Oneness Pentecostals on Revelation 3:21 (Part 2): David Bernard

Doing any serious argumentation and scholarly work requires addressing the best arguments from the best scholars. What this requires of anybody working on Oneness Pentecostalism is to look at what Dr. David K. Bernard has written.

In this post (read: small book chapter) I’m going to give a very condensed summary of chapters 1 and 2 of my thesis, provide Bernard’s explanation of Revelation 3:21 from The Oneness View of Jesus Christ, and then respond to his statements. In my response, it’s important to keep in mind what I’ve already said my intentions are (and are not) in my thesis and, by extension, this blog series.

Explanatory Criteria and Explananda for Revelation 3:21

I suggest that theological discussions about one or the other view of theology proper (whether that be Trinitarian, Oneness, or whatever) should follow abductive (or “best explanation”) reasoning. One reason is because this is the assumed and default way that biblical scholars and theologians reason anyway, if you’re wary enough to detect its presence. And it makes sense that they reason this way, since this is the default mode of reasoning in historical inquiry, and biblical exegesis and Christian theology are inherently historical. So it’s not like anybody has to change the way they already have to think about these matters.

However, what I think it does mean is that theologians must be clearer about what’s required for some explanation or the other to be the “best,” and to do a better job of being consciously aware of these requirements when they write. Following William Lane Craig’s criteria in Reasonable Faith (who is in turn following . . . ), I explain X criteria that helps us find out what the best explanation of some set of data is. But I also go beyond what Craig and X explain by (I hope) showing how distinct concepts like simplicity and parsimony of an explanation relate to the criteria.

I don’t pretend that what follows is the only (or even best!) way to state these criteria and related concepts, but I have to provide something in order to move forward. The criteria and their names are the following:

  1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data. (I call this the criterion of confluence.)
  2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope (that is, imply a greater variety of observable data) than rival hypotheses.
  3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power (that is, make the observable data more probable) than rival hypotheses.
  4. The hypothesis must be more plausible (that is, be implied by a greater variety of accepted truths, and its negation implied by fewer accepted truths) than rival hypotheses.
  5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc (that is, include fewer new suppositions about the past not already implied by existing knowledge) than rival hypotheses.
    • When I explain this criterion I distinguish parsimony and simplicity, which are distinct ways of positing “new suppositions” in an explanation.
      • Simplicity is a matter of additional auxiliary assumptions, or additional claims which must be true for the explanation to be true.
      • Parsimony has to do with how many causes in the explanation itself are required to explain the observable data.
      • Example: Supposing two men rather than one committed the crime is less parsimonious, but it can be a simpler explanation in some cases (e.g., if it’s implausible that a single man did the crime and got away in time).
  6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs (that is, when conjoined with accepted truths, imply fewer false statements) than rival hypotheses.
  7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)—(6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, exceeding it in meeting these conditions. (I call this the criterion of comparative superiority.)

See my explanations and examples (which admittedly I had to reduce) on pages 8-12.

Chapter 2 examines Revelation 3:21 under three mutually-informing headings (and contexts): historical; literary and rhetorical; and terminological. This entire chapter is aimed at the goal of finding which truths must be explained (hence, “explananda”) to adequately account for this verse in its overlapping contexts. I claim that there are four:

  1. The verse is a promise to “the one who conquers.”
  2. The verse makes a comparison between “the one who conquers” and Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Jesus Christ and the Father on the other hand. Without this comparison, the implicit argument contained in this verse loses its rhetorical force.
  3. “The one who conquers” is personally present with Christ on his throne, where we can understand the “throne” to refer to reigning with Christ. And due to the comparison the verse offers, Christ is personally present with the Father as he reigns with the Father.
  4. The one that Jesus refers to as “my Father” is not fully identified with Jesus Christ himself, as shown by John’s use of titles for the Father and for Jesus Christ in Revelation.

Hereafter I will refer to these as explananda (a)-(d).

Putting these pieces together, my entire thesis asks this question: Is there any form of Oneness Christology that makes explananda (a)-(d) what we’d expect  and that also satisfies the seven explanatory criteria above? I argue (actually, due to my reflections in this post) that there is a “modified” Oneness Christology that makes the explananda “a matter of course,” but that still doesn’t meet the criterion of comparative superiority over two rival views.

Now, when we turn to Bernard’s comments in the next section, we want to ask whether his explanation renders explananda (a)-(d) “a matter of course” and whether it does so as well as rival views.

Bernard’s Explanation

Dr. Bernard provides an entire section on this verse, and it’s worth quoting in its entirety:

The Bible speaks of thrones in both literal and metaphorical senses. The throne of a king may mean the actual chair he sits upon, or it may represent his kingdom or reign. Colossians 1:16 speaks of “thrones” in the sense of powers or authorities. Jesus has inherited “the throne of his father David” not a golden chair, but the position and right to be king of Israel (Luke 1:32).

The Bible teaches that God is the Sovereign of the universe by describing Him as sitting upon a throne. The Book of Revelation indicates that in heaven we will actually see God and the Lamb (one being) sitting upon a throne (Revelation 22:3-4), but we should not suppose that the Spirit of God is somehow confined to a physical throne throughout eternity. The Bible says that heaven is God’s throne and earth is His footstool (Isaiah 66:1), and it also says that Jerusalem shall be called His throne (Jeremiah 3:17). Clearly, then, God’s throne represents His sovereignty without necessary reference to a physical chair.

In Revelation 3:21, Jesus said, “I . . . am set down with my Father in his throne.” If we interpret this statement to refer to two divine persons with two bodies, then two persons would have to be sitting in one throne, a direct contradiction to Revelation 4:2. Clearly, this is not the intention of the verse. Rather, it expresses that the man Jesus has been exalted by the indwelling Spirit to the position of highest authority in the universe. God rules from heaven as the incarnate One, Jesus Christ.

Saying that Jesus sits in the Father’s throne means essentially the same as saying that Jesus sits at the right hand of God, if we interpret both descriptions metaphorically, as we have suggested. If we interpret both statements in a strictly literal fashion, however, we have a biblical contradiction. We have Jesus sitting in the Father’s throne, but Hebrews 8:1 and 12:2 state that He is sitting “on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” and “is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” He cannot be sitting in the throne and at the right side of the throne at the same time. Jesus also promised in Revelation 3:21, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne.” We must interpret this part of the verse as metaphorical, just as the rest of the verse, since a literal interpretation would place millions of believers in the throne with Jesus either beside Him or on Him. Instead, we must understand Jesus to mean that He will share His power and authority with believers, so that they will rule with Him.

Indeed, the saints in Revelation proclaim that the Lamb has “made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:10). In the millennial kingdom, the saints receive thrones from which to judge the nations (Revelation 20:4). As an Old Testament example of this type of metaphor, I Samuel 2:8 says that God will enable the poor to “inherit the throne of glory.”

There is only one divine throne in heaven, and One sits on that throne (Revelation 4:2). While Revelation 3:21 can say metaphorically that the saints will sit on Christ’s throne, we must realize that they will not share God’s divine glory or sovereignty. When God’s sovereignty over heaven and earth throughout eternity is in view, it is clear that the saints are before the throne, not on it. “The four and twenty elders and the four beasts fell down and worshipped God that sat on the throne, saying, Amen; Alleluia” (Revelation 19:4).

In studying this subject, it is helpful to realize that when the Bible talks about humans sitting on God’s throne, it means the throne He has prepared for them. For example, the queen of Sheba told Solomon, “Blessed be the Lord thy God, which delighted in thee to set thee on his throne, to be king for the Lord thy God” (II Chronicles 9:8). Solomon sat on God’s throne—not taking over God’s position as King of the universe, but occupying the position of authority that God had ordained for him.[1]

There are a couple of things worthy of comment before I move on to a fuller assessment.

First, it’s absolutely true that “throne” doesn’t have to refer to a physical chair, or to a physical location at all. The term, like just about every other term in any language, can have several senses. This point is well taken.

Second, since Bernard is writing as a Oneness believer to Oneness believers, he doesn’t feel the need to substantiate his claim that “God and the Lamb” are “one being.” But the fact is, there is no basis grammatically for doing this. That phrase, at face value, more plausibly refers to two subjects: God, the Lamb. But if Bernard has Revelation 22:3-5 in mind as an attempt to tie the two together, this is far from an open-and-shut case for Oneness. The explanatory clause in verse 5, “For the Lord God…” makes it clear that the referent of “his servants” (v. 3) “his face”/”his name” (v. 4) is the Lord God. And as I argue, the “Lord God” in Revelation is the Father. What I’ve just said is consistent with Oneness, but it’s not indicative of Oneness.

Third, recall something else he says, just to be clear:

If we interpret this statement to refer to two divine persons with two bodies, then two persons would have to be sitting in one throne, a direct contradiction to Revelation 4:2.

I’m not sure if Bernard is aware of this, but there are Trinitarians who believe that it is possible for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to each become Incarnate. (Aquinas is a fine example, and recently Timothy Pawl has defended the coherence of this belief.) Now suppose that John is implicitly communicating the idea that the Father (“the one on the throne”) has taken on some body to sit on this heavenly throne just like Jesus has. Even if this were the case, in light of the fact that “God and the Lamb” share one throne later in the book (Revelation 22:3), all we need to posit is that this throne is a double-throne. This is even depicted on Roman coinage.[2] The only way we get a direct contradiction here is if we presuppose “God and the Lamb” are “one being” and that there can’t be a double-throne on which God and the Lamb both visibly appear.

That’s just assuming there have to be two bodies here, which few would probably posit. To be truthful, I don’t even know why Bernard is bringing this language into play though. The fact of the matter, which is clear from Revelation 4-5, is that Jesus Christ and the Father are at least depicted as distinct subjects. That alone is a surprising fact on Oneness, especially since we are also told that Jesus Christ is the full revelation of the Father (John 1:18).

Fourth, there’s no reason to posit a contradiction between sitting on the Father’s throne and being raised to the right hand of the Father. This is perfectly consistent with (1) a double-throne and (2) that “the right hand of the Father” is a description of status rather than a place. If Bernard thinks that both must be strictly literal or strictly descriptive, this is false. Only one needs to be descriptive to resolve the problem.

Fifth, Bernard says that it can’t be the case that believers literally sit on Christ’s throne the way that he sits on the Father’s throne, otherwise there would be thousands of believers on that throne. This point is well taken, and it’s important to understand what I’m not claiming about the comparison offered in this verse: I am not saying that both sides of the comparison correspond in a one-to-one fashion.

It could be that “the one who conquers” sits with Christ on his throne in the sense that he participates in the reign of God and the Lamb. Or maybe it means that they “sit” on Christ’s throne in the sense that everywhere in God’s new creation is God’s throne. This is consistent with Christ sitting on an actual throne that can be seen in the New Creation, just as it’s consistent to say that the “king is ruling” in an earthly kingdom both from his actual throne and from elsewhere. But in any case, what must be true on some explanation is that the way Christ sits on the Father’s throne is the very basis for the promise offered in the first half of the verse, so they must be sufficiently (even if they aren’t exactly) similar.

To review, some of what Bernard says in the above is misleading. But overall it’s a viable way to understand the verse. Other than the “God and the Lamb” as “one being” stuff, there’s little that somebody who thinks the Father and Christ are distinct subjects will object to here.

Assessing Bernard’s Explanation

Here I have to offer general problems with what I’ve argued is Bernard’s view of the Incarnation, and then offer specific comments about the explanation that he offers.

First, his view of the Incarnation, I’ve argued, is a so-called Model A compositional Christology. This isn’t because Bernard explicitly says anything like this, since he seems completely unaware of these concepts in his writings. Rather, it’s because, based on what he does say, this is the best way (that I can tell) to understand his claims about the Incarnation. For my arguments on this, you’ll have to read chapter 3 of my thesis or my paper in TheoLogica.

Now, if I’m right about this, I argued in my thesis that this view does the best job, as far as “standard” Oneness views go, with explananda (a)-(d).

  • This view actually implies the truth of (d), because on a Model A compositional Christology, “Christ” doesn’t refer to a person, but rather to a compositional whole that includes a Person. So the Father and Christ shouldn’t be fully identified on such a view.
  • Also, since compositional Christology has it that Christ’s human nature is a concrete particular (although, to avoid Nestorianism, not itself a person), there is some degree to which the Father (a concrete particular) is personally present with Christ, where we equivocate on “Christ” here to refer to the concrete human nature. Bernard also argues that Christ has two wills, and this arguably implies two minds. This may also allow for Christ to experience numerical distinction, in some way, from the Father. So, in some respect, (c) is met.
  • However, explanandum (b) is problematic, which in turn makes (a) problematic. How exactly is the Father’s relating to his human nature (“Christ”), however that is the case, at all comparable to the way that Christ relates with “the one who conquers”? One way might be to draw attention to Christ’s indwelling believers. Yet, we then have to obviously say that the way the Father indwells Christ is completely different (since this counts as actual “Incarnation”) from Christ’s indwelling believers, otherwise all believers are incarnations of God. In other words, I don’t see how the Father’s relating to his own human nature (“Christ”) serves as the basis for the promise “the one who conquers” is given earlier in the verse.

In sum, I think a standard Model A Oneness view has a degree of confluence,  plausibility, and likely isn’t more ad hoc than other views (especially against a Trinitarian Model A Christology). But it suffers with regard to explanatory scope and power.

It also seems disconfirmed by the fact that Christ and the Father are at least depicted distinctly in Revelation 4-5 (as I mentioned earlier). Early Oneness Pentecostal exegesis took it that Colossians 2:9 is basically a knockdown argument against Trinitarianism because it seems to say that Jesus Christ is all there is to God “without remainder” (so to speak). If you see Christ, you see the Father (John 14:9). If Christ is the Father “without remainder,” fully reveals him (John 1:18), and if you see him you just see the Father as well, then what explanation is there for why John seems to shed all this and depict “them” distinctly? In other words, if John actually believes that Jesus is the Father, I don’t see any reason for why we have Revelation 4-5 as they are written.

Appealing to Christ’s two natures doesn’t help here either. This would mean that “the one on the throne” is the Father (who brings the divine nature/deity into the Incarnation) and “the Lamb” is the Father’s human nature. But why, then, would John depict worship going to the Father (and therefore the divine nature) without Christ’s human nature (the Lamb) also being present (Revelation 5:7)? Subsequent to the Incarnation, isn’t the case that if you worship the Father, you worship him as the God-man, not as God (over here on the throne) and as man (over there like a slain Lamb)? So the problem is just pushed back one step: Appealing to Christ’s two natures to get out of the disconfirmation just leads to another one provided that one believes that Christ’s natures are inseparable in him.

These same problems don’t apply to a “modified” Oneness Christology that I offer in chapter 4 of the thesis. All the more reason to opt for that sort of view of the Incarnation over Bernard’s.

Second, let’s consider Bernard’s explanation more closely.

  • With regard to explanandum (d), it doesn’t seem that Bernard’s appeal to metaphor helps. Sure, while one is using metaphor it allows one’s language to be more free than it would have otherwise. But still, John is very careful with his use of terms and names in Revelation, and I don’t see how this allows one to say we should expect him to fail to fully identify Jesus and God. Furthermore, we still have the problem with disconfirmation I just mentioned: Even when using metaphor, what is the principled reason that Bernard can give that allows us to expect John to at least depict Jesus and God as distinct? If appeal to Christ’s two natures can’t do this, as I tried to say above, then neither can metaphor. At least, not without being misleading.
  • The metaphorical interpretation that Bernard offers is consonant with explanandum (c) as I have stated it. That’s because it’s true that “throne” can refer to sharing in Christ’s reign. Since this is precisely what Bernard says, his view provides a direct explanation of this explanandum. Not only that, but I think Bernard would accept that “the man Jesus” (a phrase uses above) is present with the Father in the sense that Jesus shares in the Father’s power, authority, and reign. And believers will share in these things with Christ as well, as they are present with him in the New Eden that Revelation announces.
  • There is a degree to which the comparison on both sides of the verse is preserved, and hence allows for explanandum (b). This relates to some of what I said for explanandum (c): The way that Christ is with the Father on his throne is comparable to the way that “the one who conquers” is with Christ on his throne: “The man Christ Jesus” participates in the reign of the Father, and the conqueror participates in Christ’s.

    As I explain in the thesis, a “standard” Oneness Christology holds that Jesus and the Father (i.e., the one God of the Old Testament) are one and the same subject in one and the same segment of God’s life. That’s Bernard’s view, independently of whether I’m right about (what I think is) his Model A compositional Christology. Here’s how that’s relevant right now: We have to ask what “the man Jesus” even means, and how it is that Jesus participates in the Father’s reign. Recall that Bernard says that this verse “expresses that the man Jesus has been exalted by the indwelling Spirit to the position of highest authority in the universe. God rules from heaven as the incarnate One, Jesus Christ.”I argue in chapter 3 of my thesis that “Jesus” may refer to the Father himself, the Incarnation in its entirety, or to the Father’s human nature. “The man Jesus” is similarly ambiguous. To which of these three does it refer?
    It could refer to the Father himself, since as the one who has taken on human nature, the predicate “man” is apt of him: subsequent to the Incarnation, the Father (whose name is “Jesus”)[3] is both God and man. But if that’s what it refers to in Revelation 3:21, all Bernard’s metaphorical explanation means is that the Father grants himself-as-man the right to sit on his own throne. That not only sounds at odds with this verse, but also with Revelation 2:26-28, where Christ is granted authority by the Father.But what Bernard seems to say in this quote is that the Father (“the indwelling Spirit”) grants to his human nature (“the man Jesus”) the right to sit on his throne and as such it is now in “the position of highest authority in the universe.” This is precisely where we run into an issue with explanandum (b) and any standard Oneness Christology. How is the Father granting this position to his human nature, or to himself-as-incarnate (two of the senses of “Jesus” I just mentioned), at all comparable to what Christ does for “the one who conquers”? The obvious answer is that it isn’t, because Christ grants this to subjects who are numerically distinct from himself.
  • Without a sufficient basis to ground the connection between what the Father does for Christ on the one hand, and what Christ does for “the one who conquers” on the other, there is little reason to think the promise of this verse has substance. Explanandum (a) is also problematic for Bernard’s metaphorical interpretation, especially in light of his standard Oneness Christology.

To summarize, we have some degree of confluence with Bernard’s interpretation; it at least gives us some way that we can expect the language in Revelation 3:21. However, what we find is that the explanation suffers with regard to explanatory scope and power, since explanandum (a) and (b) are problematic. His explanation seems implausible because of the comparison problems I discussed. The explanation is of course more parsimonious than others (since it requires one less personal subject). The same issue of disconfirmation shows up here as well, and his appeal to metaphor thereby doesn’t seem to help with explanadum (d).

Two Competing Explanations

I offer two competing explanations for this verse: a strong monarchy view of the Trinity, and dynamic monarchianism. Both of these views accept that Jesus and the Father are numerically distinct subjects; the former accepts that Jesus is truly divine, and the latter claims that Jesus is solely human.

When we begin to walk through the explanatory criteria with regard to Revelation 3:21, it’s quite clear to me that these explanations meet several of the explanatory criteria at least as well as Bernard’s, and do not suffer from the same deficiencies (even if, as overall explanations of the New Testament, they might). That alone makes them better explanations than a standard Oneness Christology.

The reasoning is quite simple. If Jesus and the Father are numerically distinct subjects, we wouldn’t expect Jesus and God to be fully identified in Revelation and we would expect Jesus to be personally present with the Father on his throne. This allows us to straightforwardly preserve the comparison on both sides of Revelation 3:21 and likewise to think that the promise it makes applies to “the one who conquers.”

[1] David K. Bernard, The Oneness View of Jesus Christ (Hazelwood: Word Aflame Press, 1994), 129-131.

[2] Craig Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 341.

[3] David K. Bernard, The Oneness of God (Hazelwood: Word Aflame Press, 2000), 126.

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