Explorations · Series

Theories about the Godhead

In a previous post I introduced the crucial distinction that Trinitarians make between the “economic” Trinity and the “essential” Trinity. That post is worth reading for more detail, but the basic distinction goes like this: the economic Trinity is what God does and the essential Trinity is who God is. The way that I cashed that out in that post is that the economic Trinity refers to how we experience God in a threefold way in New Testament salvation. So I prefer to refer to the “salvific triad” or the “experiential triad of salvation” because this threefold experience applies to all Christians (not just Trinitarians).

Now I’m going to make further use of that distinction an introduce what I will call “theories (or views) about the Godhead.” What I mean by this is very simple. First, by “Godhead” I mean who God is in his nature. In the following section I will justify my use of this old English word. Second, by a “theory about the Godhead” I mean an explanation for why we experience God in a threefold way in New Testament salvation. A theory of the Godhead states who God is in his nature in a way that explains the salvific triad.

On the Word “Godhead”

There are some who take issue with the word “Godhead,” so I will attempt to justify why I’ve decided to use it on this website. In particular, Dr. Dale Tuggy takes issue with the word in his new book What is the Trinity? (that I discuss a little bit elsewhere). This is what he says:

Many people sense a need for a plural referring term in this area, so the term “Godhead” has come to be used, in English, as a plural referring term, meaning trinity. But this recent practice, I think, is confused and confusing. “Godhead” is the traditional English translation for words like the Greek theiotes and the Latin divinitas, and should mean the same thing as “the divine nature” or “deity.” . . . So no, properly, “Godhead” doesn’t mean the same thing as “trinity.” “Godhead” is a singular referring term for God’s nature, or just God, whereas “trinity” is a plural referring term. Really, “Godhead” in English is an archaic term that we should just retire; translators of more recent Bible versions are correct in avoiding it.
What is the Trinity?, p. 19 (my emphasis)

Before I take issue with what Dr. Tuggy says here, I need to explain what he means. This quote appears in chapter 3 of his book entitled “Trinity vs. trinity.” Notice that the first is capitalized and the second is not! In that chapter he argues that the term “Trinity” (capital ‘T’) refers to what the doctrine of the Trinity claims: that the one God eternally exists as three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The term “trinity” (lower-case ‘t’) is a term that refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a group without also assuming they are the Trinity.  This is what he means when he says that “trinity” is a plural referring term.

Now, Tuggy takes issue with the use of the word “Godhead” because some writers use it as a plural referring term like  “trinity.” In other words, they use the word “Godhead” to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (not necessarily the Trinity) as a group. But if those writers stuck to using the word “Godhead” in its original meaning (and they don’t), then they would use it to refer only to one thing: either to God himself, or to God’s nature. Since writers use the word “Godhead” as both a singular and plural referring term without always making it clear which they are using it for, the term should be dropped, in his view.

I would put it like this: When people use the term “Godhead,” it isn’t always clear if they are referring to the salvific triad or to who God is in his nature. This equivocation is confusing, and to avoid this confusion we should drop the term entirely.

What’s More Confusing?

I agree that writers use “Godhead” in both of the ways that Tuggy points out. And I agree that this can definitely be confusing. Take, for example, these two ways that Dr. David Bernard uses the term:

Many monotheists have pointed out that both trinitarianism and binitarianism weaken the strict monotheism taught by the Bible. They insist that the Godhead cannot be divided into persons and that God is absolutely one.
The Oneness of God, p. 15

Colossions 2:9 proclaims that all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Jesus. The Godhead includes the role of the Father, so the Father must dwell in Jesus.
The Oneness of God, pp. 66-67

In the first quotation, Bernard uses the term “Godhead” as a singular referring term that refers to God himself. God cannot be divided into persons, he says, because this weakens the “strict monotheism” of the Bible. In contrast, the second quotation seems to indicate that the “role of the Father” is in the Godhead. Bernard seems to be using “Godhead” there to refer to God’s three manifestations, and thereby uses it as a plural referring term.

In any case, I have to consider what is going to be more confusing to my audience at The Oneness Exchange. By advocating his distinction between the “Trinity” and the “trinity,” Tuggy calls explanations of the salvific triad “theories of the trinity.” But that just won’t square with Oneness Pentecostals who visit my website; it will more likely confuse them and turn them away. So that’s my pragmatic justification for sticking to using the word “Godhead.”

In another case, even though Bernard falls into the semantic confusion that Tuggy mentions, he (and others) use the term a majority of the time in the way that I am stipulating. In other words, most of the time Oneness people use the word “Godhead” as a singular referring term, rather than as a reference to God’s three manifestations. Throughout my life I have heard pastors and teachers refer to “the Oneness of the Godhead” and understood that they were referring to God himself.

My point is this: Oneness Pentecostals will grasp what I mean by “theories of the Godhead” more easily than they will “theories of the trinity” because the word “Godhead” in their milieu is mostly used in what Tuggy considers to be the proper sense: as a singular referring term. For that reason, I don’t see any reason why I can’t stipulate that I will use it to refer to the one God and leave it at that.

Classifying Theories About the Godhead

With that conversation aside, let’s return to what I said above. A theory (or view) of the Godhead is an explanation for why we experience God in a threefold way in New Testament salvation. The fact is, everybody who approaches the New Testament and tries to explain the salvific triad has an explanation for why this is. Now I’m going to explain how to classify everyone’s view of the Godhead.

When we refer to each of the three experiences in the salvific triad, we are referring to how we experience to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in New Testament salvation. When we turn our lives over to Christ and are saved, we experience the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What still needs our attention, though, is an explanation of the Godhead—or who God is in his nature—that accounts for that threefold experience.

Trinitarians explain the salvific triad by claiming that God is three Persons. According to them, the reason that we experience the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in New Testament salvation is because they are three different Persons who are active in salvation. Not only that, but we come to find out that these three Persons are all the one God: the Trinity.

Oneness Pentecostals explain the salvific triad by claiming that God is a single Person who manifests himself in three different ways. They explain the salvific triad, then, by stating that it is a single Person that we experience in three different ways. What we experience in salvation is the three ways that the one God manifests himself to us, or his three “modes.” We experience the same, singular Person that is God in three different ways.

In contrast to both the Trinitarian and Oneness views, there are those that claim that the Father and the Son are persons (or one is a Person and the other is a person), but the Holy Spirit is not. To classify these two views properly, we have to say that God is either experienced directly in, or indirectly through, the Son.

Let’s start with the direct experience of God. I don’t know of any organizations that represent this view, but it’s theoretically possible to hold that the Father and Son are God, but that the Holy Spirit is not. This would be a “binitarian” view of God. Binitarians might say that in the salvific triad, we experience God as Father and Son because the Father and Son are both Persons in the Godhead. When we experience the Son, we experience God directly because the Son is God.

Now for the indirect experience of God. What does it even mean to experience God indirectly through the Son in New Testament salvation? By this I mean that one doesn’t hold that Jesus is God, but he is the human Messiah who is God’s Son. By experiencing what the Son has done for us to achieve our salvation, we experience the one God indirectly through him. This would be the view of biblical unitarians, who agree with Oneness Pentecostals that there is only Person who is God (namely, the one Jesus identifies as his “Father”), and agree with Trinitarians that the Father and Son are two persons.

Please note: I’ve used the term “Person” (upper-case ‘P’) to refer to Persons that are in the Godhead. I’ve used the term “person” (in the singular) to either refer to a human person (if one thinks Jesus is only a human person) or “persons” (plural) to refer to multiple persons (even if one is a Person).

Two Diagrams

I hope that the explanations in the preceding section were clear and accurate to those who hold them. There are two different diagrams I want to share, though, to make what I mean even more clear.

Figure 1. How many do we experience?

What needs to be explained is at the top: the threefold experience of New Testament salvation (“salvific triad”). The next row answers the question, “How many Persons do we experience in the salvific triad?” I’ve covered the three options in the previous section: the answer is either one, two, or three. When somebody gives the answer “two,” we have to figure out if they believe that Jesus is God incarnate. How they answer that question means they are either a binitarian or a biblical unitarian.

Here’s another diagram that takes a slightly different approach:

Figure 2. The Father and Son are how many persons?

Again we start with the salvific triad. Then we ask, “When we experience the Father and the Son, are they two Persons or the one (i.e., the same) Person?” Oneness Pentecostals say that they are the same Person. Others say they are not. If one says they are not, another question has to be answered: Is the Holy Spirit personal (i.e., a Person) or not? (Those that say he is not understand the “Holy Spirit” to be a reference to God’s actions, and therefore as something impersonal—since actions aren’t persons.) Trinitarians will say that the Holy Spirit is a Person. Binitarians and biblical unitarians will deny this, and how we tell the difference between the two is if one claims that Jesus is God incarnate.

Conclusion

I’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, so let me briefly recap what I’ve said in bullet-point fashion.

  • All Christians experience God in a threefold way in New Testament salvation. I will call this experience the “salvific triad.”
  • How Christians explain why the salvific triad is the case is called a “theory (or view) about the Godhead.”
  • The term “Godhead” is acceptable to use because (1) I’ve made it clear I’m using it as a singular referring term and (2) because Oneness Pentecostals (usually) understand the word this way. And since this is a website that explores Oneness Pentecostal theology, I’m going to continue to use this “archaic” term (as Tuggy calls it).
  • One’s view of the Godhead places one somewhere on the diagrams that I’ve provided. I haven’t covered every imaginable view (such as different theories about the Trinity), but these diagrams show where each of the views, as views of the Godhead, stand in relation to one another.

So there you have it. I hope that I’ve adequately presented each of the views of the Godhead accurately and provided a helpful way to categorize them. On this website I will frequently refer to this post as an explanation of what I mean by “theories about the Godhead.”

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