Oneness Perspectives on the Incarnation
By David K. Bernard, Associate Editor
The Basic Oneness Position
Oneness believers do not accept three distinct centers of conscious ness in the Godhead, but they hold that God is absolutely and indivisibly one.’ They affirm that in Jesus dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily and that Jesus is the only name given for salvation. 2 The Father was revealed to the world in the name of Jesus, the Son was given the name of Jesus at birth, and the Holy Spirit comes to believers in the name of Jesus. 3 Thus the apostles correctly fulfilled Christ’s command to baptize “in the name [singular] of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” by baptizing all converts with the invocation of the name of Jesus. 4
Oneness believers affirm that God has revealed Himself as Father (in parental relationship to humanity), in the Son (in human flesh), and as the Holy Spirit (in spiritual action). 5 They acknowledge that the one God existed as Father, Word, and Holy Spirit before His incarnation as Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and that while Jesus walked on earth as God Himself incarnate, the Spirit of God continued to be omnipresent.
Like trinitarians, Oneness believers confess that Jesus is true God and true man. The Incarnation joined the fullness of deity to complete humanity, resulting in one divine-human person. We can distinguish these two aspects of Christ’s identity, but we cannot separate them.
The Oneness view differs from trinitarianism, however, in stressing that Jesus is the incarnation of the full, undivided Godhead, not merely the incarnation of one of three divine persons. 6 When the Old Testament speaks of the Messiah as “God,” it does so in the context of absolute monotheism. Likewise, when the New Testament speaks of Jesus as “God,” it does so with the Old Testament definition of “God.” As to His eternal deity, there can be no subordination of Jesus to anyone else, whether in essence or position. By contrast, trinitarian scholar Norman Geisler stated that, for technical accuracy, trinitarians should not say that “God” was manifested in the flesh but that “God the Son” was manifested in the flesh. 7 Citing I Timothy 3:16, Oneness believers emphatically proclaim that the former phrase, not the latter, is accurate. 8
Turning to the humanity of Christ, Oneness believers agree with trinitarians that Jesus possessed all the elements of authentic humanity as originally created by God. Thus we can speak of Jesus as human in body, soul, spirit, mind, will, and so on. 9 According to the flesh, Jesus was the biological descendant of Adam and Eve, Abraham, David, and Mary. l0 We must not speak of two spirits in Jesus, however, but of one Spirit in which deity and humanity are joined.
Christ’s humanity means that everything we humans can say of ourselves, we can say of Jesus in His earthly life, except for sin. Moreover, in every way that we relate to God, Jesus related to God, except that He did not need to repent or be born again. Thus, when Jesus prayed, when He submitted His will to the Father, and when He spoke of “my God and your God” (John 20:17), He simply acted in accordance with His genuine humanity.
Trinitarians, however, see these examples as proving that the Father and the Son are two distinct persons. This difference of interpretation lies at the heart of the Oneness-trinitarian controversy. Most of the passages that trinitarians cite to demonstrate a distinction of persons, Oneness believers interpret as relating to the human identity of Jesus Christ.
The Trinity in Light of the Incarnation
We can go so far as to say that the trinitarian doctrine stands or falls on the New Testament distinction between the Father and the Son. The Old Testament does not explicitly teach the doctrine of the trinity. The New Testament says very little that could distinguish the Father and the Holy Spirit as two persons. The strongest texts that could establish a trinity are those in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels, that make some sort of distinction between the Father and the Son. If the focus of these passages is the genuine humanity of Christ and not trinitarian distinctions, then the doctrine of the trinity loses it strongest support.
At this point, we need to define the trinitarian distinction of persons. According to classical trinitarian thought as formulated by the Cappadocian theologians of the fourth century, the one Godhead mysteriously subsists in three coequal, coeternal, coessential persons. There is communion of substance but distinction of personhood. This trinity is a perfect, inseparable union, and the persons work together in all things. The unique distinguishing characteristics of the persons are as follows: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten, and the Holy Spirit is proceeding. The generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit are mysteries, however. While the persons are coequal and coeternal, the Father is in some sense the head and the origin. 11
As trinitarian scholars have pointed out, much of this formulation has no objective, understandable meaning to us. Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan commented on the problem:
“This puzzling, indeed frustrating, combination of philosophical terminology for the relation of One and Three . . . was simultaneously typical of the theology of the Cappadocians and normative for the subsequent history of Trinitarian doctrine…. [The] answer to . . . difficult[ies] was to declare that what was common to the Three and what was distinctive among them lay beyond speech and comprehension and therefore beyond either analysis or conceptualization.” 12
Trinitarian scholar Harold O. J. Brown likewise acknowledged “that the properties explain nothing; on the contrary, they are merely conceptual tools or symbols to impress on us that the three Persons are and remain eternally distinct, yet also remain eternally one God.” l3
Despite its difficulties, this view is the position of trinitarianism today. 14 In a textbook published by the Assemblies of God, Kerry McRoberts identified these unique personal properties as necessary to distinguish trinitarianism from modalism, even though he acknowledged that they do not offer an explanation of the trinity. 16
Although trinitarians say that the unique property of each divine person is a mystery, perhaps we can explore the claimed distinctions by posing a hypothetical question, within the trinitarian framework: In principle, based on what we know about the nature of God, could the Father have become incarnate? Or is incarnation a unique action that only the Son could have taken? Let us examine two alternatives.
If we say that the Father could not have become incarnate, in we have apparently discovered a further distinction between the persons, one that classical trinitarianism does not proclaim. Unfortunately, it would make the divine persons different in essence, contrary to orthodox trinitarian doctrine.
Specifically, the Son would be inferior to the Father. Indeed, some ancient writers held, in accordance with Greek philosophy, that the supreme God, being perfect and holy, could not have direct contact with the world of matter. They identified the Father as the supreme God and the Son as a lesser deity. As Origen (c. A.D. 220) explained in refuting Oneness concepts of his time, “Some individuals among the multitude of believers . . . incautiously assert that the Saviour is the Most High God; however, we do not hold with them; but rather believe Him when He says, ‘The Father who sent Me is greater than I.'” 16
Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 150) did not believe that the Father could manifest Himself even as a theophany, because it would not be suitable for Him to descend to our level. l7 Only the Son could do so. Eusebius of Caesarea (c. A.D. 330) similarly argued that the Father is too pure to unite Himself to corruptible flesh except by an intermediary power, namely the Word. 18
Finally, this line of reasoning concedes that the uniqueness of the Son lies in the Incarnation, rather than in the eternal generation that trinitarianism teaches. If we reject the subordinationism of the foregoing writers, then we are led to the Oneness position, for it defines the Son in terms of the Incarnation while rejecting any subordination of Jesus as to His divine nature.
On the other hand, could the Father have become incarnate? Most Trinitarians scholars today would probably say yes. One of the foremost Roman Catholic theologians of this century, Karl Rahner, stated, “Since the time Augustine, the theology of the schools has become accustomed to thinking that it is to be taken for granted that any one of the non numerical three whom we call the persons of the one Godhead could become man.” l9
If the Father had become incarnate, what would have been the nature of that incarnation? Would heaven have been devoid of the Father during His earthly manifestation? Surely not. The Father would have related in some fashion to the humanity that He thereby assumed. Would this human person have been born of a virgin? It seems that the nature of incarnation would have required it. Who would have been the Father of this child? Surely the Father. Would this man have prayed to the Father? Would he have obeyed the will of the Father? It seems that he would have done these things in order to be a righteous and holy man.
In other words, this divine human person would necessarily have related to the Father in the same way that Jesus related to the Father as recorded in the Gospels. In short, the biblical distinction between the Son and the Father has nothing to do with persons in the Godhead, but it has everything to do with the Incarnation. The begetting of the Son occurred at the Incarnation; it is not an eternal, incomprehensible process within the Godhead. Thus there is no reason to explain the Gospel accounts of the Father and the Son in terms of a trinity.
The conclusion is that the Father did become incarnate in Christ. According to I John 3:1-5, the Father manifested Himself to take away our sins, and He will appear to us again one day.
This article is excerpted from a paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, held at Evangel University, Springfield, MO, on March 11-13, 1999.
1 Deuteronomy 6:4; Galatians 3:20.
2 Colossians 2:9; Acts 4:12.
3 Matthew 1:21; John 5:43; 14:26; 17:6.
4 Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5; 22:16.
5 see, for example, Deuteronomy 32:6 and Isaiah 63:16 (Father); Luke 1:35 and Galatians 4:4 (Son); Genesis 1:2 and Acts 1:8 (Holy Spirit).
6 Colossians 2:9. Significantly, this passage uses three words that are logically redundant to emphasize this position: “all,” “fullness,” and “Godhead.”
7 Norman Geisler, lecture at the Symposium on Cults, the Occult, and World Religions (sponsored by Apologetic Research Coalition, William Tyndale College, Farmington Hills, Ml, November 1988).
8 Even if we adopt the alternate reading of “He was manifest in the flesh,” we still must ask what is the antecedent of the pronoun “he.” It appears in the preceding verse: “God.” The alternative proposed by Trinitarians–“Son of God”–does not appear in the entire book.
9 See Matthew 26:38; Luke 2:40; 22:42; 23:46; John 1:14; Acts 2:31; Philippians 2:5; Hebrews 10:5, 10.
10 See Genesis 3:15; Galatians 3:16; 4:4; Romans 1:3; Hebrews 2:14-17; 5:7-8.
11 “See Basil, On the Spirit 16:37-38 and Letters, 38, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., The Nicene and PostNicene Fathers, 2d series [hereinafter NPNF) (Reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 8:23-24, 137-40; Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit and On the Holy Trinity, NPNF 5:314-30; Gregory of Nazianzus, Third Theological Oration, On the Son 29:3 and Fifth Theological Oration, On the Holy Spirit, 8-10, NPNF 7:301-2, 320-21.
12 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971) 1:223.
13 Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984), 151, emphasis in original.
14 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 89.
15 Kerry D. McRoberts, “The Holy Trinity,” in Stanley Horton, ea., Systematic Theology (Springfield, MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1994), 167.
16 0rigen’ Against Celsus 8:14, in Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, eds., The AnteNicene Fathers [hereinafter ANF0 (1885; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981) 4:644.
17 Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 127:13, in ANF 1:263.
18 Eusebius of Caesarea, Oration in Praise of Constantine 11:5-7, in NPNF 1:596-97.
19 Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. William Dych (New York: Seabury Press, 1978), 214.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY FORWARD MAGAZINE, FALL 1999, PAGES 8-10. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PUROSES ONLY.