Ad Gloriam Dei

"Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." - 1 Corintians 10:31

"Let us pursue the things which make for peace and those by which one may edify another"- Romans 14:19

"As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend." - Proverbs 27:17

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Against Modalism 1: Defining the Debate

In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Such is the united historic Confession of Faith of the English-speaking Presbyterian, Baptist and Congregationalist Churches together with all who adhere to the orthodox faith. This Confession reflects the teaching confessed from ancient times in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.

The doctrine of the Trinity is a fundamental doctrine of the Church, necessary for salvation in its essentials, yet throughout the ages various heretics choose (hairesis) to depart from "the faith once delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).

Continually heretics assail the doctrine of God's being, whether it is the polytheism of Mormonism, or the Arianism of the so-called Jehovah's Witnesses. The Arians are one sub-group of the Unitarians. Unitarians are those who believe that there is one God, but deny that there are three persons (for want of a better word) or subsistences in the one God. Another sub-group of the Unitarians are the Modalists.

What is Modalism? Modalists believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three distinct persons in the one God, but three different manifestations of the one Divine person, or God. There are variations within Modalism: some see Jesus as the human manifestation of the Father; and others see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as different manifestations of Jesus.

The Modalism that I will examine sees Jesus as the human manifestation of the Father, and as the only begotten of the Father, or Son of God, in that sense. The Son is a manifestation that did not exist prior to the Incarnation.

Modalism is also known as Sabellianism, Modalistic Monarchianism, Patripassianism and Oneness Theology. Sabellianism refers to a well-known Modalist in the Early Church, Sabellius; Monarchianism and Oneness refer to the emphasis on the 'oneness' of God the ruler to the extinction of the three persons; and Patripassianism refers to the belief that the Father died on the Cross as Jesus was just a mode of the Father.

In our own day the best-known Modalists are the Oneness Pentecostals, who originated at a camp meeting in 1913 (esp. the United Pentecostal Church International, see here for a good outline of their views), and in Northern Ireland the best-known (former) representative is James McConnell of the Metropolitan Tabernacle at Whitewell in Belfast, who has now accepted Trinitarianism. (He did not make public confession for his sin and continues to talk about 54 years of 'faithful' ministry. For a long-time the 'Christ-centredness' of Whitewell was something other than many thought, e.g. in 1984, the 'faithful pastor' says, "The [Socinian] Unitarians make little of Jesus... the Trinitarians make much of Jesus... this church makes all of Jesus!" See John Montgomery's Evangelical or Heretical: An Examination of the Churches of God in Ulster.)

It might be useful to quote the official statement of the UPCI as one form of Modalist creed:

Oneness of God

In distinction to the doctrine of the Trinity, the UPCI holds to a oneness view of God. It views the Trinitarian concept of God, that of God eternally existing as three distinctive persons, as inadequate and a departure from the consistent and emphatic biblical revelation of God being one.

The UPCI teaches that the one God who revealed Himself in the Old Testament as Jehovah revealed himself in His Son, Jesus Christ. Thus Jesus Christ was and is God. In other words, Jesus is the one true God manifested in flesh, for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (John 1:1-14; I Timothy 3:16; Colossians 2:9).

While fully God, Jesus was also fully man, possessing a full and true humanity. He was both God and man. Moreover, the Holy Spirit is God with us and in us. Thus God is manifested as Father in creation and as the Father of the Son, in the Son for our redemption, and as the Holy Spirit in our regeneration.

A fuller outline of UPCI beliefs may be found here.

This series of articles has arisen out of an attempt to call some Modalists to flee from their self-destructive beliefs.

We must approach the study of the being of God with humility and care, and fear and trembling because He is the awesome Lord of Hosts. Nevertheless, as Charles Hodge states in his Systematic Theology, the "distinct personality [of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit] is one of the most clearly revealed doctrines of the Word of God. Sabellianism was, therefore, soon almost universally rejected."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I welcome your study. Speaking as one of those in the 'false doctrine', I have yet to see true scriptural proof that a 'trinity' exists in the Godhead, but I have been wrong before and welcome any attempt to show me the error of my ways!

Monday, April 07, 2008 2:57:00 pm  

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