On March 9th of this year Bishop Kevin L. Betton Sr., Elder Kevin L. Betton Jr., and Pastor Damon Richardson conducted a Facebook Live video “The Danger of False Doctrine.” The main purpose of this nearly two hour long video was to refute Oneness Pentecostalism; because of the length of this video, it would be nearly impossible for me to respond to every point raised by these three men. That said, during the course of this discussion Damon Richardson made some statements about the original Greek text of Acts 2:38 which demand a response.
Below I will provide a sound-bite so that you don’t have to go searching through the whole video to find the relevant portion. Please listen to this clip before proceeding through the rest of the article.
You will notice that the sound-bite begins with “That’s one way to do it.” This is because Damon’s statements about the Greek grammar of Acts 2:38 are part of a much larger argument, one which I do not have space to address. For the purposes of this article I will be limiting myself to Damon’s subsequent mishandling of the Greek grammar of Acts 2:38. For my personal convenience, I am going to move through the clip in a roughly-chronological fashion. This should also make it easier for you my readers to know exactly what I am referring to.
No OP Greek Scholars
Damon starts his argument with an ad hominem logical fallacy, an early sign that his argument is going to be faulty: “Since there really are no Greek scholars among them [Oneness Pentecostals], it’s reall hard for them to argue.”
What does Damon mean here by a “Greek scholar”? The term is so broad as to almost be meaningless. Does he mean ultra-specialist Dan Wallace-esque grammarians who have spent four decades publishing peer-reviewed material on Koine? I doubt it, since very few Christian denominations can claim such an illustrious individual. Does Damon’s category “Greek scholar” exclude agnostic/atheistic scholars like Bart Ehrman? Damon seems to imply that the “Greek scholars” agree with his position, but he and Ehrman share very few if any theological presuppositions. Or does Damon mean Greek Orthodox scholars, for whom Koine Greek is a regular part of Sunday liturgy? If we include Greek Orthodox scholars, quite a few “Greek scholars” agree with OPs that baptism is necessary for salvation!1*
Or, by “Greek scholar,” does Damon mean someone like himself—an individual who has taken the time to learn the language, can read the Greek of the NT fairly comfortably, and can grapple with the grammatical nuances of the language? If this is what Damon means, it is a bald lie to say that Oneness Pentecostals have no Greek scholars. Jeremy Painter, Jeff Brickle, and Jason Weatherly are three names that come to mind, and that is just in the UPCI. It is factually incorrect to say that the Greek NT is “waters [we OPs] don’t waddle in;” if Damon thinks that OPs are incapable of responding to his use (or, frankly, abuse) of Greek, he is sadly mistaken.
As an extension of this point, Damon says, “Looking at any text in Greek totally destroys every position that Oneness Pentecostals [OPs] have.” As someone who has read the Greek NT cover-to-cover multiple times (to say nothing for all the other ancient Greek texts I’ve read), I can say that Damon is factually incorrect here again. The more I read my Greek NT, the more convinced I become of the salvific role of baptism. The Greak makes this more plain, not less.
The OP Position: Impossible from the Greek?
According to Damon, “It’s not possible to study the Greek and walk away with that view [that baptism is necessary for salvation].” But this is simply not the case. Credentialed Greek scholars, even ones who don’t think baptism is necessary for salvation, agree that the OP position is a live interpretive option grammatically speaking. When Damon says, “The way that that text [Acts 2:38] is constructed [in the Greek] rules out any possibility of walking away believing that baptism is essential for salvation,” he is simply wrong.
Take, for example, the words of renound Southern Baptist Greek scholar A.T. Robertson
Unto the remission of your sins (εἰς ἀφεσιν των ἁμαρτιων ὑμων). This phrase is the subject of endless controversy as men look at it from the standpoint of sacramental or of evangelical theology. In themselves the words can express aim or purpose for that use of εἰς does exist as in 1 Corinthians 2:7 εἰς δοξαν ἡμων.2*
This quote from Robertson is telling. This seasoned scholar did not at all believe that baptism was necessary for salvation. And yet he was forced to admit, going strictly from the grammar, that the OP interpretation was entirely possible. Further, he does not accuse those who believe baptism is salvific with misunderstanding the Greek; he credits the debate to the preconceptions of the scholars, because the grammar could go either way.
I challenge Damon to take a cue from one of his Baptist forebearers. Instead of asserting, falsely, that it is impossible to hold the Oneness position based on the Greek, Damon should admit that the Greek could go either way. Grammar alone certainly does not prove Damon’s case—as Robertson, someone who held Damon’s theology and knew Greek much better than he, was willing to admit. The OP position on Acts 2:38 is a live grammatical option.
The Greek Proves Baptism Isn’t Necessary For Salvation!……???
This is the main thrust of Damon’s argument. According to Damon, the wording of the original Greek completely prohibits believing that baptism is essential for salvation. In order to prove this he discusses the syntax of the verse, paying special attention to the parsing of the verbs. Frankly, Damon’s argument at this point of the video is jumbled and a bit difficult to follow. He misspeaks and stumbles over his words multiple times. For example, Damon says that the Greek word εἰς/eis means “you,” the second personal plural pronoun. In reality, εἰς is not a pronoun but a preposition meaning “into, unto, for.”
These sorts of simple mistakes unfortunately plague Damon’s argument at this point of the video. As I respond to this portion of Damon’s argument, I will do my best to summarize his argument as I go along. I have provided the sound-bite above, so anyone is capable of reading the following summary and testing its fairness against Damon’s own words. I have done my best to summarize his position charitably—expressing what he means even when he stumbles or misspeaks. If I have misrepresented Damon or if I have misunderstood his point, I invite him to reword/clarify his position.
Damon starts off by quoting Acts 2:38 as saying, “Repent every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” But this is not what the verse says. Damon, intentionally or otherwise, leaves baptism completely out of his paraphrase of the verse. This eisegetically excises the very topic of discussion! Like it or not, the verse says “Repent AND BE BAPTIZED every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” If Damon is going to bracket this part of the verse, he must have a sound grammatical reason—and this is just what he tries but fails to do next.
Damon goes on to say that the Greek word for the command “repent,” μετανοησατε, is in the second person plural form. He then claims that “be baptized,” βαπτισθητω, is in the third person singular (he mistakenly says “first person singular,” but means third). Both of these grammatical facts are true. So far so good. But then things start to go off the rails.Damon says,
“Repentance” and “you” are in the same case. In other words, it is in the second person plural. Whereas, “remission of sins” and “baptism” is in the third person singular. So baptism, then, is not connected to remission of sins. Remission of sins is actually connected to repentance, because it is in the same case; it is in the second person plural….”Remission of sins” is in the very same case as “repent” and as “you.” And so baptism is, again, in the third person singular. It’s in an entirely different case, so you would not put those two [“those two” being baptism and remission of sins] together.
There are so many problems with this section that it is difficult to know where to start.
For one thing, Damon first says that “remission of sins and baptism is in the third person plural.” Since they are both in the same “case” (as he calls it; more on “case” in a bit), Damon seems to connect remission of sins and baptism together. But then moments later he says that baptism and remission are two different cases, so we can’t put them together. Which is it? Are they in the same “case” or not? Did Damon have a Freudian slip and admit that remission is connected to baptism?
But moving along. Damon says that the verb “repent” and the noun “remission” are both in the same “case” (second person plural) and that is how we know “remission” goes with “repent” instead of “be baptized.” “Be baptized” is in the third person singular “case,” Damon tells us, so it can’t goe with “remission,” because it is in the second person plural. Now let’s put this to the test: are “repent” and “remission” both in the second person plural case?
Firstly, verbs don’t have case. Never. Not ever. Only nouns, adjectives, and pronouns can have case. As it turns out, the Greek word remission/ἀφεσιν is in the accusative case in Acts 2:38 because it is the object of the preposition εἰς (Remember? That preposition that Damon said was a pronoun?) The verb μετανοησατε, however, isn’t in the accusative case and can’t ever be—because it’s a verb, not a noun!
Secondly, Damon says that “repent” and “remission” are both in the second person. This also is a flagrant error because nouns technically don’t have person. The only way that remission/ἀφεσιν could (sort of) have person is if it were the subject of a verb. But it isn’t; its the object of the preposition εἰς as I said before.
Thirdly, Damon says that “repent” and “remission” are both plural—but they aren’t. The verb repent/μετανοησατε is in a plural form, but the noun remission/ἀφεσιν is singular.
Just to make this plain: the verb “repent” and the noun “remission” are not both in the second person plural AND CAN’T BE. Damon’s whole discussion of this “case” or that “case” is so flagrantly wrong that it would be funny if it weren’t sad. These sorts of mistakes—saying that verbs have case or that a noun used as an object of a preposition can be “second person”—are the sorts of mistakes that a first-semester exegesis student would make. I expect better from a man like Damon, who is a PhD student. Damon makes his mistakes so confidently that anyone who didn’t know Greek would be convinced by the presentation he makes. But I guess he didn’t expect to be called on it, since “there really are no Greek scholars among” us Oneness Pentecostals.
The Proper Way To Understand The Greek
Damon is right that the Greek verb repent/μετανοησατε is in the second person plural and the verb be baptized/βαπτισθητω is in the third person singular. But this does not prove that baptism is unnecessary for salvation. Quite the contrary.
When Peter uses the second person plural form μετανοησατε, he is telling all of the Jews listening to his sermon to repent. He speaks to them as a corporate group: “YOU ALL need to repent.” Then the grammar shifts to the third person singular form βαπτισθητω—but semantically Peter is still talking to the same group of people. Only now he is particularizing it and making it personal for each and every person in the crowd. The form shifts to βαπτισθητω because the verb goes syntactically with the pronoun ἕκαστος. But Peter is still speaking to the same group of people, because the Greek says ἕκαστος ὑμῶν—each one OF YOU ALL, the same “you” that he just told to repent.
And so, while the verbs do shift from second person plural to third person singular, this bears no impact on the semantics of the verse because the same group is being addressed both times. Therefore Damon is totally wrong when he says that “remission of sins” goes with repentance alone. The closest we could get to Damon’s view would be to say that repentance and baptism work together to remit sins; but to say that baptism is completely disconnected from remission does not make grammatical or semantic sense.
Toward the close of Damon’s grammatical argument and he states once again that “remission” is connected to “repentance” and not baptism. In my mind this assertion can be disproved with a simple question: If repentance alone remits sins, why didn’t Peter say, “Repent for the remission of sins, and be baptized, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost”?? If baptism has nothing to do with remission of sins, why did Peter say “Repent, and be baptized for the remission of sins”??
Put another way, if baptism is unessential for the remission of sins, why did Peter sandwich baptism inbetween “repentance” and remission? Rather than awkwardly parse the verse by bracketting baptism, why not let the verse speak for itself? If you want your sins remitted, you must repent and be baptized for the remission of sins—YOU repent, and each one of YOU be baptized for the remission of YOUR sins and YOU shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. That’s how the verse is in the original Greek, and that is how we should understand it today.
As A.T. Robertson said above, there is no grammatical reason prohibiting the idea that baptism remits sins. Damon’s gross mishandling of the grammar certainly doesn’t disprove it, as we showed above. When Damon says that verbs are in the same case as nouns, or that prepositions are pronouns, or that objects of prepositions are in the “second person plural” like a verb, he is making claims that are grammatically impossible.
Since Damon stumbled over his words so much at this point in the video, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that there is some nugget of nuance underneath all this nonsense. But if he wants to pursue this line of argumentation further, I make the two following recommendations:
a) Stop pretending that the Oneness Pentecostal interpretation is one hundred percent grammatically impossible. Scholars sharper than you and I conceed that both of our positions are grammatically possible. Contrary to what you said, it IS possible to read the Greek NT and come away believing baptism is essential for remission of sins. Even A.T. Robertson makes this concession.
b) Find a more clear way to articulate your position. Quit saying verbs have case or ἀφεσιν is in the “second person plural” like μετανοησατε—when in reality ἀφεσιν is in the accusative feminine SINGULAR. If you want to argue that baptism is not essential for salvation, do so theologically instead of grammatically, because the grammar is at least neutral if not against you.
In closing let me say that I do not personally dislike any of these men and none of my statements in this article are expressed with malice. If my tone has even once come across as contensious it it only because I am “earnestly contending for the faith,” not because I have anything against these men—especially Damon. If he is ever in the Saint Louis, MO area I hope he will let me know so that I can buy him a cup of coffee and have a friendly chat. I have not written this post to attack him personally, but to challenge his ideas and to correct error in sincerity—the very thing he was trying to do in the initial Facebook Live video.
- ‘Our “new birth” is given to us in Baptism according to the words of the Lord: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5)…. What is the event at which salvation truly takes hold? Baptism! That’s the answer St. Paul gives in Romans, chapter 6.’
Greek Orthodox Archdioses of America
- Robertson’s Word Pictures of the New Testament