RESPONSE TO A CULT HUNTER

by David K. Bernard Associate Editor

Review of E. Calvin Beisner, "Jesus Only" Churches (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 87 pages.

The back cover of Beisner's booklet promises to vide "essential and liable information and fights" on Oneness Pentecostalism. Unfortunatethe booklet fails in this purpose and actually cres significant obstacles for understanding and communication. The antagonistice prejudicial tone does not foster dialogue, much of the inforation is simply wrong, the presentation of Oneness Pentecostal doctrinal views is seriously flawed, and the presentation of historic, orthodox understanding" is surprisingly narrow and controversial.

ANTAGONSTIC, PREJUDICIAL TONE

The title itself provides an indication of problems come, for it uses a derogatory and misleading label to characterize movement it seeks to understand. This branch of Pentecostalism uses the designations of Apostolic, Jesus Name, and Oneness to identify itself. The label "Jesus Only" arose as a description of its baptismal formula, but soon opponents began using it against Oneness adherents, erroneously claiming that they denied the Father and the Holy Spirit. As a result Oneness Pentecostals today do not designate themselves by the term "Jesus Only" and generally consider it misleading and offensive. Similarly, the booklet's use of three theatrical masks to symbolize the Oneness doctrine is inaccurate and inappropriate. [note: some copies of this booklet do not display this image - mwb]

It is evident that the author and publisher wish to portray Oneness Pentecostals as cultists and false religionists. The booklet is one of the newest in a series by various authors entitled Zondervan Guide to Cults and Religious Movements. On the cover, the most prominent word in this series title is Cults. The introductory booklet to the series is Unmasking the Cults. The last booklet in the series summarizes all the movements studied, and its title is Truth and Error: Comparatitve Charts of Cults and Christianity. The other twelve titles in the series are Jehovah's Witnesses; Masonic Lodge; Mormonism; New Age Movement; Satanism; Unification Church; Mind Sciences; Astrology and Psychic Phenomena; Buddhism, Taoism and Other Far Eastern Religions; Goddess Worship, Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism; Hinduism, TM and Hare Krishna; and Unitarian Universalism.

Classifying Oneness Pentecostals with these groups implies a spiritual similarity and a common satanic origin. At the least, it seems that the author and publisher discredit all Oneness Pentecostal experiences with God. But how can they venture to make such a judgment with no indication that they have ever attended Oneness Pentecostal worship services or interacted significantly with Oneness Pentecostals on a personal level?

How can they seemingly denigrate all faith, repentance, reception of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and spiritual fruit among Oneness Pentecostals while apparently accepting the same manifestations among Trinitarian Pentecostals? Have they no concern that they could be ascribing works of the Holy Spirit to Satan, something Jesus warned strongly against in Matthew 12:22-32?

The author's willingness to excoriate Oneness Pentecostals for their doctrinc of God is particularly surprising in light of views expressed in his book God in Three Persons:

"Monarchianism is represented today by the United ("Jesus Only") Pentecostals.... As the differences between modalism and pure trinitarianism are rather minute, it is not surprising that a great number of Christians in mainline denominations, including Roman Catholicism, hold a modalistic conception of the Trinity, at least unconsciously"(1)

According to this passage, the Oneness doctrine is a relatively insignificant deviation from "pure trinitarianism" and amounts to nothing more than "a modalistic conception of the Trinity." Why then it is sufficient to make someone a Cultist? Is the author now willing to extend this blanket condemnation to the "great number of Christians in mainline denominations" who hold essentially the same view? SERIOUS ERRORS OF FACT The booklet begins with historical background and statistics. Here we find many egregious errors, such as these examples from pages 8 and 9:

Numerous other errors exist in the booklet, but these will suffice to demonstrate the extent of the problem. The research is careless, to say the least. The booklet consistently uses outdated and false information that puts Oneness Pentecostals in an unfavorable light when accurate, current information is readily available, thereby revealing that prejudice has significantly compromised the scholarship. The seriousness of the errors calls into question the integrity and trustworthiness of the entire enterprise.

FAULT PRESENTATION OF ONENESS DOCTRINE

The bulk of the booklet is devoted to three theological topics: the doctrines of Christ, Trinity, and salvation. It contains numerous quotations from various Oneness authors, but never when it gives the "basic statement of the Oneness position" on each topic (pages 11, 25, and 51). In each case, it significantly distorts the Oneness position and thus argues against a straw man.

On the doctrine of Christ, it reduces the Oneness teaching concerning the relation of Jesus to the Father and Holy Spirit as follows: "Jesus is the Father and the Holy Spirit."
On the doctrine of God, the booklet represents Oneness believers as saying "Jesus = the Father = the Holy Spirit." As they stand, these statements are simplistic, incomplete, out of context, and therefore distortions. Here are more accurate statements, the first one from the UPCI Articles of Faith: This one true God has revealed Himself as Father; through His Son, in redemption; and as the Holy Spirit, by emanation.... Before the incarnation, this one true God manifested Himself in divers ways. In the incarnation, He manifests Himself in the Son, who walked among men. As He works in the lives of believers, He manifests Himself as the Holy Spirit.... This one true God was manifest in the flesh, that is, in His Son Jesus Christ.(10)

The doctrine known as Oneness can be stated in two affirmations: (1) There is one God with no distinction of persons; (2) Jesus Christ is all the fullness of the Godhead incarnate.... Jesus is the one God incarnate.... Jesus is the Father incarnate....

The Holy Spirit is literally the Spirit that was in Jesus Christ.... The UPCI teaches that the one God existed as Father and Holy Spirit before His incarnation as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and that while Jesus walked on earth as God Himself incarnate, the Spirit of God continued to be omnipresent. (11)

We do not believe that the Father is the Son, [but] we do believe that the Father is in the Son (John 14:10). Since Jesus is the name of the Son of God, both as to His deity as Father and as to His humanity as Son, it is the name of both the Father and the Son. (12)

On the doctrine of salvation, the booklet represents Oneness Pentecostals as believing that "water baptism is the indispensable means of regeneration." This statement is false. While Oneness Pentecostals generally agree that water baptism is for the remission of sins, part of the new birth, and part of the experience of New Testament salvation, they believe that regeneration is supremely the work of the Holy Spirit and purchased by the blood of Jesus.

The booklet says the true view is that "God, the agent of regeneration and remission, may elect to use it [baptism] or not.... Christ's blood, not water, washes away sins" (pages 57-58). Oneness Pentecostals accept this view. They would argue, however, that while God is sovereign in establishing a plan of salvation and then in judging an individual's fulfillment of that plan, from the human perspective water baptism is not an option but a divine command to obey and a necessary act of faith. The following statements summarize their true views: Water baptism is not a magical act; it is without spiritual value unless accompanied by conscious faith and repentance. Baptism is important only because God has ordained it to be so. God could have chosen to remit sin without baptism, but in the New Testament church He has chosen to do so at the moment of baptism. Our actions at baptism do not provide salvation or earn it from God; God alone remits sins based on Christ's atoning death. When we submit to water baptism according to God's plan, God honors our obedient faith and remits our sin.... The Bible describes water and Spirit baptism as two distinct events.... The New Testament particularly associates the Holy Spirit with God's work of regeneration and His dwelling in man.... God could have chosen to remit sins without water baptism, but we exceed our authority if we assert that He will or list circumstances under which He will.... We should obey the full gospel to the utmost of our understanding and capacity, encourage everyone else to do the same, and leave eternal judgment to God. (13)

For a detailed discussion of the various doctrinal and historical points that the booklet raises, see the following books by David K Bernard, published by Word Aflame Press; The Oneness of God; The Oneness View of Jesus Christ; The New Birth and Oneness and Trinity: A.D. 100-300.

NARROW PRESENTATION OF "HISTORIC ORTHODOXY"

The booklet's presentation of the "historic, orthodox understanding" of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation is surprising in places. Its position on a number of issues is quite controversial, and its appeal to historical authority is inconsistent. Here are some examples:

If the creeds and the ancient writers known as the church fathers represent so-called historic orthodoxy on the doctrine of God, why do they not equally represent historic orthodoxv on the doctrine off water Baptism?

The truth is that the author is highly selective in what he deems orthodoxy. To support the doctrine of the Trinity he invokes the creeds and fathers and denounces anyone who would deviate from their supposed authority, yet he renounces their authority when it comes to water baptism.

Similarly, the booklet says that the holiness teachings of the UPCI "are strange and legalistic and lack biblical ground" (page 74), yet it ignores the strong teachings of ancient writers such as Tertullian and Cyprian on this very subject. While embracing John Calvin's doctrine of predestination, the booklet says nothing about Calvin’s teaching on practical holiness and the laws he promulgated on this subject in Geneva, which were stricter than the voluntary disciplines that the UPCI has adopted in obedience to the Scriptures.

  • The presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity suffers from the classie weaknesses of the doctrine namely tendencies toward tritheism and subordinationism. Many Trinitarians will have problems affirming the views in this area. For instance, the booklet argues strongly that the Godhead is a substance that subsists in three centers of consciousness. "The term person can properly denote self-conscious things other than human beings such as angels, delnons, imaginary selfconscious beings, and each of the three persons of God" (page 47). Interestingly, A Handbook of Theological Terms asserts, "No important Christian theologian has argued that there are three self-conscious beings in the godhead," (15) but this booklet certainly comes close to doing so.

    One passage of Scripture seems to give the author particular trouble: "Now the Lord is that Spirit" (II Corinthians 3: l 7). To avoid saying that "the Spirit" here is the Holy Spirit, he argues that there are at least two divine Spirits, "the Holy Spirit" and "the spirit that is God's substance": "There are many spirits other than the Holy Spirit, both literal (e.g., angels, demons, the spirits of men, and the spirit that is God's substance [John 4:24] ) and metaphorical" (page 34).

    To avoid saying that "the Lord" in II Corinthians and that there is more than one divine Lord: "The word Lord in 1 Corinthians 8:6 denotes Jesus, while in 2 Corinthians 3:17 it may instead denote Jehovah.... 1 Cor. 8:6 teaches only that one Lord is in special relationship to believers, not that there is only one lord at all" (page 35, text and note 91).

    The booklet admits a certain subordination in the Godhead, using terms that one could apply to children or to subjects of an absolute monarch: "Although it affirms their equality of nature, Trinitarianism acknowledges a subordination of will by the Son to the Father and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son" (p. 39).

  • When presenting the "historic, orthodox" view of salvation, the booklet advocates a strict, five-point Calvinism including unconditional election and unconditional eternal security. The implication is that all who do not adhere to this view—and the vast majority of professing Christians do not—are heretical. Here are some surprising statements based on this view:

    CONCLUSION

    In summary, it appears that the purpose of the booklet is not to engage in serious, respectful dialogue with the goal of ascertaining biblical truth, but to prejudice readers against Oneness Pentecostals by labeling them a cult, presenting a superficial caricature of their teachings, and leaving a false impression that many are abandoning this message while only a few are embracing it. These seem to be desperate tactics motivated by a fear that if people indeed give careful consideration to the message of Oneness Pentecostals, then many will embrace it.

    When sinners on the Day of Pentecost cried out to the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" the apostle Peter responded, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:37-38).

    By contrast, the author of this booklet would have responded, in effect, "You can do nothing but hope that God has already chosen you for salvation. If He has, you will be born again before you believe on Jesus Christ and before you repent of your sins. Assuming you are regenerated, then you will automatically believe and repent, and afterwards if you wish you may be baptized, although it is not necessary for the remission of sins. If you do get baptized, you do not need to use the name of Jesus, but you should invoke three divine persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—in accordance with the doctrine of the Trinity that will be developed over the next three centuries. Finally, the Spirit will have filled you, although not according to the experience that we have just received and that you have just witnessed, for after all, we already had the Spirit anyway. One day you too will realize that you already received the Spirit, and then you may wish to seek for an optional baptism of the Spirit."

    The contrast is stark. Let us embrace the message and experience of the apostles.

    David K. Bernard is the associate editor in the Editorial Division of the United Pentecostal Church International, the founder and pastor of New Life United Pentecostal Church of Austin, Texas, and a member of the Texas District Board.

    Notes

    (1) E. Calvin Beisner, God in Three Persons (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1984), 18.

    (2) “Ministers Who Have Not Signed Affirmation," unpublished list compiled by UPCI Church Administration, 20 May 1993. See also Financial Reports, United Pentecostal Church International, Year Ending June 30, 1992,

    (3) Financial Reports, UPCI, June 30, 1997, 71.

    (4) David Barrett, "Statisties Global," Dictionary of Pentec ostal and Charismatic Movements, ed. Stanley Burgess, Gary McGee, and Patrick Alexander (Grand Hapids: Zondervan, 1988), 813.

    (5) J. Lee Grady, "The Other Pentecostals," Charisma, June 1997, 63.

    (6) Talmadge L. French, "Oneness Pentecostalism in Global Perspective: The Worldwide Growth and Organizational Expansion of the Oneness Pentecostal Movement in Historical and Theological Context," M.A. Thesis, Wheaton College Graduate School, Wheaton, IL,1998

    (7) Financial Reports, UPCI, June 30, 1997, vi, 71, 84.

    (8) Financial Reports, UPCI, June 30, 1992, 75, 90.

    (9) Financial Reports, UPCI, June 30, 1994, 77, 93.

    (10) Manual, United Pentecostal Church International (1998), 20.

    (11) David K. Bernard, The Oneness View of Jesus Christ (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1994), 9, 1213, 141.

    (12) David K. Bernard, The Oneness of God (Hazelwood MO: Word Aflame Press, 1983), 127.

    (13) David K. Bernard, The New Birth (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1984), 131, 152, 187, 307.

    (14) For documentation, see Bernard, New Birth, 261-64.

    (15) Van Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Macmillan, 1964), 246.