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My practical concern evolves out of an intuition that genuinely effective dialogue between Christians and non-Christians may not be best served by focusing on views imported from outer fringes of Christian faith. Without intending any disrespect to Oneness devotees, they are not representative of the majority of Christianity or even of most Pentecostals. That fact in itself may say little or nothing about their position as such, but it does actually add (not subtract, as implied by Yong) another hurdle to be overcome in efforts at inter-religious dialogue. Even if Jewish, Islamic, and Oneness theologies do gel at some level, most other Christians will still not be on board. In fact, a backlash could occur if other Christians become more convinced than ever that Oneness Pentecostals are after all essentially not really Christian since they are more compatible with non-Christians on the most distinctive (from the Trinitarian perspective) dogma of historic Christian faith. My theological concern arises out of an understanding that although Jews, Muslims, and Oneness Pentecostals share commitments to unitarian monotheism, their systems are radically different at precisely the point they most necessarily would have to converge in order to establish an effective point of contact: Jesus Christ. The main difficulty to hurdle in dialogue with Jews and Muslims is their (to us) misplaced pious horror over Christian commitment to the divinity of Christ. Oneness Pentecostals cannot help us here. They are not the usual unitarians in that they do indeed avidly affirm the deity of Jesus Christ. In fact, Oneness Pentecostalism is a particularly Jesus-centered piety. The debate between Trinitarian and Oneness Pentecostals is not about the divinity of Christ, which both affirm, but about how he relates to the Godhead. Oneness advocates argue that Jesus Christ is the incarnate fullness of the entire Godhead (cf. Colossians 2:9), Trinitarians that he is the Son of God, the Word made flesh (cf. John 1:14). Though they are unitarians, Jesus Christ is as much or, if possible, more of an obstacle for interfaith dialogue from the Oneness perspective as from that of Trinitarians. Dr. Yong, of course, who himself espouses a “robustly trinitarian theology” (p. 111), knows and notes these or related concerns but wonders if they may be overcome. Sadly, I am not so sure.

I am inclined to conclude that the most effective inter-religious dialogue includes candid conversation about who we (meaning both “them” and “us”) really are in our most authentic identity—and for most Christians, including most Pentecostals, that identity is Trinitarian.4  Practically and theologically, I think involving fringe views from Oneness Pentecostals may not be the best way forward for interfaith efforts. Having said all that, there is one way Yong, who is after all perhaps the foremost expert on Pentecostal theology of religions, may not be so far off the mark after all.5  Pentecostalism’s history of internal struggle regarding the Godhead may indeed help prepare us for dialogue with religious others involving the same subject. That statement assumes we can learn to conceive our experience in contructive ways. It will not work if we only regurgitate others’ responses, whether classical, creedal, or contemporary. In other words, after nearly a century of struggle over understandings of the Godhead have Pentecostals learned anything positive that can be passed along or pressed into service? What is the truth Oneness Pentecostals try to preserve? What is the truth Trinitarian Pentecostals refuse to relinquish? And, for the discussion at hand, how does all this inform inter-religious dialogue? Answering these kinds of questions is where Amos Yong shines. And these are the kinds of questions Pentecostals need to ask ourselves.

 

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2007

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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