What Is Modalism?

Modalism or modalistic monarchianism is the belief that God exists as only one person through successive stages as Father, Son, and Spirit. In ancient modalism, the Father became the Son at the incarnation and then became the Spirit at Pentecost. In modern modalism, the primary focus is on Jesus who is the Father and the Spirit. Modalism is primarily expressed today in Oneness Pentecostalism which also teaches that a person must speak in tongues as a necessary evidence of salvation. In modalism, the Son does not exist eternally as a distinct person from the Father. Rather, they adopt a Nestorian understanding of Jesus that divides him into two persons. They argue that when Jesus was praying in John 17, it was his human nature communicating with his divine nature.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in modalism are like three masks God wears instead of three distinct persons in eternal relationship with one another (John 17:5). Modalism is a serious error because it misrepresents the gospel and who God is. The gospel is the message that God sent his only Son into the world, not that the Father became the Son (John 3:16-17; Rom 8:32). The Father and the Son must be distinct from each other for the Father to impute the sins of his people to Christ on the cross (2 Cor 5:21). The Son intercedes for us before the Father, not before himself (Rom 8:34; 1 Tim 2:5; Heb 7:25). The Holy Spirit intercedes for us in our prayers as well before the Father (Rom 8:26-27; Gal 4:6). Jesus’ words in John 16:32: “Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me” make no sense if Jesus and the Father are the same person. Jesus would have been alone if he is the same person as the Father. But the relationship between the Father and the Son is not like the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Batman. They are distinct persons in eternal fellowship with each other together with the Holy Spirit. Modalism is the most common theological error concerning the doctrine of God in the church today.

In the early church, modalism was argued for by Sabellius, Noetus, and Praxeas. The doctrine was called patripassianism which is the belief that the Father was the one who suffered and died on the cross rather than the Son. Unfortunately, we only have a few fragments from their writings which makes constructing the beliefs of early modalism difficult. Hippolytus quotes from Noetus in his work against heresies:

“When indeed, then, the Father had not been born, He yet was justly styled Father; and when it pleased Him to undergo generation, having been begotten, He Himself became His own Son, not another’s” (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 9.5).

Tertullian and Hippolytus explain the beliefs of early modalism this way:

“He maintains that there is one only Lord, the Almighty Creator of the world, in order that out of this doctrine of the unity he may fabricate a heresy. He says that the Father Himself came down into the Virgin, was Himself born of her, Himself suffered, indeed was Himself Jesus Christ” (Tertullian, Against Praxeas 1).

“He alleged that Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died” (Hippolytus, Against Noetus 1).

Hippolytus summarizes their main argument:

“Thus they say they prove that God is one. And then they answer in this manner: ‘If therefore I acknowledge Christ to be God, He is the Father Himself, if He is indeed God; and Christ suffered, being Himself God; and consequently the Father suffered, for He was the Father Himself’” (Against Noetus 2).

The argument goes like this:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Father is the Son

But this is the logical fallacy of the undistributed middle. Compare it with these counter-examples to see how it is invalid:

  1. Cats are mammals
  2. Dogs are mammals
  3. Dogs are cats
  1. Mike is human
  2. Bill is human
  3. Mike is Bill

The argument needs another premise in order to be valid that is assumed but not proven:

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. To be God is to be the Father
  4. The Father is the Son
  1. Cats are mammals
  2. Dogs are mammals
  3. To be a mammal is to be a cat
  4. Dogs are cats
  1. Mike is human
  2. Bill is human
  3. To be human is to be Mike
  4. Mike is Bill

But these arguments are incorrect because the third premise is untrue.

Modalists, like Arians, assume unitarianism is true and are unwilling to consider the possibility of trinitarianism because it seems illogical to them. They make the same fatal assumption that Arians make: the divine nature cannot be shared by more than one person or else this would result in polytheism. They ask, “How can God be one and three at the same time?” The answer is that God is one and three in different senses. He is one in nature or being and three in person. Trinitarians distinguish between person and nature because this is the pattern of Scripture (Heb 1:2-3). There is one God who exists eternally as three distinct persons sharing equally and indivisibly the one divine nature.

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