…while orthodoxy teaches that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons in the one God, the modalists maintain that these are merely tags attached to the successive and varied manifestations of the one God.
While the influence of dynamic monarchianism (p13 MM Oct 2013) was somewhat limited and short-lived, that of modalistic monarchianism was markedly different. The latter was able to simultaneously and consistently affirm the unity of God and the deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, making it a most formidable alternative to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
Modalism is associated with the second-century theologian Noetus of Smyrna, and Praxeas, a shadowy figure whose real identity and origin is shrouded in mystery. But the most prominent advocate of modalism was Sabellius, who rose to renown in the early years of the third century. Thus, modalism is also called Sabellianism, named after its most sophisticated advocate.
The modalists wanted to see if there was a way of affirming the full deity of the Son without compromising the unity of God. They were dissatisfied with the orthodox understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit).
They maintain that by insisting on the distinction between the Father and the Son, orthodoxy is in fact affirming a plurality of Gods. As J. N. D. Kelly puts it:
“Any suggestion that the Word or Son was other than, or a distinct Person from, the Father, seemed to the modalists … to lead inescapably to the blasphemy of two Gods.” Thus, to the modalists, the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity simply endorses tritheism, the belief in three gods.
To avoid this mistake, the modalists taught that in the Bible the one God is designated variously as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means that these terms – Father, Son, Spirit – do not refer to three persons in the one Godhead, as orthodox theology asserts. Rather, they refer to the three modes (hence, the term “modalist”) that the one God has appeared in at different times. Father, Son and Spirit do not point to real distinctions: they are merely names given to the one God.
Put differently, while orthodoxy teaches that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons in the one God, the modalists maintain that these are merely tags attached to the successive and varied manifestations of the one God. As Millard Erickson puts it crisply: “The modalistic solution to the paradox of threeness and oneness was, then, not three persons, but one person with three different names, roles, or activities.”
This is the grand idea that is differently articulated in the teachings of all the modalists. For example, Sabellius uses the analogy of the sun and its rays to explain this.
Just as the sun – a single object – radiates both warmth and light, so God the Father emanates the Son and the Spirit. Furthermore, the Son and the Spirit, according to Sabellius, can be projected and then withdrawn (like the sun’s rays). Thus, God projected Himself first as creator and Father, then as the redeemer in the Son, and finally as the bestower of grace in the Spirit. Stretching the modalist logic to its limits, Praxeas even asserted that it was the Father Himself who entered the Virgin’s womb, since He is identical with the Son.
The great Church Father, Tertullian, whom some scholars have recognised as the first theologian of the Western Church, rejected Praxeas’ modalism in a treatise entitled Adversus Praxeam (“Against Praxeas”). Alluding to passages such as John 1, Proverbs 8, and Psalm 2 and 45, Tertullian insists that Scripture clearly speaks of the real difference between the Father and the Son.
In his attempt to clearly present the Church’s understanding of God, Tertullian introduced several terms that would eventually become the technical language of orthodoxy concerning the Trinity. Tertullian maintains that God is one substance (Latin: substantia) in three persons (Latin: personae), where “substance” points to unity while “persons” signals the distinctions within the Godhead.
Tertullian is well aware of the fact that these concepts commandeered from philosophy are not unproblematic when used to describe God, and as such are not entirely adequate for the task. But in their limited ways they do enable the Church to clarify the Bible’s witness to the God who has disclosed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so to refute the modalist heresy.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.