Twisted Modalism

modalIf there is one great problem (heresy) I have encountered during my four years in Baltimore Maryland it is modalism, or sometimes called  sabellianism, modalistic monarchianism, modal monarchism, or as those who I have encountered claim to believe in the oneness of god. Another way of describing it (my way) is the non-trinitarian or better yet, anti-trinitarian belief that  leads one to the worship of a false god. What exactly is modalism?

In the early Church a form of unorthodox teaching on the Trinity which denied the permanence of the three Persons and maintained that the distinctions in the Godhead were only transitory. Among its leading exponents were Praxeas, Noetus, and Sabellius. It was a form of Monarchianism and also known as Patripassianism. There is only one person in God who represents himself in the roles of three persons. Michael Horton simply defines it, “they believe there is only one person in God who represents himself in the roles of three persons.”

Acts 2:38 reads, And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Believing that there is only one person of the Godhead who manifests Himself in three ways as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Oneness Pentecostals appeal to this verse along with Acts 8:16, 19:5, and Mt 28:19 as support. In doing so they embrace modalism, an anti-Trinitarian heresy that was condemned by the Synod of Smyrna in a.d. 200. The Nicene and Athanasian creeds also condemn modalism. The Scriptures are full of references to the triune nature of God (see Mt 3:16–17; Lk 1:35; Jn 14:26). More than 60 NT verses mention the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the same verse. The members of the Godhead are co-existent and co-equal, one in essence and yet three in person.

R.C. Sproul has written on modalism the following,

One of the first of these heretical movements that emerged in the third and fourth centuries was monarchianism. Few people are acquainted with this theological term, but the root word is quite familiar: monarch. When we think about a monarch, we think of a ruler of a nation, a king or a queen. If we break down the word monarch, we find that it consists of a prefix, mono, which means “one,” coupled with the word arch, which comes from the Greek arche. This word could mean “beginning”; for instance, it appears in the prologue of John’s gospel, when the apostle writes, “In the beginning was the Word.” But it also could mean “chief or ruler.” So, a monarch was a single ruler, and a monarchy was a system of rule by one. Monarchianism, then, was the attempt to preserve the unity of God, or monotheism. The first great heresy that the church had to confront with respect to monarchianism was called “modalistic monarchianism” or simply “modalism.” The idea behind modalism was that all three persons of the Trinity are the same person, but that they behave in unique “modes” at different times. Modalists held that God was initially the Creator, then became the Redeemer, then became the Spirit at Pentecost. The divine person who came to earth as the incarnate Jesus was the same person who had created all things. When He returned to heaven, He took up His role as the Father again, but then returned to earth as the Holy Spirit. As you can see, the idea here was that there is only one God, but that He acts in different modes, or different expressions, from time to time. The chief proponent of modalism was a man named Sabellius. According to one ancient writer, Sabellius illustrated modalism by comparing God to the sun. He noted that the sun has three modes: its form in the sky, its light, and its warmth. By way of analogy, he said, God has various modes: the form corresponds to the Father, the light is the Son, and the warmth is the Spirit.

A second form of monarchianism that appeared was called “dynamic monarchianism” or “adoptionism.” This school of thought was also committed to preserving monotheism, but its adherents wanted to give honor and central importance to the person of Christ. Those who propagated this view held that at the time of creation, the first thing God made was the Logos, after which the Logos created everything else. So the Logos is higher than human beings and even angels. He is the Creator, and He predates all things except God. But He is not eternal, because He Himself was created by God, so He is not equal with God. In time, according to adoptionism, the Logos became incarnate in the person of Jesus. In His human nature, the Logos was one with the Father in terms of carrying out the same mission and working toward the same goals. He was obedient to the Father, and because of His obedience, the Father “adopted” Him. Thus, it is proper to call the Logos the Son of God. However, He became the Son of God dynamically. There was a change. He was not always the Son of God, but His Sonship was something He earned. Those who defended this view cited such biblical statements as “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). They also argued that the New Testament’s descriptions of Christ as “begotten” carry the implication that He had a beginning in time, and anything that has a beginning in time is less than God, because God has no beginning. In short, they believed the Logos is like God, but He is not God. These views prompted the first of the ecumenical councils, the Council of Nicea, which met in AD 325. This council produced the Nicene Creed, which affirms that Christ is “the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds,” and that He was “begotten, not made.” It further declares that He is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God … being of one substance with the Father.” With these affirmations, the church said that scriptural terms such as firstborn and begotten have to do with Christ’s place of honor, not with His biological origin. The church declared that Christ is of the same substance, being, and essence as the Father. Thus, the idea was put forth that God, though three in person, is one in essence.

Maybe those that are so willing to allow such belief a part of their protestantism could address such understanding like that of the Athanasian Creed, Section 28—“He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity” (Qui vult ergo salvus esse, ita de Trinitate sentiat). The error of modalistic monarchianism is in their (blind) focusing on the oneness of God, holding to a strict undefendable definition of oneness to the exclusion of the mass of Biblical proof of the distinction of God. United Pentecostals and Apostolic’s (like Sabellius did) focus solely on the oneness passages (Deut 6:4 & Jn 10:38) to the exclusion of the wealth of scripture that shows the oneness of God is best understood in terms of unity rather than a specific number.


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