Oneness Pentecostalism: Problems and Possibilities for Pentecostal Theology

Oneness Pentecostalism:

Problems and Possibilities for Pentecostal Theology
A Paper Presented at the
Theology stream
Orlando ’95
Congress on the Holy Spirit and World Evangelization
Orlando, Florida
July 26-29, 1995
David A. Reed, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology
Wycliffe College, Toronto

Problems and Possibilities for Pentecostal Theology
by David A. Reed

I. Introduction

Pentecostals are no strangers to high drama. Once labeled “high voltage religion”,(1) we need only recall the vivid images of Pentecostal “events” — exuberant singing, dionysian dancing, being slain in the Spirit, dramatic healings. Perhaps due to the highly public nature of these events, the outside observer may find it difficult to imagine Pentecostals engaging in the negative theatre of bitter controversy.

The fact is that early Pentecostals were a Movement being birthed, with all the instability and experimentation which that entails. They faced challenges, engaged in battles both theological and moral, made decisions, sometimes reconciled, often split, and occasionally excommunicated.
One such schismatic moment which had profound consequences for the future of Pentecostalism was the expulsion of the emerging anti-trinitarian, “New Issue” group from the fellowship of the Assemblies of God. This occurred at its Fourth General Council in October, 1916, when the fledgling organization was barely two years old.

Of all the splits experienced during these early years, none carried the sting of heresy so deeply as this one. It was in part due to the aggressive battle fought by J. Roswell Flower, one of the young leaders within the fellowship. He had become convinced that the New Issue was nothing less than a recurrence of the ancient heresy of Sabellianism. By 1916 a Trinitarian majority secured its doctrine with an elaborate restatement of Nicene theology embedded in the well-drafted “Statement of Fundamental Truths”.

The depth of the rift is demonstrated in subsequent Pentecostal history. Oneness Pentecostals did not disappear. They developed into the third main stream of global Pentecostals — with an estimated strength in the United States of one million, and five million worldwide.(2) But Oneness Pentecostals have had minimal involvement in any wider Pentecostal fellowship.(3) They were not members of the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America. Even with the 1994 event of Pentecostal reconciliation in which the PFNA was dissolved to create a new inter-racial body, OPs(4) were conspicuous by their absence. Some evangelical scholars classify the movement and its doctrine as heretical.(5) It is called a “dangerous” and “harmful” heresy by the author of the only book on OPs by a major Christian publisher .(6) OP is consistently classified as a heresy or a cult by the Christian Research Institute and its associates.

In this paper I propose a different interpretive scheme from the one just presented. I am trinitarians. I do not view the pre-Nicene Fathers as proto-Oneness believers. I disagree with much of the Oneness exegesis in its positivistic approach. But I believe there is a more helpful way to interpret OPs. In order to make the transition from the “heresy” paradigm to another, a brief reflection on the relationship between heresy and orthodoxy is appropriate.

II. The Heresy Paradigm
Heresy is a complex thing, and frequently well lodged in the eye of the beholder. The task of this paper is not to dissect a heresy or identify its constituent elements. I do believe that heresies are real and can be destructive to the life of the Church. My intention is not to deny the reality of heresy, but to affirm caution. Disciplined listening to the other is a necessary and moral dimension of discerning truth when faced with the beliefs and behavior of that other. It is my view that this particular other called OP lends itself to an interpretation that is at least more nuanced than the one described above.

The complexity of heresy manifests itself in a number of ways which have the potential to pollute the truth being defended.

First, the end result of an orthodox position may in fact be polluted by over-reaction to a perceived threat. In its resisting, the lines of “orthodoxy” can be drawn too clearly and too narrowly.
For instance, it is possible to interpret the conclusions of the Fourth General Council as reactive. The Statement on the “Essentials of the Godhead” is perhaps one of the finest restatements of Nicene theology in this century. But it stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the initial call for organization just two years earlier — no creed would be imposed that would bind the consciences of its members.(7)

The reaction to Servetus by Calvin and other magisterial Reformers is not dissimilar. Prior to his appearance, the Reformers tended to be impatient with the technical language of the creeds. Melanchthon questioned whether belief in the Trinity was even essential to salvation. Calvin ignored the doctrine in his earliest editions of The Institutes. But Servetus’ challenge and popularity resulted in swift retaliation and an excommunication-by-execution, a blemish from which the Protestant movement did not recover for some time.(8) It is fairly clear, in retrospect, that Servetus was not understood by his persecutors. He was less interested in demolishing the essential doctrine of the Trinity than its Greek formulations, and more concerned to establish a doctrine of God based upon Scripture alone, and Jewish categories of thought in particular.(9)

Of course it is possible to interpret the Fourth General Council’s decision, the Reformers’ stand, and the creedal formulations developmentally. This is the traditional view which is still held by most Roman Catholics, Orthodox and some Anglicans. But it seems less true to the character of Evangelical Protestants to embrace the Creeds so passionately, and to take the enemies of creedal orthodoxy as their own, even when identified by mere resemblance.(10) This is the position of evangelical scholar, Harold O. J. Brown regarding the creedal doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ: “If they are essential today . . . it must be because they are true. If they are true, then they must always have been true.”(11) The conviction is that what became explicit in the fourth century was implicit in the first.

An alternative interpretation, and one which commends itself more to me, is that what was later identified as orthodoxy evolved out of first-century diversity, not embryonic homogeneity.

Kenneth Gill, a scholar on the Mexican Oneness movement, notes a further complication — that “some of the views considered to be heretical in the second century were tolerated by first-century Christians. “(12) According to one scholar, Thomas Robinson, first century Christians were not necessarily exclusionary but operated within a “pool of acceptable diversity.”(13) That pool shrunk steadily until, of the three early theological traditions — Greek, Latin and Hebrew Christian — Hebrew Christianity disappeared completely.(14) Lack of theoretical and linguistic development, the influence of Hellenism, and an anti-Semitic spirit have been suggested as contributing factors to its disappearance.

James D. G. Dunn, NT scholar, shares this opinion that the earliest Christian materials exhibit such diversity as to make the orthodoxy-heresy classification meaningless. Consequently, he prefers to speak of “unity” and “diversity”.(15) He also notes that, as a result of “careful exegesis of scripture”, his “biblical” conclusion clashes with views of those who hold to “cherished orthodoxies”, but which is itself “more faithful to scripture”. Ironically, some of these “orthodox” views are so tightly drawn that they “subsequently should have been regarded as a hereby.”(16)

Second, heterodox beliefs and practices should at least initially be regarded as family matters rather than intrusions by strangers. Heretics are more “us” than we would readily acknowledge. Four corollaries follow from this. First, by prematurely banishing them from our fellowship, we miss what God may be saying to the church in their often garbled, coded dialect.
It is bordering on the axiomatic to say that the rejected heretics of one generation become the prophets of the next. If such groups are the “unpaid bills of the church”, it would be immoral indeed to stick them with the bill! It is we who may be as unfaithful as they. Our excommunicating action may have less to do with truth than with, in Colin Gunton’s words, “endangering . . . the seamless unity of the institution. “(17) Gunton points out that heresies are those protest movements which have kept alive the “free, dynamic, personal and particular agency of the Spirit,” in the face of an institution which has too frequently appropriated to itself the sole possession of that Spirit.

The persecution of Pentecostals by Evangelicals and Fundamentalists will not be lost on Pentecostal memories. Not only was there much derision from the beginning (including criticism for the mixing of the races). As late as 1928 Pentecostals were rejected by the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association as “unscriptural” and “a menace in many churches and a real injury to sane testimony of Fundamental Christians. “(18)

The second corollary is that, even when there is evidence of unfaithfulness, exclusion is not necessarily the appropriate action. As George Lindbeck points out: “Heretical groups are more and more regarded as not really the church at all. They are not seen after the fashion of the ancient prophets as the adulterous spouse whom the Lord may cast out for a time but without divorcing.”(19)

The third corollary is that the matter of faithfulness may be compromised by cultural imperialism, as unintentional as it may be. Each person hears the other through his or her particular social and linguistic history. But thoughtless and careless judgments result in cultural imperialism, not purity of truth. With the demise of Hebrew Christianity, a world of understanding was lost between Gentile Christianity and its Jewish roots. Prior to its disappearance, Gill observes that “Hebrew Christians understood Jesus to be the fulfillment of the hopes of Judaism rather than a radical departure from it. “(20)

This compels one to press questions about faithfulness to the continuity between Israel and the Church. I have hinted that some movements throughout history, for all their supposed “heresy”, have demonstrated a greater degree of commitment to the biblical vision of the one People of God than the orthodox Christendom whose reputation has been smeared more than once by flagrant anti-Semitism.(21)

Fourth and finally, patience with new ideas provides fledgling movements opportunity to experiment and mature within the context of family conversation. This is the intention of the Mexican Oneness leader, Manuel Gaxiola, in his appeal to the wider church for “theological space”. A new insight, possibly from an impulse of the Spirit, less than a century old, born among the masses, cannot make its presentation with the sophistication of a doctrine that has had centuries of linguistic refinement. As Gill points out, Gaxiola is merely requesting that his church “not be rejected as heretical or Unitarian, but be accepted as a sincere group of believers who are attempting to be faithful to the Christian Scriptures. “(22)

The added disadvantage for any movement which seeks to build bridges into Hebrew Christianity is that memory and infrastructure are lost within the wider Church. The result is usually impatience, misunderstanding and, at worst, rejection.

The higher calling for the Church is to help bring its youngest to theological speech. The Church cannot expect the younger to speak the dialect of the elder. And it must assume that it too has much to learn from the younger. In the end one prays that both will become theologically bilingual — unified where the earliest Christians were unified, and respectful of the diversity of dialects.
A necessary task at this point is to introduce briefly at least the contours of Oneness Pentecostalism.

III. Oneness Pentecostal Theology — A Synopsis
The distinctive theology of OPs is for me best construed as a twentieth-century appropriation, or better, adaptation, of themes drawn from specifically Jewish Christian NT materials. The unifying centre of this proto-christocentric theology is situated in the name of Jesus as the revelational and proper name of God for the new covenant.

This singular name reveals a God who is one, in ways more compatible with the Jewish monotheism of the OT. In reaction to the incipient tritheism of much of popular trinitarians belief, OPs are passionate to preserve a witness to the radical unity of God, not for membership in a monotheistic society, but to bear the full weight of the revelation of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the name of Jesus is hypostatically united to the person of Jesus, whereby the very nature and character of God can be claimed to be present in him.

The “trinitarians” aspect of God is limited to God in his revelation, an economic Trinity. OPs choose to speak of three manifestations, functions, or offices, rather than distinct “persons” within the Godhead.
Christologically, OPs reject the traditional trinitarians belief that Jesus is the incarnation of the second person in the Trinity. Rather, he is the incarnation of the one God revealed to Israel — Yahweh. The result is a rather labored effort to fit this understanding into the traditional two-nature theory.

The soteriology of OPs finds its most distinctive expression in its paradigmatic use of Acts 2:38. The threefold answer given by Peter to those who sought to know how to respond to the good news — repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit — is interpreted within the multi-tiered “full gospel” theology inherited from the Wesleyan tradition.(23) The core praxis for all OPs is baptism in the name of Jesus (for reasons noted above). At this point, Oneness interpretation diverges into two main streams. There are those who interpret Acts 2:38 as the model for Christian initiation.(24) For them, water baptism in the name of Jesus and the Pentecostal experience of Spirit-baptism with speaking in tongues, are constituent components of the new birth. The second group interprets the text in terms of subsequence, in which conversion/new birth occurs through repentance and faith in Christ.

Baptism in the name of Jesus and Spirit-baptism are subsequent elements of the “fuller” gospel in which persons should walk as they “see the light”. This latter view is more compatible with the interpretation of Spirit-baptism of other Pentecostals — as empowerment for mission.

The doctrinal challenges of OP for traditional Christianity are fourfold. First, its doctrine of God oversteps the boundary of the orthodox, creedal formulations. Second, its christology is awkward and carries overtones of Nestorian separation of the two natures. Third, its theology of the name of Jesus is almost totally unfamiliar to other Christians, and understood less! Finally, its insistence upon baptism and rebaptism in Jesus’ name is offensive to most trinitarians Christians, especially when accompanied by its supporting Oneness theology.

The task to which we now turn is a limited one: to propose a route from here to there, and from there to here — a road on which both Trinitarian and Oneness believers can journey together.

IV. A “Jewish Christian” Paradigm

The praxis of Acts 2:38 by OPs, especially their insistence upon water baptism in Jesus’ name, is the least understood and most offensive aspect of their fundamental belief. Historically, it was a baptismal sermon which precipitated the initial “revelation” in 1913.

Frank Ewart, one of the chief architects of the doctrine, later recorded the process by which the Oneness theology was developed in his own thinking: it began with water baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, which then led him to an understanding of the name of Jesus as the revelational name of God, and subsequently to the doctrine of the non-hypostatic unity of the nature of God.(25)

Therefore, the route mapped out below will begin on common ground and lead to the most treasured (by Oneness), enigmatic (by disinterested observers), and troublesome (by interested Trinitarians) aspect of Oneness theology and praxis. The five route markers will be presented in the form of five theses.
Thesis 1: Both Trinitarian and Oneness theologian. can find common ground in a keryqmtic understanding of revelation. It has been a consistent criticism by OPs that much of the inherited trinitarian theology is laden with creedal baggage which, in their view, has hindered a fresh reading of the biblical account. Whatever its intention, classical theology indeed has paid more attention to Athens and Berlin than to Jerusalem.(26)

But in recent years an alternative more satisfactory to both sides has emerged. Here I refer to what is called kerygmatic theology, a theology of revelation grounded in scripture . Kerygmatic theology stands over against two other possibilities. One is dogmatic theology, defined as those statements which emerged within the first centuries of Christianity in response to heresies and other religious expressions.(27) The other is scholasticism and fundamental theology, which establish at least some aspects of human knowledge of God in reason or common human experience.
By contrast, kerygmatic theology implies that knowledge of the being and ways of God is to be found in God’s own gracious act, which is ” God’s supreme self-disclosure in and as Jesus Christ.”(28)

All theological statements must be “established solely through the historical person of Jesus rather than through humanly conceived philosophical structures and categories.”(29) James Dunn even makes the bold statement that he finds the “definition of Christianity more clearly provided by the NT than by the creeds of Catholic Christendom.”(30)
This direction, stimulated largely in Protestant thought by the work of Karl Barth, has been recently followed by theologians seeking to ground the doctrine of the Trinity in the biblical materials.(31) As John Thompson states, “It is one of the great merits of Karl Barth and of Eastern theology that they start with revelation, understand the Trinity in this light, and seek to eschew all philosophical or other approaches prior to speaking and thinking of God as triune.”(32)

There are significant differences between Pentecostals and the Neo-Orthodox theologians. But they do share this common conviction — the sole source of authority in Scripture, and a core christocentric vision. Consequently, biblical theology becomes the medium of theological discourse.
This is certainly true for Oneness theology. Oneness author, David Bernard, confirms the sentiment of the whole movement when he writes that “The Bible is the sole authority for doctrine and instruction in salvation.”(33) Trinitarian Pentecostals share this same conviction, in particular because they have no history in Protestant Scholasticism, except through their relationship with other Evangelicals.

A kerygmatic approach provides one illustration of how it differs from the scholastic way to establishing the oneness of God. In scholasticism, particularly Thomas Aquinas, God’s oneness or essence (with its attributes) is established by reason, and the Son and Spirit by revelation. Barth, on the other hand, insists that Scripture will not allow God to be separated, with the Father relegated to the “forecourt of the Gentiles.”(34) Both Oneness and kerygmatic theologians would agree with Barth that the starting point for understanding God and God’s ways is revelation.
Through the influence of the kerygmatic movement a common ground has been established. Whatever the conclusions, both Oneness and kerygmatic Trinitarian theologians share, (1) a single, common source of authority in scripture (with its non-philosophical basis), and (2) a christocentric vision which orders reality.

Thesis 2: The NT materials contain theologically legitimate ideas and practices identified as “Jewish Christian” rewarding God and the Person and work of Jesus. Following the work of Jean Danielou(35) and Richard Longenecker,(36) and more recently James Dunn(37) and Larry Hurtado,(38) one can now trace at least the contours of earliest Jewish Christianity. These first Christians knew themselves to be the People of God, and to be in continuity with Israel. When they encountered the risen Christ, they drew upon a “conceptual frame of reference and expressions rooted in Semitic thought generally and Judaism in particular.”(39)

These efforts in christological thinking were premised. First, neither Judaism nor early Jewish Christian thought was uniform. While these Christians were united in their devotion to Christ — even worship of him(40) — there was diversity in theology and practice.

Second, even within their Semitic worldview there were concepts which “carried ontological overtones.”(41) The presence and character of Yahweh was believed to be present in such vehicles of revelation as the Shekinah, the Angel of the Lord and the Name of God. In the NT, one Matthean scholar describes Matthew’s Christology as a Christology of divine presence.”(42) Dunn holds the view that Wisdom implies both pre-existence and deity, yet without violating Judaism’s monotheistic convictions.(43)

Third, the God of Jewish monotheism at this time was not a solitary deity. Such concepts of Word, Wisdom and Spirit in the OT suggest a more dynamic view of God in revelation. But to imply that these are more than personifications risks pressing later Trinitarian ideas beyond that which the Jewish evidence can bear.(44) As Dunn points out, the personalistic language is “a convenient way of speaking about God acting in creation, revelation and salvation.”(45) In christological language closer to Oneness views than classical Trinitarian, Dunn states: “Christ fully embodies the creative and saving activity of God, that God in all his fullness was in him, that he represents and manifests all that God is in his outreach to men.”(46)

I am suggesting that diversity of thought, even christological thought, is not necessarily heretical. Within these Jewish Christian categories of thought there may be potential for theological development. And finally, it is not necessary to move outside Jewish categories in order to be “biblically” orthodox. However, when distinctly Jewish themes and motifs are removed from their original context, they are frequently forgotten, misunderstood, reinterpreted, or occasionally “rediscovered”.

It is my view that Oneness theology represents a “rediscovery” of themes and practices which bear legitimacy from within the earliest Christian experience. But those insights are filtered through the cultural context and creative mind of the discoverer -often distorting aspects of the original insight in the process.(47)

Overlooking the distortions for the moment, it can be argued that the Oneness modalistic interpretation of the Trinity bears more similarity to the Jewish idea of personification than it does to the hypostatically distinct persons of Greek theology. The dominant oneness view is that God is three-in-revelation and one-in-being, an economic trinity at best.

It is a good hermeneutical principle when attempting to overcome blocks to communication first to identify what is being opposed. With that object removed, the way is open for constructive conversation. For OPs, the objection in the doctrine of the Trinity is the belief that God exists in three separate and distinct centres of consciousness. And there is ample evidence, especially in popular religion, to warrant concern, Jimmy Swaggart being a case in point: “You can think of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost as three different persons exactly as you would think of any three other people.”(48) A warning from Dunn is similar, that if we are to think of “person” in the modern sense, “then Christianity is unavoidably tritheistic. “(49) In other words, eliminate as forthrightly as possible the stated object of opposition — the perception of tritheism — and be mutually open to creative alternatives and theological equivalencies.

Thesis 3: Within this theologically legitimate Jewish Christian reality there is a theology of the Name of God. One of the ways in which Yahweh revealed himself to Israel was through his Name. Numerous studies agree that, in the Ancient Near East, one’s name revealed and embodied the character and personality of the person. In the OT, “Yahweh” (the tetragrammaton) was God’s “proper” and revealed name which he made known to Israel as a sign that they were his People and he was their God.
What is significant for our purpose is the conspicuous absence of this understanding of the Name in later Christian theology. It is to Emil Brunner’s credit that he has brought it to our attention.(50) He observes that, not only was the idea of the “Name of God” neglected through much of the history of Christian thought, but when it was given attention by speculative theologians, it was misunderstood and denigrated as primitive anthropomorphism. “I AM THAT I AM” became a category of essence, instead of the biblical God as he “comes forth in revelation.”(51)

Brunner makes his point by replacing the traditional scholastic treatment of the attributes of God with a discussion of “The Name of God.”(52) He briefly addresses the rudimentary elements of a Name theology grounded exclusively in revelation–emphasizing divine initiative, personal I-Thou encounter, and the creation of personal communion with those to whom God reveals God’s name.

The implications for christology are significant. Longenecker points out that it is in the earliest Jewish Christian materials of the NT that one finds “an almost exclusive use of ‘the name’ as a christological designation.”(53) Furthermore, the “Name” indicates ontological considerations. For Brunner, “the Name of God means the indissoluble unity of the nature of God with the revelation. . . . The Nature of God is the will to impart Himself.”(54) Second, the Name is a means of revealing the nature of God finally and fully in Jesus. Again Brunner states, “The Name of God is only completely revealed where God comes to us personally in Jesus Christ.”(55)

Brunner fails, however, to notice a renewed interest in the names and titles of God among certain evangelicals in the late nineteenth century. In reaction to a perceived threat to the deity of Christ by liberalism, they turned, not to the creeds, but to a study of the biblical names of God which the earliest Christians applied to Jesus. Their work provided, in part, a foundation for early Oneness theology.(56)

A theology of the Name, then, constitutes part of a biblical theology of revelation, pointing to the event of God’s self disclosure. As such it is an aspect of the theology of the covenant, whereby the People of God know themselves to be a People of the Name.

It is this sustained attention to the Name one finds in oneness theology, but which is missing in much of traditional theology. I am not convinced that OPs have handled this distinctive theology in the most theologically responsible way, or have explored some of its more interesting implications. But that they hold to a theology of the Name which in significant aspects accords with the accounts of the OT and the earliest Jewish Christian materials is demonstrable. It is on this ground that the conversation continues.

But what is this Name for Christians?

Thesis 4: The Name of Jesus is a discernible and valid christological designation within NT Jewish Christian materials. A brief survey of studies on christological titles shows that most scholars treat “Jesus” as the name of the man from Nazareth; and the various titles which accrued to him point to divine function or nature.

Oneness theology, in contrast — and here is the source of confusion for many — holds that the name “Jesus” is itself God’s own proper and revelatory name for the new covenant. As Bernard states, “The name Jesus encompasses everything the OT reveals about God.”(57) As such. the name designates, not his humanity, but his deity. The titles such as “Lord” and “Christ” are interpreted in much the same way as traditional Trinitarians.
It has been pointed out by Longenecker, Danielou and others, that the name of Jesus as a christological designation appears primarily in the Jewish Christian materials. Matthew’s Gospel is a case in point, in which “there is emphasis upon the name of Jesus such as is not found in the other Synoptics.”(58) With reference to the name “Lord” in Phil. 2:9-11, Longenecker suggests that, for early Jewish christology, “it would be truer since Jesus is the name of God [emphasis mine], . . . to say that evidencing the presence and power of God, it is appropriate that the OT title for God [Lord] be his as well.(59)

The name of Jesus was a way of identifying the presence of the risen Lord with the mission of the earliest Christians. They preached, healed, gathered, prayed and baptized in that name. Through the invocation of the name of Jesus, they knew themselves to be in relation to God and God’s mission.(60) As Dunn points out, “The name of Jesus was used in the same way as the name of God or of a heavenly being.(61)

Although this Christology of the name of Jesus has a definite history within the earliest Jewish Christian circles, it soon disappeared. The reasons are only speculative. Danielou suggests it was due to its “richness in Jewish tradition.”(62) Longenecker believes that it eventually may have been regarded as subordinationist, or in Greek circles, “been considered equivalent to the Greek ousia.”(63) Its disappearance, however, creates the new possibility of rediscovery, and with it the sectarian championing of a Christology poised to compete with views considered inferior.(64) It is not unlikely that this is precisely the story of Oneness Pentecostalism.

But a sectarian spirit does not necessarily legitimize ostracization. It is possible to affirm insights central to the Oneness vision which are part of the earliest Christian witness, and which in fact deepen our own understanding of Jesus in light of the whole biblical account. OPs, on the other hand, face the proposal that the validity of one scriptural tradition does not in itself exclude the possibility of others, in specific, when their presence within the same canon is demonstrated.

Thesis 5: Water baptism in the name of Jesus (or one of its variations) is biblically legitimate. and ought to be accepted as a Genuine alternative to the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28:39. Here we arrive at the heart of the most offensive aspect of Oneness teaching — its insistence upon baptism in the name of Jesus as the only valid formula. The choice of the singular name is not itself a major hurdle. The obstacle lay primarily with the exclusive use of that formula and its equally exclusive doctrine. Even the early Assemblies of God defender, Carl Brumback, acknowledged the possibility for greater fellowship if these barriers were removed.(65)

It is generally recognized in current NT scholarship that the first Christians baptized using some form of the name of Jesus. Whether the formula in Matthew 28:19 is original with Jesus is debatable, but does not bear directly upon the issue here. In Acts the formula is obviously fluid, a point not lost on Brumback in opposing the Oneness use of the combination, “Lord Jesus Christ.”(66) OPs respond that the proper name is Jesus, while the christological titles “Christ” and “Lord” set him apart from others by that name, and designate his divine function and status.(67)

Lars Hartman, in examining the context of the baptismal phrase, “into the Name of Jesus”, concludes that “we can be quite certain that this baptism was given ‘into the name of Jesus’ or, at least, that it was referred to as a baptism ‘into the name of Jesus.'”(68) Given the early Jewish Christian context of the phrase, he further deduces that its practice in baptism carried convictions which are rooted in semitic thought, yet “implied a rather ‘high’ christology.”(69)

Larry Hurtado, in his study of early Christian devotion, likewise draws a connection between baptism and the use of the phrase, “into the name of Jesus.”(70) During an extensive discussion that Jesus Christ is the basis and goal of baptism, Karl Barth affirms — perhaps even prefers — the theological appropriateness of the phrase, “into Jesus Christ”, by suggesting the reason for its displacement by the obligatory trinitarians formula was “for the sake of ecumenical peace even though its exegetical, dogmatic and theological necessity cannot be demonstrated..”(71)

The uniqueness of Oneness baptismal theology can be found in its interpretation of Acts 2:38. This is the paradigmatic text for Christian identity which, in Dunn’s words, is “the only verse in Acts which directly relates to one another the three most important elements in conversion-initiation: repentance, water-baptism, and the gift of the Spirit.”(72) Also, It is a text which has placed OPs in the middle of a debate between, representatively, James Dunn and Howard Ervin. Dunn argues that Acts 2:38 is the text par excellence of conversion-initiation, synonymous with birth of water and Spirit in John 3:3. Ervin, on the other hand, interprets Spirit-baptism in Acts as subsequent to conversion.

OPs are in agreement with one another that baptism should be administered in the name of Jesus. But there the consensus stops. One view, the dominant position of the United Pentecostal Church, concurs with Dunn’s general conclusion that all three elements in Acts 2:38 belong to conversion-initiation — with the exception that Spirit-baptism is experienced in Pentecostal fashion, with tongues. Jesus’ name baptism and “Pentecostal” Spirit-baptism constitute the new birth, a highly exclusive and confusing doctrine.(73) OPs are often charged with teaching baptismal regeneration because they interpret Acts 2:38 as teaching that the purpose of baptism in Jesus’ name is “the remission of sins”.(74) However, they insist that the efficacy is in the name, not the water. This is closer to the thought of Luther and Calvin, for whom “the promise of the Word in conjunction with the element sufficed.”(75)

The other view is more compatible with Ervin’s, in locating the new birth with conversion and faith in Christ. Spirit-baptism is part of the “fuller” gospel and subsequent to conversion.(76) It is more congenial to the wider Christian community in situating the foundation of the Christian life prior to water and Spirit-baptism, and defining the latter in terms of subsequence.

My point here is twofold: (1) to affirm the biblical and theological (though not necessarily the OP theology) appropriateness of the Oneness practice of baptism in the name of (Lord) Jesus (Christ); and (2) to locate Oneness baptismal theology within the current discussion, identifying the major areas of agreement and divergence.

Oneness commitment to baptism in Jesus’ name can be supported by at least one significant strand of early Christian baptismal practice. And its theology of the Name bears some resemblance to early Jewish Christian theology -which is the basis for a stronger theological argument for Jesus’ name baptism than merely that “we do it because the Apostles did it!” Furthermore, a Jewish Christian theology suggests that the use of the Name is, in some cases, more powerful than the word “authority” implies. The name in some sense embodies the very presence and power of the One who bears it.
Finally, the tripartite experience of early Christians patterned in Acts 2:38 may suggest that, while OPs have a oneness view of God, they have a Trinitarian experience of God.(77)

IV. Conclusion

Oneness Pentecostals are a problematic presence within the Christian community. First, they hold views which other Christians, especially orthodox and Evangelical believers, have few categories of thought with which to interpret them positively. As a result, they were branded as heretics at the beginning, and are labelled by some as a cult today.
Second, many hold their distinctive views uncompromisingly. For some this means limited fellowship and worship with other Christians.(78) But as Gill points out, this attitude is in itself not uncharacteristic of most other Evangelicals.(79) Consequently, both ostracization from outside and a spirit of doctrinal purity from within have contributed to the isolation which has marked much of the Oneness movement.

Third, OPs are a problem for the ecumenical interests of Trinitarian Pentecostals and charismatics.(80) Dialogue with the major Christian traditions may increase the reluctance to narrow the gap too quickly with OPs. Henry Lederle suggests that their presence has “done more harm in relations between ‘evangelicals’ and ‘Pentecostals’ than any other.(81) The character of the ecumenical dialogue with Pentecostals would undoubtedly be different, certainly more cautious, if the 1916 Fourth General Council had absorbed the new movement in its fellowship.

But the 1916 decision is a matter of record. OPs are still present as alienated siblings. Whatever the final judgment on doctrine, part of the future’s agenda for Pentecostals will be to give as much attention and study to this theological divide as they currently do to racial and ecumenical matters. This of course calls for a desire on the part of Oneness leaders not only to be understood by other Christians, but also to understand them and to embrace the notion of the unity of believers as a theological virtue.
At the same time, there are possibilities. I believe the interpretive lens and motifs of earliest Jewish Christianity can make valid though limited theological space for OPs — and thereby a more productive approach to dialogue. Conversation from “behind the wall” (to borrow a phrase from Walter Brueggemann) may bear more fruit than polemics on the top of the wall.(82)

Second, theological dialogue should include a careful analysis of OP Praxis. It is particularly among the black and hispanic OPs that, in spite of our reading of their exclusivistic teachings, there exists a greater openness to fellowship with other Christians. Hocken and Gill explain that resistance to the doctrine of the Trinity among Third World OPs may have less to do with biblical orthodoxy than with the experience of oppression from theological complexity.(83)

For the dialogue to continue, OPs can contribute an important theological principle which they have known from the beginning: belief in the oneness of God can never be separated from the unity of those who are called by his Name. One temptation for OPs has been to withdraw behind their own wall, confessing that they alone are the one people of God. The other direction is one which they have appealed to more frequently: “Maintain the unity of the spirit until we all come into the unity of the faith.”(84)

End Notes

(1) Krister Stendahl, “The New Pentecostalism: Reflections of an Ecumenical Observer,” in Russell Spittler (ed.), Perspectives on the New Pentecostalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976), p. 205.

(2) Gregory A. Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book Publishers, 1992), p. 227.

(3) 0ne significant exception is the revision of the Statement of Faith of the Society for Pentecostal Studies in order to permit Oneness Pentecostal scholars to be full members.

(4) Hereafter Oneness Pentecostalism will be designated OP.

(5) For example, see Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology. Volume One: God. Authority. and Salvation (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1978), p. 20.

(6) Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals.

(7) See Carl Brumback, Suddenly from Heaven: A History of the Assemblies of God (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1961), pp. 175, 193.

(8) See Michael Serveto, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Harvard Theological Studies XVI, trans. Earl Morse Wilbur (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University press, 1932), p. xvii.

(9) Servetus, Two Treatises, p. xi. Note also the observation of Jerome Friedman that “it was from the Jewish tradition that [Servetus] believed a better approach to the Trinity might evolve,” in “Michael Servetus: the Case for a Jewish Christianity,” Sixteenth Century Journal 4/2 (April, 1973): 93.

(10) Even Thomas Cranmer was committed to the Nicene Creed so long as he was persuaded that it faithfully reflected biblical doctrine. To the degree that it did not, he would gladly let it go. See Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Tradition and Traditions in Thomas Cranmer,” Anglican and Episcopal History 59/4 (December, 1990): 467-78.

(11) Harold O. J. Brown, The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (New York: Doubleday and Co., Ltd., 1984), p 5. This is the position, but taken with more acrimony, taken by Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals.

(12) Kenneth D. Gill, Towards a Contextualized Theology for the Third World: The Emergence and Development of Jesus’ Name Pentecostalism in Mexico, Studies in Intercultural History of Christianity, Vol. 90 (New York: Peter Lang, 1994), p. 142. Gill provides an excellent, brief introduction to the interpretations of heresy and orthodoxy in early Christianity.

(13) Thomas A. Robinson, The Bauer Thesis Examined: The Geography of Heresy in the Early Christian Church (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988), p. 29; cited in Gill, Contextualized Theology, p. l43.

(14) For a discussion of these three traditions, see Gill, Contextualized Theology, chapter 4.

(15) James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry Into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 5-6.

(16) James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: An Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, second edition (London: SCM Press, 1989), p. xxxii.

(17) Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), p. 63.

(18) cited in William D. Faupel, “Whither Pentecostalism?” Pneuma 115/1 (Spring, 1993): 1.

(19) George Lindbeck, “The Church,” Keeping the Faith: Essays to Mar the Centenary of Lux Mundi, ed. Geoffrey Wainwright (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), p. 186.

(20) Gill, Contextual Theology, p. 206.

(21) paul van Buren makes an interesting observation that, if anti-Semitism is a serious departure from the gospel, the Mormons are an interesting case in that, “their early tradition is singularly lacking in anti-Judaism or a theology of displacement,” in A Theology of the Jewish-Christian Reality — Part 3 (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), p. 7.

(22) Gill, Contextual Theology, p. 233.

(23) For a detailed examination of the roots of this threefold scheme of “full salvation” in the Wesleyan tradition (especially Phoebe Palmer), and later in William Durham (to refute the second work of grace) and the Oneness movement, see my paper, “The ‘New Issue’ of 1914: New Revelation or Historical Development?”, in Conference Papers of the Society for Pentecostal Studies Meeting, Wheaton College, November 10-12, 1994.

(24) I label these two interpretations as “sacramentalist” and “baptistic” in my essay, “Oneness Pentecostalism”, in Stanley M. Burgess and Gary B. McGee (eds.), Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988): 644-51.

(25) Frank Ewart, “The Unity of God,” Meat in Due Season 1/13 (June, 1916): 1.

(26) See David H. Kelsey, Between Athens and Berlin: The Theological Education Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993).

(27) See Faye Ellen Schott, “The Contemporary Theological Movement of Interpreting the Trinity as God’s Relational Being,” (Th.D. Dissertation, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 1990), p. 32.

(28) John B. Webster, “Revelation,” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, ed. A. E. McGrath (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1993), p. 557. Webster provides an excellent summary of the history of the concept of revelation.

(29) Schott, “God Is Love,”, p. 10.

(30) Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 10.

(31) Schott provides an excellent account of the vital influence of Barth upon the recent Trinitarian movement in Protestant theology.

(32) John Thompson, Modern Trinitarian Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 5.

(33) David K. Bernard, The New Birth, Series in Pentecostal Theology, Volume 2 (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1984), p. 306.

(34) cited in Thompson, Trinitarian Perspectives, p. 21.

(35) Jean Danielou, The Development of Christian Doctrine Before the Council of Nicea Volume 1: The Theology of Jewish Christianity, ed. and trans. by John A. Baker (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1964).

(36) Richard Longenecker, The Christology of Early Jewish Christianity, Studies in Biblical Theology, Second Series 17 (Naperville, IL: Alec R. Allenson, Inc. 1970).

(37) Dunn, Christology in the Making.

(38) Larry W. Hurtado, One God. One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).

(39) Longenecker, Christology, p. 3.

(40) Hurtado, One God, chapter 5.

(41) Longenecker, Christoloqy, p. 9.

(42) David Kupp, cited in Dunn, Christology, p. xxxviii.
violating Judaism’s monotheistic convictions.

(43) Dunn, Christology, p, 209-10.

(44) Dunn holds that to move beyond personification would transgress Jewish belief in monotheism. See Dunn, Christology, pp. xiv, 210. See also Thompson, Trinitarian Perspectives, p. 10. For those who conclude that the dymanic characteristics of God are hypostatically distinct within God, see Wainwright and Ringgren, Word and Wisdom: Studies in the Hypostatization of Divine Qualities and Functions in the Ancient Near East (Hakan Oholsson: Lund, 1947). The matter bears less on the conclusions than that the debate is unresolved which provides a place at the table for Oneness people to join the conversation.

(45) Dunn, Christology, p. 210.

(46) Dunn, Christology, p. 212.

(47) I set forth this viewpoint in detail in Part Three of my thesis, “Origins and Development of the Theology of Oneness Pentecostalism in the United States” (Ph.D. thesis, Boston University, 1978), pp. 202ff.

(48) cited in Gill, Contextual Theology, p. 175.

(49) Dunn, Christology, p. xxxii.

(50) Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God. Dogmatics: Vol. I, trans. Olive Wyon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950), p. 128.

(51) Brunner, Christian Doctrine, p. 129.

(52) Brunner, Christian Doctrine, pp. 117-36. It is interesting to note that Oneness author, David Bernard, already exhibits a scholastic influence by addressing the attributes of God before a discussion of the Name of God; see The Oneness of God, Series in Pentecostal Theology, Vol. I (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1983).

(53) Longenecker, Christology, p. 43. See also Danielou, who sees in the Name an affirmation of Christ’s deity, equivalent to the pre-existent Logos, in Jewish Christianity, 407.

(54) Brunner, Christian Doctrine, p. 127.

(55) Brunner, Christian Doctrine, p. 127.

(56) I have traced this development in “Origins”

(57) David Bernard, In the Name of Jesus (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1992), p. 15.

(58) Longenecker, Christology, p. 43.

(59) Longenecker, Christology, p. 128.

(60) See Ian Wallis, “Jesus, Human Being and the Praxis of Intercession: Towards a Biblical Perspective,” Scottish Journal of Theology 48/2 (1995): 225-50.

(61) Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1975), p. 194.

(62) Danielou, Jewish Christianity, p. 147.

(63) Longenecker, Christology, p. 46.

(64) Longenecker, Christology, p. 153.

(65) Carl Brumback, God in Three Persons (Cleveland, Tenn.: Pathway Press, 1959), p. 168.

(66) Brumback, God in Three Persons, p. 152.

(67) See Frank Ewart, The Name and the Book (Chicago: Daniel Ryerson, 1936), p. 141; John Paterson, The Real Truth About Baptism in Jesus’ Name (Hazelwood, MO: Pentecostal Publishing House, 1953), p. 30; Kenneth Reeves, The Godhead (Granite City, IL: By the Author, 1971), p. 65.

(68) Lars Hartman, “Baptism ‘Into the Name of Jesus’ and Early Christology,” Studia Theolocica 28 (1974): 21.

(69) Hartman, “Baptism,” p. 43.

(70) Hurtado, One God, pp. 108-11.

(71) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/4, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975-77), p. 92.

(72) Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit: A Re-Examination of the New Testament Teaching on the Gift of the Holy Spirit in Relation to Pentecostalism Today (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970), p. 91.

(73) See Bernard, New Birth.

(74) See Boyd, Oneness Pentecostals, pp. 134-39.

(75) Bryan Spinks, “Calvin’s Baptismal Theology and the Making of the Strasbourg and Genevan Baptismal Liturgies 1540 and 1542,” Scottish Journal of Theology 48/1 (1995): 77.

(76) An example is the Mexican Oneness organization, Iglesia Apcstolica de la Fe en Cristo Jesus. See Gill, Contextual Theology, chapter 6.

(77) This suggestion is proposed by Gill, Contextualized Theology, but merits further exploration.
(78) This is particularly true of many, but not all, in the United Pentecostal Church, as stated by Hall, United Pentecostal Church, p. 36.

(79) Gill, Contextual Theology, p. 182.

(80) It is possible that, to some degree, OPs are a problem and an embarrassment to Trinitarian Pentecostals who have been eager to gain ecclesial status among the major Christian traditions, especially Evangelicals. This suggestion is an extension of the concern for a distinctive Pentecostal identity expressed by Cheryl Bridges Johns, “The Adolescence of Pentecostalism: In Search of a Legitimate Sectarian Identity,” Pneuma 17/1 (Spring, 1995): 3-17.
(81) H. I. Lederle, Treasures Old and New: Interpretations of ‘Spirit-Baptism’ in the Charismatic Renewal Movement (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), p. 20.

(82) Walter Brueggemann, “The Legitimacy of a Sectarian Hermeneutic,” Horizons in Biblical Theology 7 (June, 1985): 1-42; cited in Cheryl Bridges Johns, “The Adolescence of Pentecostalism.”

(83) See Gill, Contextual Theology, p. 182; and “The Oneness Doctrine as a Contextualized Doctrine of the Trinity for Mexico,” in Jan A. B. Jongeel, (ed.), Pentecost Mission and Ecumenism: Essays in Intercultural Theology (New York: Peter Lang, 1992), pp. 107~14; Peter Hocken, “Ecumenical Dialogue: The Importance of Dialogue with Evangelicals and Pentecostals,” One in Christ 30/2

(1994): 101-23.

(84) “This phrase, adapted from Ephesians 4: 3 and 13, was frequently quoted by early Oneness leaders to promote greater unity within the infant, sometimes precarious, fellowship. The same appeal was written into the doctrinal statement of the United Pentecostal Church at the time of its merger in 1945. See my paper, “The ‘New Issue’ of 1914”, p. 8; and Arthur L. Clanton, United We Stand: A History of Oneness Organizations (Hazelwood, MO: The Pentecostal Publishing House, 1970), p. 121.



DAVID REED is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Director of Field Education at Wycliffe College, Toronto. He was reared in the United Pentecostal Church (Oneness) in Eastern Canada, and became an Episcopalian in 1967. Following ordination in the Diocese of Rhode Island, he pastored for eighteen years in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
He received his educator at Barrington College (B.A.), Andover Newton Theological School (M.A.), and Boston University, where he earned his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology.
The topic of his doctoral thesis was, “The Origins and Development of the Theology of Oneness Pentecostalism in the United States” (1978). This represents the first scholarly investigation undertaken on Oneness Pentecostalism. Further contributions to the topic have been published in Vinson Synan’s, Aspects of Pentecostal-Charismatic Origins, and the Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. In a paper presented at the 1994 meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, he explored aspects of the roots of Oneness theology in the Holiness tradition of Phoebe Palmer and the early Pentecostal leader, William Durham.
Reed has continued his interest in Pentecostal and Charismatic studies, having recently completed a national survey of the charismatic movement within the Anglican Church of Canada.