Modalistic Monarchianism

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you’” (v. 1).

- John 17:1–5

We have just finished a brief look at what the Bible says about the Trinity using proof texts from question and answer 25 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that God is one and three at the same time but not in the same sense: He is one in essence but three in person. This understanding of our Creator’s nature permeates God’s Word, but the church needed a few centuries to work out the right language to describe the Holy Trinity. In order to better understand what the Trinity is and is not, as well as the relation between faith and reason in grasping this doctrine, we will now base a few days of studies on Dr. R.C. Sproul’s teaching series Apologetics of the Early Church.

Faithfulness to the Word of God depends on believing everything it teaches and not exalting certain truths at the expense of others. Regarding the nature of God, we err when we emphasize the oneness of His essence over the threeness of His person, and vice versa. As the early church attempted to understand what the Bible says about our triune Creator, many heretics so emphasized His unity that they were unable to do justice to the distinction between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This was true of Sabellius, who caused problems for the church in the late second and early third centuries AD. Sabellius was influenced strongly by the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who taught that everything is divine, an emanation from God.

Sabellius believed God is like the sun that emanates light and heat. At different points in history we see God differently, just as we experience the sun’s light and heat differently. Ultimately, Sabellius erased all distinctions between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he taught that the Father is the Son is the Spirit: in ages past, God was the Father; during Jesus’ ministry, God was the Son; today, God is the Spirit. There is no eternal, personal communion between three distinct persons. We have one God who wears three masks, not three distinct persons in relationship with one another even though they share the same essence, according to Sabellius.

Without a proper distinction between the persons, passages such as John 17 do not make any sense. In this passage, the Son speaks to the Father, not to Himself as the Son. The Father is God and the Son is God, but the Father is not the Son.

Coram Deo

Today’s study describes a heresy known as either modalistic monarchianism or modalism. It is alive and well today in some varieties of Pentecostalism. Analogies that compare God to water (vapor, liquid, and ice) are also essentially modalistic, even though most people who think of God this way are probably not aware that they are thinking falsely. Let us take care when we use analogies for the Trinity, as they are often more harmful than helpful.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 2
1 John 4:14

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