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, all three of Whom possess exactly the same divine nature, or essence. And so we may return to that ancient formula “one essence in three persons” as it was intended, to denote how the one God, and His only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit all share the same divine nature, and not giving in to any system of false doctrine that would confound this formula to teach a person who is three persons.


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.