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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Trinity: One God in Three Persons

Don Stewart :: Does the One God Have Three Different Modes?

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Does the One God Have Three Different Modes? (Modalism and Sabellianism)

The Trinity: One God in Three Persons – Question 21

The Bible says that there are three distinct persons which makeup the Godhead. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons.

Yet, there have been those in the history of the church who have denied the distinctiveness of the members of the Trinity. One such belief is known as Modalism, or Sabellianism. It constitutes an inadequate view of the natureof the God of the Bible.

The doctrine arose from a bishop in the early church named Sabellius. He had an improper understanding concerning the makeup of the Trinity. From his wrong understanding this heretical or non-biblical view of the nature of God developed. It is important that we understand where he went wrong, and what the Bible teaches about God’s nature.

Modalism Defined

Sabellius taught that only one God exists. This is the biblical view. However, he mistakenly taught that the three persons listed in the Bible, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are different modes or manifestations of the one God. Modalists understand the word “person” to mean a representation of God. As one human being may be a father, son, and husband at the same time, yet the person is only one individual, so it is true with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There are not any distinct Persons within the nature of the one God from the modalistic point of view. It is Unitarian in that it accepts only one Person in the Godhead.

Therefore, Modalism teaches that sometimes God is Father, at other times He is Son, and at times He is the Spirit. However, He is never all three of them at the same time.

Modalism is sometimes known as “Modalistic Monarchianism.” The reason for this designation is that God revealed Himself as a supreme monarch in His different modes. Since there is only one supreme Monarch in the universe, God must be one in number, never three.

There are a number of points that need to be made about this doctrine of Modalism:

Modalism Attempts to Preserve the Unity of God

Originally the intent of Modalism was to preserve monotheism (that is the belief in the existence of the unity of the one God) while still holding to the divinity of Jesus Christ. But the Trinity of Modalism is a Trinity of “manifestation.” This means that the three personalities are expressions, or manifestations, of the one Person of God.

God Appeared in Different Modes in Scripture

According to Modalism, God appeared as the Father in the Old Testament, He appeared as the Son or Redeemer in the four gospels, and He appeared as the Holy Spirit after the Day of Pentecost. It was the same God who assumed these different modes during these different historical periods. He used these different modes so that He could relate to the people.

Biblical Support for Modalism

Modalism appeals to the Bible to support it doctrine. The following passages are used for support of the modalistic position.

In the Gospel of John, we find that Jesus said that He and the Father were one:

“I and My Father are one.” (John 10:30 NKJV)

This is interpreted to mean that they were the same Person. In other words, there is no distinction between them.

Jesus also said that the one who had seen Him had already seen the Father. On the night of His betrayal He revealed this truth. We read,

Jesus replied, “Philip, don’t you even yet know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking to see him?” (John 14:9 NLT)

This supposedly means that Jesus is exactly the same Person as the Father because whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father.

Response: The Passages Do Not Support Modalism

However, these passages do not teach Modalism. Jesus was one with the Father in the sense they are one in purpose. Indeed, He made it clear that He was always doing the Father’s will. Jesus made this claim:

“And the one who sent me is with me—he has not deserted me. For I always do those things that are pleasing to him.” (John 8:29 NLT)

Jesus always does the things which please the Father. This is not pleasing Himself! He is one with the Father in the sense they have a unified will, not that they are the same Person.

Jesus’ statement to Philip, about seeing Him is same as seeing the Father, emphasizes the fact that Jesus reflected the Father while He was here upon the earth. He is not saying that He is the same Person as God the Father. The writer to the Hebrews said,

He is the radiance of His glory, the exact expression of His nature, and He sustains all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. (Hebrews 1:3 HCSB)

Jesus is the exact representation of God but He is not God the Father.

In John 10:30, where Jesus said He and the Father are one, Jesus affirms that He will accomplish all that the Father has given Him to do. They are one in purpose but they are not the same Person.

Consequently, neither of these passages cited by Modalists as support for their view is actually commenting upon the nature of God. Instead, they are speaking of the way in which Jesus acts in relationship to the Father. He is one in purpose with the Father and always reflects the Father’s glory and being but He is not the Father.

The Problems with Modalism

There are a number of problems with Modalism. They include the following:

1. The Father and Son Are Distinct: They Are Not the Same Person

For a variety of reasons, Modalism does not fit the biblical facts. It denies the personal distinctions within the Trinity. The Bible says that the Father and Son are distinct centers of consciousness, or Persons.

The Father Loves the Son

For example, the Bible says the Father loves the Son. John wrote,

The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. (John 3:35 ESV)

The Father is not showing love to Himself.

Jesus restated this truth:

The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. (John 5:20 NRSV)

The Father is said to be giving love to a distinct a Person from Himself, the Son Jesus Christ.

The Father Sent the Son

Scripture says the Father sent the Son. On the Day of His resurrection, when Jesus appeared to His disciples, He promised that He would send them as the Father had sent Him:

He spoke to them again and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21 NLT).

He did not send Himself.

The Bible also says the Son returned to the Father,

“Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said, “for I haven’t yet ascended to the Father. But go find my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.” (John 20:17 NLT)

The Son did not return to Himself. He returned to a distinct Person.

The Father Sent the Holy Spirit

The Bible says Father sends the Holy Spirit. Jesus, on the night of His betrayal, told His disciples about this promise from God the Father:

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26 ESV)

Again, He is not sending Himself.

Jesus Did Not Pray to Himself

If the Father, Son, and Spirit are the one God under three different names or modes, then the New Testament would be totally inconsistent, and confusing.

For example, in the prayer of Jesus Christ, recorded in John 17, He is addressing His Father. According to Modalism, He is praying to Himself. Such an idea is absurd.

Jesus Did Not Acknowledge Himself at His Baptism

At Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God the Father was heard:

And there came a voice from heaven: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him! (Matthew 3:17 HCSB)

This was not the voice of Jesus saying that He was pleased with Himself. It was the voice of a distinct Person, God the Father, who was acknowledging the Son.

2. God Is a Changing God in Modalism

Modalism undermines the Biblical teaching that God never changes for it portrays a God who changes His modes. The Bible pictures God as unchanging in His being:

For I am the LORD, I change not... (Malachi 3:6a KJV).

While God’s actions may differ because of changing circumstances with humanity, He never changes in His nature or being.

3. Modalism Takes Away from the Work of Christ

Furthermore, Modalism takes away from the work of Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that Jesus is a mediator between God and humanity:

For there is one God and one mediator between God and man, a man, Christ Jesus... (1 Timothy 2:5 HCSB)

The Modalistic view of God, that the Father and Son are the same person, would have God mediating between Himself. This is not biblical, or logical.

4. Modalism Denies God’s Independence

The God of Modalism would have had no one to communicate with until he created humanity. This means that humanity was created to meet some need in this God. However, the God of the Bible has no such need. There was love and communication within the Godhead by the different Persons of the Trinity. Therefore, the creation of the human race met no such need in God. Modalism denies the personal relationships within the Trinity.

Consequently, when Modalism is weighed in the balances it is found wanting.

Summary – Question 21
Does the One God Have Three Different Modes? (Modalism and Sabellianism)

There have been a number of false views about the nature of God which have arisen in the history of the church. One of them is known as Modalism or Sabellianism. This is a non-biblical way of understanding the nature of the God of the Bible. It is one of the heresies under the heading of Unitarianism.

Modalism says that there is one God who manifests Himself in three different modes. God sometimes manifests Himself as the Father, at other times as the Son, and still on other occasions as the Holy Spirit. The God of Modalism is a changing God. Supposedly, He was the Father in the Old Testament, the Son in the Gospels, and is now the Holy Spirit after the Day of Pentecost.

Biblical support for Modalism is supposedly found in the passage where Jesus says that the Father and Son are one. Elsewhere, Jesus said that those that have seen Him have seen the Father. This supposedly shows that they are the same Person.

However, these passages are not speaking of the nature of God the Father. They are not linking the identity of God the Father with the identity of Jesus. Instead, they are referring to how Jesus represents the will and purpose of the Father. They are one in purpose and in essence but they are not the same Person.

This Modalistic concept of God is opposed to what the Bible teaches. First, the Bible says that God exists in three distinct Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He is not merely one Person as the Unitarians believe. Each of the members of the Trinity is distinct from one another.

The Bible says the Father loves the Son. This does not mean that He loves Himself. Scripture gives examples of Jesus praying to God the Father. According to Modalism He would be praying to Himself. This is a ridiculous idea. Consequently, the God of Modalism is not the God of Scripture.

At Jesus’ baptism a voice from heaven spoke and said that He was well-pleased with the Son. This voice is identified as that of God the Father. The Father was not saying that He was pleased with Himself. Examples like this could be multiplied. The point is that the Bible teaches the distinctiveness of the members of the Holy Trinity.

There is something else. We are told that the God of the Bible does not change. His nature stays forever the same. This is contrary to the doctrine of Modalism.

Finally, the God of Modalism needed to create humanity to have someone with which to communicate. The God of Scripture, the Trinity, shared love and communication before the human race was created. The God of the Bible has no needs.

Thus, Modalism does not properly reflect the nature or character of the God of the Bible.

Do Christians Believe in Three Different Gods? ← Prior Section
Is Jesus Lesser in Nature than God the Father? Next Section →
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