Three Reasons I Embrace Modalism, and a Trinity of Reasons I Do Not

Modalism:

…taught that the three persons of the Trinity [are] 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. (Monergism.org.)

Trinity:

The term designating one God in three persons. Although not itself a biblical term, “the Trinity” has been found a convenient designation for the one God self-revealed in Scripture as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It signifies that within the one essence of the Godhead we have to distinguish three “persons” who are neither three gods on the one side, nor three parts or modes of God on the other, but coequally and coeternally God. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell–Editor, p.1112). (Cited at Monergism.org.)

Modalism Works For Me

Now before you cast me out as a heretic and declare me anathema, let me say that modalism works for me in who I am. It doesn’t work for who God is.*

Modalism comes from the word “mode” and essentially means that someone can operate in different modes at different times.  I know I can. I’m a husband and a father and a neighbor and a lot of other things. It’s easiest to see these things when I’m in that particular mode and no other, although you can imagine that at times I’ve acted as husband, father and neighbor at the same instance.

You know the thing about me being modal, though? No one thinks the person who is a father to my children is a different person from the one who is a husband to my wife and yet still different from the one who is a neighbor to the people next door. It’s all just me.

Imagine, though, if I tried to give the impression of being three separate people:

Neighbor: “Hey neighbor, are you all free for a barbecue this weekend?”

Me: “I know I am, but I’ll have to check with the others.”

Neighbor: “Yeah, always good to check with your wife before committing!”

Me: “I suppose, but first I’m going to check with my wife’s husband.”

Neighbor: “Oh yeah, her hus- … Huh?”

Me: “I don’t think he has any plans, but I’ll let you know. Are the kids invited?”

Neighbor: “Uhhhh, yeah sure.”

Me: “Then I’ll have to ask my kids’ father as well and see if he can make it.”

Neighbor: “Their father. Oooookay … you do that.” [Laughs nervously and slowly backs into house.]

I’d retreat to my house too if one of my neighbors talked to me that way.

Why I Am Not Modalist

You might have heard people say that the reason we call God the Father, Son and Spirit is because sometimes he acts as a parent, sometimes as a child and sometimes in a more amorphous spiritual sense.

What a load of hooey.

In the Bible we see Jesus talking to our heavenly Father all the time, and he never gives the impression that he’s just putting on an act and talking to himself. In fact, just the opposite. And the same goes for how he relates to the Holy Spirit. It comes across quite clearly in the passages concerning Jesus’ last night before the crucifixion.

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:12-13.)

These are not the words of someone who is talking about himself in two modes. That would be as ridiculous as the dialog I had above with my neighbor. This is someone talking about another person.

Jesus spoke a lot about the Holy Spirit as well that night, like this:

All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:25-26.)

He didn’t say he was going to come back to them as a Spirit, nor that he was the one sending them the Spirit. He said he was going away and the Father would send the Spirit. Again, nothing modal about this.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not just the same person** acting in three different ways. They are the Three-in-One Trinity, and while this may be a mystery of sorts*** that doesn’t make God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit any less real, any less One and any less the great I Am.****

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14.)

Amen.

***

*Just another example of how I’m not God.

**The use of the word “person” can confuse some people into tritheism, which is not orthodox trinitarianism and should be avoided just as diligently as modalism:

Tritheism confesses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent divine beings; three separate gods who share the ‘same substance’. This is a common mistake because of misunderstanding of the use of the term ‘persons’ in defining the Trinity. (Monergism.org.)

*** Augustine said, “In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.” To help clear up the mystery a bit, you might like to read this article by R.C. Sproul.

****More of my take on Trinitarian doctrine (and some humor) is in my post Counting to Three.

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22 Responses to Three Reasons I Embrace Modalism, and a Trinity of Reasons I Do Not

  1. Jeannie says:

    Really interesting — I learned a lot from this post. I don’t know if this is related but sometimes it bothers me when people talk about “The God of the Old Testament” as if it is a different God from the new, i.e. Jesus showed us God’s nice side. I don’t really get that.

    • Tim says:

      That’s related to modalism, I think. But since the New Testament is the part of the Bible that tells us God is the same yesterday, today and forever, there’s obviously no support there for those people who want to say that the OT God is different from the NT God.

  2. Aimee Byrd says:

    You scared me with your title Tim. Was that your April Fools for the day?

  3. It is a really interesting concept.
    I know that the word and concept of the Trinity was created by the Council of Nicea in about 350CE because Constantine was a . . .wacko power hungry Emporer out to make “everyone” happy while also wanting to be anti-Jew. I just feel so much of the truth has been crushed.

    I have always had a hard time wrapping my head around the Triune God while understanding it at once (and have an even tougher time explaining it to others who are trying to understand too). I know that Muslims believe we are living in idolatry since we believe Jesus is God wholeheartedly, and they say “There can be only one God, and you should have no gods before Him yet you believe you can only get to heaven through belief in Jesus as God.” This is why so many Muslims are hard to convert. I do believe that God is 3 separate pieces of Himself that unify as one, but the fact that God is the Father, but also the son, I have a hard time around (I mean, Jesus is the only mediator between man and God, but since Jesus is God, can I pray to Jesus alone, or to the Father through the son? It just gets confusing thinking about it). I get the Holy Spirit so much more easily because that is God the father’s spirit going out everywhere and He is God and can do whatever as it is. . so while He is watching us, His spirit penetrates His people. I see in Genesis how God talks in “We” form as creating things. While I know they are all separate, it is hard to see how they are all one too. I think about how EACH were present while Jesus was being baptized, but to think of them as ONE but SEPARATE, is so tough to wrap my mind around, which is why obviously God is so filled with mystery that is not always something that we can fully grasp because I only have about .0000000000009% of the knowledge He has if even that. That is why I just decide to trust that God knows what He is doing and to just know that they all exist and that I should continue to pursue them/Him/”I Am” rather than really worry about the mathematics of Him/them/”I Am”.

    I did truly love your post though, by the way.

    • Tim says:

      “rather than really worry about the mathematics”

      Well put, Victoria!

      • Shalini says:

        Tim, wonderful post, provocative title, am still cracking up over your imaginary conversation with the neighbor! 🙂

        Victoria, loved your comment about not worrying about the mathematics of it all. When I was an unsaved teen, I remember asking a minister what the whole deal about the trinity was anyway. I meant it in the context of how they related to each other. Specifically: Do I have to pray to God the Father, in the name of God the Son always? I mean, is there any Christian protocol involved? (I didn’t mention the Holy Spirit because I was vaguely uncomfortable with the term ‘Holy Spirit’ because I couldn’t look beyond the symbolism of the dove like figure or the disembodied Spirit hovering around before creation.)

        Her answer was more than satisfactory: “Let me put it this way, God will not be jealous if you pray to Jesus or vice versa”. It helped me get clarity on this ONE God, but it took a while for me to begin to understand how each piece of the Trinity is equally God. Especially when it came to the Holy Spirit and a relationship with Him. Of course I knew with my mind that it was He who convicted me of sin and made Jesus real to me, but once that was done, I kind of stopped having anything to do with Him. I wouldn’t talk to Him as I did with the other persons of the Godhead. Till I started asking the Holy Spirit to reveal Himself to me as an individual entity (while being a piece of the triune God).

        Am excited to see that prayer being answered and am thrilled to know Him as the awesome Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, the One who lifts up a standard of righteousness when the enemy comes in like a flood, and all the wonderful things He is revealed to be in the Word. The icing on the cake is to dig into the Word to see how this awesome Trinity was at work right from the OT days to the NT days, till now, and will be forever into eternity.

        The relational aspects between God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit no longer confound me or trip me up, though it will continue to be a great mystery which my finite mind cannot comprehend. I like what someone said in these posts about how every metaphor is bound to break down when you are trying to describe God. Let scripture describe Him best!

  4. nmcdonal says:

    You make a good point here, Tim. Maybe a bigger point to be extracted from this one example is that essentially every “metaphor” for the trinity ends up being heretical. So, all those great lessons we were taught in Sunday School (The trinity is like an egg; a father, husband teacher; Peter James and John, etc) all end up being deeply wrong at some point. I think the closest we get to good analogies are the Bible itself – The trinity is like a family – Father, Son, Perekletos (family lawyer) – one unit, made up of three persons. Or the analogy of speech – Father speaks, Spirit is breath, Jesus is Word – but in the end, these are just as baffling as the trinity!

    • Tim says:

      Good point, Nick, and one I should have made explicitly (so I’m glad you made it for me!): every metaphor breaks down sooner or later. When it comes to God’s nature, it’s best to stick with the text of Scripture than try to come up with something we think is more understandable. As Victoria says above, our understanding is so limited that we will never do better than God at revealing who he is.

      • nmcdonal says:

        It’s fascinating to look at the differences between Eastern analogies for the trinity and Western analogies. The Eastern Christians accuse us of collapsing the trinity into a single person in our analogies (water, ice, gas; egg yolk; parent, child, husband, etc), while we tend to see their analogies as being tri-theistic (Peter, James and John).

  5. Kathleen says:

    I just love this and wanted to comment and agree with everyone’s discussion! It all comes down to your most profound line “What a load of hooey.” Jesus said that often. Our sermon yesterday was on Jesus’ response to the Sadducees’ trying to show the logical absurdity of resurrection. Jesus said “you are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Our pastor said that the Greek word for “wrong” was the root of the word we use for “planet” (wandering around in open space). What you wrote about here, reminds me again the importance of knowing Scripture and not limiting the power of God. Thank you! This is great stuff.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Kathleen. I like what you said about us not trying to limit the power of God by rearranging what the Bible actually says!

  6. While I am a Christian who believes in The Triune God and has done for 32 years, I cannot totally disagree with Sabellianism which Modalism came from and then Oneness doctrine stemed from. As there is a lot of terrible history associated with Roman Trinitarism; The Inquisition, tortures, murders,total genocide of the Catharism believers in France, Roman Catholics support of Hitlers atempt to exterminateThe Jews, to name a few. Then there is the venerating of the cross and Mary, gold, money, power and the pope. I know there are sincere Catholic Christians out there and I am not trying to offend anyone. But HIS-tory tells a story. Many sincere Catharists, Quakers,etc have died for there faith with great grace and fruit. We can’t judge these people or there faith, only their FRUIT.
    Theology wise, I have always prayed to Jesus as He is my Lord and Savior and the only mediator between God and Man.I believe and have received the infilling of The Holy Spirit, but I believe this to be a daily thing, ( and a choice) not a ‘one off baptism’ only. I have no problem in seeing God having three expressions and I do not believe God to be three persons to be worshiped, as this is paganism, and Strict Trinitarism sees God as three distinct persons! Which traditional Catholicism believes.Were as Sabellianism/modalism and Oneness see God as having three expressions of Himself. I see no fault with this! Scripture can be interpreted by various belief modes HIS-story shows this. And it gave licence to evil mined people to persecute their fellow mankind.
    Surely The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the important thing!

    • Tim says:

      I can’t agree that “Strict Trinitarianism sees God as three distinct persons” because it does not at all believe that. In fact, trinitarians believe just the opposite. As I said above, the use of the word “person” is problematic, but that’s a limitation of language not doctrine.

      Did you happen to read the link I gave above to Sproul’s article. It goes into this in much greater detail, and I would consider it a classical statement of trinitarianism. Plus it’s a good read.

      Blessings,
      Tim

  7. Pingback: Counting to Three – a lesson in one, two, Trinity | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  8. Nkorni Katte says:

    Tim, I do not know where you got your definition of modalism which is horribly flawed. I saw John Macarthur also makiing a similar statement. Modalist believe God is in 3 simultaneous modes.Our enemies claim we believe in Sequential modalism. We believe he is Father, Son and Spirit at the same time. I do not know one sequential modalist, and I know many. The statement ” but never as triune( three), is so wrong. We do not believe in 3 distinct and separate “persons”. Yet we believe in the one God of the OT who became revealed in NT as his Son Jesus Christ. We understand the prayers of Christ to be real prayers, not as someone praying to himself. But rather in the sense that when God was manifest as a man. He did not cease to exist as God. So the manifestation of the God-Man Christ Jesus, was concurrent with God existing out of his incarnation.There are many OT types of this Truth. Who filled the tabernacle of Moses? Was he absent when that occured?
    Kind regards,

    Katte

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for the insights, Katte. I agree that not all modalists are saying that God acts in three ways sequentially. That’s actually in line with my example of the conversation with my neighbor: it’s not a sequential manifestation but one of simultaneity that displays itself in differing ways.

      The modalism you describe, though, is different from the way I see God revealed in Scripture. For example, Jesus says he is returning to the Father. Such an expression is consistent with the way that “person” is used in trinitarian understanding, not modalism where God is concurrently expressing himself. Same with Jesus telling his disciples he would ask the Father to send the Spirit. He did not say he would ask the Father to send him back to them as a Spirit, but that the Spirit is one who is like him and would come to them after he is physically gone from them.

      Blessings,
      Tim

  9. Nkorni Katte says:

    We believe in the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. You cannot make the Spirit of Christ a different ” person” from Christ. Remember 1 Cor 3 :17. The Lord ( Jesus) is that Spirit. 1 Cor 15:45 The second Adam ( Jesus) became a quickening spirit. Is this quickening Spirit a different ” person from the Holy Ghost? As a modalist when we read the Bible, we do not replace Father with Jesus all the time as some trinitarians think we do. We honor those distinctions as part of the providential plan of God’s revelation. Yet we understand that God is One is essence and person. Trinitarians for the most part agree that God is one in essence yet because of the numerous intercommunications between the Father/Son in the NT. They are led by a one sided logic to conclude on a plurality of persons. We based our doctrine from, the foundational descriptions of God found in the OT. The Jews had the scriptures for thousands of years yet they were not Trinitarians. Today trinitarians preach us to hell for not accepting their doctrine which only became formal in AD 325/381.Before AD 325 many believers were modalist . Tertullian one of the fathers of the Trinity doctrine whose version is different from yours said that the majority of believers in his days were modalists. The word ” person ” is used just twice in the Bible with respect to God and it is used in the Singular ( Hebrews 1 and Job 13). A good picture of the tri-modal God, is found in the first chapters of the book of revelations. Here we see one ( Father) sitting on a throne. Then we see the 7 candlesticks with flames,which are the 7 spirits of God ( That is the Holy Ghost) We understand that 7 here speaks about the 7 attributes of Spirit shown in Isaiah 11. The one sitting on the throne is described as the one who was, who is and is to come. Wait a minute, that is the Father. yet the scripture says ” that is to come”. We know from all scripture that the one coming is our Lord Jesus. Later amidst the throne arises a Lamb ( Jesus) having Seven horns and Seven eyes. The Scripture says these 7s again are 7 Spirits of God ( The Holy Ghost) Wait a minute, we had the 7 flames before the throne as the Holy Ghost, now we have 7 horns as the Holy Ghost. Are there 2 Holy Ghosts? No. The One God who is Spirit according to John 4:24 can manifest himself in any form he chooses to. Can we make the Horns a different person from the Lamb? No. This Lamb ( Jesus) walks over to the One ( Father) on the Throne takes the book on his right hand. Just as we cannot make the horns a different person from the Lamb. Also we cannot also make the Lamb a different person from the one on the Throne. This throne vision shows God in his full redemptive role. When no one was qualified to save man.,the prophet said mine own right hand ( Jesus) has brought salvation. We understand the Lamb to be the revelation of the same God ( Father) in human flesh in order to save mankind. We cannot make multiple ” persons”.. The prophet Zechariah said in that day there shall be One God and his name One ( Zechariah14:9).The way the scripture is written does not convince us to qualify the distinctions of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as that of 3 human ” persons” Peter, James, and John. We fully acknowledge those distinctions, only the uneducated/Unread ” modalist” ( Unfortunately there are many) will brush over it. You are a believer ? Right. Do you have 3 distinct persons of God living in you. Jesus said we have all three. Are you conscious of 3 “leadings” within your inner man or you are conscious of one. It baffles me when “Evangelicals” in crusades will make strong “Oneness” statements in Crusades. [ Christ will come and live in your heart as the Holy Spirit] and turn around and teach that he is ” different person” from the Spirit. How many ” persons” has the convert received? There is context in which,they are different, but not a difference of Essence/Person.

    Kind regards,
    Hear O Israel, the Lord our God ( Elohim) is one ( Echkad)
    Katte

  10. Nkorni Katte says:

    Let me borrow from you [ Strict Modalism does not see God as “Jesus only”]. Most of the Modalist of the past were clear on this even Michael Servetus who was killed by John Calvin.

  11. Dee Parsons says:

    Great post, Tim.

    For years I have threatened to ask people coming out of a megachurch service to describe the Trinity. I think it would be funny. Thankfully, we are saved by faith in Jesus and not in our ability to accurately describe the Trinity.

    I usually say this: “One What; 3 Who’s and leave it at that!

    • Tim says:

      “Thankfully, we are saved by faith in Jesus and not in our ability to accurately describe the Trinity.”

      I give thanks for the same thing, Dee. We are saved by Christ, not by doctrine.

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