Modalism: An Heretical View of the Trinity

Modalism: An Heretical View of the Trinity
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 1:54pm

QUERY: I have a question about modalism. I know the early church condemned it as a heresy, but is it serious enough to be a threat to one’s salvation? What is the Biblical evidence against it?

REPLY: Traditional, orthodox Christian faith says Jesus Christ is not only equal with the Father; he is also distinct from the Father in that he is a separate, distinct person, i.e., a separate center of consciousness with his own distinct thoughts, emotions, and actions. This point seems more than obvious to most Christians; but occasionally, in a misguided effort to explain the Trinity, some have embraced a seriously false view called modalism. From its earliest known forms in the late second century, modalism seems to have been a serious attempt to account for God’s threeness while emphasizing his oneness. Thus it may be called a particular view of the Trinity, albeit an heretical one. H. O. J. Brown (“Heresies,” 99) says that this is “the most common theological error among people who think themselves orthodox,” mainly because “it is the simplest way to explain the Trinity while preserving the oneness of God.” But, as Brown says, “unfortunately, it is incorrect.”

Modalism is basically the view that in his inner nature there are no distinctions within God, threefold or otherwise. However, in his external relationships with his creatures, God assumes different modes in which to make himself known and accomplish his purposes among men. In its original form the contention was that in the Old Testament era God revealed himself as Father; then he became incarnate as the Son; finally, after Jesus’ ascension, God relates to his creatures as the Holy Spirit. Thus these modes of relationship are successive, not simultaneous. It should be noted that viewing the Trinity this way allows one to say that Jesus as God the Son was fully divine, and that the Holy Spirit is also divine.

The problem is that the Father, Son and Spirit are not really distinguished from one another. In their true being they are one and the same person, a person who assumes different modes in his outward relationships to his creatures. God the Father is God the Son, who also is God the Holy Spirit.
The best known early modalist was Sabellius in the early third century; thus the view is sometimes called Sabellianism. In more recent times varying versions of this view are found mainly in modernistic religion, but also in certain conservative circles such as Oneness Pentecostalism. Modalism also appears from time to time within the Restoration Movement.

All forms of modalism must be rejected as seriously false doctrine. This view simply cannot do hermeneutical justice to the many, many passages of Scripture which speak of Father, Son and Spirit together, not only alongside each other but interacting with one another. Sometimes all three persons are described together, and sometimes just two of them, but the implication is the same: the relationship or interaction is real and not just a charade. Luke 1:35 is an example: “The angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.'” The most natural explanation is that both the Father (Most High) and the Spirit were involved in the incarnation of the Son. Another example is the baptism of Christ, where Father, Son and Spirit are described as simultaneously being involved in different ways: “And the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased'” (Luke 3:22). Here the Father speaks to the Son in direct address. If this is not one person speaking to another, then the narrative or even the act itself is deceptive. The same applies to the many occasions when Jesus addressed the Father in prayer (e.g., Luke 22:42; 23:34; John 11:41-42; 17:1-26). Jesus’ teaching concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit in John 14-16 is a welter of double-talk if Father, Son, and Spirit are not distinct. For example, Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper” (John 14:16; see also John 14:26; 15:26). The same applies to the record of the fulfillment of this promise in Acts 2; see especially 2:33.

Many other passages are robbed of their natural meaning by modalistic presuppositions. The following examples will suffice: “Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,… ‘Behold, I have come…to do Your will, O God'” (Heb. 10:5, 7). “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You'” (Ps. 2:7). “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet'” (Ps. 110:1). “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mark 13:32). “And the Word was with God” (John 1:1). “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts” (Gal. 4:6). “I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21). “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).

Many other passages could be cited, but these are enough to show that Father, Son and Spirit are distinct persons who exist simultaneously and interact with one another.

H. O. J. Brown points out that modalism not only leaves us with hermeneutical chaos, but also raises serious doubts about the reality of the works of redemption themselves. “Logically,” he says, “modalism makes the events of redemptive history a kind of charade. Not being a distinct person, the Son cannot really represent us to the Father” (99). He is thinking of the reality of the substitutionary atonement, where the Father “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf” (2 Cor. 5:21), where God set Jesus forth publicly “as a propitiation” (Rom. 3:24-25; see also Isa. 53:6, 10). He is thinking of the reality of Christ’s role as a mediator between us and the Father (1 Tim. 2:5-6), as our intercessor with the Father (Heb. 7:25; see 1 John 2:1). Brown is surely correct: these vital works of redemption lose all their meaning in a modalistic view of Christ’s relation to the Father.

Above I called this a “seriously false doctrine,” and indeed it is. This raises the question of whether someone who believes this false view can be saved. In my judgment the answer is yes, since it does not include a denial of the divine nature of Jesus (as in Arianism, e.g.). The implications of the view are serious enough, though, that anyone who holds it should not be accepted as a teacher, leader, or officer in the church.

(Most of the above is taken from my book, “The Faith Once for All,” 254-255. More detail is given in my book, “What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer,” 141ff.)

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