Oneness Pentecostalism to One God
J. Dan Gill
My Journey of Faith
I was reminiscing recently about the mid-1970s. As a young man, I had not been married long. I had a beautiful wife and two young daughters. I particularly remember the sense of confidence I felt in those years. It seemed that life was well and the world was before me.
I recall mine and Sharon’s dedication to our church in Nashville. Each week we would make our way to our usual seats: two pews from the front and to the far left. It was an inconspicuous location I think – yet one close enough to be assured of not missing anything. I still remember how the building at times seemed transformed by the sunlight beaming through the stained glass windows. Easily my favorite part of the meetings was the teaching. I wrote lesson notes in my wide margin King James Version Bible to the point that there was little space left. Yet, I continued adding to those notes each passing week.
Sharon and I were confidently devoted to our faith. Both of us were children and grandchildren of wonderful “Oneness” people: people who had suffered various humiliations in their lives for the belief that God is one. A humiliation meted out by those equally dedicated to the thought that God is not one. Our Oneness Pentecostal heritage was something for which we were, and still are, very thankful.
In those days, we would never have thought that God had another plan for us. Can you imagine sitting in church being taught by capable Oneness teachers and, as they teach, finding yourself coming to a very different understanding of God? I don t think that is what my teachers intended to happen. Yet, sitting in those meetings, as the Scriptures were read; as my teachers would teach, I found my understanding of God and Jesus being completely transformed. Week by week my understanding of God changed from Oneness to One.
What is Oneness Pentecostalism?
In Oneness is found the belief that only one is God. That is a laudable conviction to which I am totally devoted to this day. Oneness Pentecostalism presents us with the understanding that the spirit of God is not a separate “person” in its own right. Matthew 1:20 tells us that Jesus was begotten in Mary by Holy Spirit. Hence, in Oneness, the spirit of God and the Father himself are one and the same. That is a thought that I believe is certainly in the right direction.
In Oneness theology, however, Jesus is God. And, he is thought to be all of God there is. “Jesus” is the Father; “Jesus” is the Holy Spirit; “Jesus” is the son. For this reason, Oneness theology is sometimes referred to as the “Jesus Only” doctrine. While Oneness concepts may seem somewhat confusing to the balance of the Christian world, my teachers would have been quick to point out that their perspectives are drawn from the Scriptures.
For example, Jesus states in John 14:9: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Thus, to the Oneness believer, Jesus is one for one the Father. Again, when speaking of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says in John 14:18: “I will not leave you as orphans – I will come to you.” From the Oneness point of view this means that Jesus is one for one the Holy Spirit. It is of course abundantly clear that Jesus is the son. Thus, Jesus is thought to be God in every respect.
Likewise, Jesus says in John 5:43: “I have come in my Father’s name.” And, he says in John 14:26 that “the Father will send the comforter, the counselor, in his name.” Hence, in Oneness theology, the Father s name and the name of the Holy Spirit are believed to be Jesus.
Thus, the overarching principle of Oneness faith is that Jesus is God and he alone. Consequently, even as a very young person, I knew many syllogisms and Scriptures from every part of the Bible which I thought conclusively demonstrated that Jesus is the eternal God of the universe.
A Time of Change for Me
As a young man of Oneness Pentecostal faith, there was no personal incentive to change my views. Quite to the contrary! It is often thought in Oneness circles that the single most egregious of sins is to deny the crucial tenant that Jesus is the one all encompassing Deity. That perhaps, is the sin for which one will never be forgiven! It is against this backdrop of fear that I found myself sitting in my Oneness church, happily minding my own business, hearing exceptional Oneness teachers, but then finding myself questioning my Oneness faith.
To me, the Trinity was simply an untenable idea. I think it is what results from the clashing together of two very opposing thoughts. Those thoughts are that there is only one God – and, that there are multiple “Persons” who are God. The mental and verbal contortions necessary to try to make these two opposing concepts work together are foreboding. I am in agreement with many Trinitarian theologians who themselves recognize that the developed doctrine of the Trinity is a construct and clearly evolved in post-biblical times.
Yet, in my world in the 1970s, I knew of only two choices: Either you believed in the Trinity or in Oneness. Still, week by week I found myself drawn to a realization that while the Trinity was clearly a “construct,” that our Oneness views were also somehow lacking.
It seems that all errors are easy to see through and dismiss, except those we ourselves may be in. I certainly did not want to be wrong in these critical matters. Yet, I reasoned – “What if I am already wrong?” Maintaining our spiritual status quo may be psychologically comforting. However, we must come to draw our comfort from something better. Comfort must be drawn from the value we place on the truth itself – whatever it may be.
So I did what I have learned to do through my life when faced with that which seems impossible to me. I prayed and began to seek God in these matters. I recall walking at night and telling God that I wanted to know the truth. Above all I wanted to know him as he really is.
As I continued to listen to Oneness teachings each week, I only the more perceived a compelling new understanding of Scripture. Among other things, I began to realize that for Jesus to be in the image of God did not make him God. In fact, it meant he was not God. The image of a thing is not the actual thing itself – it is a representation. Again, I discovered that David too had said in 1 Samuel 17:45 that he came “in the name of the LORD.” Did that mean that God’s name was David? And, I discovered that the fourth “man” Nebuchadnezzar saw in the fire really wasn’t Jesus Christ after all. These were becoming truly wonderful – enlightening – times for me.
The tide of truth once begun in the heart of a person is not easily stopped. I think that I can rightfully say that I did not so much find the truth of these matters, as truth found me. And in the process, I more wonderfully found God! And I more wonderfully found his son Jesus!
Yet, no one knew that I was thinking about these things. Not even my dear, dedicated, devout, Oneness wife. So it was against that same backdrop of fear I mentioned earlier that I sat in our kitchen one afternoon and suggested to Sharon: “Perhaps we could be wrong.” As I recall she said: “About what?” I said: “Perhaps we could be wrong about Jesus being God.”
It was at that point in my life that I learned what a wonderful woman of faith that I had married. To her credit, she neither immediately embraced the things that I said about these matters, nor did she dismiss them out of hand. Sharon genuinely felt that if somehow we were wrong – that Jesus and God are not one and the same – she wanted to know the truth. Sharon and I decided to begin reading through the New Testament together and to let the Scriptures speak to us as they would. We both worked in downtown Nashville at the time. Each day I would drive us to and from work while Sharon would read successive chapters of the New Testament aloud. It was a reading that over the months illuminated us. We had truly launched a journey of faith from Oneness to the One God of the Bible.