Earlier this year the trinitarian apologist Michael Burgos published an article on the website Biblical Trinitarian, titled “A Look at Three Passages Oneness Pentecostals Use to Demonstrate that Jesus is the Father.” In his article, Burgos attempts to refute the Oneness doctrine by challenging our exegesis of three key scriptural passages (viz., Isaiah 9:6, John 14:6-8, and 1 John 3:1-5). The operative word in my last statement is “attempts,” because Burgos’ response comes up short—as we shall see. In my article today, I will take a second look at the passages Burgos has selected and give a response to his article.
Before getting into the passages themselves, we should note how Burgos introduces his subject.
Oneness Pentecostals have attempted to marshal evidence that “Jesus is the Father” by appealing to only a handful of biblical texts. This attempt itself divulges the weakness of the Oneness assertion since out of the entirety of the NT, Oneness Pentecostals can find less than half a dozen texts which teach the foundational assertion of their Christology. (paragraph 1)
According to Burgos, we Oneness Pentecostals appeal to only a handful of texts—no more than six—in order to build our Christology. In reality, Oneness theologians and apologists use a plethora of biblical passages and arguments in order to formulate our Christology. Anyone who has read David Bernard, Nathaniel Wilson, David Norris, Daniel Segraves, Jerry Lynn Hayes, or Jason Weatherly can attest to this fact. I find Burgos’ above statement astounding—given that he has written multiple books in response to our doctrine, engaging all of the aforementioned authors.
You are free to disagree with our theological conclusions, Mr. Burgos, and we welcome your challenge; but please don’t mischaracterize us as if we have not done our homework. Every Biblical passage that you have studied with respect to trinitarianism, we have studied vis-à-vis Oneness dogma. We build our teaching on the whole of scripture—just as you claim to do. You have read our theologians, and you know our exegesis is more sophisticated than you attempt to portray it here. Now, on to the passages.
Let’s have a look at Burgos’ exegesis of Isaiah 9:6
The classic text Oneness adherents point to is Isaiah 9:6. I have written on this text at length elsewhere, demonstrating that the phrase “eternal father” (Heb. avi ab) no more identifies the Messiah as God the Father than say, the biblical names Abijam (“father of light”) or Abigail (“father of joy”). Rather, the appellation “father of eternity” is intended to characterize the Son of God as having something Oneness Pentecostals deny, namely, an eternal existence.
According to Burgos, Jesus’ name אביעד/Abiad means that Jesus eternally exists—but it does not literally mean that Jesus is the Father. In order to prove this statement, Burgos refers to names like Abijam and Abigail. Now follow Burgos’ logic carefully here. “Is Abijam literally the father of light? No. Is Abigail literally the father of joy? No. Therefore Abiad/Jesus is not literally the Father of eternity/God the Father. It only characterizes him as eternal, the same way that the name “Abigail” characterizes her as joyous.” He is welcome to correct me if I misunderstand him, but this seems to be the argument that Burgos is making here.
The astounding thing about this is—this is EXACTLY the same logic that Jehovah’s Witnesses use in order to prove that Jesus is not God at all! Compare Burgos’ quote above with the following quote from jw.org:
Some names of individuals in the Bible were prophetic and describe the work the person would do. For example, the prophet Isaiah was inspired to write: “Look! The maiden herself will actually become pregnant, and she is giving birth to a son, and she will certainly call his name Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) This name means “With Us Is God.” Some Bible commentators have tried to link the first fulfillment of this prophecy with one of the Israelite kings or one of Isaiah’s sons. However, the Gospel writer Matthew showed that Isaiah’s prophecy was completely fulfilled in Jesus.—Matthew 1:22, 23.
Some have claimed that by applying the name Immanuel to Jesus, the Bible teaches that Jesus is God. However, by this logic the young man Elihu, who comforted and corrected Job, was also God. Why? His name means “My God Is He.” From a 2009 article at jw.org.
According to jw.org, Jesus/Immanuel was not literally “God with us,” because Elihu was not literally “My God is he.” The JWs use the exact same reasoning as Burgos: a name can be “prophetic and describe the work the person would do,” or apply a certain characteristic to them—but they cannot be taken literally, any more than any other Hebrew name can be taken literally. I challenge Burgos to be consistent on this point. If Jesus’ name Abiad/”Everlasting Father” does not literally mean he is the Father, then Jesus’ name Immanuel/”God with us” does not literally mean that he was God.
Your own logic defeats you, sir. Just like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you are using the names of mere humans (Abigail, Abijam, Elihu) to exegete a prophetic statement about the incarnate God! If you are logically consistent, you must conclude not only that Jesus is not God the Father, but also that Jesus is not God at all!
I don’t know why it is so heinous to say that the divinity of Jesus is God the Father. If Jesus is God, he must be the Father. John 17:1-3 tells us that the “Father” is “the only true God;” 1 Corinthians 8:6 says that “there is but one God, the Father;” Malachi 2:10 says that the “one God who created us” is the “one Father.” Even the Nicene Creed says that the divinity of the Son is “of one substance with the Father,” and forbids us from saying that his divinity is “of another ousia or hypostasis” from the Father. If Jesus is God, his divinity must be the Father; conversely, if his divine nature is anything other than the Father, he is not completely God.
Lastly with respect to this verse, Burgos claims that Oneness Pentecostals deny the eternal existence of the Son. This is an oversimplification of our doctrine, and not quite right. Oneness Pentecostals teach that the genuine human being Jesus Christ was literally begotten by the virgin Mary (Galatians 4:4, Luke 1:35, John 1:1-14); prior to his birth by Mary, this genuine human being did not exist. Just like Burgos, we believe that the incarnation literally took place in history; unless he is suggesting that the human flesh of Jesus preexisted his birth, and that his human body was in heaven prior to being begotten by Mary.
But this does not mean that we deny Jesus’ eternal existence. He existed eternally as the Word of God (John 1:1), the Wisdom of God and the Power of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), the Glory of God (2Corinthians 4:6 and Ezekiel 1, 8, pauci), the Image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4, Hebrews 1:3, John 8:58 and Genesis 12:7, 18:1, pauci)—he existed eternally as God himself, the same Lord Jehovah who laid the foundation of the earth and the heavens are the works of his hands (Hebrews 1:10ff)! We definitely believe that Jesus Christ’s “goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). But we also confess that he was literally “made of a woman, made under the Law,” and prior to his incarnation as a genuine human, his humanity did not exist—unless, as I said before, Burgos would have us believe that the genuine humanity of Christ was not in fact “made of the seed of David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), but that in his humanity he eternally existed with God the Father.
[Before moving on, I cannot help but point out that in the previous paragraph alone I used thirteen scriptural passages: Burgos claims that we build our Christology on less than half that much.]
According to Burgos, this passage presents Oneness Pentecostals with two exegetical problems.
First, in order to understand this passage to teach that Jesus is the Father, one would have to atomize the text and divorce it from the balance of the NT. Take for instance the parable of the wicked tenants in Luke 20:9-18; Matt. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12. In this parable Jesus depicts himself as one who is numerically and personally distinct both in terms of his sending and death. Second, in order to derive the notion that “Jesus is the Father” from John 14, one would have to omit those many portions of the chapter which explicitly depict Jesus as being personally distinct from the Father.
At the root of both of these “problems,” is the false accusation that we Oneness Pentecostals do not teach a personal distinction between Christ and God. If Mr. Burgos would take the time to understand what we Oneness Pentecostals actually teach—or to fairly present what we teach if he does in fact understand it—he would have to admit that we do teach that Jesus is numerically and personally distinct from the Father.
But, we do not believe that this personal distinction is an eternal facet of God’s divine nature. Rather, we believe that this numerical distinction is a result of Jesus’ true and complete humanity in the incarnation. With respect to Jesus’ humanity, he is the Son of God and of Mary—miraculously conceived by the power of God’s Spirit—but “in all things…made like unto his brethren” because “he took on him the seed of Abraham” (Hebrews 2:16-17). Jesus is genuine human—and as a genuine human he is numerically and personally distinct from his Father. I have written about this elsewhere.
I hope that Mr. Burgos believes, as we Oneness Pentecostals do, that Christ had a dual nature. If he doesn’t, he isn’t even an orthodox Trinitarian (by the standards of the Council of Chalcedon). We are persuaded by scripture that the distinction between Jesus and God is an outworking of the incarnation—Christ “in the days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7). Christ is distinct from God in his human nature. But when it comes to Christ’s divine nature, he is none other than God manifested in the flesh (1Timothy 3:16), our great God and Savior (Titus 2:13), the God who is over all and blessed forever (Romans 9:5). His divinity is none other than God the Father, “the only true God” (John 17:1-3).
But we agree with Burgos when he says that
Jesus is the perfect and final Revealer of God. This is why John characterizes the Son as God the Word. So too, this is precisely the same reason why the author of Hebrews depicts the Son as God as the perfect revelation of God to man and the exact imprint of the Father’s nature. Hence, a consistent interpretation of John 14 indicates that Philip needed no other revelation of the Father.
Our only retort is that Jesus is not “the co-equal God,” as Burgos goes on to assert: he is the one God of the Bible manifest in the flesh.
So far, Burgos’ analysis of Oneness exegesis has come up short. Either he does not deal with the actual claims of Oneness theology (as with the passage we have just considered), or his logic—if consistently followed—would result in Jehovah’s Witnesses-style Arianism (as with Isaiah 9:6). Now to the last passage.
1 John 3:1-5
In this section, Burgos refutes an argument that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Oneness Pentecostal advance. I’m not accusing Burgos of straw-man—I’m sure he has encountered Oneness Pentecostals who use this line of reasoning; I’m only saying that I am unfamiliar with this argument myself.
Apparently, after quoting 1 John 3:5 (“And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin.”), “Oneness interpreters argue that because the immediate antecedent [of “he” in verse 5] is God the Father (vv. 1-2), this subsequently implies that the Father (i.e., Jesus) appeared to take away sins” (Burgos, paragraph 4).
Burgos makes a good point in his response here, and I actually agree with him. The word “he” in this verse does not point back to the Father in verse 1 of the passage; rather, it points forward to verse 8 where John says that “the Son of God was manifested to destroy the works of the devil.”
But, the fact that some Oneness Pentecostals misapply this verse does not undermine the entire doctrine. That would be akin to saying that the entire Trinity doctrine is defunct because a few Trinitarians misapply a verse here or there. The issue goes much deeper than one misused verse—and that should be sufficiently evident from the fact that I can agree with Burgos on this verse but continue to disagree with him concerning the Trinity doctrine as a whole.
Michael Burgos is a sincere man, and an intelligent one. I have not written this response to attack him, to insult his intellect, or to make any judgements about his status as a Christian. Mr. Burgos, if you happen to read this article, I hope you know that we disagree theologically, but I in no way wish you ill. You believe our hermeneutic is flawed and only results from a presupposition of Oneness Pentecostalism; but from my perspective the same could be equally said of yourself, except with respect to Trinitarianism. I sincerely hope that you will read what I have written here and reconsider your position on Oneness Christians.
Trinitarians and Oneness Christians alike are endeavoring to make sense of the teachings of scripture. Both sides admit that the one God of the Bible has made himself known as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and both sides confess the full deity of Jesus Christ as that one God of the Bible. Our theological differences are real and must be discussed. But may that never result in the assumption that our interlocutors are ignorant or wicked. We are both seeking to know, worship, and proclaim “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).