A Plea to Church Leadership to Take a Stand Against Semi-modalism

Semi-modalism has gained ascendancy in Western Christianity, and has held it for a long time. Rome struggled with Modalism since the late second and early third centuries, when church father Hippolytus opposed the bishop of Rome, Pope Callixtus, for holding to modalism. While classical modalism was officially rejected, the Roman church continued to struggle with lingering modalistic tendencies, eventually working themselves out in semi-modalism, which maintains the central tent of modalism, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one person, while adapting classical modalism so as to no longer deny the distinct personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus it confesses a false Trinity of one person who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, ultimately denying the classical doctrine of the Trinity as taught by scripture and articulated by theologians of the ante-nicene and nicene eras.

After coming up in the decision of the council of Rome in 382, the semi-modalist false doctrine was popularized by Augustine in the fifth century, following which much of western Christianity has blindly followed his teaching with little opposition. In the centuries following Augustine there was some opposition, but this was eventually condemned by a Papal Council, the Fourth Lateran Council, in the thirteenth century. This false view of the Trinity was largely accepted without question by Protestants during the Reformation, and found its way into several Protestant Confessions. Since then it has continued to do harm to the church and worked to obscure the glory of God down to our own time, being openly espoused by modern theologians such as Cornelius Van Til.

For many Christians, this error has crept into their thinking without their knowledge. As semi-modalism has received little attention from the church in recent times, it has become easy to simply adopt the language and concepts used by semi-modalists without opposition, often simply believing that this is the true doctrine of the Trinity. But such is not the case. This false teaching is antithetical to the truth taught by scripture, the same truth we see taught by great theologians of the early church such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, and articulated in the Nicene Creed. The church must recognise that the heresy taught by men such as Cornelius Van Til and Augustine is antithetical to what the Bible teaches and what the early church of the ante-nicene and nicene eras believed.

Action ought to be taken by those in leadership to oppose this false doctrine. Only in modern times have some semi-modalists been bold enough to come out and openly express their true belief that the Trinity as a whole is a person, while most have been content to conceive of the Trinity as a person, and treat it as such, without ever coming out and plainly saying what they think. This shows that the situation is only worsening as this problem goes unaddressed. The anti-trinitarian teaching of semi-modalists like Van Til and Augustine must be unequivocally condemned by the church, or this problem will only continue.

This must be done for the glory of God, which the church and all creation exists to proclaim. In glorifying God we add nothing to God’s glory, but only make known the truth of Who God is. Yet this truth is being horribly obscured by semi-modalism. “But to us there is but one God, the Father… and one Lord Jesus Christ…” scripture says (1 Cor 8:6 KJV). Christ prayed to His Father “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3 KJV). And the Nicene Creed, in agreement with the consensus of early church fathers who lived before that time begins its confession of the Christian faith by saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”.

Cyril of Jerusalem taught “…let us come back to ourselves, and receive the saving doctrines of the true Faith, connecting the dignity of Fatherhood with that of the Unity, and believing In One God, the Father: for we must not only believe in one God; but this also let us devoutly receive, that He is the Father of the Only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Catechetical lecture VII). And Irenaeus declared the doctrine that there is one God Who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ the first article of the Christian faith saying “This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets…” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching).

You see above that both scripture and the orthodox church fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras teach that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father. Yet semi-modalism denies this- instead it makes the one God another person, “the triune God”, “God the Trinity”, instead of the person of the Father. Semi-modalism gives the highest honors, titles, praises, devotion, and worship to a person not spoken of in scripture or in classical ancient formulations of the Trinity. This absurd belief that the one God is a person who is three persons instead of the one Whom Jesus Christ called “the only true God”, namely, His Father, must be opposed, for the sake both of God’s glory, and for the good of His church.

Those of you then who are leaders in Christ’s church must take action. To you authority and responsibility have been given to shepherd the people of God, and to feed them with the truth. A necessary part of that is that you condemn and warn against false teaching. I implore you then, to not give in to the blasphemous false doctrine of semi-modalism in the slightest. Oppose it, and defend the truth. Warn people against it. Help others see that it is false, help them to see past the equivocation and the lies. Guard yourself against it, against falling into thinking falsey about God and the Trinity, and against allowing yourself to use language that gives credence to this unscriptural teaching.

We must struggle to reclaim a deep and broad understanding of classical trinitarianism. The tools we need are at hand, if only we will make use of them. Scripture, firstly, is clear. But we are not left with that alone, but we have been given so much teaching from the early church to help guide us to the truth, to point out to us the things that scripture teaches. Read Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Athanasius. See for yourself what they taught, and be helped by their thoughtful observations on what scripture teaches. Lean not on your own understanding; but seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened, ask and it shall be given. Let us pray earnestly that God would bring about a revival of classical trinitarianism and a return to the truth of what scripture teaches on these matters.

Fr. John Behr on Basil the Great’s Understanding of the One God

Although Basil and the other Cappadocian fathers lived in the early post-nicene era, and declension from classical trinitarianism can be seen in their works, they in many respects remain faithful to the tradition of classical trinitarianism that others like Augustine in the same era nearly entirely disregarded. The following quote from Fr. John Behr was something I found of interest, commenting on Basil the Great’s understanding of Who the “one God” of the Christian faith is:

“For the Christian faith there is, unequivocally, but one God, and that is the Father: “There is one God the Father.” For Basil, the one God is not the one divine substance, or a notion of “divinity” which is ascribed to each person of the Trinity, nor is it some kind of unity or communion in which they all exist; the one God is the Father. But this “monarchy” of the Father does not undermine the confession of the true divinity of the Son and the Spirit. Jesus Christ is certainly “true God from true God,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, but he is such as the Son of God, the God who is thus the Father. If the term “God” (Θεός) is used of Jesus Christ, not only as a predicate, but also as a proper noun with an article (ὁ Θεός), this is only done on the prior confession of him as “Son of God, and so as other than “the one God” of whom he is the Son; it is necessary to bear in mind this order of Christian theology, lest it collapse in confusion.” (John Behr, The Formation of Christian Theology – Volume 2: The Nicene Faith – Part 2, pp. 307, 308.)

Thanks to David at http://articulifidei.blogspot.com/ for providing the source for this quotation.

Semi-modalism and the Introduction of a Four-Person Trinity

In classical trinitarianism, such as is confessed in the Nicene Creed, the doctrine of the Trinity states that there are three divine persons, all three of whom are co-essential, co-eternal, distinct from one another, and inseparable from one another. These three persons, as the Nicene Creed sums up, are the one God, the Father, His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ the Lord, and His Holy Spirit.

Although these three persons are distinct, they are continually in perfect unity of fellowship and communion with one another, and so are inseparable. That the three persons are co-eternal means that they are all eternal, and that they are co-essential means that they all have the same divine nature. The nature that each of the persons has is exactly identical, and so is one and the same. This means that everything that the Father is in His divinity, such as good, perfect, holy, almighty etc. the Son and Spirit also are by nature, because their nature is exactly the same.

The ancient Greek word used by the Nicene Council to describe this is “homoousias”. This gets translated into English in various ways, including “co-essential, “consubstantial”, and “of one nature”. What it literally means is ‘same essence’ (homo=same, ousia=essence). This confession that the three persons all have the same nature has often been summed up as “one essence in three persons”. Again, as the church fathers who framed the Nicene Creed intended this to be understood, this means that the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit all share the essence, or divine nature.

This confession is good, helpful, and necessary in light of the Arian heresy that attacked the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Arius argued that the Son was merely a creature, of a different nature or essence than the Father, as we are. Because of this heresy, the church made a special effort to confess their belief in the full divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit in unambiguous terms, especially by introducing the term “homoousias” to unambiguously declare that the Son and Spirit possess the same divine nature as the Father.

To understand this it is important to understand the classical distinction between essence and person. ‘Essence’ refers to nature, the ‘what’ of something. For example in the case of man, when we ask what a man is, we respond that he is human. He has a human nature, which he shares with all other humans. On the other hand, when we talk about ‘person’ we are speaking of the ‘who’ of something. For example, an individual man is a person, such as Peter. So when we speak of one essence in three persons in respect to the Trinity, we speak of one divine nature which exists in three distinct persons.

Unfortunately, as false teachers often do, semi-modalists have twisted this helpful expression of orthodox trinitarianism into something other than what it was intended to say. Instead of thinking of the Trinity as a group of three distinct persons of one essence, they think of the Trinity as a single person who is three persons. They will speak of “one being in three persons”, but this one being is called “he” and otherwise treated like a person in every way except that most refrain from actually using the word “person” for him.

By personifying the divine nature that the persons share, they have created a fourth person of the Trinity. Doing so, of course, constitutes a denial of what the Bible teaches concerning the Trinity, as well as what the early church believed.

Until Christians learn to distinguish between ‘person’ and ‘essence’ properly again, semi-modalism will likely continue to prosper, thriving on people’s confusion and ignorance. It is imperative that Christians recognize the fact that many false teachers have denied the Trinity in this way, and their example must not be followed. They turn the Trinity into a Quadrinity, and so cannot rightly be considered to truly be trinitarians at all. The Trinity has never been one person who is three persons (and so, in sum, four persons) but has always been three and only three persons of one and the same divine nature. So scripture teaches, and so the early church witnesses to, if only we will heed their instruction.

Fr. John Behr on the One God being the Person of the Father in Particular

In my last post, I shared quotes from several prominent Eastern Orthodox theologians speaking on the patristic view of the Trinity and the matter of the one God of the Christian faith being the person of the Father in particular (see https://nicenefaith.wordpress.com/2018/01/06/modern-eastern-orthodox-theologians-on-the-one-god-being-the-person-of-the-father/).

I wanted to now share an article written by another Eastern Orthodox theologian, Fr. John Behr: here.

In this article Fr. Behr briefly and clearly sheds some light on the way the Greek church fathers articulated the doctrine of the Trinity, and notes:

“The Father alone is the one true God. This keeps to the structure of the New Testament language about God, where with only a few exceptions, the world “God” (theos) with an article (and so being used, in Greek, as a proper noun) is only applied to the one whom Jesus calls Father, the God spoken of in the scriptures. This same fact is preserved in all ancient creeds, which begin: I believe in one God, the Father…

“For us there is one God, the Father… and one Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 8:6).”

I have found Fr. Behr’s careful and thought-provoking analysis of these issues helpful, and hope you will as well.


Modern Eastern Orthodox Theologians on the One God being the Person of the Father

In recent years there has been something of a revival of aspects of classical trinitarianism in Eastern Orthodoxy. Several prominent EO theologians have argued for a return to a Nicene understanding of the Trinity and the belief that the one God is the Father.

As in the last few centuries the Eastern church has undergone what some have referred to as a “patristic renaissance” it is no surprise to see their theology has moving away from a semi-modalistic direction and returning to what the Ante-Nicene and Nicene Fathers articulated regarding the one God being the person of the Father in particular.

I wanted to share a few quotes from some of these theologians below:

John Meyendorff:

The same personalistic emphasis appears in the Greek Fathers’ insistence on the “monarchy” of the Father. Contrary to the concept which prevailed in the post-Augustinian West and in Latin Scholasticism, Greek theology attributes the origin of hypostatic “subsistence” to the hypostasis of the Father—not to the common essence. The Father is the “cause” (aitia) and the “principle” (archē) of the divine nature, which is in the Son and in the Spirit. What is even more striking is the fact that this “monarchy” of the Father is constantly used by the Cappadocian Fathers against those who accuse them of “tritheism”: “God is one,” writes Basil, “because the Father is one.” (Byzantine Theology, 2nd ed, 1983, page 183)

John Zizioulas:

Among the Greek Fathers the unity of God, the one God, and the ontological “principal” or “cause” of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is, the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the “cause” both of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit. (Being As Communion, 1985, pages 40-41)

Thomas Hopko:

“… in the Bible, in the creeds, and in the Liturgy, it’s very important, really critically important, to note and to affirm and to remember that the one God in whom we believe, strictly speaking, is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is God who sends his only-begotten Son into the world, and Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Then, of course, in a parallel manner, the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit of God, that the Holy Spirit, being the Spirit of God, is therefore also the Spirit of Christ, the Messiah, because the Christ is the Son of God, upon whom God the Father sends and affirms his Holy Spirit.” (From the online transcript of the podcast, The Holy Trinity)

Source:   http://articulifidei.blogspot.com/2015/09/the-monarchy-of-god-father-and-trinity.html

Do Pronouns Matter?

Its usually more important what people mean by the words they use than the particular choice of wording they employ to communicate their ideas. Its easy to misspeak, or to phrase something in a way that does not perfectly capture the intended meaning.

When we come to the Bible, however, we come to something truly special. Because its authorship is divine, although written through human instrumentality, its authorship is not merely human, and thus is not subject to the kind of inaccuracies human frailty produces in our communication. The scriptures were inspired perfect and infallible, free from even the slightest error. Because of this, we can find a great deal of meaning even in seemingly minor details in the scriptures. Historically it has been noted that one such significant detail in the scriptures lies in the personal pronouns used to speak about the persons of the Trinity.

From very early on Christians have noted the great significance of the plural personal pronouns used in Genesis chapter one, for example. Among the earliest is the apostle Barnabas, who wrote:

“And further, my brethren: if the Lord endured to suffer for our soul, He being Lord of all the world, to whom God said at the foundation of the world, “Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness,”46 understand how it was that He endured to suffer at the hand of men. ” (Epistle, Ch 5.)

“For the Scripture says concerning us, while He speaks to the Son, “Let Us make man after Our image, and after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the beasts of the earth, and the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea.”” (Epistle, Ch 6)

You see the apostle noting the plurality of persons in the text, as God spoke to His Son, recognized on the basis of the pronouns scripture employs, and particularly on the significance of the number of the pronouns, namely, that they are plural and not singular. This significant detail was also noted by other notable theologians in the early church, such as Irenaeus, who wrote:

“He calls Him Wonderful Counselor, meaning of the Father: whereby it is declared that the Father works all things together with Him; as is contained in the first book of Moses which is entitled Genesis: And God said, Let us make man after our image and likeness. For there is seen in this place the Father speaking to the Son, [200] the Wonderful Counselor of the Father.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

Justin Martyr also made great use of these important details in his Dialogue With Trypho, A Jew, noting the detail that Holy Spirit used plural personal pronouns in Genesis one as evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity, as a proof that God did not create the world alone, but through His Son, a second person distinct from Himself. Justin wrote:

“And the same sentiment was expressed, my friends, by the word of God [written] by Moses, when it indicated to us, with regard to Him whom it has pointed out,409 that God speaks in the creation of man with the very same design, in the following words: ‘Let Us make man after our image and likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heaven, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creeping things that creep on the earth. And God created man: after the image of God did He create him; male and female created He them. And God blessed them, and said, Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and have power over it.’410 And that you may not change the [force of the] words just quoted, and repeat what your teachers assert,—either that God said to Himself, ‘Let Us make,’ just as we, when about to do something, oftentimes say to ourselves, ‘Let us make;’ or that God spoke to the elements, to wit, the earth and other similar substances of which we believe man was formed, ‘Let Us make,’—I shall quote again the words narrated by Moses himself, from which we can indisputably learn that [God] conversed with some one who was numerically distinct from Himself, and also a rational Being. These are the words: ‘And God said, Behold, Adam has become as one of us, to know good and evil.’411 In saying, therefore, ‘as one of us,’ [Moses] has declared that [there is a certain] number of persons associated with one another, and that they are at least two.”

The argumentation employed here is clear: because scripture uses personal pronouns that are plural and not singular, we must understand there to be multiple persons. The reasoning here is straightforward and rock-solid.

Unfortunately, many Christians today regard the detail of whether we use singular or plural personal pronouns for the persons of the Trinity together as a group as something unimportant. It is commonplace to see the Father, Son, and Spirit referred to together as “he” or “you”, with singular instead of plural personal pronouns.

Unfortunately, this is more than simply improper grammar: it implicitly teaches the false doctrine that the three real persons of the Trinity are actually a single person, which is semi-modalism. As we have seen, this is an unbiblical way to speak of the persons of the Trinity together, as scripture is careful to accurately portray reality by using plural personal pronouns for the persons as a group.

Instead of carelessly using language that implies false doctrine, we ought to use plural personal pronouns for the persons of the Trinity together, as scripture does. We must strive to be careful in the language that we use when speaking about God, His Son, and His Spirit. If we do so, instead of implicitly teaching something false about God, we will be implicitly declaring the truth of the Trinity, to the glory of God.

Irenaeus Highlights

Irenaeus of Lyons, unlike many church fathers, is one relatively well known to modern Christians. The second century bishop of Lyons is famous for his staunch opposition to the various pseudo-gnostic heresies that faced the church in his day, and especially for the multi-volume work Against Heresies that he authored to combat them. He also authored a lesser-known work summarizing an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith and proving its tenets from the scriptures called Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, which I highly recommend.

Here I want to briefly examine some quotes from his writings that highlight his strongly held and clearly-articulated belief that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular.

“And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a stedfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter III. 6.)

Due to the clarity of these quotes, comment is largely unnecessary. While Irenaeus is writing against the heretics of old his words still hold a strong rebuke for the modern semi-modalists who have taken up their mantle.

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter X. 1.)

“These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.” (Against Heresies, Book III. Chapter I. 2.)

“Since, therefore, this is sure and stedfast, that no other God or Lord was announced by the Spirit, except Him who, as God, rules over all, together with His Word, and those who receive the Spirit of adoption, [3805] that is, those who believe in the one and true God, and in Jesus Christ the Son of God; and likewise that the apostles did of themselves term no one else as God, or name [no other] as Lord; and, what is much more important, [since it is true] that our Lord [acted likewise], who did also command us to confess no one as Father, except Him who is in the heavens, who is the one God and the one Father;–those things are clearly shown to be false which these deceivers and most perverse sophists advance” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter I. 1.)

“And therefore it is right first of all to believe that there is One God, the Father, who made and fashioned all things, and made what was not that it should be, and who, containing all things, alone is uncontained.” (The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

“This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)