Monday, October 20, 2008

One Person or Three? Does it Matter?

One of the early distortions of the doctrine of the Trinity was modalism, a view of the Godhead articulated by Noetus and Praxeas in the second century and Sabellius in the third. Modalism (rhymes with commode-alism, a severe stomach malady) asserts that God is one person (not three) who plays different roles in his interaction with creation. In other words, the one-person God wears three different masks, like an actor in a Greek drama playing three different roles, or like a single actor in vaudeville playing Larry, Mo, and Curley all by himself. You get the idea, don't you? Sometimes God wears the Father mask; at other times, the Son or Spirit mask, and like that.

The more technically minded among our readers will want to know that there are two variants of modalism (McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 328, 329): 1) Functional modalism (associated with Praxeas). In this version, the three "persons" of the Godhead are merely three roles played by the one God at any given point in time. So the one person God switches masks as the need arises. (Could get confusing don't you think?) 2) Chronological modalism (associated with Sabellius): God plays successive roles at different times in salvation history. It's like he's the Father for a few centuries or so, then he's the incarnate Son for a relatively short while, and then he's the Spirit. (Talk about identity crisis!) In either case, the "three persons" of the Trinity are really just different aspects of the activity of the one-person God. That's the main point: for the modalists, God is one person, not three.

There is an obvious problem with modalism, however, and I know you astute readers out there have already figured it out (except for one or two, and you know who you are!): Modalism makes it look like Jesus was praying to himself in the Garden, like he was some sort of split-personality type. So what did he do? Answer himself by lowering his voice? The modalists have a problem there. But it gets even worse: Since modalism portrays God as one person playing three roles with no real distinction between the Father and Son, the ghastly but inevitable corollary is patripassianism, the heretical notion that the Father, incarnate in Jesus, suffered on the cross (O'Collins, Tripersonal God, 86). And that throws the Gospel passion story all out of whack!

Patripassianism notwithstanding, however, what's the problem with modalism anyway? Were the modalists bad men who wanted to start a cult? Or did they have legitimate, though mistaken, reasons for their assertions? Here's the deal: Because they were big on monotheism, the modalists feared that to assert the Son was a distinct person from the Father would sound like Christians were wild-eyed orgiastic polytheists who believed in more than one God. Not only that, the modalists wanted to guard the "unity" or "one principle" (mone-arche, "monarchy") of the Godhead by eschewing (huh?) any hint of division in God. In the Hellenistic philosophical milieu of the day, God was considered simple; hence, any suggestion of a division of the divine essence was verboten (Did you notice that I used a French word and a German word in the same sentence?) In other words, the modalists didn't like the idea that God was more than one person because that was like saying the divine "substance" (Greek: ousia or "essence") of God could be divided up, just like when you slice a 12-inch pizza into palm-sized pieces. To equate God with a cosmic pepperoni was not cool for the modalists.

Now you may think that modalism is an out of date, old-fashioned heresy that happened long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away; but there's where you're wrong Chewbacca! Fiddes (Participating in God, 4) cites a 1984 study in Great Britain wherein participants were asked, "How is it that God is three persons in one?" The typical answer for one-third of the sample surveyed was that "the three are one person: they're all one person." So you see, modalism is still with us. As preachers and teachers we have to wonder how many of our congregants are modalists without even realizing it.

To be sure, there are boo-coo (Cajun for the French "beaucoup") problems with modalism. Bloesch (God Almighty, 172) says that the modalists could affirm an economic Trinity, that is, a threefoldness in God's relationship to the world (aka oikonomia). They could not, however, affirm an ontological Trinity, that is, a threefoldness in God's eternal being (aka theologia). To put it in a bit more high-browed fashion, modalism asserts that God's revelation in salvation history as Father, Son, and Spirit is threefold only in relation to us and is not, therefore, indicative of the eternal being of God (I like that last phrase.). In plain speak, the modalists understood that God has revealed himself in time and space, that is, in salvation history (oikonomia), as Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet they couldn't bring themselves to believe that that's how God really and truly is in his eternal, intradivine nature (theologia). So the modalists ended up with a Trinity of names, but not a Trinity of persons.

Modalism leaves us with no knowledge of who God is eternally while it undermines God's faithfulness, for we cannot be sure God truly is as he has revealed himself in Christ. In short, modalism severs the vital connection between theologia (God in his eternal, intradivine relations) and oikonomia (God as revealed to us in salvation history). Let's do that again: Modalism severs the connection between God in se and God pro nobis. One more time: Modalism severs the connection between God ad intra and God ad extra. WARNING: Do not repeat these words to your spouse unless you are prepared to be taken as a fruitcake. I should know!

Now let's get down to the real nitty-gritty. There is a major, major problem in modalism. I expect many of you readers have already figured it out, but there's one or two of you that I know pretty well who ain't got it yet (you know who you are and so do I). So here's the deal. Let's start with the Apostle John's beautiful description of who God is. John says, "God is love." For John, love is not something God does, nor is it an attribute (characteristic) or accident (in the Aristotelian sense) of God's nature. God is love. The very essence of God is love. Love is who God is. Period. (And I don't want to hear any strident screams about "holiness" defined legally. Forget about it! Most of the readers of this blog will know what I mean.) But I digress.

Now then, what is love? There's no better place to find the answer to that question than in the apostle Paul's memorable treatise on love (1 Cor 13). According to Paul, love is patient, kind, gentle, does not seek its own, does not keep any record of wrongs. Notice that Paul is describing love in interpersonal terms (I have to thank my homey, theologian Robert Lucas, Ph.D., for that one). No wonder Paul describes love in interpersonal terms, for love, by its very nature, requires another. If God were only one person, as the modalists say, then God's love would be self-love, and that we call narcissism, not love. 

Moreover (you can tell I'm getting serious now), if God is a unipersonal monad, God cannot be eternally love; rather, God becomes love when he creates, thus making love an accidental quality of God rather than constitutive of the divine nature (I love that phrase!). Not only that, we cannot be certain whether creation exists merely to fill a need in God. If God is unipersonal, he may create out of a need for community. In that case, creation would not be God's free and gracious act for us but rather a self-fulfilling act in order to fill the one-person God's need for community. 

Finally, if God is aloof, remote, isolated, and alone (as Greek philosophy maintains) then we cannot be certain of God's purpose in creating us. Said another way, there are soteriological consequences to the modalists' assertion that God is unipersonal rather than tripersonal. Because God is a tripersonal fellowship of love, we can rest assured that God is favorably disposed to his creation. We cannot have that certainty if God is unipersonal rather than a triune fellowship of love. So you see, whether God is one person or three makes a difference—a lot of difference. I think our eternal destinies depend on the difference.

Let me close with a beautiful quote from John Sanders (The God Who Risks, 148) that bears upon our topic: "The Father can beget the Son because the Father, as personal, has self-emptying love for another. God is then not alone, in isolation from relationships, but eternally related within the Godhead as Trinity. God is then not an 'in-itself,' apart from others, but the epitome of love in relation." Wow! 

Thank you Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! Your threefold self-revelation in salvation history (oikonomia) allows us to rest in the assurance that all your triune activities toward the world derive from your compassionate heart of love. Amen.

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  1. Hi! Stumbled upon your blogpost today and enjoyed the clarification you give between modalists and trinitarians. I'm guessing you are well aware, but just in case you're not, modalism is quite prevalent today and is taught stringently in some pentecostal churches, the United Pentecostal Church for one. The UPC considers it's modalist view of the Godhead to be a more complete revelation and believes the Trinity model is a heresy. We were members of an independent local church whose pastor's background was UPC. Anyone who came forward for baptism was taught this view along with the necessity of a re-baptism in Jesus name only.

    It was good to read your explanation of modalism's inherent problems and limitations. I appreciate understanding God as being an interraltional 3-person being who IS love without beginning or end.

    Thanks so much for your excellent effort at explaining why modalism doesn't work.


  2. Thanks, Erika. I'm glad you "stumbled upon" the blog. I hope you'll drop in again on a regular basis.


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