While talking about Trinitarian theology in one of my classes, the professor shared that a concerning number of BC undergraduates (and likely young people in general) often slip into a confused sort of modalism. In an effort to combat this pervasive heresy, I will offer a brief account of what modalism is and why it is wrong.
Modalism, also known as Sabellianism or Patripassianism, is an ancient Christian heresy which arose and was swiftly refuted in the 3rd century. The term “Sabellianism” refers to Sabellius, who taught the doctrine. Tertullian referred to this teaching as Patripassianism, meaning “the Father suffered,” or that the Father suffered on the cross. In essence, Modalism teaches that God appears in various forms or modes in Scripture and beyond. Thus, God appears as a cloud or a pillar of fire to the Israelites in Exodus, as a burning bush to Moses, as the Son in the Gospels, as the Holy Spirit, etc. The terms “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” refer merely to different guises that God takes at various times. An implication of this view is that since “Father” and “Son” ultimately refer to the same person, it would be just as proper to say that the Father was crucified as to say that the Son was crucified, hence Tertullian’s usage.
Modalism is so caustic because, at first glance it seems to fit the data of the Bible perfectly. On the one hand, Jesus is God, the Father is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; on the other hand, there is only one God. Therefore, one and the same God must be appearing as each at one point or another. A closer examination of the data of the New Testament, however, reveals that this view is clearly mistaken.
First, modalism contradicts the account of Christ's Baptism. As the Eastern hymn for the Epiphany proclaims, “Lord, when You were baptized in the Jordan, the veneration of the Trinity was revealed." After Christ is baptized, John “saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased'" (Mt. 3:16-17). The Father speaks and the Holy Spirit descends as the Son is baptized. If Modalism is correct, one is forced to conclude that—to put it flippantly—God decided to mark His baptism by showcasing His ventriloquism.
A similar problem for the Modalist arises when considering the Transfiguration. When Christ was transfigured, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice of the cloud said, ‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!’” (Mt. 17:5). The Church Fathers identified the bright cloud with the Holy Spirit, but looking at the plain text only, the Father speaks and the Son is transfigured. If the Father and Son are not distinct, what is going on in these events?
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus prays to the Father, and He commends His spirit to the Father at the Crucifixion (Lk. 23:46). He thanks the Father, and He demands of the Father (Jn. 17:5). Was Jesus praying, commending, thanking, and demanding of Himself in all these episodes? When He said that He would ask the Father and the Father would send another Paraclete (Jn. 14:16), was He confusedly referring to Himself as three different points of reference? What about when He said that the Father and the Son will make their abode in the one who keeps His word (Jn. 14:23)?
We see, therefore, that the Modalist perspective crumbles upon closer scrutiny. The Bible fundamentally teaches three truths about God: first, that there is only one God; second, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all God; third, that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father, and vice versa. Considering all of these truths together, therefore, Christians concluded that God is a Trinity, that there is one Being of God subsistent in Three Persons. Each Person is co-equal and co-eternal, and the Godhead is simple and indivisible.
With the proclamation of this mystery, we Christians join our voices to the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and Christians throughout the ages, who cry out, “This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith which has supported the whole world.”