Church history is riddled with problems. Sin has left much of church history to more closely resemble the ancient Jerusalem of the Old Testament than the heavenly Jerusalem we look forward to. The problems the church has faced are about as varied as could be imagined, from practical issues, to sin among leadership and laity, to heresies in every generation. But which problems present the greatest danger?
I would suggest that the most dangerous errors that face the church are those that go unnoticed. When a problem is recognised as such, the table is set for efforts to be made to rectify it. But when problems go unrecognised, especially if they are unrecognised for a long time, the extent of damage they cause can be extreme, and rectifying them becomes more difficult.
Church history is full of examples of this exact sort of thing. Consider the church in the Southern United States- for two centuries sinful racism against blacks was not only tolerated but also endorsed by Southern churches. For only a relatively small portion of that time did they even face outside opposition from Christians in other regions, since most Northern Churches were equally rascist, and while they often decried slavery, they rarely focused on the great sin of hating and prejudicing others on the basis of race.
Because most white Christians did not even categorically think of racism as sin, there was no real effort to correct the problem for a long time. The effects of this are readily visible today as many black and white Christians still meet in separate churches. There still remains work to be done.
Semi-modalism is a similar problem in terms of its going largely unnoticed as being a problem. But semi-modalism also surpasses other errors in other ways as well, which, combined, make semi-modalism one of the greatest problems the church has ever faced.
Semi-modalism is a variation of the ancient heresy of modalism that keeps the fundamental principle of modalism unchanged -namely, that the person of the one God is all three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- but unlike classical modalism does not teach that he takes turns manifesting himself as each of the three persons. Instead semi-modalism teaches that the single person who is the one God eternally exists as the three real persons of the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- simultaneously. This stands in contrast to the Bible’s teaching that the one God is the person of the Father in particular, with the Son standing in relation to the one God as His only-begotten Son, and the Spirit as His Spirit. The idea that all three persons of the Trinity constitute a single person is foreign to the teaching of scripture.
Firstly we must note that semi-modalism is among the most serious errors the church has ever faced simply because of the centrality of the doctrines it attacks. The ancient church regarded the confession of one God Who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ as the first and most fundamental article of the Christian faith, and for good reason. There is little more fundamental and more crucial doctrinally than the very identity of the one true God.
Its an especially grievous error when we consider that the purpose of all history and creation is to make known the glory of God- Who He is. Semi-modalism works to obscure that truth. It works against the very purpose for which Christians are to live. By presenting God fictitiously as though He is a person who is three persons instead of acknowledging Him as one person, the Father, this dangerous heresy undermines the very foundations of the Christian faith. So fundamental was this doctrine that the famous Nicene Creed began by affirming this truth, saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” and afterwards going on to discuss the Son as His Son and Holy Spirit as His Spirit.
Not only is scripture abundantly clear on this basic point of doctrine, but the early church also labored to defend it against various heresies that arose in the first few centuries of church history. For an extensive list of historical testimony to the truth that the one God is the person of the Father in particular, and proof from the holy scriptures, see here: https://nicenefaith.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/.
Another factor that makes semi-modalism in particular, out of all the varied and serious heresies the church has faced throughout history, one of the most dangerous and damaging of all is its long history. It can first be seen in the late fourth century, creeping in without much notice amid the doctrinal chaos and confusion caused by the Arian controversy. Shortly thereafter the highly influential fifth century theologian Augustine popularized it with his books on the Trinity, and ever since it has been accepted nearly unopposed in Western Christianity.
Many have blindly followed this false teaching without question, and without realizing that they were fed a counterfeit doctrine of the Trinity, not that taught in scripture, articulated by the Nicene Creed, and defended by great theologians of the early church like Athanasius and Irenaeus. Like any error that has gained wide and largely unopposed acceptance, semi-modalism is made especially dangerous to those who hold it because of its long history, which gives it a sense of normality, and a special appeal to those who place favorite theologians who have fallen into this error above the scriptures. Rather than heeding scripture’s command to “test everything, and hold fast to that which is good”, many today would rather take the word of a favorite theologian they are impressed with over and against the clear teaching of scripture on this issue.
Finally, semi-modalism is made especially dangerous by the fact that most people simply do not recognise it at all. It wraps itself in language so similar to orthodoxy, and shares so much in common with orthodoxy, that many fail to make a distinction. It has blended just enough error in with a great deal of truth to make it seem palatable, like poison hidden in something sweet to cover its taste. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he doesn’t exist, it has been said.
But however well semi-modalism blends in, it is fundamentally different than orthodox trinitarianism. There is a vast conceptual difference between thinking of the Trinity as being a person who is himself three persons and thinking of the Trinity as a group of three distinct persons, namely, the one God Who is the Father, His one only-begotten Son, and His one Holy Spirit, as the Nicene Creed confesses and the scriptures teach.
Rather than give way to this false teaching, we must strive to think rightly of the one true God, thinking of Him as He has revealed Himself in the scriptures, not according to the imaginations of men. And the scriptures clearly reveal Him as the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, not as a person who is multiple persons. Until semi-modalism is widely recognised as being incompatible with the truth scripture teaches, this problem will continue to do great harm both to the church herself and to the cause of God’s glory.