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.