Wednesday, May 10, 2006

an apologetic e-mail

Over the past many months I have been in an ongoing conversation with a co-worker regarding spiritual issues. He and I have agreed and disagreed on things of varying degree of importance (essential verses non-essential). However, one issue has come up a few times, most recently in a conversation that occurred yesterday after work, and I wanted to articulate to him (and to you) why teachers who hold heretical theological positions need to be silenced. This is impossible for us to do on a wide scale with the different media outlets that these teachers occupy, but we must do that individually (at least) and in our church assemblies.

The specific theological issue that brought up this debate is a modalistic understanding of God. Modalism (also called Oneness Pentecostalism1) is a heresy that has its roots in sabellianism (an age old condemned teaching and historically recognized and affirmed as heretical). The main issue at stake is the Trinity. While there are many complex (but important) ways to explain the differences, I will try to show you the crux of the issue:

Orthodox Christian: "The doctrine of the Trinity means that there is one God who eternally exists as three distinct Persons--the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Stated differently, God is one in essence and three in person. These definitions express three crucial truths: (1) The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons, (2) each Person is fully God, (3) there is only one God."2

Modalism: "There is one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in three Manifestations: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."3

Boiling this difference down: Modalism will use the word "manifestation" to refer to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, where we would use the word "person." In other words we would affirm that Christ is the incarnation of the 2nd person of the Trinity (God the Son). Modalism would say that Christ is the incarnation of the 1st person of the Trinity, because there is no 2nd or 3rd person of the Trinity in modalism.

Some people say that this is "splitting hairs" or being "too picky." The reason that we are picky about this is that we believe in a different God (a Trinitarian God and the modalistic god are very different). If we believe in a different Jesus (even though God the Son's name is Jesus, and the god of modalism's name is Jesus), we have a different faith. If I believed that Jesus was a red headed woman who lived in Brooklyn in the 1850's, and I believed in this Jesus with all of my heart, I would be guilty of breaking the 2nd commandment, and find myself in Hell when I die because no god of my imagination can wash away my sin.

Also, quite frankly, if we are not picky about this we can't be picky about anything that we believe in. Christ is the cornerstone.

That being said, and the groundwork being laid, here is the explanation that I gave to my co-worker as to why this is such an important issue:

I want to humbly apologize if I came off as anything other than a steadfast defender of the gospel and contender for the faith that we have been given (Jude 3). Perhaps, if I write down my concerns, my reasons for being so ardently opposed to any teaching of anyone who is not Trinitarian would be clear.

My concern, and I tried to articulate this, is this: By definition, a person who believes that Christ is not eternal, the Father is not eternal, the Spirit is not eternal, and that these three are not distinct in their personhood, yet eternal, yet all 1 God is not a Christian because if these people believe in Jesus, it is not the Jesus of the Bible because they ascribe attributes to him that are different than the ones that He ascribed to Himself.

It is clear that our faith must be built upon the foundation of Christ, and not another foundation (see 1 Cor 3:11; Isaiah 28:16; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:4ff). If we have a different foundation, we have a different faith. It is clear from 1 Cor 3 that even those that build (do works) on the right foundation will have things "burned away" for various reasons, but the faith that they have will still save them "as through fire."

The point is that if we reject (and we should) all theological, social, and personal teaching by a Mormon even though he claims to use the Bible as his authority, we should also not listen to any false teacher who is inside of the evangelical church. The Scriptures warn us about these types of teachers who are "inside" the ranks but not actual believers (Matt 7:15; Acts 20:30; 2 Peter 2:1-10; 1 John 2:19).

A Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, a Modalist, or an atheist may have great ideas on a whole lot of issues (finances, health, education, vocation, etc.), and we can glean some things from them. But, if they claim to teach us from the scriptures about things (whatever they are), their foundation is not Christ, and so we should divorce ourselves totally from their teachings. Why? As an example, it only takes a small drop of strychnine in a glass of pure water to be deadly.

No sermon has nothing to do with God, or noting to say about God because all scriptural understanding and application must be built on a proper understanding of who God is. Therefore, any sermon on any topic by someone who does not have a correct view of God will have fallacies in it from the beginning because it is being built on a different foundation.

Example: The early church was to reject the Judaizers (Titus 1:10-14) because of their false teaching. They were not told to listen to them and to sort out the good from the bad.

My overall reason for this ongoing concern is that I see false teachers being more accepted in evangelical circles, and when we do that, the gospel will be perverted, and people will not hear the true saving message of Christ Jesus.

attempting gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15),

I hope that this is clarifying and that we can all be certain that this is not a small issue that we don't have to worry about. It is huge, and it needs to be defended. It is a difference between heaven and hell. The Jesus of modalism cannot save because he does not exist.

1 Most pentacostal churches are not of the "Oneness" belief. My understanding is that the reason for the name "Oneness Pentacostal" is that this heresy arose from the pentacostal movement, but was condemned and ostricized by them. So, this is not a heretical condemnation of my brothers and sisters who are pentacostal in their understanding of Spiritual gifts. Most pentacostal churches that I have ever heard of are Trinitarian.

2 Can you explain the doctrine of the Trinity and its biblical support? This is a good paper defining and defending the doctrine of the Trinity put out by Desiring God Ministries (John Piper's ministry).

3 The Potter's House Belief Statement


Nate J. said...

Good thoughts on why these seemingly "little" differences in how people understand the Godhead are actually MAJOR differences when it comes right down to it! You have really broken down the main issues at stake quite well. Why are things like this overlooked by many believers today? I have posted what I believe to be one of the main reasons on my blog if you care to read it. God bless!

Joe said...

I noticed your comment on another blog citing Hanegraaff that God is "1 what and 3 whos."

The sentiment "3 whos and 1 what" is roughly equivalent to "3 persons and 1 being" formula used by trinitarians to describe the Godhead.

"Since when is a 'who' not also a 'what?'"

Yes, I as a person am a 'who.' But I am also a 'what,' for if I were not also a 'what' I would simply not be! I am a 'who' who is also a 'what.' What is my 'what-ness?" Well, I am a man. Therefore I am a 'what.' But I am also a man named Joe, so I am also a 'who.'

I am a 'what' who is also a 'who.' There is a one-to-one correspondence between the two. What is a 'who' MUST also be a 'what' or else it is nothingness and certainly not a 'who.'

So, the trinitarian says of God that He is "3 whos and 1 what." Therefore, for each 'who' there is not a one-to-one correspondence to a 'what.' There IS a 'logical contradiction' here. You are speaking of 3 distinct 'whos' but there are not enough corresponding 'whats' to go around so that we can know 'what' you are talking about and whether such a 'what' even exists. If a particular 'who' is not also a particular 'what' then it simply not is. You are just speaking nonsense into the ether, telling "a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."

And if the 3 whos are signified by the very same one 'what' then there can be no reality and meaning to the distinctions of the '3 whos.' If the 3 whos are the very same 'what', then there are not in reality 3 whos, but 1 who and thus we find ourselves back there in the Oneness camp with Sabellius and Praxeas and the rest of the 'heretics.'

The ONLY escape is the one the Trinitarian is bound by his creeds not to. You can have '3 whos in 1 what' only if you can make a distinction in the 'what', kind of like carving out 3 slices in a pie. 1/3 of 'what' goes to this 'who' and 1/3 goes to this 'who' and the final 1/3 goes to this 'who." Then it will work (I think.)

But then we've lost our ability to speak of "one God."

So, just how many hoos are in hooville?


Dan Ponjican said...

God is no more three persons than I am! I too am a son, I too have a spirit, and I too am a father. Does that make me three persons? Certainly not... just three roles in life. But ask me what me name is and I'll say Daniel, not son, or father or Mechanical Engineer. If you study closely Church history you will see that the Apostles taught this version of Oneness.

EJ said...

Joe & Dan:

Joe -

“The sentiment "3 whos and 1 what" is roughly equivalent to "3 persons and 1 being" formula used by trinitarians to describe the Godhead.”

That is the exact reason why I used it. I am a Trinitarian because the Bible articulates that there is One God, but that there are different persons who are both distinct and eternal.

I am a 'what' who is also a 'who.' There is a one-to-one correspondence between the two. What is a 'who' MUST also be a 'what' or else it is nothingness and certainly not a 'who.'

I understand your thinking, but this seems to be a logical fallacy. Do all things that we can understand have a one-to-one relationship between their “what” and their “who”? I would guess so, but I wouldn’t include God in that equation. I would not include Him there for Scriptural reasons, but on the surface we might not either because He is no more of a being in the sense of those that we are familiar with (i.e. created beings) than we are God.

Quite frankly, I am still confused by your “whoville” commentary, and many can be very intrinsically logical and consistent (i.e. they don’t contradict themselves), but that is wholly different from an argument that is both Biblical (derived from Scripture) and intrinsically logical. One classic and glorious verse that shows that the paradigm that you setup is not one that is entirely Biblical is John 1:1. The Greek is divinely setup to show that both God and the Word are eternal and divine, but they are distinct.

The danger of trying to fit the Godhead into a man-made box for understanding is just that we are likely to fall into the trap of Sabellius and the modern oneness movement.

Christ is not 1/3 God, He is fully God in the same manner as the Spirit and the Father. It is a genuine mystery how that all works out, but that is the testimony of the Bible.

Dan -

I noticed from one of your blogs (wow, you have a lot listed) that you’re somewhat affiliated with the UPC. We can argue back and forth over how I one person, but I am both a father, a son, and I have a spirit but I am not a trinity, but that is not helpful to the overall issue. As I said to Joe, an argument or explanation can be consistent and logical, but unbiblical as the oneness doctrine is. As far as what the apostles taught, the New Testament is the repository for revealed divine truth that is infallible, and it is not a oneness manifesto, but it is Trinitarian.

We can go around and around, but unless we both are willing to look at the biblical texts in a holistic (i.e. all encompassing) way, we will not get anywhere. But whatever the truth is, we both cannot be correct. And that leaves one of us in camp of the redeemed, and the other crying “Lord Lord“ on the day of judgment, only to be told to depart.

On a side note, I understand the allure of the oneness teaching because it fits so well into a nice box that is easy to understand. But, my friend, I plead with you to examine the many Scriptures that show the distinctions in the different persons of the Godhead as well as verses that show the eternality of the persons.

May God grant you grace.

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