By Dr. David K. Bernard
Book Review of E. Calvin Beisner, "Jesus Only" Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 87 pages.
It is important for Trinitarians and Oneness believers to communicate with each other and to develop a greater understanding of one another's beliefs. The back cover of Beisner's booklet promises to provide "essential and reliable information and insights" on Oneness Pentecostalism. Unfortunately, the booklet fails in this purpose and actually creates significant obstacles for understanding and communication. The prejudicial slant does not foster dialogue, much of the information is simply wrong, the presentation of Oneness Pentecostal doctrinal views is seriously flawed, and the presentation of "historic, orthodox understanding" is surprisingly narrow and controversial.
The title itself provide an indication of problems to come, for it uses a derogatory and misleading label to characterize the movement it seeks to understand. This branch of Pentecostalism uses the designations of Apostolic, Jesus Name, and Oneness to identify itself. The label "Jesus Only" arose as a description of its baptismal formula, but soon opponents began using it against Oneness adherents, erroneously claiming that they denied the Father and the Holy Spirit. As a result Oneness Pentecostals today do not designate themselves by the term "Jesus Only" and generally consider it misleading and offensive. Similarly, the booklet's use of three theatrical masks to symbolize the Oneness doctrine is inaccurate and inappropriate.
It is evident that the author and publisher wish to portray Oneness Pentecostals as cultists and false religionists. The booklet is one of the newest in a series by various authors entitled Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. On the cover, the most prominent word in this series title is Cults. The introductory booklet to the series is Unmasking the Cults. The last booklet in the series summarizes all the movements studied, and its title is Truth and Error: Comparative Charts of Cults and Christianity. The other twelve titles in the series are Jehovah's Witnesses; Masonic Lodge; Mormonism; New Age Movement; Satanism; Unification Church; Mind Sciences; Astrology and Psychic Phenomena; Buddhism, Taoism and Other Far Eastern Religions; Goddess Worship, Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism; Hinduism, TM and Hare Krishna; and Unitarian Universalism.
Classifying Oneness Pentecostals with these groups implies a spiritual similarity and a common satanic origin. At the least, it seems that the author and publisher discredit all Oneness Pentecostal experiences with God. But how can they venture to make such a judgment with no indication that they have ever attended Oneness Pentecostal worship services or interacted significantly with Oneness Pentecostals on a personal level?
How can they seemingly denigrate all faith, repentance, reception of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and spiritual fruit among Oneness Pentecostals while apparently accepting the same manifestations among Trinitarian Pentecostals? Have they no concern that they could be ascribing works of the Holy Spirit to Satan, something Jesus warned strongly against in Matthew 12:22-32? In this connection, it is noteworthy that many Oneness Pentecostals first believed on the Lord, repented, or received the Holy Spirit in Trinitarian churches and then continued serving the Lord in Oneness churches.
The author's willingness to excoriate Oneness Pentecostals for their doctrine of God is particularly surprising in light of views expressed in his book God in Three Persons:
Monarchianism is represented today by the United ("Jesus
Only") Pentecostals. . . . As the differences between modalism
and pure trinitarianism are rather minute, it is not surprising that a great number of Christians in mainline denominations,
including Roman Catholicism, hold a modalistic conception of the Trinity, at least unconsciously.(1)
According to this passage, the Oneness doctrine is a relatively insignificant deviation from "pure trinitarianism" and amounts to nothing more than "a modalistic conception of the Trinity." Why then it is sufficient to make someone a cultist? Is the author now willing to extend this blanket condemnation to the "great number of Christians in mainline denominations" who hold essentially the same view?
Serious Errors of Fact
The booklet begins with historical background and statistics. Here we find many egregious errors, such as these examples from pages 8 and 9:
· Claim: There have been two "recent schisms" in the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI). First, in 1986 a "3,000-member" church left. Response: The church in question had about one-fifth this number at the time, and there was no schism.
· Claim: In 1993 "over 200 pastors" left the UPCI rather than "pledge conformity with the UPCI's 'Holiness Standard.'" The booklet repeats a 1993 prediction that "800 ministers would leave the denomination soon" and comments, "It is not yet disclosed how many defected." Response: In the spring of 1993, the UPCI reported that 50 pastors withdrew by missing the final deadline to sign an annual reaffirmation of two sections of the UPCI's Articles of Faith entitled "Fundamental Doctrine" and "Holiness." A total of 120 ministers did not sign the affirmation, representing 1.6 percent of the total of 7,668 in the United States and Canada in 1992.(2)
· Claim: "Oneness Pentecostalism worldwide comprises about 90 denominations in 57 countries. Response: The UPCI by itself exists in 135 countries.(3)
· Claim: "Estimated affiliated [Oneness Pentecostal] church members worldwide in 1990 totaled about 1.4 million." The cited source is David Barrett (1988). Response: The author misread his source, because Barrett listed two categories of Oneness Pentecostals totaling 4,704,960.(4) Moreover, this estimate is over ten years old and incomplete. In June 1997, Charisma magazine reported 17 million Oneness believers.(5) The most thorough study of this subject, presented as a master's thesis for Wheaton College in 1998, documents over 21 million Oneness Pentecostals.(6)
· Claim: "About 75 percent (1.03 million) were affiliated with the UPCI." Response: In 1997, the UPCI published the following statistics as of midyear: In the U.S. and Canada, there were 8,091 ministers; 3,821 churches (not including daughter works); and a reported Easter attendance of 428,513. In the rest of the world, there were 14,588 ministers; 20,348 churches and preaching points; and 1,908,943 constituents.(7) If we estimate total constituency in the U.S. and Canada to be approximately twice the reported Sunday attendance, as does the Assemblies of God, then as of 1998 the total worldwide constituency is about 3 million.
· Claim: "The schism of 1993 throws membership figures in doubt from that year forward. Before the schism , worldwide membership was about 1.1 million. About two years later , it decreased to about 1.02 million." Response: The booklet provides no source for these erroneous statistics or the mythical decrease. In 1992 reported Easter attendance in the U.S. and Canada was 384,610, and total foreign constituency was 1,050,973.(8) In 1994 Easter attendance was 400,991, and foreign constituency was 1,623,030.(9) The respective growth rates for this two-year period are 4.3 percent and 54.4 percent.
Numerous other errors exist in the booklet, but these will suffice to demonstrate the extent of the problem. The research is careless, to say the least. The booklet consistently uses outdated and false information that puts Oneness Pentecostals in an unfavorable light when accurate, current information is readily available, thereby revealing that prejudice has significantly compromised the scholarship. The seriousness of the errors calls into question the integrity and trustworthiness of the entire enterprise.
Faulty Presentation of Oneness Doctrine
The bulk of the booklet is devoted to three theological topics: the doctrines of Christ, Trinity, and salvation. It contains numerous quotations from various Oneness authors, but never when it gives the "basic statement of the Oneness position" on each topic (pages 11, 25, and 51). In each case, it significantly distorts the Oneness position and thus argues against a straw man.
On the doctrine of Christ, it reduces the Oneness teaching concerning the relation of Jesus to the Father and Holy Spirit as follows: "Jesus is the Father and the Holy Spirit." On the doctrine of God, the booklet represents Oneness believers as saying "Jesus = the Father = the Holy Spirit." As they stand, these statements are simplistic, incomplete, out of context, and therefore distortions. Here are more accurate statements, the first one from the UPCI Articles of Faith:
Before the incarnation, this one true God manifested Himself in divers ways. In the incarnation, He manifests Himself in the
Son, who walked among men. As He works in the lives of believers, He manifests Himself as the Holy Spirit. . . . This one
true God was manifest in the flesh, that is, in His Son Jesus Christ.(10)
The doctrine known as Oneness can be stated in two
affirmations: (1) There is one God with no distinction of persons; (2)
Jesus Christ is all the fullness of the Godhead incarnate. . . . Jesus is the one God incarnate. . . . Jesus is the Father incarnate.
. . . The Holy Spirit is literally the Spirit that was in Jesus Christ. . . . The UPCI teaches that the one God existed as Father
and Holy Spirit before his incarnation as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and that while Jesus walked on earth as God Himself
incarnate, the Spirit of God continued to be omnipresent.(11)
We do not believe that the Father is the
Son, [but] we do believe that the Father is in the Son (John 14:10). Since Jesus
the name of the Son of God, both as to His deity as Father and as to His humanity as Son, it is the name of both the Father
and the Son.(12)
On the doctrine of salvation, the booklet represents Oneness Pentecostals as believing that "water baptism is the indispensable means of regeneration." This statement is false. While Oneness Pentecostals generally agree that water baptism is for the remission of sins, part of the new birth, and part of the experience of New Testament salvation, they believe that regeneration is supremely the work of the Holy Spirit and purchased by the blood of Jesus.
The booklet says the true view is that "God, the agent of regeneration and remission, may elect to use it [baptism] or not. . . . Christ's blood, not water, washes away sins" (pages 57-58). Oneness Pentecostals accept this view. They would argue, however, that while God is sovereign in establishing a plan of salvation and then in judging an individual's fulfillment of that plan, from the human perspective water baptism is not an option but a divine command to obey and a necessary act of faith. The following statements summarize their true views:
Water baptism is not a magical act; it is without
spiritual value unless accompanied by conscious faith and repentance.
Baptism is important only because God has ordained it to be so. God could have chosen to remit sin without baptism, but in
the New Testament church He has chosen to do so at the moment of baptism. Our actions at baptism do not provide
salvation or earn it from God; God alone remits sins based on Christ's atoning death. When we submit to water baptism
according to God's plan, God honors our obedient faith and remits our sin.
The Bible describes water and Spirit baptism as two distinct events. . . .
The New Testament particularly associates the Holy Spirit with God's work of regeneration and His dwelling in man. . . .
God could have chosen to remit sins without water
baptism, but we exceed our authority if we assert that He will or list
circumstances under which He will. . . . We should obey the full gospel to the utmost of our understanding and capacity,
encourage everyone else to do the same, and leave eternal judgment to God. (13)
For a detailed discussion of the various doctrinal and historical points that the booklet raises, see the following books by David K. Bernard, published by Word Aflame Press: The Oneness of God, The Oneness View of Jesus Christ, The New Birth, and Oneness and Trinity: A.D. 100-300.
Narrow Presentation of "Historic Orthodoxy"
The booklet's presentation of the "historic, orthodox understanding" of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation is surprising in places. Its position on a number of issues is quite controversial, and its appeal to historical authority is inconsistent. Here are some examples:
· It relies heavily on postbiblical tradition to support the doctrine of the Trinity and Trinitarian baptism, when Scripture alone should be our doctrinal authority, in practice as well as in theory. For the "basic statement of the doctrine of the Trinity" it quotes the Athanasian Creed instead of Scripture (pages 42-43). It asserts, "The proper formula for water baptism is triune," and as proof it cites the following authorities: Matthew 28:19, the Didache, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, and the church historians Sozomen and Socrates (pages 71-72).
· Ironically, on other subjects the booklet ignores prominent and even majority teachings in church history, thereby falsely portraying its views as the only "historic, orthodox" ones. For instance, most of the writers it cites as authorities for the baptismal formula taught that baptism effects the remission of sins and is part of the new birth. So taught Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine, and many more.(14) It vehemently denounces as cultic the teaching that baptism is part of the experience of salvation, yet it conveniently omits that throughout history and even today most professing Christians have affirmed this very doctrine, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Lutherans (the first Protestants). The Nicene Creed affirms "one baptism for the remission of sins," and the framers clearly meant that in the ceremony of water baptism God washes away sins.
If the creeds and the ancient writers known as the church fathers represent so-called historic orthodoxy on the doctrine of God, why do they not equally represent historic orthodoxy on the doctrine of water baptism? The truth is that the author is highly selective in what he deems orthodoxy. To support the doctrine of the Trinity he invokes the creeds and fathers and denounces anyone who would deviate from their supposed authority, yet he renounces their authority when it comes to water baptism.
Similarly, the booklet says that the holiness teachings of the UPCI "are strange and legalistic and lack biblical ground" (page 74), yet it ignores the strong teachings of ancient writers such as Tertullian and Cyprian on this very subject. While embracing John Calvin's doctrine of predestination, the booklet says nothing about Calvin's teachings on practical holiness and the laws he promulgated on this subject in Geneva, which were stricter than the voluntary disciplines that the UPCI has adopted in obedience to the Scriptures.
· The presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity suffers from the classic weaknesses of the doctrine, namely tendencies toward tritheism and subordinationism. Many Trinitarians will have problems affirming his views in this area.
For instance, the booklet argues strongly that the Godhead is a substance that subsists in three centers of consciousness. "The term person can properly denote self-conscious things other than human beings, such as angels, demons, imaginary self-conscious beings, and each of the three persons of God" (page 47). Interestingly, A Handbook of Theological Terms asserts, "No important Christian theologian has argued that there are three self-conscious beings in the godhead,"(15) but this booklet certainly comes close to doing so.
One passage of Scripture seems to give the author particular trouble: "Now the Lord is that Spirit" (II Corinthians 3:17). To avoid saying that "the Spirit" here is the Holy Spirit, he argues that there are at least two divine Spirits, "the Holy Spirit" and "the spirit that is God's substance": "There are many spirits other than the Holy Spirit, both literal (e.g., angels, demons, the spirits of men, and the spirit that is God's substance [John 4:24]) and metaphorical" (page 34).
To avoid saying that "the Lord" in II Corinthians 3:17 is Jesus, he indicates that Jesus and Jehovah are not the same being and that there is more than one divine Lord: "The word Lord in 1 Corinthians 8:6 denotes Jesus, while in 2 Corinthians 3:17 it may instead denote Jehovah. . . . 1 Cor. 8:6 teaches only that one Lord is in special relationship to believers, not that there is only one lord at all" (page 35, text and note 91).
The admits a certain subordination in the Godhead, using terms that one could apply to children or to subjects of an absolute monarch: "Although it affirms their equality of nature, Trinitarianism acknowledges a subordination of will by the Son to the Father and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son" (p. 39).
· When presenting the "historic, orthodox" view of salvation, the booklet advocates a strict, five-point Calvinism, including unconditional election and unconditional eternal security. The implication is that all who do not adhere to this view--and the vast majority of professing Christians do not--are heretical. Here are some surprising statements based on this view:
"New birth is a gift of God's sovereign grace, independent of the sinner's actions" (page 64).
"Faith and repentance follow new birth" (page 65).
"Acts 2:1-4 does not report the disciples' receiving the Spirit" (page 62).
In summary, it appears that the purpose of the booklet is not to engage in serious, respectful dialogue with the goal of ascertaining biblical truth, but to prejudice readers against Oneness Pentecostals by labeling them a cult, presenting a superficial caricature of their teachings, and leaving a false impression that many are abandoning this message while only a few are embracing it. These seem to be desperate tactics motivated by a fear that if people indeed give careful consideration to the message of Oneness Pentecostals, then many will embrace it.
When sinners on the Day of Pentecost cried out to the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" the apostle Peter responded, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:37-38).
By contrast, the author of this booklet would have responded, in effect, "You can do nothing but hope that God has already chosen you for salvation. If He has, you will be born again before you believe on Jesus Christ and before you repent of your sins. Assuming you are regenerated, then you will automatically believe and repent, and afterwards if you wish you may be baptized, although it is not necessary for the remission of sins. If you do get baptized, you do not need to use the name of Jesus, but you should invoke three divine persons--the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--in accordance with the doctrine of the Trinity that will be developed over the next three centuries. Finally, the Spirit will have filled you, although not according to the experience that we have just received and you have just witnessed, for after all, we already had the Spirit anyway. One day you too will realize that you already received the Spirit, and then you may wish to seek for an optional baptism of the Spirit."
The contrast is stark. Let us embrace the message and experience of the apostles.
1. i.E. Calvin Beisner, God in Three Persons (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1984), 18.
2. ii."Ministers Who Have Not Signed Affirmation," unpublished list compiled by UPCI Church Administration, 20 May 1993. See also Financial Reports, United Pentecostal Church International, Year Ending June 30, 1992, vi.
3. iii.Financial Reports, UPCI, June 30, 1997, 71.
4. iv.David Barrett, "Statistics, Global," Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, ed. Stanley Burgess, Gary McGee, and Patrick Alexander (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 813.
5. v.J. Lee Grady, "The Other Pentecostals," Charisma, June 1997, 63.
6. vi.Talmadge L. French, "Oneness Pentecostalism in Global Perspective: The Worldwide Growth and Organizational Expansion of the Oneness Pentecostal Movement in Historical and Theological Context," M.A. Thesis, Wheaton College Graduate School, Wheaton, IL, 1998.
7. vii.Financial Reports, UPCI, June 30, 1997, vi, 71, 84.
8. viii.Financial Reports, UPCI, June 30, 1992, 75, 90.
9. ix.Financial Reports, UPCI, June 30, 1994, 77, 93.
10 x.Manual, United Pentecostal Church International, 1998, 20.
11.xi.David K. Bernard, The Oneness View of Jesus Christ (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1994), 9 12-13, 141.
12.xii.David K. Bernard, The Oneness of God (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1983), 127.
13.xiii. David K. Bernard, The New Birth (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1984), 131, 152, 187, 307.
14.xiv.For documentation, see Bernard, New Birth, 261-64.
15.xv.Van Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 246.