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The Trinity vs. Modalism
Which is the Historic Christian Doctrine?
By Gary F. Zeolla
Part One of this article began with an email that claimed this writer did not accurately present the doctrine of the Trinity. To disprove that claim, definitions of “Modalism” and “Trinity” were presented in Part One. Part Two then overviewed major historical Christian creeds and confessions. This third part and final part will conclude this discussion with first a look at some minor confessions.
Various Minor Confessions of Faiths
Below are excerpts from various confessions of faith for Christian organizations this writer has had personal connection with.
We believe … In one God, eternally existent in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Your Invitation to Calvary Baptist Church. I attended this church back in the mid-1980s. It was the pastor of this church that helped to convince me to attend seminary).
The Trinity: We believe in one God, creator and sustainer of all things, eternally existing in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: that these are equal in every divine perfection and that they execute distinct but harmonious offices in the work of creation, providence, and redemption (Statement of Faith of Denver Seminary. This is the seminary I attended from 1988-90. Note that it is a Conservative Baptist seminary).
We believe … That there is one God who exists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Shield of Faith: A Ministry to Non-Christian Religions and Aberrant Christian Groups. This was the ministry I worked with while attending Denver Seminary).
There is one God, eternally existing and manifesting Himself in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (The Story of the Mennonite Brethren Church. I attended a MBC while living in Denver).
We believe … In one God, Creator of all things, infinitely perfect and eternally existing in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (This is the Evangelical Free Church. Darkness to Light began in 1991 as a ministry of Christ Community Fellowship, a member of the EFCA).
We believe that the Godhead exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that these three are one God. Man is created to know and to enjoy Him forever (Maranatha Bible Church. I attended this independent church on occasion in the early 1990s).
The following are confessions of faiths of various seminaries I looked at before deciding on Denver Seminary. They are listed in alphabetical order of the name of the seminary. I have omitted the Scripture references that some of these contain.
We believe … in the Trinity of the Godhead: one God eternally existing in three equal Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Baptist Bible College and Seminary).
The Trinity: We believe that there is one living and true God, eternally existing in three persons: that these are equal in every divine perfection and that they execute distinct but harmonious offices in the work of creation, providence, and redemption (Bethel theological Seminary, following An Affirmation of Our Faith for the Baptist General Conference).
I believe in one God, eternally existing in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Capital Seminary).
God is One God, Who reveals Himself in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ as the Scriptures affirm, is the Son of God and Son of Man, who was born of a virgin and is Himself very God. The Scriptures also declare the deity and personality of the Holy Spirit (Columbia Bible College and Seminary).
2. We believe in God the Father … 3. We believe in God the Son … 4. We believe in God the Holy Spirit … (Conservative Baptist Seminary of the East).
We believe that the Godhead eternally exists in three persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—and that these three are one God, having precisely the same nature, attributes, and perfections, and worthy of precisely the same homage, confidence, and obedience (Dallas Theological Seminary).
We believe in the One Triune God … self-existent and self-revealing in three distinct Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each of whom is to be honored and worshiped equally as true God (Grace Theological Seminary).
There is one God, personal, infinite, perfect and eternally existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is equal in every divine perfection (Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary, which “is committed to the doctrinal statement of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches”).
It can be seen that many of these are Baptist seminaries, as I was attending a Baptist church at the time. It can also be seen that all of these Baptist Seminaries unanimously agree that God exists as three Persons. This contradicts the claim of the emailer that opened Part One that his studies with Baptists showed her that Baptists teach Modalism. If she had attended an actual Baptist seminary, she would have learned otherwise.
Theologies and Dictionaries
Throughout the centuries, many Christian systemic theologies have been written. These volumes almost always include a chapter on the doctrine of the Trinity. Many Biblical and theological dictionaries also have been written, and they usually also have an entry for “Trinity.” I own many such volumes in both hardcopy and electronic formats, and many can also be found posted on the Web. Below are excerpts from a few of these. These excerpts focus on the main subject of this article, the distinction of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Millard J. Erickson. Christian Theology:
The threeness and oneness of God are not in the same respect. Although the orthodox interpretation of the Trinity seems contradictory (God is one and yet three), the contradiction is not real, but only apparent. A contradiction exist if something is A and not A at the same time and in the same respect. Modalism attempted to deal with the apparent contradiction by stating that the three modes or manifestations of God are not simultaneous; at any given time, one is being revealed. Orthodoxy, however, insists that God is three persons at every moment of time. Maintaining this unity as well, orthodoxy deals with the problem by suggesting that the way in which God is three is in some respect different from the way in which he is one. The fourth-century thinkers spoke of one ousia [essence] and three hypostases [persons]…
The doctrine of the Trinity is a crucial ingredient of our faith. Each of the three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is to be worshiped, as is the triune God. And, keeping in mind their distinctive work, it is appropriate to direct prayers of thanks and of petition to each of the members of the Trinity, as well as to all of them collectively. Furthermore, the perfect love and unity within the Godhead model for us the oneness and affection that should characterize our relationships within the body of Christ (pp. 337, 342).
Be sure to note how Erickson specifically differentiates Modalism from the doctrine of the Trinity. As noted in Part One, this is one of the theologies that was assigned for usage when I attended Denver Seminary.
G.W. Bromiley, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter a. Elwell:
Trinity. 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 Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It signifies that within the one essence of the Godhead we have to distinguish three “persona” who are neither three gods on the one side, nor three parts or modes of God on the other, but coequally and coeternally God…
More pregnant is the suggestion by Augustine that without the Trinity there could be no fellowship or love in God, the divine Trinity involving an interrelationship in which the divine perfections find eternal exercise and expression independent of the creation of the world and man (p.1112).
Note how Bromiley specifically denies that the term “modes” is an adequate way to express the distinction of Persons within the Godhead. Note also how he refers to Augustine’s statement about the conception of the Trinity is vital for God to be truly love and to be independent of His creation. This was exactly my point in Part One on the importance of the Trinity.
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion:
2. But there is another special mark by which he designates himself, for the purpose of giving a more intimate knowledge of his nature. While he proclaims his unity, he distinctly sets it before us as existing in three persons. These we must hold, unless the bare and empty name of Deity merely is to flutter in our brain without any genuine knowledge. Moreover, lest any one should dream of a threefold God, or think that the simple essence is divided by the three Persons, we must here seek a brief and easy definition which may effectually guard us from error.
17. On the other hand, the Scriptures demonstrate that there is some distinction between the Father and the Word, the Word and the Spirit; but the magnitude of the mystery reminds us of the great reverence and soberness which ought to he employed in discussing it. It seems to me, that nothing can be more admirable than the words of Gregory Nanzianzen … "I cannot think of the unity without being irradiated by the Trinity: I cannot distinguish between the Trinity without being carried up to the unity."
Therefore, let us beware of imagining such a Trinity of persons as will distract our thoughts, instead of bringing them instantly back to the unity. The words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, certainly indicate a real distinction, not allowing us to suppose that they are merely epithets by which God is variously designated from his works. Still they indicate distinction only, not division.
Note how Calvin says there is a “real distinction” between the Father, Son, and Spirit. But the emphasis on the “threeness” of God in this article must not be construed to mean there are three gods. As Calvin says, there is a “distinction only, not division.”
Morton H. Smith, in The Classic Bible Dictionary:
A study of Scripture reveals there are three separate Persons in the Godhead. This fact has led to the use of the term “trinity” to describe this doctrine. This is not itself a Biblical term, but was a term coined by Tertullian to refer to this whole concept under one word. In so far as it is used to describe a Biblical doctrine, it is perfectly valid to use it in a Christian theological vocabulary (p. 483).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
The term "Trinity" is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Biblical language when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in substance but distinct in subsistence … The doctrine of the Trinity is given to us in Scripture, not in formulated definition, but in fragmentary allusions; when we assemble the disjecta membra into their organic unity, we are not passing from Scripture, but entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture. We may state the doctrine in technical terms, supplied by philosophical reflection; but the doctrine stated is a genuinely Scriptural doctrine (copied from BibleWorks for Windows).
Conclusion to Historical Overview
When I was developing the Confession of Faith for Darkness to Light, I studied all of the quoted and many other creeds, confessions of faiths, theologies, and dictionaries. I was looking for the commonalities between them and thus what were the most important teachings agreed upon by most facets of the Christian faith. These are what I call the “essentials of the faith.”
It can be seen that a statement to the effect that “God exists in three Persons” appears in them all. As such, I included such a statement in my confession as it is clear that the doctrine of the Trinity is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.
I also firmly believe the way I worded the clause for my confession accurately expressed the main thoughts of these various creeds and confessions. With this background, it is hard for me to take it seriously when someone emails me and tells me I have not accurately understood the doctrine of the Trinity. That is why I did not initially spend much time responding to the email quoted in Part One. But this article serves as a demonstration of all of the study that went into drafting this ministry’s confession.
Teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses
The email in Part One also claimed I misrepresented the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses in regards to the Person of Jesus Christ and the Trinity in general. Posted on the site is my four part article Trinity in Two Watchtower Publications. In it I quote extensively from Watchtower literature to document their actual teachings and claims. As such, I also cannot take it seriously when someone makes such an accusation.
That four-part article documents how Jehovah’s Witnesses will often misrepresent the doctrine of the Trinity. The will confuse it with Modalism. Then they will present arguments against Modalism, namely by showing the Father and Son are distinct Persons. They will then declare that as such the doctrine of the Trinity is false.
But this is all slight of hand. The doctrine of the Trinity AFFIRMS that the Father and Son are distinct Persons. As such, such verses confirm rather then disprove the doctrine.
Meanwhile, in my discussion with JWs, I have found they will assert Jesus is “a god” or “divine,” but they have specifically denied that He is “deity.” So I would have to disagree with the emailer on that point. But the most important point is they deny Jesus’ equality with the Father. That issue is addressed in detail in the above and other articles posted at Jehovah's Witnesses and the Trinity. Those articles also refute in detail other Watchtower arguments against the Trinity, so I will not repeat all of that information here.
What the Bible Teaches
The most important question of all is of course, what does the Bible teach on this subject? In the new edition of my Scripture Workbook: Volume I there are three chapters on the Doctrine of the Trinity, covering 36 pages.
The first study (Scripture Study #10) is a systematic, Biblical defense of the doctrine. It references over 600 passages of Scripture. Yes, over six hundred! That is a lot of Biblical material in support of the doctrine. As such, I also cannot take it seriously when someone claims the doctrine of the Trinity is not Scriptural. I also get rather miffed when Jehovah Witnesses and others try to make it sound like the doctrine is only based on a small handful of verses.
As the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states:
It is clear, in other words, that, as we read the New Testament, we are not witnessing the birth of a new conception of God. What we meet within its pages is a firmly established conception of God underlying and giving its tone to the whole fabric. It is not in a text here and there that the New Testament bears its testimony to the doctrine of the Trinity. The whole book is Trinitarian to the core; all its teaching is built on the assumption of the Trinity; and its allusions to the Trinity are frequent, cursory, easy and confident (copied from BibleWorks for Windows).
Scripture Study #11 in my book then provides more information and Scriptural material related to the doctrine of the Trinity. Over 150 passages of Scripture are referenced in that study. Included in that study is a section on “The Importance of the Trinity.” Ten items are discussed. So again, I get miffed when someone says there is no practical importance of the doctrine.
Scripture Study #12 then considers “Opposing Viewpoints on the Trinity.” It looks at verses quoted by those opposed to the doctrine (like JWs), how those groups use the verses, then refutes their interpretations. About 100 such passages are addressed in the study.
Altogether, those three chapters reference over 850 passages of Scripture. I had to look up and consider every single one of those verses in developing those studies. So again, I cannot take it seriously when someone insinuates I have not sufficiently studied what the Bible teaches on this subject.
The email quoted at the beginning of Part One is only one of many such emails I have received over the years. But this article shows how all such claims are absolutely false. As such, I stand by my writings and my presentation and defense of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is perfectly expressed in this ministry’s Confession of Faith and well-defended in my Scripture Workbook.
“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.”
BibleWorks™ for Windows™. Copyright © 1992-2003 BibleWorks, L.C.C. Big Fork, MT: Hermeneutika. Programmed by Michael S. Bushell and Michael D. Tan.
Bromiley, G.W. in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter a. Elwell: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984.
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A New Translation, by Henry Beveridge, Esq. As found on quoted from Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. (I have the first linked to version in hardcopy, but for ease of copying I took the quoted text from the Web site)
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1986.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (I have and quoted this source form BibleWorks, but the link is to the hardcopy version).
Smith. Morton H. “God, Persons of” in Green, Jay P. editor. Classic Bible Dictionary. LaFayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Trust Fund, 1988.
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 June 27, 2009.
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