Moody Bible Institute Trades Blatant Semi-Modalism For Ambiguity

The Moody Bible Institute made an official change to article 1 of their doctrinal statement earlier this year. The statement from Moody can be read here: https://www.moodybible.org/news/global/2018/moodyleadershipdoctrinalannouncement/.

As the statement briefly outlines, the old version, in use since 1928, reads:

“God is a Person who has revealed Himself as a Trinity in unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three Persons and yet one God.”

This was replaced with the following:

“God is triune, one Being eternally existing in three co-equal Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; these divine Persons, together possessing the same eternal perfections, work inseparably and harmoniously in creating, sustaining, and redeeming the world.”

The former version was rightly criticized as inaccurate, and it is encouraging to see that some change has come from that criticism. It blatantly treats the Trinity of three persons as being a single person, which is itself not unusual. What is remarkable about it is rather that it openly uses the specific term “person” for the Trinity, rather than something more ambiguous. Despite the fact that the prominent version of the doctrine of the Trinity in the west for over a millennia has been one which presents the Trinity as a person, it seems it is still considered a theological faux pas to actually come out and use the word “person” for the Trinity as a whole, even among those who in concept believe precisely that.

The original version, however, bears a ring of frank honesty about what its author, and presumably those in charge of the Institute at that time, believed. Like Cornelius Van Til, the original statement is both noteworthy and commendable for coming out and honestly stating the belief of those it represented. Usually the alternative of equivocating over the term ‘person’ is chosen instead, and so such honesty stands out. To believe that the Trinity is a person is rank heresy, but it is more commendable to at least come out in the open about such a belief than it is to attempt to hide it away under the guise of ambiguous and highly philosophical language, as many do.

Unfortunately, it is precisely that sort of ambiguity that marks the new version of the statement. The new versions rightly identifies that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. However, the language with which it replaces the statement that “God is a Person” is quite ambiguous itself. God is now instead defined as “triune”, and “one Being”. This language can be used in reference to an abstract metaphysical nature shared by the persons, as in a Cappadocian view of co-essentiality, although the word “triune” is still ultimately unfitting even in that case. The metaphysical essence that the persons of the Trinity are supposed to share, after all, is not ‘three in one’ (triune), but simply conceived of as being ‘one’.

Calling God a “Being” is extremely ambiguous, since “being” has two significantly different possible meanings in trinitarian thought. “Being” can refer to an individual being, or a generic being. An individual being, if that being is of a rational nature, as the persons of the Trinity are, is a person. A common example of this is that we may call a human person “a human being”. This is used to refer to an individual human, not a generic concept of humanity in general. But, on the other hand, we can speak of “being” as a general concept of a nature as well, such as if one were to say that men in their very being are inclined towards evil. In such a statement about being, “being” is used to denote man’s metaphysical nature in general, not a specific human person.

Similarly, in discussions regarding a co-essential view of the Trinity, “being”, used in a bare and undefined way, is far too ambiguous a term to be helpful. This is because in historic thought on a co-essential Trinity, generic metaphysical essence has been distinguished from individual persons Who possess that nature. Thus the famous slogan, ‘one essence, three persons’. In that slogan that which is one is distinguished from that which is three; essence and person are distinct metaphysical categories.

Since “being”, however, can be used a a synonym for either “essence” or “person”, it confounds this meaningful and necessary distinction, unless it is further clarified. Simple saying that there is one “being” in three persons leaves wide open the possibility that “being” there is to be understood merely as a synonym for “person”, thus being no better than the original statement which it replaces. Rather than being an improvement, if the term “being” is used here as a synonym for “person”, it is rather a dishonest attempt to preserve the sound of orthodoxy while denying it conceptually. If, on the other hand, essence is intended to be denoted, one must wonder what value can be found in leaving the language so ambiguous rather than simply saying what is meant outright in unambiguous language. At the very least, the use of such ambiguous language appears to be there to allow for a heretical reading, even if it is now ambiguous enough to not require a heretical reading.

 

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