Ice, ice, baby. (image credit)
A reader emailed me this question, and I thought others would be interested in my (attempt at) an answer. Also, this is a good chance to review and summarize some of my previous postings on modalism.
I was wondering if you could read [the following] and tell me what I was believing? (I think it might have been a form of Modalism) Also, I search everywhere and find that Modalism is wrong, but no explanations specifically why. Can you help me out on some links explaining that?
…I used to believe there was one God. He sometimes is called Father, sometimes called Jesus, and sometimes called the Holy Spirit. And sometimes called all at the same time. In addition to existing outside of space / time he entered our world in physical form into a specific time as Jesus. In addition to his physical form he is simultaneously in all things in our time / reality while also being beyond time. I used to think the Trinity meant God manifesting himself simultaneously as God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit. I largely understood Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Titles (as opposed to names). I also understood everything in terms of manifestations (Like Ice, Liquid Water, and Steam are all manifestations of H2O) I have never before had a problem with thinking God could manifest himself in all three forms at the same time. (In fact, I often wondered whether there are other forms we will never know about).
To summarize: To me it’s been Titles (instead of Names) and Forms (instead of Modes). There is a prophecy in Isaiah about Jesus with a whole bunch of additional names (Redeemer, Father, etc). That’s what I used to believe until in discussion with someone I realized that’s not what the Trinity is supposed to be. So – what was it I was believing? As to what I believe now — I don’t honestly know. (from reader email, emphasis added)
I feel your pain! There is much unclarity about “Modalism”. I think many theologians use the word as just label for a heresy – whatever it was that was condemned by the church Fathers – so it is by definition heretical and wrong, whatever it is. They particularly associate it with the third century figure Sabellius, who (according to a standard picture, one which is supported by scanty evidence) held that the three persons of the Trinity were ways in which God serially (one after the other) interacts with us. This is typically refuted by pointing out some biblical text in which the three persons are active simultaneously.
Sometimes theologians say that modalism is one way of holding that God “is unipersonal”, whereas true trinitarianism holds that God “is tripersonal”. However, often their three “persons” turn out to be no more that modes of the one divine person (God).
All this leaves unclear, as you complain, precisely what “Modalism” is, and what is wrong with it. Is it the serial nature of the persons/modes which is the problem? (That’s easy to fix!) Or is it that the persons aren’t essential to God, or that they aren’t intrinsic to God’s nature, or what? Further, how does standard, Athanasian-creed trinitarianism differ exactly?
In my work, I use “modalism” as a neutral and descriptive term. (See here.) A trinitarian theory is “modalist” if it identifies one or more of the persons of the Trinity with God, or considers one or more persons of the Trinity to be modes of God, i.e. ways God exists or lives.
So “modalism” isn’t some one theory, but it is rather a whole family of theories. We have to say what is a mode of what, and also what we mean by “mode”. So I talk about F-modalism (that the Father is a mode of God) or FSH-modalism (that all three are modes of God), etc. And the “modes” may be sequential or not, essential or not, intrinsic or not. Sabellianism, as defined above, would be but one kind of modalism.
So using “modalist” in this neutral way, many more or less mainstream theologians are modalists of various sorts. (As I’ve noted several times, such as here.) And modalism particularly comes to the fore when Christians want to emphasize to Muslims or Jews how monotheistic they are. Modalism is a friend to monotheism, because it reduces the status, as it were, of one or more of the persons. They aren’t additional gods, no – they are simply modes of the one God OR they just are God, referred to in different ways, such as by various names or titles. Either way, they are not divine beings distinct from God – either they’re not in the same sense divine (because they’re modes) are they are fully divine, but are just (identical to) God.
To answer your questions:
- Yes, you were a FSH modalist. No, you were not a Modalist (“Sabellian”) in the common theological usage, because you didn’t believe in serial modes.
- I’m not quite sure how to take your talk of “manifestations”. If I understand you, your three modes seem to be eternally concurrent, but the ice analogy suggests they’re what I call “noumenal” modes (ways God is), whereas the talk of appearing to us in these ways suggests “phenomenal” modes (ways God appears). If they’re to be essential to God’s nature, they’d have to be the former.
- You say you put it in terms of Title, not Names, and Forms, not Modes. Well, both titles and names are singular referring terms – words or collections of words which refer to individuals. Your saying Forms and not Modes may suggest that you wanted your modes to be ways God is, and not merely ways in which God appears.
- I take it that you’re worried about whether your former view was orthodox. Well, that’s simply unclear. Different theologians, probably even within your specific tradition, would probably answer both ways. However, in my view, that’s an issue you shouldn’t be hung up about.
- What’s wrong with this sort of modalism? Many theologians would say: nothing. What I say, is that any form of modalism which implies modalism about the Son is inconsistent with the New Testament. See here and here. About the first argument, I’ll issue a caveat about premise 6 in the proof. IF you have a metaphysics, according to which every person just is a mode of some entity, then maybe one can deny this premise. I was assuming that persons aren’t modes, because they are neither events nor states of affairs.
My only advice about what you should think now is this. Do you think the Bible is divinely inspired? (I do.) If so, then revisit it, as you continue to think about all this, and decide which approach to the Trinity fits best with it, all things considered. In my view, it’s an anchor in a storm of mind-wearying speculations. Even if it’s not so precise as to require one fully developed theory of the Trinity, it can, most would agree, rule out many of the competitors.
So, dear Reader? Does that help any? Feel free to reply either in the comments or by email.