WAS THE EARLY CHURCH ONENESS OR TRINITARIAN?
By Thomas Weisser
Thomas Weisser is pastor of Independence United Pentecostal Church in Monmouth, Oregon and has served on the youth committee of the Oregon and has served on the youth committee of the Oregon District. A graduate of Apostolic Bible Institute, he has written three books. He has also conducted Oneness Heritage seminars in a number of churches in Oregon and California.
Was the Early Church Oneness or Trinitarian?
What was the Early Church like? The answer varies from church to church. To a Catholic, the answer is Catholic-with Peter sitting in the Pontiff’s chair. To a Protestant, Peter was a Luther-like figure preaching justification by faith alone. Some concepts of the Early Church are ridiculous. It is important for us to have a clear picture.
Just as the Law was instituted at Sinai and remained the unchanging ideal for Jews, so with Pentecost (Acts 2) and the Church. Early Christianity rather than being primitive presents to us an ideal to be sought after.
Many conceptualize the church of the first century as unorganized charismatic groups with myriad variations in doctrines. The New Testament strongly disagrees with this assessment. An objective reader will conclude the Early Church was organized and had a developed faith.
The question we are primarily concerned with is: What was this faith in regards to God? Historical evidence points to a conclusion that the Early Church was not Trinitarian. What was it then? Significant facts point to it being Modalist.
“There is little doubt that baptism was practiced by the first Christians as a kind of initiatory rite, when they received new believers into their community. Also, we can be quite certain that this baptism was given `into the name of Jesus’ or, at least, that it was referred to as `into the name of Jesus'” This is a quote from a recent issue of Studia Theologica by Lars Hartman. He goes on to say this belief “implied a rather `high’ Christology” on the part of early Christians.
E. C. Whitaker writes, “Similarly, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, written in the middle of the second century, Thecla is represented as baptizing herself and saying, `In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize myself for the last day.’ If we may assume that we have here a case of the formula in ordinary use adapted to extraordinary circumstances, then it appears that the formula in ordinary use must have been `I baptize thee in the name of Jesus Christ.’ This not only brings our evidence for a baptismal formula of this type to a very early date; it also strengthens the view, suggested in the Acts of the Apostles, that an invocation of Jesus Christ had a place in the baptismal practice of the Early Church.
A modern Oneness or Modalist believer welcomes the above statements from the theological community. The records of the Acts of the Apostles clearly point to baptism in Jesus’ name as the universal practice of the Early Church.
This not only implies an advanced Christology as Hartman supposes. It also strongly implies something that most theologians and historians have missed: the Early Church was Modalist. Instead of attaching three personalities to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost they recognized them as three modes, or manifestations, of the One God. The saving name they gave to Father, Son and Holy Ghost was Jesus. Indeed, this idea is not foreign to the New Testament for Jesus identified Himself with all
The next question that comes to mind is: What about Matthew 28:19? This verse of Scripture simply says to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”. This really does no more than strengthen the Modalist stand. For it is obvious that, if these words did indeed come from Christ, the Apostles interpreted them the way a Modalist would; i.e. to baptize in the name of Jesus Christ. The only reasonable and logical explanation for the difference between Matthew 28:19 and Acts is that the Early Church was Modalist.
What About The Didache?
The Didache is an ancient writing attributed to the Apostles. Since the discovery of an eleventh-century copy of it in 1875, it has been the subject of great controversy. Various dates have been ascribed to it and authorities have yet to agree on a date. The problem that we must consider is that some say it was written in the first century.
The particular part we are concerned with is Didache 7:
But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize. Having first recited all these things, baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water. But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water; and if thou art not able in cold then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Many Trinitarians claim this proves the Early Church was Trinitarian. Let us first consider that we are dealing with a forgery. Although it is ascribed to the Apostles they probably never saw it.
Secondly, the internal evidence points to Didache 7 as an interpolation, or later addition. In Didache 9, which deals with communion, the writer says, “But let no one eat or drink of this eucharistic thanksgiving, but they that have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord hath said: Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”
Shortly after saying baptism should be performed in the titles Father, Son and Holy Spirit he states the absolute necessity of being baptized in the name of the Lord (i.e., Jesus-the same Greek word as in Acts
10:48). This represents an obvious contradiction and gives validity to the argument Didache 7 is an interpolation.
Thirdly, the writer’s approval of baptism by pouring presents a problem with dating it in the first century. Bigg points out that this must have been written after A.D. 250. He argues that pouring was generally unacceptable in baptism as late as Cyprian (c.250). Therefore, Didache 7 could be no earlier than the late third century.
Baptism in the Early Church (first century) was in the name of Jesus Christ. The apparent contradiction of Matthew 28:19 is clarified when we consider that the Early Church was Modalist.
Didache 7 is an interpolation written no earlier than the late third century.
First Century Church-Primitive?
A popular term for the Early Church is primitive. The implication is that it was destined to become sophisticated as time passed. This does not agree with New Testament writings.
We read there was an established, recognized faith. This faith was established “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.” And this faith once delivered to the saints should be sought after.
The general idea of an evolving or formulating faith holds no credence with the New Testament.
Harold 0. J. Brown in his recent book Heresies says, “It is a simple and undeniable historical fact that. . .the doctrine of the Trinity. . .was not present in a full and well defined, generally accepted form until the fourth or fifth centuries.” The written evidence points to a gradual development of Trinitarianism from the descending triad of Tertullian to the three co-equal, co-eternal persons of the Athanasian
Even Fortman states, “There is no formal doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament writers, if this means an explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons.” The question comes to mind, “If the first century Church did not give us written evidence they were Trinitarian how can we assume they were?” Certainly any one of the New Testament writers were capable of expressing basic Trinitarian dogma. If they were not, then God, whose thoughts are above ours, could have inspired them to articulate it.
A casual reader of the New Testament is able to conclude no real problem existed concerning the Godhead. John warned about those who denied Jesus is the Christ and Jude warned about men who denied the Lord, but these men had obviously left the Church. Even the strong language of the first three chapters of Revelation does not reveal a problem with first century belief concerning the Godhead. It appears that belief in One Lord had been established and that the titles Father, Son, and Holy Spirit presented no problem.
On the other hand, if the New Testament is inspired and prophetic as any fundamentalist trinitarian would agree, something is missing. Where is there any indication that a greater understanding of the Godhead would follow? I find none, and certainly this presents a tremendous obstacle for the fundamental trinitarian.
While the Church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles [New Testament] and prophets [Old Testament] and not Chalcedon, it is amazing how freely Trinitarians lean on this post-apostolic creed. Whenever we read in the New Testament about the future it is a gloomy picture.
Paul wrote to Timothy, “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter [following] times some shall depart from the faith giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils.” Immediately before this Paul emphasized that “God was manifest in the flesh”. Again he said, “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”
Jude tells us of “mockers” (deriders) who have separated themselves and given themselves to their natural senses. A perfect example of this deriding carnal behavior can be seen in Tertullina. His Against Praxeas fulfils Jude’s prophecy. We are talking about the father of the Trinity.
The problem a Trinitarian faces is that there is no indication of developed Trinitarianism in the New Testament. Many try to overcome this by saying Trinitarianism was implicitly believed. This cannot be proved or disproved but there is no reason, if it is true, why God would keep it a secret for decades, especially if its belief is a prerequisite to salvation as the Athanasian Creed brazenly says.
Beware lest any man spoil you [take you captive] through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth [keeps dwelling] all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
Paul here explicitly mentioned philosophy as something that would take a believer away from Christ. The philosophy Paul was talking about here is the philosophy of men as opposed to the truth of God. Apparently, he was warning that the philosophy of men could rob the church of an understanding that the fulness of the Godhead is in Christ.
The predominant philosophy of the third and fourth centuries in the Roman Empire was Neoplatonic. It was begun by Plotinus, who was not a Christian. In the early third century this philosophy grew tremendously throughout the Empire. At first it was the greatest antagonist to Christianity. Later, it actually became assimilated into the Catholic Church, and a union shown in the creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries was the result. That this philosophy had a tremendous impact on the formulation of Trinitarian thinking is supported by many sources.
Platonism had a marked influence on Christianity. It entered from many channels, among them the Hellenistic Jew Philo, who was utilized by some early Christian writers, and through Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Augustine, and the writings which bore the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. The term Logos, which was extensively employed by Christians as they thought about the relationship of Christ to God, came from Greek philosophy, perhaps by way of both Stoicism and
From the middle of the fourth century onward, however, Christian thought was strongly influenced by Neo-Platonic philosophy and mysticism. In the East Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Synesius of Cyrene, and Nenesius of Emesa and, in the West, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, and Augustine made abundant use of Plotinus or Porphory, frequently without citing them. . . .The encounter between Neoplatonism and Christianity thus conditions the entire history of Western
The dogma of the Trinity and the drama of the redemption must be interpreted in a manner that would be consistent with this priori definition of the deity of God [one essence, three persons]. Neoplatonic elements were unmistakably present in this definition, but in setting it forth Augustine believed himself to be-and he was-expressing the Catholic creed.
The Catholic creed of the Trinity is not the belief of the Early Church. The Logos Christology of the philosophers (most of the Fathers fit under this description) fell far short of early Christian Christology.
Weaknesses in Trinitarian Historiography
Many Trinitarians agree with the historical fact that Trinitarianism evolved or was formulated. The irony is that, after admitting this, they continue to say that Trinitarianism is a Bible doctrine. Both these could not be true. Either the Trinity was developed or it was there all the time.
The fact is that it appeared after the New Testament was written. Another fact is that Jude exhorted us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Jude was written c.
A.D. 80 and he was telling us to look back to the beginning of the Church (i.e. Acts). Trinitarians are telling us to look ahead from Early Christianity to the Creeds of Nicea, Chalcedon, and so on. Which voice will we heed?
Some Trinitarians claim that because the canonizers were Trinitarian the writers of the New Testament were also. They assume the approval placed upon the New Testament by Trinitarians implies strongly that the first century Church was Trinitarian. I imagine the implication is that had the writers not been Trinitarian the canonizers would have disapproved.
This may sound good to someone trying to prove the Early Church was Trinitarian. Before we jump to conclusions, let us see what a few Trinitarians say about the canon:
The church councils only acted at a later time, when the decisions had already been made in a practical way.
The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.
We never find a church council saying in effect, “We have reviewed this writing and found it to be good; henceforth, it will be considered part of the canon.” Instead of conferring canonicity on a book, the pronouncements were always statements of recognizing what the scattered congregations already considered canonical.
The Catholics, of course, conceive the canonizers as a special breed on a par with the Apostles. The general Protestant position is that the canonizers approved books already accepted as divinely inspired (except when attacking the Oneness position). The latter is a more accurate assumption. But even though the canonizers were Trinitarian what does it prove? It certainly does not necessitate the New Testament being Trinitarian. It is hard to prove anything by association. Any prosecutor who tries to prove a man guilty simply because he was in the vicinity of the crime is going to lose his case.
Considering the canonizers, an interesting comparison can be seen in Scripture.
The main duty of scribes in Jesus’ day was to copy and therefore preserve the Old Testament. Jesus said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not.” Jesus continued His discourse on scribes by saying they were “hypocrites, fools, blind, whited sepulchres, full of iniquity.” He ended by asking the question, “How can ye escape the damnation of hell?”
Clearly, just because the scribes were preserving Scripture did not make them holy or even good judges of holiness for themselves. If this was true for the scribes it could also be true of the canonizers.
In conclusion let us examine our reasons for the Early Church being Oneness or Modalist as opposed to Trinitarian.
1. Early baptism was in Jesus Name. The difference between Matthew 28:19 and the record of Acts presented no problem and the only logical explanation for the difference is that the Early Church was Oneness or Modalist.
2. In the First Century a basic faith was established. lt was not to be changed but rather sought after (Jude 3).
3. Trinitarians have not come to grips with the contradictory statement that Trinitarianism evolved while it was always present in the Church.
4. Colossians 2:8-9 explicitly warns about philosophy taking Christians away from an understanding that the fulness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. The concept of Trinitarianism was drawn largely from the philosophy of its day.
5. There is no indication of an evolving faith but warnings of apostasy in the New Testament.
6. The assumption the Early Church was Trinitarian because the canonizers of later years were is based on no verifiable historical facts.
Oneness believers, as well as many fundamentalist trinitarians, agree that it is an absolute miracle of God that the Bible has been preserved and remains infallible. We do not agree that this implies any inherent virtue in the dogma of the Trinity.
1. Hartman, Lars, “Baptism into the name of Jesus and early Christology” Studia Theologica, Vol 28 no. 1 (1974), p.21 [hereafter cited as Hartman].
2. Hartman, p. 48.
3. Whitaker, E.C., “The History of the Baptismal Formula,” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 16 (April 1965), pp. 5-6.
4. Yadon, C.H., Birth of Confusion (Hazelwood, Mo.:Pentecostal Publishing House), tract no. 106.
5. See John 5:43 and John 14:9, 16-18, 26.
6. Matthew 28:19.
7. Vokes, F.E., “The Didache – Still Debated,” Church Quarterly, Vol. 3 (July 1970), pp. 57-62.
8. Lightfoot, p. 232.
10. Bigg, Charles, The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1898), p. 58.
11. Cyprian, Epistles LXXV no. 12, 13.
12. Ephesians 4:5.
13. Ephesians 2:20.
14. Jude 3.
15. Brown, Harold O.J., Heresies (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1984), p. 20.
16. Fortman, E.J., The Triune God (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1972), p.32.
17. I John 2:22.
18. Jude 4
19. Ephesians 2:20.
20. I Timothy 4:1.
21. I Timothy 3:16.
22. II Timothy 4:3-4.
23. Jude 18-19.
24. Colossians 2:8-9.
25. Latourette, Kenneth Scott, A History of Christianity (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), Vol. 1, pp. 260-261.
26. The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 14th edition Edited by William J. McDonald (New York: McGraw, 1967), Vol. 10, pp. 335-336.
27. Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 296-297.
28. Jude 3.
29. Harrop, Clayton, History of the New Testament in Plain Language (Wave, TX: Word Books, 1984), p. 136.
30. Packer, J.I., God Speaks to Man (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1965), p. 81.
31. Saucy, R.L., Is the Bible Reliable? (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1973), p. 94.
32. Matthew 23:1-3.
33. Matthew 23:13-17, 19, 23-29.
34. Matthew 23:33.
by Richard M. Davis
In fulfilling the duty of a respondent, it is necessary to play the role of “devil’s advocate.” It is a challenge indeed not to allow one’s bias and intense love for the Oneness message to override the effort to look at the paper as a Trinitarian might consider it. In scrutinizing each point, we will attempt to consider four areas of reasoning: scriptural, historical, logical, and practical.
Overall the discussion was very well organized and presented. The paper contains several well documented arguments and suggestions which add credence to our beloved message of the fulness of the Godhead which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
First, the point is well made that the Early Church was not primitive, but highly developed in its organization and in its doctrine. This is evidenced by a close examination of the New Testament writings. This is an important aspect of the paper inasmuch as it pressures the Trinitarian to document his Trinitarian philosophy in the Scriptures, and not primarily in history as is his custom. As the author has noted, many Trinitarians have themselves admitted the Trinity is not highly developed in the New Testament, but was later refined. They attribute this to the church being primitive and unorganized, but this simply is not evident in Scripture.
Secondly, concerning the Didache, it is probably wise to recognize the points made indicating that the writing was spurious or at the least an interpolation. If written in the first century as most claim, then why was it not included in the canon of the Bible? Again the author pointed out that the canon was not selected by men, but only recognized. God gave the inspiration and hence formed the canon.
It is evident that parts of the Didache are not congruent with the Scriptures; therefore, one or the other must be rejected. The author brought out well the fact that the concept of the Didache allowing pouring water on the head for baptism did not appear until much later than the first century and is at least not apostolic. It is nowhere to be found nor implied in the Scriptures.
Thirdly, a strong point in the treatise involves the differences of perspective between the Apostles and Trinitarians. Namely, Jude and other writers encouraged believers to earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints – that it is the ideal; whereas Trinitarians constantly appeal to second and third century history to identify ideal doctrine regarding the Godhead. Who is correct?
This is a common mistake of trinitarians. They fail to remember that history records the failures of mankind as well as the achievements. It is to the Scriptures we must look and solely depend upon to find our concept of God in Christ.
Yet another outstanding point is made regarding the scribes of Jesus’ time. Though they kept the Scriptures and preserved them yet they were personally condemned and rebuked by our Lord Himself. This confirms the truth of the message Brother J. T. Pugh has shared with us that although a man may be anointed to accomplish a task he may yet not be blessed or approved of God.
The author pointed out that because the canonizers were Trinitarian in philosophy and because they approved the canon does not even by implication prove that the apostles were Trinitarians. Such reasoning on the part of the Trinitarian segment of society is, of course, absurd.
Quite honestly, this paper has been very well prepared and presented for the time allowed. There are perhaps areas which were not as documented, or at least developed as completely as would be necessary to dissuade a Trinitarian from following his doctrine of error. In the time allotted, however, the author has done a commendable job of covering a good scope of his assigned subject.
There are perhaps three cautions that should be shared:
(1) From the viewpoint of a Trinitarian the subject of baptism was probably not adequately dealt with. Of course this was not the author’s subject and thus he probably did not have time to fully develop that aspect. The conclusion that the Early Church was modalist in theology was based solely upon the difference of the modes of water baptism. To convince a Trinitarian, we need to develop that argument more fully. This could be done by delving further into the area of water baptism and by further Oneness theology from the Scriptures.
In addition, we must bear in mind that some who were called modalist in early church history did not have a pureness of total doctrinal thought. We should be careful what areas of modalism with which we identify ourselves.
(2) A brief comment regarding the Logos concept of John 1 would be in order. Although most Trinitarians will caution that we must consider the historical aspects of the Greek Logos as well as the grammatical aspects, we must realize these men write from a biased point of view. Of course they must mix history with grammar because the simple grammar of the Greek word Logos allows for a development of Oneness theology.
Regardless of the origin of the word Logos we should not hastily set aside the concept John endeavored to present. John 1 is a beautiful Oneness exposition by Greek grammar. It is no wonder each Trinitarian appeals to the historical aspects of the word. Let us accept the simplicity of John’s intentions.
(3) Finally a Trinitarian would question the apparent contradiction inherent in the following statements: “A casual reader of the New Testament is able to conclude no real problem existed concerning the Godhead. . . . Whenever we read in the New Testament about the future it is a gloomy picture.” If there were no real problem in the church at that time concerning the Godhead, and if the apostles believed and taught the imminent return of Christ, then when did they expect this falling away to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils to occur? Could there have been evidence of doctrinal division even during this time of the first century?
Richard Davis is the Editor of Word Aflame Publications.
by David 0. Walters
The paper was very good. It went into the historical aspect, which was excellent. One important thing was the simplicity of the language. It was easy to understand. It was easy to know where the author was coming from and where he was headed. It is important to have that kind of writing in our fellowship. Sometimes our clarifications only muddy the water. We should appreciate the approach taken in this paper, its simplicity, the excellent work, and the research into areas unfamiliar to most of us. We do not all have available to us the resources used by those who have worked so hard to bring this information to us.
Several points should be made about this presentation:
First, the strong scriptural appeal is to be appreciated. That is still the United Pentecostal Church’s strongest point. We stand on the Word regardless of whatever history may bring to us-distorted or otherwise. The Word of God still must be the foundation of the church.
Second, the author did a good job of appealing to Trinitarian writers who state and often deal a death blow to their own cause. He appealed to their writings and pointed out areas where they themselves are not sure that what they believe is correct.
There is an inconsistency in the paper’s use of the example of Thecla, when the author quotes E. C. Whitaker:
Similarly, in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, written in the middle of the second century, Thecla is represented as baptizing herself and saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize myself for the last day.” If we may assume that we have here a case of the formula in ordinary use adapted to extraordinary circumstances, then it appears that the formula in the ordinary use must have been “I baptize thee in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The author concludes that a modern modalist would welcome the above statement from the theological standpoint. He later does an excellent job in dealing with the Didache, discrediting it because of the reference to baptism by pouring.
The problem is that we do not approve of people baptizing themselves. Moreover, Thecla baptized herself in the name of Jesus Christ for the last day, and our position is that we baptize for the remission of sin. To take a questionable reference such as this and include it in such a fine paper could serve to discredit the paper in the eyes of a Trinitarian, especially when we use the same reasoning to discredit the Didache. There are many authentic historical references to baptism in the name of Jesus. We do not need something as questionable as this. To toss out the Didache and then use this example weakens the author’s position.
Finally, a stronger scriptural development would have been helpful, particularly on our position that the early church was not primitive. The Apostle Paul was a Jew and a scholar. He knew the only Scripture at their disposal at that time and he knew it well. Jesus Himself said to the woman at the well, “We know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews.” They certainly did not have an undeveloped position. The Early church knew whom they worshiped. They knew what they believed and they knew why they believed it. We can have the same understanding and confidence today.
David 0. Walters is the Superintendent of the North Dakota District and pastor of the First United Pentecostal Church of Bismarck.
(The above information was published by SYMPOSIUM, 1986)
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