In Modalism, the distinction between the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of how a singular, unitarian godhead interacts with creation. Consequently, in Modalism, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are but one Person with three faces. This would mean that God the Father appears on earth as the Son and the Father suffered and died.
Under the orthodox catholic understanding of the Trinity:
To maintain the three-ness of the Father, Son, and Spirit, they are declared to be three distinct Persons.
But to maintain the one-ness of God, so that it does not teach tri-theism (three Gods), the Father, Son, and Spirit, share one undivided divine “nature” or being or substance.
What makes the persons distinct from one another? What makes the distinction real? For three reasons, I fail to see the difference between the orthodox Trinity doctrine and Modalism.
Firstly, the notion of divine simplicity, namely that God does not have parts, requires that 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 the entire God. Therefore:
God = the Father = the Son = the Holy Spirit.
“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]
Secondly, in normal English, a person is a self, a thinker, with his own will and mind. But the orthodox Trinity doctrine is that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single mind and will.
Relations do not make a difference.
Thirdly, the orthodox catholic understanding of the Trinity, the only difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is in their relations, namely that the Son is the Son of the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Son (in Western catholic thinking). To quote Aquinas:
“The divine persons are distinguished from each other only by the relations.” [Summa 1036]
This thinking is illustrated by Aquinas’ argument that the Spirit must proceed from the Son, for, he says, if the Spirit proceeds from the Father then the Spirit is the same as the Son because they have the same relation with the Father. [Summa 1036]
Moreover, in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the difference in relations has no practical implications:
As Aquinas argued, these relations between persons exist within the divine essence as essential attributes of God, as opposed to “accidental.” [Summa 1039] In other words, there never was a time or situation in which the Son was not the Son and there never was a time or situation in which the Spirit did not proceed. Consequently, always and under all conditions, the Father, Son, and Spirit shared one and the same substance, mind, and will.
According to the Wikipedia page on the Nicene Creed, the Arian controversy began when Arius, a clergyman of Alexandria, “objected to Alexander’s (the bishop of the time) apparent carelessness in blurring the distinction of nature between the Father and the Son by his emphasis on eternal generation”. (Lyman, J. Rebecca (2010). “The Invention of ‘Heresy’ and ‘Schism'” (PDF). The Cambridge History of Christianity. Retrieved 30 November 2015.)
If this is true, then it is interesting that “eternal generation” was already on the table at this early stage. Arius and the pre-Nicene fathers often claimed that the Son was begotten before all ages and before the creation, but “eternal generation” is a bit more advanced concept, for it means that there never was a time or state of condition when the Father was not Father. Lyman might be guilty of an anachronism.
Nevertheless, my point is that “eternal generation” is another way of saying that the “relations” exist as essential attributes of God. And, as Lyman stated, this blurs the distinction between the Father and the Son.
While some people put the emphasis on the three-ness of God, often resulting in tri-theism, in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the theory that the Father, Son and Spirit ‘share’ one and the same substance, mind and will, and have always done so, implies that the difference in relation (in their origins) is relegated to words with no practical consequence. The emphasis is fully on the one-ness of God. Consequently, I fail to see the difference between the three Persons, in spite of the standard disclaimer in the Trinity doctrine that it is not Modalism.
This article has been posted as a question on Stackexchange. Readers may want to read to responses of other people.
Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine
First 300 years (The persecuted church)
- Justin Martyr – the Son is subordinate to the Father.
- Ignatius – the Son is our God and immortal.
- Irenaeus (died 190) – was he a Trinitarian?
- Tertullian – work in progress
- Origen – work in progress
- Did they refer to Jesus as “our god” or as “our God?
Fourth Century (State Church)
- The emperor controlled the Council of Nicaea – A.D. 325
- What does the Nicene Creed really say?
- The meaning of hypostasis in the Nicene Creed
- What is the difference between the Trinity theory and modalism?
- The church returned to Arianism after Nicaea.
- What did Arians believe in the fourth century?
- Long Lines Creed – one of the creeds during the Arian period
- Emperor Theodosius wiped out Arianism.
Fifth & Sixth Centuries
Extract from important books