The ONeal-Welch Debate

By Connie W. Adams

Thomas G. O’Neal of Bessemer, Alabama met John A. Welch of Indianapolis, Indiana in debate August 1-2, 4-5 in the meeting house of the West End church of Christ in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The house was well filled the first two nights but attendance dropped off the last two. Average attendance was 214. People were present from several states. For three mornings there was an open forum to discuss Bible questions. Harry Lewis of Evansville, Indiana moderated for brother Welch with Ronny Milliner operating the visual equipment. The writer served as moderator for brother O’Neal with Donnie Rader handling charts.

The first two nights Tom O’Neal affirmed that “The Scriptures teach that Jesus was not a man as I am.” The last two nights John Welch affirmed that “The Scriptures teach that Jesus was a man as I am, yet without sin.” In his opening speech, Tom O’Neal stated that he believed that Jesus was a man possessed of the qualities that make one a man, but that he was not a man “as I am” in the sense that while on earth he was possessed of inherent powers of deity, that he was “God with us.” The whole debate turned on this issue.

Brother Welch argued that Jesus emptied himself of such divine powers when he came to earth and that the powers he demonstrated were imparted to him by the Holy Spirit at the time of his baptism. Brother O’Neal said the issue hinged upon whether the powers of Jesus, in raising the dead, walking on the water and forgiving sins on earth, were inherent or imparted.

Brother Welch made strong appeals, at times eloquently so, for the humanity of Jesus, from Hebrews 2 and other passages. Philippians 2:5-12 was a crucial passage in the debate. While early in the debate brother Welch asked, “Why are we having this debate since I agree with you?” It became apparent as the week progressed that there was serious difference. Much was said of having powers but limiting the use of them. O’Neal argued that Jesus willed to limit his powers but that he used them at times when they did not serve selfish ends. This may go down as the “shotgun” debate. Tom said he had his grandfather’s shotgun which he kept in a closet and did not use. John seized on the phrase “I don’t use it” to press his point of limiting his powers when Jesus came to earth. Some good-natured bantering took place about this. Tom had a chart with an empty closet and another with a shotgun in the closet. John had charts with a shotgun sticking out the door and then the last night, with his high-tech visual and audio equipment he fired the shotgun four times. Tom insisted that in the illustration Jesus came to earth with the powers of deity but voluntarily limited his use of them except on such occasions as when he forgave sins. John said the last night that he did not care whether that closet for the shotgun was “in heaven, on earth, or on the moon.”

Throughout the debate John Welch quoted extensively from other brethren, both living and dead, quotes which he contended favored his position. Many of these quotes were from brethren in the audience who had opposed the views expressed by brother Welch. This was the first high-tech debate most of us had ever attended. Brother Welch had excellent equipment which was used in a professional manner. He could not only flash quotes on the screen, but matched them with pictures of those quoted and in several instances in the voice of those quoted from tapes.

The styles of the debaters were in sharp contrast. Brother O’Neal was deliberate while brother Welch was more impassioned and intense. Both men pressed their arguments. With a couple of exceptions, good order prevailed.

From this writer’s viewpoint, it appears that the issue of inherent versus delegated powers remains unresolved in so far as it involves agreement between the two positions. The difference remains. Either brother Welch is right in contending that Jesus maintained his “essence” without the powers of deity on earth, or else he gave them up and the question remains: how could he give up qualities of God and still be God with us? It is not a question of the humanity of Jesus for we all believe and preach that.

There has been considerable shifting of ground on the part of brother Welch since this controversy began. In a sermon at Shively in Louisville five years ago and then later at Beaver Dam, Kentucky, he ridiculed saying that Jesus was “100% God and 100% man.” In Beaver Dam he said such a view was “baloney.” But at Bowling Green he showed a chart affirming that Jesus was “100% God and 100% man.” He has written earlier that such a concept made Jesus a “hybrid” being. There was some shifting back and forth on “having” powers and “using” powers. The question of “using” powers is not a moot point unless he “had” such powers in the first place.

Some offers for additional debates on this subject have been made at Russellville, Arkansas and Evansville, Indiana. It is this writer’s view that any such debate, to serve any useful purpose should have a clearly worded proposition which spells out the difference between intrinsic divine power and delegated, or imparted power. Side issues will not resolve this fundamental difference.

Audio tapes of the debate can be ordered from: Tom O’Neal, P.O. Box 723, Bessemer, AL 35021. Video tapes may be ordered from Rick Hubartt, 3012 Foxfire Circle, Indianapolis, IN 46214.

Guardian of Truth XXXVIII: 18, p. 2-3
September 15, 1994