Semi-Modalism In the Dutch Reformed Confessions

Cornelius Van Til is known for coming out and openly admitting his belief that the Trinity itself, that group of three divine persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is itself a single person. While many prior to him clearly treated the Trinity as a person, they eschewed the terminology, as it is obviously nonsensical. Yet the concept that there is a single consciousness, a single person, who is the entire Trinity, and exists as all three real persons of the Trinity, can be seen going back to Augustine.

Cornelius Van Til, coming from a Dutch Reformed heritage, had been strongly indoctrinated with this semi-modalistic version of the doctrine of the Trinity, and it is therefore not surprising that he conceptually held to it. Van Til deserves accolade for actually coming out and clearly stating his true belief that the Trinity is a person (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/cornelius-van-til/ ), yet he cannot by any means be considered the source of the idea itself.

We can clearly see that the Dutch Reformed tradition’s confessional documents, which sum up their doctrinal beliefs, are semi-modalistic. This can be seen by critically examining both the Second Helvetic Confession and Belgic Confession’s chapters on the doctrine of the Trinity:

“GOD IS ONE. We believe and teach that God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all things both visible and invisible, the greatest good, living, quickening and preserving all things, omnipotent and supremely wise, kind and merciful, just and true. Truly we detest many gods because it is expressly written: “The Lord your God is one Lord” (Deut.6:4). “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3). “I am the Lord, and there is no other god besides me. Am I not the Lord, and there is no other God beside me? A righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me” ((Isa. 45:5, 21). “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).

GOD IS THREE. Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit so, as the Father has begotten the Son from eternity, the Son is begotten by an ineffable generation, and the holy Spirit truly proceeds from them both, and the same from eternity and is to be worshipped with both.” (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 3)

“In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties— namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Father is the cause, origin, and source of all things, visible as well as invisible. The Son is the Word, the Wisdom, and the image of the Father. The Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Nevertheless, this distinction does not divide God into three, since Scripture teaches us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each has a distinct subsistence distinguished by characteristics— yet in such a way that these three persons are only one God. It is evident then that the Father is not the Son and that the Son is not the Father, and that likewise the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless, these persons, thus distinct, are neither divided nor fused or mixed together. For the Father did not take on flesh, nor did the Spirit, but only the Son. The Father was never without the Son, nor without the Holy Spirit, since all these are equal from eternity, in one and the same essence. There is neither a first nor a last, for all three are one in truth and power, in goodness and mercy.” (Belgic Confession, Article 8)

First lets examine the quote from the Second Helvetic Confession. Towards the beginning it says “God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all”. This is in itself somewhat ambiguous- a classical trinitarian could also speak of the one God Who is one in essence or nature -the Father, as per the Nicene Creed- while acknowledging that the Son and Spirit also share that same divine nature. In fact, if this whole paragraph were speaking of the Father, there is nothing objectionable about it at all. Many orthodox church fathers speak in very similar ways.

The key difference however between the Second Helvetic Confession and the orthodox church fathers is that the fathers would have identified the subject of that paragraph as the person of the Father (see: https://contramodalism.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/ ). This fits with the singular personal pronouns used, as well. But unfortunately, the Second Helvetic didn’t intend it this way. Rather the next paragraph begins by saying: “Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit…”.

Here we see that the Confession directly equates the singular person spoken of in the first paragraph with the real three persons of the Trinity together; that is, it teaches that there is one person who is three persons. The Confession has in the first paragraph spoken of a singular person: not just by using explicitly singular personal pronouns, but by saying “subsisting in himself” they very clearly regard the subject as a person (in historic philosophical language, subsistence=person, while substance=essence). Yet when we come to the second paragraph, this singular subsistence/person is identified as being three subsistences/persons. Thus, it clearly teaches semi-modalism, only barely coming short of Van Til’s later articulation of it by not expressly using the word “person” for the Trinity as a whole.

Next, we come to the quote from the Belgic Confession. It begins saying “In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties— namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This is mainly where we see semi-modalism. The second paragraph does not seem to contain anything expressly semi-modalistic, and the third paragraph is only ambiguous when it says that the three persons are one God, since this could be taken in a classical sense to mean that they all share one divine nature, or in a semi-modalistic sense to say that the three are one person. So much for the second and third paragraphs, then.

Returning to the first paragraph of the Belgic Confession, we must note firstly that it fails to correctly identify the one God as the Father. Instead, it equates the one God with the essence/divine nature, which exists in the three real persons of the Trinity. But it does more than this; it confesses the one God to be a person who is the essence, which in turn has the three persons of the Trinity in it.

That it treats the “one God” here as a person is obvious from the singular personal pronoun used- “one God, who is one single essence”. If this is slightly baffling to the reader, they should not be surprised; essence and person are distinct philosophical categories. Confounding them cannot but result in doctrinal error (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/essence-vs-person/ ).

Yet this is precisely what appears to be done here, as the one God, regarded as a person, is equated with the essence which exists in the three real persons of the Trinity. This twisting of the patristic formulation of the Trinity “one essence in three persons” to “one person in three persons” is semi-modalism.

So there you have it; the Helvetic Confession and Belgic Confession, upon close examination, are shown to teach semi-modalism. This doesn’t mean that the Confessions as a whole are not useful and valuable for their articulations of other areas of doctrine, but it is important that their teaching on the Trinity be recognized as problematic, or else more Christians will fall into these same errors.

Semi-modalism in the Liturgy of St. James

The Liturgy of St. James is renowned as being one of the oldest liturgies in Christianity, supposedly going back all the way to the apostle James the brother of the Lord. Although the liturgy is reputed to have an apostolic origin, it continued to see modification for several centuries, the version used today perhaps dating back to the fifth or sixth centuries.

Because of such modifications to an ancient document, it is of course difficult to ever say with absolute certainty what is original and what is not. Certain things can easily be conjectured to be additions however as they bear the mark of later theological controversies that a first century liturgy would not have spoken to. The language in many places is seen to date from the post-nicene era.

One such instance of an anachronism in the liturgy is that its second paragraph is expressly semi-modalistic, something otherwise unheard of in orthodox churches in the ante-nicene era. It says:

“II Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, the triune light of the Godhead, which is unity subsisting in trinity, divided, yet indivisible: for the Trinity is the one God Almighty, whose glory the heavens declare, and the earth His dominion, and the sea His might, and every sentient and intellectual creature at all times proclaims His majesty: for all glory becomes Him, and honour and might, greatness and magnificence, now and ever, and to all eternity. Amen.”

A more explicitly semi-modalistic statement would only be possible if it came right out and called the Trinity as a whole a “person” (like Cornelius Van Til did: https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/15/van-tils-views-on-the-trinity/ ).

We see that this liturgy expressly contradicts the Nicene Creed, which begins by defining the one God of the Christian faith as the person of the Father saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” Instead the Liturgy defines the one God as the Trinity itself.

That the Trinity is treated as a single person is also abundantly clear, as it goes on to use singular personal pronouns such as “his” for the Trinity several times.

It is sad to see semi-modalism encapsulated in the Liturgy which is perhaps in its original form the oldest liturgy we have still in use. The liturgy of St. James is commonly used by various Eastern churches, including the Syriac Orthodox church and occasionally by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which despite this part of its liturgy, is actually making great strides in returning to classical trinitarianism such as that articulated by the Nicene Creed (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/eastern-orthodox/ ).

Trinitarian Heresy In the London Baptist Confession of 1689

The London Baptist Confession of 1689 says in its second chapter:

“The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection…

In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

Here we see them begin their treatment of the Trinity by saying that the one God is a person “whose subsistence is in and of himself”. Subsistence is a philosophical term for person, when it refers to something of a rational nature, such as God, or an angel, or a man. What is more clear in identifying him as a single person is their explicit use of singular personal pronouns.

Had they stopped there and called this person who is the one God the Father of our Lord, there would have been no disagreement either with scripture or with the faith of the ancients. But we see further in the chapter that they expressly identify this person of the one God as being “three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit”. So they have explicitly declared the one God to be a single subsistence who is three subsistences, or put into common language, one person who is three persons.

If anyone doubts that this was the intention of those who framed the confession let them notice that later in the same paragraph quoted above they again use a singular personal pronoun in regard to all three together taken as one God, making again explicit their erroneous belief in that the one God is one person who is three, instead of being identical with the Father of our Lord as the scriptures teach (see: We Believe in One God, the Father Almighty).

And so this baptist plagiarism of the Westminster Confession of Faith is shown to be expressly semi-modalistic. The Westminster Confession maintains a better statement on these matters, being ambiguous enough to be taken either orthodoxly or otherwise, unlike the baptist modification that specifies an anti-trinitarian belief explicitly. 

Until this articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is recognized as being  problematic, there is little hope of seeing reform in this area among those who subscribe to this confession.

The Need to Be Discerning Regarding the Doctrine of the Trinity

Scripture calls Christians to “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 NKJV). This is important when we come to the doctrines of the Christians faith, since scripture warns that there are many false teachers and antichrists who have gone forth teaching false doctrine, twisting the scriptures to their own destruction (1 John 2:18-22 NKJV).

In the face of so many false teachers, it is important to see every point of doctrine proven from scripture before we believe it, in order to have certainty regarding every point of doctrine, rather than merely being carried away with strange theories, mere probabilities, and false teachings.

On this subject, fourth century church father Cyril Archbishop of Jerusalem said:

“Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures.  For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures.  For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.”

It is necessary then, to have clear demonstration form the scriptures on every point of doctrine, so that we have a sure and true knowledge of what is true.

In the Protestant tradition, this idea is greatly emphasized as part of doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Protestantism broke with the Roman Catholic church in large part over the doctrines regarding how a person is saved and brought into fellowship with God (this area of doctrine is called soteriology).

Protestants disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on soteriology because they saw that it was contrary to what scripture teaches. They examined the Roman doctrines on the basis of scripture, and found that they contradicted them. So they instead sought to articulate what scripture teaches on soteriology as accurately as possible.

This caused a great deal of controversy. In the midst of this controversy, a great deal of work was put into how to best and most accurately articulate soteriology. Hundreds of well-known theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries expended a great deal of energy to articulate these doctrines in an extremely detailed and thorough way. To this day, as a result, many modern Protestants are still very articulate in this area of doctrine. Even those who are largely untrained in theology and doctrine are often able to articulate soteriology in some detail, and are able to distinguish between their own understanding of it and the Roman Catholic position.

The outlook of critically examining what is being said on the topic of soteriology in order to avoid accepting false teaching that cannot be proven from scripture is a common one among believing Protestants. This is in large part because the doctrinal truths regarding how a person is reconciled to God are recognized as being extremely important, and that importance leads people to take the issue seriously and not just accept anything they hear without seeing actual proof from scripture.

This attitude is largely non-existent, however, in regards to the doctrines pertaining to the Trinity. This is unfortunate because these doctrines are foundational even to soteriology itself. Rejection of them constitutes a rejection of Christianity. What is at the core of what is being dealt with in trinitarian doctrine is the very identities of the persons of God, His Son, and His Holy Spirit. Who is the God we are reconciled to and forgiven our sins by in the gospel? Who is the Lord Jesus Christ through Whom we have this salvation? Who is the Spirit Christians are sealed with? It is these questions that are ultimately at stake in trinitarian doctrine.

Christians need to strive to have an attitude that is more obedient to the scripture’s command to “test everything, and hold fast that which is good” in respects to the doctrine of the Trinity. Too often it seems like the attitude people take towards trinitarian doctrine is far different than that they have towards soteriology. Unlike soteriology, trinitarian doctrine is regarded as something esoteric and mysterious, to be accepted from trustworthy teachers without question or criticism- without discernment. This opens the door to receiving false teaching, intentional and otherwise. Just as many recognize a need to exercise careful discernment in respect to the gospel, lest they believe a false gospel, so we must also exercise discernment in respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, lest we find ourselves believing a false doctrine of the Trinity.

Just as it is not sufficient for us to believe a point of doctrine related to soteriology that a notable and respected theologian has taught without also critically examining what is being taught and making sure it can be proven from scripture, so also we need to do more than just ‘take Augustine’s word for it’ with respect to the Trinity. The fact that men like Augustine, Calvin, and Van Til have said or not said something on any point of doctrine does nothing to make that point of doctrine true or false. Even the godliest, wisest, most intelligent men err. No amount of good intentions makes it impossible to make an honest mistake, or to misunderstand something. We need to be willing to do the work of looking critically at what theologians tell us about the doctrine of the Trinity- and only accepting that which we see truly proven from the scriptures. Without a critical attitude on these doctrines, we open ourselves up to adopt all the errors and mistakes of those we learn from, in addition to all they teach correctly.

Reclaiming the Language of the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed, which is historically one of the most important trinitarian confessions, begins by saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”. Scripture speaks this way as well:

“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

But the equation of the “one God” with the person of the Father in particular is something that many modern Christians are uncomfortable with. There are actually quite a few legitimate reasons why this might be the case.

Many anti-trinitarian heresies comandeer this sort of language to try to argue against the divinity of Christ. Jews, Arians, Unitarians, Socinians, Muslims, and various other anti-trinitarian heresies all argue that the one God is the Father in particular in order to exclude the Son from the divine nature, denying His divinity. They try to weaponize what the Nicene Creed lays out as the first article of the Christian faith, in order to deny the second.

In light of this, it is understandable that the language of “the one God being the Father” would make some people uncomfortable.

Despite this, I would argue that we must seek to reclaim the language of scripture on this matter, rather than cast it aside because if its misuse by heretics. Defining the “one God” of the Christian faith as the Father is something scripture does, and language scripture uses. Its the way that God chose to reveal these truths to us. We must seek to embrace the langauge scripture uses on this matter, while being careful at the same time to distinguish what we believe from anti-trinitarian heresies.

This is precisely what the early church did. Although in the first few centuries of Christianity the church was faced with several heresies attacking the fundamental articles of the faith, including the divinity of Christ, hereies which often twisted and misused scripture in doing so, the early church did not reject the concepts and language of scripture that were being misused. Rather, they contended for them, and carefully distinguished what they were saying from the false teaching of the various heretical sects. This is why the Nicene Council, for example, although writing in opposition to Arianism in the defense of trinitarianism, did not shy away from saying that the “one God” is “the Father Almighty” in the very document in which they were articulating the doctrine of the Trinity. Its misuse by heretics did not stop them from embracing the doctrine that the one God is the person of the Father- instead they sought to demonstrate how this truth is compatible with the other doctrines that scripture teaches that Arianism opposed, such as the divinity of the Son.

Augustine vs. Athanasius on the Identity of the “One God”

Between Augustine and earlier church fathers like Athanasius of Alexandria there exists a great deal of doctrinal agreement. Both theologians, for instance, worked to defend the divinity of the Son against the attacks of Arianism. But there are also some crucial areas of disagreement between these two influencial theologians.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity conceived of as a single person itself. We see this idea expressed in his own writings in the following:

“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)

“O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)

In contrast, Athanasius was clear in affirming the well-established doctrine that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“But if this is not to be seen, but while the creatures are many, the Word is one, any one will collect from this, that the Son differs from all, and is not on a level with the creatures, but proper to the Father. Hence there are not many Words, but one only Word of the one Father, and one Image of the one God.” (Against the Arians, Discourse II.)

“For there is One God, and not many, and One is His Word, and not many; for the Word is God, and He alone has the Form of the Father.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

“For the Word, being Son of the One God, is referred to Him of whom also He is; so that Father and Son are two, yet the Monad of the Godhead is indivisible and inseparable. And thus too we preserve One Beginning of Godhead and not two Beginnings, whence there is strictly a Monarchy” (Against the Arians, Discourse IV.)

“For the one God makes and creates; but Him He begets from Himself, Word or Wisdom.” (Against the Arians, Discourse IV.)

Not least of all would be the opening line of the Nicene Creed, a creed which Athanasius not only affirmed, but helped to author, and spent his life defending the truthfulness of its content, which begins by saying:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible…”

Although Augustine would allege the support of scripture for his position, in light of the language of scripture, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 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

Semi-modalism: A Study in the Bizarre

A person who is three persons. A single mind controlling three individuals. A plurality of persons with a single united consciousness. An intelligence speaking and acting through three manifestations. An intelligent ‘thing’ that exists as a three rational persons.

What am I talking about? Science fiction, or semi-modalism?

Hard to tell, isn’t it?

In fact, I would be so bold as to say that without further description, it would be downright impossible to tell. I could be referring to something similar to the alien monster from John Carpenter’s science fiction masterpiece The Thing, or I could be talking about the intelligent “thing” that semi-modalists say is the three real persons of the Trinity (and yes, I have actually had it articulated to me by them in those terms).

What I am trying to point out here is how bizarre semi-modalism is. Now an idea seeming bizarre, of course, does not mean that it isn’t true, and I will grant that there is a good bit of subjectivity that goes into deciding what is bizarre and what isn’t. But in the case of semi-modalism, we are dealing with doctrinal error, serving to obscure the glory of God and to harm the church. Semi-modalism isn’t false because its bizarre, but in the vast and varied sea of doctrinal errors that Christianity has encountered throughout history, I would argue semi-modalism ranks among the most bizarre (although anyone who has studied ancient pseudo-gnosticism like that of Basilides and Valentinius knows semi-modalism still doesn’t take first place).

Along this line of thinking, I would suggest that if we did not live in a world where semi-modalism had gained longterm ascendency throughout much of the church, such that people became used to and familiar with its underlying ideas and terminology, semi-modalism would actually sound very strange to most Christians. The idea that there is a personal “triune God” who is Father, Son, and Spirit might sound perfectly normal if you’ve been indoctrinated with the ideas and have grown used to the lingo, but really, its a very weird idea being put forward.

To demonstrate this, step back from the doctrine of the Trinity for a moment and consider metaphysical personhood in general. Consider human persons for example. The idea that one human person can be multiple other human persons would break most classical philosophical definitions of personhood entirely. Imagine three men who shared one mind, one consciousness, who were three and yet at the same time, all just different parts of a single intelligent person who controlled them all. That is bizarre. And because we would never even consider such an idea in respect to humans outside of science fiction, its easy to recognize its oddity, and, if we really consider what personhood is, its impossibility.

Yet when we come to the Trinity we are fed the exact same sorts of ideas by semi-modalism. Yet they are accepted.

This too, is bizarre.