Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Oneness-Trinitarian Pentecostal Dialogue

During the years 2002-2007, leading Oneness Pentecostal and Trinitarian Pentecostal theologians engaged in a Oneness-Trinitarian Pentecostal dialogue sponsored by the Society for Pentecostal Studies. The final report that emerged from this dialogue was published in Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, volume 30, number 2 (2008). Copies of the journal can be obtained from www.sps-usa.org.

This edition of Pneuma contains not only the final report; it also includes the following responses: James A. Johnson, the presiding bishop emeritus of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, "A Brief Oneness Pentecostal Response"; Kenneth F. Haney, the general superintendent of the United Pentecostal Church International, "A Brief Oneness Pentecostal Response"; George Wood, the general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, "A Brief Trinitarian Pentecostal Response"; William W. Menzies, "A Trinitarian Pentecostal Response"; Daniel L. Segraves, "A Oneness Pentecostal Response"; Richard Shaka, "A Trinitarian Pentecostal Response"; Daniel Ramirez, "A Historian's Response"; Ralph Del Colle, "A Catholic Response"; and David Reed, "An Anglican Response."

Since I am one of the contributers, I am able to post my response here. I encourage all who are interested to read all of the articles, including Frank D. Macchia's editorial, in Pneuma.

A Oneness Pentecostal Response

Daniel L. Segraves


Our Lord must be pleased that Oneness and Trinitarian Pentecostals are talking after nearly a century of virtual separation. Surely the silence of those with a common heritage, a common experience in Holy Spirit baptism, and a common sense of the eschatological significance of that experience has not pleased Him. Our differences are significant and enduring, but, as indicated in several sections of the Final Report, there is much that we share. This is cause for celebration. In 1916, we focused on those things that separated us. In 2008, we still acknowledge our distinctives, but we are seeking to understand each other even in our disagreements. Willingness to discuss Scripture in a thoughtful and respectful way is a sign of spiritual health. Nothing is to be gained by heated rhetoric. As Paul pointed out, we should be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave us (Eph 4:32).

Are risks involved in this conversation? No doubt. But some risks are worth taking. Whatever these risks may be, however, they were recognized and minimized by the goal of the dialogue, which was to gain “a clearer understanding of their positions and not the winning over of one side to the other or the adoption of a compromise position.” If we cannot talk, we cannot communicate. If we don’t communicate, there is little opportunity for old wounds to heal and healthy relationships to develop. Although no compromise is reflected in the Final Report, signs of mutual respect are evident. One such sign is seen in the joint conclusion on the baptismal formula: “Neither side compromised the respective teaching of their churches on baptism but agreed to the importance of continued discussion of the significance, mode, and formula of water baptism.” Another is seen in the joint conclusion to the discussion of Christology and the Godhead: “. . . both sides agreed that God’s nature requires additional discussion between Oneness and Trinitarian Pentecostals.” We are separated by many years and substantial emotional distance, to say nothing of our understanding of key biblical texts. But we have started something good that must continue until we both know we have completed our task.

Comments and Recommendations
The chief purpose of the dialogue was “to allow for a clearer understanding of Oneness and Trinitarian Pentecostal perspectives, including the variations possible within them, as well as both the commonalities and differences between them.” As this purpose statement indicates, it is important to note that there are variations among both Oneness and Trinitarian perspectives. The United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI) cannot and does not claim to speak for all Oneness Pentecostals, and it is recognized that there are various perspectives within the UPCI. This is acknowledged in the second paragraph of the Fundamental Doctrine of the UPCI: “We shall endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit until we all come into the unity of the faith, at the same time admonishing all brethren that they shall not contend for their different views to the disunity of the body.” The merging conference of the Pentecostal Church, Incorporated (PCI) and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ (PAJC) in 1945 placed supreme value on the unity of the Spirit, abstaining from contention over divergent understanding. Oneness theology is not monolithic; neither is Trinitarian theology. As discussion continues, it will be important to maintain the attitude of mutual respect demonstrated in the opening dialogue while broadening the scope to include representation of various streams of thought. It is anticipated in the Final Report that it “would function as a launching pad for further discussion by a number of persons, from various contexts.” As this project proceeds and enlarges, we must maintain the purpose and goal of the original dialogue.

From the Oneness perspective, a significant achievement of the dialogue was the dispelling of “the idea that the Oneness/Trinitarian division had to do with a ‘new revelation’ by the Oneness intentionally proposed as an insight beyond the teaching of Scripture.” The misguided claim that Oneness Pentecostals embrace extra-biblical revelation has long served to caricature the Oneness perspective and to hinder communication with Trinitarians. As indicated in the Preamble to the Articles of Faith of the UPCI, “The Bible is the only God-given authority which man possesses; therefore, all doctrine, faith, hope, and all instruction for the church must be based upon, and harmonize with, the Bible.”

Since the purpose of baptism has been a point of disagreement, it is encouraging from the Oneness view to see that the Trinitarian team affirmed that the relationship between baptism and salvation “requires further study and discussion among Trinitarian Pentecostals” especially “in light of specific passages which appear to make a direct link between baptism and salvation . . . .” As it relates to the meaning of baptism, the Oneness team affirmed that the “complete experience of forgiveness/remission of sins comes through repentance and water baptism together. Repentance deals with a person’s sinful lifestyle, opening the door to a personal relationship with God, while baptism deals with the record and consequences of sin.” The UPCI understands Acts 2:38 to indicate that water baptism is an essential part of the experience of full salvation.

One point of tension between Trinitarian and Oneness Pentecostals has been the claim by some on the Oneness side that Trinitarians believe in three gods. On the other hand, some on the Trinitarian side have asserted that the Oneness view is the ancient heresy of Sabellianism reborn. The Trinitarian team affirms, “We as Trinitarian Pentecostals wish to stress that we believe in One God and not in three gods. According to Trinitarian dogma, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’ are not three ‘separate’ or in any way ‘divisible’ persons but rather three distinct but inseparable persons of one divine nature.” Dialogue will be enhanced and the Golden Rule will be obeyed if both Oneness and Trinitarian Pentecostals refrain from claiming that others believe something they deny. It is doubtful if any Trinitarian Pentecostals have ever professed to believe in three gods, and Oneness Pentecostals should not claim that they do. On the other hand, Oneness Pentecostals do not embrace the sequential modalism of Sabellianism, and Trinitarian Pentecostals should acknowledge this.

The Trinitarian team affirms that the words “nature” and “person,” while helpful, are fallible attempts to understand the unity and relational life of the Godhead. Indeed, it is acknowledged that there are “Trinitarian theologians who would question the use of this language to describe the life of the one God who is eternally distinct as ‘Father, Son, and Spirit,’ especially in the light of the fact that ‘persons’ in ancient Trinitarian writings did not carry the same meaning that it does today (as referring to separate and individual consciousnesses).” This affirmation is a hopeful sign for further dialogue; a great deal of the debate centers around the use of the word “person.” In their criticism of Trinitarian theology, many Oneness Pentecostals have understood the word “person” in the modern sense. They suspect that some Trinitarians who – like many Oneness Pentecostals – are not schooled in the intricate and subtle nuances of ancient Greek and Latin theologians, also understand the word in the modern sense. When the word “person” is read this way, it is difficult to see how the idea of three “persons” in the Godhead avoids tritheism. Alister E. McGrath’s simplified answer to the question, “How can God be three persons and one person at the same time?” may be helpful.

The word ‘person’ has changed its meaning since the third century when it began to be used in connection with the ‘threefoldness of God’. When we talk about God as a person, we naturally think of God as being one person. But theologians such as Tertullian, writing in the third century, used the word ‘person’ with a different meaning. The word ‘person’ originally derives from the Latin word persona, meaning an actor’s face-mask—and, by extension, the role which he takes in a play.

By stating that there were three persons but only one God, Tertullian was asserting that all three major roles in the great drama of human redemption are played by the one and the same God. The three great roles in this drama are all played by the same actor: God. Each of these roles may reveal God in a somewhat different way, but it is the same God in every case. So when we talk about God as one person, we mean one person in the modern sense of the word, and when we talk about God as three persons, we mean three persons in the ancient sense of the word. . . . Confusing these two senses of the word ‘person’ inevitably leads to the idea that God is actually a committee . . . .

The Final Report points out that “the language of ‘persons’ is not sacred in Trinitarian theology.” Although there are no doubt many Trinitarian theologians who would disagree with this statement, it may provide a way forward in ongoing discussions. The question asked by the Trinitarian team concerning A. D. Urshan’s 1919 acknowledgement that there is “a mysterious, inexplicable, incomprehensible three-ness” in the “plurality of God’s mysterious Being” must be explored more fully.

In a joint affirmation, both teams “recognized that ‘Spirit baptism’ is essential to the Christian life broadly conceived, involving the entire span of one’s conformity to Christ . . . .” The issue that is still of concern as it relates to salvation “has to do with the role of speaking in tongues in conversion/initiation.” The Oneness team affirmed “that repentance, water baptism, and the baptism in the Holy Spirit are integral aspects of conversion/initiation; and that speaking in tongues is the initial physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.” As David Bernard points out, “The early Pentecostals typically used ‘conversion’ to describe the time they turned from sin and joined a Christian church, which often occurred long before they received the Holy Spirit.” In practice, some pastors in the UPCI continue to refer to repentance as conversion, although they refer to repentance, water baptism, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit as full salvation, regeneration, or the new birth.

The joint conclusion on salvation includes a discussion of the significance of the term “full salvation” as found in the Fundamental Doctrine of the UPCI. It was affirmed by the Oneness team “that salvation is a process which begins with a profession of faith and repentance and that the fullness of salvation includes both water baptism in Jesus’ name and the baptism of the Holy Spirit with tongues. Thus, they acknowledged that many people have entered into a relationship with Jesus Christ based on faith and repentance but should continue their experience to receive everything that God has commanded and provided. . . . They held that most Oneness Pentecostals do not make a strong separation between ‘salvation’ and the ‘full salvation’ but affirm the apostolic proclamation in Acts 2:38 as the New Testament message of salvation.”

A Look to the Future

Those who participated in the five-year study leading up to this Final Report are to be commended for their willingness to invest themselves in this effort. For much of the twentieth century, it seemed impossible that such an event could ever take place. This is of historic significance, it provides the possibility of the healing of wounded relationships—both personally and organizationally, and there is the potential for increased understanding not only of opposing points of view but also of Scripture. The road ahead is long, possibly filled with unforeseen obstacles, and no one knows where it will end. But it is a road worth taking, for it is always right for good and sincere people to sit together before their open Bibles, searching them as did the Bereans, asking God to guide them in their study by his Holy Spirit. I think it would be appropriate to conclude this response with words I have written elsewhere.

On a practical level, the adherents of Oneness theology face the challenge of thoroughly investigating the historic doctrine of the Trinity so as to accurately understand and represent its views rather than succumbing to popular misconceptions and misrepresentations. Only by making the effort to understand a perspective with which they do not agree can they have meaningful interaction with those who hold an opposing view.

On the other hand, it is to be hoped that those who embrace Trinitarian theology will reciprocate by carefully examining the claims of mainstream Oneness theology, even as it continues to develop, rather than focusing on abandoned extremes to justify a quick dismissal of legitimacy.

If Trinitarian and Oneness theologians can refrain from drawing caricatures of opposing viewpoints, seeking understanding and doing theology in a spirit of godly reverence and mutual respect, they may discover diminishing differences and increasing agreement on essential points. Although the two views will doubtless never coalesce, God would be honored by a decrease in heated rhetoric and an increase in prayerful and thoughtful interaction.


For some reason, I could not transfer the article's footnotes to this post. Most of the direct quotes are from the Final Report referenced above. The quote from Alister E. McGrath can be found in his Understanding the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 130-131. The quote from my work is located in Stanley M. Burgess, ed., Encyclopedia of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 344-345.
"A Oneness Pentecostal Response" copyright 2008 by Pneuma