humanity and deity and argued for an essential union of the two based on an impersonal humanity:
Christ’s personality resides in his divine nature, because [God] did not unite with a human person but with human nature. Christ’s human nature was impersonal apart from the incarnation; this, however, is not true of the divine nature …. Jesus evidently was aware at all times of his deity in his divine self-consciousness …. Sometimes he would act from his human self-consciousness, at other times from his divine, but the two were never in conflict. The same thing is true of his Will.4
The mystery of the Incarnation has led to several hotly debated issues. We now address them, seeking to maintain a consistent Oneness Christology throughout our discussion.
Christ’s Human Awareness of Deity
How early was Christ aware of His deity? Did He as a child realize His true identity? Was He self-conscious in infancy? Was He a genius in childhood? Were some facts hidden from His adult mind?
The Bible is almost totally silent on this subject, especially regarding His childhood. The Bible indicates, however, that Jesus participated fully in the human experience just like everyone else, grew and developed normally, and received no special help from His deity in facing the difficulties of human life (Luke 2:40, 52; Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:15). The Spirit of Jesus was certainly omniscient at all times. It seems likely that the Spirit imparted to the human brain as much as that brain could physically comprehend and no more. While the Spirit of God was aware at all times of His divine plan, the young child gradually grew into this awareness. Probably from the earliest times of human self-consciousness and memory His brain had some awareness of His divine identity and mission. Probably there was no single moment of blinding revelation, but simply a growing understanding that kept pace with the developing brain. Luke 2 reveals that by age twelve His human mind understood His unique mission and relationship to the Father.
Some describe the adult Christ as unaware of His identity and mission until a certain time, such as at His baptism, but this view is incorrect. If we are to uphold the absolute deity of Christ and the inseparable union of deity and humanity in Christ, we must acknowledge that Christ’s humanity was fully integrated with His deity at all times to the maximum extent possible, given human limitations.
Some even teach that Christ became fully God at His baptism or received the baptism of the Holy Spirit at that time. Either view is completely inconsistent with the Oneness belief that Jesus is God and with the Virgin Birth. Isaiah 7:14 and Luke 1:35 teach that Jesus received His divine nature at conception, and other passages teach the full deity of Christ from the beginning of His human existence.5 Jesus already had the fullness of the Spirit dwelling within since He was God Himself. His baptism simply served a public announcement and a symbolic anointing to inaugurate His earthly ministry.
The Bible does speak of the Son not knowing the time of the Second Coming (Mark 13:32), but it also records how Jesus read thoughts, observed Nathanael supernaturally, and foretold the future. Perhaps we could say the human mind was not omniscient, but had the omniscience of the Spirit available at any time. Or perhaps we should not try to distinguish the human mind sharply from the Spirit, but should understand Mark 13:32 as follows: In His role as the Son Jesus did not know all things, but as God He did.
Could Jesus Sin?
This question is more theoretical than practical, more speculative than substantive, since Jesus did not sin. The human part of Jesus, when viewed alone, theoretically had the capacity to sin, just as Adam had originally. Christ’s humanity always willingly submitted to His deity, however, and God cannot sin or be tempted to sin. As a practical matter, Jesus-viewed as the union of humanity and deity that He was- could not sin, for the Spirit was always in control.
If we say Jesus could have sinned then we undercut His absolute deity, for God cannot sin. If we nevertheless imagine His humanity attempting to sin, then we must imagine the Spirit of God departing immediately and the humanity dying, for God cannot participate in sin. If we say Jesus could have sinned and continued living as a sinful man, then somehow God could have existed apart from Jesus and vice versa. This destroys both Christ’s essential deity and the inseparable union of deity and humanity in Christ.
Although as God Jesus could not sin, this does not mean the temptations were meaningless. Since Jesus was also fully human He actually felt the struggle and pull of temptation as we do. Similarly, Jesus did not have a sinful nature (with its compulsion to sin) as we do, yet this does not detract from the reality of what he experienced. He overcame temptation, not as God in Himself, but as a human with the power of God available to Him. He knows by human experience exactly how we feel when we are tempted. He knew He would be victorious through the Spirit, but this does not detract from the real agony He experienced. We also experience real temptation though we too can have supernatural power to resist and can have assurance of victory.
Many trinitarian theologians agree that Jesus was impeccable (incapable of sinning) because He was truly God. Because He was man He could be tempted, but because He was also God He would certainly resist temptation:
The idea that temptability implies susceptibility is unsound. While the temptation may be real, there may be infinite power to resist that temptation … A person who cannot sin, it is said, cannot be tempted to sin. This is not correct; any more than it would be correct to say that because an army cannot be conquered, it cannot be attacked …. While the human nature of Christ if left to itself would have been both peccable and temptable, because it was joined to the omnipotent divine nature, the person of Christ was thereby made impeccable …. It is foolish speculation to attempt to decide what the human nature of
Christ would have done if not joined to the divine nature. The fact
remains that the human nature was joined to the divine nature and,
while its own realm was entirely human, it could not involve the person
of Christ in sin.6
Was Christ Stripped of Deity on the Cross?
On the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This cannot describe an actual separation between Christ’s deity and humanity at that time, for we have seen how Scripture teaches the inseparability of the two, even on the cross. If the Spirit of God departed at that moment then Jesus was no longer God-He was not God when He made atonement for our sins. This view would seriously undermine the Oneness identification of Jesus as God. Colossians 2:9 would be incorrect if applied to Calvary.
Some object that God could not coexist with the sin placed on Christ at Calvary. This objection does not take into account that Christ’s whole life, not just His last minute, was a substitutionary, redemptive work. Moreover, He did not become a sinner or receive a mysterious substance of sin on His body. He received the punishment for man’s sins. He became the sacrifice for sin-the sin offering.
Christ’s cry on the cross simply expressed genuine human feelings. He felt the separation from God that a sinner will feel in the lake of fire as he experiences the full judgment for sin. The Spirit of God still dwelt in Christ but did not protect the humanity from the full brunt of this feeling. Jesus quoted these words from Psalm 22:1. Just as David felt forsaken by God (although God never actually departs from His people), so the man Jesus felt utterly forsaken. Similarly, when Jesus cried, “I thirst” the Spirit had not forsaken Him even though the Spirit could not be thirsty. In both cases, the Spirit simply did not shield the flesh or alleviate its human feelings.
Historical Development of Christology
For the sake of comparison and analysis we will now discuss some prominent Christological views in early church history:7
Ebionitism was a first century Jewish Christian heresy. It denied the virgin birth and the deity of Jesus, teaching that Jesus was only a great prophet empowered by the Spirit. Gnosticism was a first century heresy. A mixture of pagan religion and philosophy, it adopted Christian elements and tried to absorb Christianity. It denied the true humanity of Christ, by Cerinthianism or by Docetism. Cerinthianism held that Jesus and Christ were separate beings. Jesus was a good human being born naturally, while Christ was a spirit that came upon Jesus at His baptism and left before His death. Docetism held that Christ was a spirit being only. He only appeared to have a human body.
Dynamic Monarchianism denied the trinity, but did so by teaching Jesus was a human being who became the Son of God by the indwelling of the impersonal divine reason (the Logos). It refused to consider Jesus as God in the strict sense.
Arius of Alexandria taught that the Logos was the Son and was a divine being like God and created by God. He thus reduced Jesus to a demigod. The Council of Nicea in 325 rejected Arianism as heresy.
Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea, ignited the ancient Christological controversy teaching that Christ had an incomplete humanity-specifically, a human body and soul but not a human spirit. Jesus was solely animated by the divine Spirit (the Logos). The Council of Constantinople in 381 condemned Apollinarianism.
The Antiochean School emphasized the humanity of Christ against Docetism and Apollinarianism. It taught that the Logos dwelt in a human man, describing this as a moral or cooperative union, not a union of essence. Opponents charged that this view made Christ one person in appearance only, destroying the union of the two natures, the Incarnation, and the Atonement.
Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, was the chief exponent of the Antiochean School. He said the Logos resided in the man Jesus as in a house or shrine. The Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned Nestorianism for teaching two persons of Christ, but Nestorius denied the charge. His main purpose was to distinguish between the two natures enough so that one could not call Mary the ” mother of God” but only “God-bearer.” Some theologians, including Luther, have concluded that Nestorius was not as radical as church history has made him and that he was unfairly condemned.
The Alexandrian School emphasized the deity of Christ and the Incarnation. Athanasius, the trinitarian champion of Nicea and the forerunner of this school, taught that Christ had two natures in one person. Ironically, he held that both natures participated equally in all Christ’s work, including the suffering. He also called Mary the mother of God. Later Alexandrians, especially the three Cappadocians, emphasized the union of the two natures. Gregory of Nyssa said that the humanity of Christ was commingled with, and disappeared in, the deity. Cyril of Alexandria, Nestorius’ opponent, emphasized the union of the two natures, held that Christ’s humanity was abstract apart from the deity, and even implied that the two natures were fused in one nature. In a compromise, both Nestorius and Cyril were deposed.
Eutyches renewed the controversy by taking Cyril’s doctrine to extremes, teaching that after the Incarnation Christ had only one nature, a divine-human one. The Council of Chalcedon condemned him.
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 summarized the orthodox view of Christendom: Christ is complete in Godhood and perfect in manhood. Christ has two natures united into one person. Moreover, it called Mary the mother of God.
The Monophysites opposed Chalcedon, teaching that Christ had only one dominate nature after the Incarnation-the divine nature. The Council of Constantinople in 553 condemned them.
The Monothelites taught that Christ had only one will-a divine-human will. The Council of Constantinople in 680 condemned them.
In summary the first six ecumenical councils developed Christology as follows, all in a trinitarian context:
(1) Nicea, 325-Deity of Christ (equal to, but not, the Father).
(2) Constantinople, 381-Perfect humanity of Christ.
(3) Ephesus, 431-Christ is one person.
(4) Chalcedon, 451-Christ has two natures (in one person).
(5) Constantinople, 553-Two natures, but not two “faces.”
(6) Constantinople, 680-Christ has two wills.
Evaluation and Conclusion
How does Oneness Christology relate to these historical doctrines? Clearly we must reject as heresy Gnosticism. including Cerinthianism and Docetism, because it denies the true humanity of Jesus Christ. We must also reject as heresy Ebionitism, Dynamic Monarchianism, and Arianism because they detract from or destroy the absolute deity of Jesus Christ. Trinitarians sometimes falsely accuse Oneness believers of these doctrines through misunderstanding. For example, Oneness believers speak of the Son’s subordination to the Father, but they only mean Christ’s humanity is subordinate to His deity, and do not thereby detract from Christ’s deity.
Occasionally an isolated voice in the Oneness movement will echo a thought from these heresies. For example, some say Christ became fully God or fully aware of His deity at His baptism. Or, God created the Logos at a certain time or gave it some form of substantive existence prior to Bethlehem. We must repudiate any such statements.
The Christology of Apollinaris is also incorrect because it fails to do justice to Christ’s humanity. Since Oneness strongly emphasizes Christ’s deity, occasionally some Oneness believers unintentionally sound Apollinarian, such as when they say, “Jesus is God in a human body.” We should carefully qualify any such statements so as to affirm Christ’s perfect humanity. A few Oneness believers actually refuse to acknowledge His perfect humanity. For example, some say Christ did not need to pray but did so only as our example. Such views are not heretical, since they do accept that Christ came in the flesh in some sense, but they are still deficient and unbiblical.
Eutycheanism, Monophysitism, and Monothelitism make sense only in a trinitarian context. One can effectively argue that Christ had just one nature or one will only by explaining the distinction between Father and Son as a duality of persons in the Godhead.
Nestorius was right to teach a clear distinction between Christ’s deity and humanity, and he correctly rejected the title of “mother of God” for Mary. This does not mean we should embrace Nestorius’ position totally, at least as his opponents have reported it. We must reject the implication in his theology that the Spirit could have departed at will, leaving Christ to live as a man only. We must reject any idea that the Spirit dwelt in Christ in the same way that the Spirit dwells in believers.
Oneness does distinguish between Christ’s deity and humanity more than trinitarianism does, such as in its explanation of Christ’s prayers. Some Oneness believers erroneously sacrifice the union of Christ’s deity and humanity in a manner similar to Nestorius, by saying Christ could have sinned and lived, or the Spirit left Christ before His death, or Christ had a sinful nature. Michael Servetus, a type of Oneness believer in the 1500’s, rejected Chalcedon just as he rejected Nicea. There are several independent Oneness Pentecostal teachers who explicitly affirm that there are two persons in Jesus Christ. David Reed’s dissertation on Oneness Pentecostalism concluded that its Christology is Nestorian. On the whole, Oneness Christology sounds somewhat more Nestorian than trinitarian Christology does, but it does not and should not accept Nestorianism in toto.
The Council of Chalcedon expressed the important truth that Christ’s humanity and deity are each real and complete, but inseparable. Christ did not have two separate personalities that could be split apart, and the phrase “two persons” seems to do just that. On the other hand, Chalcedon’s trinitarian orientation and use of the phrase “mother of God” are clearly incorrect. If carefully developed and qualified, the basic idea of Chalcedon is compatible with Oneness Christology.
Actually Oneness believers do not look to the creeds for doctrine but to Scripture alone. While we can find important truths both in the Council of Chalcedon and in Nestorianism, neither is adequate. Therefore, we should avoid the nonbiblical, trinitarian language of the traditional creeds. In particular, we should use neither “nature” nor “person” in the technical theological sense. Instead we should state our Christology in the form of several biblical affirmations. We can identify four major themes in the biblical material on the Incarnation: (1) the absolute and complete deity of Jesus Christ; (2) the perfect, sinless humanity of Jesus Christ; (3) the clear distinction between the humanity and the deity in Jesus Christ; and yet (4) the inseparable union of deity and humanity in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we can summarize biblical Christology as follows: Jesus Christ is the fulness of God dwelling in perfect humanity and manifesting Himself as a perfect human being. Jesus is not the transmutation of God into flesh, the manifestation of a portion of God, the animation of a human body by God, or God temporarily dwelling in a separate human person. Jesus Christ is the incarnation-embodiment, human personification-of the one God.
1. Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; John 20:28; Acts 20:28; 11 Corinthians 4:4; 5:19; Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 3:16; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 1:3; II Peter 1:1.
2. For scriptural references see David Bernard, The Oneness of God (Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame Press, 1983), pp. 86-87.
3. Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (San Fran-cisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 1, 138-39.
4. Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology, rev. ed.(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), p. 223.
5. Micah 5:2; Matthew 1:23; 2:11; Luke 2:26, 38; Hebrews 1:6.
6. Pentecost, Dwight, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), pp. 98-99. The first sentence quotes John Walvoord; the rest is quoted from William G. T Shedd.
7. For a description of these doctrines see Otto Heick, A History of Christian Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965) and Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1937).
by James E. Roam
The author is to be commended for his excellent dissertation on Oneness Christology. He has skillfully dissected this subject. Unquestionably, it has taken a tremendous amount of his time and study. In responding to this paper from a pastor’s view, several points particularly deserve reemphasis. At the same time, there are some questions that should be raised.
“The Oneness Pentecostal Movement as a whole has given inadequate attention to the nature of the union of deity and humanity in Jesus Christ.” This is a key point. As we understand, and we are able to help our saints understand, the humanity and deity of Jesus Christ, a lot of their questions will be answered. Understanding the humanity and deity that is united in the Lord Jesus Christ is the most important factor in “Oneness Christology.”
“It is possible and indeed likely for someone to obey John 3:5 and Acts 2:38 without a theologically accurate understanding of the Oneness doctrine.” This, too, is very important. It is true that our Oneness doctrine is a marvelous and wonderful truth, and we should be studying it as we are here, but there are many people in our churches who do not yet understand the Oneness of God. They need more teaching, just as we are receiving more teaching today. We would do well if we would spendas much time in trying to reach the lost as we do in trying to impress the saved. Maybe we really need to determine that touching the lives of the lost really is the bottom line, and not be as interested in “unsaving” people. We need to be grateful for the revelation they have, and the truths they have received. It would be well if we would appreciate anything God has revealed of Himself to anyone anywhere, not as a complete revelation of God, for none of us can claim to have the ultimate revelation of God.
“Temptation does not require a sinful nature because Satan tempted Adam and Eve in their state of innocence.” This is a wonderful thing for us to understand. There is such a thing as temptation. Christ went through temptation and our people need to understand that. This shows a practical side of theology. This is something we all understand through experience. Our studies here can become very practical. There are nuggets of truth in all of these presentations that could be given to our people that would help them to be better Christians, and to be able to handle all of the difficulties (if living in an ungodly world.”Oneness believers are sometimes careless in their Christology bringing ridicule on their doctrine by improper use of terminology. Many use the title God when only Christ’s humanity is in view.” It is important that we know how to present our understanding of the Oneness of God so that our people can understand it. We do not want to bring confusion into the minds of our people or into the minds of people who do not understand our position. We sometimes over-accent a point. As a result we are losing the person we are trying to reach by saying such things as, “God died on the Cross, God rose from the dead, Jesus prayed to Himself,” and so on.
“His humanity was elevated in a total union with deity. He did not lose the distinctiveness of His humanity, but His humanity was joined with and submerged in deity in a way not true of any other man. His words speak of a permanent, inseparable, essential union.” This is one of the areas that need further examination. What does it mean to say that the union of humanity and deity of Christ was ” permanent and inseparable:’ and is this description accurate?
“It seems likely that the Spirit imparted to the human brain as much as that brain could physically comprehend and no more. While the Spirit of God was aware at all times of His divine plan the young child gradually grew into this awareness.” Trying to find a point, a magical moment, when the man Christ Jesus became suddenly aware of His deity is very difficult. The author’s willingness to confront this question is to be appreciated. His answer certainly sounds logical.
Could Jesus sin? “The fact remains that the human nature was joined to the divine nature and while its own realm -was entirely human it could not involve the person of Christ in sin.” This seems like a very logical point, and it certainly should be a point for us to discuss.
“Was Christ stripped of deity on the Cross? On the Cross Jesus cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46). This cannot describe an actual separation between Christ’s deity and humanity at that time. . He did not become a sinner or receive a mysterious substance of sin on His body. He received the punishment for man’s sins.” The idea that Christ only received the punishment for sin but did not receive sin is questionable. How can this be reconciled with 11 Corinthians 5:21: “For He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin”?
The notes on the historical development of Christology are excellent and give adequate documentation for his presentation.
Finally, it is important to recognize, as the paper has done, that Scripture ultimately must determine our doctrine and our creeds. That is the ultimate source. We have referred to a lot of sources, many books and a tremendous amount of study into history. God’s Word is the ultimate authority. Someone has said, “Nothing in conflict with Scripture can be true; nothing in addition to Scripture can be binding; and nothing less than Scripture can be pleasing.” This most certainly applies to all study of Christology, the Oneness of God and all the other subjects that are a part of this symposium.
The paper ends with this very powerful conclusion: “Jesus Christ is the fulness of God dwelling in perfect humanity and manifesting Himself at a perfect human being. Jesus is not the transmutation of God into flesh, the manifestation of a portion of God, the animation of a human body by God or God temporarily dwelling in a separate human person. Jesus Christ is the incarnation embodiment, human personification-of the one God.” This is a powerful and true statement and a fitting conclusion to a superb presentation.
James E. Roam is co-pastor of New Life Pentecostal Church in Bridgeton, Missouri.
David K. Bernard is the Associate Editor in the Editorial Division of the United Pentecostal Church International and the author of six books and numerous articles. He received his Bachelor of Arts magna cum laude from Rice University, received his Doctor of Jurisprudence with honors from the University of Texas, and studied at Wesley Biblical Seminary. At the time of the symposium, he was the Assistant Vice President of Jackson College of Ministries.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED IN A PAPER GIVEN AT THE 1986 ONENESS SYMPOSIUM IN ST. LOUIS, MO, BY DAVID K. BERNARD, PP. 119-149. THIS MATERIAL MAY BE USED FOR STUDY AND RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.