I was raised in a small Pentecostal church to believe in a oneness understanding of God. This doctrine in simple terms rejects the Trinity. The Trinity is understood simply as one God in three persons; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. A oneness understanding is the idea that God is one in three different manifestations; God as Father, Son and Spirit. For the uninitiated or uninterested, this may seem as a distinction without a real difference, and for a long time on my theological journey from one understanding to the next, I believed the same thing. And this isn’t intended as an exhaustive apologetic for The Trinity, but rather a reflection on what I was taught and what I now believe continues to challenge me.
The doctrine of the Trinity was a difficult one for me to grasp. Because I was taught that Trinitarians believe in three Gods (they don’t) and I was taught to interpret Scripture through the lens of a oneness understanding. This wasn’t all that difficult as the Bible is consistent in its teaching that there is only one God. But I was taught to conflate this teaching on the essence of God with the more nuanced understanding of God’s relationship with himself and with humanity. My church was so insistent on this understanding that we would often change the words of worship songs to better inform what we believed. Especially when those songs reflected too much emphasis on the triune nature of God.
And for our church this was taken a step further, emphasizing that in order to be saved one had to be baptized “In the name of Jesus.” Because the traditional baptismal formula “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost” wasn’t sufficient or biblical. This presents a number of implications when it comes to the validity of the New Testament understanding that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, on the account of Christ alone. (Ephesians 2:8-10) And in response, some in my church would later attempt to articulate, this wasn’t “Baptismal regeneration” meaning that in order to be saved one must be baptized, but rather an act of obedience in response to God’s work of grace in the heart of a believer. But if this was true, then why were those coming into the church required to be re-baptized in the “Jesus name” formula in order for it to count? And why would it necessitate that formula to the exclusion of others?
The way that I was taught to read Scripture with a oneness understanding held up for the most part, until I got to the gospel of John. John is a beautiful gospel that reflects in many places the relationship between God the Father, Son and Spirit, and the distinct nature of each. I won’t take the time to detail all of the passages here, but would encourage you to read John’s gospel and chart how many times Jesus reflects on this equality and simultaneous distinction from God the Father. The beautiful gift of Bible reading and memorization given to me by my church was the very tool that eventually helped me understand how wrong we were on this doctrine and many others.
As my journey continued, I begin to reflect on sermons that I had prepared and delivered that set God up as a “lonely benevolent creator” necessitating his creation of humanity in order for him to have companionship. Now there are many things wrong with this understanding, but among them is this idea that God was alone. Without a doctrine of the Trinity, it would necessitate that God, (absent the angels who would not be in a position to have an equality of relationship) would be alone.
The Genesis narrative points out that when God observed that there was none equal to man on the planet, that he said “It is not good for man to be alone.” This observation resulted in the creation of Eve, an equal to Adam. She was created in order to perpetuate the human race and for them both to enjoy equality of relationship including physical, emotional, and intellectual intimacy. If God were alone as I once believed, as informed by my “oneness” understanding of God, then how would God have been in a position to understand the superior status of community over being alone? Also, if being alone wasn’t good in God’s estimation, how would it have been good for God to be alone for all of eternity? The answer is it wasn’t. And God wasn’t alone, but rather enjoyed the company of the Son and The Spirit without compromising his essence as one being.
God understood this deficit in Adam, because God understood and enjoyed eternal community within the Godhead. He created Eve and joined Adam and Eve beautifully by saying “The two shall become one.” What is interesting is that the same Hebrew word used in this passage where two separate persons become one, is the same word used in Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, Oh Israel, the Lord our God is one.” When people are married they do indeed become one, but they do not cease to be individuals in their personhood. Likewise, God is eternally three persons in one.
Now this may not be a big deal to those who aren’t bible nerds like me. But I promise you it is a big deal, the hugest of deals to the church I’ve since departed. It has eternal consequences if you get it wrong. But there is something more than just quarreling over words, doctrines, and eternal outcomes. There is this idea of a superiority of being alone.
During my years at bible school and subsequent ministry in the United Pentecostal Church, I remember the emphasis that we would put on being alone. Now many times it was couched in more spiritual terms such as “Being alone with God.” Or the understanding that being at odds with the world meant that by necessity we would be by ourselves. And this disposition wasn’t too difficult for me to embrace as an introvert by nature, but as I reflect on many of those experiences, I have come to believe that my mental, emotional, and spiritual maturity was often truncated by this emphasis that in order to be a successful man of God I needed to spend lots of time alone. Albeit alone in prayer or alone with the Scripture, but still alone. This was prized, celebrated, and encouraged. And by no means am I negating the benefit of spiritual disciplines, one of which, being solitude. But what I am lamenting is an undue emphasis on being alone for the perceived spiritual power it was implied to secure.
Being alone coupled with my calling as a preacher meant that I had to maintain an air of superiority that separated me from others. Especially those that did not occupy my office or high calling. I wonder how many people would have attempted to guide me more thoughtfully in this journey of life, had I not put off this arrogance of position and privilege? How much wisdom did I miss or neglect because I was focused on ministry to the exclusion of all else? Being alone wasn’t good.
The New Testament experience was very different in my estimation. They traveled together, the ministered together, they even read the Scriptures together. They did this for obvious reasons, not the least of which, it is more difficult to come up with a novel or dangerous interpretation of Scripture when in the presence of qualified more mature believers than it is when you are alone. The Bible should be read in community and understood by communities. Any time we see someone alone in Scripture, God added them to a community. Adam and Eve were joined together, Abraham was called to start a nation, and Jesus came to build a church. All communities of faith working together to impact the larger world. American individualism has robbed us of this gift of community and we still attempt to penalize and oppress others who dare to think of the collective implications of Christianity and not just individual ones.
Perhaps as a result of my experiences, I am too often plagued by loneliness. A lot of the time I feel a personal loathing I can’t fully describe. Not to suggest I’m without confidence, or lack work ethic, or I’m less ambitious than those I observe around me, or that I don’t enjoy quality relationships and feel loved. I just feel less than quite often. Incomplete, misunderstood, and unheard. I am Adam. I am fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s paradise of creation, but alone. Now I do understand that my feelings aren’t my reality. I am surrounded by family and friends who love me. I am grateful for each of you. I’m simply trying to put in words how I often feel and I’m trying to understand where those feelings originated within me? I can’t help but think that some of these feelings, besides those that must be attributed to natural dispositions, must be linked to all of those years endeavoring to manage a larger than life spiritual persona. A persona I perpetuated in order to attract others and provide for myself and the needs of my family. I wasn’t being fake mind you, but I was acting in accordance with the script I was handed by well intentioned folks endeavoring to serve a system that demanded the same of them. We were all working together at being alone. Just us against the world. Our isolation in holiness is what kept us from the community of wholeness. I’m still struggling to figure out the larger implications this has produced in my life and relationships.
I am working on cultivating community with those close and near to me. It is difficult, because we live in a fallen world that is becoming more tribal by the day. Political, social, economic and racial differences divide us. All of which were created by someone who at some point probably spent too much time alone. It’s not good for man or God to be alone.
Thankfully God doesn’t leave me alone. He won’t leave you alone either.