Last week I wrote up a brief introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity. Over the next several Thursdays I’ll tackle some of the different misconceptions and myths about the Trinity. Up first: Modalism.
One of the ways that people talk (incorrectly) about God is to say that just as one man can be a father, a son, and a husband, for instance, God also reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. The result of this analogy is Modalism: The belief that there is one God who reveals Himself in three different modes. It is as if God plays three different roles; in Modalism, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all the same person.
Modalism is also known as Sabellianism, as Sabellius espoused the doctrine in the third century. In fact, it found its origin in earlier teachers, such as Praxeas [see especially Tertullian, Adversus Praxeas, ch. 1]; Sabellius simply popularized it.
In contrast to Arianism, which also taught that there was only one God but denied that Jesus was divine, Modalism does teach that Jesus Christ is fully divine. What Modalism denies is that there are distinct divine Persons. Modalism is also sometimes referred to as Patripassianism (the belief that the Father was crucified in the Son) because Modalists deny that the Father and Son are co-existent persons; thus they teach that the Father is incarnate in the mode of the Son and suffers on the Cross.
The closest modern expression of modalism is found in the Oneness Pentecostal movement. There are some significant differences, but they both deny the persons of the Trinity.
The Athanasian Creed (the best explanation of the Trinity, bar none) shows us the two errors one may fall into regarding the Trinity: “[W]e worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.” All Trinitarian heresies have their root in one of these two errors. In the case of Modalism, the Persons are confounded – they are not seen as distinct from each other.
To refute Modalism, all that must be demonstrated from Apostolic teaching is that the three Persons of the Trinity are co-existent; that is, that the Father, Son, and Spirit exist side by side at the same time. This is done simply: At the Baptism of Jesus, the Father speaks from heaven with approval of the Son, who is standing in the water, and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove (Matthew 3:13ff; Luke 3:21-22). Thus all three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are present (i.e. they exist) at the same time. The alternative, if Modalist doctrine is upheld, is that Christ was throwing His voice to speak from heaven!
You may not run into Modalism tomorrow (unless you’re reading the Book of Mormon), but it certainly functions as a good example of bad teaching. It’s still useful to us because it helps us to dig into Scripture and see what God reveals about Himself.