Modalism

The Logos-doctrine of the Greek Apologists was taken up into Western theology by Irenaeus, who identifies God's Word with the Son and his Wisdom with the Holy Spirit (Against Heresies 4.20.3; cf. 2.30.9). During the following century a quite different conception of the divine personages emerged in contrast to the Logos doctrine. Noetus, Praxeus and Sabellius espoused a unitarian view of God, variously called modalism, monarchianism, or Sabellianism, according to which the Son and Spirit are not distinct individuals from the Father. Either it was the Father who became incarnate, suffered and died—the Son being at most the human aspect of Christ—or else the one God sequentially assumed three roles as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in relation to his creatures. In his refutation of modalism, Against Praxeas, the North African church father Tertullian brought greater precision to many of the ideas and much of the terminology later adopted in the creedal formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity. While anxious to preserve the divine monarchy (a term employed by the Greek Apologists to designate monotheism), Tertullian insisted that we dare not ignore the divine economy (a term borrowed from Irenaeus), by which Tertullian seems to mean the way in which the one God exists. The error of the monarchians or modalists is their "thinking that one cannot believe in one only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the very selfsame person.'' But while "all are of one, by unity (that is) of substance,'' Tertullian insists that the mystery of the economy... distributes the unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three persons—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (Against Praxeas 2)

In saying that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in substance, Tertullian employs the word substance in both the senses explained by Aristotle. First, there is, as Tertullian affirms, just "one God,'' one thing which is God. But Tertullian also means that the three distinct persons share the same essential nature. Thus, in his exegesis of the monarchian proof text "I and my Father are one'' (Jn 10:30), Tertullian points out (1) that the plural subject and verb intimate that there are two entities, namely, two persons, involved, but (2) that the predicate is an abstract (not a personal) noun—unum, not unus. He comments, '' Unum, a neuter term, . . . does not imply singularity of number, but unity of essence, likeness, conjunction, affection on the Father's part,... and submission on the

Son's____When He says, 'I and my Father are one' in essence—unum—He shows that there are two, whom He puts on an equality and unites in one'' (22).

So when Tertullian says that the one substance is distributed into three forms or aspects, he is not affirming modalism, but the diversity of three persons sharing the same nature. Indeed, he is so bold in affirming the distinctness of the persons, even calling them ''three beings'' (13; cf. 22), that he seems at times to court tritheism. Comparing the Father and the Son to the sun and a sunbeam, he declares, ''For although I make not two suns, still I shall reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things and two forms of one undivided substance, as God and His Word, as the Father and the Son'' (13). Thus he conceives the Son to be ''really a substantive being, by having a substance of his own, in such a way that he may be regarded as an objective thing and a person, and so able... to make two, the Father and the Son, God and the Word'' (7). Tertullian even seems to think of the Father and Son as distinct parcels of the same spiritual stuff out of which, in his idiosyncratic view, he believed God to be constituted (7).

Conventional wisdom has it that in affirming that God is three persons, church fathers like Tertullian meant at most three individuals, not three persons in the modern, psychological sense of three centers of self-consciousness. We shall return to this issue when we look at the creedal formulation of trinitarian doctrine, but for now we may note that an examination of Tertullian's statements suggests that such a claim is greatly exaggerated. In a remarkable passage aimed at illustrating the doctrine of the Son as the immanent Logos in the Father's mind, Tertullian invites his reader, who, he says, is created in the image and likeness of God, to consider the role of reason in the reader's own self-reflective thinking. ''Observe, then, that when you are silently conversing with yourself, this very process is carried on within you by your reason, which meets you with a word at every movement of your thought, at every impulse of your conception'' (5). Tertullian envisions one's own reason as a sort of dialogue partner when one is engaged in self-reflective thought. No doubt every one of us has carried on such an internal dialogue, which requires not merely consciousness but self-consciousness. Tertullian's point is that ''in a certain sense, the word is a second person within you'' through which you generate thought. He realizes, of course, that no human being is literally two persons, but he holds that ''all this is much more fully transacted in God,'' who possesses his immanent Logos even when he is silent. Or again, in proving the personal distinctness of the Father and the Son, Tertullian appeals to scriptural passages employing first- and second-person indexical words distinguishing Father and Son. Alluding to Psalm 2:7, Tertullian says to the modalist, ''If you want me to believe Him to be both the Father and the Son, show me some other passage where it is declared, 'The Lord said unto himself, I am my own Son, today I have begotten myself''' (11). He quotes numerous passages that, through their use of personal indexicals, illustrate the I-Thou relationship in which the persons ofthe Trinity stand to one another. He challenges the modalist to explain how a Being who is absolutely one and singular can use first-person plural pronouns, as in "Let us make man in our image.'' Tertullian clearly thinks of the Father, Son and Spirit as individuals capable of employing first-person indexicals and addressing one another with second-person indexicals, which entails that they are self-conscious persons. Hence, "in these few quotations the distinction of persons in the Trinity is clearly set forth'' (11). Tertullian thus implicitly affirms that the persons of the Trinity are three distinct, self-conscious individuals.

The only qualification that might be made to this picture lies in a vestige of the Apologists' Logos doctrine in Tertullian's theology. He not only accepts their view that there are relations of derivation among the persons of the Trinity, but that these relations are not eternal. The Father he calls "the fountain of the Godhead'' (29); "the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole'' (9). The Father exists eternally with his immanent Logos; and at creation, before the beginning of all things, the Son proceeds from the Father and so becomes his first begotten Son, through whom the world is created (19). Thus the Logos only becomes the Son of God when he proceeds from the Father as a substantive being (7). Tertullian is fond of analogies such as the sunbeam emitted by the sun or the river by the spring (8, 22) to illustrate the oneness of substance of the Son as he proceeds from the Father. The Son, then, is "God of God'' (15). Similarly, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son (4). It seems that Tertullian would consider the Son and Spirit to be distinct persons only after their procession from the Father (7), but it is clear that he insists on their personal distinctness from at least that point.

Through the efforts of church fathers like Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen and Novatian, the church came to reject modalism as a proper understanding of God and to affirm the distinctness of the three persons called Father, Son and Holy Spirit. During the ensuing century, the church was confronted with a challenge from the opposite end of the spectrum: Arianism, which affirmed the personal distinctness of the Father and the Son, but only at the sacrifice of the Son's deity.

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