What Modalism Is, Why It’s Wrong, and Why It’s Dangerous

For an evaluation of the recent comments regarding Trinitarianism, Modalism,  and The Elephant Room, see this post.

What Modalism Is

Modalism is an ancient heresy that denies the Trinity by denying that God exists at all times in three distinct persons. While orthodoxy holds to the understanding that God is one in essence and three in person at all times, modalism teaches that God is one but appeared in three different forms of modes at different times. God was Father in the OT, Son during the earthly ministry, and now appears as Holy Spirit.

In ancient times this heresy was known as Sabellianism after its most well-known teacher. It is also sometimes referred to as modalistic monarchianism. While there are subtle differences between these three, for all practical purposes they are one and the same.

Today this heresy is held most notably by the television preacher T. D. Jakes and by the Christian singing group Philips, Craig, and Dean, all of whom are pastors in the United Pentecostal Denomination which is a “oneness Pentecostal” denomination.

Why Modalism is Wrong

Modalism is wrong is because it fails to account adequately for the biblical evidence. The Scriptures are clear that God is one (Deut. 6:4) but also affirms that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons. In John 1:1-2 the Word (the Son) is said to be “with God.” This statement makes no sense if the Son is merely one mode by which the Father manifests himself. Likewise, passages such as 1 John 2:1, which claims that Jesus is our advocate before the Father, and Heb. 7:25, which claims that Jesus makes intercession for his own, make no sense in terms of the plain use of the language. Similarly the Holy Spirit intercedes for believers (Romans 8:27) and is said to have been sent from the Father (John 14:26) which presupposes that the Father and the holy Spirit are distinct persons. Likewise, the Son has said that he must depart for the Holy Spirit to come (John 16:7), which one supposes could imply that the Son must depart in order to return as the Holy Spirit except that the Son specifically says, “If I go, I will send him unto you” (John 16:7).

Why Modalism is Dangerous

Modalism is dangerous because it does not lead people to the God of the Bible. If we accept the ancient creeds as being accurate summaries of the Bible’s teaching about the person of God (and most Christian groups do; in fact, it is one thing that both Catholic and Protestant are in perfect agreement on), then modalism leads people to worship a god different than the God portrayed in Scripture.

Modalism is also dangerous because it allows people to affirm something that sounds like orthodoxy without being orthodoxy. But that’s like poison in your soup, you can’t just spit the bad part out; you have to pour out the whole bowl and start over. Saying, “I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (as Phillips, Craig, and Dean, do along with T. D. Jakes) is not the same as affirming God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Three in One, as orthodox Christians affirm.

Further Reading:

The Doctrine of the Trinity: No Christianity Without It by Kevin DeYoung (this is an excellent brief overview of the Trinity!)

My own doctrinal statement on Trinitarianism

Oneness Pentecostalism and the Trinity: A Biblical Critique by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.

Oneness Pentecostalism: An Analysis by Fred Sanders

The Phillips, Craig and Dean Controversy Revisited…Again by James White

A Profile of Oneness Pentecostalism

About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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4 Responses to What Modalism Is, Why It’s Wrong, and Why It’s Dangerous

  1. Matthew 3: 16And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: 17And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

    Jesus coming out of the water. The Holy Spirit descending and lighting upon Him. The Father speaking from Heaven.

    Three Persons in one scene all One. The most dangerous thing to me is that the Bible says the spirit of antichrist denies the Son and thus denies the Father. The Spirit of antichrist denies the Father. And to say that one will honor the Son but deny the Father is incomprehensible to me. We confess the Son and thus confess the Father and are saved. In fact, we say, “Jesus is Lord” to the glory of God the Father. Jesus Christ hands up the Kingdom to the Father on the Last Day.

    Our Lord’s prayer is “Our Father who art in Heaven hallowed by thy name…”

    To me, it is a terrible thing to say you honor God and honor the Son but deny the Father. Not only is this the opposite of all the Lord taught us and points to Himself — it’s a denunciation of the Father and the Kingdom of Heaven thereby. The Kingdom is the Father’s. To be Anti-Father is to be Anti-Christ as I see it.

  2. John 8:56Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.57Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? 58Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.

    I cannot understand this position that Jesus did not “exist” in the OT. Unless that they are stating that Jesus was in the Father and not yet Begotten. Ie. Jesus was the Father and is the Father and is the Father incarnated as the Son. Like, if you have a pie, and the pie is the pie is the pie. You could take the pie and cut it into 3 pieces. Each piece would be the same pie as one. However, to deny the Father makes no sense to me. I would examine a case that viewed God as one pie that could be cut into 3 pieces… and the Father is the Son for the Son is the Father incarnate. That is a case I would review. But, any case that denies the Godhead of the Father — and states the Father is “not in existence” because the Son is — I wouldn’t even consider a review of the scripture.

    John 1:1 is “in the beginning” when time began. The fall of the holy angels created a “change”. I would examine a case that prior to the fall of the devil and his angels, the Father was the Father — and then the Father “divided Himself” like a “pie” to achieve the work of redemption and restoration. Because the scripture states that Jesus Christ will hand the Kingdom back to the Father on the Last Day. So, a concept of God the Father “making Himself” 3 Persons for the time of restoration – honestly, I would examine that case and review scripture.

    But, any case that “takes the Father out of existence” is to me not anything I would even review scripturally. God the Father is Source of all. The scripture states in Hebrews that God brought forth the Son and commanded the angels to worship Him as God. So, this does speak of something beginning that ends with the Kingdom being handed up to the Father at the Last Day.

    The Kingdom belongs to the Father. Anything perceived as disrespect and stating that the Father as a Person “does not exist” my insides shout “NO!” at. 🙂

  3. Andrew says:

    TD Jakes said in his interview with Mark Driscoll that he neither believes in manifestations nor persons of God! However, his updated website still says that God has 3 manifestations 🙂

    • Yep, not surprised at all. What troubled me most was James MacDonald’s arrogance when people were counseling him not to receive Jakes as a brother. As if he himself is not above being taught by others. Sad. And then the rush to defend him by some (though certainly not all, thank God) members of the Gospel Coalition.

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