Modalism: The illusion of three persons in one God.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 December
MODALIST 'mod.əl.ɪst adjective. Believes God has multiple personas, approaches, functions, or aspects of his nature—which other Christians confuse with trinity.
[Modalism 'mod.əl.ɪz.əm noun.]

Some Christians don’t believe God’s a trinity. For a variety of reasons, but mostly because they can’t fathom the idea (and to be fair, it’s a difficult one), or they’ve been raised in an anti-trinitarian religion or church. Fr’instance if you were raised Muslim and later become Christian… well now you have to follow Jesus in a whole new way than you’re used to, plus there’s the fact he’s God. It’s a hurdle. Not an impossible one, but it’s not all that easy for some.

Because it’s not easy, these folks can sometimes slide into one of the usual Christological heresies which make him something other than God… or human. I keep bumping into modalism because I’m Pentecostal, and certain Pentecostal churches have full-on embraced modalism. They teach it instead of trinity. They think it’s mighty clever of them. I’m sure Sabellius of Rome thought the same thing when he came up with the idea in the 210s.

Modalism doesn’t claim Jesus isn’t really God, or isn’t really human. He is; he’s both. Jesus is absolutely God.

But… he’s also God the Father. And God the Holy Spirit. Y’see, God isn’t three persons; modalists insist he’s only one person, and there is no trinity. God is one. But he looks like he’s three, from our limited human point of view.

Why’s he look three? Time travel.

No, seriously. Time travel. I know; time travel is still theory, and hasn’t yet been scientifically documented. But we’re all familiar with science fiction, so we have a general idea of how time travel works.

How God looks like three.

If you’re not generally familiar with movie time travel: Imagine a man, whom we’ll call Doc Brown. (I know; real original of me.) Brown invented a time machine.

Brown hops into it and travels 30 years into the past. There, he encounters himself from 30 years ago—his younger self. If you were to stand there and observe this, it looks exactly like there are two Doc Browns, interacting with one another. In reality they’re the same guy: Brown got his personal timeline to loop around, and one segment of it overlaps another segment of it. There aren’t really two. There’s one.

Well, says the modalist, this is what God does. The modalist claims God exists outside time, which they call “eternity.” This was a theory originally pitched by St. Augustine of Hippo… and it’s actually wrong. It turns out space and time are the same thing, and since God is omnipresent, he fills both. But a lot of Christians are really fond of the whole outside-time idea, ’cause they grew up hearing it, and it sounds clever and intelligent, and repeating it makes them sound clever and intelligent. Anyway, bear with me, ’cause modalists kinda need it to be true. It’s the basis of their theory.

In this “eternity,” time’s a zero-dimensional point. There’s no past nor present nor future. It’s all now—all an eternal present instant to whoever’s in there. God lives in there; it’s where heaven’s located. (In which, somehow, there’s music. Music is entirely based on time. Sorry; had to digress to point out the logical inconsistency of this theory. Now, back to it.)

God decided to step outside this zero-dimensional point, enter our one-dimensional timeline, and become human. This’d be Jesus. But when Jesus (and we) look back at “eternity”… it’s not vacant. God’s still in there. He’s always in there. There’s no timeline, so there’s no stretch in this timeline where God stepped out of “eternity.” It’s a zero-dimensional point, remember?

It’s like Doc Brown and his overlapping timelines. Looks like God’s in two places at once. But that’s an illusion, based on our lack of understanding about “eternity.” That is, unless we’re clever enough to figure it out—and modalists figure they’re just that clever.

Anyway, that’s why Jesus always had a Father to pray to: The Father was still, and is always still, back in “eternity.” But there never were two persons; just one person with a bendy timeline.

Same deal with the Holy Spirit. Once again, God steps out of “eternity” in the present day to do stuff. In this case he doesn’t do it in Jesus’s human body; he remains an invisible spirit. So this’d be the Holy Spirit. And sometimes the Spirit overlaps Jesus’s timeline. But God wasn’t really in three places at once. It only looks it.

This time-travel explanation is the most common way I’ve heard modalists explain the trinity. I don’t know who invented it, but I agree it’s pretty clever.

Oh, it’s rubbish. But it’s clever rubbish.

Sabellius’s original explanation for modalism.

Before science fiction fans came up with the time-travel explanation for the trinity, there were the original guys who came up with modalism. Sabellius gets most of the credit, ’cause he articulated it clearest, but he’s hardly the first guy to pitch the idea. There’s Noetus of Smyrna in the 100s, and Praxeas of Asia Minor and Sabellius of Rome in the early 200s. Sabellius was the guy who articulated it clearest.

Sabellius really, really liked to imagine God as his Father. Which is fine, ’cause he is. He figured fatherhood is a central, vital attribute of God: If he’s not Father, he’s not really God. He hated any idea of God which wasn’t Father.

Problem is, Jesus is God… and isn’t the Father. He’s the Son. Yet still God. Sabellius figured if Jesus were really God—and God is Father—Jesus oughta also be Father. Otherwise he can’t actually be God.

You know, like those people who figure almightiness is a central, vital attribute of God. Therefore Jesus can’t have made himself nothing, can’t have depowered himself, to become human. Pp 2.7 Otherwise he wouldn’t be God anymore. It’s yet another case of someone taking their very favorite definition of God, and when it bumps into anything else the scriptures state, they choose to ignore the scriptures.

Hence Sabellius wouldn’t accept any explanation which made Jesus “less than God.” And if God can only be defined as Father, it requires that Jesus be the Father. So Sabellius ditched the idea of the Father and Son being different persons. There are no different persons in God. Jesus is God… but God is always Father.

Sabellius’s explanation was God, ordinarily, is in Father-mode. He’s reigning from afar, making cosmic plans, judging the universe, or otherwise being almighty. But sometimes, sometimes, he’s in Jesus-mode. When he needed to create the world, or become human and save the world, or make personal appearances. Whenever God’s gotta interact with humans in a physical, tangible, human form, he’ll do it as Jesus.

And whenever God chooses to not interact with humans in a human form—when he needs to empower Christians, inspire prophets, or stop the weather—he’ll do it in Holy-Spirit-mode. God switches modes as necessary or practical.

It’s just like someone who plays three different characters at Disneyland. Sometimes he’s in the Donald Duck costume, sometimes he’s in the Darth Vader costume, and sometimes he’s over at California Adventure in the Spider-Man costume. Three different characters, three different genres, two different theme parks; you’d be excused for not realizing it’s the same guy in there. Same thing with God: Looks like he’s three, but he’s really not.

Okay. The obvious problem with Sabellius’s theory, and the reason orthodox Christians like Athanásios of Alexandria couldn’t buy it and called it heresy, is God is honest. Jesus is truth. Jn 14.6 He really is trying to reveal himself, who he authentically is, and what he’s like, to his people. And he looks so much like three persons, we Christians can’t help but come to this conclusion. Now, why’d he let us do this, and why’d he have the scriptures lead us to this conclusion, if it weren’t so? It’s like the existence of 10,000-year-old trees if we’re meant to think the universe is only 6,000 years old: It implies God is trying to deceive us. He’s actually not honest.

The scriptures describe God in three persons, who interact with one another. Like when the Father spoke to the Son at his baptism: “You’re my beloved son.” Lk 3.22 Either that’s an accurate depiction of God… or God’s pretending to be two different guys, Father and Son; it’s a trick.

The ancient Christians didn’t care for the idea of God as a dirty liar. Plus here’s an idea which weirded them out: If the Father, Son, and Spirit are the same person, what’s that mean when Jesus suffered and died? Does it mean the Father and Spirit also suffered and died on the cross? Son, Spirit, and Father all went into the grave? (So who was ruling the universe?)

True, whether we like an idea, whether we’re comfortable with an idea, isn’t a valid reason to accept or reject it. Sabellius’s idea made him comfortable… and makes other Christians uncomfortable. Modalism pleases many a Christian who can’t wrap their minds around the trinity and like an easier explanation, and bugs many a Christian who thinks it makes things even more difficult. But there needs to be more evidence for it than warm fuzzy feelings.

The scriptures reveal a triune God. Not a God who switches identities like a stage actor or a con artist. He’s not sometimes one person, sometimes another. He is, and always has been, in all of time and space, three persons. Simultaneously. Not because God did some jiggery-pokery with his personal timeline, nor took advantage of some in-time/out-of-time differences between “eternity” and spacetime. There’s no such thing as an environment where God’s not simultaneously Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Yeah, we don’t know how God is both three persons and one being. But the solution to this paradox isn’t to ditch it, and demand he be one or the other. Or to figure God’s deceiving us about being three persons. ’Cause that’s the problem if Sabellius—and the modalists who still kinda stick with his ideas—are correct. If God’s trying to make us think he’s way stranger than he really is, why would he do that?

Especially since, through Christ, he’s gone to such trouble to become less strange?—to become human, and meet us at our level?