1. Modalism Claims That There Is One Person Who Appears to Us in Three Different Forms (or "Modes"). At various times people have taught that God is not really three distinct persons, but only one person who appears to people in different "modes" at different times. For example, in the Old Testament God appeared as "Father." Throughout the Gospels, this same divine person appeared as "the Son" as seen in the human life and ministry of Jesus. After Pentecost, this same person then revealed himself as the "Spirit" active in the church.
22 22. An excellent discussion of the history and theological implications of the trinitarian heresies discussed in this section is found in Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984), pp. 95-157.
This teaching is also referred to by two other names. Sometimes it is called Sabellianism, after a teacher named Sabellius who lived in Rome in the early third century a.d. Another term for modalism is "modalistic monarchianism," because this teaching not only says that God revealed himself in different "modes" but it also says that there is only one supreme ruler ("monarch") in the universe and that is God himself, who consists of only one person.
Modalism gains its attractiveness from the desire to emphasize clearly the fact that there is only one God. It may claim support not only from the passages talking about one God, but also from passages such as John 10:30 ("I and the Father are one") and John 14:9 ("He who has seen me has seen the Father"). However, the last passage can simply mean that Jesus fully reveals the character of God the Father, and the former passage (John 10:30), in a context in which Jesus affirms that he will accomplish all that the Father has given him to do and save all whom the Father has given to him, seems to mean that Jesus and the Father are one in purpose (though it may also imply oneness of essence).
The fatal shortcoming of modalism is the fact that it must deny the personal relationships within the Trinity that appear in so many places in Scripture (or it must affirm that these were simply an illusion and not real). Thus, it must deny three separate persons at the baptism of Jesus, where the Father speaks from heaven and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. And it must say that all those instances where Jesus is praying to the Father are an illusion or a charade. The idea of the Son or the Holy Spirit interceding for us before God the Father is lost. Finally, modalism ultimately loses the heart of the doctrine of the atonement—that is, the idea that God sent his Son as a substitutionary sacrifice, and that the Son bore the wrath of God in our place, and that the Father, representing the interests of the Trinity, saw the suffering of Christ and was satisfied (Isa. 53:11).
Moreover, modalism denies the independence of God, for if God is only one person, then he has no ability to love and to communicate without other persons in his creation. Therefore it was necessary for God to create the world, and God would no longer be independent of creation (see chapter 12, above, on God's independence).
One present denomination within Protestantism (broadly defined), the United Pentecostal Church, is modalistic in its doctrinal position.23 2. Arianism Denies the Full Deity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. a. The Arian Controversy: The term Arianism is derived from Arius, a Bishop of Alexandria whose views were condemned at the Council of Nicea in a.d. 325, and who died in a.d. 336. Arius taught that God the Son was at one point created by God the Father, and that before that time the Son did not exist, nor did the Holy Spirit, but the Father only. Thus, though the Son is a heavenly being who existed before the rest of creation and who is far greater than all the rest of creation, he is still not equal to the Father in all his attributes—he may even be said to be "like the Father" or "similar
23 23. Some of the leaders who formed this group had earlier been forced out of the Assemblies of God when the Assemblies decided to insist on a trinitarian statement of faith for its ministers in 1916. The United Pentecostal Church is sometimes identified with the slogan "Jesus only," and it insists that people should be baptized in the name of Jesus, not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because of its denial of the three distinct persons in God, the denomination should not be considered to be evangelical, and it is doubtful whether it should be considered genuinely Christian at all.
to the Father" in his nature, but he cannot be said to be "of the same nature" as the Father.
The Arians depended heavily on texts that called Christ God's "only begotten" Son (John 1:14; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). If Christ were "begotten" by God the Father, they reasoned, it must mean that he was brought into existence by God the Father (for the word "beget" in human experience refers to the father's role in conceiving a child). Further support for the Arian view was found in Colossians 1:15, "He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation." Does not "first-born" here imply that the Son was at some point brought into existence by the Father?24 And if this is true of the Son, it must necessarily be true of the Holy Spirit as well.
But these texts do not require us to believe the Arian position. Colossians 1:15, which calls Christ "the first-born of all creation," is better understood to mean that Christ has the rights or privileges of the "first-born—that is, according to biblical usage and custom, the right of leadership or authority in the family for one's generation. (Note Heb. 12:16 where Esau is said to have sold his "first-born status" or "birthright—the Greek word npwtotoKta, G4757, is cognate to the term npwtotoKoq, G4758, "first-born" in Col. 1:15.) So Colossians 1:15 means that Christ has the privileges of authority and rule, the privileges belonging to the "first-born," but with respect to the whole creation. The NIV translates it helpfully, "the firstborn over all creation."
As for the texts that say that Christ was God's "only begotten Son," the early church felt so strongly the force of many other texts showing that Christ was fully and completely God, that it concluded that, whatever "only begotten" meant, it did not mean "created." Therefore the Nicene Creed in 325 affirmed that Christ was "begotten, not made":
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