For a good many years I’ve been against oneness Pentecostalism. The first time I heard about it, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. It’s basic idea is what you call modalism. This is the belief that because God is one, he appears in different modes, such as the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, (or fire). At first when I heard of the view, I thought that it did a good job at blending the monotheistic view of God in the Old Testament with the apparently tri-theistic view of God in the New Testament. And I even became a modalist for several months during college, but never joined any oneness denomination. I did attend a United Pentecostal Church (UPC) service once during this period. All I can remember is that the preacher said that long hair on a woman is like Samson having spiritual power in his long hair. But sooner or later, I changed my mind in my theology; and became much more in line with the Assemblies of God. Although I did not fully understand trinitarianism, I knew that I believed in it, because I knew that it was the teaching of the Bible and the early church.
The Trinity in the Old Testament
There are a number of teachings that appear in the New Testament that are not really all that evident in the Old Testament, but that doesn’t mean that they’re non-existent. It just means that they’re a little bit harder to find. The doctrine of Hell is one of those things and so also is the doctrine of the Trinity. But even in the Old Testament, we can find occasions of something that looks like a plurality of persons in the godhead. In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let us make man in our own image.” That is definitely not a single person talking, but multiple people speaking amongst themselves. In Daniel 7:13, which was one of Jesus’s favorite Scriptures that He identified with Himself, it says, “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him.” This looks like a clear reference to Jesus and God the Father. In the Old Testament, the Ancient of Days was another title for God. And all throughout the Old Testament the Spirit of the Lord is referred to again and again. So whether we refer to the Ancient of Days (the Father), the Son of Man (Jesus, the Son), or the Spirit of the Lord (the Holy Spirit), it looks like we have some type of Old Testament references to the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Some people refer to the time in Genesis 18, when Abraham was visited by the three visitors before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They will refer to this as a manifestation of the Trinity, but I’m not convinced by that. It is true that one of those visitors was actually God and that Abraham spoke face-to-face with Him. But it is not evidently true that the other two angels that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah were the Son and the Holy Spirit. They come across only as angels.
The Trinity in the New Testament
When we come into the New Testament, the doctrine of the Trinity emerges through divine revelation and supernatural manifestation. Before the birth of Jesus it was announced by the angel Gabriel to Mary that “the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). That is a trinitarian statement: the Most High is the Father, the Son of God is Jesus, and the Holy Spirit conceived Him in Mary’s womb. At the baptism of Jesus, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit appear at the same time. Jesus is the Son of God and He was baptized by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit appeared as a dove and lighted down upon Jesus. The Father’s voice was heard from the sky when He said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). When we look at the transfiguration, again the Trinity manifests. This was the time when Peter, James, and John went up on Mount Tabor with Jesus. Jesus shone with the bright white light of the shekinah glory of God. The Holy Spirit appeared as a bright cloud and the disciples began to fall asleep. Moses and Elijah appeared and began to talk with Jesus; and the voice of the Father spoke out of the cloud to the apostles, and said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” (Matt. 17:5). So at the transfiguration Jesus was present, the Holy Spirit was present in the cloud, and the voice of the Father came out of the cloud. This was yet again another manifestation of the Trinity. There are also many trinitarian statements in the New Testament. In John 17, we have a very clear example of Jesus praying to God the Father. This is a good example of a trinitarian relationship in the godhead. If God did not have three persons, then it would make no sense for Jesus to pray to the Father. It would make no sense for the Son to speak to the Father, as one person speaks to another person. Every time Jesus prayed to His Father in the New Testament, it is evidence of the Trinity. Jesus told Philip that every time he has seen Jesus, he has seen the Father (John 14:9). And that is true, because the Son and the Father are linked in the godhead, but they are not the same person. While Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), Jesus is not personally the Father: Jesus is personally the Son.
The Trinity Shamrock
There are many trinitarian statements and expressions used in the letters of Paul. The historic Christian creeds of the early church defined God as a triune being, consisting in the three persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit but being in one substance as a Spirit. The Bible says that God is a Spirit (John 4:24), but also implies that He is a three-minded God yet connected in unity and harmony, so that we can say that there is one “mind of God” and one “will of God.” In Ireland it used to be taught by St. Patrick, that the three leaf clover (or the shamrock) was created by God as a sign of what the Trinity is like. When you take a look at it, the three leaf clover, you have three leaves connected with one stem. So also, God has three persons or three minds, but is connected with one Spirit. Each of the three leaves on a three leaf clover can represent the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and the stem that connects them can represent the oneness of God. So Christians can agree with the Old Testament when it says, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4). Monotheism is upheld and polytheism is rejected.
Oneness Pentecostalism: Modern Day Sabellianism
But the problem with oneness Pentecostalism is that they do not have the shamrock view of God. Whenever they hear a trinitarian talk, they get it in their heads that we are preaching polytheism. They seem to think that we believe God has three human bodies with three human heads, like the Mormons have conceived, and that they are not connected with one another. If that were true, then the doctrine of the Trinity would be just a form of polytheism. But this is the beginning of the strawman; and the beginning of the confusion from which oneness Pentecostalism grows. Oneness Pentecostalism, or modalism, is a reaction to what they think is “Christian polytheism.” It is a reaction to misinterpreting the doctrine of the Trinity to be a teaching of polytheism. The first modalists were Praxeas and Sabellius; and they had a charismatic type of spirituality. I think it’s interesting that oneness Pentecostals also have a charismatic type of spirituality; and have brought themselves to believe that the Trinity is a false doctrine. In my opinion, I think that oneness Pentecostalism comes from the activity of heretical demon spirits. Sometimes you’ll hear oneness Pentecostals speak of modalism as a revelation that they personally experienced from God’s Spirit. I think that such an occasion would be the devil deceiving them into thinking that they heard it from the Holy Ghost, but in fact they heard it from the devil to get them all confused about what the Bible teaches about God’s nature.
My Encounter With a Oneness Pentecostal
I recently had the unhappy privilege of meeting a oneness preacher. She was an older black woman. If this person could in any way be a representative sample of what all oneness people are like, then this experience might serve as a point of reference. But seeing that not everyone has the same personality, you can’t always make generalizations. As to some of her shibboleths, or theological oddities, I would like to make this short summary:
1. KJV Only. Only the King James Version of the Bible should be read; and no other Christian books (theology) should be read.
2. No TV For Kids. It’s okay to watch tennis on TV, but not okay to allow children to watch TV at all.
3. No Rock Music. It’s okay to listen to black gospel music like the kind made by Donnie McClurkin, and some contemporary Christian music, but not any secular rock music.
4. Closed-Minded. She had a very hateful attitude towards anyone who disagreed with her very narrow views. She liked to speak constantly, so as to shut out any other ideas or viewpoints; and was completely resistant to hearing about new ideas or other points of view (what she called “garbage” for the spirit); and was incapable of having a calm theological conversation…even though she has a Ph.D. in theology from Aenon Bible College.
5. Condemning. She complained a lot and was in the habit of condemning or suggesting that somebody was under the control of the devil, if they weren’t oneness or like her.
6. Oneness Mainly, Oneness Only. She seemed to mainly approve of preachers from the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW) or the United Pentecostal Church (UPC). Her ordination came from the PAW. But she appreciated some popular preachers like Bishop Noel Jones and Paul Washer.
7. Trinitarians Not Saved? She said that trinitarians do not have the correct understanding of God; and spoke as if their salvation were in question.
8. Argumentative. She had a very argumentative attitude. Whether it was about theology, or not about theology, she seemed to always make some sort of complaint. Or to be rude and pushy. I don’t want to blame the entire oneness movement for this, but something tells me that if you maintain an anti-trinitarian view, then you will likely have some degree of divisive or schismatic tendencies in your movement and attitude, because you’d have to always be preaching against the status quo, and defend your case, etc. But this might just have to do with the person that she was; or the family background that she came from.
9. Bullying. Her view of bullying, insults, or verbal abuse was as something that’s harmless. She looked upon such behavior coming from others as something that God gives us, in order to make us stronger. It’s no wonder then, since she yields to it, and accepts it as justifiable, that she becomes just like that.
10. Poor Discernment. She believes that 99% of her visions and dreams come from God; and that they did not have to be weighed, judged, sifted, or evaluated by the Bible. For her to do so would be a lack of faith. When I mentioned that Mark Virkler thought the same thing, and that he charged people $300 to teach them to hear the voice of God, she seem to find the whole thing agreeable. And also that it didn’t seem to be so much of a problem, if Pentecostal preachers had their own private jets, so that they could travel around the world and preach the “gospel.”
11. Mandatory Fasts to Eliminate Sins? Her particular prayer group fasts every Wednesday, with the Daniel fast, for the particular purpose of what she called “subduing her flesh,” to make sure all of her sins are drained out of her body, so that she can properly hear from God. I didn’t want to dash her hopes, but I doubted that it was working out for her, because her whole attitude was very contrary to the fruit of the Spirit.
12. Wearing Your Sunday Best: The Key to Holiness? Overall, I sensed the spirit of a Pharisee: a self-righteous, intolerant, irritable, high-minded, arrogant, prideful, haughty, extremely critical, rude, and extremely judgmental person, who is so uptight that I don’t think she is capable of having fun. Her view of holiness was extremely narrow, and not really very Biblical: and that was this one thing: when people go to church, they better dress up in really nice church clothes, otherwise they are not fearing God. This was one of her major concerns. Nothing to say of the ten commandments being written on the heart, the Sermon on the Mount, Colossians 3 or Ephesians 4-5, or the fruit of the Spirit, or of the works of charity or piety. (In her defense, she did make brief references to Philippians 4:8 and Hebrews 12:14.) Nothing to be said about modest clothing on women…I had to bring that up. Pretty much the sum total of her view of holiness was: if you go to church on Sunday, then you better wear your Sunday best or God’s going to get you; and she compared going to church like going to court to see Judge Judy.
May God have mercy on this person, and intervene in her life, and reveal Himself to her, and reveal His fatherhood, grace, and trinitarian nature: especially that. Because if she became a trinitarian, then that would basically put her in the evangelical stream of Christianity, which is the mainstream; and there is a whole lot better understanding of grace, and balance with God’s law, and interaction with culture. While evangelicalism is in a great need for revival, it still is the truth. But I think that when people adopt a view that is so marginal, and so heretical, like oneness Pentecostalism, they put themselves into a corner; and they’re not able to see the bigger picture; and they can entertain such strange views and foolish opinions; and hate everyone else that doesn’t agree with their preferences and particular beliefs.