Explorations · Series

Three Competing Theories About the Godhead

In a previous post I discussed a way to classify what I am calling “theories about the Godhead.” The term “Godhead” refers to God himself—who God is in God’s own nature. And the term “theory” refers to an explanation for why Christians experience God in a threefold way in New Testament salvation. In this post I’m going to discuss three competing theories of the Godhead and how we can begin to discuss them.

An Inconsistent Triad

Consider the following three claims:

(1) God is one Person.
(2) Jesus is fully divine.
(3) Jesus and the Father are two persons.

This set of three claims is an inconsistent triad. All that means is that you can take any two claims, and those two claims, when taken together, imply that the third is false. (Go ahead try it for yourself before I get to my explanation of each combination.)

Oneness Pentecostals accept claims (1) and (2). They believe that Deuteronomy 6:4 and other texts explicitly teach that God is a single Person. But they also accept New Testament texts that seem to indicate that Jesus is fully divine. And by “fully divine” I mean that Jesus possesses everything that goes toward making him God in the same way the Father is God. He is no less God than the Father is. But since Oneness Pentecostals accept claim (1), this means that they think that the fact Jesus is fully divine means he just is the Father incarnate. So claims (1) and (2), when taken together, imply that Jesus and the Father cannot be two persons.

Trinitarians accept claims (2) and (3). They think that Jesus is fully divine for many of the same reasons that Oneness Pentecostals do. But the major difference is that they think that Jesus and the Father are two persons. In other words, they think that Jesus—who is the Son—is someone distinct from the Father and yet someone who has all the same qualities that make him just as much God as the Father is. When these two claims are taken together, claim (1) must be false because there are two fully and equally divine persons: the Father and the Son.

Biblical unitarians accept claims (1) and (3). Like Oneness Pentecostals, they are uncompromising that the Bible—in both the Old and New Testaments—proclaims that God is a single Person. But what’s also clear to them, as it is to Trinitarians, is that Jesus and the Father are two persons. Jesus, after all, prays to the Father (e.g., John 17) and differs from the Father according to the New Testament. If God is a single Person, and yet Jesus and the Father are two persons, this means that Jesus cannot be fully divine. It turns out, on the biblical unitarian view, that Jesus is God’s human Messiah; he is not fully divine in way I’ve described, and so to them claim (2) is false.

Oneness as the Center of Theological Exchange

I’ve already shared in the My Journey series that Oneness Pentecostalism is the theory of the Godhead that I was taught from a very early age. Because Oneness Pentecostals (rightly) see themselves as a minority position, when they defend their own views they do so with Trinitarianism always before their minds. For that reason, I was quickly exposed to Trintarianism when I began to learn more about Oneness Pentecostal theology.

But because Jesus’ status as a fully divine Person seemed so obvious to me, the biblical unitarian perspective never really entered my mind as a live option. I didn’t see how it could be an adequate theory of the Godhead. But once I ran into some biblical unitarians much later on, I found out that many of the arguments they used were the very same arguments that Oneness Pentecostals used to argue against the Trinity. Biblical unitarians, like Oneness Pentecostals, I found out, were defending claim (1) above.

But at the same time, I recognized that Oneness Pentecostals and Trinitarians were united against biblical unitarians on another front: defending the full divinity of Jesus, which is our claim (2) above.

Over time, then, I came to see that Oneness Pentecostalism is a sort of middle ground between Trinitarianism and biblical unitarianism. It is only one step from Trinitarianism because it denies that Jesus and the Father are two persons—our claim (3) above. But it is only one step from biblical unitarianism because it accepts claim (2)—that Jesus is fully divine. What I came to see was something like the following diagram:

The more concise way of showing all of this is the following:

Why These Three?

I consider each of these three options—Trinitarianism, Oneness Pentecostalism, and biblical unitarianism—as ones that need to be critically examined by anybody who is in any of these three groups who claims to love God with all their mind. That doesn’t mean that one should think each are equally valid, in some sort of relativistic way. But it does mean that if you’re going to make up your own mind about God and Jesus, or if you want to find the best arguments for your current view, you need to consider arguments for each of these three views.

So why have I brought up these three theories about the Godhead? Because I am theologically conservative, and these are the only three theories that I know of that compete in that arena. As far as I can tell, the major proponents of each of these views tend to reject (1) what they would label liberal Christianity or scholarship and (2) what they would see as revisionist views of Christianity, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and the like. For these reasons they are the only three that I’m interested in adopting when I make up my own mind about the issues.

Where Do We Go from Here?

As I conclude, consider again the inconsistent triad we began with:

(1) God is one Person.
(2) Jesus is fully divine.
(3) Jesus and the Father are two persons.

You would greatly benefit if you ask yourself which two of the three claims you accept, and why you accept them. From there you can begin to examine the claims of the other two groups you disagree with and see if you truly have the better arguments. And as you do, keep in mind how each individual argument is meant to support one (or two) of the claims above. That will help you keep things in perspective. (If this sounds like too much for you personally, keep in mind that theology is everybody’s business.)

As I said in the My Journey series (and I hope you’ll read it for some background), part of my purpose for this website is to make up my mind about which theory of the Godhead is correct. As I do that, I will be focusing on arguments for and against the claims in the inconsistent triad at the beginning of this post. And I will use the claims of Oneness Pentecostal theology as a way of discussing these views because, as I have already said, it occupies a sort of middle ground between Trinitarianism and biblical unitarianism.

That is, in part, why this website is called “The Oneness Exchange.”

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