The Oneness/Trinity Debate--Areas of Agreement
Some believe the Oneness/Trinity debate is not much more than an argument over semantics. I would both agree and disagree with such a stance. Indeed, at times it can be a matter of semantics. I have met many "Trinitarians"1 who held to the basic Oneness position, but baptized it in Trinitarian terms with their use of the words "Trinity," "persons," and "God the Son." While I do not favor such terminology, this is not the most important issue here. What matters most is one's understanding of God, not the terminology or the label they use to explain/identify it, although the latter is definitely important, and can affect the former. Words not only reflect our thoughts (descriptive), but words also will shape how we think about and understand that which is being considered (prescriptive). The words used to explain the Trinity often cause Trinitarians to have a tritheistic conception of God. In light of the role words play in shaping our understanding, we ought to do our best to have both a correct understanding and a correct vocabulary, employing words which most adequately reflect that understanding. Both our concept of God and the terms we employ to describe that concept are important, but we must distinguish the two, expending more energy to clarify the former, rather than the latter.
While many disagreements between Oneness believers and "Trinitarians" are largely disagreements over semantics, the Oneness/Trinity debate is not merely over semantics, but over concepts. The Trinitarian dogma (as it is properly set forth in the historic creeds of Nicea and Constantinople) has an entirely different framework through which it understands God than does Oneness theology. When comparing the scholarly formulation of historic and current Trinitarian theology, and the scholarly formulation of Oneness theology, one will readily confess that the two theologies are worlds apart, differing more than in semantics. The following will demonstrate the areas of agreement and disagreement between the two theologies.
Oneness believers and Trinitarians (1) both believe in one God; (2) both believe the Father, Son, and Spirit are God; (3) both confess that the Scripture makes a distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit; (4) both believe the Son of God died on the cross, and not the Father; both believe Jesus was praying to the Father, and not to Himself.
Oneness adherents and Trinitarians differ in that (1).Trinitarians believe the one God consists of three eternal persons, while Oneness adherents believe the one God is only one person; (2) Trinitarians believe the second person of the Trinity became incarnate, while Oneness adherents believe YHWH, the lone person of the Godhead, became incarnate; (3) Trinitarians believe the Son is an eternal person in the Godhead, while Oneness adherents believe the Son is a term referring to YHWH's human existence; (4) Trinitarians understand the Biblical distinction between Father and Son to be a distinction between two divine persons, while Oneness adherents understand the Father-Son distinction to be a distinction between the way God exists in Himself (Father), and the way He has come to exist as man (Son).
Where Trinitarians and Oneness adherents differ is not in the fact that one confesses the full deity of Christ whereas the other does not, but who they understand the divine person of Christ to be: the second of three eternal persons in the Godhead, or the one uni-personal God Himself. Neither questions the full, eternal deity of Christ, but differ on their understanding of that divine person's identity. Oneness theology understands YHWH to be uni-personal in nature. That solitary person Himself became man, not the second person of a tri-personal God. The deity of Christ is known as YHWH before the incarnation, and "Son" only after the incarnation, to distinguish God's new existence as a human being from His continued existence as God. "Father" and "Son" are appellations used to describe the relationship between God's two modes of existence. Trinitarian theology, on the other hand, identifies the deity of the Son as "God the Son," the second person of a tri-personal God who became incarnate. "Father" and "Son" are indicative of two distinct divine persons.
The two theological camps also define "Son" quite differently. Trinitarians understand the term to refer to both a pre-incarnate eternal person, and that same person made flesh in Christ. Oneness adherents understand the term to be applicable to God only after the incarnation. God became Son in the incarnation. "Son" is a relational term that surfaced only after the incarnation to describe God's human existence, and distinguish that mode of His existence from His continued existence as God transcendent. "Son" never refers to the incorporeal Spirit alone apart from referencing the humanity of Christ. Oneness adherents are opposed to the term "God the Son," because it equates the word "Son" with deity alone, for which there is no Biblical support. "Son" alludes to and emphasizes the humanity of Christ, but by no means does "Son" refer only to Christ's human nature. Only the whole person of Christ-both deity and humanity-can rightly be called the Son.2
1. I have put "" around Trinitarian because these believers are not truly Trinitarians; i.e. they do not hold to the Trinitarian doctrine as set forth in the historic creeds. While they confess the label "Trinitarian," their concept of God is not what is taught in the creeds, and thus is not orthodox Trinitarianism. It has been my experience that most lay believers who claim to believe in the Trinity, and employ Trinitarian terminology, do not hold to the Trinitarian doctrine. They either have a concept of God that is similar to Oneness, or a concept which is bona fide Tritheism (the belief in three separate gods, as opposed to Trinitarianism which claims that God is one, but in three distinct persons).
2. That "Son" cannot attributed purely to Christ's humanity is evidenced by the fact that Hebrews 1:8-9 connects "Son" with "God," saying, "But unto the Son He says, 'Your throne, O God...'." If Son referred only to Christ's human nature, such a statement would be meaningless. Clearly the author of Hebrews is attributing deity to Son. Another example is found in Matthew 16:16-17 when it is revealed to Peter that Jesus is the Son of God. If "Son of God" only refers to Jesus' humanity, no revelation from the Father would have been necessary. Anybody could have seen that Jesus was a human being by just looking at Him. Even the unbelieving Jews understood Him to be a genuine human being. It is what the Jews could not believe, that Peter understood by the revelation of God; i.e. Jesus was divine, being both God and man simultaneously.
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