While I was under the error of Calvinism and a member of Covenant Baptist Church in Perth, Western Australia, I developed independently a Modalistic understanding of God.
What is Modalism?
Modalism is a heretical teaching that denies the Trinity. It places an emphasis on two things that are an interest to any true Christian. The Oneness of God and the deity of Christ. The truths that God is One and that Jesus is God are essential doctrines, but the error of Modalism denies that there is any eternal distinction between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. According to Modalism the distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, are only as modes of being of the One eternal God, Who manifests Himself in the biblical theology of revelation in three ways.
The Dangers of Modalism
Modalism denies the eternal Fathership of the Father, the eternal Sonship of the Son, and the eternal distinction of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. The most significant dangers of Modalism have to do with how Jesus makes known the Person of the Father and how the atonement is a possibility.
John 17:25-26 “O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”
Jesus has had an eternal mutually divine relationship with the Father, that the world does not have, and only Jesus can make this relationship known to others. Notice also in John 17:26 that the Father has the same relationship toward the Son and it is Jesus’ prayer that the Father might also so love those who are in Him. If Jesus is the same eternal Person as the Father then there could be no making known a relationship with another other than with Himself. Furthermore, Jesus identifies Himself as the ‘Son’ distinct from the ‘Father’.
Because Jesus is God, a distinct Person within the Godhead, who has an eternal relationship with the Father, He is able to make known the Person of the Father to another person to an extent beyond mere human experience.
If the distinction of Jesus from the Father is only vertical, meaning because of the incarnation only, as only a man having fellowship with God “as Father” then there could not be a possibility of knowing God the Father as God the Son knows Him and there could not be the experience of being loved as God the Father loves God the Son.
The necessity of the atonement is also threatened by Modalism. Jesus emptied Himself of the form of divinity in order to accomplish our atonement from sin [Phil 2:5-8]. Upon the cross, if the only Person of God was Jesus and there was no divine Person possessed of the form of God in heaven then there was atonement.
For there to have been atonement for sin a Person of divine nature must experience as a man the experience of being forsaken of God and there must be a divine Person in glory, as Father, giving up His Son with Whom He has had unbroken fellowship.
Only the doctrine of the Trinity makes possible the necessity of God being both the One who was sinned against and at the same time the One Who is punished for sin.
Why Would True Christians Fall Prey to this Error?
From my own experience, the best that I can discern is that there are two reasons why a true Christian would fall into this imbalanced view of God. It is because of a wrong understanding of certain passages of Scripture and out of a desire to uphold a seemingly greater defence of the Oneness of God and the deity of Jesus.
This was my own experience and I am certain that I was not safeguarded from this tendency because of one crucial factor. There is a lack of clear and practical teaching on the Trinity, especially providing sound answers regarding crucial passages, and why it was so important to understand and believe in it. The doctrine of the Trinity is frequently avoided as too difficult and quite honestly is rarely taught simply because there is so little that is understood about it by those in ministry. Too often pastors and commentators simply appeal to the easier answer that the Trinity is a majestic mystery that must be simply believed in, rather than doing the hard work of seeking out biblically accurate answers.
Robert Letham, in his book, The Holy Trinity, [P&R Publishing, 2004] says, ‘Today most Western Christians are practical modalists.’ (p. 5)
I was one of these modalists waiting for the eventuality of my ignorance and mistaken zeal to lead me up a garden path. Today, I thank the Lord for the exceedingly difficult period of wrestling that this doctrinal error brought into my life.
It was around the end of 1999 that I first began to formulate a modalistic understanding and it was not until 2006-07 that I became free of it.
Crucial Passages of Scripture
There is one passage of Scripture that I clung to and that some brothers in Christ kept pressing upon me, that proved that this new understanding of mine was an error that I must recant.
John 17:5 “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.”
This statement by the Lord Jesus in His High Priestly prayer clearly says that before the foundation of the world Jesus was possessed of the glory of God and yet also distinct from the Person of the Father.
Anyone holding to a Modalisitic understanding cannot explain this text without serious difficulty. It both supports Jesus’ divinity, as He shared together with the Father the glory belonging to Himself, as well as undeniably making clear a distinction between the Father and the Son ‘before the world was’. I am so thankful to the people of God who arrested me with this text.
Isaiah 9:6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
Here is an example of a crucial passage that is significant to anyone holding to Modalism. Jesus’ name will be called ‘Eternal Father’. Countless commentaries simply assert that it does not mean that Jesus is the same Person as the Father and usually give a weak answer that does not hold any weight.
What it means specifically is that Jesus solely made known the Father’s name. Jesus explains this in John 17:6,11,12,26. In verse 11, Jesus says that He kept His disciples in the Father’s name, which was given to Him. At the same time He refers to the shared plurality with the Father, which is the basis of their unity.
John 17:11 I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.
Jesus makes known the name of the Father as that One Who is One with Father, while also distinct from the Father. It is a plural ‘We’ who are One. Jesus’ Person makes known the Person of the Father, because He is in the Father and the Father is in Him.
Now that I have fully recanted this denial of an eternal distinction between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I am so much the better for it, for now I know and understand the Trinity better than before.
For Scriptural support of the doctrine of the Trinity go to God is a Triune Being.