[From the archives.]
One way to understand Trinitarian doctrine is by seeing what it’s not, and one thing it’s not is modalism.*
Modalism Works For Me
Now before you cast me out as a heretic and declare me anathema, let me say that modalism works for me in who I am. It doesn’t work for who God is.
Modalism comes from the word “mode” and essentially means that a single person can operate in different modes. I know I can. I’m a husband and a father and a neighbor and a lot of other things. It’s easiest to see these things when I’m in that particular mode and no other, although you can imagine that at times I’ve acted as husband, father and neighbor at the same instance.
You know the thing about me being modal, though? No one thinks the person who is a father to my children is a different person from the one who is a husband to my wife and yet still different from the one who is a neighbor to the people next door. It’s all just me.
Imagine, though, if I tried to give the impression of being three separate people:
Neighbor: “Hey neighbor, are you all free for a barbecue this weekend?”
Me: “I know I am, but I’ll have to check with the others.”
Neighbor: “Yeah, always good to check with your wife before committing!”
Me: “I suppose, but first I’m going to check with my wife’s husband.”
Neighbor: “Oh yeah, her hus- … Huh?”
Me: “I don’t think he has any plans, but I’ll let you know. Are the kids invited?”
Neighbor: “Uhhhh, yeah sure.”
Me: “Then I’ll have to ask my kids’ father as well and see if he can make it.”
Neighbor: “Their father. Oooookay … you do that.” [Laughs nervously and slowly backs into house.]
I’d retreat to my house too if one of my neighbors talked to me that way.
Why I Am Not Modalist
You might have heard people say that the reason we call God the Father, Son and Spirit is because sometimes he acts as a parent, sometimes as a child and sometimes in a more amorphous spiritual sense.
What a load of hooey.
In the Bible we see Jesus talking to our heavenly Father all the time, and he never gives the impression that he’s just putting on an act and talking to himself. In fact, just the opposite. And the same goes for how he relates to the Holy Spirit. It comes across quite clearly in the passages concerning Jesus’ last night before the crucifixion.
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:12-13.)
These are not the words of someone who is talking about himself in two modes. That would be as ridiculous as the dialog I had above with my neighbor. This is someone talking about another person.
Jesus spoke a lot about the Holy Spirit as well that night, like this:
All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:25-26.)
He didn’t say he was going to come back to them as a Spirit, nor that he was the one sending them the Spirit. He said he was going away and the Father would send the Spirit. Again, nothing modal about this.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not just the same person** acting in three different ways. They are the Three-in-One Trinity, and while this may be a mystery of sorts*** that doesn’t make God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit any less real, any less One and any less the great I Am.****
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:14.)
*Some definitions might help:
Sequential Modalism (as opposed to the concurrent modalism shown in my imagined dialog with that neighbor above):
…taught that the three persons of the Trinity [are] different “modes” of the Godhead. Adherants believed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God’s self-revelation. A typical modalist approach is to regard God as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in sanctification. In other words, God exists as Father, Son and Spirit in different eras, but never as triune. (Monergism.org.)
The term designating one God in three persons. Although not itself a biblical term, “the Trinity” has been found a convenient designation for the one God self-revealed in Scripture as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It signifies that within the one essence of the Godhead we have to distinguish three “persons” who are neither three gods on the one side, nor three parts or modes of God on the other, but coequally and coeternally God. (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter Elwell–Editor, p.1112). (Cited at Monergism.org.)
**The use of the word “person” can confuse some people into tritheism, which is not orthodox trinitarianism and should be avoided just as diligently as modalism:
Tritheism confesses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three independent divine beings; three separate gods who share the ‘same substance’. This is a common mistake because of misunderstanding of the use of the term ‘persons’ in defining the Trinity. (Monergism.org.)
*** Augustine said, “In no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable.” To help clear up the mystery a bit, you might like to read this article by R.C. Sproul.
****More of my take on Trinitarian doctrine (and some humor) is in my post Counting to Three.