Modalism, Tritheism, and Subordinationism; Your Only Three Real Options Regarding the Trinity

In the broad scheme of trinitarian doctrine, there are only three overarching positions to choose from, each of those three being able to be further divided into different variations. These three options are modalism, tritheism, and subordinationism; there are no other alternatives, and every view on the Trinity fits somewhere within these categories.

All three systems broadly agree on the three basic facts that there is one God, and three divine persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But these facts alone, stated this way, are too vague; and the way each system explains how these facts fit together is different. They do not agree on what it means that there is one God, or what it means that there are three divine persons.

Modalism explains monotheism by arguing that there is only one divine person, and thus only one God. It either makes the three persons out to be one person, or else denies either the divinity or the distinct existence of two persons. Sometimes this is done by denying distinct existence of the Son and Holy Spirit, other times by saying that “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” are just three different names, or three different modes of manifestation, of one person, other times by declaring that the three persons are ultimately a single person at the deepest level, although on the surface and in a relative way relate to each other as though three persons. Thus by defining the oneness of God as there being only a single divine person, they ultimately deny that there are three divine persons in anything but name only.

Tritheism goes to the opposite extreme by denying that there is truly one God by making the three persons not only really distinct, but also separate, and entirely equal. By proclaiming three independent identical divine persons, they make there out to be three gods. A weak attempt to say otherwise often comes in the form of arguing that there being one God simply means that there is only one divine nature of Godhood, which is shared by the three identical persons. But this falls apart easily, for just as three human persons with one common human nature are three men, so the tritheistic reckoning of three divine persons with one common divine nature makes there out to be three gods.

Subordinationism avoids the pitfalls of modalism and tritheism. There is not one God because there is only one divine person, as there are three divine persons, truly distinct from each other. It likewise avoids the pitfall of tritheism by not making the Son and Spirit identical and equal to the Father, but rather regards them as subordinate. There are various forms of subordinationism, all of which teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are subordinated to the Father as Their Cause and Authoritative Head. Thus, in this classical trinitarianism, there is one God because there is only one Supreme uncaused Cause of all, Who is the one Supreme Authority over all, the person of the Father. Not only is all creation caused by the Father through His Son and Spirit, but His Son was atemporally begotten of Him before the ages, and His Spirit eternally proceeds from Him; thus all things run up into one supreme cause, the Father, Who alone simply is what and who He is without cause, source, or origin. Likewise although the Son has been given all authority in heaven and earth, even He Himself is subject to the Authority of the one Who subjected all things to Him, His God and Father. Thus all authority runs up into one Supreme Authority over all Who has no higher authority above Him. Thus there is one God, the Father, and yet there are three truly distinct divine persons.


Samuel Clarke on Why Classical Trinitarianism is Not Tritheism

(From Clarke’s answer is recorded in the the fourth edition of Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity and Related Writings.)

OBJ. “Three Divine Beings – must needs be conceived as Three Gods, notwithstanding any Subordination of the Second and Third Being to the First; or else we must free the Pagan World from the Absurdity of Polytheism, and the Guilt of Idolatry; these being generally, if not always, founded upon a Subordination of many Deities to the One Supreme.”

ANSW. The Difference between Christianity and Paganism, is This. The Pagans acknowledged many FALSE (fictitious) Gods, and many FALSE (fictitious) Lords: On the contrary, Christians acknowledge only One True God, and only One TRUE Lord or Mediator. There are (saith St. Paul) that are called, (that is, that were feigned1 by the Heathens,) Gods many, and Lords manyBut to US [Christians,] there is but One God,[viz.] the Father, Of whom are all things; and One Lord, [viz.] Jesus Christ, By whom are all things. Now to say, that besides the One True God, there cannot be also One True Lord or Mediator; is an Argument, not against myScheme in particular; but ’tis the Argument which Deists use, (with what Reason, I have elsewhere shewn,) against Christianity in general. Or to say, that there is also indeed One True Lord or Mediator, but that That One True Lord is the same Individual with the One True God; What is This, but to affirm in other Words, that the One Lord Jesus Christ, BY whom are all things, is the One Godthe FatherOF whom are all things? Which is overturning the Apostles whole Argument, and introducing an absolute Confusion of Persons. Our One God, says the Apostle, is the Father: If then the One LordJesus Christ, be That One God, whom the Apostle defines to be the Fatherof whom are all Things; is not this expressly affirming that the Son is the Father? Than which, nothing can be more hard to understand, or to reconcile with the whole Doctrine of Scripture.

But why must Three Divine Beings, of Necessity be conceived as Three Gods? One Godthe Almighty Father; and One Lordthe Only-begotten Son of That Almighty Father; and One Holy Spirit of Godthe Spirit of That Almighty Father; are in our Creed represented to us as Three distinct Agents: And yet they are no more Three Gods, than they are Three Almighty Fathers, which is (according to the Creed) the Definition of GodOne God, to whom Mediation is made; and One Mediator, making Intercession for us to That One God, (which is St. Paul’s manner of speaking;) are no more Two Gods; than an Advocate with the Father, and the Father with whom that Advocate is, (which is St. John’s manner of expressing the same thing,) are Two Fathers. One Spirit, One Lord, One God and Father of allwho is above all; are by the Apostle represented to us, as Three distinct Agents: And yet they can no more truly be said to be Three Gods, than Each of them singly, (or than All of them together,) can be truly said to be The God and Father of All, who is Above All; Which is the Apostles Definition of the One Supreme God. Three perfectly co-ordinate, and equally Supreme Persons or Agents, (whatever Distinctness, or whatever Unity of Nature be supposed between them,) must of Necessity be conceived to be Three Gods, that is, Three Supreme Independent Governors of the Universe; because the proper notion of God in Scripture, and in natural Reason also, as to all moral and religious Regards, is his being absolutely  ὁ παντοκράτωρSupreme Ruler over All, and ὁ πατὴρ πάντων, (Eph. 4:6) the Father or Author of all things: But, This Character being preserved entire, no other Power whatsoever ascribed or communicated to other Agents or Persons, can justly cause us to conceive more Gods than One. How and in what Sense the Son, though he be not That One God and Father of Allwho is above All, may yet truly and properly be stiled God; has been largely explained the the foregoing Papers.2

But now on the other side, if the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be conceived to be All but One Individual Being; it follows of Necessity, that the Son and Holy Spirit have no Being at all; Which is an insuperableDifficulty in This learned Author’s Scheme. For if each of these Characters belong to One and the same Individual Being; and the Father Alone be (as is acknowledged) that Whole Being; it follows evidently that the Son and Holy Spirit, either are Themselves The Father, (which he is not willing to allow;) or else have no real Beingno Existence at all, but can only be ModesPowersCharacters or different Denominations of That One Supreme, that One Simple and Uncompounded Being, which is the Father of All. The plain Consequence of which is, that our Mediator and Redeemer is only a Mere Man, in whom God the Father manifested himself after an extraordinary manner; and that the Holy Spirit is nothing but a mere Virtue or Operationof the Father. Which Notion, how much soever it may be defended, as an Hypothesis, by bare Reason, (as may be seen in the Socinian Writers;) yet I can by no means see how it is to be reconciled with what is taught in Scripture. Besides: Since this Learned Writer always supposes his own Scheme, to be the same with That which from the Time of the Fourth Century has been stiled Orthodox; it deserves to be remarked on the contrary, that by his plainly making the Son to be, homoousios, but tautousious with the Father, that is, One and the same Individual Being; his Assertion in reality appears to be the same with that, which from before the Days of Photinus to the Times of the Schoolmen, has by the Council of Nice, and all following Councils been condemned as Heterodox.

Special thanks to Alexander Ascuitto for transcribing this. See his site here.


Can The Unity of Action Between the Persons of the Trinity Justify Using Singular Personal Pronouns for the Trinity?

Semi-modalists such as Cornelius Van Til, who present the Trinity itself as a person who is three persons, naturally use singular personal pronouns for the Trinity, such as “He” and “Him”. This is consistent with their belief that the Trinity is a person; “God the Trinity”, “the triune God”.

Biblical trinitarianism stands at odds with such language, however, since it teaches us to believe in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The titles “one God”, and “only God” are reserved by scripture for the person of the Father alone (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.)

This all runs contrary to semi-modalism’s absurd teaching that the one God is a person who is the entire Trinity of three person, and to the convention of using singular personal pronouns for the Trinity as a whole. Doing so clearly implies that the Trinity is a single person (see God’s ‘Preferred Pronouns’ and Do Pronouns Matter?).

Yet some have attempted to justify this convention of language on the grounds that since the actions performed by the persons of the Trinity are single, the persons performing the actions should be referred to with singular personal pronouns. For example, the action of God creating the world was done through His Son and Spirit in such a way not that there were three separate acts of creation, but one, from the Father, through the Son and Holy Spirit. On the basis of each action being singular instead of triple, then, it is argued that we must use singular grammar to reflect this truth; hence justifying the use of singular personal pronouns for for multiple persons of the Trinity together.

This crafty argument falls apart when we make the simple distinction between actions and actors. The actions themselves may in each individual case be singular; but when all three persons of the Trinity are involved in the performing of a given action, as we have spoken of above, there is then a plural number of actors. So while we may (and should) reflect the singularity of such actions by referring to them with grammar that reflects their singularity (such as using singular impersonal pronouns for the actions themselves, such as “They performed it“), it is equally important that we reflect the plurality of actors involved in each single action by using plural personal pronouns for the persons performing the action (“They performed it”).

If we instead were to use singular personal pronouns, we would not be grammatically treating the action as singular, but the actors as singular; which in respect to the persons of the Trinity usually ends in treating all three of Them together as a single person. Such semi-modalistic language carries ultimately heretical implications, which we must avoid if wish to accurately portray the realities the scriptures reveal to us in the way that we speak.


Historic Anglican Testimonies to the Father in Particular Being the “One God”

Scripture teaches that there is only one God. We are also expressly told that this one God is the person of the Father in particular in several places in scripture:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

“yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NAS

The testimony of the ancient church fathers agrees with this: see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.

As we have discussed previously, the Father alone is called the “one God” and “only God” by scripture on account of the fact that He alone is the supreme uncaused Cause of all, even of the Son by eternal generation and the Holy Spirit by eternal procession, and because the Father alone is the Supreme Authority over all, not only over all creation, but also even exercising headship over His own only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit.

While ancient testimony to these truths is abundant, historical testimony in favor of these points of doctrine is not limited to the ancient church. In this article I want to highlight more men from the Anglican tradition who can also be cited as testifying to these truths:

Richard Hooker (1554-1600)

“The Father Alone is originally That Deity, which Christ originally is not; For Christ is God, by being of God.” (Ecclesiast. Pol. Book 5)

Dr. Henry More (1614-1687)

“By the Term God, if you understand That which is First of all, in such a sense as All else is from Him, and He from None; the Son and Spirit cannot be said to be God in This signification; because the Father is not from Them, but They from the Father.” (Mystery of Godliness, Book 9, Chapter 2)

Dr. Payn

“Has we gone no further than Scripture, the only Rule of our Faith, in this matter; and held, with That, that To Us there is One God, the Father, 1 Cor. 8,6; One God and Father of All, who is Above all, Eph. 4, 6; And had we known Him The Only True God, (as Christ calls him, Joh. 17, 3, not exclusively, but eminently and by way of Excellency and Prerogative, by which the Name and Title of GOD is peculiarly predicated of God the Father in Scripture; –which is the great Reason given by the Fathers, of the Divine Unity;–) Had we considered this plain scriptural Account and Observation, that One God is spoken and predicated of the Father, and meant of Hi, when it is said both in the old Testament and in the New, The Lord thy God is One God, and there is none other but he, or besides him; we had not given occasion for That Objection of our Adversaries, against our Faith, of its implying a Contradiction, or of its setting up ore Gods than One. The One God, whom we pray to in the Lord’s prayer, and in other Christian Offices and Addresses; whom we profess to believe in, in our Creed; and whom the scripture calls so; is God the Father Almighty. And He hath an Only-begotten Son…” (Sermon on Trinity-Sunday, June 7th, 1696; page 18)

“The One God is spoken of God the Father in scripture, as I have shown you; and a great Many, and particularly Bishop Pearson upon the Creed observes; that “the Name of God taken absolutely, is often in Scripture spoken of the Father, and is in many places to be taken particularly of the Father; and from hence (says he) he is stiled One God, the True God, the Only True God: And This (he says further) is a most necessary Truth to be acknowledged, for the avoiding multiplication and Plurality of Gods;” He laying the Unity mainly here as I have done. So that though the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God; which they are not often called in Scripture; (which rather reserves and gives the Name of GOD absolutely and peculiarly to the Father; as, GOD loved the World, GOD sent his Son, and the like;) yet Neither of them are meant by That One God, which the Scripture speaks of, when is speaks peculiarly of the Father. —The Word God,—- generally (if not always) in Scripture, taken absolutely and spoken so of one God, is meant of God the Father. Which may give us such an Account of the Trinity and of the Unity, as may take off all the charge of a Contradiction. Since they are not One and Three; nor is each of them God, and All of them God or One God; in the same respect, sense and meaning of the Words; but in different. —- The Father is the Only Self-existent unoriginated Being, the Cause and Root of the other Two, as the Antients often call him; and so is…  …God in the highest Sense: And the Scriptures, Creeds, and Christian Offices, call him so absolutely and by way of Eminence and Prerogative. The Son is produced of the Father, and so is not Autotheos, or God in That Sense as the Father who is from None; but is God, of God…” (Ibid.)

“He is not indeed God the Father, or God from None, Autotheos: (In That Sense, we believe in One God, the Father Almighty; and to Us there is but One God, the Father, as the Apostle speaks, 1 Cor. 8,6; And Christ is the Son of this God the Father, who had his Being and Nature from him:) But he is God of God…” (Sermon on September 21, 1696; page 87)

“The Father is the Only Self-existent, unoriginated Being; ——- and so, in the words of a Right Reverend and Excellent Person, God in the highest Sense. —– The Word Deus, as it signifies a Self-existent, unoriginated Being, —— is predicated Only of God the Father; and not, secundum eandem rationem [upon the same Account,] of the other two divine Persons, Neither of which are Self-existent and unoriginated, nor God in the highest sense of Autotheos; ——- But He [viz. the Father] —– is called eminently and absolutely, and by way of Excellence and Prerogative, The One God, and, in the Words forequoted, God in the highest Sense.” (Letter from Dr. P. to the Bishop of R. in Vindication of his sermon on Trinity-Sunday, pages 15,16,17)

“This is the Explication of the Antients, which they hold; with this more plain scriptural Account of the Trinity, that needs no explication: One God the Father, with an only-begotten Son…” (Post-script, page 26)




Anglican Bishop John Pearson on the Father Alone Being the “One God”

The early church fathers are clear in their testimony that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular, as can be seen here: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty. This is not to the denial of the divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit, but rather an acknowledgement of the Father alone being the supreme uncaused Cause of all, including the Son by eternal generation and Holy Spirit by eternal procession, as well as an acknowledgement of the Father being the Supreme Authority and Head over all, even over His only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit.

After the Nicene era, there is considerably less focus on this important biblical truth. After the Protestant Reformation, however, there seems to have been something of a recovery of this doctrine within Anglicanism. In this post, we see excerpts from Bishop John Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed, wherein he makes several references to the Father in particular being the one God.

Bishop John Pearson (1612-1686):

“That one God is Father of All; and to us there is but One God, the Father of All; and to us there is but one God, the Father.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 26)

“And thus to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things; To which the Words following in the Creed may seem to have relation, The Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 26)

“From hence He [the Father] is stiled One God, (1 Cor 8,6; Eph 4,6) the True God, (1 Th. 1,9) the Only True God, (Joh. 17,3;) the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (2 Cor. 1,3; Eph 1,3;)” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 40)

“After the confession of a Deity, and assertion of the divine unity, the next consideration is concerning God’s paternity; for that one God is Father of all [Eph 4:6], and to us there is one God, the Father [1 Cor 8:6].” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 45)

“I shall briefly declare the Creation of the World to have been performed by that One God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 63)

“But as we have already proved that One God, the Father, to be the Maker of the world,” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 64)