The doctrine of the Trinity says that God is one but exists as three persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each of whom is fully God. So far in my consideration of it I’ve looked at Old Testament intimations of and New Testament evidence for the Trinity and provided Biblical evidence for each of these statements about it: (1) God is three persons, (2) Each person is fully God, and (3) There is one God. However at least the first two of these statements have been challenged in the past and are denied today by groups calling themselves Christian. In this and my next few posts I’ll consider some errors that have arisen through denying one or more of the three statements.
I’ll begin with modalism, which claims that instead of being three persons, God is one person who has appeared to us in three different modes (forms). Yesterday in our after-breakfast Bible reading time my family and I read the section on modalism in Chapter 14, “God in Three Persons: The Trinity,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994). This post builds on my family’s reading and discussion of that section. My family’s next discussion and my next post here will focus on a modern Protestant denomination that affirms modalism.
Modalism is sometimes called Sabellianism after a teacher who lived in Rome in the early third century A.D., Sabellius. According to modalism, God is not three persons but one person who appears in different modes at different times. He appeared as “the Father” in Old Testament times, as “the Son” in the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, and as “the Spirit” after Pentecost.
Modalism is attractive because it emphasizes that there is only one God. Thus it can claim support from Bible passages which affirm that God is one, several of which I cited in my last post, “The Trinity – There Is One God.” It can also claim support from passages like John 10:30, “I and my Father are one” (ESV; all Bible quotations are from the ESV), and John 14:9, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” However, as Grudem points out, in both passages Jesus can be understood as just affirming that he and the Father are one in purpose and character rather than that they are one person.
On the other hand modalism must deny the personal relationships between the persons of the Trinity that the Bible describes. For example, at Jesus’ baptism he (the Son) was baptized, the Father spoke from heaven, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove (Matthew 4:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). Other examples referred to by Grudem are Jesus’ praying to the Father, his or the Holy Spirit’s interceding for us before the Father, and the separate roles played by the Father and the Son in providing for our salvation.
One present Protestant denomination, the United Pentecostal Church, is modalist. Because of its denying that there are three persons in God, Grudem expresses doubt that it should be considered genuinely Christian. I’ll consider his claim in my next post.