The Trinity, the Definition of Chalcedon, and Oneness Theology

by James White

Part I


The doctrine of the Trinity requires a balanced view of Scripture. That is, since the doctrine itself is derived from more than one stream of evidence, it requires that all the evidence be weighed and given authority. If any of the foundational pillars of the doctrine (monotheism, the deity of Christ, the person of the Holy Spirit, etc.) be ignored or even rejected, the resulting doctrinal system will differ markedly from the orthodox position, and will lose its claim to be called "biblical."

For centuries various small groups have rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. In modern times these groups have frequently attracted quite a following; Jehovah's Witnesses as the modern heirs of Arius have over 3 million people actively engaged in their work; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) are heirs of ancient polytheism and mystery religions, and nearly 6.5 million adhere to their teachings. A smaller number of people, however, cling to the third-century position of modalism - the teachings of men such as Sabellius or Praxeas or Noetus. Though fewer in number, it is this position, popularly called the "Oneness" teaching, that prompts this paper's clarification of the Biblical position regarding the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ.

Oneness writers strongly deny the doctrine of the Trinity. In the words of David K. Bernard,

"The Bible does not teach the doctrine of the trinity, and trinitarianism actually contradicts the Bible. It does not add any positive benefit to the Christian message....the doctrine of the trinity does detract from the important biblical themes of the oneness of God and the absolute deity of Jesus Christ."[1]

The attack on the Trinity launched by Oneness writers can be divided into two camps. There are some writers who know what the doctrine is and disagree with it; unfortunately, many others don't know what it is and attack it anyway, normally misrepresenting the doctrine in quite obvious ways. For example, one writer, while ridiculing the use of the term "mystery" in reference to the Trinity said, "When asked to explain how God could be one and three persons at the same time the answer is, "It's a mystery." "[2] Of course, the doctrine of the Trinity does not say God is one person and three persons or one being and three beings, but that within the one being of God there exists eternally three persons. It is easy to see why many find the doctrine unintelligible, especially when they trust writers who are not careful in their research.

This Oneness teaching is quite attractive to the person who wishes, for whatever personal reason, to "purge" the faith of what they might consider to be "man's philosophies." There are a number of Oneness groups in the United States, located primarily in the South and Midwest. The United Pentecostal Church is the largest of the Oneness groups in the U.S.; others include the Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, and the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith. Each of these groups has thousands of followers, many of whom are quite evangelistic in spreading their faith. Given that many of the issues that Oneness addresses are not familiar ground for most Christians, it is good to examine these issues in the light of Biblical revelation and theology so that the orthodox Christian will be able to "give a reason" for the hope that is within us.

This survey will be broken into four sections. First, the important aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity relevant to the Oneness position will be examined. These would include the Christian definition of monotheism, the existence of three persons, the pre-existence of the Son and the internal operations of the Trinity. Secondly, vital issues relevant to Christology will be addressed, such as the Chalcedonian definition, the unipersonality of Christ, and the relationship of the Father and the Son. Thirdly, the Oneness position will be defined and presented, and finally that position will be critiqued.

Trinitarian Concepts

The very word "Trinity" is made up of two terms - "tri" and "unity." The doctrine travels the middle road between the two, and neither can be allowed to predominate the other. Trinitarians have but one God - the charge of polytheism or tritheism leveled at the orthodox position ignores the very real emphasis, drawn from the Biblical witness to one God, on monotheism. This can be seen, for example, in the definition of the Trinity given by Berkhof:

  • A) There is in the Divine Being but one indivisible essence (ousia, essentia).
  • B) In this one Divine Being there are three Persons or individual subsistences, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • C) The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons.
  • D) The subsistence and operation of the three persons in the divine Being is marked by a certain definite order.
  • E) There are certain personal attributes by which the three persons are distinguished.
  • F) The Church confesses the Trinity to be a mystery beyond the comprehension of man.[3]

Twice the emphasis is made that the essence or being of God is indivisible. There is but one being that is God. The doctrine of the Trinity safeguards this further by asserting that "the whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons." This follows logically on the heels of asserting the indivisibility of the being of God, for if three Persons share that one being, they must share all of that being. The Father is not just 1/3 of God - he is fully Deity, just as the Son and the Spirit.

The Biblical evidence for monotheism is legion, and it is not within the scope of this paper to review all those passages. The Shema might be sufficient to demonstrate the point, for this recital begins at Deuteronomy 6:4 with the words, "Hear, O Israel; Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one." This concept of monotheism separates Judaism (and Christianity) from any kind of polytheistic religion.

Given monotheism as a basis, it must be stressed that the bald statement of monotheism does not imply nor denote unitarianism. When the Bible says God is one, this does not mean that God is unitarian (i.e., uni-personal) in his mode of existence. Frequently individual writers will quote from the many passages that teach that there is one God and will infer from this a denial of the tri-personality of God. This is going beyond what is written. It is vital, if justice is to be done to the Biblical teaching, that all of the witness of Scripture be given due consideration. If the Bible presents more data that clarifies the meaning of God's "oneness," then this information must be taken into account.

Does, then, the Bible indicate the existence of more than one Person in the divine nature? It most certainly does. John Calvin expressed the proper balance well in the Institutes:

"Again, Scripture sets forth a distinction of the Father from the Word, and of the Word from the Spirit. Yet the greatness of the mystery warns us how much reverence and sobriety we ought to use in investigating this.

And that passage in Gregory of Nazianus vastly delights me:

" "I cannot think on the one without quickly being encircled by the splendor of the three; nor can I discern the three without being straightway carried back to the one." Let us not, then, be led to imagine a trinity of persons that keeps our thoughts distracted and does not at once lead them back to that unity. Indeed, the words "Father," "Son," and "Spirit" imply a real distinction - let no one think that these titles, whereby God is variously designated from his works, are empty - but a distinction, not a division."[4]

Before looking at the particular Biblical data, it is good to make the same emphasis as made by Gregory via Calvin - though this paper will emphasize the triunity of God, this is only because of the object of clarification, that being the Oneness teaching. Balance demands that both elements - the existence of three persons as well as the absolute claim of monotheism - be maintained.

The Christian church maintains that the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit refer to actual Persons, not simply modes of existence. As the popular, short definition goes, "There is within the one being that is God three co-equal and co-eternal Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father, etc. Each is eternal - the Father has always been, the Son has always been, and the Spirit has always been. No person precedes the other, no follows another.

Charles Hodge said in reflecting on the early church councils,

"These Councils decided that the terms Father, Son, and Spirit, were not expressive merely of relations ad extra, analogous to the terms, Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor. This was the doctrine known as Sabellianism, which assumed that the Supreme Being is not only one in essence, but one in person. The Church doctrine asserts that Father, Son, and Spirit express internal, necessary, and eternal relations in the Godhead; that they are personal designations, so that the Father is one person, the Son another person, and the Spirit another person. They differ not as allo kai allo, but as allos kai allos; each says I, and each says Thou, to either of the others. The word used in the Greek Church to express this fact was first prosopon, and afterwards, and by general consent, hupostasis; in the Latin Church, "persona," and in English, person. The idea expressed by the word in its application to the distinctions in the Godhead, is just as clear and definite as in its application to men."[5]

Some Oneness writers have gone so far as to say, "To say that God is three persons and find substantiation for it in the Scripture is a work in futility. There is literally nothing in the Bible that supports God being three persons."[6] However, as the Church throughout the ages has seen fit to reject the modalistic presentation, there must obviously be some reason for this. Such reason is found in the teaching of Scripture itself. The Bible presents a number of categories of evidence that demonstrates the existence of three Persons all sharing the one being that is God. First, the Persons are described as personal; that is, the attributes of personhood and personal existence are ascribed to the three. Secondly, clear distinctions are made between the Persons, so that it is impossible to confound or confuse the three. The second Person, the Son, is described as being eternal (as is the Spirit, but in this context, given the denial of the eternal nature of the Son by the Oneness position, and the acceptance of the eternality of the Spirit by the same group, this point is more tangent to the issue) and is differentiated in this pre-existence from the Father. Finally, we see real and eternal relationships between the Persons (the opera ad intra.)

One of the characteristics of personal existence is will. Few would argue the point in relationship to the Father, as He obviously has a will. So too, the Son has a will, for he says to the Father in the Garden, "not as I will, but as you will." (Matthew 26:39) The ascription of will to the Persons indicates the ability to reason, to think, to act, to desire - all those things we associate with self-consciousness. As we shall see later, there is a difference between nature and person, and one of those differences is the will. Inanimate objects do not will; neither do animals. Part of the imago dei is the will itself.

Another aspect of personhood seen to exist with each of the Persons is the ability to love. In John 3:35 we read that "the Father loves the Son..." This is repeated in John 5:20. In John 15:9 the Father loves the Son, and the Son in return loves those who are His own. In Jesus' prayer to the Father in John 17, we are again reminded of the Father's love for Jesus in 17:23, and in verse 24 we are told that this love between Father and Son has existed from all eternity. That love marks every word of Jesus concerning the Father is beyond dispute, and is it not fair to say that the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church is an act of love as well? Hence we see that the persons described in these passages (and in many others) are capable of love, a personal attribute.

It might be argued that these personal attributes are simply applied to the three manifestations of God, but that this does not necessarily mean that there are three Persons. However, the Bible clearly differentiates between the three Persons, as the brief survey to follow demonstrates.

One of the more well-known examples of the existence of three Persons is the baptism of Jesus recorded in Matthew 3:16-17. Here the Father speaks from heaven, the Son is being baptized (and is again described as being the object of the Father's love, paralleling the Johannine usage), and the Spirit is descending as a dove.[7] Jesus is not speaking to himself here (as many non-Christian groups tend to accuse the Trinitarians of making Jesus a ventriloquist), but is spoken to by the Father. There is no confusing of the Persons at the baptism.

The transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17:1-9 again demonstrates the separate personhood of the Father and the Son. The Son's true pre- existent glory is unveiled for an instant in the presence of the Father in the cloud. Communication again takes place, marked with the familiar love of the Father for the Son. Both the deity and the separate personhood of the Son is clearly presented in this passage. The Father spoke to the Son at another time, recorded in John 12:28. Again, the distinction of person of the Father and the Son is clearly maintained.

Some of the most obvious passages relevant to the Father and the Son are found in the prayers of Jesus Christ. These are no mock prayers - Jesus is not speaking to Himself (nor, as the Oneness writer would put it, is Jesus' humanity speaking to His deity) - He is clearly communicating with another Person, that being the Person of the Father. Transcendent heights are reached in the lengthiest prayer we have, that of John 17. No one can miss the fact of the communication of one Person (the Son) with another (the Father) presented in this prayer. The usage of personal pronouns and direct address put the very language squarely on the side of maintaining the separate personhood of Father and Son. This is not to say that their unity is something that goes far beyond simple purpose; indeed, given the background of the Old Testament, the very statements of the Son regarding His relationship with the Father are among the strongest assertions of His Deity in the Bible. But, as stated before, the doctrine of the Trinity is pre-eminently a balanced doctrine that differentiates between the being or nature of God and the Persons who share equally that being. If there is more than one God, or if there is less than three Persons, then the doctrine of the Trinity is in error.

Striking is the example of Matthew 27:46 where Jesus, quoting from Psalm 22:1 cries out, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" That the Father is the immediate person addressed is clear from Luke's account where the next statement from Jesus in his narrative is "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." (Luke 23:46)[8] Some early heresies (predominately gnostic in character) had to posit some kind of "separation" of the Deity from the human Son at this point (and indeed, some Oneness writers could be accused of the same problem). That this is the Son addressing the Father is crystal clear, and the ensuing personhood of both is inarguable.

One of the high-water marks of Synoptic Christology is to be found in Matthew 11:27. Here the reciprocity between the Father and Son is put forth with exactness, while at the same time dictating the absolute deity of both.

The relationship of the Father and Son is the topic under discussion in both John 5:16ff and John 8:12ff. The Apostle again walks a tight line in maintaining the distinct personhood of Father and Son while asserting the full deity of Jesus Christ. Outside of a Trinitarian concept of God, this position of John's is unintelligible. Important in this discussion is the fact that in the very same passages that the Deity of the Son is emphasized his distinction from the Father is also seen. This causes insuperable problems for the Oneness position, as we shall see. In John 5:19-24, Jesus clearly differentiates himself from the Father, yet claims attributes that are only proper of Deity (life, judgment, honor). In John 5:30 the Son says He can do nothing of Himself, yet in 37-39 he identifies Himself as the one witnessed to by the Scriptures who can give eternal life. Only Yahweh of the Tanakh can do so. Hence, the deity spoken of by Jesus is not the Father dwelling in the Son, but is the Son's personally. This is seen even more plainly in chapter 8. Here it is the Son who utilizes the phrase ego eimi in the absolute sense, identifying Himself as Yahweh. It is the Son who says He is glorified by the Father (v. 54) and yet only four verses later it is the Son who says, "Before Abraham came into existence, I AM!" Clearly the Son is fully deity just as the Father.

And what of the Spirit? Jesus said in John 14:16-17 that the Father would send another (Gr: allos) comforter. Jesus had been the Comforter for the disciples during His earthly ministry, but He was about to leave them and return to heaven where he had been before (John 17:5). The Holy Spirit, identified as a Person by John (through his usage of the masculine ekeinos at John 16:13), is sent both by the Father (John 14:16) as well as by the Son (16:7).[9] The Spirit is not identified as the Father, nor as the Son, for neither could send Himself.

Hence, it is clear from this short review that the Scriptures differentiate between the Person of the Father and the Person of the Son, as well as differentiating between these and the Spirit. The next area that must be addressed is the Biblical teaching of the pre-existence of the Son, or, as often referred to by Oneness writers, the "eternal Son theory."

That the Son, as a divine Person, has existed from all eternity, is a solidly Biblical teaching. Most denials of this teaching stem from a misunderstanding of the term monogenes[10] or the term "begotten" as used in Psalm 2:7. Such denials cannot stand under the weight of the Biblical evidence.

Though other passages could be examined, we will limit the discussion to seven Biblical sections that clearly teach the preexistence of the Son as a Person within the divine being. What may be the most obvious passage is found in Colossians chapter 1, verses 13 through 17. Here the "beloved Son" is described as "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn (Gr: prototokos) of all creation." He (the Son) is then described as the Creator in what could only be called exhaustive terms. Certainly, if the Son is the creator, then the Son both pre-existed and is indeed eternal, for God is the creator of all that is. It will not do to say that this passage says that God created all things for the Son who was yet to exist; for verse 16 is emphatic is announcing that it was "in Him" that all things were created (the usage of en is the instrumental of agency). Without doubt the Son is presented here as pre-existent.

The same can be said of Philippians 2:5-7, the Carmen Christi. This passage has spawned literally hundreds of volumes, and an in-depth exegesis is not called for here. Rather, it is obvious that the Son is presented here as eternally existing (huparchon) in the very morphe tou theou - the form of God. This One is also said to be "equal with God." Note there is here no confounding of the Persons (just as throughout Scripture) yet there is just as plainly an identification of more than one Person under discussion. It was not the Father with whom the Son was equal who became flesh and "made Himself of no repute"; rather, it was the Son who did this.

The opening chapter of the book of Hebrews identifies the Son as pre-existent as well. Verse 2 echoes Colossians 1:13-17 in saying that it was "through the Son" that the worlds were made. This Son is the "radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His being." Again the distinction of the Son from the Father is maintained at the exact same time as the absolute deity of the Son is put forward, a balance found only in the doctrine of the Trinity and not in non-Christian theories. The Son, verse 3 says, "upholds all things by His powerful word." This is directly analogous to the final statements of Colossians 1:17, and demands the continuous and eternal existence of the Son to make any sense whatsoever. In light of this, it is clear that the interpretation of verse 5, which quotes from Psalm 2, that asserts a beginning for the Son misses the entire point of the opening of Hebrews. In its original context, this passage did not indicate that God had literally fathered the king to whom the Psalm was addressed; certainly, therefore, such a forced meaning cannot be placed on this usage either. Rather, the writer of Hebrew's purpose is to exalt the Son and demonstrate His superiority even to the angels, going so far as to clearly identify the Son as Yahweh in verses 10 through 12. It would be strange indeed if the writer tried to show the real nature of the Son by saying that He, like the angels, was a created, non-eternal being.

The Lord Jesus Himself never attempted to say He had a beginning, but was instead aware of His true nature. In the real "Lord's prayer" of John 17, he states in verse 5, "And now you glorify me, Father, with the glory I had with you (para seauto) before the worlds were made." Jesus is here conscious of the glory which He had shared with the Father in eternity, a clear reflection of Philippians 2, Hebrews 1, and, as we shall see, John 1. As Yahweh declares that he will give his glory to no other (Isaiah 48:11) yet another identification of the Son as being one with the Father in sharing the divine name Yahweh is here presented. This glorious pre-existence of which Jesus here speaks is also seen in John 14:28 when Jesus, having said He was returning to the Father, points out to the disciples that they should have rejoiced at this, for rather than His continued existence in His current state of humiliation (the "being made of no repute" of Philippians 2), He was about to return to His glorious position with the Father in heaven, a position which is "greater" than the one He now was enduring.

Many passages in the New Testament identify the Lord Jesus Christ as Yahweh. One of these is John 8:58, where, again speaking as the Son, Jesus asserts his existence before Abraham. As pointed out above, it does not do to say that this was simply an assertion that the deity resident within Him pre-existed (in Oneness teaching, the Father) but rather it was He as the Son who was "before Abraham."

In John 3:13 Jesus said, "no one has gone up into heaven except the one who came out of heaven, the Son of man."[11] Jesus' own words indicate that He was aware of His origin and pre-existence. What is also interesting is the name for Himself that is used - the Son of Man. One would expect the Son of God to be used here, but it is not. Jesus was one Person, not two. The Son of God was the Son of Man. One cannot divide Him into two Persons.

The most striking evidence of the pre-existence of the Son is found in the prologue of the Gospel of John. This vital Christological passage is incredible for its careful accuracy to detail - even down to the tenses of verbs the author is discriminating in his writing. It again must be asserted that, without a Trinitarian understanding of God, this passage ends up self-contradictory and illogical. John defines his terms for us in verses 14 and 18. In verse 14 he tells us that the Logos of whom he has been speaking became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. He also tells us that it is Jesus Christ who, though clearly not the Father Himself, is the one who "makes the Father known" and who is, indeed, the monogenes theos[12] the "unique God." That verse 18 has under consideration two separate Persons is beyond disputation. That these two Persons are the Father and the Son is just as sure, for John so identifies them.

With this in mind, the first three verses are crystalline in their teaching. John asserts that the Logos was "in the beginning," that is, the Word is eternal. This Logos was "with God" (Gr: pros ton theon.)[13] This latter phrase can only refer to personal contact and communion, a point to be expanded on in much of the Gospel of John. Hence, from this phrase, it is clear that one cannot completely identify the Person of God (in John's usage here, the Father) with the Logos (i.e., the Son). However, he goes on in the third clause to provide that balance found throughout the inspired text by saying, "the Word was God." The NEB renders this clause, "and what God was, the Word was." Perhaps Dr. Kenneth Wuest came the closest when he translated, "And the Word was as to His essence absolute deity." By placing the term theos in the emphatic position, and by using that term itself (rather than theios - a "godlike" one), John avoids any kind of Arian subordinationism. At the same time, John does not make logos and theos identical to one another, for he does not put an article before theos. By so doing he walks the fine line between Arianism and Sabellianism, subordinationism and modalism.

Finally, John asserts, as did Paul before him, that the Logos is the Creator. "Through him were all things made which have been made." This is exactly the point of Colossians 1:15-17 and Hebrews 1:2. As John identified the Logos as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, then his testimony must be added to all the others in proclaiming the pre-existence of the Son.

Having seen the pre-existence of the Son, then we are forced by the Biblical data itself to deal with the internal relationships of the Persons who make up the Godhead. Though many Oneness writers would object to the terminology utilized to discuss this subject, it is they, not the Trinitarian, who are ignoring the Biblical material and its clear teaching. Though an in-depth discussion of the opera ad intra is not warranted in this paper, it might be good to point out that we are obviously here not discussing simply an economic trinity. All of the above evidence points to real and purposeful distinctions (not divisions) within the Being of God that are necessary and eternal, not temporal and passing. God has eternally been trinal and will always be so. The relationship between the essence of God and the Persons is not a subject of Biblical discussion directly; but we are forced to deal with the issue nevertheless - by the Scriptural testimony itself. G. T. Shedd expressed it this way:

"The not prior, either in the order of nature or of time, to the persons, nor subsequent to them, but simultaneous with them. Hence, the essence is not one constituent factor by itself, apart from the persons, any more than the persons are three constituent factors by themselves, apart from the essence. The one essence is simultaneously three persons, and the three persons are one essence. The trinity is not a composition of one essence with three persons. It is not an essence without distinctions united with three distinctions, so as to make a complex. The trinity is simple and uncomplex. "If," says Twesten,... "we distinguish between the clearness of light and the different degrees of clearness, we do not imply that light is composed of clearness and degrees of clearness." Neither is God composed of one untrinal essence and three persons."[14]

With these Trinitarian concepts in mind, the specific Christological questions must now be addressed.

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