Bridging the Gaps (Ryan Oberhellman)
I’d like to begin my first contribution to this great collection of writing by addressing the theme of the title, “the Oneness Bridge,” and share with our readers some of my initial thoughts that came to me with regards to this particular phrase.
Bridges have always been intriguing to me. They are connecting structures – their function is to connect two points that were previously separated by some kind of obstacle. They join together what was once divided. Being originally from Michigan, the bridge that comes to my mind is the Mackinac Bridge between the state’s lower and upper peninsulas. It is one of the world’s largest suspension bridges at a length of over 5 miles, a height of 552 feet, and utilizing over 42,000 feet of suspension cable to support the structure which rests at about 200 feet above the water at midpoint. Before the Mackinac Bridge, Michiganians had only a few rather inconvenient options if they desired to travel between the two peninsulas: they could go by ferry, which was slow and limited a traveler’s cargo capacity - they could go by plane or helicopter, which is rather expensive and allowed almost no cargo capacity - or they could drive all the way down Michigan’s west coast through Indiana and Illinois, turn north once past the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and continue up through Wisconsin, and eventually reach the upper peninsula. The Mackinac Bridge connected the two peninsulas allowing cars, and trucks, and all kinds of vehicles to travel between them with great ease and convenience. One particularly unique bridge in my hometown of Midland is actually a three-way bridge connecting three different parts of land that are all separated by the convergence of the Tittabawassee and Chippewa Rivers. This unique landmark, locally known as “the Tridge,” is thus far the only one of its kind, and has come to be known as a defining symbol representing the city of Midland.
When I first read the title, “the Oneness Bridge,” I began to think about the theological position we call the Oneness doctrine. It is a foundational doctrine of the Bible and the starting point of all Christian theology after bibliology – even the Gospel properly begins by addressing the nature of God. Understanding the nature of God is essential for proper Christian understanding, and correct Christian theology. However, I then began to think about how many other doctrines of the Bible are just as important as the nature of God, yet don’t seem to get much attention, or any attention at all, from today’s Christians within the Apostolic Pentecostal denomination. It seems as if the majority of Oneness Pentecostals focus on the importance of the few doctrines that make them distinct from other denominations (such as oneness theology, Jesus’ name baptism, and speaking with other tongues). They seem to find these doctrines to be sufficient for their Christianity. Those doctrines that are unique to Apostolic Pentecostals, seem to be the only doctrines that are given attention among those within the movement. It is as if many Oneness Pentecostals have elevated the Book of Acts (particularly verse 38 of the second chapter) to a greater importance than the rest of scripture, and decided that oneness theology, Acts 2:38, and personal holiness, are the only doctrines needed for a sufficient Christian faith – the rest of the Bible is just “extra credit,” so-to-speak. What happened to the rest of the Bible? What happened to other foundational doctrines of the Bible that are just as important? Doctrines such as original sin, the doctrine of grace, the doctrine of atonement, the doctrines of justification, sanctification, and most importantly – the Gospel! Understanding these foundational principles of Biblical theology is just as important as our understanding of the nature of God, and understanding salvation! In fact, I would argue to say that without a basic understanding of these doctrines, the very heart and core of all Christianity which is the Gospel message, becomes completely arbitrary! An arbitrary Gospel will always lead to arbitrary faith, and ultimately arbitrary salvation.
The Bible is like a puzzle in which each piece represents the doctrines taught within its sacred contents: every piece is required if one is to see the final picture, which is the true and complete revelation of God. If pieces are missing, we will not have a complete revelation of God. In my experience, I have found that what many Oneness Pentecostals have done is taken a small handful of the puzzle pieces that fit together and said “that’s good enough – we don’t need to put the rest together because we’ve got the important parts.” Imagine if somebody put together a few small pieces of a puzzle, framed and mounted their half-hearted efforts, and justified their finished product by saying “I found the important parts – the rest doesn’t matter.” Any one of us would think that person to be either delusional, or just lazy! Are Oneness Pentecostals doctrinally lazy? Or worse yet, are they doctrinally delusional?! I hate to say it, but I tend to lean toward delusional, considering the number of Oneness Pentecostals that so proudly and openly hold high above their heads the doctrines of oneness theology, and Acts 2:38 salvation, and boast that only they have the whole truth, especially when Jesus himself said that we are to live by “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4) and not just the doctrines that make us unique. Only a delusional person would have a few pieces of a puzzle fit together in the right order and claim they have the whole picture.
So what does this all have to do with bridges? In the world of Biblical theology, there are many doctrines contained in the scriptures that must be understood as a whole if we are to have a complete revelation of God. In a sense, there are bridges that connect all the doctrines of the Bible so that believers have access to the complete revelation of God. It appears to me that within the Oneness Pentecostal denominations, some very important bridges remain unused. Unused bridges begin to deteriorate and eventually fall apart, leaving a gaping canyon between believers and essential elements of God’s revelation to them. Oneness Pentecostals do a wonderful job of protecting and guarding the bridges that connect oneness theology to water baptism in Jesus’ name, speaking with other tongues, and personal holiness. But they have neglected to guard the bridges that connect these doctrines to the rest of the Bible – most importantly they have failed to guard the bridge that connects them to the Gospel, which is the foundation of New Testament salvation (Romans 1:16). My challenge to myself, and my fellow Christian ministers who are now beginning to pastor churches, plant churches, evangelize, or travel to foreign lands, is this…
…there are some bridges that must be rebuilt in our theology.
We must revisit those unused bridges that lead to some ignored and forgotten Bible doctrines, and restore what has been destroyed. We must go back to basics and ask ourselves if we truly are living the Christian life as revealed in scripture as a whole. We must go back and examine our theological foundation, and if necessary destroy it and reconstruct it according to the Word of God. We must begin with Bibliology, and specifically exegesis of the text – seeking out the original meaning and main point of the text its self. We then seek the meaning of the text in regards to the nature of God – theology proper. We then use our clear Biblical understanding of the nature of God as our standard of measure against all other things, for God Himself is the measure of all things. We would then be prepared to examine the condition of mankind – anthropology. In properly exposing the text we will find that God is holy and mankind is fallen from perfection, which brings us to the doctrines involving sin – hamartiology. The rest of scripture is irrelevant without these 4 foundational doctrines, for all of scripture is founded upon man’s need for redemption from sin through a savior; thus we are brought to the study of Christ – Christology. In studying Christ we are then presented with the Gospel message – that all human beings have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are deserving of nothing less than the full force of God’s retributive justice and wrath. But God in his great mercy and love for his creation chose to execute the full force of that wrath upon the innocent and sinless man, Christ Jesus, in the stead of mankind. Because God has executed his judgment for our sin upon Christ, we can be forgiven, redeemed, and justified in God's sight, and restored to a right relationship with our creator God! This is the greatest message human ears could ever be privileged to hear (the word “Gospel” literally means “good news”)! Once the Gospel has been presented, the doctrine of salvation is properly understood and received by those who have built the proper theological foundation. Without the foundation of correct bibliology, theology proper, anthropology, hamartiology, and Christology, the doctrine of salvation is meaningless! But even after salvation are the doctrines of pneumatology – the Holy Spirit, ecclesiology – the study of the church and how believers are to properly live in community with one another in a God-honoring way, and eschatology – the study of the end-times. It is not good enough to just pick soteriology and claim to have the whole picture because soteriology without all of the preceding doctrinal foundations is meaningless. We must burn with desire in our hearts to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and as Jesus said “thy Word is truth” (John 17:17), we must burn with desire to know the Word, the whole Word, and nothing but the Word!
We must continue to guard with all vigilance, the bridges that we have guarded for so long – but not to the neglect of others that we have ignored for so long. If we are to boast to the world that we have the whole truth, let us first make sure that we are studying the whole of scripture, and not just that small handful of doctrines we falsely believe to be more important than others; lest we make ourselves open liars, deceived by our own delusions that a few small puzzle pieces is good enough to form the complete picture.