By Clarence L. Haynes Jr., Crosswalk.com
Modalism is the doctrine that teaches God is one in essence, but he exists in three different modes. In other words, God shifts in the way he manifests himself. In the Old Testament, he operated as God the Father. In the New Testament, he switched modes to become Jesus. Now he has shifted modes again and operates in the world as the Holy Spirit. At no point do these modes exist eternally and are distinct from each other as we believe in orthodox trinitarian belief.
As with many teachings, the presentation of modalism can be subtle, causing you to require discernment. As Charles Spurgeon said, "Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right." Modalism is one of those doctrines that, if you are not paying attention, could slip through the cracks and almost sound right. Today we will put modalism to the test and look a little closer at what modalism is so you can know the difference between right and almost right.
What Is the History of Modalism?
Modalism follows a similar teaching that stems from the third century taught by Sabellius. He taught that the Godhead expresses itself in three operations as if God is wearing three masks. He wears the mask of Father in creation. He wears the mask of Son in redemption. He then wears the mask of Holy Spirit in sanctification. This may further help us define modalism, but now we must look for evidence as to whether it is true, which will require us to investigate the Scriptures.
Does Modalism Align with Scripture?
There is only one way to know if modalism is true or not. We must put it to what I call the Berean test. In case you are unfamiliar with what I mean by this term, it comes from the book of Acts.
"Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." – Acts 17:11
Let's examine the Scriptures and see if modalism is true or not.
Modalism and One God
The Bible clearly teaches there is one God, and he is one in essence.
"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one." – Deuteronomy 6:4
If we are creating a modalism scorecard, you could say they get this right. God is one in essence. Let's take it a step further and put this modalistic viewpoint to the test with some other passages of Scripture to see if it is true.
Modalism and John 1
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." – John 1:1-3
Modalism begins to have a problem when you look at passages like this. Remember, the core teaching of modalism is God exists in different modes, shifting from one to the other. If that were true, how then do you explain John 1? The Bible clearly states the Word was God, and the Word was with God. The Bible clearly defines a distinction and separation between God the Father and the Word of God, who we know is Jesus. If you follow this thought through the entire creation narrative, then modalism has another problem. In which "mode" did God create the world? Let's go back to Genesis for a moment.
"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters." – Genesis 1:1-2
Do you see the problem modalism has with this passage? If God operated as Father alone in creation, that contradicts John 1. What we also see very clearly, in addition to the presence of God the Father, the Holy Spirit is also present from the beginning. From John, we know that Jesus is responsible for creation. In other words, we see a God eternally existent in three persons, which is just at creation. If the modalism position were accurate, I don't know how you explain this.
Modalism and Jesus' Promise to Send the Holy Spirit
Here are two more short passages of Scripture to which we want to apply the Berean test.
"But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment." - John 16:7-8
"I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you." – John 16:12-15
If we apply the modalism doctrine to this passage again, it begins to fall apart and becomes difficult to explain. Jesus is clearly referencing the Holy Spirit as separate from himself, again creating a distinction between them. Jesus is sending one of the same essences of himself, but different from himself. This cannot work with a modalism doctrinal position.
Modalism and the Stoning of Stephen
Let's do this one last time with another portion of Scripture.
"When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." – Acts 7:54-56
Here we see again the mention of the members of the Godhead. Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God the Father. From a modalistic viewpoint, this is another Scripture that just can't work. If God switches between different modes, then how can all three be present at the same time? This would require you to misinterpret the text or to read your doctrinal position into the text instead of allowing the text to define your doctrinal position. Again, this causes a problem for those with a modalism point of view.
The Verdict on Modalism
I believe it is clear from Scripture that modalism is not a correct understanding of Scripture and, therefore, is not a right teaching. There are more Scriptures we could look at, but these passages are a good start. Thankfully most mainstream denominations don't teach modalism because they hold an orthodox trinitarian view of God which says that God is one in essence but exists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each one is eternal and distinct from the other. As you come to the end of this article, there is one application I want you to take with you. Be sure to apply the Berean test to every doctrine out there. Many people fail to do this, creating room for false teachings to take root in the church. As you continue to grow and develop in your walk, being more like the Bereans will help you discern the difference between right and almost right. I believe this is a mandate we all should be willing to embrace.
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.