This summer, I met a guy who said he is not trinitarian. He believes in God the Father and that Jesus is God, but stated that he is “not in any way trinitarian.” I was immediately confused as to how this could be, and wondered if he could really be a Christian.
According to the Apologetics Research Center, this Oneness view can be traced back to Pentecostal churches in the early 1900’s. They believe that God on earth is Jesus Christ, and God in heaven is God the Father, but they are the same person revealed differently. This seems to be an assault on the basic character of God. Several years ago, when I was researching what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, I was struck by how most of their doctrinal differences don’t seem that different, with the exception of Jesus Christ (they believe that Jesus is the same as Michael the Archangel). If a teacher changes the identity of Jesus, he is not worshiping the same God as I am. But I’m still not sure that Oneness churches are preaching another Jesus.
Here is what I am sure of:
God is One
Deuteronomy 6:4 states “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” According to the scholar Jennifer George (PhD dissertation available on ProQuest), this verse is not a statement of monotheism, but of uniqueness and separation of God from His creation. A more immediately convincing argument that there is only one God comes from I Cor. 8:6, “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
God is the creator of all things, and Jesus Christ is the reason anything exists. There is one God, there is one Lord. This verse declares that there is only one God. The context is about eating meat that was offered to idols; it’s okay, because idols are nothing. There is only one God.
Jesus is God
The Gospel of John is chock full of hints about the Deity of Jesus Christ. Some of those will be touched on in a minute; however, my favorite proof text is Titus 2:13. “Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”
Our God is Jesus. We worship Him, and no other God. So far, Jehovah’s Witnesses will heartily disagree, but a Oneness Pentecostal would not have a problem with these statements. This next point will not be as agreeable.
The Holy Spirit is God
John Calvin’s Institutes contain a pair of paragraphs that describe why it is clear that the Holy Spirit is God. Among his reasons are the fact that the Spirit gives both life and eternal life; if giving life is the role of God, how much more the act of eternal life? Christians are saved and sanctified by the Spirit, and receive gifts from the Spirit, which are actions of God. Our bodies are the temple of God because the Spirit lives in us. (Check out Ryrie’s Basic Theology for a more succinct statement or Chafer’s Systematic Theology for a less succinct treatment.)
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate persons
In the tenth chapter of John, Jesus makes several statements about His Father. First, in verses 14-15, He says “I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” The relationship between Jesus and His people is just like the relationship between Him and the Father. In verse 17, the Father has the emotion of love toward Jesus; in 18, Jesus says He received a command from the Father. In 29, Jesus’ sheep were given to Him by the Father. As a culmination to all this interaction between Father and Son, Jesus states “I and my Father are one.”
This chapter could be taken as evidence for both sides: clearly, the Father and Son are in perfect agreement. In fact, they are one. This is completely in line with trinitarianism, but a Oneness Pentecostal could also point to “I and the Father are one” as a denial of them being two persons. But John 17 reinforces the relational theme as Jesus prays to God the Father. Most notably, Jesus asks to be glorified “with the glory I had with you before the world began.” It wasn’t as God, but with God.
Since the Bible teaches one God in three persons, can you reject that and still claim to be a believer? More simply stated, can a person be saved without believing in the Trinity?
The key seems to be believing that Jesus is God. John Piper says there is a “cluster of things about yourself, about God, and about the cross” that must be believed for salvation. In this article, he specifically says that the Trinity is not part of that cluster. However, the work of salvation can only be done by God: “No man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life … But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol.” (Psalm 49:7,15) For Jesus to be the savior, He must be God. For a sinner to receive salvation, he must put his trust in God. To believe that Jesus is only a man is to miss out on salvation.
But that point is not where Oneness believers miss out. They believe Jesus is God, and that His death on the Cross brings salvation. An overzealous protection of God’s unity is not so severe a heresy as to keep them out of heaven.
In conclusion, my knee-jerk reaction to learning that someone is wrong should be to go to the Word of God in order to strengthen what I believe, and not to be filled with accusation against the one in error. Someday I could find myself wrong about something, and this approach will be a good start towards fixing my own errors.
If you want to do some more reading on trinitarianism and non-trinitarianism, A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines by William Smith has a wealth of information on both the standard trinitarian view and many variants such as Sabellianism and Docetism. Or, for a briefer overview, R. C. Sproul wrote a short booklet called What is the Trinity?— August 8, 2017