What is Modalism?

Question
What is Modalism?
Answer
Modalism, or Sabellianism, involves errors regarding the Trinity. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity affirms that God is one in essence and three in Person. Modalism initially was taught by a bishop in the early church named Sabellius (ca. 215 AD). Modalism teaches that only one God exists and that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are different modes or manifestations of the one God.

Modalism undermines the Scriptural teaching that God never changes (Mal 3:6: Jas 1:17) because it portrays a God who changes his modes. In addition, Modalism undermines the mediatorial work of Christ. Scripture teaches that Jesus is the mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5). However, in Modalism they believe that God the Father and God the Son are the same Person and therefore they have God mediating with himself, which is illogical and contrary to Scripture. In Modalism they have Jesus praying to himself (John 17:11), sending himself (John 20:21), and even returning to himself (John 20:17), all which again is illogical, nor the correct interpretation of the Scriptures they cite. Scripturally, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are distinct Persons - not the same Person - in the Godhead. There are not three Gods, but three Persons in the one Godhead. We see this distinction very clearly in Scripture. Matthew 3:16-17 states:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

Here we clearly see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as three distinct Persons (cf. Matt 28:18-20; 2 Cor 13:14). Calvin wrote in his Institutes (1.13.5), "[The] Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but . . . they are differentiated by a peculiar quality." The Holy Scripture teaches that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but also that the Father is not the Son or Holy Spirit, the Son is not the Father or Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father or Son. God is one in essence and three in person.

Despite all the heresies in the early church (among them, Adoptionism, Albigenses, Apollinarianism, Arianism, Docetism, Ebionism, Gnosticism, Kenosis, Marcionism, Modalism, Monarchianism, Monophysitism, Nestorianism, Patripassionism, Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, Socinianism, Subordinationism, and Tritheism, etc.) the Word of God still abides (1 Pet 1:23). Amidst all these assaults against God and his church by numerous false religions, the church has grown stronger, not weaker. In many ways, the church should be thankful for the gift of opposition!

Related Topics:

Could Jesus Sin?
Christological Heresies?
What is Adoptionism?
What is Albigenses?
What is Apollinarianism?
What is Arianism?
What is Docetism?
What is Ebionism?
What is Gnosticism?
What is Kenosis?
What is Marcionism?
What is Monarchianism?
What is Monophysitism?
What is Nestorianism?
What is Patripassionism?
What is Pelagianism?
What is Semi-Pelagianism?
What is Socinianism?
What is Subordinationism?
What is Tritheism?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).