Introduction A Conversation and a Conversion1 At thirteen years of age, I walked into a United Pentecostal church and had the experience of “speaking in tongues.”2 I was then taken, along with my mom and sister, to a baptismal tank and baptized “in the name of Jesus.” All of this took place at a “revival” service we attended at the invitation of a lady my mother knew from her office.
My family attended a Southern Baptist church in those days. Early in life I had developed a love of Scripture and an enthusiasm for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. I was heavily involved in our youth group and my pastor very much encouraged the “call to preach” that I had recently acknowledged. Another similarly minded youth at the church, Ronnie, shared my enthusiasm. We could be seen at school carrying our Bibles and, when the opportunity presented itself, sharing our understanding of the Christian faith. My experience of speaking in tongues and my rebaptism “in the name of Jesus” were tucked away in my memory but they did not immediately affect my church attendance or growing desire to spend my life in ministry among the Baptists. I was simply not sure what to make of this experience.
Little more than a year later, shortly after I began high school, another freshman youth, Ricky, noticed my Bible sitting on my desk in the classroom. Ricky was an enthusiastic but somewhat mischievous young man. After initiating a conversation on religious matters, he invited me to a church he had recently begun attending with his family. It turned out this was the very church at which I had the experiences mentioned above. He invited me to a youth service at the church the upcoming Friday evening. I talked my mom into allowing me to attend.
When I walked into the building, I found no youths. I questioned a middle-aged, balding man whose office door was slightly ajar. He explained that the youth were meeting at someone’s house that evening and then questioned me about my background. I explained that I was a Baptist but was invited to the youth meeting by a classmate at school. He then questioned me about my Baptist faith. I did my best. I had memorized a small arsenal of texts supporting basic theological claims we made. The subject quickly turned to baptism. He asked if I knew that the early Christians baptized in the name of Jesus only. I was able to locate Matthew 28:19 and explain that this text indicates baptism is performed “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”3 He patiently explained, with a grin, that the “name” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is Jesus! “Father” is not a name, he reasoned. We call many people “fathers.” This is a title, not a name, he said. The Father’s name is Jesus, citing John 5:43. Who would argue against the conclusion that the Son’s name is Jesus? He cited Matthew 1:21 in support. The “Holy Spirit,” too, has the name Jesus (John 14:26). Since Jesus came “in his Father’s name” and the Holy Spirit is sent in the name of Jesus, it follows that baptism in the name, singular, of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is none other than baptism in the name of Jesus. The clinching observation on this subject was a barrage of texts from the book of Acts that appear to confirm this conclusion (Acts 2:38, 8:16, 10:48, 19:5). Where, I was asked, is there any indication that people were baptized saying, “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”?
His reasoning seemed quite cogent. He then took me a step further. “Where is the word Trinity in the Bible?” I recalled reading somewhere that the word was not in the Bible but that the concept was. I mustered a text or two in support. He quickly dismissed my interpretation of those texts showing me reasonable alternative interpretations. He patiently explained that the Bible emphatically teaches there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Bible affirms and insists that Jesus is God, he reasoned, but he was also a man. It is this dual nature of Jesus that explains the many biblical texts that Trinitarians offer that seem to suggest there is more than one who is God. The Father refers to the deity of Jesus while the Son refers to his humanity. Whenever Jesus prays to the Father, for instance, we should understand this as communication between the human nature and the divine.4 It would be absurd, he claimed, to see this as “one God praying to another God.” Since there is only one God and Jesus is that God, any duality that we find in the New Testament must be explained as interaction between the two natures, not interaction between divine persons.
The problem, he proceeded, is that the early Christian “church” fell away from this pure faith, a faith restored in the early twentieth century in the Oneness Pentecostal Movement. This ancient apostasy took place, most likely, around the time of the Roman emperor, Constantine. Constantine, for purely political purposes, embraced Christianity in name only and brought about a fundamental redefinition of Christianity in polytheistic terms. The doctrine of the Trinity, he explained, was the result of wedding together paganism and Christianity. The “Trinity doctrine” is a theological “monster” that holds the irreconcilable claims that God is both one and three. The resultant theological “darkness” prevailed for well over a thousand years until a slow process of restoration began around the time of the Reformation. The full restoration of “truth,” however, awaited the events of the early twentieth century.5
He then directed my attention to, what he called, the clearest biblical text on human salvation in the Bible: Acts 2:38. Here we find Peter telling the great crowd on the day of Pentecost to do three things: (a) repent, (b) be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and (c) receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Since we had already spoken of baptism in Jesus’ name, we now focused on another subject: receiving the Holy Spirit. He asked me: “How do you know you have received the Holy Spirit?” There must be an “evidence” of this experience, he reasoned. Without a sign or evidence, one would never know if he had experienced the fullness of salvation described in the New Testament. When one compares the various biblical accounts of people “receiving the Holy Spirit,” accounts exclusively found in the Acts of the Apostles, he finds a recurring sign: speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4, 10:46, 19:6). What is the obvious conclusion? Everyone who receives the Holy Spirit initially speaks in tongues.
My conversation partner’s facility with Scripture was stunning. I had never met anyone that could so freely move from text to text. He must have cited or alluded to hundreds of biblical texts in our several hours together. I later discovered that this gentleman was the evangelism minister at that church and had developed an influential “bible study” that “proved” the very conclusions he showed me.
When my mom returned to take me home, I was deeply shaken. My recollection is that the most disturbing aspect of our conversation was not the claims presented above but the conclusion that these things are both true and necessary for salvation. In other words, those who are not baptized in Jesus’ name and speak in tongues are not saved. Further, those who believe in the Trinity are not saved, either, since they worship a “false god.” There was no ambiguity in his presentation. If true, the “Christians” I knew were really not Christians at all. They were adherents of a perversion of Christianity and needed salvation!6 I had to determine if their claims were true and, if they were, respond accordingly.
Over the next several months, great turmoil followed both within my own heart and mind and in my family and church. My Baptist pastor learned of my leanings towards Oneness Pentecostal theology and he brought to my home a bag of books on related subjects. I read many of them. My father was greatly distressed by my leanings while my mom was cautiously supportive. Our family had been going through a sort of religious awakening and my dad’s attitude was more conservative and reserved while my mother’s was more open and experimental.
To make a complicated story short, my whole family landed in the Oneness Pentecostal Movement. There we stayed until after I graduated from a Oneness Pentecostal Bible college in 1990. I then left the movement after coming to believe that we were seriously misguided on all the issues I have explained so far. As of this writing, that was seventeen years ago.
Why Write Now? I have never tried to make a “career” based on my experiences within Oneness Pentecostalism. Today I am busily engaged in teaching theology to high school and college students, speaking in parishes, and spending time with my family. If not for a teacher’s summertime reprieve, I would have little or no time to concentrate on the present task. Back in the days shortly after leaving the movement, I wrote a short booklet published under the title, An Evaluation of the Oneness Pentecostal Movement (Pilgrim Publications: 1990). Although I now disagree with some of my reasoning and see some of my arguments as insufficient, it was an early effort in writing to explain my reasons for leaving. Occasionally I have dialogued with people interested in my journey. I have sometimes mentioned my past in this movement as an introduction to describing my “conversion” to Catholicism.7 Beyond this, most of my students and audiences through the years have no knowledge of my experience of the Oneness movement. Indeed, most of them know nothing of the movement at all.
This raises the question of why I would write on this subject now. My reasons are several. My primary reason is that I want to help Catholics understand the beauty of their faith. This is the task to which I regularly devote my energies. My efforts, then, are first directed towards Catholics. My hope is that the interplay between a Catholic and non-Catholic approach to the Scriptures and faith will provide a stimulating conversation that Catholic readers will, with heightened curiosity, eavesdrop on.
I recall a sweet Catholic couple whose faith “came alive” when they visited a Catholic bookstore. They “overheard” a Catholic employee defend his faith in conversation with a rather hostile Protestant visitor. Sometimes a contrast of perspectives creates new enthusiasm and understanding on the part of listeners to dialog. My goal in writing, as will become apparent in the following chapters, is to develop a historically orthodox and biblically-based understanding of the Trinity, baptism, and the work of the Holy Spirit. My own development in understanding these matters was vital in preparation for my later discovery of Catholicism.
Second, I continue to receive requests from time-to-time to answer certain theological claims of the Oneness people. There are a few interesting and helpful books that have been written through the years but none, to my knowledge, from a Catholic perspective.8 Even those works are, despite their value, lacking in some key respects. This is especially true in respect to the question of the baptismal formula but extends to the other topics as well. For some years I have intended to write an article or booklet on the subject of baptism and address some of those questions. It is difficult to address baptism, however, without addressing the Trinity. In the minds of most Oneness Pentecostals, Acts 2:38 presents a “package” that must be addressed as a whole. As we shall see, addressing their interpretation of that verse will necessarily include a consideration of the biblical bases for the Trinity as well as the other topics considered in this work.
Third, Oneness Pentecostals are making inroads in the world of “mainstream” Evangelicalism, especially within the Charismatic movement. There are at least some that have moved from the former days of isolationism to actively spreading the “leaven” of their theology in other contexts. Although these “evangelists” may have decreased their level of exclusivity, they still, as far as I can tell, look with disdain on the Trinity and baptism in the name of the Trinity.
Also, the Oneness movement is apparently making significant inroads in the Latin American community both in Latin American countries and within the United States. It is not uncommon, for instance, to see new churches erected or old ones purchased and the church’s new name include the word “apostolic,” typically a code word for Oneness Pentecostalism. Since most of these people are of Catholic backgrounds, their choice of this movement should be a cause of concern within the Catholic community. True to our best historical moments, we should be willing to offer a solid reply to the challenges of this movement.
Fourth, this contemporary movement is the reappearance of some rather ancient claims. Although I have discovered no reason to think that any identifiable group prior to the twentieth century held to all the distinctive ideas of the present movement, their notion of God, i.e., “Oneness,” is an ancient one. Although it has been identified by a variety of names and subtle variations (e.g., Sabellianism, Patripassionism, Modalistic Monarchianism), the basic thesis is the same. These facts make a present examination of Oneness Pentecostal theology both historically interesting and presently relevant. Additionally, the claims of other unorthodox movements oftentimes arise from similar foundations.9 Answering the claims of the Oneness movement goes a long way towards answering the divergent claims, for instance, of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and adherents of the conspiracy theories of books like The Da Vinci Code.10 Often we come to appreciate our beliefs more fully when they are brought into contrast with counterclaims. I hope that Catholics and others who may read my analysis will come to a more profound appreciation of the Trinity, their baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Although he is not a model of orthodoxy, John Stuart Mill somewhere made the point that only those who live the history of the creeds appreciate them. I’ve often thought of this as I try to teach theological ideas developed long ago to young people today. The most effective method I’ve discovered is to invite my students to relive the heresies of the past, see their appeal, and then see them overcome by orthodoxy. Our minds often see best by contrasting images. Oneness theology allows us to see our faith by way of contrast and thereby, hopefully, better understand, appreciate and believe its contents. A significant number of Catholics have fallen into Oneness theology. I’ve met some of them. There is every reason to think, especially in light of the rise of Pentecostalism in Latin America, that this challenge will only grow. I hope this presentation will aid in some meaningful way in this struggle.
Fifth, this work is an act of reflection after almost two decades since leaving Oneness Pentecostalism. My initial emotional attachment to the movement has long passed away. My appreciation of the history of theology and the complexities of religious experience has, I think, deepened. My ongoing study of the related topics, especially the Trinity, has only strengthened my convictions. As a Catholic, I am obligated to work for the unity of the faith and believe that the entire world is called to embrace the good news of Jesus Christ, the fullness of which is found in the Catholic Church. I hope that some understanding and, perhaps, dialog, will result from this work.
It should be emphasized that Oneness Pentecostals are a minority of the Pentecostal movement. The majority of the denominations that call themselves “Pentecostal” and most of those adhering to the Charismatic movement do not profess the doctrines described above. This is not to minimize the size of the movement. Although statistical information is incomplete, the movement numbers in the millions and is found in almost 150 nations throughout the world. My point, however, is that readers should not generalize about these doctrines when speaking of Pentecostalism. On the other hand, the Oneness movement does raise special questions for the rest of the Pentecostal world and, indeed, Protestant Christianity altogether. In response to these questions, I am convinced the Catholic Church has something meaningful to share.