Modalism – Why Does it Matter?

Modalism is the heresy that God exists in different manifestations or modes, but not in three persons. It seeks to preserve the language in the Bible about 3 distinct persons (Father, Son and Spirit) while defending the unity of God.

Monergism helpfully defines modalism (amongst other Trinitarian heresies:

Modalism (i.e. Sabellianism, Noetianism and Patripassianism) 
…taught that the three persons of the Trinity as different “modes” of the Godhead. Adherants believed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God’s self-revelation. A typical modalist approach is to regard God as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in sanctification. In other words, God exists as Father, Son and Spirit in different eras, but never as triune. Stemming from Modalism, Patripassianism believed that the Father suffered as the Son.

So what’s at stake? Nothing less than the very nature of God Himself. Modalism tells us that God is not the God of orthodox Christianity. He operates in another way. It’s a denial of who God is in His very nature. And when you get God Himself wrong, well then you’re very wrong indeed. You’re a heretic.

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16 comments on “Modalism – Why Does it Matter?

  1. Hi Dave,

    helpful, as always – but I think you can do a bit better.

    Why is Modalism bad? What do we lose if God is preached as one without existing as three persons eternally relating? How would it affect whether hearing the gospel that Christ, who is Lord, has died for my sins and so gives me new life, and so believing whether I’ll be saved, or not.

    I accept that someone will be labelled a heretic if they are modalist, and that being a heretic isn’t necessarily the best thing, but why, theologically speaking, is it bad?

    Let me start you off, just off the top of my head.

    I think that you must lose significant meaning in the incarnation and subsequently Jesus sin-bearing work on the cross. What would it mean for ONE God (=Father?) to take on human flesh? I can’t speculate, but surely the meaning would be significantly different.

    I think you must lose something of the meaning of Jesus’ words when he speaks – ‘The Father and I are one’, ‘Glorify your son, so that your son may glorify you’, and so on.

    I think you must lose something of the revelatory work of the incarnation – that the ‘word’ became flesh, and that God has spoken finally and completely in and through his Son (who is the exact representation of his nature).

    I think it questions whether we have someone who speaks on our behalf and prays for us at the Father’s side, who as our high priest has gone before us

    I think to say that the Spirit gifts his church ‘as he wills’, or blows ‘wherever he wants’ again loses some meaning.

    I think it means little for Jesus to say that the Father and the Son will dwell in his people (by the Spirit) if God doesn’t eternally exist as three persons.

    I think it has significant impact on what we understand humanity to be, as persons, in relationships, if God himself does not eternally exist as three persons.

    God, being God, perhaps all these things are possible for him without being three persons. I am convinced that the testimony of the Scriptures is that God does exist as three persons eternally relating. But lets do some proper work here, and think through the implications, rather than just calling someone a heretic.

    A serious question I have, and perhaps its because of the particular theological lake I’m flapping around in here, is this, while its much easier to call someone a ‘heretic’ if they deny the historic creeds of the church, and deny the nature of God, will someone’s lack of clarity about the Trinity (or errors) do as much damage as say teaching and directing people to put their faith in laws/works, or in expecting all the blessings of God to be material and to be for the present age? Many of us, practically speaking, emphasis God’s threeness or his oneness perhaps to much at times, and practically speaking tend to be either Modalists or Tritheists – (while still affirming the creeds) — but are we teaching and proclaiming Christ crucified so that people would put their faith in him.

    that’s a genuine question – but I put it to you that you can do a lot more in showing us why modalism is bad than just calling it heresy. I think you could also show us *from the Bible* why modalism doesn’t fit the testimony of Scriptures.

    Mike

    • Mike, what you “lose” by affirming the Trinity is monotheism. There is no way you can affirm that there are really distinct persons who are fully divine and at the same time affirm that there is only one God. Your subjective analysis of what you think you’ll lose does not justify logical contradictions.

  2. Good stuff. Good comments from Mike too. I think Modalism occurs because we think God’s internal relationships are incidental to the real issue – our existence and salvation. But of course it’s the other way round: we are saved so that the Son will be honoured; and the Father in him through the Spirit.

    • Hey Andrew – great stuff – Rom 8:29 glorifying the son (that he would be first born of many brothers – magnifying his sonship (without suggesting it is not already perfect)??) and Rom 8:15 glorifying the father (that we, made sons, would call him Abba, Father – magnifying his fatherhood (without suggesting that it is not already perfect)??) – all by the Spirit. Also Heb 2. I like it!

      • Thanks guys. Appreciate you filling out my brief post.

        Another that particularly strikes me is this

        Heb. 9:14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

        A wonderfully Trinitarian description of the atonement. The Son (here denoted as the Christ) offers himself through/by the Spirit to God (the Father). Awesome; each with different actions but all working in unity.

      • Amen! I think the key to the perfection issue is to remember that this is God ad extra. The world is a new venue in which God installs himself and his Son via theophany and incarnation. It is an overflow of God’s perfection. God the king *becomes* king again through the story of the world. God the Son is made Son again in a new way in his human life.

        • I’ve long understood the “perfection” language in terms of reaching the intended telos. So the Son “is perfected” ie achieves all He was meant to achieve, by His suffering. Even if my language is not quite precise, I trust you understand what I mean.

          • I do – and it is what I mean too. Obviously Heb 5:9 is the locus classicus here in describing his sufferings as qualifying him to be our priest. But the same pattern applies to his whole ministry. He is “perfected” as God’s Son (in the functional, messianic sense) by atoning for sin and by conquering death. That, I take, is why passages like Rom 1:4 and Acts 13:33 seem to make him achieve sonship through the resurrection. Without ceasing to be what he always was (God’s real Son) in eternity, he *becomes* – and is made perfect/complete as – God’s Son in a new way.

  3. Lets look at it this way ….human marriage is real, but also an analog, a model, a reflection.

    My wife is not me, and I am not my wife. We are two. Yet we are one. We are one unit, and we are one in our children. In God’s eyes we are one, spiritually. (What God has joined together …)

    Man (male and female) is made in the image of God (Let Us make them …)

    We are two, and we are one. And we are spiritually one as well.

    I have no problem with the classic Christian orthodoxy of the Trinity,

    Modalism does not work for me. and I can accept that it is in essence heretical.

    It might be ok to study at Bible College.

    It is no good being taught in the Pulpit.

  4. I don't know who this 'Apologist' is but he is off target here 🙁 He was wrong on two accounts surely (two in 1 min!!) (1) He says that in Modalism God is not three independent persons (implying that God is that). He also says that at Jesus' Baptism you have the three separate persons of the Godhead. Well, according to 'Standard Orthodoxy', God is not three independent (?!) or separate (?!) persons! Perhaps a better word would be distinct. (2) Also, he says Modalism teaches God had this mode/mask then that mode/mask. But Modalism often teaches that these modes are simultaneous, not successive. No wonder an 'entire denomination' is off on a wrong footing when public apologists don't know their stuff! Cranky rant over.

    • “Modalism often teaches that these modes are simultaneous, not successive” – Do you mean Barth? If so, good point. Or did you have others in mind?
      It’s tricky about that “separate” business. “Distinct” would indeed be better! But isn’t it interesting that the Father and Son reveal themselves to us most wonderfully at the moment of their separation?

    • Insightful comments, Andrew. If one is going to either affirm a position or critique another, it’s best to get it right. Sequential modalism is something Sabellius was accused of, but it’s a stretch to draw conclusions about a doctrine through the lens of its enemies. Modern modalists (Oneness Pentecostals and Swedenborgians) specifically reject successive modal revelation except an overall, general manner.

      And, yes, the doctrines of “separate persons” or “independent persons” are also specifically rejected by most trinitarians.

  5. I don’t know who this ‘Apologist’ is but he is off target here 🙁 He was wrong on two accounts surely (two in 1 min!!) (1) He says that in Modalism God is not three independent persons (implying that God is that). He also says that at Jesus’ Baptism you have the three separate persons of the Godhead. Well, according to ‘Standard Orthodoxy’, God is not three independent (?!) or separate (?!) persons! Perhaps a better word would be distinct. (2) Also, he says Modalism teaches God had this mode/mask then that mode/mask. But Modalism often teaches that these modes are simultaneous, not successive. No wonder an ‘entire denomination’ is off on a wrong footing when public apologists don’t know their stuff! Cranky rant over.

  6. James White is very helpful on this topic. Modalism is, quite simply, idol worship, thus breaks the greatest commandment.
    I can’t for the life of me think why someone would embrace modalism, except for the foolishness of the human mind and the sinfulness of our heart.

    • Actually, I think James White is himself confused with respect to his terminology. It is actually tritheism masquerading as monotheism.

  7. I know this post is quite old, but I’d like to know how you’re able to cogently assert monotheism while simultaneously affirming three distinct persons in God who are each fully God. In my mind, it is not simply beyond comprehension, it entails logical inversions (contradictions) which render the assertion false on its face.

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