Destructive Heresies: Modalism

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Introduction

Contesting traditional Trinitarian doctrines, Modalistic Monarchianism (i.e., Modalism) offers a Unitarian theological framework, seeking to maintain a strict monotheism and eliminate any model postulating intra-Trinitarian distinctions within the Godhead. Despite receiving acceptance among contemporary organizations, modalistic interpretations represent a significant departure from orthodox Christology—failing to render a biblically faithful theological framework, while proving explanatorily impotent, and appropriately receiving condemnation by early church leaders and ecumenical councils.1  Establishing this contention, this essay will outline the fundamental doctrines of Modalism, highlighting their explanatory impotence while demonstrating that the theological underpinnings are antithetical to Scriptural teachings and orthodox Christianity.

 

Background2

Unfortunately, the writings of early Modalists remain lost, so our doctrinal understanding of notable proponents (e.g., Praxeas, Noctus, Epigonus, and Sabellius) derives from indirect evidence, mainly the testimony of their opponents (e.g., Tertullian and Hippolytus of Rome).3  Consequently, historian Adolf von Harnack underscores a fundamental limitation to this investigation, concluding, “It is not possible, from the state of our sources, to give a complete and homogeneous description of the doctrine of the older Modalistic Monarchianism.”4  Nevertheless, by analyzing the theological contentions within these sources, one can reconstruct the fundamental premises early Modalists advocate. For example, before offering a rebuttal, Tertullian outlines the Monarchian charge against orthodox doctrine, writing,

The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they [the Monarchians] assume to be a division of the Unity;. . . They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves pre-eminently the credit of being worshippers of the One God;. . . We, say they, maintain the Monarchy(or, sole governmentof God).5

Similarly, Hippolytus of Rome opens a discourse by conveying the relevance of his message, explaining, “Some others are secretly introducing another doctrine, who have become disciples of one Noetus, who was a native of Smyrna, (and) lived not very long ago. . . . He alleged that Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died.”6

Accordingly, historians trace the emergence of Monarchianismto a period between AD 180 and AD 300, as proponents actively soughtto preserve both monotheism and the unity of the Godhead.7  Falling within the term Monarchianism, two distinctly independent factions exist: 1) Dynamic or Adoptionistic Monarchianism, and 2) Modalistic Monarchianism.8  Denying the divinity of Christ, Dynamic Monarchianism portrays Jesus as a miraculously born human, receiving divine empowerment and subsequent adoption.9  In contrast, Modalistic Monarchianism—which is the primary focus of this examination—represents a form of Unitarianism, propagatingthe numerical identity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.10  Under the modalistic framework, the Scriptural names Father, Son,and Holy Spiritdo not represent personal designations, but rather “modes or relations of the one divine person” in His interactions with humanity.11

Essentially, God manifests as the Father from creation to the incarnation, at which point He transforms to the Son (until the ascension), before transitioning to the Spirit (from Pentecost to Eschaton)—though proponents differ concerning the specific details of these adaptations.12  Therefore, Modalism is the diametric opposite of Trinitarianism, which appreciates the numerical distinction of the three persons, while contemporaneously recognizing their indistinguishable and inseparable nature (i.e., substance, essence, or being). While this does not represent a comprehensive explanation of modalistic theology, this perspective provides the fundamental core of Modalism and provides a proper foundation for further analysis.

 

Examining the Scriptural Data

Contrasting the mono-prosopisticassertions of Modalists, the Old Testament indicates plurality within the Godhead, while the New Testament reveals the tripersonal nature of God. Consistent with the teachings of Monarchianism, the Bible incontrovertibly affirms monotheism (cf. Deuteronomy 4:35; 6:4; Isaiah 43:10-11; 44:8; Nehemiah 9:6; 1 Timothy 1:17; James 2:19), identifying all other gods as worthless idols (cf. Deuteronomy 4:35; 32:17; Isaiah 44:6; 45:5; Psalm 96:5; Romans 1:25).13  However, numerous attestations throughout the Old Testament provide indications of plurality within the Godhead. Firstly, indications of divine multiplicity occur as God refers to Himself in the plural (cf. Genesis 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8), most notably in the creation account as God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26a [emphasis added]).14  Secondly, the Scriptures undoubtedly identify the Angel of the Lord with God (cf. Genesis 16:11-13; 18:1-33; Exodus 3:2-6; Judges 13:3-22; Zechariah 3:1-2), yet portray Him as a distinct person.15

For instance, as Hagar encounters the Angel of the Lord in Genesis 16she equates Him with Yahweh (יְהוָה֙), stating, “So she [Hagar] called the name of the Lord [Yahweh] who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.’ Therefore, the well was called Beer-lahai-roi [the well of the Living One who sees me]” (vv.13-14a). Although one might confuse the Angel as a modal expression of God, subsequent passages preclude this hypothesis. Elucidating this point, Justin Martyr considers the divine judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, recognizing the spatiotemporal location of the Angel on Earth, as God simultaneously unleashes His wrath from heaven. He writes,

When Scripture says, ‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God.16

Similar examples are present within the biblical record, yet Modalism appears incapable of responding to any such challenge.

Thirdly, the Old Testament accentuates the Messiah’s divine nature while simultaneously underscoring Him as a distinct figure (cf. Isaiah 9:6; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Psalm 45:6-7; 110:1). Explicitly demonstrating this concept, the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9:6 states, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Fourthly, the Old Testament attributes divine characteristics and activities to multiple individuals simultaneously, occasionally depicting the interaction between the persons (cf. Psalm 110:1; Isaiah 48:16).

Congruently, the New Testament reaffirms the bedrock of monotheism (cf. Mark 12:29; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6), while amicably demonstrating an ontological equivalence between three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 28:19; John 10:30; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 4:4-6; Revelation 1:4-5a).17  Corresponding with Old Testament passages ascribing divinity to the Messiah, the New Testament accentuates the divine nature of Jesus (cf. John 5:16-47; 8:16; 14:9; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:15; 2:9; 1 Corinthians 2:8; Hebrews 1:3; 13:8), while concurrently differentiating Him from the Father and the Spirit (cf. Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 28:19; Luke 3:21-22).18  Therefore, Modalism appears explanatorily impotent, proving unable to account for Old Testament passages conveying plurality within the Godhead. Moreover, the hypothesis blatantly contradicts numerous New Testament passages which ascribe divinity to the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, while simultaneously differentiating each person. Accordingly, biblical analysis eliminates Modalism as a viable alternative to Trinitarianism.19

 

Considering the Adjudication of Early Church Leaders

Although Modalism appears to fail in explanatory power and scope, its theological premises enjoy a history of popular support, serving as the underpinnings of some contemporary organizations. Thus, it is essential to consult the field of historical theology, considering the adjudication of early church leaders and prominent theologians. Vigorously opposing Modalistic Monarchianism, Tertullian publishes a dissertation (Against Praxeas) demonstrating the inconceivability of Modalism in light of the Scriptural evidence, while Hippolytus of Rome addresses the issue in Philosophumena and Against the Heresy of One Noetus. Since Modalists inherently acknowledge the divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one must exhibit the fundamental differentiation and coexistence of the three persons to invalidate Modalism, and early Christian leaders readily recognize sufficient evidence is available within the New Testament record.20

Appealing to John 14:28 and Psalm 8:5, Tertullian underscores the overt distinction between the Father and the Son, concluding,

Thus, the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, inasmuch as He who begets is one, and He who is begotten is another; He, too, who sends is one, and He who is sent is another; and He, again, who makes is one, and He through whom the thing is made is another. Happily, the Lord Himself employs this expression of the person of the Paraclete, so as to signify not a division or severance, but a disposition (of mutual relations in the Godhead); for He says, “I will pray to the Father, and He shall send you another Comforter.… even the Spirit of truth,” [cf. John 14:6] thus making the Paraclete distinct from Himself, even as we say that the Son is also distinct from the Father; so that He showed a third degree in the Paraclete, as we believe the second degree is in the Son, by reason of the order observed in the Economy.21

Furthermore, Tertullian assesses the mere delineation of names (Father, Son, and Spirit) to be a declaration of distinct personality, contending,

All things will be what their names represent them to be; and what they are and ever will be, that will they be called; and the distinction indicated by the names does not at all admit of any confusion, because there is none in the things which they designate. . . . So, it is either the Father or the Son, and the day is not the same as the night; nor is the Father the same as the Son, in such a way that Both of them should be One, and One or the Other should be Both,—an opinion which the most conceited “Monarchians” maintain.22

Considering Tertullian’s robust argumentation, it seems he successfully identifies Scriptural evidence exhibiting the implicit differentiation and coexistence of the Trinitarian persons, thereby accentuating the futility of Modalism.

In addition to vehement opposition from Tertullian and Hippolytus of Rome, Christian leaders in Rome and Antioch appear to publicly condemn the doctrines Modalistic Monarchianism between AD 220 and AD 265, before subsequent church councils either implicitly or explicitly denounce the hypothesis.23  Regrettably, Modalists sought to exploit the verbiage of these rulings, requiring the Cappadocian theologians (e.g., Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) to elaborate and refine authoritative, systematic articulations of the biblical data. Illuminating this point, theologian Millard J. Erickson comments, “The Cappadocians attempted to expound the concepts of common substance and multiple separate persons by the analogy of a universal and its particulars—the individual persons of the Trinity are related to the divine substance in the same fashion as individual humans are related to the universal human (or humanity).”24

Ultimately, formulation of the Athanasian Creed renders modalistic theology outside the realm of Christian orthodoxy, unequivocally affirming the historical understanding of Trinitarian doctrine. Unambiguously, the creed delineates Christian orthodoxy as,

[The] worship [of] one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. . . . . So, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. . . . The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. . . . And in this Trinity, none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity. . . . This is the catholic [i.e., universal Christian] faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.25

Evidently, Christian leaders throughout the history of the church recognize the inability of Modalism to represent the biblical data accurately, prompting them to publicly denounce modalistic categorizations as heretical, while categorically affirming the traditional Trinitarian formulation.

 

Conclusion

Paradoxically, Scripture establishes monotheism, while simultaneously attributing divine characteristics and activities to multiple persons—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Nevertheless, rational consideration and Scriptural analysis unveil the coherence of these doctrines, while the conventional Trinitarian formulation adequately accounts for all of the biblical evidence, thereby receiving unequivocal affirmation from early Christian leaders and ecumenical councils. In contrast, Modalism fails to render a biblically faithful theological framework, proving explanatorily impotent, and appropriately receiving condemnation by early church leaders and ecumenical councils. Regrettably, some contemporary organizations preserve the unorthodox doctrines of Modalistic Monarchianism, underscoring the importance of employing proper hermeneutical methodologies, consulting of the entirety of Scripture, and practicing historical theology.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Although there is not a contiguous historical link, current Unitarian factions (e.g., United Pentecostal Church International and the United Apostolic Church) all adhere to a modalistic Christology. For additional information about the theological beliefs of United Pentecostal Church International, see R. M. Davis, and P. D. Buford, eds., Meet the United Pentecostal Church International (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1989), 59; David K. Bernard, The Oneness of God (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1983).
  2. For the purposes of this discourse, the terms Sabellianism, Patripassianism, Modalistic Monarchianism, and Modalism, refer to the fundamental doctrines of Modalistic Monarchianism (as detailed in this section) and are considered synonyms.
  3. David E. Wilhite, The Gospel according to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2015), 88-90.
  4. Adolf von Harnack,History of Dogma, ed. A. B. Bruce, trans. Neil Buchanan (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1897), 3:61.
  5. Tertullian, “Against Praxeas,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Peter Holmes (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 599.
  6. Hippolytus of Rome, “Against the Heresy of One Noetus,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, ed. Alexander Roberts, et al., trans. S. D. F. Salmond (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 223. Additionally, see Hippolythus’ comments in Hippolytus of Rome, Philosophumena or the Refutation of All Heresies, ed. W. J. Sparrow-Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke, trans. F. Legge, Translations of Christian Literature, Series I: Greek Texts, vol. 2 (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 123.
  7. Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, 3:51-52.
  8. C. Blaising, “Monarchianism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nded., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 784-785; G. T. Stokes, “Sabellianism,” in A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects, and Doctrines, ed. William Smith and Henry Wace, (London, England: John Murray, 1877-1887), 567-569; Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans, 1949), 81-83; Archibald T. Robertson, “Prolegomena,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, vol. 4 (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1892), xxiv.
  9. Ibid.; Larry A. Nichols, George A. Mather, and Alvin J. Schmidt, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Cults, Sects, and World Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 389; 423.
  10. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1108-1109; Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, 2nded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 17.
  11. Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms, 3rded. (Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International, 2002), 393. Also, see H. E. Baber, “Sabellianism Reconsidered,” Sophia 41, no. 2 (2002): 2-3.
  12. David E. Wilhite, The Gospel according to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts,93.
  13. All Scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise annotated.
  14. In fact, some theologians emphasize the plural nature of ʼĕlôhîym (אֱלֹהִים), the primary word for ‘God’ in the Old Testament, recognizing the existence of the singular alternative ʼĕl (אֵל). See Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Prolegomena, Bibliology, Theology Proper (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 264-268.
  15. Christian theologians refer to this as a Theophany or Christophany—a pre-incarnation appearance or manifestation of Jesus.
  16. Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, et al., (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 264.
  17. Further discourse regarding the ontological equivalence and personal differentiation of the Trinitarian members is available in John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), 447-473; 475-513.
  18. The Apostles imply this concept further in the introductions (cf. Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; Philemon 3; 2 Peter 1:2) and doxologies (cf. Revelation 5:13; Romans 9:5; Hebrews 13:21; 2 Peter 3:18) of New Testament letters. Rather than employing sound hermeneutical methodologies while consulting the entire biblical record, Modalists appear to leverage passages indicating ontological equality between Jesus and the Father (e.g., John 10:30) but ignore or obfuscate passages differentiating the Trinitarian persons. See David E. Wilhite, The Gospel according to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts,101; W. J. Sparrow-Simpson and W. K. Lowther Clarke, eds., Tertullian: Against Praxeas, trans. Alexander Souter, Translations of Christian Literature: Series II: Latin Texts (New York, NY: The Macmillan Company, 1920), xxi-xxiv.
  19. Articulation and analysis of Trinitarian doctrine are beyond the scope of this examination. For additional research concerning this topic, see William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes, 3rded. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2003), 219-273; Norman L. Geisler,Systematic Theology, vol. 2, God, Creation (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2003), 269-312.
  20. Most notably, all three Trinitarian persons are present, and interact with one another, at Jesus’ baptism (cf. Mark 1:8-11; Luke 3: 21-22; Matthew 3: 13-17).
  21. Tertullian, “Against Praxeas,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, 604.
  22. Ibid.
  23. David E. Wilhite, The Gospel according to Heretics: Discovering Orthodoxy through Early Christological Conflicts,87; Samuel Cheetham, “Trinity, The Holy,” in A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects, and Doctrines, 1048; Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes, vol. 1, The History of Creeds(New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1878), 28-34; Athanasius of Alexandria, “Tome or Synodal Letter to the People of Antioch,” in St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, 483-486.
  24. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 305.
  25. “Athanasian Creed,” in Historic Creeds and Confessions (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2001).

2 Responses

  1. Andrew Montaño

    Practical Application in a Contemporary Context:

    Actively considering such matters of historical debate are beneficial to every Christian and provides numerous practical applications within the context of contemporary ministry and Christian living. First, orthodox theology ought to be a primary consideration of every Christian, as we continually strive to obtain a more accurate understanding of the person, character, and will of God. Second, by understanding the shortcomings of Modalism, Christians become more effective ambassadors, capable of presenting an apologetic of orthodox Christianity, while reaching those adhering to false doctrines. Third, identifying the failures of Modalism places emphasis on the employment of proper hermeneutical methodologies, consultation of the entire Bible, and the value of practicing historical theology. Fourth, incorrect Christological perceptions produce significant theological ramifications and alter our interpretation of the gospel. Finally, a proper understanding of Trinitarian doctrine ought to impact our everyday lives—providing a healthy model for interpersonal relationships (especially in marriage and family affairs), and assisting us in ordering our prayers correctly (i.e., to the Father, in the name of the Son, through the power of the Spirit). Moreover, recognizing Jesus as the perfect representation of both God and man encourages us to study His life to emulate His attitudes and behaviors, while obtaining a better understanding of theology and anthropology.

  2. Greg Enos

    Excellent essay. I appreciate the substantial amount of attention paid to Old Testament support for the Trinity and Divinity of the Messiah, Christ. It’s important for people to know we see the Trinity all over the Old Testament, as well as the New.

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