Greg Boyd's "Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity"

Oneness Pentecostalism or modalism (which I will refer to as OP for brevity throughout this review) has never significantly impacted my life, except to the extent that it sickens me that most Christians today could give a rip about defending the orthodox view of the Trinity (which early Christians would, and did, die to defend). Today, almost every Christian book store will uncritically carry T.D. Jakes’ material (who expreeses a modalistic view of God) and Philips, Craig, & Dean’s music (who are all OP ministers).

Let me state the very few things that would be negatives up front. First, the author comes with some baggage in that he has written another book ("Trinity and Process") which is not in the mainstream view, but from what I understand, still falls within the realm of orthodoxy. However, this book is free from any such concerns as it squarely falls within and defends the orthodox view of our Triune God. Second, [and here is my pet peeve], there is no Scripture index! How can one use this book quickly and effectively to counter the misuse of a certain Scripture by OP without a Scripture index? Third, I went nuts (in a bad way) over a certain passage entitled "Weak Arguments for The Trinity" which I will critique in detail at the very end of this review.

So what exactly do most OP believe and what distinguishes them from Trinitarians? While most anti-Trinitarian groups deny the deity of Christ, this is not so with OP, but rather they deny the distinctness of Christ. They claim that Jesus Christ is in fact the Father and the Holy Spirit and that there is no real distinction of persons, and any "apparent" distinction is an illusion for the sake of revelation. God, rather, is complete ONENESS who manifests Himself in different roles or modes. Most OP then are forced to deny the preexistence of the Son and affirm that any communication between the Son and the Father in the Incarnation is Jesus’ human nature communicating to His divine nature, basically in effect, talking to Himself. The very few OP that affirm a real preexistence of the "Word" are actually much closer to Trinitarians, differing in that they refuse to see the "Word" as a "person" but rather an eternal, finitized, aspect of God, an "it."

Boyd does a very equitable job of presenting the arguments for OP in a strong form without critical commentary at first, so that they may stand for themselves. Some of them are the same old tired ones that seemingly have to be rehashed over and over.... the Trinity uses unbiblical terminology, the Trinity has pagan origins, the Trinity is illogical, Trinitarians are actually tritheists, and so on, and so forth. After presenting their case, he then proceeds to very ably answer the so-called "irrefutable reasons why the Trinity cannot be true." One example that Boyd gave of the incredible awkwardness that OP theology leads to is well demonstrated in this hypothetical rendering of 2 Corinthians 13:14: [which would be consistent with OP exegesis]

"May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God (who is also Jesus Christ), and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (who is also Jesus Christ) be with you all."

A question which is squarely addressed is that fact that Jesus is so often distinguished from the Father in Scripture which of course makes perfect sense in a Trinitarian context, but is exceedingly difficult in an OP context. A fuller explanation of this, at least when Jesus is distinguished from "God," is also dealt with in a work by Murray Harris, "Jesus as God" which is recommended for even further reading. Like J.P. Holding likes to point out, many of these errors and theological establishments based on false dichotomies could be avoided if one just looked at the historical reasons why things may have been worded in a certain manner.

Of course, this work deals with the inevitable accusations that the Trinity uses unbiblical language (as if the OP theology doesn’t.... as a matter of fact, the word "incarnation" in not in the Biblical text, yet is it unbiblical?); and that the Trinity has its origin in pagan sources. Boyd puts forth the unusual statement that pagan parallels would tend to support the Trinity rather than disprove it, if actually true (which he does not concede).

What I found most interesting, and extremely damaging to OP theology, is that its adherents effectively are forced to deny the Incarnation, even if they do not do so explicitly. For in their view, not everything the man Jesus went through, did God the Father go through. For example while the human side of Jesus spoke to and prayed to the divine Father, deity did not do that. Deity did not suffer.... deity did not experience forsakenness, only the man did. But, if that is true, then as Boyd asks, in what way did God really become man? He either went through everything that the man went through or He did not. The Incarnation and the Trinity go hand and hand! I found this observation most interesting.

Also, it is readily apparent, and brought to even greater clarity by Boyd, that if Jesus was in fact his own Father, why does Jesus as the Son (which OP adherents says is referring just to His humanity) come through loud and clear, but Jesus the Father does not? Why would the inspired writers be so opaque on such an important point? The favorite proof-text for OP adherents is Isaiah 9:6, in which they claim that the Messiah is explicitly referred to as Everlasting Father. First, it is obvious that there is a serious weakness in one’s theology if the most important verse proving one’s position is just one verse, and found only in the Old Testament (dealing with a subject not fully revealed until the New Testament). But Boyd, surprisingly enough, did not note what became patently obvious to me.... that is that Isaiah 9:6 refers to a "child born... a Son given," yet in OP theology that son is only the human side of Jesus which even they don’t believe IS the father. Along the same lines, this theology creates an almost schizoid Jesus who switches between his two natures and identities (divine Father and human Son) between sentences, and even in the same sentence (see John 6:40). This also raises the unlikely OP presupposition that Jesus’ (and Paul’s) audience was able to pick up on such nuances without ANY overt hint, and this on a subject upon which one’s very salvation rests. The OP God seems to be one who favors playing semantical games with His creatures all the while hiding between illusory roles donned for the purpose of greater revelation! But in all reality, the true OP God is never revealed making Him even more mysterious than the Trinity (the mysteriousness/incomprehensibility of which is a chief complaint of OP adherents). As aptly stated:

"Things are, it seems to Oneness apologists, never as they appear in the Gospels. The God of Oneness theology is a ‘master of illusion’ who is so convincing that the overwhelming majority of those who have ever loved and trusted in Christ have lost out in eternity for not recognizing this!"

In fact, although OP try to say otherwise, documentation is provided that the early church was not at all Oneness, but explicitly Trinitarian. If in fact the apostles taught Oneness so clearly, how is it that the church fell into such apostasy within one or two generations, and speak so easily in Trinitarian terms with no record of any outcry (unlike two or three centuries later when modalism began to be widely taught and there was great controversy and upheaval)?

Ironically, as it turns out, when the OP adherents are truly consistent, they cannot make sense out of the New Testament without affirming a trinity of sorts. They just basically posit a God who can choose to exist and act concurrently in three distinct ways, but did not do so eternally which again, affirms the same "mystery" that they were trying to avoid in the first place "...[OP adherents] simply trade in legitimate biblical mystery for unbiblical and incoherent nonsense." A distinction must be made, though, for their concessions are to a "trinity of activity" rather than an ontological "trinity of being." However, such a distinction does not make for less mystery, it just actually creates more, since God is never truly revealed from the OP perspective, only His activity is.... and the Trinitarian mystery remains.... "one indivisible God can and does exist in at least three distinct ways, that he does so fully, and he does so personally, and that he does so simultaneously." And Boyd then asks, if it is not offensive to monotheism to believe that, then why is it so offensive to believe that God exists in this manner eternally? Their main straw man argument against the trinity (that it is tritheism) is naught.

Boyd also deals with the philosophy of a undifferentiated solitary eternal God and the difference that would make to revelation. If God is essentially love, who did He love before creation? Did He need creation to have something to love? Is God essentially personal? How could he be essentially personal if His only fellowship prior to creation was with nothing? Is he only "revealing" Himself as intensely personal for our sakes? God is concealed yet again. Then the attributes of God revealed in Scripture are more about His "doing" rather than His "being." He is essentially a God of solitude... and we are created in His image. What does that say about us?

As Hank Hanegraaff likes to state, "Error begets error, and heresy begets heresy," there are numerous other problems within the OP movement. Most prominent would be the belief that one needs to be baptized in a specific baptismal formula using Jesus’ name only in order to be saved. As this was not my focus in this review, I refer the reader to Boyd’s treatment which more than deals with this issue. But I will say that Boyd brought up a connection between the OP theology and this aberrance which was never obvious to me: The OP God is a performing God and thus His people tend to be obsessed with performance. Salvation is literally conditioned upon our performance and not upon God’s grace. You must speak in tongues (at least once), women must never cut their hair, you must live according to strict holiness standards, you must be baptized using the correct formula... and so on. Imagine the tragedy of constantly seeking the gift of tongues in order to know that you are saved... begging God for this gift and never receiving it... believing that you must purify yourself before God will even deal with you.

Obviously, I really liked this book. I would recommend it even if one was not interested in OP per se, but just wanted to get more in depth into the doctrine of the Trinity. We need more books like this.


Boyd claims that appeals to the use of plural words (such as Elohim) for God is a weak argument for The Trinity and "that it is not uncommon to find Trinitarians arguing for the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis of the fact that the word for God in the Old Testament is Elohim which is the plural of the word El." While I would agree that it would be weak indeed to base one’s ENTIRE Trinitarian argument SOLELY on this point, the argument is not in itself weak in the cumulative case for the Trinity... which is in fact a cumulative case, not based SOLELY on any ONE argument. Boyd appeals to unnamed Hebrew scholars (you know... those infamous "most scholars say blah, blah, blah") and concludes "it is easiest and best to understand the plural of Elohim when referenced to Yahweh as denoting a plural of majesty."

Let’s dissect this argument. First and foremost, the so-called "plural of majesty" is an idiom unknown in the time of Moses, unless one is assuming a priori that the plural words (there are more than just Elohim, such as Adonai) are such a "plural of majesty." Also, this "plural of majesty" applies only to vocative address, not to plural nouns. This is nothing but a naked reading of relatively modern royal idiosyncrasies into Scripture. Second, Boyd notes that "when a numerical plurality is intended, the corresponding verbs in the context will be plural.... when ... God is referred to as Elohim... the corresponding verbs are ALWAYS singular." [emphasis mine]. Really? Well, Genesis 20:13a, 35:7, Psalm 58:11 use plural verbs (in the literal Hebrew) to modify Elohim. Joshua 24:19 uses a plural adjective. Plus, Boyd seems to miss the point that a singular verb does no harm to the Trinitarian case.... and the mixture of singular and plural only makes sense in a Trinitarian scenario.

Boyd also notes that the term Elohim is also applied in Genesis 32:30 to the one Angelic being who wrestled with Jacob. Since most Trinitarians believe that this Angel was a theophany, what is the problem here? That there was just one Angel? So? Trinitarians believe there is just one God. Boyd seems to fall into the OP mistake of assuming when Trinitarians use Elohim to denote a plurality, they mean three gods, so one angel is not obviously three angels.... Now there is a weak argument. Boyd also notes that Elohim is used of the one golden calf the Israelites worshipped (Exodus 32:1, 4, 8). I fail to see the problem here. That calf was supposed to be a substitute for the one true God Elohim, so they called it by the same title (Elohim functions more as a title than a name, by the way). So what? I am not claiming that every single Israelite understood why they called God Elohim... so they obviously would have no problem calling their idol by the same appellation. The infamous Rabbi Tovia Singer also tries this same tact by pointing out that Moses is called Elohim (Exodus 7:1). Again, so what? Aaron is also called his prophet. They were functioning as symbols to Pharaoh of the one true God and His prophet. Aaron was not really a prophet, and Moses was not really the Triune God. But they used these appellations in the symbolism.

Now let us turn the tables on these arguments. Does Boyd really want to argue that the golden calf possessed an inherent "plurality of majesty," and does Rabbi Singer want to say the same of Moses? I don’t think so.

Now I am bringing up, on my own [and Boyd does not disagree with this at all in his book, but rather agrees, albeit in an endnote], the plural pronouns in the Old Testament which are in the vocative and could conceivably fall under the "plurality of majesty" (in Bizarro World since this is again a relatively modern figure of speech). We have God stating "Let Us Make Man in Our Image." The text goes on to say that we are made in the image of God, not angels. So while angels may have been listening to that announcement, it is not referring to them. God is referring to Himself plain as day. Of course, many will say that it is the vocative "plural of majesty." Okay, what about in Genesis 3:22 where man "has become like ONE of Us." [Emphasis mine]. Was the temptation offered to become like an angel? No. It was to become like God, and God sarcastically declares that man has got his wish... he has become like ONE of US. Not like an angel. There is no escaping that the "Us" has "ones" that compose it. Plus, consistency would fall on the side that if the other plural pronouns in the preceding passages ALWAYS refer to God alone (and not to the angels), then this plural pronoun also refers to God ALONE.

Now to Boyd’s other point about a "weak argument" for the Trinity. He points out that some base their entire argument on the fact that the word "echad" is used for "one" in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4). Again, the same points made before stand. It is weak to use that as one’s ONLY argument for The Trinity, but that does not make this point weak in the TOTAL case for the Trinity. In fact, any Trinitarian case which does not deal with the Shema would be weak indeed.

-"Dee Dee Warren"