What is the difference between the Trinity doctrine and Modalism?

Summary

In Modalism, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of how the one God interacts with creation. Like an actor on a stage, God sometimes appears as the Father, other times as the Son, and others as the Spirit. But it is one single Actor.

In the traditional Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons sharing one undivided divine substance. For the Trinity doctrine to be different from Modalism, personhood must be real. For three reasons, in my view, the Persons in the Trinity doctrine are NOT real persons but mere modes of God:

Firstly, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, the three Persons are not three parts of God, but each of them is the full divine essence. In other words, each of the three Persons is God in His entirety. This means that they are identical, which means that they are mere modes of God.

Secondly, in the orthodox doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single mind and will.

Thirdly, in the Trinity doctrine, the only difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is their relationships, namely that the Father begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Son and/or the Father. However, that doctrine also explains those relationships as essential, which means that they make no difference: Always and under all conditions, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical and share one single mind or will.

In conclusion, therefore, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of God and the Trinity doctrine is a form of Modalism.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Modalism

In Modalism, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of how the one God interacts with creation; for example, as the Father in the creation and the giving of the Law, as the Son in Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit after Christ’s ascension.

Sabellius, an ancient leading proponent of Modalism, argued that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are ‘masks’ or personae worn by the one divine Person. Like an actor on a stage, God could sometimes appear as the Father, other times as the Son, and others as the Spirit. However, these are not actually three different actors.

For the Modalist, Christ is not only God, he is the Father himself. This would mean that the Father suffered and died on the Cross.

This view was rejected and Sabellius was excommunicated in AD 220.

Trinity Doctrine

The orthodox Trinity doctrine, as taught by the mainstream church, including most Protestant churches, similar to Modalism, regards the Son and the Holy Spirit to be “God” but describes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three distinct Persons. To maintain the oneness of God, so that the doctrine does not teach tri-theism (three Gods), the Father, Son, and Spirit are said to share the one undivided divine essence (also called being or substance).

So, both Modalism and the Trinity doctrine proclaim one God and one substance. But while Modalism describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as modes, the Trinity doctrine describes them as Persons. For the Trinity doctrine to be different from Modalism, the Persons must be more than mere modes. For three reasons, in my view, the Persons in the orthodox Trinity doctrine are mere ‘modes’:

1. Identical

Firstly, on the principle of divine simplicity, which is a remnant of ancient Greek philosophy, but which is still today accepted by theologians as valid, the Trinity doctrine teaches that God does not have parts. Consequently, the three Persons are not three parts of God, but each of them is the full divine essence. In other words, the three Persons are identical: Each of them is God in His entirety.

This principle may be illustrated by the following formula:

God = the Father = the Son = the Holy Spirit.

The Athanasian Creed expresses this principle as follows:

“The Father is God;
the Son is God;
and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are NOT THREE GODS;
BUT ONE GOD”

Thomas Aquinas, who is “recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as its foremost Western philosopher and theologian” (Britannica) confirmed this:

It cannot be said that the divine Persons are distinguished from each other in any absolute sense; for it would follow that there would not be one essence of the three persons.” [Summa 1036]

So, if the three Persons are identical, then they are mere modes of God.

2. One Single Mind

Secondly, generally, we think of a person as a self, a thinker, with his own will and mind. But, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single mind and will. The argument is that mind and will are rooted in the substance of God, not in the Persons. The disastrous consequence, of course, is that the Father cannot love the Son and the Son cannot love the Father. Similarly, the Son cannot truly intercede with the Father.

Today, many think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as each having His own mind, but that means that they proclaim three Gods (tri-theism).

The fact that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the standard Trinity doctrine, share one single mind and will, strengthens the view that they are mere modes of God.

3. Relations make no difference.

People are differentiated by both their persons and their relations:

    • Each person is different.
    • People are also defined by their relationships with other people, for example in marriage, family, etc.

In the orthodox Trinity doctrine, as already stated, the three Persons are identical because they share one single divine substance. Consequently, the only difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is in their relationships, namely:

      • The Father begets the Son and
      • The Spirit proceeds from the Son (in Western catholic thinking) or from the Father (in Eastern Orthodox thinking).

The following confirms that Aquinas argued that the only difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is those relationships:

“So then the only question left is what makes the persons distinct from one another? What makes the distinction real? The answer is that they are distinct only in their relation to one another.” [Summa 1028]

“The divine persons are distinguished from each other only by the relations.” [Summa 1036]

Aquinas’ justification for the view that the Spirit must proceed from the Son illustrates the notion that the only difference between the Father, Son, and Spirit is their relations, for, he says, if the Spirit proceeds from the Father, then the Spirit is the same as the Son because both have a relationship only with the Father. For the Son to be distinguished from the Holy Spirit, there must be a relationship between them as well. [Summa 1036] Quoting Aquinas:

“It must be said that the Holy Ghost is from the Son. For if He were not from Him, He (the Holy Ghost) could in no wise be personally distinguished from Him (the Son).”

However, in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the relationships are essential. As Aquinas argued, “in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself.” Therefore, the “relations in Him are essential, not accidental[Summa 1039]. To explain:

With people, a person becomes a parent when a child is born. That is what Aquinas means by “accidental.”

But in God, these relations are not caused by events. They are “essential,” meaning that these relations do not bring about change.

Since the relations are essential, they make no difference. Always and under all conditions, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical, each being the entire substance of God and the three sharing one single mind and will.

Conclusion

In conclusion, in Modalism, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of how the one God interacts with creation. In contrast, the Trinity doctrine describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Persons but if we analyze what these Persons are, we discover that they are identical in all respects and share one single mind. Consequently, they effectively are “modes” and the Trinity doctrine is a form of Modalism. Simply claiming that the Trinity doctrine is not Modalism does not help. We need to consider the substance of the theory.

For further reading, see plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity, especially the sections that address modalism.


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