Oneness Objections

by Francis J. Beckwith

(The Trinity Series: Part V)

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In the first four parts of this series we concluded that (1) the Bible teaches that there is only one God by nature, and (2) the Bible teaches that there are three persons who are God. From those two premises we drew the inference that the three persons--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--are the one God. We also concluded that the three are distinct persons, not simply three different functions of one person.

But according to the "Jesus Only" sect (a.k.a "Oneness Pentecostalism,"), the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons who share the same nature and being, but rather, they are the same person. Each title--"Father," "Son," and "Holy Spirit"--represents a different mode by which God, a single person, manifests Himself, just as "uncle," "husband," and "brother" each represents a different mode by which Frank Beckwith (FB), a single human person, manifests himself. This is why the ancient heresy which Oneness embraces is called "modalism."

Consequently, anything true of Frank Beckwith uncle (FBu) must be true of Frank Beckwith husband (FBh) and Frank Beckwith brother (FBb). That is to say, it can not be the case that FBu is married to Frankie Rozelle Dickerson Beckwith (yes, my wife's name is Frankie) while FBh is not. It can not be the case that FBh hit 9 3-pt. jumpshots in a city league basketball game in February 1993 while FBb did not. What is true of FBu, as a person, must be true of FBh and FBb if they are all the same person. Certainly it is true that the relationships that make u, h, and b distinct are different, but the person to which these titles apply must possess all the same properties regardless of in what role he is functioning (that is, whether brother, husband, or uncle). That is, everything that is true of the Frank Beckwith who is the uncle of Dean James Beckwith and Dylan Patrick Beckwith is true of the Frank Beckwith who is married to Frankie R.D. Beckwith and who is the brother of Dr. James Beckwith and Patrick Beckwith.

Thus, in order for modalism (or "Oneness") to be correct there must be nothing true of one "mode" which is not true of another "mode". But if there is just one thing true of one which is not true of another, then they cannot be the same person and modalism is false.

Understand the monumental task of the Oneness apologist: he must overturn our common sense intuition that when the Bible speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the Bible is in fact speaking of three persons rather than one. That is to say, on the face of it, it would appear that a plain reading of the text clearly presents three distinct persons, since we have numerous verses that indicate communication and relationship between persons, such as when Jesus prayed to his Father and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. In other words, since the common sense plain reading of the text indicates three distinct persons, the burden of proof is without a doubt on the Oneness person to show the common sense plain reading is false. The Trinitarian does not have the burden of proof.

Consider the following:

(1) Jesus of Nazareth is called the one and only mediator between God and man (I Tim 2:5; Heb 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). This would mean that God the Son has a property--mediatorship--which is possessed by neither God the Father nor God the Holy Spirit, since the text is saying he is the ONLY mediator between humanity and the Godhead.

(2) "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, `This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'" (Matt. 3:16-17). The Son has the property of "being the Son loved by the Father" but not the property of "being the Father who loves the Son." The Spirit has neither property. Thus, we have in this verse a clear distinction between the persons of the Trinity.

(3) "`No one knows, however, when that day and hour will come--neither the angels in heaven nor the Son; the Father alone knows.'" (Matt. 24:36). Here the Son has a property (not knowing the day or hour of his second coming) which the Father does not. Imagine if I said, "Only Frank Beckwith as an uncle knows what he's getting from his wife for Christmas. Frank Beckwith as a brother does not know what he's getting from his wife for Christmas." You would have to infer from this that there must two Frank Beckwiths. If not, then it is logically incoherent.

(4) "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..." (Matt. 28:19). In the Greek, tou ("the") is used for each title, and each is separated by kai ("and"). This helps support the view that in this text three distinct individual persons are being spoken of:

If the Greek text had been referring to only one person, it would have most likely read:

I don't want to make too much of grammatical constructions, but it seems that because of the use of both the article and its own conjunction, it is highly unlikely that the author was talking about only one person (on this, see Bruce Tucker, TWISTING THE TRUTH: RECOGNIZING HOW CULT GROUPS SUBTLY DISTORT BASIC CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES (Bethany House, 1987)).

If two things have every property in common, then they are one thing (e.g., Norma Jean Baker and Marilyn Monroe, Casius Clay and Muhammed Ali). But if there is only one property that is not the same, then they are separate persons. This is called the indiscernibility of identicals (II), or in symbolic form:

That is, for any entities x and y, if x and y are the same thing, then any property P, P is true of x if and only if P is true of y. If x is the Son and y is the Father, then if Oneness is true, x must be identical to y. On the other hand, if something is true of the Son which is not true of the Father, then the Son is not identical to the Father and Oneness if false. II is a principle of sound reasoning which is the basis for all thought. But we have seen that there are things true of the Son which are not true of the Father and there are things true of the Spirit which are not true of either the Father or the Son.

Suppose the Oneness person denies the applicability of logic to God. But, of course, he can't, because this very claim presupposes logic. That is, the Oneness apologist is saying "It cannot be the case that we can apply logic to God," which means that God cannot both be "a being to which logic applies" and "a being to which logic does not apply." So the Oneness person assumes the most fundamental principle of logic--the law of non-contradiction--in his denial of logic. Also, Oneness itself as a theory of the Godhead presupposes a number of logical virtues which its proponents think it exemplifies in comparison to Trinitarianism: coherency, simplicity, consistency with the biblical text, etc.

Of course, much more can be said critiquing the Oneness view of God. There are many verses Oneness apologists use in order to prove their case. I simply do not have the time to go over them. My purpose was to present a positive case for the traditional doctrine of the Trinity and why church history has supported this doctrine. Scholarly responses to oneness can be found in Gregory Boyd's ONENESS PENTECOSTALISM AND THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY (Baker Books, 1992) and E. Calvin Beisner's forthcoming book "JESUS ONLY" AND ONENESS PENTECOSTALISM (Zondervan, 1995), published as part of Zondervan's series of small books on cults.

I hope that this series has been helpful to you.

Francis J. Beckwith is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Culture, and Law, and W. Howard Hoffman Scholar, Trinity Graduate School, Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL), California Campus.

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