The Trinity – Modalism – Part 2

One night in 1913, a participant in a Pentecostal camp meeting near Los Angeles, John G. Scheppe, woke everybody up by shouting the name of Jesus. He had just received a vision of Jesus that made him feel that Jesus needed to be given greater honour. Then one of the pastors, Frank J. Ewart, began teaching that the way to give honour to Jesus was to be baptized in his name. Both Scheppe and Ewart had been influenced by a sermon preached by evangelist R. E. McAlister in which he claimed that the apostles had baptized in the name of Jesus only rather than in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Soon others were spreading this “New Issue.” They declared that those who refused to be rebaptized would lose their salvation and that there is only one Person in the Godhead, Jesus, who filled the different offices of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the occasion demanded.

The view spread rapidly, and many leaders of the Pentecostal movement were rebaptized. Soon after the Assemblies of God was formed in 1914, it decided that it had to take action on the matter. Its General Council met in October, 1916, and approved a Statement of Fundamental Truths which included a lengthy section, “The Essentials as to the Godhead,” affirming the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. It also demanded that the Jesus Only faction accept the Trinitarian baptismal formula and the doctrine of the Trinity or leave the Fellowship. About a quarter of the ministers withdrew. Various Oneness organizations were formed in the years that followed, two of which merged in 1945 to form the United Pentecostal Church.

Note to the Reader

My last post was based on my family’s and my reading the section on modalism in Chapter 14, “God in Three Persons: The Trinity,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994) in our previous day’s after-breakfast Bible reading time. Modalism claims that instead of being three distinct persons, God is one person who appears to us in different forms or modes at different times. In his consideration of modalism, Grudem claimed that because the United Pentecostal Church is modalistic it is doubtful that it should be considered genuinely Christian.

To help my family evaluate Grudem’s assertion, I shared with them in yesterday’s family Bible reading a paper that I wrote in 1997 when I was doing doctoral studies with Louisiana Baptist University, “The Assemblies of God Trinitarian-Oneness Controversy.” The purpose of the paper was to evaluate the decision by the Assemblies of God to affirm the doctrine of the Trinity and to expel Jesus Only ministers. After giving the above historical background, I surveyed the Biblical data regarding the Godhead and noted the problem posed by it. Next, I stated the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Godhead held by Oneness (Jesus Only) Pentecostals and considered how well they fit the Biblical data. Then I discussed the issue of the name in which baptism should be administered. Finally, I gave my opinion of the Assemblies of God decision.

When I shared the paper with my family I omitted the survey of the Biblical data regarding the Godhead and the statements of the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Godhead held by modalists because we’d already read what Grudem said about them. I’m including them here for the benefit of readers who haven’t read my earlier posts on the Trinity, but readers who have read my earlier posts on the Trinity could skip the sections of this post containing them: “The Biblical Data Regarding the Godhead and the Problem Posed by It” and “The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Doctrine of the Godhead Held by Oneness Pentecostals.” As well, in both our family discussion and here, I omitted discussion of the name in which baptism should be administered and added an evaluation of Grudem’s assertion.

The Biblical Data Regarding the Godhead and the Problem Posed by It

The Old Testament emphasizes that God is unique and undivided. For example, Isaiah records God as declaring, “Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (Isaiah 43:10-11, ESV; all Bible quotations are from the ESV unless specified otherwise), and Deuteronomy 6:4 records Moses as telling the Israelites, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God is one, the LORD is one.” The New Testament also teaches the unity of God. For example, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4 when answering a scribe’s question (Mark 12:29) and James tells his readers, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!” (James 2:19). (See my October 30 “The Trinity – There Is One God” post for more proof texts.)

However, although the New Testament attests the unity of God, it also recognizes three things–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–as God. (See my October 27-29 “The Trinity – God Is Three Persons” and “Each Person Is Fully God” posts for some proof texts.) Moreover, several times it refers to the three together as if they were separate entities. After Jesus was baptized by John, “and…was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21-22).” In his farewell discourses to his disciples, Jesus promised them, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth,” (John 14:16-17). In one of his post-resurrection appearances, Jesus commissioned his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Significantly, “name” is singular in the last quotation, suggesting the unity as well as the triunity of God.

In some of the passages that refer to the three together as if they were separate entities, the three are associated together in their work. For example, Paul connects each of them with spiritual gifts when instructing the Corinthians on spiritual gifts, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6), and Peter indicates that each of the three has his own role in salvation when he describes his readers as elect “according to the foreknowledge of the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Peter 1:2). Finally, Paul closes 2 Corinthians with the benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Reconciling these apparently contradictory views of God–that He is one and that He is three–posed a problem for the early church, a problem for which many solutions were proposed.

The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Doctrine of the Godhead Held by Oneness Pentecostals

The solution finally adopted was the doctrine of the Trinity. According to it, God is one being of three persons, each of which is fully God. The Father is God in such a way that He constitutes the whole undivided substance of God; thus He is identical with, not just part of God. The Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God in the same way. Yet, the Father is distinct from the Son and the Holy Spirit, allowing Him to have personal relationships with them. Similarly, the Son is distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Father and the Son. Despite recognizing its mysterious nature, the vast majority of Christians still accept the doctrine of the Trinity as making the best sense of what God has revealed to us about Himself in the Bible.

However, as evidenced by the Jesus Only controversy in the Assemblies of God, not all agree. Oneness Pentecostals also view God as one Being. However, they differ from Trinitarians by viewing Him as just one Person rather than as three Persons. To them, God is one Person, Jesus, who manifests Himself in three different ways–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–as the occasion demands. According to the writer of a booklet which I no longer have, Gordon Magee, Jesus is the Father in His divinity, the Son in His humanity, and the Holy Spirit in emanation (Gordon Magee, Is Jesus In The Godhead or Is The Godhead In Jesus? [Houston, Texas: Gordon Magee, 1966], page 32; future references in this post to “Magee” are to this writer and booklet).

How Well the Two Opposing Doctrines Fit the Biblical Data

To determine this, I’ll examine an incident which Trinitarians cite in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are referred to together as if they are separate entities and a saying of Jesus that Oneness Pentecostals cite as proof that Jesus is the Father. The incident in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are referred to together as if they are separate entities is the baptism of Jesus. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21-22).

Notice that Jesus was praying. To whom was he praying? A Trinitarian would likely answer, “God.” But so might a Oneness Pentecostal. However, they wouldn’t mean the same thing. The Trinitarian would mean that one Person in the Trinity, the Son, was praying to another Person in the Trinity, the Father. The Oneness Pentecostal would mean that in his human nature Jesus was praying to his divine nature. To me the latter suggests that the Oneness Pentecostal perceives Jesus as praying to himself. However, although conceding that this would be true for an ordinary person, Magee denies it for Jesus on the ground that as God and man he could perform the roles of each (Magee, page 11).

Magee goes on to describe a conversation between him and a Trinitarian which led to the latter’s agreeing that according to the doctrine of the Trinity God prayed to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, after which Magee observes, “Friends, if you ever hear someone praying, you know that they need help, and God most assuredly does not need help. A Divine Person does not need help, only men need help” (Magee, pages 10-11). Although (contra Magee) people don’t pray only when they need help, Jesus’ prayer in the garden certainly sounds like a request for help. Granting that it was, a Trinitarian might respond that Jesus is God-Man and that it was because of his humanity that he prayed as he did. However, if he did answer that way, he would enter an area of mystery just as hard to understand as the Oneness idea of Jesus’ human nature praying to His divine nature.

But, let’s go on to look at what happened as Jesus was praying after his baptism. The Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven addressed him as “Son.” A Trinitarian sees the three Persons of the Godhead here, God the Son (Jesus) being anointed by God the Holy Spirit and being spoken to by God the Father. Magee dismisses this, claiming that according to John 1:32-34 the voice and the dove were a private sign to John the Baptist, whereby he could identify Jesus as the Messiah, and that nobody else heard or saw them (Magee, pages 27-28) .However both Matthew and Mark state clearly that Jesus saw the dove (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10) and Mark and Luke record the voice as addressing Jesus as “You” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), suggesting that if the dove and the voice were just signs they were signs to Jesus as well as to John the Baptist. Moreover, John the Baptist doesn’t even mention hearing the voice.

Is Magee guilty here of careless exegesis (explanation or interpretation of the Bible) or of deliberately trying to mislead the reader? Possibly neither. Further on in Magee’s explanation of the event, he explains that the reason that he didn’t refer to Jesus’ seeing the dove or hearing the voice is that the man who was baptized by John was also the omnipresent God and He was responsible for the voice and the dove (Magee, page 28). In other words, Magee’s explanation here is the same as his explanation of Jesus’ praying: communication between the two natures of Jesus. At the baptism, according to Magee, Jesus’ divine nature, which Magee identifies with the Father and the Holy Spirit, spoke to his human nature, which Magee identifies with the Son (Magee, page 13).

Now to the saying of Jesus that Oneness Pentecostals cite as proof that Jesus is the Father. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), their interpreting “one” to mean “one person.” However, as I observed in my last post, Jesus could be understood as just affirming that he and the Father are one in purpose and character rather than that they are one person. Or he could be understood to be implying that they are one in essence or substance. In his classic A Commentary on the Whole Bible, Matthew Henry argues thus for the latter, “This denotes more than the harmony, and consent, and good understanding, that were between the Father and the Son in the work of man’s redemption. Every good man is so far one with God as to concur with him; therefore it must be meant of the oneness of the nature of Father and Son, that they are the same in substance, and equal in power and glory.” He continues, “The fathers urged this both against the Sabellians, to prove the distinction and plurality of the persons, that the Father and the Son are two, and against the Arians, to prove the unity of the nature, that these two are one.”

Our examination of Luke 3:21-22, which records an incident (the baptism of Jesus) cited by Trinitarians as one in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are referred together as if they were separate entities, and of John 10:30, which records a saying of Jesus that Oneness Pentecostals cite as proof that Jesus is the Father, has shown that proponents of each doctrine are able to point to Biblical passages that seem to favour the doctrine that they hold. Moreover, it has shown that, at least for the passages that I considered, proponents of the opposing doctrine are able to explain the passages cited so that they are consistent with the doctrine that they hold. Thus, each doctrine would seem to be a satisfactory explanation of the Biblical data.

Evaluation of the Assemblies of God’s Decision and of Grudem’s Assertion

Near the beginning of this post, I said that the purpose of my paper was to evaluate the decision by the Assemblies of God to affirm the doctrine of the Trinity and to expel Jesus Only ministers. I began with a survey of the Biblical data regarding the Godhead, a survey that brought to light a problem, namely, that in some way God is one and yet is three. I went on to see how the doctrine of the Trinity and Oneness doctrine solve the problem and to consider how well each doctrine fits the Biblical data, discovering that each doctrine could be a satisfactory explanation of the Biblical data.

Does this mean that the Assemblies of God shouldn’t have affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity and expelled the Jesus Only ministers? No. The insistence by the Jesus Only ministers on rebaptism in the name of Jesus and their aggressive pushing of Oneness doctrine was so divisive that, if it had been allowed to continue, it might have destroyed the young fellowship. Thus, a choice had to be made between Trinitarian and Oneness teaching, and the majority thought that the former made better sense. (I agree, thinking that the relationships between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that the Bible describes are more credibly explained as relationships between three Persons than as relationships between Jesus’ divine and human natures.) As a result of their decision and the expulsion of the Jesus Only ministers, two strong Pentecostal denominations were birthed, one Trinitarian (Assemblies of God) and the other Oneness (United Pentecostal Church), each preaching Christ, which is the important thing, as Paul told the Philippians: “The important thing is that in every way…Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18, NIV).

Also near the beginning of this post, I said that the purpose of my sharing the paper with my family was to help my family evaluate Grudem’s assertion that because the United Pentecostal Church is modalistic it is doubtful that it should be considered genuinely Christian. Actually when we’d read Grudem’s assertion the previous morning I ‘d asked the rest of the family what they thought of it. One of them observed that different denominations are like the crayons in a crayon box–they may be of different colours but they’re still crayons–and the rest of us agreed. We still felt the same way after I shared the paper, thinking like Paul that “the important thing is that in every way…Christ is preached.”

Before closing I’ll mention something else that was said in our discussion. The observation was made that Magee’s explaining aspects of Jesus’ baptism as communication between Jesus’ divine nature and his human nature made it seem as if he had a split personality. I think that we’re going to have an interesting time discussing Jesus as fully God and fully man and yet being one person when we reach that point (chapter 26) in our reading of Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Wish me luck!

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2 thoughts on “The Trinity – Modalism – Part 2

  1. Allison

    Thank you for this detailed history of how the United Pentecostal denomination arose. Although I grew up being aware of this Pentecost fraction, and having friends from the “Jesus Only” side, I must admit to being fuzzy on its historical backgrounds.

    PS I love the analogy the family suggested: “… different denominations are like the crayons in a crayon box–they may be of different colours but they’re still crayons.”

    Reply
    1. Bob Hunter Post author

      Allison, thanks. I think that at least some of your “Jesus Only” friends attended Nelson Guy’s church rather than the United Pentecostal or our church. If so, besides having a modalistic view of the Godhead, they accepted William Branham as a prophet.

      Reply

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