Moody Bible Institute Trades Blatant Semi-Modalism For Ambiguity

The Moody Bible Institute made an official change to article 1 of their doctrinal statement earlier this year. The statement from Moody can be read here: https://www.moodybible.org/news/global/2018/moodyleadershipdoctrinalannouncement/.

As the statement briefly outlines, the old version, in use since 1928, reads:

“God is a Person who has revealed Himself as a Trinity in unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three Persons and yet one God.”

This was replaced with the following:

“God is triune, one Being eternally existing in three co-equal Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; these divine Persons, together possessing the same eternal perfections, work inseparably and harmoniously in creating, sustaining, and redeeming the world.”

The former version was rightly criticized as inaccurate, and it is encouraging to see that some change has come from that criticism. It blatantly treats the Trinity of three persons as being a single person, which is itself not unusual. What is remarkable about it is rather that it openly uses the specific term “person” for the Trinity, rather than something more ambiguous. Despite the fact that the prominent version of the doctrine of the Trinity in the west for over a millennia has been one which presents the Trinity as a person, it seems it is still considered a theological faux pas to actually come out and use the word “person” for the Trinity as a whole, even among those who in concept believe precisely that.

The original version, however, bears a ring of frank honesty about what its author, and presumably those in charge of the Institute at that time, believed. Like Cornelius Van Til, the original statement is both noteworthy and commendable for coming out and honestly stating the belief of those it represented. Usually the alternative of equivocating over the term ‘person’ is chosen instead, and so such honesty stands out. To believe that the Trinity is a person is rank heresy, but it is more commendable to at least come out in the open about such a belief than it is to attempt to hide it away under the guise of ambiguous and highly philosophical language, as many do.

Unfortunately, it is precisely that sort of ambiguity that marks the new version of the statement. The new versions rightly identifies that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. However, the language with which it replaces the statement that “God is a Person” is quite ambiguous itself. God is now instead defined as “triune”, and “one Being”. This language can be used in reference to an abstract metaphysical nature shared by the persons, as in a Cappadocian view of co-essentiality, although the word “triune” is still ultimately unfitting even in that case. The metaphysical essence that the persons of the Trinity are supposed to share, after all, is not ‘three in one’ (triune), but simply conceived of as being ‘one’.

Calling God a “Being” is extremely ambiguous, since “being” has two significantly different possible meanings in trinitarian thought. “Being” can refer to an individual being, or a generic being. An individual being, if that being is of a rational nature, as the persons of the Trinity are, is a person. A common example of this is that we may call a human person “a human being”. This is used to refer to an individual human, not a generic concept of humanity in general. But, on the other hand, we can speak of “being” as a general concept of a nature as well, such as if one were to say that men in their very being are inclined towards evil. In such a statement about being, “being” is used to denote man’s metaphysical nature in general, not a specific human person.

Similarly, in discussions regarding a co-essential view of the Trinity, “being”, used in a bare and undefined way, is far too ambiguous a term to be helpful. This is because in historic thought on a co-essential Trinity, generic metaphysical essence has been distinguished from individual persons Who possess that nature. Thus the famous slogan, ‘one essence, three persons’. In that slogan that which is one is distinguished from that which is three; essence and person are distinct metaphysical categories.

Since “being”, however, can be used a a synonym for either “essence” or “person”, it confounds this meaningful and necessary distinction, unless it is further clarified. Simple saying that there is one “being” in three persons leaves wide open the possibility that “being” there is to be understood merely as a synonym for “person”, thus being no better than the original statement which it replaces. Rather than being an improvement, if the term “being” is used here as a synonym for “person”, it is rather a dishonest attempt to preserve the sound of orthodoxy while denying it conceptually. If, on the other hand, essence is intended to be denoted, one must wonder what value can be found in leaving the language so ambiguous rather than simply saying what is meant outright in unambiguous language. At the very least, the use of such ambiguous language appears to be there to allow for a heretical reading, even if it is now ambiguous enough to not require a heretical reading.

 

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.

 

The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council

When doctrinal error is mentioned in respect to the Fourth Lateran Council, a number of issues could be brought up depending on what tradition is examining the council. Protestants reject its teaching on transubstantiation as error; Eastern Orthodox reject its teaching on the Filoque as heretical; the Oriental Orthodox would reject its Chalcedonian articulation of the hypostatic union. Everyone but the papists themselves takes issue with the council’s strong assertion of papal supremacy and authority (written, conveniently, by the Pope himself, as all the canons). But in this article, I want to draw attention to a lesser-known doctrinal error the council did much to promote: the anti-trinitarian doctrine of semi-modalism.

The Fourth Lateran Council is not primarily known today for its decisions regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. The thirteenth-century Papal Council, held in a Roman palace, dealt with a host of issues, including crusades, defining and officially confessing the doctrine of transubstantiation, the filioque, and papal authority. Yet its impact on trinitarian doctrine for Roman Catholicism is actually very great (the council is generally rejected by protestant and Eastern churches, as it took place after the Great Schism, and prior to the Reformation, with significant parts of its rulings being rejected by the Reformers).

The council’s importance to Rome’s views on the Trinity is primarily because of the council’s dealings with Abbot Joachim of Fiore’s treatise on the Trinity, in which Joachim accused Peter Lombard of teaching heresy in his famous Sentences. The heresy Joachim had in view was none other than semi-modalism. Abbot Joachim recognised that teaching that the Trinity was a single conscious thing who is the three real persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, is far different than scripture’s teaching of three distinct persons of one essence, and made efforts to draw attention to this departure from scripture’s teaching. He correctly pointed out that Peter Lombard’s semi-modalism effectively made the Trinity itself into a fourth divine person, ultimately to the destruction of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The bishop of Rome and the council he had called did not agree with Abbot Joachim’s assessment. His teachings on the subject were condemned, and the council affirmed the already well-entrenched error of semi-modalism as the official Roman Catholic belief, as they officially redefined the doctrine of consubstantiality to no longer teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same divine nature to instead mean than the Father, Son, and Spirit were the same conscious “reality”- in concept, a person. They avoided the language of “person” for this reality, denying Abbot Joachim’s criticism that conceiving of the Trinity this way was to believe in a fourth person of the Trinity, since to admit such would be obviously heretical.

This equivocation on the terminology of “person” and on the subject of consubstantiality have continued down to our own day, as semi-modalists continue to follow the pattern of substituting out another word besides “person” for the singular, personal, conscious, rational reality that they teach is the three persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit. They call this “thing” the “essence” or “substance” which exists in the three persons of the Trinity, while originally the Nicene church fathers introduced this language not to indicate that a person was three persons, but to speak of the single divine nature shared by the three persons of the Trinity. This fact can be seen clearly from their own writings.

Hilary of Poitiers, for example, wrote thus:

“IV. If any one dares to say that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary: let him be anathema.

42. The fact of the essence declared to be one in the Father and the Son having one name on account of their similarity of nature seemed to offer an opportunity to heretics to declare that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary. The danger was met by the wholesome resolution that he who declared this should be anathema. For the unity of the name which religion employs and which is based on the exact similarity of their natural essence, has not repudiated the Person of the begotten essence so as to represent, under cover of the unity of name, that the substance of God is singular and undifferentiated because we predicate one name for the essence of each, that is, predicate one God, on account of the exactly similar substance of the undivided nature in each Person.” (De Synodis)

Even in the post-nicene period, this classical understanding of co-essentiality can be clearly seen in the Chalcedonian Definition when it says:

“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divine nature and also perfect in human nature; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the divine nature, and co-essential with us according to the human nature; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the divine nature, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the human nature…”

Notice Christ is said to be co-essential with man according to his human nature. This is consistent with an understanding of essence as a general nature considered in abstract, such as human nature, or the divine nature. Christ being co-essential with man literally means he is of the same human nature as all other men. By way of parallel, which is obviously drawn by the Definition, Christ is also eternally co-essential with the Father as His Son, in that He has from all eternity the same divine nature as the Father. This same understanding can also be seen articulated by Basil the Great (see: https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/12/basil-the-great-on-the-distinction-between-essence-and-person/ ).

In contrast, the idea that co-essentiality would somehow mean that the subjects were one “thing”, with its own real concrete existence, does not fit at all with the Chalcedonian Definition. Christ is co-essential with man- yet there is no real existence to the human nature considered in abstract. Human nature finds real existence in human persons; but considered in abstract, it is only an idea, lacking concrete existence. Yet if we apply the Fourth Lateran Council’s semi-modalistic re-definition of co-essentiality to the Chalcedonian Definition, this is exactly the way we must understand it. Yet clearly, this idea is nonsensical.

So we are able to see a medieval papal redefinition of co-essentiality:

“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)

This redefinition of co-essentiality is erroneous, as it ultimately makes the Father, Son, and Spirit into a single person who is all three together. This doctrine is mutually exclusive to the classical doctrine of the Trinity taught by scripture and the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene eras which is summed up in the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Catholic Church needs to abandon this grievous error and return to the classical trinitarianism contended for by such Western church fathers as Irenaeus of Lyons and Hilary of Poitiers. Those of other traditions should take heed of this error hidden among the historically more conspicuous problems with the rulings of the Fourth Lateran Council. We may be thankful that both Protestant and Eastern churches are free from commitment to the canons of this council, and thus are not, like the Roman Catholic church, bound to the error of semi-modalism in an official capacity by the ruling of the Papal council.

The Trinity: One Thing or Three Things?

Is the Trinity one thing, or three things? Answer either way, and you will find yourself in trouble.

This is because an answer to such a question is bound to result in misunderstanding because articulating the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of “things” simply is not helpful. We must distinguish further.

For instance, we can say that the Trinity is three things, in that there are three persons. On the other hand, one may point to the single divine nature shared by the persons or that the three persons considered together as a Trinity constitute a single group and therefore respond that the Trinity is one thing. The fact of the matter is, further distinction is needed- “thing” is too broad of a category. When such distinctions are provided and the discussion is narrowed to become more specific, we are able to intelligently articulate what God has revealed.

The classical categorical distinction by which the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated was between the philosophical categories of ‘person’ and ‘essence’. By ‘person’, we refer to the individual. Any individual of a rational nature is a person, such as a man, an angel, or God. On the other hand by essence we mean the nature that exists in persons in abstract, such as human nature, or the divine nature. Thus when we speak of essence we are not speaking of an individual existence, but a common set of characteristics that are the common to many individuals.

We see this understanding of essence vs person articulated by Basil the Great:

“The distinction between οὐσία [essence] and ὑπόστασις [person] is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.” (Letter 236)

These distinctions have allowed classical trinitarianism to be summed up as “one essence, three persons”. Without such distinctions, we will be left either denying the unity of nature shared by the persons, or else deny the distinction of their persons.

It is in part, I believe, because of a lack of proper distinction between these categories that many conceive of the Trinity as being a single person. For when ‘one essence in three persons’ gets confounded with, or traded for ‘one person in three persons’, drastic conceptual differences result.

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.