Can you explain Oneness Theology? How is it distinct from the doctrine of the Trinity?
Hey Dr. Oakes, I’ve got a friend that is trying to communicate with me about Oneness Theology as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity. Even as he was attempting to explain it to me, I am having a difficult time understanding the differences. What is the difference between the two? What do you think and why do you believe what you believe on the subject? Thank you for your help on this one!
For some reason I have had more questions than usual lately about heterodox theologies such as Unitarianism and Oneness Theology. I prefer the term Modalism because the phrase Oneness Theology is ambiguous. Those who believe in some form of trinitarian theology also believe in oneness. Jesus said that he and the Father are one, so all Christians, both those who would accept the label trinitarian and those who would not, believe in the oneness of God. In the early church, Oneness Theology was referred to as Sabellianism or Modalism. Modalism is the belief that there is only one person/God but that God is revealed in three different aspects or forms, depending on the situation. One God in three different modes or manifestations. It is called Sabellianism after Sabellius who was this theology’s chief proponent in the third century.
There are a number of Pentacostal groups which teach Oneness Theology. The majority of Pentacostals teach a more traditional trinitarian theology, but a fairly significant minority teach modalism. A split in the Pentacostal movement occurred in 1914, which led to this distinction. One resource I found said that there are 25 million who accept this theology. More accurately, there are 25 million who attend a church which formally accepts this theology. It is entirely possible that many in these churches are not even aware of the distinction between the idea that there are three “persons” in the godhead and modalism. There are probably many in Oneness churches who believe that the Son and the Father are different “persons.”
Of course, the only real important question is which is the correct theology? It is my opinion that Modalism/Oneness Theology is the result of people trying to rationalize biblical theology. The idea of a three-in-one God is difficult to accept using human logic, so many are attracted to other, seemingly more rational theologies. However, I strongly believe in the traditional view for several reasons. We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18). [Note: Oneness Pentacostals vehemently reject using Matthew 28:18 is their baptismal formulas, which is troubling, given that it is in the Bible!] John 1:1 says, both that Jesus was WITH God and Jesus WAS God. If both are true, then Modalism/Oneness Theology are disproved. Jesus prayed to the Father. Jesus said that the Father is greater than he is. Jesus said that he would send the Holy Spirit–a deposit guaranteeing our salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14). There are passages which can be confusing at times because God is one. There is one God. Therefore, many things said in the Bible can make it hard to grasp the idea that Jesus is a person disctinct from the Father or the Holy Spirit, but there are just plain too many passages which make the idea of one God in three “persons” unavoidable.
The word “trinity” is not found in the Bible. It was apparently invented by the Church Father Tertullian around 200 BC, but the bulk of the Church accepted the use of this terminology to express their understanding of biblical theology by the fourth century. Whether the “trinity” is biblical is probably debatable, but Oneness Theology is certainly not biblical. Are there literally three separate persons in the diety? Has the Catholic taken this idea too literally? Perhaps, but Oneness/Modalism goes too far in the other direction. Jesus is not one and the same as the Father. Neither is the Father one and the same as the Holy Spirit. Revelation 4 is a picture of the Father and Revelation 5 is a picture of the Son. EXACTLY what this means, I am prepared to say I do not know, but I am confident that Modalism is not correct.
Is this a salvation issue? I am not absolutely sure. I will let God make this decision. Unitarianism, which is a theology which denies diety to Christ is surely heretical, but whether denial of separate personhood to the Son of God is a salvation issue is something I will leave up to you to form your own opinion. Of course, our opinion does not affect the truth. What I can say is that we should not back down and should not compromise on this important theological question. We should tell our Modalistic/Oneness friends that their view of deity is not correct.