Darkness to Light Home Page


Books and eBooks by the Director

The Trinity vs. Modalism

Which is the Historic Christian Doctrine?

Part One

By Gary F. Zeolla

This three-part article will begin with an interesting email exchange I recently engaged in. The emailer’s comments are enclosed by greater than and lesser than sign. My responses then follow.


>Subject: In regards to "JW"s and what they believe;

First of all, let me tell you that I studied with Mormons, Baptists, and Catholics directly.  I had debates with Pentacostles [sic], and, oh, pretty much all other religious groups in my youth, because I didn't know better than to debate religion back then. I do know better now, however, so this is not a debate.  I have no interest in arguing and I do believe that when one spends one time trying to prove other people wrong it wastes valuable time wherein one could, instead, be seeking to learn the will of God. 

The reason that I am writing to you is that you have some misinformation on your site, in regards to what Jehovah's Witnesses believe. Also, in regards to what most other people mean when they say that Jesus is God.

See, I know for a fact, that all the other Bible based religions did tell me, as what they believed to be straight fact, that Jesus is God the Father; that he is our creator; and as Jesus he was simply manifesting Himself in the flesh.


So, no, Jehovah's Witnesses do not fail to understand the distinction; and, if you really understood their teachings, you would know that they do not fail to make the distinction. Because Jehovah's Witnesses do teach that Jesus is a deity, that he is a god, but not Jehovah God, the Creator.

So, in fact, your site says that they are correct in their actual teachings; but, it denies what their actual teachings are!

Please consider this and pray about it. I know that if you are sincere, God will lead you to the truth.

Goodbye
Arletta
2/21/09<

Sorry, but if by “all the other Bible based religions” you mean those who believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, then you are the one who does not understand what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches. It does NOT teach “that Jesus is God the Father.” That belief system is known as Modalism or “Oneness theology.” Only a very few groups teach that, such as Oneness Pentecostals.

The doctrine of the Trinity is taught and believed by Catholics, Baptists and most any other major Christian denomination. The Trinity teaches that the Father and Son are two distinct yet equal Persons. It is the “equal” part that JWs deny.

God bless,
Gary Z.


>You said that they deny that he is a deity. They do not.

And, I got my understanding of the teachings of the Trinity from Catholic Priests and Bishops, Mormon Bishops, Reverends, Rectors, etc. They were all very clear in that the teachings of the Trinity means that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all equal, all separate facets of one Godhead and it is that Godhead, the total, which is the Creator.

Also, it was not Jehovah's Witnesses who denied that Jesus was equal to God; it was the Holy Scriptures that did that. They just read and believed them!  You know, where it says that equality with God was not something Jesus even conceived of as being possible? Surely you've read it.

Just like you read that I am not going to argue or debate with you, and I have no interest in hearing from you.

Speak to God and seek His will. Not yours, not mine: His!

Goodbye. Do not contact me again!

Arletta
2/21/09<

Let’s see, you contact me first, but when I respond, you get angry at me and say not to contact you again. But the fact is, you not only have misunderstood what the Trinity teaches, but you have misunderstood my writings. If you actually read my writings, you would know that I fully know that JWs teach Jesus is “a god” or divine, but they deny His equality with the Father. You would also know that Mormons do not believe the doctrine of the Trinity and generally misstate it as well. So they are not a good source for info on this subject.

I address what the Trinity teaches and does not teach in detail on my site and in my books. I also respond in detail to JW arguments. If you wish to actually understand these issues, then read my site more carefully, and check out my Scripture Workbook.

Good bye and God bless,
Gary


>I did not mention only the Mormons as a religious group that I studied with; nor, did I express anger. You seek to debate, and debating religion shames both parties.  I will not participate in shaming either of us.

The truth is that you badly misrepresent both the teachings of the Trinity, as it is commonly taught, and what Jehovah's Witnesses actually believe. It does not matter how many times that you say otherwise, it is still a fact that you do.

And, as I said before, it is the Holy Scriptures that deny that Jesus is equal with God. Therefore, anyone who believes that they are inspired of God and good for reproving and setting one straight, should read that this is so, then be reproved and set themselves straight in what they are teaching others.

I hope that happens for you, sooner rather than later.

I am blocking you now, though, as you seem a little too zealous to prove your own point, rather than to look into the deeper things of God. And, of course, because I told you in two emails, now, that I did not wish to debate or argue, and, so, I do not wish to hear from you.

Have a nice life!
Arletta
2/22/09<


Comments

The preceding was one of the strangest email exchanges I have ever had. I never had someone “correct” me and then not expect me to not even respond to their claims. I guess the emailer just expected me to accept that she was correct, that I was wrong, and then change all of my site and books in accordance with her claims.

The problem with that is she is completely wrong in her claims about what the doctrine of the Trinity teaches. She is misrepresenting the doctrine in the very same fashion that Jehovah Witnesses (JWs) and others misrepresent it. But she is correct in one point—just me (or her) repeating something does not make it so.

I should have taken more time in responding to her first email to document that she was in fact expressing the doctrine of “Modalism” which is not the same as the doctrine of the Trinity. But since this has come up before, I think it would be good to go into detail into the difference between these two doctrines and document which in fact is the historic Christian doctrine.

What made this email exchange particularly strange is I am the one who usually has to cut off a “debate” as I generally do not have the time or energy for long-winded discussion. That was the reason I did not bother to respond in detail in the first place.

However, I have found that when I do have time for an extended correspondence or discussion that it is not “shameful” if it is done in a logical not emotional manner. It can in fact be very beneficial. It is the best way to hash out the differences between opposing positions and to see the support for each position.

But most of all, “debating” with someone can force you to really think through exactly what you believe, what you do not believe, and the reasons therefore. It can also force you to get even more exacting in expressing your beliefs in order to separate it from opposing viewpoints.

In fact, this is what happened in the early centuries of the Christian Church. As different heresies arose, Christians were forced to get more exacting in their language to delineate exactly what they believed and did not believe. This will be addressed later in this article. But first, it will be good to look at some definitions and the importance of this discussion.

Definitions and Importance of “Trinity” vs. “Modalism”

The most important points in the emails is the emailer saying the doctrine of the Trinity teaches “that Jesus is God the Father” and “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all equal, all separate facets of one Godhead.” To be clear, she is claiming that the doctrine of the Trinity teaches Jesus and the Father are one and the same Person, but that they are different “facets” of the one God.

Compare this to the third article in Darkness to Light’s Confession of Faith, “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.”

The difference here is she is saying that the Trinity teaches the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same PERSON but are different “facets” or “modes” in which this one Person of God operates. I am saying the doctrine teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons.

In other words, to her the doctrine of the Trinity would be similar to a man, let’s call him Jim, who is a son to someone (obviously), but who is also a father, and who is a husband. So that one person, Jim, is a son, a father, and a husband. He is just one person, but he functions in three different facets, or roles, or modes.

Unfortunately, I have heard Christians use this very analogy as a description of the doctrine of the Trinity. That could be the reason for the widespread confusion on this issue. But it is in fact an analogy of the teaching of Modalism.

Modalism is defined by Christian theologian Millard J. Erickson in his Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology as, “The view that the three members of the Trinity are different modes of God’s activity rather than different persons. (p. 106). Meanwhile, he defines the Trinity as, “A reference to the doctrine that God is one and yet exists eternally as three persons” (p.171).

It should be noted how closely Erickson’s definition of the Trinity parallels this ministry’s Confession and that he contrasts Modalism with the teaching of the Trinity, indicating they are two distinct doctrinal viewpoints.

Note that Dr. Erickson’s Christian Theology was one of the books that were assigned for usage at Denver Seminary when I studied theology there. So at least that seminary considered his texts to accurately represent Christian theology.

Going back to the “Jim“ analogy, the important point is that Jim the son cannot have a conversation with Jim the father. Jim the father cannot love Jim the husband. Jim the husband cannot have a relationship with Jim the son. If this is what God is like, it means God is not inherently love and that fellowship and communication are not eternal aspects of God. It would also mean that God needed to create in order to have someone to love and fellowship with. As such, God would be as dependant on us as we are on Him.

However, if in fact God exists as three Persons, then God the Father can love God the Son. God the Son can have a relationship with God the Spirit. God the Spirit can communicate with God the Father. As such, love, fellowship, and communication are eternal aspects of God. Moreover, this means God did not need to create. He is complete in Himself. But he created us in His image out of His pure grace. In doing so, He create us with an inherent need for love and fellowship. But since we are created as uni-personal beings, then we need to be in relationship with God and other people to be truly complete.

Additional Definitions

Now, the emailer and others like her who have emailed me cannot be faulted for not having the above quoted theological dictionary, but they do obviously have access to the internet and thus Dictionary.com.

It defines Modalism as:
In Christianity, Sabellianism (also known as modalism, modalistic monarchianism, or modal monarchism) is the nontrinitarian belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son and Holy Spirit are different modes or aspects of one God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons in God Himself.

Note that Dictionary.com specifically says Modalism is “nontrinitarian” and contrasts it with the Trinity teaching of “three distinct persons.”

Meanwhile, Dictionary.com gives the following various definitions of “Trinity” that are applicable to this discussion.

Also called Blessed Trinity, Holy Trinity. the union of three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) in one Godhead, or the threefold personality of the one Divine Being.

Trinity Theology In most Christian faiths, the union of three divine persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in one God. Also called Trine.

(Christian Theol.) The union of three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) in one Godhead, so that all the three are one God as to substance, but three persons as to individuality.

A doctrine of Christianity that there is one God and three divine persons in the one God: the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit.

Note how all of these definitions include the idea of “three PERSONS,” but there is no mention of three “modes” or “facets.” Note also that the belief of God being “three divine persons” is said to be the belief of “most Christian faiths.”

Dictionary.com then gives the following fuller discussion (taken from Easton’s Bible Dictionary):
Trinity - a word not found in Scripture, but used to express the doctrine of the unity of God as subsisting in three distinct Persons. This word is derived from the Gr. trias, first used by Theophilus (A.D. 168-183), or from the Lat. trinitas, first used by Tertullian (A.D. 220), to express this doctrine. The propositions involved in the doctrine are these: 1. That God is one, and that there is but one God (Deut. 6:4; 1 Kings 8:60; Isa. 44:6; Mark 12:29, 32; John 10:30). 2. That the Father is a distinct divine Person (hypostasis, subsistentia, persona, suppositum intellectuale), distinct from the Son and the Holy Spirit. 3. That Jesus Christ was truly God, and yet was a Person distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit. 4. That the Holy Spirit is also a distinct divine Person.

Note here the emphasis on each Member of the Trinity being a “distinct Person” from the other two Persons of the Trinity. This is in contrast to the emailer’s claim that it teaches “the Son is the Father.”

Another source freely available to all on the Internet is Wikipedia. Its discussion on “Trinity” begins with the following paragraphs:

In Christian doctrine, the Trinity is the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in one Godhead. The doctrine states that God is the Triune God, existing as three persons, or in the Greek hypostases, but one being. Each of the persons is understood as having the one identical essence or nature, not merely similar natures. Since the beginning of the third century the doctrine of the Trinity has been stated as "the one God exists in three Persons and one substance, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Trinitarianism, belief in the Trinity, is a mark of Oriental and Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism and all the mainstream traditions arising from the Protestant Reformation, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism and Presbyterianism. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church describes the Trinity as "the central dogma of Christian theology".

This doctrine is in contrast to Nontrinitarian positions which include Binitarianism (one deity/two persons), Unitarianism (one deity/one person), the Oneness belief held by certain Pentecostal groups, Modalism, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' view of the Godhead as three separate beings who are one in purpose rather than essence.

Doing a search on “Modalism” in Wikipedia brings up the page on Sabellianism. It begins:

In Christianity, Sabellianism (also known as modalism, modalistic monarchianism, or modal monarchism) is the nontrinitarian belief that the Heavenly Father, Resurrected Son and Holy Spirit are different modes or aspects of one God, as perceived by the believer, rather than three distinct persons in God Himself.

Note again the emphases in Wikipedia on the Trinity teaching of “three PERSONS” and the statements that Modalism is “Nontrinitarian.” Also note in the first paragraph that a belief in the Trinity as being three Persons is said to be “a mark” of all major Christian denominations, while ”Modalism” is said to be the “Oneness belief of certain Pentecostal groups,” just as I said in my first response to the emailer.

Bibliography:
Millard J. Erickson. Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.

Part Two of this article continues 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 newsletter.
It was posted on this site March 1, 2009.

The Doctrine of the Trinity: Intermediate
The Doctrine of the Trinity

Text Search     Alphabetical List of Pages     Subject Index
General Information on Articles     Contact Information

Darkness to Light Home Page
www.dtl.org


Click Here for Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla

www.dtl.org/trinity/article/modalism/part_one.htm