Modalism – The Beginner’s Theological Vocabularium

Modalism

“To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ;”—2 Corinthians 2:10

The study of the meaning and history of Modalism, does more than just expose us to one simple heresy, but teaches us other, valuable lessons about arrogance, presumption, mental-laziness and ego. It is wise to heed these and not assume too much.

In the 3rd century a teacher by the name of Sabellius began teaching a newer form of Monarchianism (a belief introduced by even earlier theologians Noetus and Praxeas), soon called Modalistic Monarchianism (and sometimes Sabellianism), or simply Modalism by his detractors. We have no samples of his own writings or teachings, only those of his many critics who warned against his teachings.

In essence, Sabellius taught that God existed as one being, who then presented Himself as various “modes”. The idea behind Modalism is that when Jesus was on earth, God ceased to exist as God, and existed only as Jesus. Then when Jesus ascended, God changed to a different mode: The Holy Spirit.

GotQuestions further explains…

Modalistic Monarchianism teaches that the unity of God is incompatible with a distinction of Persons within the Godhead. According to modalism, God has variously manifested Himself as the Father (primarily in the Old Testament), as the Son (primarily from Jesus’ conception to His ascension), and as the Holy Spirit (primarily after Jesus’ ascension into heaven). Modalistic Monarchianism has its roots in the false teaching of Noetus of Smyrna around AD 190. Noetus called himself Moses and called his brother Aaron, and he taught that, if Jesus was God, then He must be the same as the Father. Hippolytus of Rome opposed this falsehood in his “Contra Noetum.” An early form of Modalistic Monarchianism was also taught by a priest from Asia Minor named Praxeas, who traveled to Rome and Carthage about AD 206. Tertullian countered the teaching of Praxeas in “Adversus Praxean” around 213. Modalistic Monarchianism and its related heresies were also refuted by Origen, Dionysius of Alexandria, and the Council of Nicea in 325.

But were it to end there the problem would have easily been dismissed. Instead, in order to distance themselves from the teachings of Sabellius, Moetus and Praxes, many of the early church fathers stressed the Personhood of the Trinity, almost to the point of making it sound to many that Christians were worshipping three gods.

The “Mode” vs “Person” Debate…

When Sabellius used the word “mode” (or whatever word he used in the language he spoke and wrote in) he intended it to convey his belief that God could not exist as God and Jesus, at the same time. While I find this belief silly, erroneous and odd, I find the over-reaction by many to be equally silly. I find a lot of modern beliefs to be equally silly, erroneous and odd, but don’t feel the need to denounce those that teach them, unless that teaching involved something that would prevent people from coming to faith is Jesus Christ or prevent their growth, once saved. There are simply too many odd beliefs out there to get worked up over ones that are at best peripheral to the core of salvation.

The modern reaction to Modalism takes two forms. One, the objection to the idea that God is limited in His existence. But the second form (employed by most who object to what they think “Modalism” is) comes in the outrage at the word “mode”. Ironically, while modern theologians will admit that they do not comprehend how the Trinity works, they are equally adamant that the one thing it must never be called is [gasp] “modes”. They stress the word “Persons”, but abruptly stop at having to define how exactly that word applies, since how God can also be the Trinity, they (wisely) admit we do not understand.

This arrogance in demanding a word must be used but then left poorly undefined, creates the illusion (to Moslems, specifically) that Christians are polytheists. We know we’re not, but when we fear the word “mode” so much that we treat the word “Person” as if God really is three separate Gods, it becomes confusing. In fact, as far as I can tell, most of our “theology” regarding the Trinity appears to have been created solely to distance ourselves from the evils of “Modalism”, which most don’t understand to begin with.

This and many other problems that have emerged over the millennia with poorly explained and convoluted theological minutia emerges from the hesitation so many have in leaving mysteries as mysteries. Unsolvable, unknowable, but accepted. Thus, when we fear one extreme, we often find ourselves backing into the other extreme, rather than accepting the unsolvable middle.