Marius Victorinus is not the best-known church father. Of his works, we have his book on the Trinity preserved, authored sometime between 355-364 AD. This puts the authorship of the book right in the middle of the ongoing Nicene controversy, and is a valuable resource in giving us another individual perspective of what the fourth-century ecclesiastical melee looked like.
“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. 10 He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe G
od has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. 11 And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:9-12 NKJV)
The truth laid out in these verses is simple- he who has the Son has life; he who does not believe in the Son of God, does not have life. Salvation comes through Jesus Christ, the one Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).
To believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then, is manifestly required for salvation. The confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is central to the true Christian faith (Matt 16:16).
Yet tragically, many professing Christians deny the Son of God. They do this by embracing Augustinian trinitarianism.
Most Christians are willing to recognize that modalism is heresy; yet at the same time, what passes for a rejection of modalism today is so lacking that many closet modalists can seemingly vindicate themselves of being modalists ( in name, at least) while still holding to the same fundamental doctrines as those who openly hold to modalism.
This is because it has become acceptable to respond to modalism by stating that the persons of the Trinity are not identical to each other; the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and neither of them is the Holy Spirit. And yet, this does not exclude all forms of modalism, nor does it address the fundamental underlying tenet of modalism that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one person.
As noted in Equivocation Over the Term “Person”, many modern Christians effectively state their belief in trinitarianism as a belief in one person (the Trinity or the essence) who is three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). This is almost always done by using a synonymous word for “person” in respect to the Trinity as a whole, such as “being”; a word vague enough that it can be used either for an abstract essence or for an individual person, which in most cases like this, is used to mean the latter (a fact often betrayed by the use of singular personal pronouns such as “he” for the “being”). Others will use terms such as “reality”, “thing”, or some other term to describe the person who they conceive of as being three persons; yet using a different word in place of “person” hardly alleviates the problem, since what we ought to primarily be concerned with is not the modes of expression people employ (although these are important), but what is meant by them.
Since, then, the fundamental problem posed by modalism is that it conceives of God as a single individual who somehow is the Father, Son, and Spirit, if we merely require someone to affirm that there is some kind of distinction between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” such as that they are not totally synonymous with each other, we have failed to address the primary issue. Many modalists are willing to affirm such a distinction. While they believe there is only one divine individual, they are also willing to affirm that the names “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” refer to three things that are not totally interchangeable with each other.
This distinction may be as shallow as the names themselves; it may extend to seeing them as signifying historically distinct modes by which the one individual manifests himself to the world; or they may view each name as signifying a distinct mode of subsistence within a single individual. Others would view them as effectively signifying different parts of this one individual. All these notions are blasphemous and false; yet by merely accepting the affirmation of some difference between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” as being enough to clear a person of being a modalist, we will have let most modalists pass themselves off as trinitarians with little difficulty.
Even Sabellius himself was willing to say that there were three distinct “personas”, after all. Other early modalists would also try to affirm that while in their minds “Father” and “Son” were the same individual, only the Son died, not the Father. Yet today, it seems we have pushed the threshold of what constitutes trinitarianism so low that those who call the Trinity as a whole a single person, and a single individual, are not regarded as modalists. While they are not given the label they deserve, the underlying beliefs are fundamentally the same. Just as the Sabellians of old taught, if “Father” and “Son” are the same individual, then the Father became man and died on the cross. And yet today this view is tolerated, so long as the person specifies that it was the mode of “Son” that died, not the mode of “Father”.
To really be cleared of modalism, a person must be willing not only to to say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are somehow distinct, but that They are distinct as three individuals, three real persons. A modalist can say that they are somehow distinct, especially if that modalist is willing to equivocate over the term “person”, using it to mean something less than a really distinct individual. A trinitarian must affirm that there are in reality three distinct individuals, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
If we wish to guard against semi-modalism, we must go farther still. A semi-modalist does affirm that there are really three distinct persons; however, the semi-modalist believes these three persons to be one person as well. This view is nonsensical; yet, it is held by many, more often than not as an unconscious inconsistency in their own thinking. Yet, some would venture to hold such a view consciously, being willing to say that they believe in one person who is three persons, and really mean “three persons” by those words. The only way to guard against such an error is to not only require a confession of three distinct persons, three distinct individual realities, but to also require a denial that those three are one person or individual reality.
Thus the ancient Macrostich says:
“3. Nor again, in confessing three realities and three persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, do we therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the self-complete and unbegotten and unbegun and invisible God to be one only, the God and Father (John 20:17) of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone vouchsafes this to all others bountifully.”
“And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”
It is not enough that someone be willing to say the words “three persons”; they must be willing to affirm that they mean that in the sense it is intended, that they believe in three distinct individual realities, not merely three modes or manifestations termed “persons”. Likewise, a trinitarian must be willing to affirm that there is only three persons; this guards against the semi-modalism that imagines a fourth distinct individual (or person) who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit.
In the broad scheme of trinitarian doctrine, there are only three overarching positions to choose from, each of those three being able to be further divided into different variations. These three options are modalism, tritheism, and subordinationism; there are no other alternatives, and every view on the Trinity fits somewhere within these categories.
All three systems broadly agree on the three basic facts that there is one God, and three divine persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But these facts alone, stated this way, are too vague; and the way each system explains how these facts fit together is different. They do not agree on what it means that there is one God, or what it means that there are three divine persons.
Modalism explains monotheism by arguing that there is only one divine person, and thus only one God. It either makes the three persons out to be one person, or else denies either the divinity or the distinct existence of two persons. Sometimes this is done by denying distinct existence of the Son and Holy Spirit, other times by saying that “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” are just three different names, or three different modes of manifestation, of one person, other times by declaring that the three persons are ultimately a single person at the deepest level, although on the surface and in a relative way relate to each other as though three persons. Thus by defining the oneness of God as there being only a single divine person, they ultimately deny that there are three divine persons in anything but name only.
Tritheism goes to the opposite extreme by denying that there is truly one God by making the three persons not only really distinct, but also separate, and entirely equal. By proclaiming three independent identical divine persons, they make there out to be three gods. A weak attempt to say otherwise often comes in the form of arguing that there being one God simply means that there is only one divine nature of Godhood, which is shared by the three identical persons. But this falls apart easily, for just as three human persons with one common human nature are three men, so the tritheistic reckoning of three divine persons with one common divine nature makes there out to be three gods.
Subordinationism avoids the pitfalls of modalism and tritheism. There is not one God because there is only one divine person, as there are three divine persons, truly distinct from each other. It likewise avoids the pitfall of tritheism by not making the Son and Spirit identical and equal to the Father, but rather regards them as subordinate. There are various forms of subordinationism, all of which teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are subordinated to the Father as Their Cause and Authoritative Head. Thus, in this classical trinitarianism, there is one God because there is only one Supreme uncaused Cause of all, Who is the one Supreme Authority over all, the person of the Father. Not only is all creation caused by the Father through His Son and Spirit, but His Son was atemporally begotten of Him before the ages, and His Spirit eternally proceeds from Him; thus all things run up into one supreme cause, the Father, Who alone simply is what and who He is without cause, source, or origin. Likewise although the Son has been given all authority in heaven and earth, even He Himself is subject to the Authority of the one Who subjected all things to Him, His God and Father. Thus all authority runs up into one Supreme Authority over all Who has no higher authority above Him. Thus there is one God, the Father, and yet there are three truly distinct divine persons.
Semi-modalists such as Cornelius Van Til, who present the Trinity itself as a person who is three persons, naturally use singular personal pronouns for the Trinity, such as “He” and “Him”. This is consistent with their belief that the Trinity is a person; “God the Trinity”, “the triune God”.
Biblical trinitarianism stands at odds with such language, however, since it teaches us to believe in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The titles “one God”, and “only God” are reserved by scripture for the person of the Father alone (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.)
Isaiah 43:11 and Isaiah 45:5-6 are very similar passages:
“I, even I, am the Lord, And besides Me there is no savior.” Isa 43:11 NKJV
“I am the Lord, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other;” Isa 45:5-6 NKJV
‘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.