In my recent appearance on the London Lyceum podcast, I briefly explain the difference between a “standard” and “modified” Oneness Christology. I had to discuss this in order to make a point in the podcast, but my guess is that, for people unfamiliar with the analytic literature on the Trinity and Incarnation, what I was saying was lost in translation.
I get it! That’s why I want to make this distinction clearer. The difference is actually quite simple. But explaining that difference in more detail is where things get complicated.
An Inconsistent Tetrad
Consider these four claims:
- God alone is truly divine.
- The Father is truly divine.
- Jesus is truly divine.
- It is not the case that Jesus just is the Father. (Or: It is false that Jesus and the Father are one and the same subject, or the same “he.”)
In the appendix to my master’s thesis, I prove that these four claims (as I interpret them in logic) form an inconsistent tetrad. All this means is that, for any three claims one accepts, the fourth must be false. And the corollary for this is that, for any single claim one accepts, at least one of the remaining three must be false.
Now the simple distinction:
- A “standard” Oneness Christology denies (4); and
- a “modified” Oneness Christology accepts (4), and therefore denies one of (1)-(3). That is, on a certain way of taking “the Father” and “Jesus.”
Now I know it sounds absolutely bizarre that a Oneness Pentecostal can accept (4), meaning that they don’t think Jesus and the Father are one and the same subject. The way that this turns out to be the case is depending on at what level they are numerically distinct subjects.
Now for the complicated explanation.
God and His Life-streams
I base this entire analysis on Brian Leftow’s so-called “Latin” model of the Trinity. I also run with Scott Williams’ suggestion that Leftow’s view seems to amount to a single Boethian (“individual substance of a rational nature”) person living out his life as three Lockean (streams of consciousness) persons.
So here we go.
Leftow asks us to imagine that we are at a dance show, where on the stage we see what appear to be three women dancing. But looks are deceiving! There is actually only one woman there, who we are seeing three times over. How could that be? The story is this: This woman (call her Jane) had two colleagues call out for their dance routine, and thankfully she had a time machine at hand. She goes out on stage to dance the routine. Then she travels back in time to the beginning of the performance, changes her gown, and dances it again alongside, yes, herself. She travels back in time again and dances the routine again.
What you and I have seen is three segments of Jane’s life overlapping with ours at a certain segment of time. That’s why we see what looks like three women, when in fact there is only Jane, and therefore only one substance, present before us.
(In the cover photo for this post, is there one woman or three? Who knows!)
Now suppose that God’s life is structured something like this, and eternally so. For Leftow, God eternally lives out his life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in three distinct life-streams, or streams of consciousness. God is one Boethian person who lives three distinct lives as Lockean persons, but altogether these distinct life-streams add up to the life of a single Person: God himself. And God’s three distinct life-streams all overlap with us at any point on the public timeline.
If you think that sounds like modalism, you’re on to something. But here’s how Leftow avoids the problem. In order for a form of modalism to be true, this claim has to be the case:
The Father = the Son, where “=” means “is numerically identical to.”
Both “the Father” and “the Son” in that claim can be either temporally rigid, or temporally non-rigid. All this means is that “Father” and “Son” can refer either (1) to God at any time in his life (temporally rigid), or (2) God only at a particular time (or segment of time) in his life (temporally non-rigid).
For example, we say things like this all the time: “My mom was born in Missouri.” Strictly speaking, it’s false that my mom was born in Missouri, because she was born as an infant (not an adult!) and therefore wasn’t my mom yet. But really, in everyday speech, when we say this it means that whoever “my mom” picks out, that beautiful woman (may her memory be eternal) was born in California. If “my mom” refers to her at any time in her life even if she wasn’t my mom yet, that’s a temporally rigid use of the term; if it only refers to her after she has become my mom, that’s a temporally non-rigid use.
Now, that means there are two ways to read “the Father = the Son.” What those two ways amount to are these:
Temporally rigid: The one who is (in some life-stream) living out his life as Father = the one who is (in some life-stream) living out his life as the Son.
Temporally non-rigid: The one who is in his life-stream as Father is also the one who is, in one and the same segment of his life, living out his life as the Son.
On the temporally rigid meaning of “the Father = the Son,” who cares? We don’t really get the modalistic claim that the Father = the Son, but just that one and the same (Boethian) Person lives out his life as both, and both of those life-streams overlap with us at any time on the public timeline.
On the temporally non-rigid meaning of “the Father = the Son,” the claim comes out false. That’s because, on God’s personal timeline, when he is living out his life as the Father he is not also living out his life as the Son in one and the same segment of his life.
So let’s put the “standard” and “modified” Oneness views a bit differently now.
On a “standard” Oneness Christology, God is living out his single life as both Father and Son in one and the same life-segment. That means claim (4) of the inconsistent tetrad has to be false.
On a “modified” Oneness Christology, while God is living out his life as the Father, he is not, in one and the same life-segment while he Father, living out his life as the Son. So, as far as distinct life-streams go, (4) is true on a “modified” Oneness Christology (and a temporally non-rigid reading). But then either (2) or (3) are false, depending which life-stream God is living in and tokens these claims. While living as Father, (3) is false; while living as Jesus, (2) is false.
What I have suggested in chapter 4 of my master’s thesis is that Oneness Pentecostals can simply drop Leftow’s stipulation that God’s three life-streams occur necessarily and eternally. To make the metaphysical picture here Oneness-friendly, all one has to say is that God begins to live out his Son life-stream contingently. That could be at the moment of creation, sometime before Christ’s birth, or even at the time of the Incarnation itself. Doesn’t matter to me; though I think the first option is the better one to answer the issue of Old Testament theophanies.
In my estimation, the “modified” Oneness view makes the best sense of the distinction between the Father and Jesus Christ in Scripture. But nobody has any reason to accept this view except to avoid the problems that so-called “strong distinction” passages raise. In any case, there are other explanations of these sorts of passages that have at least as much explanatory power and scope, and which don’t suffer from the same metaphysical complexity and ad hoc-ness of this view.