Anti-trinitarianism: Oneness Pentecostals

Greg Strand – May 13, 2014 10 Comments

Fred Sanders has an excellent essay on the modern-day anti-trinitarians: Oneness Pentecostals In the past anti-trinitarianism arose within and from Unitarianism. Because Unitarianism was so far outside orthodox teaching, there was not much need for Evangelicals to respond.

Today, however, the strongest anti-trinitarian movement known as the Oneness Pentecostals exists as self-proclaimed Evangelicals. This new anti-trinitarian belief needs to be understood and addressed, and it must be done so differently than Unitarianism of a by-gone day. This is an important reminder of the need to respond to contemporary challenges and denials to the faith with contemporary responses, not 100 year old responses. If we do, we will not address the present-day denial of the Trinity.

Here is the introduction to Sander’s helpful and insightful article in which he will “describe the movement,” “identify its theological core, and explain what is at stake in arguments over Oneness doctrine,” and “recommend the strategic direction that evangelical engagement with Oneness groups should follow.”

It is a disturbing fact that the most vigorous form of anti-trinitarianism currently on the market is to be found within the sphere of conservative evangelicalism. In the nineteenth century, the dominant variety of anti-trinitarianism was the old-world Unitarianism which found fertile soil in America. (See Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945); for the stream of American theology I am here calling liberal, see Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion 1805-1900 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2001) and The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity 1900-1950 (Westminster/John Knox, 2003). For evangelical Christians of a conservative temperament, Unitarianism as a theological movement was as easy to ignore as any version of liberal theology. It offered a pervasively non-supernatural interpretation of Christianity, and thereby rendered itself irrelevant to churches which were committed to a range of traditional doctrines such as incarnation, atonement, miracle, revelation, the inspiration of scripture, and heaven and hell.

Today, however, there is an altogether different kind of anti-trinitarian teaching putting itself forward, one which bears no relation to the old liberal Unitarianism, and requires a completely different response from either Unitarianism or the more obviously non-Christian Jehovah’s Witnesses movement. In this brief analysis, I would like to describe the movement known as Oneness Pentecostalism, identify its theological core, and explain what is at stake in arguments over Oneness doctrine. I will not cite Oneness authors at length nor interact with their arguments directly. Instead, speaking as an evangelical trinitarian to other evangelical trinitarians, I would like to recommend the strategic direction that evangelical engagement with Oneness groups should follow.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

10 responses to Anti-trinitarianism: Oneness Pentecostals

  1. I hope there is a part 2!

    • Yes, so do I, Jim!

      Here is the statement made by Sanders at the end of the article to which Jim refers: “I would like to write more on the subject, change the way I said certain things, and update some of the information, but what I’ve posted here is the text from 2005, w/a couple formatting changes, paragraph breaks, and subheads for blog publications.”

  2. How extensive is this movement?

    • I am not exactly certain of the numbers, but I do know it is making an influence, e.g. T. D. Jakes. The other challenging aspect to this is that unlike modalism of the Unitarians, this comes from within a group that many would consider Evangelical, the Oneness Pentecostals. This is one of the important points made by Sanders.

  3. Thanks for pointing out this article. It seems to me that it’s a lot like how the Mormons are now trying to be accepted as Christians.

    I can never recall studying any creed or confession in a Free Church other than the Apostles’ Creed.

    • Being a part of the free church movement (broader that the Evangelical Free Church movement), there is a general sentiment of not being creedal, or if acknowledging our indebtedness to creeds, they remain a part of our history and have an important place on our shelves. Often creeds are recited as part of a high church liturgy, whereas the free church is low church and does not generally follow a traditional liturgy. Though to be accurate, all churches still have or follow a liturgy, often in the free church it is simply unspoken or unspecified. In the free church, there are concerns that these sorts of things carry an odor of spiritual death, of having a form without a substance. There is some truth to that but one must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. One can become so concerned about tradition that one has no rudder or anchor. That is the other side of this that is not healthy. Much more could be said. I end with a quote from Jaroslov Pelikan, deceased church historian, who wrote a magisterial series on The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, who understands the importance of tradition, but also shares the concern of traditionalism: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (“The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities”).

  4. there is a general sentiment of not being creedal

    I was disturbed a few years ago when at our EFCA regional conference an EFCA official boasted about the public prayer campaign he participated in with TD Jakes. He cited their agreement on the Apostles Creed as the basis for their unity. I thought that he needed a dose of Athanasius!

    The early church fathers encountered almost all of the heresies coming our way today. Studying the creeds can save us from having to reinvent the wheel!

    [end rant]

    • Thank you for your input, Bob. Not only will those creeds and that teaching save us from having to reinvent the doctrinal wheel, more importantly it will keep us from heresy.

      What I generally say regarding doctrine (orthodoxy, i.e. right belief) is that there is nothing new under the sun. There are not many new heresies that have arisen against which the church has not spoken. The substance remains the same, though the outer garments are updated to reflect contemporary discussion. For two examples, regarding Christology, compare the early church heresy of Arianism and the contemporary expression through Jehovah’s Witnesses; regarding the Trinity, compare the early church heresy of modalism with the contemporary expression of Oneness Pentecostals.

  5. Why cant i see the anti trinitarian article?

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