Does Rejecting Semi-Modalism Lead to Tritheism?

Since the beginning of modalism in the late second and early third century, modalists have been accusing those holding to an orthodox articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity of tritheism, the heresy that there are three gods. To this day, semi-modalists continue this classical modalistic apologetic, accusing those who hold to a classical trinitarianism, such as defined by the Nicene Creed, of being guilty of tritheism.

This of course stems somewhat naturally from the mindset of modalism. The classical modalist believes there is one God because there is only one divine person, who takes turns manifesting himself as Father, then Son, and then Spirit.

Not far different from him is the semi-modalist, who thinks that there is one God because all three real persons of the Trinity, while having some concrete distinction, are one person. Therefore when this unity of person is denied, and it is insisted that the Father, Son, and Spirit are truly distinct persons without somehow being a single person in some way as well, the semi-modalist naturally views this as leading to having three gods, since in their mind the unity of all three persons into a single person was the very reason they could confess one God at all.

Such a modalistic misunderstanding of God’s unity naturally leads a person to reject trinitarian orthodoxy as tritheism. But if the reason there is only one God, and not three, is not because the three real persons of the Trinity are in some way a single person, then what is the reason there can only be said to be one God? And if the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular, yet the persons of His Son and Holy Spirit share His divine nature, how do they not constitute second and third Gods?

To understand the answers to these questions, it is necessary to consider what we mean when we say that there is only one God? Do we mean that there is only one divine person? The answer to this cannot be ‘yes’, since scripture clearly teaches that there are three divine persons, and yet equally teaches that there is only one God, and that this one God is the person of the Father. Because God says so in His word, we know that both of these things are true. Thus, we know that there are multiple divine persons, and that this does not constitute three Gods. Even if we do not go any further in our understanding than this, we are still required to accept these things as true, because God, Who is ultimately trustworthy, has revealed them to us. Yet even after we have accepted these things on faith, we are still left with the question of why these things are so.

When we say that there is only one God, then, we do not mean that there is only one divine person, or else we are disagreeing with the scriptures. Rather when we say there is only one God we refer to the fact that there is only one ‘head without a head’ (head=authority; head without a head= authority without a higher authority above it) and ‘uncaused Cause’. The Father alone is both of these things. The fact that the Son and Holy Spirit constitute second and third divine persons does not mean that They are second and third Gods.

The Son and Holy Spirit would constitute a plurality of gods if any of these things were true: 1) They possessed a different divine nature than the one God, or 2) They constituted Authorities equal with the Father, or 3) They were unoriginate. None of these things are in fact the case, however.

The Son and Spirit have exactly the same divine nature as the Father, as They are both from Him, the Son by eternal generation and the Spirit by eternal procession. Both of them have the Father’s divine nature communicated to Them in generation and procession respectively. There is then only one divine nature; thus no one may say that there are multiple Gods because there are multiple kinds of divinity. There is only one divine nature, that proper to the one true God, the Father, which His Son and Holy Spirit eternally participate in. Therefore, there is not a plurality of gods because of a plurality of divine natures.

The Son and Spirit also do not constitute authorities equal to the Father since He is head over them. The Father alone is the “Head without a Head”, Who Himself has supreme authority over all, with no higher authority above Him. The Son and Holy Spirit however, are under the headship of the Father. While They too possess headship over the creation, which was created through Them by the Father, They do not possess headship over the Father. So all authority ultimately runs up to one only supreme head which has no higher authority: the one God, the Father. He rules all things as a monarchy, His Son and Spirit participating in that monarchy over creation, as Those through Whom He administrates His kingdom. Therefore, there is not a plurality of gods because there is a plurality of supreme authorities.

The Son and Holy Spirit, unlike the Father, are of another, namely, the Father. The Son is of the Father by eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit by eternal procession. The Son and Spirit then are both caused by another, whereas the Father alone, the one God, is the uncaused Cause of all; not only of all creation, together with the Son and Spirit through Whom He created all things, but is even Himself the Cause of the Son and Spirit. Thus there is not a plurality of gods because of a plurality of Uncaused Causes.

So then we see that the Father being the one God is actually the foundation of biblical monotheism. It is because the Father alone is the supreme head and cause of all, and there is no other divine nature than His own, that there is only one God. There is one God because there is one Father. The divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit in no way take from the Father the quality that He is the one God; but as it is His divinity that They participate in, His monarchy They participate in, and Him from Whom They have their being, They in no way constitute a second and third God, although They are second and third divine persons, possessing the very same divinity as the Father Himself.

Hippolytus of Rome on the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Hippolytus of Rome is among the earliest orthodox church fathers to defend classical trinitarianism against classical modalism when it became an issue in the late second and early third centuries. Sabellius himself stayed at Rome; Hippolytus directed his treatise against Noetus, another classical modalist.

Sabellius and Noetus, however, were not bishops, and Sabellius was condemned by council for his heresy. But the church of Rome’s problems with modalism were not over; the bishops of Rome themselves, Popes Zephyrinus and Callixtus, were classical modalists, and for this reason were strongly opposed by Hippolytus.

Hippolytus was elected as a rival bishop of Rome, and continued to oppose the papacy. During a period of peresecution Hippolytus was enslaved and put to hard labor in Roman mines, likely dying as a martyr.

Hippolytus wrote much in opposition to modalism; his teaching the classical doctrine that the one God of the Christian faith is the Father was only a small part of that. On that point he wrote:

“For it is right, in the first place, to expound the truth that the Father is one God, “of whom is every family,” “by whom are all things, of whom are all things, and we in Him.”” Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 3.

“If, therefore, all things are put under Him with the exception of Him who put them under Him, He is Lord of all, and the Father is Lord of Him, that in all there might be manifested one God, to whom all things are made subject together with Christ, to whom the Father hath made all things subject, with the exception of Himself. And this, indeed, is said by Christ Himself, as when in the Gospel He confessed Him to be His Father and His God. For He speaks thus: “I go to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.”” Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 6.

With these brief statements Hippolytus adds his name to a long list of early Christian theologians who articulated this scriptural truth. For more quotes on this topic, see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty

Why Don’t the Son and Holy Spirit Constitute Second and Third Gods?

When we come to scripture, and examine God and the Trinity, we are faced with a few clear facts revealed in scripture:

1) There is only one God (1 Tim 2:5, James 2:19, Mark 12:32).

2) There are three divine persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 3:16, John 1:1, Acts 5:4, Rom 8:14, Matt 28:19, Matt 3:16-17).

3) The one God is one of these persons, the Father (1 Cor 8:6, John 17:3, Eph 4:4-5).

Examining these facts, we may be inclined to ask why, biblically, do the Son and Holy Spirit do not constitute a second and third God?

When we begin to answer this question, we can’t point to the Father’s divinity as the reason that He is the one God, or that the Son and Spirt aren’t second and third Gods, since the divinity of all three persons is exactly the same. The Father’s divine nature is identical to that of the Son and Spirit. Therefore, we can’t look to some difference in the divinity of the persons to explain this.

What we can do is ask, ‘what makes the Father unique, such that scripture would call Him in particular the one God?’, and extrapolate from that by good and necessary consequence what the factors are that make the Father alone the one God, which the Son and Spirit don’t have. And when we examine that we can come up with two things, namely, that the Father alone is uncaused, and that He has no higher authority than Himself. He alone is the uncaused cause and head without a head.

We can then look at these factors and see that there is really something distinct about the Father, besides simply that He is Father, for which reason He is regarded as the one God, qualities which the Son and Spirit don’t share with Him, and thus They don’t constitute another God or Gods.

Novatian of Rome on the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Third-century Latin church father Novatian of Rome is not well-known today, but was an important figure in his time. He was an anti-pope, meaning he opposed the bishop of Rome, and was elected as a rival bishop. This caused a lot of controversy, which is not within the scope of this post to explore.

Novatian is noteworthy regardless of other shortcomings he may have had for his small contribution to trinitarian doctrine, in his treatise Concerning the Trinity. In it he elucidates his understanding of classical trinitarianism. In doing so he argues for both the divinity of Christ and the doctrine that the one God is the person of the Father, and defends the biblical truth that the Father is the one God by showing it is compatible with the doctrine of the Son’s divinity.

This can be seen from these quotes:

“Thus God the Father, the Founder and Creator of all things, who only knows no beginning, invisible, infinite, immortal, eternal, is one God; to whose greatness, or majesty, or power, I would not say nothing can be preferred, but nothing can be compared; of whom, when He willed it, the Son, the Word, was born, who is not received in the sound of the stricken air, or in the tone of voice forced from the lungs, but is acknowledged in the substance of the power put forth by God, the mysteries of whose sacred and divine nativity neither an apostle has learnt, nor prophet has discovered, nor angel has known, nor creature has apprehended.” A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity, Chapter XXXI.

“Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God.” A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity, Chapter XXXI.

Notice here how explicitly he shows his belief that the Father is the one God- to be the one God is a characteristic special to the Father, not taken from Him by virtue of His having His Son and Spirit as distinct persons of the same divine nature as He.

“But now, whatever He [Christ] is, He is not of Himself, because He is not unborn; but He is of the Father, because He is begotten, whether as being the Word, whether as being the Power, or as being the Wisdom, or as being the Light, or as being the Son; and whatever of these He is, in that He is not from any other source, as we have already said before, than from the Father, owing His origin to His Father, He could not make a disagreement in the divinity by the number of two Gods, since He gathered His beginning by being born of Him who is one God.” A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity, Chapter XXXI.

We see here the classical trinitarian position shared by many church fathers, the explanation as to how it can be that the Son is a distinct person of the same divine nature as the one God (the Father), and yet does not constitute a second God: because Christ is from the Father by eternal generation, He has the Father as His atemporal Origin, and also has the same divine nature/essence as the Father. Therefore, the Son does not constitute a second God by making another unoriginate origin in addition to the Father, nor does He constitute a second God by introducing a second and different divine nature, since He is co-essential with His Father.

“Thus making Himself obedient to His Father in all things, although He also is God, yet He shows the one God the Father by His obedience, from whom also He drew His beginning.” A Treatise of Novatian Concerning the Trinity, Chapter XXXI.

Here we last see Novatian answer the objection that the Son constitutes a second God because He is another supreme head over all creation, as the Father is (since “God” sometimes indicates supreme headship, such as in the phrase “the Lord is my God”). Novatian’s response, again characteristic of the orthodox fathers of the early church, is that since the Son is subject to the Father in everything, eternally obedient to Him in filial love, the Son does not constitute a rival headship over the universe, so as to make a second God. Rather, the Son Himself is eternally subject to the headship of the Father, the one God (1 Cor 11:3).

 

Equivocation Over the Term “Person”

Semi-modalism is the false doctrine that teaches that the three real persons of the Trinity are together a single person. Most semi-modalists, however, refuse to use the term “person” for the Trinity, although conceptually they treat the Trinity as a whole as a person in every way except using that term for it.

For example, instead of saying that they believe that ‘God is a person who is three persons’, they will say that ‘God is a being who is three persons’. This sounds closer to orthodoxy; yet there is no substantial difference in meaning.

Such is the skillful deceptiveness of this soul-poisoning error. By minutely altering that ancient saying “one essence in three persons” to “one being in three persons”, no apparent error is introduced, since “being” is a term vague enough to denote either person or essence. Yet this vagueness is used to alter the meaning entirely from the original.

For when the semi-modalist speak of one “being” who is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, is it not obvious from their employment of the personal pronoun “who” that they regard this being as a person, just as when we speak of a “human being”, we usually do not refer to the human nature considered in abstract, but to an individual human person? So these deceivers equivocate with the terminology of “being” to teach their counterfeit doctrine of the Trinity, which in truth is no doctrine of the Trinity at all, since by making the Trinity itself as a whole out to be a person they introduce a fourth person, and destroy the doctrine of the Trinity and instead teach a quadrinity.

Yet these false teachers act as though if only they can avoid pronouncing the word “person” they will not be convicted of error by the Lord, as though the word used in expressing oneself is the thing of primary importance, and not the meaning and idea behind it.

Others will say that the Trinity as a whole, that is, the Father, Son, and Spirit together are not one person, (for they deny this word), but rather say that it is a single subsistent “thing” or “reality”. Again we see what vague language they must introduce in order to keep up the subterfuge that they are trinitarians. What then, is this “thing” which is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit together, when we closely enquire as to their meaning?

We find that this “thing” meets the very definition they will admit for “person”; though they pretend they are not the same. For a person, they will say, is an individual subsistence of a rational nature. Thus angels, for example, as being both individual existences and possessing a rational nature, are persons. So too they will admit individual men are persons under this definition, and also the real persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But what then is this thing? For they identify this “thing”, this “reality” which is the Trinity as truly existing, or subsisting, and define it as being individual and singular, and also regard it as being of a rational nature, namely, the divine nature. In what area then, does it fall short of the definition of “person”? In truth, it does not.

And the same false teachers treat this “thing” which meets the definition of a ‘person’, yet is robbed of the title by them, as being a person in every way. They pray to “God the Trinity”, the “triune God”; they speak of this “thing” using singular personal pronouns; they attribute to it consciousness, will, and action, and speech, and in short, everything pertaining to a person, excepting that they deny it the word “person”. Their deception then is obvious, although perhaps it is as much a self-deception as it is a deception of those who hear them.

Let those then who equivocate over the terminology of “person” give up their subterfuge, and like Van Til, come out and openly admit what they think in language that does not hide it. For by hiding their true belief behind ambiguous language, and equivocating as they do, do they not acknowledge the shamefulness of their own belief? For if it is true, it is noble, for truth is excellent; let them then come out and openly make it known. Or else why do they so dishonor the god of their imaginations by denying him personhood? What insult to the “triune God”, that he may receive men’s worship and prayers, and be called by personal pronouns, and have names and titles belonging to the real persons of the Trinity applied to him, and yet he is denied the honor of being called a person!

Or if those who are merely confused and ill taught speak in these ways, and treat the Trinity as a person in the way they speak, and yet acknowledge that it is in truth an error to regard the Trinity as a whole as a person, and for this reason deny it the term “person”, they do well; but let them then abandon their misunderstanding wholeheartedly, and not waver between truth and error any longer. But let them acknowledge the one true God as a person; the person of the Father. And let them acknowledge a second divine person also, one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the one true God, and together with Him and His Father, Who is the one true God, let them acknowledge a third divine person, the Holy Spirit. And these three persons together are the Trinity; not a singular person, but a group of three and only three persons. And so we may return to that ancient faith in one God, and His only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit, and not giving in to any system of false doctrine that would confound this to teach a person who is three persons.

 

Aphrahat of Assyria On the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Aphrahat of Assyria is not a household name in Western Christianity, but his Demonstrations serve as a valuable window into the theology and practice of the churches of the middle east around the time of the Nicene Council. By the time of the council, the Christian church stretched from Britain in the West to India and China in the East, and had not yet been divided by the later schisms that have left so many churches cut off from one another. In English, at least, it is difficult to find the writings of ante-nicene and Nicene era Christian authors who lived farther East than Persia. Most of those commonly known in the West today come from Europe, North Africa, and the Western edge of the Asian continent. Who knows what excellent theologians may have lived in the ancient churches of India and China, today unknown to later generations.

Aphrahat’s writings prove themselves a rare treat to Western Christians as a chance to peer into the often overlooked but enormous ancient churches of the East, where Syriac, instead of Greek or Latin, was used by the churches.

Aphrahat of Assyria, however far he was geographically from other orthodox fathers we may be familiar with such as Irenaeus of Lyons (modern-day France), was not far from them at all in his theology. Like Irenaeus and the fathers at the Nicene Council, Aphrahat taught that the one God is very same person who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ:

“For if they worship, and honour with the name of worship, the heathen— those who in their heathen wickedness deny even the name of God — and yet do not worship them as their maker, as though they worshipped them alone, and so do not sin; how much more does it become us to worship and honour Jesus, Who converted our stubborn minds from all worship of vain error, and taught us to worship and serve and minister to the one God, our Father and our Maker. ” (Demonstrations, on Jesus Christ the Son of God)

We see Aphrahat express the classical trinitarian belief that men are brought by the Lord Jesus Christ to the one God, Who is our Father and Creator. The one God is not to Aphrahat the Trinity conceived of as though it were a single person, but rather the one God is explicitly the person we know as Father, to Whom the Lord Jesus Christ stands in relation as His only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit as His Spirit.

Aphrahat’s belief on this important point of doctrine stands in agreement with both scripture and the teaching of other orthodox fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras, as can be see here: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty

Athenagoras of Athens on the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Second century church father Athenagoras of Athens is known best for his work Plea for the Christians, an apologetical work in which he urges the Roman authorities to stop unjustly persecuting Christians. Not much is known of his life, but he seems to have been an Athenian philosopher who converted to Christianity, and afterwards wrote in its defense.

Athenagoras stands as another witness to the view of the orthodox church fathers of the second century, the view that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular; not the entire Trinity as a whole. The one God, after all, according to scripture, is a person, not some abstract divinity without real existence. The Trinity, however, is not a person, and certainly not the person of the one God. Rather, scripture teaches that the person of the one God is the same person Who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, His eternal Logos and Wisdom, and only-begotten Son.

“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

We see Athenagoras express his beliefs on the matter thus:

“But, since our doctrine acknowledges one God, the Maker of this universe, who is Himself uncreated (for that which is does not come to be, but that which is not) but has made all things by the Logos which is from Him, we are treated unreasonably in both respects, in that we are both defamed and persecuted.” A Plea For the Christians, Chapter IV.

“That we are not atheists, therefore, seeing that we acknowledge one God, uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by the understanding only and the reason, who is encompassed by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable, by whom the universe has been created through His Logos, and set in order, and is kept in being—I have sufficiently demonstrated. [I say “His Logos”], for we acknowledge also a Son of God.” A Plea For the Christians, Chapter X.

From both these quotations we see Athenagoras identify that Christians believe in one God; and that this one God created all thing through His Logos, Who is His Son. Thus we see Him clearly equate the “one God” with the person of the Father, while the Logos stands in relation to the one God as His divine Son.

This same language is used by the Nicene Creed, when it says “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things…”, afterwards going on to confess “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, and one “Holy Spirit”.

For an extensive list of testimonies from the ante-nicene and nicene church fathers on this subject, see here: https://contramodalism.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/.