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The Trinity vs. Modalism
Which is the Historic Christian Doctrine?
By Gary F. Zeolla
It was demonstrated in Part One of this three-part article that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches, “Within the one Being or essence of God, there eternally exists three distinct yet equal Persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Meanwhile, Modalism teaches that Father, Son, and Sprit are just different “modes” in which the one Person of God operates. It further teaches that “the Son is the Father.”
But which of these two views is reflected in the major Christian Creeds and Confessions of Faiths that have been drawn up over the centuries? Below are excerpts from such creeds.
Early Christian Creeds
First to be looked at are the earliest creeds of the Christian faith.
Apostle’s Creed (c. 100 A.D.):
I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, His only son, our Lord …
I believe in the Holy Spirit…
The Apostle’s Creed is one of the oldest creeds of the Christian Church, outside of the Bible. It mentions the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but it does not go into detail of the exact relationship of the three. Most likely, initially, all Christians “just knew” what was meant by these simple phrases. But later Creeds go into much greater detail.
The reason for this latter detail is probably due to a point mentioned in Part One. When you “debate” doctrine with someone, it forces you to get more exacting in your language to delineate exactly what it is you believe and how that differs from an opposing viewpoint. So as Christians were faced with various heresies, they were forced to use more exacting langue to describe what they believed.
One of the first major heresies the Christian Church faced was Arianism. This was, “A view of the person of Christ according to which he is the highest of the created beings and is thus appropriately referred to as a god, but not the God” (Erickson, p.15, italics in original). This is basically the viewpoint of Jehovah’s Witnesses today.
The Creed or Nicaea (325) was drafted in response to this heresy. It affirmed that Jesus is “of the same essence as the Father.” This specific language was chosen to delineate the Church’s belief in the full equality of the Father and the Son.
But that Creed did specify the exact nature of the distinction between the Father and the Son. It also did not elaborate beyond the Apostle’s Creed in its statement on the Holy Spirit. The reason it did not is again, it was drafted to combat one specific heresy, that of Arianism.
Athanasian Creed (c. 500 A.D.):
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he
hold the catholic faith;
Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
The Athanasian Creed most likely was not actually written by Athanasius ((c/296-373). He was a strong defender of the full deity of Christ and of the Creed of Nicaea. But by 500 A.D., Sabellianism was a widespread heresy that needed to be addressed.
This heresy was named after Sabellius (died after 260 AD). He “Taught a trinity of successive revelations. Hence the Godhead reveals only one member at a time—God in the Old Testament, Jesus at the incarnation, and the Holy Spirit in inspiration. Thus Father, son, and Holy Spirit are only temporary phenomena, or a temporary and modalistic Trinity, which fulfill their mission and then return to the abstract monad” (Moyer, p.355).
This viewpoint is not exactly the same as Modalism, but it is similar in claiming the Father, Son, and Spirit are not distinct Person but just “modes” in which God operates. The main difference is that Sabellianism emphasizes the successive nature of God’s revelations while Modalism has God being able to operate in any given mode at any given time.
But whatever the case, this Creed in no uncertain terms repudiates the ideas of “modes” and instead affirms that God exists as three distinct Persons.
It should also be noted that the clauses of this Creed not quoted affirm the full equality of the three Persons of the Godhead, along with the fact that there is only one God. All of these points are important. But the focus of this particular article is on the distinction of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Second Council of Constantinople (553):
If anyone does not confess the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one nature or essence, one power or authority, worshipped as a trinity of the same essence, one deity in three hypostases or persons, let him be anathema. For there is one God the Father, of whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and one Holy Sprit, in whom are all things.
The decisions of the Second Council of Constantinople are considered to be infallible by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. They are respected as correctly representing orthodox doctrine by many Protestant denominations. It can be seen that it again affirms that the one Deity exists in three Persons.
Roman Catholic Confessions
Including the Councils of Nicaea and of Constantinople II, the Roman Catholic Church considers 21 councils to have been “Ecumenical” and thus infallible. Two of these later councils addressed the topic at hand:
Fourth Lateran Council (1215):
We firmly believe and openly confess that there is only one true God, eternal, beyond measure and unchangeable, incomprehensible, omnipotent and ineffable, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: Three persons but a single essence, substance, or nature that is holy one… This Holy Trinity, undivided in regard to its essence which is common to all, but distinct in regard to the attributes of the persons gave the doctrine of salvation to the human race in the due process of time.
So the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 A.D.) affirms a distinction between the three Persons of the Godhead.
Council of Trent (1563):
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages; God of God, light of light, true God of true God; begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made … ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father; and again he will come with glory to judge the living and the dead; of whose kingdom there shall be no end: and in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is adored and glorified; who spoke by the prophets and one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
The Council of Trent was the Catholic reaction to the Protestant Reformation. As such, it was mainly concerned with upholding Catholic doctrines that were being opposed by Protestants. Since Protestants by and large agreed with the Catholic Church in its viewpoint of the Trinity, it was not necessary for the council to go into great detail in this regard. But the decisions of the Council were prefaced with this statement.
It can be seen that the Confession specifics that the Son “sits at the right hand of the Father” which would be difficult to do if the Father and Son are the same Person. It is also difficult to see how the Holy Spirit could be “adored and glorified” together with the Father and Son, if the Three were one and the same Person. As such, although not specifically delineating the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit, it is clear that the Council of Trent put forth such a belief.
Catechism of the Catholic Church (English translation, 1994):
202 … We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; three persons indeed, but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple.
252 The Church uses (I) the term "substance" (rendered also at times by "essence" or "nature") to designate the divine being in its unity, (II) the term "person" or "hypostasis" to designate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the real distinction among them, and (III) the term "relation" to designate the fact that their distinction lies in the relationship of each to the others.
254 The divine persons are really distinct from one another. "God is one but not solitary." "Father", "Son", "Holy Spirit" are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: "He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son." They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: "It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds." The divine Unity is Triune.
Being quoted is the most recent official Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. The excerpts show beyond any doubt that the Catholic Church officially believes in the doctrine of the Trinity, by which is meant that the One “essence” of God exists as three “Persons” and that there is “a real distinction among them.” It further specifically denies any idea of this distinction being just of “modalities.” It further specifically denies that the Son is the Father, that the Holy Spirits is the Father or Son.
This is in direct contradiction to the claim by “Arletta” in the email exchange that opened Part One of this article. She claimed, “I got my understanding of the teachings of the Trinity from Catholic Priests and Bishops.” She then said that understanding was, “Trinity means that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all equal, all separate facets of one Godhead.” She further claimed this understanding included the idea that “The Son is the Father.”
I have no way of knowing if Arletta misunderstood the priests and bishops she supposedly talked to, or if those priest and bishops were simply not skilled at articulating Catholic doctrine. But one thing I am sure of, officially the Catholic Church would repudiate the idea that the distinction between the Father, Son, and Spirit is that they are just “facets” of God. Such a word is never used in official Catholic Creeds and Confessions. The Catholic Church also specifically repudiates the idea that “the Son is the Father.”
Eastern Orthodox Creeds
The Eastern Orthodox Church is sometimes called “the Church of the Seven Creeds” as it accepts the first seven, and only first seven “Ecumenical” councils as infallible. As such, it ascribes to the aforementioned Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasius creeds. But in reaction to the Protestant Reformation, it drew up the following Confession:
Confession of Dositheus (1672):
We believe in one God, true, almighty, and infinite, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the Father unbegotten; the Son begotten of the Father before the ages, and consubstantial with Him; and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, and consubstantial with the Father and the Son. These three Persons in one essence we call the All-holy Trinity, — by all creation to be ever blessed, glorified, and adored.
Between its ascription to the early creeds and this confession, the position of the Eastern Orthodox Church is clear—it affirms belief in the one God existing as three Persons.
Major Protestant Confessions
After the Protestant Reformation, the various emerging Protestant denominations began drawing up their own Confessions of Faith. These will be looked at next.
Augsburg Confession (1530):
1] Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; 2] that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and 3] yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term "person" 4] they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.
5] They condemn all heresies which have sprung up against this article, as the Manichaeans, who assumed two principles, one Good and the other Evil: also the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all such. 6] They condemn also the Samosatenes, old and new, who, contending that there is but one Person, sophistically and impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Ghost are not distinct Persons, but that "Word" signifies a spoken word, and "Spirit" signifies motion created in things.
The Augsburg Confession is the original confession of Lutheran Churches. It is included in the Book of Concord, the official collection of approved creeds and catechisms. This book also includes the previously quoted Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasius Creeds. As such, there is no doubt that the Lutheran Church official affirms the doctrine of the Trinity and repudiates any idea of Modalism.
Westminster Confession of Faith (1646):
We believe … In the unity of the Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.
The Westminster Confession is the official confession of Reformed and Presbyterian churches. It clearly affirms that God exists in three Persons, with each Person being God. And it clearly delineates distinctions between these three Persons.
Thirty-Nine Articles (1563, American Revision in 1801):
Of Faith in the Holy Trinity.
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
The Thirty-Nine Articles are the official statement of faith of the Anglican Church. Again, there is a clear statement belief in there being three Persons in the Godhead.
New Hampshire Confession (1833):
We believe that there is one, and only one, living and true God, an infinite, intelligent Spirit, whose name is JEHOVAH, the Maker and Supreme Ruler of Heaven and earth; inexpressibly glorious in holiness, and worthy of all possible honor, confidence, and love; that in the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; equal in every divine perfection, and executing distinct and harmonious offices in the great work of redemption.
Abstract of Principles (1859)/ Statement of Baptist Faith and Message (1925):
God is revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit each with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence or being.
The New Hampshire Confession is an early American, Baptist confession. The Abstract of Principles is the statement of faith of various Southern Baptist seminaries. It was affirmed by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1925 as an official statement of faith.
These confessions are not as exact in their language as some previous confessions. But it is still clear that Baptists affirm a belief in the Godhead consisting in three distinct Persons. This is in contradiction to Arletta, who claimed her studies with Baptist showed her otherwise.
Articles of Religion (1784):
Of Faith in the Holy Trinity
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Free Methodist Articles of Religion (1808):
The Holy Trinity
There is but one living and true God, the maker and preserver of all things. And in the unity of this Godhead there are three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three are one in eternity, deity, and purpose; everlasting, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.
The above two are variations of the official statement of faith of Methodist churches. Both affirm “there are three persons” in the one God.
Catechism of the Catholic Church. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994.
Erickson, Millard J. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986.
Leith, John ed. Creeds of the Churches. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Moyer, Elgin. rev. by Earle Cairns. The Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1982.
Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom, sixth ed., 3 vols. Baker Books, 1996.
Part Three of this article will conclude this discussion.
The Trinity vs. Modalism. Copyright © 2009 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.dtl.org).
The above article first appeared in Darkness to Light
It was posted on this site May 9, 2009.
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