Monday, April 19, 2010

Trinity 101 - Modalism

One of the things I often find myself wanting to say to my Muslim friends when describing the Trinity is this: “Of course God is one!  It’s just that he manifests himself in different ways at different times.  Sometimes we see him as Father, sometimes as Jesus, and sometimes as Holy Spirit.”

Now this would be fine to say IF one were to leave out the “at different times” part.  To argue that God manifests himself in different ways (Father, Son, Spirit) is perfectly fine.  But to say that he does this at different times (as if to say that he can only be one “mode” of himself at a time) is heresy.  What makes Modalism (or most any heretical teaching on the Trinity) so attractive is that it makes sense to the human mind.  It seems logical that God could only be one person in himself, and manifest himself as different “modes” at different times.  But this sounds a lot more like the Hindu god Vishnu than the God of the Bible!  For he was, is, and always will be at one and the same time, three distinct persons.  Indeed he manifests himself in these various ways (as Father, Son, and Spirit) but never does he manifest one person and cease to exist as the other two.  All three persons of the Godhead are continually active at all times - even if we are only focusing
on one particular person at any given time.  Wayne Grudem summarizes below:

    Modalism claims that there is one person who appears to us in
    three different forms (or “modes”). At various times people have
    taught that God is not really three distinct persons, but only one person
    who appears to people in different “modes” at different times. For example,
    in the Old Testament God appeared as “Father.” Throughout the
    Gospels, this same divine person appeared as “the Son” as seen in the human
    life and ministry of Jesus. After Pentecost, this same person then revealed
    himself as the “Spirit” active in the church.  (Systematic Theology, p. 287)

Modalism was advocated in the early church by a priest from Rome named Sabellius (c. 215 AD).  Sabellius did not see any real distinction between the Father and the Son, arguing that they were the same person who manifested himself in different ways.  Thus  Tertullian labeled Sabellius’ teaching as “Patripassianism,” meaning, “the Father suffered” (on the cross) - since Sabellius made no distinction in personhood in the Trinity.  I find that this is something Muslims say all the time.  They assume that if Jesus is God, that means God suffered on the cross, and no one was running the universe for three days while he was dead.  But this is not Christian orthodoxy!  We mustn’t let our Muslim friends think modalistically about God.  We must affirm the full deity of Christ while at the same time affirming the real distinctions of personhood within the Trinity which account for Christ dying as the Father continued to “run the universe!” 

Sabellius' teaching that God is indivisible within himself is a lot like the Islamic doctrine of tawhid (the absolute oneness of God).  Tawhid of course, denies any distinction of personhood within God, which makes God much less complex and much more logical to the human mind.  But we must strive to help our Muslim friends see that God cannot be reduced to human logic.  And while we should not fail to use logic to try and comprehend the awesomeness of his triune nature and personhood, we must humbly admit that the God of Scripture defies our best attempts to reduce him to our logic, and delves into the realm of mystery - the depths of which we will plumb for all eternity!  Besides, who would want to worship God if we could reduce him to human logic?

This is why we must thank Church fathers like Tertullian who, while they did not themselves fully understand the Trinity, were bold enough to stand against teachings like those of Sabellius that clearly contradicted Scripture.  Yet we must not sit in judgment on men like Sabellius either, for he was only a man who was doing his best to describe the indescribable.  It follows then, that we should not sit in judgment on our Muslim friends either.  Instead, we should walk hand in hand with them as we uncover the mysteries of God’s three-in-oneness together.


Warrick Farah said...

Thanks! That was edifying and interesting.

One illustration I have heard kingdom workers use with Muslims is, "I am a father, a son, and a husband- but I am one person!"

This is an illustration of modalism and should not be used to share the tri-unity of God with anyone, including Muslims.

Anonymous said...


AT said...

Thanks for illuminating the beauty of our relational God as He is displayed in the distinct persons of the Trinity.

The Father, son, husband illustration sounds a bit like the Triune god (little g) of Oneness Pentecostals too.