Modalism, also known as Modalistic Monarchianism or Sabellianism, is the belief that God is one being who has revealed Himself in three distinct modes or manifestations. It is essentially a denial of the doctrine of the Trinity as traditionally understood by orthodox Christianity.
According to modalism, God is one person (monarchia) who has manifested Himself in three different modes or roles throughout history. These three modes are the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. At different times, God has chosen to reveal Himself in one of these modes, but He is never more than one at the same time. The three members of the Trinity are simply different titles or roles that the one God assumed in order to relate to humanity during different periods of history.
Modalists believe that before creation, God existed only as the transcendent Father. During the incarnation, the one God took on flesh and became the Son, Jesus Christ. After Christ’s ascension, the one God became the Holy Spirit who indwells believers. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply titles that describe how the one God has related to humanity at different times. According to modalism, there is no distinction of persons within the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same person, just acting in different modes or roles.
Some key characteristics and implications of modalistic monarchianism include:
– Only one God exists in both substance and person. There is no plurality of persons in the Godhead.
– Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply different titles, modes, roles or manifestations of the one God. They are not distinct persons within the Godhead.
– God can only exist in one mode or manifestation at a time. When He is the Son, He cannot at the same time be the Father or Holy Spirit. The three modes or roles of God do not exist simultaneously.
– The Son did not exist prior to the incarnation. The Father transformed into the Son, divesting Himself of His divine attributes while on earth.
– The Holy Spirit is not a distinct person but rather the mode God exists in after His ascension. The Holy Spirit is God’s power and presence in the world.
– Since the Son did not exist eternally, Christ could not be fully God while on earth. He completely gave up His divinity to become human.
– God is not three in one, but one who appears and acts in three different modes. The unity of God and the deity of Christ are compromised.
Modalism is considered heretical because it denies the eternality of the Son, the deity and humanity of Christ, as well as the distinct personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By denying that the members of the Trinity are real persons, it departs from historic orthodox Christianity.
The origins of modalism can be traced back to the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. The preeminent early teachers of modalism were Noetus, Praxeas, and Sabellius. Due to the teachings of Sabellius, modalism is also known as Sabellianism. Sabellius taught that God was one person with three different names, roles, or manifestations. He illustrated the unity and diversity of God using the analogy of the sun: God is like the sun, which is comprised of the body of the sun (Father), the light of the sun (Son) and the warmth of the sun (Spirit). All analogies break down, but Sabellius used this to explain how he viewed the unity and diversity in the Godhead.
The early church decisively rejected modalism as heretical at the Synod of Antioch in 264-268 AD, affirming that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct co-eternal and co-equal divine persons. All three persons have always existed together in the Godhead. Modalism undermines the heart of Christian theology.
Modalism first appears in church history after the development of two other heresies that distorted the biblical truth about Jesus Christ: Adoptionism and Dynamic Monarchianism.
Adoptionism taught that the man Jesus was adopted as God’s Son either at His baptism or resurrection. This heresy denied Christ’s eternality and full deity.
Dynamic Monarchianism, taught by Theodotus of Byzantium, held that Jesus was just a man upon whom the Spirit descended at baptism, empowering Him to perform mighty acts and miracles. But He remained merely human and not fully divine.
Modalism arose as a way to combat adoptionism and dynamic monarchianism by emphasizing the true deity of Christ and the unity of God. However, it went too far in denying the distinction of persons in the Trinity. Modalists wanted to protect monotheism and the full divinity of Christ, but they ironically compromised other essential biblical truths in the process.
Throughout church history, modalism has appeared in various forms. Many modalists intention is to protect monotheism and uphold the deity of Christ. But in so doing, they distort the triune nature of God and the gospel itself.
For example, some modalists errantly teach that the “Father” represents God in heaven, the “Son” is God manifest in the flesh, and the “Spirit” is God in the church. This view is sometimes erroneously described as the “Finger Illustration:” God is like a hand with three fingers. All are part of the same hand, yet have distinct functions. But this wrongly divides God into three separate modes instead of affirming constant, co-eternal communion within the Trinity.
Various metaphors and analogies have been used to try to illustrate the Trinity, but all are inadequate. Human language and finite thinking can never fully capture the infinite mystery and glory of God’s triune nature. But modalism falters in its attempt to simplify and explain the Trinity, ultimately distorting crucial theological truths.
The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity affirms one God eternally existing in three co-equal, co-eternal, co-infinite persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person is fully and completely God, yet there is only one God. Each person relates to the others personally, in mutual love, honor, and shared glory. This mysterious and marvelous view of the Trinity is affirms in Scripture and has been held by the church throughout history.
In contrast to modalism, Trinitarianism teaches:
– There is only one God eternally existing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three persons are equally and fully God.
– The persons are not simply modes or manifestations of God, but are eternally distinct within the one being of God.
– Each person has his own unique role, but all mutually indwell and share the same divine nature. There are real relationships between the persons of the Godhead.
– God has only revealed Himself as three distinct persons. Modalism claims God sometimes reveals Himself as Father, sometimes as Son, and sometimes as Spirit. But Scripture shows these three persons existing together at the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:16-17).
– The Son did not come into being at the incarnation but has eternally existed alongside the Father and Spirit. The Son reveals God, not becomes God.
– Father, Son, and Spirit interpenetrate one another in perfect communion without losing their personal distinctions. God is three in one.
Modalism poses several serious theological problems and damages core doctrines of the Christian faith.
First, modalism undermines the doctrine of the Trinity and compromises the eternality of the Son. By claiming the Son came into existence only at the incarnation, it denies Christ’s pre-existence as the eternal Second Person of the Trinity (John 1:1; Philippians 2:5-7). This implicitly denies Christ’s absolute deity.
Second, modalism cannot account for Jesus’ baptism where the voice of the Father speaks from heaven while the Son is baptized and the Spirit descends like a dove (Matthew 3:16-17). There is clear personal differentiation between Father, Son and Spirit acting simultaneously in this scene, something modalism cannot explain.
Third, in the Upper Room Discourse Jesus declares He will send “another” Helper, even the “Spirit of truth”, thus implying a personal distinction between Jesus and the Spirit He will send (John 14:16-17, 26). This mutually indwelling and succession of persons cannot be accounted for if Father, Son and Spirit are merely temporary roles of the one God, rather than co-eternal persons.
Fourth, modalism cannot make sense of Jesus’ prayer to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). If Jesus is both Father and Son, how can He intelligibly pray to Himself? This inter-Trinitarian dialogue demonstrates personal differentiation within the Godhead.
Fifth, modalism cannot explain the divine and human natures of Christ. When the Son divested Himself of His divine attributes to become human, as modalists contend, He ceased being fully God on earth. This seriously undermines the atoning efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice and makes redemption impossible.
Sixth, modalism undercuts the intimacy, reciprocity, and love within the eternal Trinity. If the persons are simply temporary roles or modes, how do they relate? Real persons, not modes, can love. Modalism reduces the richness of intra-Trinitarian fellowship.
Seventh, the Apostle John argues cerrently against proto-modalistic errors already cropping up in the first century, indicating modalism was an early Trinitarian heresy needing refutation (1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-3; 2 John 1:7). Modalism clearly troubled the first Christians.
In summary, modalism gravely distorts the triune nature of God, the eternality of Christ, His true deity and humanity, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, the gospel message itself, and more. Modalism fundamentally contradicts the revelation of Scripture regarding the nature of God and the doctrine of the Trinity.
Though motivated by noble aims – preserving monotheism and Christ’s divinity – modalists sadly undermine core tenets of the biblical faith, reverting to serious Christological errors the early church repudiated. Modalism has reappeared across church history but must continue to be opposed on biblical grounds for the sake of God’s truth and glory.